The Google Declarations

Not every declaration is a spoken statement. Sometimes we just describe, refer to, talk about, think about, or even act in relation to a situation

On December 4, 1492, Columbus escaped the onshore winds that had prevented his departure from the island that we now call Cuba. Within a day he dropped anchor off the coast of a larger island known to its people as Quisqueya or Bohio, setting into motion what historians call the “conquest pattern.” It’s a design that unfolds in three phases: the invention of legalistic measures to provide the invasion “with a gloss of justification, a declaration of territorial claims, and the founding of a town to legitimate and institutionalize the conquest. The sailors could not have imagined that their actions that day would write the first draft of a pattern whose muscle and genius would echo across space and time to a digital twenty-first century.

On Bohio, Columbus finally found a thriving material culture worthy of his dreams and the appetites of the Spanish monarchs. He saw gold, elaborate stone and woodwork, “ceremonial spaces… stone-lined ball courts… stone collars, pendants, and stylized statues… richly carved wooden thrones… elaborate personal jewelry.…” Convinced that the island was “his best find so far, with the most promising environment and the most ingenious inhabitants,” he declared to Queen Isabella, “it only remains to establish a Spanish presence and order them to perform your will. For… they are yours to command and make them work, sow seed, and do whatever else is necessary, and build a town, and teach them to wear clothes and adopt our customs.”

According to the philosopher of language John Searle, a declaration is a particular way of speaking and acting that establishes facts out of thin air, creating a new reality where there was nothing. Here is how it works: sometimes we speak to simply describe the world—“you have brown eyes”—or to change it—“Shut the door.” A declaration combines both, asserting a new reality by describing the world as if a desired change were already true: “All humans are created equal.” “They are yours to command.” As Searle writes, “We make something the case by representing it as being the case.”

Not every declaration is a spoken statement. Sometimes we just describe, refer to, talk about, think about, or even act in relation to a situation in ways that “create a reality by representing that reality as created.” For example, let’s say the waiter brings my friend and me two identical bowls of soup, placing one bowl in front of each of us. Without saying anything, he has declared that the bowls are not the same: one bowl is my friend’s, and the other bowl is mine. We strengthen the facts of his declaration when I take soup only from “my” bowl and my friend takes soup from his. When “his” bowl is empty, my friend is still hungry, and he asks permission to take a spoonful of soup from the bowl in front of me, further establishing the fact that it is my bowl of soup. In this way declarations rise or fall on the strength of others’ acceptance of the new facts. As Searle concludes, “All of institutional reality, and therefore… all of human civilization is created by… declarations.”

Declarations are inherently invasive because they impose new facts on the social world while their declarers devise ways to get others to agree to those facts. Columbus’s declaration reflects this “conquest pattern,” as historian Matthew Restall writes:

Sixteenth-century Spaniards consistently presented their deeds and those of their compatriots in terms that prematurely anticipated the completion of Conquest campaigns and imbued Conquest chronicles with an air of inevitability. The phrase “Spanish Conquest” and all it implies has come down through history because the Spaniards were so concerned to depict their endeavors as conquests and pacifications, as contracts fulfilled, as providential intention, as faits accomplis.

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