Performative Pragmatics

Teacher's Guide

Chapter 5
Creating Context

(Re)Keying and (Re)Iterating Goffman Through Derrida

In this chapter I begin with the basic distinction between a constative approach to context, in which context simply exists and participants simply "find" themselves in it, and a performative approach in which participants actively create context. The notion that the creation of context is itself a speech act, or a conglomeration of speech acts, that creating context is in effect doing things with words, is fundamental to performative pragmatics. Hence of course the treatment of context-creation in the speech acts section.

The performative conception of context-creation as an act is most heavily indebted to Erving Goffman's notions of keying and framing, which as I read them are very closely related to Jacques Derrida's concept of iterability. Here's Goffman (1974: 82):

Given the possibility of a frame that incorporates rekeyings, it becomes convenient to think of each transformation as adding a layer or lamination to the activity. And one can address two features of the activity. One is the innermost layering, wherein dramatic activity can be at play to engross the participant. The other is the outermost lamination, the rim of the frame, as it were, which tells us just what sort of status in the real world the activity has, whatever the complexity of the inner laminations. Thus, a description in a novel of a game of twenty-one has as its rim the special make-believe that was called a dramatic scripting, and innermost is the realm that can become alive for persons involved in blackjack. The rehearsal of a play is a rekeying, just as is a rehearsal staged within a play as part of its scripted content; but in the two cases, the rim of the activity is quite different, the first being a rehearsal and the second a play. Obviously, the two rehearsals have radically different statuses as parts of the real world. Note, in the case of activity defined entirely within the terms of a primary framework, one can think of the rim and the innermost core as being the same. And when an individual speaks of another not taking something seriously or making a joke of it, what the speaker has in mind is that the activity, whether laminated or not, was improperly cast by this other into a playful key. Indeed, it is quite possible to joke with another's telling of a joke, in which case one is not taking seriously his effort to establish a frame—one involving an unserious keying.

The only significant difference between this model and Derrida's iterability, it seems to me, is that Goffman is much more concerned to establish distinctions between "the real world" (more or less equivalent with primary frameworks) and "keyings," and between "keyings" and "fabrications," the chapter that begins on the very next page after this quotation. In my tabulation of Goffman's ideas in the chapter, I've included fabrications as a kind of keying, which is my own Derridean spin on Goffman's model: a keying that is intended to deceive others as to its "reality" is still, to my mind, a keying. And a primary social framework is quite obviously the sedimented product of thousands of past keyings; and "taking a primary framework seriously" (whether social or physical) is itself a social activity that to my mind is indistinguishable from (re)keying. It is just rekeying the framework as "itself." So in my iterabilized reading of Frame Analysis, all human social activity becomes (re)keying of various kinds.

Now compare Derrida (1988: 70), from his 1977 response to John Searle's attack on his original 1971 deconstruction of Austin, where he first broached the concept of iterability:

the iterability of the mark does not leave any of the philosophical oppositions which govern the idealizing abstraction intact (for instance, serious/non-serious, literal/metaphorical or sarcastic, ordinary/parasitical, strict/non-strict, etc.). Iterability blurs a priori the dividing-line that passes between these opposed terms, "corrupting" it if you like, contaminating it parasitically, qua limit. What is re-markable about the mark includes the margin within the mark. The line delineating the margin can therefore never be determined rigorously, it is never pure or simple. . . . [But] why (for whom) should this possibility appear as a menace, as a purely "negative" risk, as an "infelicity"? Once it is iterable, to be sure, a mark marked with a supposedly "positive" value ("serious," "literal," etc.) can be mimed, cited, transformed into an "exercise" or into "literature," even into a "lie" — that is, it can be made to carry its other, its "negative" double. But iterability is also, by the same token, the condition of the values said to be "positive." The simple fact is that this condition of possibility is structurally divided or "differing-deferring" [differante].

The main differences between Derrida's iterability and Goffman's (re)keying are that (a) Derrida is more determined to reduce all speaking-as-doing to (re)iterating and Goffman wants to preserve some ontological distinction between the "reality" of primary frameworks and (re)keying, and (b) Derrida's concept is "fleshed out" more philosophically, Goffman's more theatrically. In my rekeying of Goffman in this chapter, I've followed Derrida in (a) and Goffman in (b).

The other important intellectual strain in the chapter is social constructivism. The section on Goffman is itself framed by a presentation of social-constructivist thought in two sections beginning "The Group Construction of ..." (context, reality); the first is followed by an example taken from Friends, which leads me to the radical performative notion that "all context is imagined." And the Goffman section bleeds over into the next, on metatalk and metapragmatics, which I rekey or reiterate as just another term for (performative) pragmatics in general.

As I showed in Chapter 2, Derrida's (re)iterability, Goffman's (re)keying, and social constructivism all derive through separate intellectual traditions from Kantian thought. My task in this chapter is simply to reentwine the strands.


