I WANT TO RECOVER
some of the significance and provocation in J. L. Austin’s efforts to distinguish between performative and constative utterances, and in his companion efforts to fix our attention on the illocutionary forces of our words.1
I will then turn to consider some passages in Sophocles’s Antigone,
moments in which we may test our sharpened sense of exposure to the performative utterance against a drama which enacts a kind of conflict of performatives. Beyond the specific issue of the performative utterances, the Antigone
discovers for us a kind of struggle over the various authorities and mutual authorizations of language and the political.
I note that my project requires that I begin by decoupling the term “performative” from the constellation of “performance” and “performativity.” This may seem perverse or even ungrateful, since it is, at least on the surface, a certain manner of linking these terms that has produced so much fruitful work.2
I am still not prepared to assess whether this particular linkage of the terms is one of the causes of the energy and insight that has so strikingly altered the contours of the discussion, or whether the linkage is one of its more spectacular side effects. In any case, my separation of these terms is only provisional.
The reason it seems to me necessary to begin in this way is not because there are no interesting links between Austin’s work on performatives and various ideas of performance, but because, in the last two decades, Austin’s specific philosophical point in isolating the performative has gotten obscured. When the force of Austin’s project is brought into the open, the connection to various ideas of performance and theatricality resurfaces with a still greater pertinence. Some idea of the dramatic conditions of the performative utterance is implied in my discussion of the Antigone. And already, in the third section of this essay, I will be suggesting that a certain idea of the theatricality of human speech shows within the philosopher’s ideal of the constative utterance conceived as a pure description.
Austin’s contrast between the constative and the performative utterance may be glimpsed in the difference between my saying, “Pat Schroeder will be reelected in 1996,” and my saying, “I bet you a bottle of your favorite Scotch that Pat Schroeder will be reelected in 1996.” The first remark is a kind of statement, however provocative it might prove to be in some contexts (or in some parts of Colorado). The second remark constitutes, in itself, the offer of a bet, at least when it is uttered in the appropriate circumstances. Most especially, Austin wished to emphasize that the performative utterance, “I bet you” and so on, was not a description of some action, inner or outer, prior or posterior, occurring elsewhere than in the utterance itself. To say those words in those circumstances is to offer the bet: the action in question lies in the act of uttering those words in those circumstances.
However intriguing such a distinction might prove, it can also seem quite simple and even simple-minded. It seems easy enough to characterize it as a distinction between saying something and doing something, or perhaps between merely stating something and actually performing an action with your words. Hence, we have Austin’s list of classic, explicit performatives: “I give and bequeath my watch to my brother”; “I christen this ship the Daniel Ortega”;“I do” (namely, “take you to be my lawfully wedded wife”);“I advise you” (for example,”of your right to remain silent”);“I dare you” (for example,”to tell that joke about the polar bears”); “I do request that you keep your seat belt fastened while you are in your seat” (5–9). Finally, it is worth mentioning “I resign,” and “I quit.” These utterances are both explicit performatives. They may be usefully contrasted with “Take this job and shove it,” which, however satisfying to perform or to contemplate performing, is not in fact a performative. To repeat: in each case of what Austin will come to call an explicit performative, the act that is accomplished in the words (for instance, offering to bet, bequeathing, baptizing, marrying, advising, daring you, resigning) is not an act occurring otherwise than in the words themselves. Austin insisted that the utterance does not refer to some inward, invisible act, for which the words would then be taken as the outward and visible—but still descriptive—sign (9).
The sacramental, or rather antisacramental, ring to the words “outward and visible sign” is Austin’s, and it is deliberate. This side of his work on performatives is related to his consistent, if not exactly systematic, efforts to combat a whole sheaf of false pictures of the relation between the “inside” and “outside” of human expression. These efforts have received less attention than they deserve. Their immediate relevance is this: we cannot—or ought not to—reduce my offer to bet you a fifth of Scotch to an outer description of an inner state of mind, for instance, to a description of my willingness to engage you in the activity of betting. Austin equally insists that we cannot reduce our ability to identify the action performed in a performative utterance to a matter of calculating the effects on some audience, real or imagined.
To recover the force and significance of Austin’s distinction, Austin himself suggests that it is necessary to isolate the performative from the statement proper, as classically conceived, with which it at least appears to share a grammatical category and a form. In particular (though this can seem too obvious to mention), the explicit performative shares with the constative utterance the grammatical form of a “statement.”3
Austin evidently imagined that the philosophical effort to “fasten on” the distinctness of the performative (and to grasp the related distinctness of the illocutionary forces of our words) would have to overcome what Austin later characterizes as a tendency to elide this very distinctness (122–123). Why
the performative utterance and the illocutionary force should be so difficult to keep in view is hard to say precisely, but it clearly has something to do with the sway of what Austin calls the Descriptive Fallacy—the assumption that Austin’s analyses were designed to oppose. If Austin is right about the nature and importance of this fallacy, it makes a certain kind of sense that the assumption that he is resisting should itself have certain powers of resistance and obfuscation at its disposal.
Austin’s initial formulation of the Descriptive Fallacy runs likethis:
It was for too long the assumption of philosophers that the business of a “statement” can only be to “describe” some state of affairs, or to “state some fact,” which it must do either truly or falsely. (I)
Sometimes he makes it explicit that, when he isolates what philosophers take to be the “business” of a statement, he is isolating what philosophers have generally taken to be the interesting or even the fundamental work of language. Austin seems well aware that a shift in what philosophers take to be of philosophical interest is a shift with fundamental and far-reaching consequences. Austin certainly thought of his efforts to rearouse and rearrange our interest in acts of speech to be revolutionary in their implications for philosophy. He is, however, exceedingly causal both about the immediate form of his provocation to philosophy and also about the new directions of investigation that his work proposes and illuminates.
I list, without argument, a number of Austin’s claims and (as I believe) insights about this fallacy: 1) He is very clear, if not always very explicit, that this assumption is, in general, unconsciously held (12). 2) He suggests that, when engaged in, as we used to say, “doing philosophy,” it is quite natural to find yourself in the grip of this assumption. Furthermore 3) for Austin, philosophy contains a kind of melodramatic condensation of the sins of ordinary thought. Austin sometimes thinks of philosophy as a kind of scapegoat, most useful, perhaps, for driving out exactly those condensed versions of our daily errors and lapses (2). Therefore, finally 4) certain versions of the Descriptive Fallacy are more widespread than we might have thought. Certainly, the fallacy in question does not vanish merely upon the adoption of a terminology of speech-acts—not even when the terminology was specifically designed to repudiate that fallacy.
Austin’s way of combating the regime of the descriptive and the constative was to use his isolation and mapping of the performative utterance to render first visible, and then salient, the dimension of human utterance that he called the dimension of happiness and unhappiness. His maps and classifications of unhappiness were meant to oppose the philosophers’ fixation on their favorite form of utterance, the statement—the linguistic entity capable of being true or (as Austin joked) at least false. It is the ideal of “the statement” that forms the main link between the Descriptive Fallacy and the true/false dichotomy—a dichotomy which is all but inevitably invoked by those in the grip of the Descriptive Fallacy. The idea that the business of language shows up in a form of utterance that is, in a sense, designed to be true or false has its counterpart in a philosopher’s picture of the world—a world in which the (interesting) conditions are to be thought of as “facts,” to which our (interesting) utterances must correspond (or fail to).
Austin’s strategy for combating these pictures begins with his tracing, in virtuoso and almost comic detail, the parallels between the dimension of our assessment of statements (their correspondence to the facts) and the dimension in which we assess what he called the happiness and unhappiness of our performative utterances. His goal was not to substitute performance and its various effects for truth and its various consequences. His strategy was rather to drag the fetish of true and false into the same swamp of assessment and judgment in which we find the dimension of happiness and unhappiness that afflicts our performative utterances. The comic combination of confidence and provisionality in his classificational schemes was not merely designed to shake our confidence in the true/false dichotomy. It was intended to seduce us away from the reassurances of that dichotomy into a larger appreciation of the common miseries of utterance—whether constative or performative. Delivering us from the old fetishism of the true and the false would, by the same act, deliver us over to what the fetish was perhaps designed to conceal: a more homely, less manageable, and hence more uncanny region—a region in which our utterances find (or fail to find) their various relations to the world and its other inhabitants.
Before going on with some of the consequences of Austin’s strategy, I want at least to point to a significant source of resistance to my way of reading Austin. Some of this resistance may be due to the fact that the “fallacy” that Austin isolates in the Descriptive Fallacy seems so blindingly obvious to literary critics and theoreticians that it does not seem worthwhile to dwell on it. The danger here lies in the possibility that, in going on to “apply” Austin’s terminology of performative and constative to problems of ostensibly greater theoretical interest, the primary force of Austin’s critique will be lost. This danger has, I believe, been repeatedly realized, and the assumptions that Austin was combating have frequently persisted in the very terms that were meant to undo those assumptions.
In any event, the homely region of uncanniness that is intended, according to my reading of Austin, to emerge in our appreciation of the Unhappy Performative will fail to emerge—and my reading will accordingly run aground—to the extent that it cannot dislodge a particular, competing interpretation of Austin’s distinction. According to this reading, which still seems to predominate in literary-theoretical circles, a performative utterance is to be characterized as a kind of verbal performance or artifact, and hence it is to be assessed by its effectiveness with an audience (whether real or implicit or constructed). A performative utterance is correlatively also to be characterized as essentially “nonreferential,” where nonreferential is taken to mean “not related to facts or previously existing situations.”An extreme version of this can be found in J. Hillis Miller’s recent Tropes, Parables, Performatives. He writes, for instance:
A parable does not so much passively name something as make something happen. ... A true performative brings something into existence that has no basis except in the words, as when I sign a check and turn an almost worthless piece of paper into whatever value I have inscribed on the check.4
Human performatives ... can never be the object of an epistemological act ... [but] are always from beginning to end baseless positings.5
Miller accepts a radical split between statements (or descriptions) which are subject to “verification” (or recognition), and other forms of utterance. These latter forms of utterance are called “performatives” by Miller, apparently because they do something (or posit something). And also apparently because such utterances do something, they are, for Miller, not subject to verification, and not grounded in what he calls “extralinguistic” reality. Finally, they are evidently therefore not subject to acts of knowledge or recognition. It is hard to find a more perfect summary of the persistence of logical positivist assumptions about verification as the guarantor of linguistic sense and knowability. And it is accordingly also hard to find a better instance of what Austin is opposing in our thinking about language.
Behind a reading like Miller’s—and his reading is hardly unique-there lie the intricate and powerful readings advanced by Derrida and de Man. I cite one proposition from within Derrida’s complex intimation of a “Nietzschean” strain in Austin’s lectures: Austin strove, according to Derrida, to “free the analysis of the performative from the authority of the value of truth, from the opposition true/false, at least in its classical form, and to substitute for it at times the value of force, of difference of force....”6
Derrida speaks as if the difference of force—which is also the difference of the performative from the constative—could be reduced to the fact that, as Derrida puts it, a performative “produces or transforms a situation.”7
Whatever the initial philosophical affinity that Derrida may have sensed in Austin’s critique of the Descriptive Fallacy and the associated fetish of the true and the false, Derrida’s line of thinking ends by submerging the power of Austin’s critique within some other current of thought. That this other current of thought is powerful in its own right is a fact that only underscores the difficulties of deploying the results of a critique outside the specific branching of philosophical tradition towards which the critique is directed.8
In lieu of a more explicit demonstration that Derrida’s reading would lead us to muffle one of the primary aims of Austin’s project, I cite a passage from Stanley Cavell’s reading of Derrida’s encounter with Austin:
Austin’s “substitution” of force for truth is not meant as a revelation of truth as illusion or as the will to power,9 but rather as demonstrating that what may be called the value of truth—call it an adequation of language and reality, or a discovery of reality—is as essential to performative as to constative utterance. So that an aporia in the way of distinguishing between performatives and constatives is as much to Austin’s philosophical liking as to his classificatory dismay.10
The dimension of unhappiness which constitutes the medium in which we make and appreciate the performative is equally the medium within which we make our claims upon the true and the false. At the same time, such unhappiness is the common affliction of both sorts of utterances. (I do not imagine that Derrida needs to disagree with this.) If Austin’s analysis is to point to the region of swampiness that the performatives share with constatives (and thus do its work of defetishizing truth and falsity with a wider ...