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--Austin's performative

In How to Do Things with Words, J. L. Austin attempts to distinguish between a constative and performative utterance. I said elsewhere that one initial distinction is that while the former reports something, the latter does something. As Timothy Gould argues, this distinction might seem “quite simple and even simple-minded,” to characterize the constative and performative as simply to say something and do something. Austin himself recognizes the stakes in challenging the assumption in philosophy that to say something is to state something. If, for philosophy, statements can either be true or false, then Austin wants to consider the performative a statement that might fail or be unhappy. For a smooth, happy performative, six conditions must be satisfied:

1) There must exist an accepted conventional procedure having a certain conventional effect, that procedure to include the uttering of certain words by certain persons in certain circumstances, and further,
2) the particular persons and circumstances in a given case must be appropriate for the invocation of the particular procedure invoked.
3) The procedure must be executed by all participants both correctly and
4) completely.
5) Where, as often, the procedure is designed for the use by persons having certain thought or feelings, or for the inauguration of certain consequential conduct on the part of any participant, then a person participating in and so invoking the procedure must in fact have those thoughts or feelings, and the participants must intend so to conduct themselves, and further
6) must actually so conduct themselves subsequently.

Austin notes that if we do not satisfy any one or more of these rules, our performative utterance will be unhappy. For Gould, Austin’s strategy was “not to substitute performance and its various effects for truths. [It] 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” (p. 23).

Gould believes that Austin’s motivation for decoupling the performative from the true/false dichotomy was that he wanted to locate in language those regions in which we might find (or fail to find) relations to the world and its inhabitants, or to locate what Jacques Derrida regards as the “difference of force,” Gould reminds us. A statement functions by way of force, and the forces in which Austin is interested are illocutionary and perlocutionary. Before I begin discussing illocutionary and perlocutionary, however, I should introduce one other term that characterizes all that I have said about performative statements thus far: locutionary. A locutionary act, Austin explains, is “roughly equivalent to ‘meaning’ in the traditional sense” (p. 108). It is the “utterance of certain noises, the utterance of certain words in a certain construction, and the utterance of them with a certain ‘meaning’ in the favourite philosophical sense of that word, i.e. with a certain sense and with a certain reference” (p. 94).

Austin defines illocutionary acts as utterances having a certain conventional force. These acts include informing, ordering, warning, and undertaking, and they involve the “securing of uptake” (p. 116). The perlocutionary act, on the other hand, is “what we bring about or achieve by saying something, such as convincing, persuading, deterring, and even, say, surprising or misleading” (p. 108). So, if the illocutionary act is bound up with effects, the perlocutionary act produces effects. Of these two acts, Gould writes:

The locutionary act of saying, for instance, the words “I’m sorry” may have the illocutionary force of an apology. It might also have the force of a confession, or a provocation, or even a kind of oblique accusation. We must further distinguish between understanding that the words had the force of an apology and the fact that the apology was accepted. When the former occurs, then Austin says that what he calls “uptake” has been secured. The latter, on the other hand, is that sort of thing that Austin calls the perlocutionary force or effect of the utterance. Such effects might include mollifying, or indeed, further irritating the offended party. (p. 29)

The performative is bound up with effects that are material, social, and historical. For me, Austin's performative functions similarly to Judith Butler's performativity.