Performative Pragmatics

Teacher's Guide

Chapter 3

Performative Bodies

In this chapter I cover Austin's first major insight in How To Do Things With Words, the performative-constative distinction—which, obviously, I've decided to rescue for the classification not of utterances but of linguistic methodologies. In the service of that rescue I call on the exciting poststructuralist work that has been done with Austin's performative, especially by Judith Butler and her followers in a number of different fields, including performance studies.

Note that Butler comes to Austin out of Foucault, so that, where for Austin the performative was somebody doing things with words, for Butler it's doing something with words in the body. This is crucial for performance studies, possibly the only field in the humanities to take the body seriously (although philosophers are starting to pay increasing attention to the body as well; see Welton 1998). Noting the classical associations (Descartes is the locus classicus of this line of thought) between men and the mind and between women and the body, and Simone de Beauvoir's tendency to figure "the body" as a "mute facticity, anticipating some meaning that can be attributed only by a transcendent consciousness" (Welton 37), she puts a feminist poststructuralist spin on Foucault's quest to "expose a body totally imprinted by history" (quoted in Butler, Welcon 38):

According to the understanding of identification as an enacted fantasy or incorporation, however, it is clear that coherence is desires, wished for, idealized, and that this idealization is an effect of a corporeal signification. In other words, acts, gestures, and desire produce the effect of an internal core or substance, but produce this on the surface of the body, through the play of signifying absences that suggest, but never reveal, the organizing principle of identity as a cause. Such acts, gestures, enactments, generally construed, are performative in the sense that the essence or identity that they otherwise purport to express are fabrications manufactured and sustained through corporeal signs and other discursive means. That the gendered body is performative suggests that it has no ontological status apart from the various acts which constitute its reality. This also suggests that if that reality is fabricated as an interior essence, that very interiority is an effect and function of a decidedly public and social discourse, the public regulation of fantasy through the surface politics of the obdy, the gender border control that differentiates inner from outer, and so institutes the "integrity" of the subject. (Butler Welton 41)

On the principle of sneaking up on the importance of the body for a performative pragmatics slowly, carefully, I mention these body matters only briefly in the chapter, in connection with performance studies; you may want to broach them in class.

Note, though, that Butler is talking about performative gay identities, which do often tend to be visibly performed in the body: the effeminate gay man's swishiness and fey voice, the butch lesbian's macho swagger. Butler speaks persuasively of bodily "gender performances": clearly gender is something that is performed in the body, in gait, posture, gestures, facial expressions, and vocalizations. But how does all this apply to the performative study of language?

Clearly gender identities are not the only ones performed in the body; any kind of identity can be, and typically is. "Race," for example, may be marked much more "stably" (less performatively) on the skin than gay identity, but bodily performances are just as important in establishing identity there as for gays: it doesn't matter how dark your skin is, if you don't act black (move your body like a black person, use black intonations and other vocalizations), you won't be (seen as) black. People will say you "act white."

And think of more fleeting "identities," like "seriousness": it may be essential to choose the right words, phrases, and registers in performing yourself as "serious," but it's equally important (perhaps even more important) to move your body in a restrained way, speak in subdued tones, use more falling intonations and, when your intonation does rise, only let it rise minimally. These are all what Butler calls "corporeal significations": what you signify to others by the movements of your body, including posture, gestures, facial expressions, and vocalizations.

We return to the body in full force in Part IV; but it is so important to a performative pragmatics that it will appear fleetingly throughout the book, and hopefully in your class discussions as well.


1. In order to believe a constative theory of the origin of language, we must assume that words have some sort of obvious or inevitable connection with the realities they describe (their referents). Thus Adam walking up to a rose, which is not yet called a rose or anything else yet, objectively observes the intrinsic rosy quality of the flower, and realizes (passively observes) that this particular flower has to be called a rose. This theory might seem attractive to objectivists who have never learned a foreign language, and discovered just how arbitrary the relation between words and their referents almost always are.

(The one aspect of language use where constative theories of the origin of language make a little sense is onomatopoeia: the cat goes "meow!" and someone "invents" the verb "to meow" for what a cat says. However, even onomatopoeia differs significantly from language to language. Russians, for example, find it absolutely hilarious that bears growl "mur" in Finnish. In Russian "mur" is the sound of a cat purring.)

2. The stakes are that a constative theory of dramatic character would leave no room for interpretation. All King Lears would be either identical or bad King Lears. Anyone who deviated from the one correct (objective) interpretation of a character would instantly be seen as a weak actor unable to summon up the inner resources (and the objective accuracy) to portray the character correctly. If we were somehow able to enforce a constative approach to dramatic character, dramatic performances would become very similar; innovation and original vision would no longer be valued.

It's true that some theater-goers think of character "objectively," though, constatively, and come out of a performance complaining "That's not King Lear! That was totally wrong for King Lear!" If everyone agreed with this person, a constative theory of dramatic character might just catch on. In fact, though, people tend to disagree on "correct" portrayals of specific characters; and someone else in the same party might well respond to the Lear complainer, "Yes, he was the oddest Lear I've ever seen, but wasn't it brilliant? In fact, wasn't it perfect?"

3. I can't think of a more plausible constative explanation of what happens when somebody yells "Fire!" A constative utterance is a description of an existing state of affairs. If there is no fire and someone yells "Fire!", the utterance is simply nonsensical, and the constative linguist is powerless to proceed with it.

4. The dangers in thinking about identity performatively are that we will lose our sense of "continuity" in identity or personality, and this will disrupt our lives in disturbing ways. If we are who we pretend to be, if we become what we perform, then it will be almost inconceivable for us to stay married or otherwise committed to the same person for more than a day or two, or for us to stay in the same job long enough to collect a paycheck. All of our relationships with other people are based on some degree of continuity, some degree of predictability, so that the other people can count on us being thus-and-such from day to day, week to week, month to month. This is a real danger, and one that is often cited in opposition to performative or "postmodern" identity. The postmodernist answers, however, that continuity is just another performance, and if we want to go on reassuring the other people in our lives that we are the same from day to day and year to year, then we go on performing ourselves the same way. Identity doesn't collapse into flux by the mere withdrawal of the myth of the "true self." We have more power to construct ourselves than that!


1. a. It's impossible to know what Jack is doing, of course, but a reasonable guess would be that he's indulging in gay camp humor: playing with his performative identity in complexly self-ironic ways. He's overtly pretending to be covert; he's effeminately pretending that nobody notices he's effeminate. In so doing he makes fun of the closet, perhaps—of the need to hide a gay identity—but above all has fun.

b. In frankly admiring Grace's clothes and glasses, and wishing ("furiously") that he'd found them and bought the glasses first, Cam is performing himself as gay. A straight man admiring a woman's clothing would be more likely to be flattering her so as to facilitate a seduction; Cam is projecting himself into the woman's role, imagining himself as Grace, finding and buying and wearing those clothes and glasses. And a man performing himself as a woman is one of the key performative strategies of gay male identity. In addition, he's performing himself as someone with fashion sense (to the extent that that fashion sense is not already included in performing himself as a woman and thus as gay: the show tends to perform gays as invariably possessed of great fashion sense). He is, after all, looking to hire Grace as his interior designer, and therefore would be interested in making sure that she knows that he has some sense of what looks good.

Grace saying "They're just for show. I got them at an estate sale. They're actually killing my eyes. Pretty soon I'm gonna need glasses" doesn't exactly perform herself as straight or gay; but these words do create a performative identity for her, one that is not exactly "no-nonsense" but somehow sort of includes that trait. Grace is much more complex than "no-nonsense": she loves nonsense, loves pretense, but also loves to call herself on her own pretenses, expose and poke fun at her own weaknesses (like the vanity of wearing these glasses when she not only doesn't need glasses but may have to start wearing glasses after these lenses ruin her eyes). This is not low self-esteem; it's also a kind of camp humor, camp performative identity, but what we might call "straight camp": it's Grace playing self-ironically with the complexities of performing herself as a straight woman.

Playing with camp humor in this twisted "straight" way also lets Grace perform herself as a kind of honorary gay person: not just a fag-hag (which she is) but, as an interior designer with great fashion sense, practically gay herself.

2. a. As the performative titler, Richard is attempting to work on his viewers to make them think of his painting in terms of an inner journey. As the constative titler, Del is attempting to test the title against the objective reality that he perceives, to determine whether it's accurate or not: "Must've been a short trip. If you ask me, you should call it ‘Ketchup.'" For Del, "Inner Journey" can only be a description of an actual reality represented in the painting; since it's a reddish blotch, he sees no inner journey and says sarcastically "Must've been a short trip." The painting doesn't go anywhere, doesn't obviously represent a journey, the "trip" represented in it must have stopped almost before it started. Renaming it "Ketchup" is an even more constative suggestion: it looks like ketchup, looks like it was painted with ketchup (or somebody dropped and broke a ketchup bottle), and names should be realistic objective representations of the thing depicted.

b. Caroline tells Richard to stop calling Del a reductionist. Read constatively, this might be taken to mean something like "Del isn't a reductionist and therefore it is inaccurate to use that adjective to describe him, so stop saying things that aren't true." Since Caroline tells Del to stop being a reductionist, presumably Richard's accusation has already "stuck," in the sense of convincing her that Del is a reductionist. This suggests that she's thinking performatively, meaning something more like "I already think poorly enough of this idiot boyfriend of mine, stop making him worse by turning him into a reductionist too."

c. Superficially Del is performing Richard as gay, based on Richard's own supposedly gay self-performance: nice clothes, opera, etc. Of course it's a little more complicated than that: Del probably doesn't literally think that Richard is gay (a constative reading), but rather something like "if you perform yourself as gay, you shouldn't be surprised when people take you for gay." So at a deeper level Del is actually performing Richard not as gay, but as someone who performs himself as gay. The people who are "so quick to judge" are more sarcastic irony: he pretends to attack those people ironically in order to reveal himself as one of them, and their perspective as a realistic and reasonable one, and thus to laugh at Richard for being surprised that people do this.

d. Of course doing nothing is a performance! Richard decides to go along with it, and in every conversation he has at the gallery has to bite his tongue and not say what he keeps thinking: "I'm not gay, I'm straight!" And not saying something you desperately want to say is quite obviously doing something. Here is the climactic moment of the scene:

RICHARD: Oh boy. Look, Kenneth, I have to be honest with you about something-
DEL: No you don't.
RICHARD: Yes I do.
DEL: No you don't.
RICHARD: Yes I do.
DEL: No you don't!
RICHARD: Yes I do yes I do! Kenneth, I cannot sell you the painting because—

Del puts his arm around Richard's shoulders.

DEL: Because he gave it to me on our third anniversary. (he kisses Richard on the cheek; Richard looks horrified) You didn't think I'd remember, did you? But I am perfectly fine with you selling it, honey. (to Kenneth) I don't need the painting. All I need is him.
RICHARD: Del, Del, what do you think you're doing? (he laughs nervously)
DEL: He's a little uncomfortable with public displays of affection. We have this fight all the time.
RICHARD: Del, can I talk to you for a second, please?
DEL: Oh sure, sweetie. (to Kenneth) By the way, he raves about you—
RICHARD: Del, Del! (he pulls Del away) No way, no. I am not going to sell the painting. It's not honest and it's not right!
DEL: Richard, if I could just argue the other side for a second. Twenty thousand dollars?!

Richard walks back over to Kenneth.

RICHARD: Kenneth, I have to tell you the truth. Look, I'm straight.
KENNETH: You're straight?
DEL: So this is how I find out! (he throws his drink in Richard's face and exits)

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