On doing ‘being witty’ : the performative construction of conversational dominance in Wilde’s society plays
Keywords:literary criticism, social science (sociology), Oscar Wilde, paradox
In this paper, I analyse the function of conversational breachings in Wilde’s society plays. After arguing that, in these plays, characters strive to achieve conversational dominance at each other’s expenses in order to increase their social capital (as defined by Bourdieu, whose description of this facet of social identity, as I point out, is inherently relevant to queer theory because of its emphasis on its performative character) by gaining the reputation of being brilliant and witty, I examine how certain violations of the implied rules of conversation, as described by several sociologists and philosophers of language (Garfinkel, Grice, Sacks), allow the characters to increase their authority (and therefore their social capital), by forcing the other participants into a double bind situation where calling out the breaching is ineffective and potentially awkward, and not calling it out reinforces the conversational dominance of the speaker that performed it, authorising them to double down on it by committing new, more audacious violations, in a self-sustaining mechanism that guarantees the continual increase of their social capital after the initial investment.
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