1. The task of studying language in context is so difficult and daunting that for a long time it was in fact thought to be impossible. All analysis reduces the complexity of the thing analyzed, and reduces it specifically by eliminating as much incidental complexity as possible in order to leave only the essential regularity; and it seemed that language in context just plain didn't have enough regularity to be worth studying. It was almost all incidental complexity—complexity generated by people's human weaknesses, people's tendency to make random mistakes. If language in context is mostly mistakes, and the mistakes are mostly random, then there's nothing to study!

Performative linguists have always had a different take on this. Since their focus is not on "objective" structure in the "conversation itself," but on the structuring power of each individual speaker's and listener's dramatic imagination, conversation doesn't seem intrinsically messy to them. The thing is, it doesn't really matter how messy our utterances are when compared with some structural ideal; we always try to make sense of them, both when we utter them ourselves and when we hear others utter them. Performative linguists do this too when they analyze language—all humans do, after all, and performative linguists are human. That reduction of complexity in order to make sense of utterances, that focusing on the part that seems to make sense—that is basic to human conversational behavior. That is the interpretive process. That isn't merely the analyst's task; it's what everybody does in order to impose dramatic coherence on what other people say.

The big difference, though, is that for the performative linguist this isn't a reduction of complexity to the "true" underlying simplicity. This isn't an objectivist quest for the "real" structure hiding behind the complexity. It is a constructive process. It is the interpreter creating coherence out of the raw materials s/he gets from sense data and knowledge of the language and culture.

And since we do this all the time in spontaneous conversations, it seems a bit silly to insist that we have to eliminate contextual considerations in order to make sense of language. We are already equipped by decades of social competence to analyze most of the complexity of the conversations we participate in. All a performative pragmatics does is to shift focus from the complexity of the "conversation itself" to the complexity of the interpreter's construction of the conversation, and thus also of the contexts for that conversation.

2. In an objectivist civilization like ours, the constative conception of context as something that is "there" and merely "perceived" (accurately or inaccurately) is indeed more intuitive than one that insists that we create or construct context. It's only when you start pushing on that intuitive sense analytically, start trying to make it as logically sound as possible, that it begins to fall apart.

The problem is that people disagree: they see the contexts they're in differently. This is especially true of verbal and various cultural contexts; but it's even true of their physical context.

And if people disagree, then the analyst has two ways to go: (1) s/he can assume that there is an objective truth behind the disagreement, and work hard to sift through the divergent interpretations to that truth, gradually eliminating "false" interpretations based on "erroneous" analyses, or (2) s/he can shift analytical paradigms altogether and pay attention to the creative imagination powering the different interpretations.

(1) is, of course, the objectivist or constativist approach. The only real obstacle to its success is the analyst's nagging suspicion that nothing substantial differentiates her or his "true" interpretation from the "false" interpretations s/he has excluded. What makes the analyst's interpretation the "objective" one is ultimately that s/he did it, and stands by it. But of course the other participants in the conversation stand by their interpretations too. And in the end, once you've started letting yourself raise these questions there is no principled way to distinguish among interpretations. There is only self-assertion—and self-assertion does not sit well with objectivists. The objectivist approach to conversation really only "works" through self-delusion, and objectivists are methodologically committed to rooting out self-delusion (i.e., subjectivity), so that their method is self-undermining. The performative paradigm shift (to 2) is not perhaps the only way to go with this problem; but it's the most obvious.

3. If a whole crowd of people imagines a fire, and panics, and storms toward the exits, the fire isn't real, but the imagination of fire certainly is. And in that situation, it's virtually impossible to tell the difference. Our brains are not well-equipped to distinguish between reality and imagination. If you think you perceive a danger, but are really only imagining it, your brain reacts to the imagined danger in exactly the same way as it would to a real one: the primitive brain stem takes over and starts pumping massive quantities of fight-or-flight adrenalin through the system. If you've done something embarrassing, you feel the same embarrassment every time you relive the experience in your imagination, because your brain can't tell the difference between the "original" "real" experience and memory images of it. (This is why our imaginations have the power to drive us crazy; and why a psychotherapist's attempts to teach us to harness our imaginations for healing can work, as well. The imagination is powerful because the brain is not built to distinguish clearly between new external stimuli and recycled internal ones.)

The way we distinguish between reality and imagination in our everyday lives, in fact, is not through empirical testing, but through group consensus. Whatever the group says is real is real—which is to say, seems real, feels real. In the theater where someone yells "Fire!", in fact, if the audience by and large scoffs at the cry, people will not believe it—even if there really is a fire! And if the crowd does believe it, it will take superhuman strength of mind to resist that consensus.

(We are mammals, herd animals. Just as a herd of cows will stampede if a few are spooked, so will we--unless we can somehow bring our "higher reasoning" powers to bear on the situation and calm everybody down in time). Our "human" brain, the cortex, is wrapped loosely around the "mammalian" brain, the limbic system, which is much older and more primitive; and the limbic system sits on top of the oldest and most primitive part of the brain of all, the brain stem or "reptilian" brain. We like to think we have evolved decisively past our mammalian and reptilian roots, but those roots are right there in our brains, contributing to every single brain function.)

