J.L. Austin’s concept of the Performative
(from How To Do Things With Words, published posthumously in 1962)
“The name is derived, of course, from ‘perform’, the usual verb with the noun ‘action’: it indicates that the issuing of the utterance is the performance of an action – it is not normally thought of as just saying something.”
A.they do not ‘describe’ or ‘report’ or constate anything at all, are not ‘true or false’; and
B.the uttering of the sentence is, or is a part of, the doing of an action, which again would not normally be described as, or as ‘just’, saying something”.
a) “‘I do (sc. Take this woman to be my lawful wedded wife)’ – as uttered in the course of the marriage ceremony.”
b) “‘I name this ship the Queen Elisabeth’ – as uttered when smashing the bottle against the stem.”
c) “‘I give and bequeath my watch to my brother’ – as occurring in a will.”
d) “‘I bet you sixpence it will rain tomorrow.’”
The conditions necessary for the operation of a performative:
A1) 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,
A2) the particular persons and circumstances in a given case must be appropriate for the invocation of the particular procedure invoked.
B1) The procedure must be executed by all participants both correctly and
y1) 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
y2) must actually so conduct themselves subsequently.
He names three forces of the performative:
Locutionary – content/meaning
Illocutionary – force/effect
Perlocutionary – impact on the receiver
Jacques Derrida’s use of performativity in theorising writing in Signature, Event, Context (published in English translation in 1982)
The lecture begins by questioning the notions of communication, representation and expression because these rely upon the idea of a context of writing that would determine how it will act and what the truth of it will be. Instead of this he argues that writing is structured around absence:
It is first of all the absence of the addressee. One writes in order to communicate something to those who are absent. The absence of the sender, of the receiver [destinateur], from the mark that he abandons, and which cuts itself off from him and continues to produce effects independently of his presence and of the present actuality of his intentions [vouloir-dire], indeed even after his death, his absence, which moreover belongs to the structure of all writing – and I shall add further on, of all language in general
He elaborates upon this using the idea of iteration:
In order for my “written communication” to retain its function as writing, i.e., its readability, it must remain readable despite the absolute disappearance of any receiver, determined in general. My communication must be repeatable – iterable – in the absolute absence of the receiver or of any empirically determinable collectivity of receivers. Such iterability – (iter, again, probably comes from itara, other in Sanskrit, and everything that follows can be read as the working out of the logic that ties repetition to alterity) structures the mark of writing itself, no matter what particular type of writing is involved (whether pictographical, hieroglyphic, ideographic, phonetic, alphabetic, to cite the old categories). A writing that is not structurally readable – iterable – beyond the death of the addressee would not be writing.
And then suggests that the author’s “death” is also necessary for writing to operate:
What holds for the receiver holds also, for the same reasons, for the sender or the producer. To write is to produce a mark that will constitute a sort of machine which is productive in turn, and which my future disappearance will not, in principle, hinder in its functioning, offering things and itself to be read and to be rewritten. When I say “my future disappearance” [disparition: also, demise, trans.], it is in order to render this proposition more immediately acceptable. I ought to be able to say my disappearance, pure and simple, my nonpresence in general, for instance the nonpresence of my intention of saying something meaningful [mon vouloir-dire, mon intention-de-signification], of my wish to communicate, from the emission or production of the mark. For a writing to be a writing it must continue to “act” and to be readable even when what is called the author of the writing no longer answers for what he has written, for what he seems to have signed, be it because of a temporary absence, because he is dead or, more generally, because he has not employed his absolutely actual and present intention or attention, the plenitude of his desire to say what he means, in order to sustain what seems to be written “in his name.”
He therefore sees potential in Austin’s notion of the performative as it is a theory of the force of language, rather than the communication of prior existing meaning (“It does not describe something that exists outside of language and prior to it. It produces or transforms a situation, it effects;”). Derrida picks up on a rather incidental aside in Austin however where he disregards quotation, such as theatrical speech, as being peculiarly hollow’ and ‘parasitic’ upon the operations of ordinary language. Derrida is interested in this parasitic operation:
For, ultimately, isn’t it true that what Austin excludes as anomaly, exception, “non-serious,” citation (on stage, in a poem, or a soliloquy) is the determined modification of a general citationality – or rather, a general iterability – without which there would not even be a “successful” performative? So that – a paradoxical but unavoidable conclusion – a successful performative is necessarily an “impure” performative, to adopt the word advanced later on by Austin when he acknowledges that there is no “pure” performative.
Derrida’s proposition is that speech, like writing, is citational and therefore does not depend upon presence or intention to ensure that it acts:
Could a performative utterance succeed if its formulation did not repeat a “coded” or iterable utterance, or in other words, if the formula I pronounce in order to open a meeting, launch a ship or a marriage were not identifiable as conforming with an iterable model, if it were not then identifiable in some way as a “citation”? Not that citationality in this case is of the same sort as in a theatrical play, a philosophical reference, or the recitation of a poem. That is why there is a relative specificity, as Austin says, a “relative purity” of performatives. But this relative purity does not emerge in opposition to citationality or iterability, but in opposition to other kinds of iteration within a general iterability which constitutes a violation of the allegedly rigorous purity of every event of discourse or every speech act.
He concludes by turning to the phenomena of signatures as a paradoxical form of writing. They seem to only work if they are authorised and not copies. But also need to act after the presence of the signer and be resigned multiple times:
By definition, a written signature implies the actual or empirical nonpresence of the signer. But, it will be claimed, the signature also marks and retains his having-been present in a past now or present [maintenant] which will remain a future now or present [maintenant], thus in a general maintenant, in the transcendental form of presentness [maintenance]. That general maintenance is in some way inscribed, pinpointed in the always evident and Singular present punctuality of the form of the signature. Such is the enigmatic originality of every paraph. In order for the tethering to the source to occur, what must be retained is the absolute singularity of a signature-event and a signature-form: the pure reproducibility of a pure event.
Is there such a thing? Does the absolute singularity of signature as event ever occur? Are there signatures?
Yes, of course, every day. Effects of signature are the most common thing in the world. But the condition of possibility of those effects is Simultaneously, once again, the condition of their impossibility, of the impossibility of their rigorous purity. In order to function, that is, to be readable, a signature must have a repeatable, iterable, imitable form; it must be able to be detached from the present and Singular intention of its production. It is its sameness which, by corrupting its identity and its Singularity, divides its seal [sceau]
Della Pollock, Performing Writing, 1995
…writing as doing displaces writing as meaning; writing becomes meaningful in the material, dis/continuous act of writing. Effacing itself twice over – once as meaning and reference, twice as deferral and erasure – writing becomes itself, becomes its own means and ends, recovering to itself the force of action. After-texts, after turning itself inside out, writing turns again only to discover the pleasure and power of turning, of making not sense or meaning per se, but making writing perform: Challenging the boundaries of reflexive textualities; relieving writing of its obligations under the name of “textuality”; shaping, shifting, testing language. Practicing language. Performing writing. Writing performatively.
Pollock argues for six conditions of performative writing:
Evocative, Metonymic, Subjective, Nervous, Citational, Consequential