Performative Pragmatics

Teacher's Guide

Chapter 1
Metaphors of Language

The Race for the Paradigm

My methodological distinction between performative and constative approaches to the study of language comes out of Austin, of course, and more generally out of the two-century history of post-Kantian constructivism and its opposition to the objectivist mainstream—not the theater. I develop the specifically Austinian and Kantian connections in Chapters 2 and 3. Starting here in Chapter 1 with the theater, with "life as a stage" and "language as drama," is a way of easing students as painlessly as possible into the book's conceptual framework.

Of course there is also a strong conceptual congruence between Austin's performative and theatrical performance; certainly performance studies scholars have built strong conceptual bridges between the two. And what I call performative linguistics is as heavily indebted to Erving Goffman's dramaturgical approach to social activity as it is to Austin's speech-act theory, so it's not like I'm pulling the wool over students' eyes by speaking of drama first and the specifically performative utterance later.

On pp. 00-00 I key my distinction between performative and constative linguistics to a handful of similar distinctions drawn by other linguists. But obviously, their distinctions are only similar to mine, not identical, and lumping all these radical anti-Saussurean linguists together under my own umbrella term "performative" is a bit tendentious. Certainly opposition to what I call constative linguistics doesn't make a linguist performative: Roy Harris is a case in point. Norman Fairclough might be another. I am sure that hardly any oppositional linguist working in the world today would agree with everything I write in this book—everything I call a basic tenet of "performative pragmatics."

The fact is, constative or rule-based or code-theory or product-oriented or theoretistic or objectivist linguistics is currently undergoing a major paradigm crisis. The sense that this traditional approach to the study of language is no longer viable is widespread, and many linguists—what Thomas Kuhn (1962) would call "revolutionary scientists"—are working hard to develop a new paradigm that will displace it. That's what this is all about. This book and its predecessor, D. Robinson (2003), are attempts to consolidate all these revolutionary new paradigm candidates into the new paradigm for the study of language.

This does not mean, however, that constative linguistics should just dry up and blow away. As I make clear in Chapter 1, constative linguistics is useful for certain very restricted aspects of language study. Wherever usage is so stably regularized that it works unconsciously, without deliberate manipulation for specific conversational purposes, a constative approach will always be appropriate. The aim of the revolutionary linguistic theorizing that has been gathering momentum since the seventies—and that I am calling "performative linguistics"—is not to replace constative linguistics in its entirety, but simply to become the main event, the default category, what people think of first when they think of linguistics.

Up until now, that main thing has been constative: language is structure; language is an abstract sign system; language is a code. Linguistics is the study of language so conceived. In the awkward interstices of that mainstream constative conception, then, a few hardy souls try to study how language is actually used—and at first tended to conceive language use in Saussurean terms, as la parole, letting the dominant paradigm define the emerging field of study as its own despised discard. What revolutionary linguists are looking for is a reversal of that situation: language is social action; language is performance. Anything that can't quite be explained performatively or interactionally goes into the discard pile for a few hardy constativists to study as "structure."


1. The description of the language-as-machine metaphor as a "science-fictiony, robot-controlled, Terminator-type way of thinking about language" is a bit cartoonish, certainly. As I mention in that section, constative linguists would rather think about it as a language-as-code metaphor, or, better, at no metaphor at all, simply an objective description of language's true essence. But the code metaphor contains no mechanism for converting the code into understandable messages; for that, we need a rather more complex metaphor of a code-driven or rule-governed machine. Again, most constative linguists would rather talk about rule-governedness without the explicit metaphor of the machine; but their conception of how rules convert the code into message-bearing utterances is specifically mechanical: it operates on its own, without incorporating human volition or intention. The only reason it seems a bit extreme to call it a "machine" is that we're not accustomed to thinking "poetically" about our scientific methodologies. Once the structural study of language is reduced to a technique, a method, a way of proceeding, then you just do it that way and don't think about how it looks or feels, or what it might be analogous to. (And Sperber and Wilson do explicitly invoke the machine metaphor in support of their constative approach.) Still, it's good to get students to air complaints about how "silly" or "extreme" the language-as-machine metaphor is.

2. It's certainly not an excuse for intellectual laziness and sloppiness—working out the complex interpretations of speech acts and implicatures and the rest in a performative pragmatics requires a good deal of mental agility—but it is not rigorous in the systematic or scientific sense, and so will seem lazy and flaky to people who value science. And really, this is a battle between personality styles, and thus also between learning styles, and ultimately there's no arguing such things. People who prefer systematic rigor will study language constatively and feel quite comfortable ignoring real-world variations; people who prefer real-world complexities will study language performatively and feel quite comfortable adjusting to never knowing the hard-and-fast truth about a situation. Given the hegemony of science in Western thought over the last three or four centuries, and the hegemony of objectivism in Western thought for two millennia or more, a performative approach seems objectively flaky, sure. But the "objectivism" of that appearance of flakiness is still just a performance.

3. Performative linguistics is an emerging approach to the study of language. It has been emerging, in fact, for thousands of years—and has just recently begun to be consolidated into a coherent method or school, which has begun to reconstruct its prehistory in persuasive ways, tracing it back to the German and English Romantics. (For a fuller history, see Chapter 2, and especially the sources my discussion there draws on, especially Esterhammer 2000.) Due to the overwhelming hegemony of constative linguistics (a.k.a. "linguistics"), performative approaches have been and to a large degree still are scattered here and there, called by different names. But it is undeniable that the study of language is moving strongly in a performative direction, increasingly taking real-world communicative values and intentions into consideration.

4. Screenwriters aren't real people?

The page on "'Natural and Constructed Dialogues" explores this problem in detail. But here's another way of looking at it. Constative linguists begin with structure and struggle, from that methodological extreme, to account for something of what real people say to each other—or, to put it in Sperber and Wilson's terms, how real people "infer" other people's meanings. They can't account for much, in fact, because all constative analysis must be based on stable structures, and there isn't much stability in the real world of human communication.

So constative linguists tend to study what they call "ordinary language," which means language without much communicative complexity. The expressive complexity of an utterance written by a screenwriter for an audience, recited by an actor to other actors for a director, and "spoken" by a character to another character is way too much for constative linguists, so they call that "special" language and ignore it.

Performative linguistics starts at that complex extreme, and then seeks from there to explain everything else as well. And since the performative linguist's sense of dramatic reality is so complex, everything seems dramatically complex and dramatically real. Anything a human being does with language is real. Why should we restrict ourselves to only a very narrow spectrum of "real" language use?


1. This exercise is designed to help students start thinking about language performatively, in terms of the actions performed with words—without yet quite immersing them in the full complexity of speech-act theory. The kind of analysis that will work best at this point in the course is the kind students already engage in with their friends: what does she really mean? What is she really saying? What's her true underlying agenda here? It's best to have fun with this passage without pushing too hard on complex conceptual analysis—to get students talking about Rachel's speech acts in ways they enjoy and feel comfortable with, in order to make it clear that performative pragmatics is something they already know something about, already engage in on a fairly informal basis, indeed something they already care about. (Some of them will probably already be Friends fans, too.)

a. By comparing herself to a purse or a hat, Rachel is explaining and defending herself. Specifically, she is using a metaphor to explain and defend an important life change she has just gone through, a change in who she is, how she sees herself, who she wants (or doesn't want) to be. Her father takes her to be whining, or perhaps demanding: she wants him to buy her a hat. This seems a bit silly on the surface, since the speech act Rachel is performing seems pretty clear; but at stake here is the degree not only of Rachel's financial and emotional independence, but also of people's perception of that independence. She has been a spoiled princess who could always get her way. Thinking of her that way, and perhaps accustomed to not listening to her very carefully (because she never says anything particularly earthshaking), her father naturally interprets her talk of shoes and hats and purses as more spoiled whining for things: "If you just buy me a hat I'll come back and marry Barry and everything will be fine." And indeed since Rachel is not very used to articulating complex ideas, certainly not complex ideas about herself and this new direction she is vaguely envisioning for her life, the metaphor she falteringly constructs to explain why she ran away is taken from her old life of idle consumption. Hence also, perhaps, her father's confusion, and Ross's amused sympathy with that confusion, and the audience's inclination to laugh at Ross's expression of sympathy. Rachel is using words here to do a very important thing, to declare her independence, to chart a new path for herself, and she isn't all that familiar with the power of words to perform such actions, so she sort of screws it up, in a charmingly naive and earnest way. Presumably the audience, laughing at Ross's remark, feels a combination of sympathy for and superiority to Rachel: we've been through this ourselves, we've struggled to articulate some important new insight that we too are just on the cusp of understanding, and gotten the words mixed up, and gotten laughed at. And because we're older now, and more competent with words, we can laugh at Rachel's predicament; but because we've been there too, our laughter is affectionate, friendly.