Besides, even when a group defines a context as imaginary, it has the power to "suspend disbelief" and act as if it were real. Think of Ross and his mother and aunt in the Friends scene: as a group they know they really aren't in a shoe or clothing store, and Ross really isn't a salesperson; but they enjoy pretending that it's all real. It's fun. So for them it may not be a real context; but the enjoyable pretense that it's real is real.

4. All we know directly, empirically, when we stub a bare toe on a rock is that it hurts. Our peripheral nervous system generates a pain signal and sends it to the brain, and we know that pain. We don't know the rock; we know the pain. That is how our brains are built: we know the brain's response to the outside world, not the outside world itself. The way we learn to interpret the outside world, based on brain response, is that our culture teaches us. This is very clear in small children: they are puzzled at pain. It makes no sense to them, until we explain it to them, and they keep experiencing it and we keep explaining it, and the lesson starts sinking in. Kick a rock with your bare toe and it will hurt! This is not a simple process of empirical observation; it is a complex culturally mediated process of interpretation and regulation.

Our sense that we have easy empirical knowledge of the connection between the rock's hardness and our bare toes' vulnerability to that hardness, and thus the causal relationship between kicking the rock and pain, is common sense—which is to say, a collectively regulated intuition. Our culture teaches us to believe this: that's what makes it "common" sense, which is to say, "shared" sense. Our culture has been objectivist for three or four centuries; objectivism is common sense. That's why a performative or social-constructivist approach to these matters seems so counterintuitive.

5. Who knows? Maybe we do have a core self. We may have no way of knowing. But even if we do have some deep self that never changes, that cannot mean that nothing in our personality changes from conversation to conversation, group to group—because quite obviously we do adapt to the group we're in. We play roles. We become the person each group expects us to be (and in each group, the person we become feels like our "true self"). We let each group make the rules, and then work hard to obey them. If we decide to break the rules, we try to do so in a way that the group will accept—or else brace ourselves for group disapproval, and for the shriveling feeling that disapproval gives us.

As in (4), the only reason this performative sense of group-determined identity seems counterintuitive is that our culture teaches us to think of ourselves as always basically the same. The stable "core self" is, again, common sense. Based on this common sense, we usually manage to ignore most of our role-playing in groups, and to go on thinking of ourselves in commonsensical terms as basically the same.


1. a. It's fairly easy to see Ryan, for example, once he is named "Panicky Ski Jump Puppet Man," adopting the panicky body language of a puppet going off a ski jump; and Colin, named "the Bitter Drunk Kid," sticking his hands in his pockets and changing his posture to stiff and angry, his facial expression to bitter and supercilious. When Brad slaps Wayne in the face, he creates his body language of surprise spontaneously, in reaction to the physical context of the face slap; but then he converts his surprise to mock anger and threat, and says "Flubber will kick your ass!" Looking closely at each performer's facial expressions, postures, and movements, and connecting them to their words, will show many subtler context-creating acts as well.

b. Obviously, for the performers playing to the audience is part of the fun, and clearly most of what they do is designed to entertain, to make people laugh. When "Flubber" sticks to "Panicky Ski Jump Puppet Man" and slides down so Wayne's face is in Ryan's groin, and "Slappy" gives Wayne's head a little slap from behind, all three performers are obviously flirting with a fellatio scene, to make the studio audience laugh, to see how much they can get away with on network TV, and to give both the studio audience and the home audience a humorous little frisson of forbidden sexuality. But for the most part the performers do this surreptitiously, without drawing special attention to their "address" to the audience. As Goffman (1974: 226) would say, for the performers the audience is part of the "disattend track," and the audience is framed as "licensed eavesdroppers" on the performance on stage:

As with those who watch a sport, those who watch a play are disattended by the actor-in-character and yet they are fully privy to what is happening onstage in frame. However, as already considered, the staged interaction is opened up, slowed down, and focused so that the audience's peculiar form of eavesdropping is maximally facilitated, a fact that marks theatrical audiences off from other kinds. Theatrical audiences have only restricted rights to reply to the show they watch and are allowed only a restricted role, but unlike the onlookers at excavation sites, they do have some expectations in that regard.

Similarly, the performers have some expectations regarding audience response: they expect people to laugh at funny things performed on stage, be stunned into silence by shocking things, etc.

Drew Carey, as the show's host, has a mediatory role between the audience-as-disattended-eavesdroppers and the performers who pretend they are doing all this for themselves; but even he doesn't normally "break frame" by commenting on the improvised action as it is going on. And at the end, when Brad says "There's just one more thing to do" and trots over to slap Drew's face, there is a clear frame-break, or perhaps a frame-straddle, a sense that he is crossing over from character ("Slappy") to actor ("Brad") with yet some lingering trace of slappiness.

More: Teacher's Guide index

General: Structure | Pedagogy | Dialogues

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

Last Modified: