Speech Acts and Self Creation

Every now and then, someone has an exhilarating moment in which they suddenly start doing what they always thought needed to be done, and the sense of inadequacy drops away; they virtually become some promise that they make, as when John Brown, in response to the killing of Lovejoy, said Often people who seemed incompetent all their lives seem to move mountains. Many of the conversion experiences, so common in the early American republic, and many of the temperance pledges made on the spot represented, I believe, a real, sudden, realignment of who the person is.

Such transforming speech acts are not only familiar, but expected in the lives of powerful individuals -- so much so that helpful biographers may supply them without adequate evidence. Lincoln's saying to himself, "Someday I will hit that thing and hit it hard" is a likely example.

One might see in the Declaration of Independence, and later in the Gettysburg Address, similar sorts of *national* "speech acts".

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The attribution of radical transformations to speech acts is hard to put within a rational framework, but I would like to suggest a possible scientific rationale.

In the study of self-organizing systems, part of what Heinz Pagels calls the "science of complexity", a bi-stable system is one with two possible states, that tends to stay in whichever state it happens to be in, like a coin, which is either "heads" or "tails". If the system is not in a certain desired state, it may be very difficult to get it there, but *maintaining* it in the desired state is easy.

I suspect that the qualities, respectively, of
1) leadership; taking responsibility; creativity, and
2) "playing ones role" (looking for leadership from without, being passive, being a follower)
are "two sides of the coin" of our bi-stable natures.

While there are many aspects of leadership that can (or must) be shaped by talent and/or long experience, I suspect the audacity to jump up and start leading, often appears out of nowhere, as if one had accidentally bumped into a hidden switch.

The book Listening to Prozac cites a study done with apes (monkeys?) which may have put a finger on the biological mechanism controlling the division of labor between leaders and followers.

By increasing the level of serotonin in the blood, the researchers were able to "make a leader", i.e. turn a nonassertive male into an "alpha" male. By decreasing serotonin, they could make an "alpha" male become docile.

What happens if there is no researcher around to manipulate serotonin levels in the blood? One possibility, which I think was hinted at by the study, is that inevitable differences between individuals just get accentuated. An individual finds himself to be faster, stronger, and/or able to out-think others around him, and gains "confidence", or a tendency to think independently and give direction to others, while others, finding themselves more than matched by this individual, become less apt to act independently, and more likely to look for direction.

It is suggested that the stabilization of these roles is largely achieved by a differentiation in serotonin level -- at least it is true that without any artificial manipulation, the dominant males have a significantly higher level of this chemical neurotransmitter, which is perhaps triggered by the sense that one seems more and more to be the "natural" leader of the group, beginning a self reinforcing cycle. The raised serotonin level makes them fit the role of leader more, and experiences of leading and being followed again feed into the self reinforcing cycle.

What evolutionary role would it serve for the vast majority of the population to "switch off" most of what they have of creativity, leadership, tendency to act independently? Why throw away mind power?

Possibly, it is because in the preliterate situation in which we evolved, there were not so many courses of action, and it was more important that some reasonably thought out course of action be chosen and acted upon -- with unity.

But what about the value, so apparent today, of innovation?

It is certainly true that the ability to innovate has favored human evolution, giving humans, for instance, the unique ability to live in virtually all climates. But without writing, the collective memory is severely limited, and can utilize only a small amount of creative thought. What worked was for the community to settle on a few bits of knowledge to be handed down as precious relics: how to make a blowgun; how to find, prepare, and eat, certain foodstuffs, and what things never to eat. But the set of ideas to be passed from one generation to another had to be carefully pruned so as to remain manageable.

Human beings have speech, unlike monkeys, and are, for one thing, unique in their ability to change to meet new situations.

So it may be that, if there is a "leadership/creativity switch", human beings often access it through certain speech acts, that when successful, both elevate the speakers ability to act boldly, and convincingly transform the speaker into the virtual personification of some ideal, or some projected future.

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My reading of people who undergo this sort of sudden transformation, is that they tend to become charismatic and to have the sort of power of unbending will that Andrew Jackson was seen as having. They aren't the Whig personality type, of course, and they often tend, like John Brown, and William "I will be heard" Lloyd Garrison, to be loose cannons or worse. But they sometimes do great things, and in any event, can't be ignored.