Performative Pragmatics

Teacher's Guide

Chapter 11
Embodied Language

Heuristic Transition

This chapter is way too short. It is several books' worth of research, all of which is relevant to every chapter in this book, compressed into a few pages. It also comes a little late: ideally we should be considering the body first, and incorporating it into every single discussion in the book. I've saved the body for last, and devoted too little space to it, in the interests of building a smooth heuristic transition from constative to performative pragmatics: from the stuff that all pragmaticians think important, speech acts, context, turn-taking, and implicature, to a new focus on performance and the body.

The chapter is structured around the three different aspects of the body that are important for linguistic pragmatics: body language proper, the haptic body, and somatic markers. Body language contextualizes verbal utterances, gives it a communicative directional specificity that words alone cannot accomplish. The haptic body is how we grasp our word with our bodies, how we use language to describe what our bodies are doing and our bodies to enact what our words are describing. This section comes largely from cognitive science: cognitive scientists say we map our worlds kinesthetically and conceptually and linguistically, all at once. And somatic markers are Antonio Damasio's concept for feelings (by which he means composite mental images of a body state, typically of an emotion) that signal to the owner of that body what experience suggests s/he do (in a specific decision-making situation).

Treating these three areas separately seems pedagogically useful, here, because they are separate areas of study arising out of different fields: body language out of social anthropology, the haptic body out of cognitive science, and somatic markers out of neurology. I'm also assuming that students will be familiar with body language, but will not have heard of the haptic body or somatic markers—another reason for keeping all three separate at this point.

In Chapter 12, though, I add some conceptual refinements to this tripartite structure. There the concept of "somatic markers" is expanded to encompass both inward feelings and the outward display of feelings that I here (conventionally) call body language: feelings mark experiential events inwardly for the person in the body feeling them and outwardly for the people outside that body, watching it for signs of inward attitude or inclination. Feelings don't always show up as body language, but that is the direction they are headed, and are only blocked from full body language display by extreme (and usually only partly unsuccessful) effort.


1. This is, obviously, the constative argument, and it certainly has its methodological advantages. Fully embodied language is so much more complex than pure disembodied structure that studying it seems virtually impossible. Peter Auer (1993) does a preliminary Gumperzian analysis of a very brief piece of "trash" conversation, nothing really happening, three people mostly hemming and hawing their way from one topic to another, and it takes him twenty pages to get even the simplest analysis worked out. There is so much going on in embodied language that constative linguists feel it necessary to reduce complexity, to boil language down to only that aspect which is easily analyzed, the logical structure. And because constative linguists have dominated the field for so long, it does seem as if their reduction of complexity is somehow "natural"—as if Saussure were right, and logical structure truly were la langue, "the language," and everything we do with words were somehow "added on."

Once we begin to analyze language performatively, however, it becomes clear just how artificial the constative reduction is—just how much of a methodological convenience it is, rather than a true account of language. The meaning of a word or phrase can be abstracted from context, from body language, from the body saying "I" or "you" or "here" or "there," only with great violence, great arbitrariness. The constative linguist reducing the complexity of embodied language to disembodied structure has to invent, out of all the possible "core structures" or "true meanings" of a piece of language, a single one, and then somehow convince readers that it is the true underlying objective reality beneath the surface complexity of language use. This makes the constative "science" of language something of an ontological sham. In order to study language "scientifically," "objectively," constative linguists have to ignore the only marginally objective reality there is to language, embodied people doing things with words, and hypostatize their arbitrary and speculative structural reductions of that reality as objective reality. As a reduction, as a provisional elimination of contextual complexity in order to focus solely on underlying unconscious regularities, constative linguistics is undeniably useful. But as an ontology of language, an explanation of the "objective reality" of language, it is sheer mystification.

Writing, of course, is radically decontextualized and thus apparently disembodied language, and as such an important part of the constative ontology of language. As Jacques Derrida (1967/1974) has shown, Saussure wants to have it both ways: he wants to make speech primary and writing a secondary representation of speech, but he also wants to exclude speech—la parole—from linguistic study and focus on la langue, a disembodied structure that is logically parallel to and possibly philosophically derived from writing. Derrida's strategy is more or less the exact opposite of mine: he wants to expose the Western "logocentric" and "phonocentric" emphasis on the presence of the body as a false ontology and to reduce language more fully and complexly to the disembodied "play" of writing. In this sense Derrida's first book is a brilliant defense of constative linguistics—a defense that works out the crippling contradictions at the core of a constative linguistic ontology and spins them into a philosophically sophisticated (anti)model.

The performative linguist, committed to embodied performances of language, works the reduction in the other direction. The performative analysis of writing begins with the question: how do we make sense of written language? We are, let us say, on a sidewalk on a city street, and a scrap of newsprint blows up against our leg. We reach down and pick it up and read: "I am sitting here at my desk." Clearly, in the embodied context where we read this piece of text, there is no desk and no one sitting at it, so that the text should by all rights be meaningless: the only "I" present isn't sitting at a desk, so "I am" and "sitting" and "here" and "at my desk" have no referents. How do we make this text meaningful? The performative linguist says we perform it (imaginatively, haptically) as meaningful. We imagine ourselves sitting at a desk, writing this text, and project that image onto the faceless absent author of the text. We imagine the author addressing us—flesh out an imaginative conversation between the author and ourselves. We have, after all, sat at desks and written things ourselves. Our bodies know what it feels like to sit at a desk and write. Since our haptic bodies have made sense of sitting "here" at a specific desk and writing before, many times, at many different desks, we have a whole haptic repertoire of "I's" and "am sittings" and "heres" and "at my desks" to draw on in imagining this author addressing us.

This is, of course, an imaginary conversation in an imaginary context. But the performative linguist insists that every conversation is imaginary in just the same sense. Whether the author's or speaker's body is present or absent, we still "flesh out" the context and meaning of language imaginatively, haptically, by imposing a meaningful interpretation on sense-data and image schemas and remembered experiences. The performative linguist, in other words, isn't interested in the objectivity of a given use of language, but in the imaginative process any human being undergoes in performing a given use of language as meaningful—and insists that, because we are embodied creatures, that imaginative process is also going to draw heavily on the resources of the body (remembered or observed or felt body language, cognitive mapping of the world through the haptic body, somatized markers of rightness and wrongness). This interpretive process is fundamentally the same for speech and writing—it just feels different. (Note that this emphasis on interpretation rather than objectivity is akin to Derridean deconstruction: this is the sense in which the performative strategy is only more or less the opposite of Derrida's.)

In other words: the constative linguist reduces both spoken and written language to abstract structure, and finds the reduction easier to accomplish in writing, because the structural organization of written text seems to lack body and context and performance, and so seems more conducive to structural abstraction. The performative linguist reduces both spoken and written language to embodied performance, and finds the reduction easier to show in speech, because people conversing in the same physical space so much more obviously perform their speech with their bodies, and rely on the embodied performances of the people they're talking to in building coherent interpretations of context and meaning.

But this does not mean that what bodies do is the objective reality behind performative language: a performative linguistics does not assume that the embodied context and meaning of spoken conversation is "given" or "objective." It is always interpreted, "performed" in the interpreter's haptic imagination, imposed. As post-Kantian thinkers, performative linguists do not believe it is possible to know the objective Thing-in-Itself of language. We can only perform it, which is to say, impose a performative interpretation on it. And this performance, this performative/interpretive imposition of context and meaning "onto" language, is fundamentally the same for speech and writing.

There is also a complex argument to make about the somatic nature of the Derridean interpretation of language, especially in Derrida's (1988) deconstruction of Austin, where he develops the notion of iteration or iterability as the repeat performance of utterances that simultaneously structures language (stabilizes it as structure through repetition) and changes language (destabilizes it as innovation through misperformance). The theory of somatic markers is the only explanation for how this iterability could function: somatic markers are the only plausible place where repeated performances could be stored as structure, and undermined as innovation. But this is too complex for these notes; for further discussion, see Part II of D. Robinson (2003).

2. This is an extremely common response to the somatic theory: "I don't feel it, so it must not be true." The people who argue this are typically unaware of their bodies—may even claim that they don't have any feelings, either. Unfortunately, there is no knockdown argument for the somatic theory that will work with these people. The best you can do is let students argue for and against the theory.


1. a. Ace's body language could be described as bright and cheerful, jaunty, possibly even insouciant: squared shoulders, rakish tilt to his head, big friendly smile, exaggeratedly cheerful tone of voice. He also holds the broken package out to the Gruff Man without a hint of apology or regret, which we would expect from a representative of the company that presumably broke the contents of the package. Note, too, how he asks the question "how are you this afternoon" and then rushes right into "allllllll-righty then" without a pause to let the Gruff Man answer: his body language (voice quality) there signals that he is just going through the formalities and doesn't really expect an answer. Ace of course should be contrite, apologetic, and seems instead moronically cheerful.

b. The Gruff Man's body language is bitter, angry at the world, as if just living caused him pain and frustration. His basic voice quality is deep and rough and loud; his tone of voice ranges from harsh and aggressive (when Ace first opens the door) to annoyed and puzzled (when inspecting the package). His posture exudes barely suppressed anger and pained resignation. His heavy face is flatly aggressive and threatening when Ace opens the door, and scrunches up with pain when Ace starts talking to the dog. The fact that he yells at the dog before Ace even opens the door, and says "I don't give a rat's ass" when Ace asks permission to pet the dog, suggests that he isn't exactly a dog lover, which in turn makes it a little hard to believe he stole the dog—and he doesn't exactly seem like he's got a wife or girlfriend who might have stolen the dog either. He gives the impression of living alone—though we never really get any evidence one way or the other on that. His nasty, brutish body language seems to be a way for the movie-makers to make audiences feel okay about Ace stealing the dog from him: he doesn't love the dog, he isn't a nice person, he doesn't deserve to have a dog, so Ace is doing the dog a huge favor in returning it to its owner. (And throughout the movie Ace cares much more about animals than about people.) Unfortunately, that body language also makes it a little difficult to believe that the Gruff Man might have stolen the dog in the first place.

c. The dog wags its tail excitedly at Ace, stands on its hind legs and begs enthusiastically at him with its front paws, and wriggles and squirms as if just barely controlling the impulse to leap into his arms. No hostile barking, no teeth displayed, no growling, no backing away, no raised hackles, no flattened tail: no signs of distrust at all. Ace changes his posture to be close to the dog, crouches down to the dog's level. (This is actually to enable him to stuff the dog in his shirt and replace it with the toy dog he's carrying there when he comes, but we don't see him actually make the switch, so posturally it seems like he's just really friendly with the dog.) The sugary meaningless vocalizations that he uses with the dog are the same ones that we use to convey love and tenderness to tiny babies. The Gruff Man's body language is not only annoyed but pained: his scrunched-up face looks as if he is physically suffering from listening to Ace talk to the dog.

And this body-language tension between Ace and the Gruff Man is the main channel of dramatic conflict in the scene. Ace is stealing this man's dog—which the man probably originally picked up loose on the street and took home with him. The man is perpetually angry at the dog, and certainly never talks to it as Ace does; Ace's exaggerated baby/pet talk seems calculated to cause him maximum annoyance. It is in fact humorously exaggerated: louder than this sort of talk usually is, with more insipidly sugary intonation patterns, in order to pre-enact in the two men's bodies the deception Ace is practicing on the Gruff Man (shortly after Ace leaves, we will see the Gruff Man yelling at the dog to get away from the door, the dog not obeying, and the man getting up heavily from the couch to walk over and grab the dog by the belly, only to find it's a toy, with "YOU'VE BEEN HAD. ACE VENTURA, PET DETECTIVE" written on the bottom).

2. a. The whole family's body language seems frozen, stiff, unbending, self-contained. They hardly move; they keep their bodies compact; they don't make eye contact with each other; they keep their faces blank. Their body language suggests that they don't like each other, don't feel comfortable with each other, don't feel connected to each other.

b. You'd expect a teenager asking this to look pouty and whiny, of course, and there is some of that in Jane's body language; but actually, surprisingly little. Even in complaining about the music, she doesn't want to give anything away. Her implicature would seem to be not only "I hate this stupid music" but "I'm not even going to get into how much I hate this stupid music."

c. Carolyn's body language is exaggeratedly perky, cheery, like a cheerleader's. She squares her shoulders, cocks her head back and forth like a chirpy bird, and puts a fake-happy-but-almost-angry tone in her voice. This body language suggests that her implicature operates at several different levels: (top) everything's fine, we don't hate each other, we're a happy family, and this is how the mother of a happy family answers her daughter who complains humorously about the old folks' music, (middle) you vicious ungrateful little bitch, what do you do around here that gives you the right to complain about the music I choose for our dinners, (bottom) oh god we are dead and in hell, if this isn't hell then hell can be no worse, we hate each other and I have to pretend to be happy because nobody else in this godforsaken family will even bother to try. The three-second pause can probably be read in any number of ways. I'd read it to mark off the time Jane and Lester take to process the levels of hatred and self-hatred in Carolyn's remark—probably not to analyze it as I have, but to do something with it, defend against it, wrap it up in thick plastic and stick it somewhere so it won't resound quite so horribly.

d. Lester obviously doesn't feel comfortable talking this way; he does his own version of Carolyn's forced fake cheeriness, with fake vocal tones and a fake-sincere forward head-lean. Jane actually makes a good effort to sound normal: her first response to her father, "It was okay," is a fair approximation of a normal kid talking to her dad. Her tone is soft and tentative; she's got a significant pitch drop, signalling some sort of sincerity. When he pushes her, "Just okay?", she gets a sarcastic edge to her voice; and after his long story about Brad at work, and "You couldn't care less, could you?" she actually goes to the trouble to explain what's so weird about him going on and on like this. Getting up and going to the kitchen (to throw away what's left on her plate? mainly to get the hell out of the dining room) is a nice body-language way of saying "end of discussion."

e. She cocks her head at him significantly, perhaps triumphantly, as if to say: "I guess she told you!"

f. The first "What?" is guarded, maybe a little puzzled, and hurt, and even shocked; the second "What?" becomes angry and demanding. Her body language suggests that Lester's remark surprises her; it's never occurred to her that someone might think of her relationship with her daughter like this. But then it sinks in, and she becomes imperiously angry, demanding an explanation (and possibly a retraction).

3. a/b. Get the students to observe closely, then have them discuss the differences.

More: Teacher's Guide index

General: Structure | Pedagogy | Dialogues

Chapter 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12

Last Modified: