Performative Pragmatics

Teacher's Guide

Chapter 8
Violating and Infringing Maxims

Heightening and Prolonging Tension

This is where we get into violating and infringing maxims, specifically in the context of drama.

The idea is that, while it's very important to us in ordinary conversations to minimize misunderstandings by regulating our own and (to whatever extent possible) other people's speech, misunderstandings happen all the time anyway, and become extremely important in drama, where conflict and tension must be heightened and prolonged in order to keep the audience absorbed in the long slow process of resolving that conflict and tension. This is still a "straight" presentation of Grice's model, with just a little extra emphasis on a part of the model that usually gets passed over quickly, and with reference specifically to drama.


1. It's very true that violating and infringing maxims is not usually very funny in real life. As I note in the discussion of Ghostbusters, what makes it possible for us to laugh at Venkman's lying is that the filmmakers give us a broader perspective on what's happening than the Coed or Sophomore gets: we see Venkman holding up a wavy-lines card and then telling the boy that he's wrong when he guesses wavy lines. The boy is getting treated rather shabbily; the girl is getting seduced (albeit willingly); we're laughing.

But all this means is that laughter becomes possible at a higher level of understanding—and that higher level isn't completely unheard-of in real life, either. Sometimes even in the midst of a frustrating conversation, we manage to shift to something like that higher level of understanding, and the whole thing start seeming funny. Sometimes it takes us a day or two, or a month, or even several years, before a particular case of violating or infringing maxims begins to seem funny.

And the main point here is not that it's funny, but that there is drama in the violation and infringement of maxims, and that that drama is very common in ordinary life.

2. Performative pragmatics does lead to knowledge; just not absolute knowledge. There's a significant difference, obviously, between knowledge as "having some idea of what's going on" and knowledge as "absolute 100% certainty about what's going on." Performative pragmatics aims at the former, constative pragmatics at the latter. And performative pragmatics is based on the assumption that the latter is humanly impossible, and any claim to have achieved it is therefore a flagrant violation of the maxim of quality—in other words, a lie, a deception, a pretense.

A weaker form of the objection in question 2, though, would be: everybody in a conversation has some idea of what's going on; how does a performative pragmatics add anything to what we already know? (This "weaker form" is in fact a much stronger objection.) A performative pragmatics doesn't have the "expert" ethos of constative pragmatics. The constative pragmatician typically implicates that ordinary participants in a conversation don't really know what's going on, and so have to study pragmatics to learn the true pragmatic basis of conversation. Performative pragmatics only claims to be a slightly more conscious and articulate version of what ordinary participants in a conversation already know. Instead of learning a whole new set of arcane concepts and models (as you're expected to do in constative pragmatics), in performative pragmatics you recognize things you already know. You become conscious of interpretive strategies that you learned so long ago that they have become "second nature," unconscious habits. The idea is that becoming conscious of these strategies may help you to apply them more fully and complexly, and possibly also more effectively, in actual verbal interaction.


1. a. Floris insists that the difficulty she has in understanding people in everybody else's fault; this makes Grice's cooperative principle and the rationality it's based on impossible. It would be difficult enough to communicate with her if she were rationally aware that she had a problem, and attempted to adjust for it, and could explain to people that she had this disorder, so they could adjust for it as well. That would make some minimal rationality and cooperation possible. Her irrational denial of her own problem rules that out.

And the fact that Floris has somehow managed to convince Dr. Lester, her boss, that this is the case means that Dr. Lester "infects" everyone he talks to with her irrationality as well: he assumes that no one can understand him, so that he keeps apologizing for his nonexistent speech impediment. Earlier in the interview, for example, he calls security when Craig says his name isn't "Juarez" (the name Floris gave Dr. Lester over the intercom) but "Schwartz." Believing that Floris hears correctly and he has a speech impediment makes Dr. Lester think that Craig is an impostor.

b. In this passage, "flattery" and "lying" are more or less synonymous: Dr. Lester uses both to mean something like telling a kind and generous untruth (locutionary implicature) in order to butter up the boss (illocutionary implicature) and thus make the boss feel so good about you that he'll hire you (perlocutionary implicature). Since Dr. Lester assumes that Craig is lying kindly, to make him feel good, he would not consider the lie a violation of the maxim of quality, but a flouting: he assumes Craig wants him to recognize it as flattery. But of course Craig isn't lying or flattering Dr. Lester; the impression Dr. Lester has that this is what Craig is doing comes from the irrational element Floris has coached him to introduce into all his conversations, the assumption that he has a speech impediment that makes it impossible for others to understand him. This belief doesn't make that impossible, but it does make it impossible for Dr. Lester to recognize a truth about his communicational skills when Craig utters it—and that latter inability means that Dr. Lester isn't violating maxims, but infringing them.

2. a. "Truth is for suckers" seems to be an admission that she was lying, which identifies her claim that "The real story of 7 1/2 is so evil that it could never be revealed to Americans raised on sitcoms and happy news anchors" as a violation of the maxim of quality, "Do not say that which you believe to be untrue." But "truth is for suckers" isn't that violation; it merely reveals that earlier remark as one. "Truth is for suckers" is a more serious violation: it smashes the impression of both cooperation and rationality in the conversation. It not only implicitly calls Craig a sucker; it implicitly announces that Craig would be a fool to believe anything Maxine says, because she isn't playing by any rules, scoffs at the rules, and does everything in her power to undo the rules.

b. Since Craig has just introduced himself, told her his name, Maxine seems to be implying that he's as dreary as a frog—that people who introduce themselves are boring. It's probably more complicated than that, though, because the same poem would identify her as the "admiring bog," and she can't possibly by implying that. Most likely she isn't flouting maxims in order to convey some implicature, but simply being uncooperative and irrational, quoting Dickinson on a whim, in order to disrupt the conversation any way she can.

c. He's probably trying to impress her, and by impressing her, to hit on her. He spends the rest of the movie, in fact, trying to seduce her and, once he's accomplished that, to hold onto her, and once he's lost her, to get her back.

d. "I wouldn't know" is more uncooperative and irrational disruption. She is violating not only the maxims but the cooperative principle.

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