b. By saying "Maybe I'll stay here with Monica" Rachel is (a) defending herself and her decision to her father by showing that she has a plan for her life that doesn't include dependence on him, and (b) inviting herself into Monica's life and apartment, thus also (c) imposing on Monica. Most likely she thinks about the remark purely in terms of (a): she's talking to her father, so the speech acts she performs with her father are primary. The fact that to make herself sound strong and independent with her father she also casually imposes on Monica tells us something about her: she's spoiled and used to having her way, and so naturally assumes that Monica would be happy to have her as her new roommate. (Rachel was very popular in high school; Monica was obese.) By saying "Well, I guess we've established who's staying here with Monica ..." Monica is drawing ironic attention to the casual way Rachel has just imagined herself imposing on her.

c. By saying "Well, maybe I don't need your money," Rachel isn't exactly declaring her financial independence; she's testing the waters of declaring her financial independence. She's seeing what will happen if she tentatively declares her financial independence. What if her father says "Oh, hey, come on, you're my princess, of course I'll always support you"? Then she can have her cake and eat it too. She really only half-wants independence: she needs it, but she's afraid of it. So when her father immediately and enthusiastically gives her the financial independence she's half-hinting at, she panics and tries to take it (half-)back: "Wait, I said maybe!!" Speech acts: (Rachel) exploring the possible consequences of declaring her financial independence; (father) granting that financial independence; (Rachel) half-withdrawing her half-declaration.

d. One thing to notice about Rachel's lines syntactically is that they are only one half of a conversation with her father. Thus when she breaks off at "I'm saying I am a ha— ", her broken syntax is caused by her father's interruption. And the series of "maybes" in "Well, maybe that's my decision. Well, maybe I don't need your money. (Sound of dial tone) Wait! Wait, I said maybe!" is specifically a series of responses to things her father is saying to her, like "You can't just run away from your own wedding like that!" ("maybe that's my decision"), "As long as you're living on my money, you'll do as I say" ("maybe I don't need your money") and "Fine with me" (click) ("Wait! Wait, I said maybe!") "That" in "maybe that's my decision" is a deictic, pointing to some idea her father has just expressed.

Rachel also uses several obvious colloquialisms: "It's like," "you know?" Her repetition (four times) of "you're a shoe" for emphasis (to reflect how often people have supposedly—metaphorically—said this to her) is typical of her spoken syntax. Her stammering repetition of "a" and "or a" in "What if I wanna be a—a purse, you know? Or a—or a hat!" is also typical of the syntax of spoken English.

Rachel's metaphors are something of a semantic problem for the constative linguist, since they aren't conventional metaphors that you might find in the dictionary. She's making them up as she goes along, and her father misunderstands them, and Ross thinks her father's misunderstanding is reasonable. All this suggests that a performative semantics would be a more appropriate approach. In order to make a constative semantics work here one would have to stabilize Rachel's metaphors, make them somehow "intrinsic" to the words "shoe," "purse," and "hat," build them into the constative structure of those words; or else one would have to argue that "It's like" mechanically (in a rule-governed way) defines the text that follows ("all of my life, everyone has always told me ...") as a metaphor. "It's like" can also, of course, be a colloquial phrase more or less synonymous with "It's just that" or "The fact is"—which is to say, having no particular semantic contents at all, simply serving as a formulaic introduction to the main statement. And Rachel's father seems to read it that way (or at least to miss the "mechanical" or "rule-governed" definition of the following text as metaphorical). Again, this would all point to a performative approach: the success of Rachel's metaphors depends on interpretation, on inference. But if one were to try to force this moment into a constative semantics, it would be important to specify "It's like" as a rule-governed indicator of metaphoricity.

The difficulty of maintaining this sort of rigid specificity with any random stretch of written or spoken text is one of the strongest arguments against an exclusive attachment to constative linguistics.

More: Teacher's Guide index

General: Structure | Pedagogy | Dialogues

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