Seven Stories of Threatening Speech: Women's Suffrage Meets Machine Code

Publication Year



Treating language as a type of machine code opens new avenues for the study of history and politics.

Ruth A. Miller demonstrates the potential of taking nonhuman linguistic activity—such as the running of machine code—as an analytical model. Via a lively discussion of 19th-century pro- and antisuffragists, Miller tells a new computational story in which language becomes a thing that executes physically or mechanically through systems, networks, and environments, rather than a form for human recognition or representation. Language might be better understood as something that operates but never communicates, that sorts, stores, or reproduces information but never transmits meaning. 

Miller makes a compelling case that the work that speech has historically done is in need of reevaluation. She severs the link between language and human as well as nonhuman agency, between speech acts and embodiment, and she demonstrates that current theories of electoral politics have missed a key issue: the nonhuman, informational character of threatening linguistic activity.

This book thus represents a radical methodological initiative not just for scholars of history and language but for specialists in law, political theory, political science, gender studies, semiotics, and science and technology studies. It takes posthumanist scholarship to an exciting and essential, if sometimes troubling, conclusion.


Threatening speech -- Machine code, systems, and environments -- Agency -- Women's suffrage -- Antisecular speech -- Monsters (a bridge) -- Repetitive speech -- Witches (a bridge) -- Insane speech and its remedies -- Rampant theory (a bridge) -- Dream speech -- Anachronistic computation -- Toward the beginnings of a theory of electoral politics.

Reviews and Endorsements

"This is an erudite work by a scholar of enormous talent, who advances a thesis that is richly insightful and deeply provocative."
—Mary Hawkesworth, Rutgers University

"Ruth Miller is one of the most original thinkers at work today. Taking what would seem a minor, sexist aside from a midcentury mathematician, she links an entire series of events in the history of women's struggles for equal speech and voting rights. To call her a historian is right, and to call this a major social history is also right, but in both instances is also beside the point, given the way she makes these tales speak to some of our most urgent contemporary problems. Seven Stories of Threatening Speech is a tour de force."
—Thomas Dumm, Amherst College

"Ruth Miller calls into question conventional historical and feminist interpretations of the women's suffrage movement, as well as many critical and postmodern theories of speech/language, subjectivity/agency, and embodiment. Indeed, this book is a challenge to the exclusivity of human-centered accounts of language/subjectivity/embodiment, not in the sense of rejecting those accounts, but in demonstrating their shortcomings and providing a supplement based on the power and effects of nonhuman language."
—David S. Caudill, Villanova University

University of Michigan Press
Ann Arbor
Cloth: 9780472117963; paper: 9780472035281