How to Say Things with Wars: Performativity and Discursive Rupture in the Requerimiento of the Spanish Conquest

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Abstract

Though linguistic anthropologists have long surpassed Austin's initial formulation, the performativity concept remains of enduring interest for its utility in exploring how language constitutes social action. I build on those conversations by considering the concept's applicability to a key document used in the conquest of the Americas, an event involving one of the greatest discursive divides in human history. After examining the text's internal structure and what we know of its use, I suggest that the complex performative dynamics at work in the text are tied to the ways it presupposes and simultaneously instantiates social hierarchies by establishing participant roles. Competing interpretations of those participant roles are made possible by the text's strategic indeterminacy and the temporal dynamics of its circulation. I conclude by considering parallels to other texts and speech acts likewise designed to grapple with discursive difference.

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