In the 1950s the philosopher of language J. L. Austin introduced the term ‘performative utterance’ to make clear that ‘to say something is to do something’. Developing this idea, scholars have theorized on the relation of a spoken or written text to its broader context, that is to say everything outside the text itself. The question whether a performative is separable from the situation it emerged in is relevant when one addresses for example the status of individual intentions or speech as a resource of power. There are two main theoretical strands in research today. One emphasizes the predetermined conventions surrounding a performative utterance and the clear distinction between text and context. Another emphasizes the active construction of reality through spoken and written texts and is related to theories of human agency and discourse. The ideas about performance and text have contributed to the performative turn in the social sciences and humanities, proving their methodological use for example in the interpretation of historical texts.
Early theories acknowledge that performance and text are both embedded in a system of rules and that the effects they can produce depend on convention and recurrence. In this sense, text is an instance of ‘restored behaviour’, a term introduced by Richard Schechner that sees performance as a repeatable ritual. The focus here is largely on individual sentences in the active first person voice, rather than on politics or discourse. The syntactical analyses are firmly anchored in analytical epistemology, as the distinction between the research object and its context is not conceived as problematic.
J. L. Austin introduced the performative utterance as an additional category to ‘constatives’, statements that can be either true or false. Language not only represents, but also can make something happen. Austin distinguishes between two types of performative speech acts. The illocutionary act is concerned with what an actor is doing in saying something (e.g. when someone says ‘hello’, he is greeting another person). The perlocutionary act involves the unintended consequences of an utterance and refers to that what an actor is doing by saying something (e.g.when someone says ‘hello’ and the greeted person is scared by it).
Every performative utterance has its own procedure and risks of failure that Austin calls ‘infelicities’. He sees a sharp distinction between the individual text and the ‘total speech act situation’ surrounding it. According to Austin, in order to successfully perform an illocutionary act, certain conditions have to be met (e.g. a person who pronounces a marriage must be authorized to do so). Besides the context, the performative utterance itself is unambiguous as well. The words of an illocutionary act have to be expressed in earnest; if not, Austin discards them as a parasitic use of language.
Building on Austin’s thought, language philosopher John Searle tried to develop his own account of speech acts, suggesting that these acts are a form of rule-governed behaviour. On the one hand, Searle discerns rules that merely regulate language, such as referring and predicating. These rules account for the ‘propositional content’ of our sentences. On the other hand, he discerns rules that are constitutive in character and define behaviour (e.g. when we make a promise). These rules are the conventions underlying performative utterances and they enable us not only to represent and express ourselves, but also to communicate.
This focus on effect implies a conscious actor and Searle assumes that language stems from an intrinsic intentionality of the mind. These intentions set the prerequisites for the performance of speech acts and Searle sets out to map their necessary and sufficient conditions. Like Austin, he thinks in terms of demarcated contexts and transparent intentions, two issues that in the 1970s led him into polemics with postmodern thinker Jacques Derrida.
The second set of theories on performance and text diverged from the tradition represented by Austin and Searle. Bearing the stamp of postmodernism, it states that neither the meaning, nor the context of a text can be defined in its entirety. Instead of emphasizing linguistic rules, scholars within this strand stress that the performative utterance is intertwined with structures of power. Because a text inevitably changes a situation or discourse, the distinction between text and context is blurred.
The postmodern philosopher Jacques Derrida holds with Austin and Searle that by illocutionary force, language itself can transform and effect. However, he criticizes the notion of ‘felicity conditions’ and the idea that the success of a performative utterance is determined by conventions. Derrida values the distinctiveness of every individual speech act, because it has a specific effect in the particular situation in which it is performed. It is because of this effect or ‘breaking force’ that Derrida calls the possibility of repeating a text ‘iterability’, a word derived from Latin iterare, to repeat.
According to Derrida, the effects caused by a performative text are in a sense also part of it. In this way, the distinction between a text and that what is outside it dissolves. For this reason it is pointless to try to define the context of a speech act. Besides the consequential effects, the dissolution of the text-context divide is also caused by iterability. Due to the possibility of repetition, the intentions of an individual actor can never be fully present in a speech act. The core of a performative utterance is therefore not constituted by animating intentions, as Austin and Searle would have it, but by the structure of language.
The philosopher Judith Butler offers a political interpretation of the concept of the performative utterance. Power in the form of active censorship defines and regulates the domain of a certain discourse. Indebted to the work of Michel Foucault, Butler expounds how subjects are produced by their context, because the possibilities of speech are predetermined.
Notwithstanding such social restraints, Butler underscores the possibility of agency. The boundaries of a discourse need continuous re-demarcation and this is where speech can escape its constriction. The emphasis on the limits of what is allowed to be said also frames that what is silenced. Performativity has a political aspect that consists in what Derrida has described as the breaking force, by which an utterance changes its context. Butler assigns an important role to what Austin has called infelicities and parasitic uses of language. Quotations, parodies and other deviations from official discourse can become instruments of power that affect society.
The historian Quentin Skinner developed classical and postmodern theories on performative texts into a concrete research method. Using Austin’s vocabulary, he seeks to recover what historical authors were doing in writing their texts, which corresponds with the performance of illocutionary acts. According to Skinner, philosophical ideas are intertwined with claims of power. Every text is an act of communication that positions itself in relation to the status quo it seeks to change.
Skinner agrees with Derrida that contexts in their entirety are irretrievable but nevertheless states that there is a relevant context outside the text that can be described in a plausible way. Extensive research is required to relate historical texts to their contemporary discourses. According to Skinner ‘there is a sense in which we need to understand why a certain proposition has been put forward if we wish to understand the proposition itself’. He values agency over structure and stresses the importance of authorial intentions. Skinner therefore proposes to study historical sources in order to retrieve the convictions the author held, reflect on their coherence and investigate possible motives for the illocutionary act. This practical method seeks to deal with the blurred distinction between text and context and offer a meaningful way of interpreting historical reality.
- J. L. Austin
- John Searle
- Jacques Derrida
- Judith Butler
- Performative turn
- Performative utterance
- Quentin Skinner
- Speech act
- Austin (1962)
- Schechner (2006), p. 36
- Austin (1962), p. 6
- Austin (1962), p. 108
- Austin (1962), p. 101
- Austin (1962), p. 14
- Austin (1962), p. 8
- Searle (1974), p. 16
- Searle (1974), p. 24
- Searle (1974), p. 33
- Searle (1983), p. 165
- Searle (1983), p. vii
- Searle (1983), p. 163
- In 1972 Jacques Derrida published the article ‘Signature Événement Contexte', in which he criticises several aspects of Austin’s theory on the performative utterance. The first English translation appeared in 1977 in the first volume of Glyph. In the second volume (1977) Searle published an article called: ‘Reiterating the differences: a reply to Derrida’, in which he defended Austin's theories. Derrida responded with the essay 'Limited Inc a b c...', (1977).
- Derrida (1988), p. 13
- Derrida (1988), p. 9
- Derrida (1988), p. 3
- Derrida (1988), p. 18
- Butler (1997), p. 133
- Butler (1997), p. 129
- Butler (1997), p. 145
- Butler (1997), p. 160
- Skinner (2003), p. vii
- Skinner (2003), p. 115
- Skinner (2003), p. 121
- Skinner (2003), p. 7
- Skinner (2003), p. 119
- Austin, J.L., How to do things with words, the William James Lectures delivered at Harvard University in 1955 (Londen 1962, revised edition 1967).
- Butler, Judith, Excitable speech, a politics of the performative (New York 1997).
- Derrida, Jacques, ‘Signature Event Context’ in: Limited inc (1988), 1-23. (first published in Glyph vol. I, 1977).
- Schechner, Richard, Performance Studies, an Introduction (New York 2006).
- Searle, John R., Intentionality, an essay in the philosophy of mind (Cambridge 1983).
- Searle, John R., Speech Acts, an essay in the philosophy of language (Cambridge 1974, 1st print 1969).
- Skinner, Quentin, Visions of Politics, vol. 1 regarding method (Cambridge 2003).