Performative Pragmatics

Teacher's Guide

Chapter 10
Conversational Invocature

Old Utterances in New Frames

This chapter strikes out into new territory, offering a significant expansion of Grice's concept of implicature to cover implicative utterances that do not so much flout maxims as reframe old utterances in new ways. I first broached this concept in Chapter 13 of my Performative Linguistics, but there only considered the invocative properties of allusion. In writing the second draft of this chapter, for the second semester I taught it, I realized that my chapter on Bakhtin in Performative Linguistics might be appropriate for invocature as well, and incorporated double-voicing into the chapter. And then a student stumbled upon this particular type of "loaded" or "interpretive" (implicative) paraphrase that I've now added to the chapter in his research project: in a conversation he taped among his friends, a girl who had been complaining about her stupid boyfriend all evening said "I miss him, I really do ... I come over here to bitch to y'all, he's not that bad," and a very talkative and bright and witty gay guy chimed in with an instant dramatic paraphrase: "Oh thank God he's been gone, but the son of a bitch is coming back!" And then looking for a cinematic example of that in 10 Things I Hate About You I stumbled upon the completion of Kat's sentence by Bianca and Chastity. And it strikes me that if I were to spend a few months looking for other types of invocative utterance, I could probably write a whole book called Invocature.


1. It's possible that there is a maxim that an allusive remark could be taken to flout: "three's company and two is none" might be construed as flouting the maxim of quantity, for example (it doesn't provide enough information). But there are two elements missing in this Gricean explanation: (a) the allusive remark isn't obviously uncooperative, so that the interpreter isn't prompted to start looking for an implicative interpretation; and (b) the process of working out what the invocature means doesn't rely on the flouted maxim. The discrepancy between apparent uncooperation and actual (deeper-level) cooperation that Grice puts at the core of his theory is irrelevant to invocature, both in terms of pushing the interpreter to shift to an implicative model and in terms of providing the interpreter with a key to interpretation. The interpreter figures out what is meant by reference not to cooperation and (apparent) uncooperation but to the old and the new (the new spin on the old word or phrase).

2. In a performative pragmatics, nothing is guaranteed to work. The potential for failure in conversational invocature is thus no strike against it; it's just the way things are. It's built into the human condition. And in any case conversational invocature is based on the assumption that the speaker and listener (or writer and reader) belong to the same group and thus share the same knowledge. This works well when they really do belong to the same group: when in conversation with a friend you allude to some incident that both of you experienced and so definitely both know. It works less well when the "group" that, say, Shakespeare and I belong to is largely hypothetical, "English speakers of the last four hundred years," say. Then some things may still be shared, but the passage of time and the resulting cultural changes will have removed many things that Shakespeare knew (and assumed his readers knew) from my cultural repertoire.

But in fact this isn't so very different from the feeling of "lostness" we feel when we join a new group of friends, or get involved with a new lover. Any new group we join is going to have knowledge that we don't share, and will have to work hard to acquire. That's why new lovers tend to spend hours talking about their pasts: they're trying to find out everything about each other not just because they're interested, but because they have to have lots of shared knowledge in order to feel like a couple, a group. A couple that's been together for a year or two (or, even better, forty or fifty years) has the shared knowledge needed to make conversational invocatures work. New couples have to acquire that knowledge. The same is true of reading Shakespeare. The only real difference is that Shakespeare is dead, and our "conversations" with him are virtual, based on his written texts.

3. Yes. This is, in fact, how we learn intonation: by imitating others, taking their intonations into our words, making those intonations "our own," but also, partly, still someone else's. Bakhtin's theory of double-voicing says that all language is saturated with "other people's voices." That's what we share, in fact; that's mostly how we understand each other, by reference to those shared voices or intonations. Every word we speak is inflected with the voices of everyone we have ever heard use it, and specifically with their uses of it, their specific intonations of it in actual conversations. We carry all those intonations around in our memory of the word. That in fact is why people sound so strange when they speak a foreign language that they have only learned in the classroom: the words they speak don't have this complex saturation of other people's voices in them. They are just book words.


1. a. If we take Will to be flouting or violating a maxim, it would have to be something like "Be happy for your friends when they tell you they're getting married"—which is, of course, a superficial "problem" with Grice's model, that it doesn't have a maxim like this. Judging from "Why would you include me?" he's implying that he's hurt that she didn't invite him to her wedding. Whether we take him to be flouting or violating the maxim depends on whether we take him to want Grace to know he's hurt, or to be trying to hide his hurt. If he wants her to know, he's deliberately implicating his hurt, and thus flouting the wedding-enthusiasm maxim; if he's trying desperately to hide his hurt (trying to sound happy and failing), i.e., trying not to implicate his true feelings, he is blocking her understanding and thus violating the maxim. (Another superficial problem with Grice's model is that this rather momentous decision between flouting and violating seems to come down to a psychologically very fine line between Will wanting and not wanting Grace to know he's hurt. He might not even know himself.)

A deeper problem is that, if Will is flouting or violating a maxim, he isn't doing so verbally. He says all the right things; just not with enough happy enthusiasm in his tone of voice. His flouting or violation is tonal. This is a body-language violation—something Grice doesn't anticipate, and doesn't give us conceptual tools to deal with (see Papi 2001).

b. A reading of Will's implicature (i.e., invocature) as double-voicing would begin with the assumption that there is a conventional (happy, warm, heartfelt) tone of voice for wedding congratulations, and while Will says the right things (sort of), he double-voices them: mixes in a tonal indifference that, because it diverges so sharply and obviously from the expected tone of voice, signals his hurt. This solves the problems with the traditional Gricean interpretation by allowing for a tonal maxim ("sound happy") that is also flouted or violated tonally, through double-voicing.

c. Presumably Grace has an Uncle Hachem, who said "Best of luck" to her at her bat mitzvah, and she is invoking those best wishes by quoting to the absent Will what she said back then to her uncle. (Or else she heard a friend's Uncle Hachem say "Best of luck" to the friend, or else "Best of luck" is what everybody's Uncle Hachem or Uncle Something-or-Other says to you on your bat mitzvah.) The allusion to this important event in a Jewish girl's life may not work with Grace's whole audience (Karen and Jack don't get it, but presumably her Jewish husband Leo does), which makes her invocature potentially obscure as well, but it isn't difficult to work out: "Best of luck" isn't what your best friend should say when you tell him you just got married, it's what boring uncles that don't really care about you say when you're 14. So Grace is implicating something like "Will is acting like he doesn't care about my happiness."

2. The relative lack of urgency and dramatic conflict in the climactic scene from Play It Again, Sam makes Rick's words from Casablanca seem overdramatic when Allan alludes to them. When Rick says "Inside of us we both know you belong to Victor" and "you'll regret it. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life," he is saying something that Ilsa is still denying, because she really does want to stay with Rick. When Allan says "Inside of us we both know you belong to Dick" and "you'll regret it, Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life," he is merely repeating what he and Linda have already agreed upon. And Linda isn't part of Dick's work; and Dick has only shortly before this scene given even the tiniest indication that Linda is "the thing that keeps him going."

All this suggests that the conversational purpose the allusion mostly serves here is expressive invocature: Allan quotes from Casablanca not just because he wants to do the noble Bogart thing and send Linda back to her husband, but because he wants to sound as noble as Bogart. He wants to feel as noble and strong and self-sacrificing as Bogart for once in his life, and project that image to the world. He no longer wants to look like the nebbish who gets ignominiously dumped; and Rick's noble words from Casablanca help him look like the guy who could have the girl if he wanted, but he's too noble for that.

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