HOW TO DO THINGS WITH WORDS, LECTURE 1

Posted by @ 10:47 pm on December 22nd, 2009

This is the first post concerning the book HOW TO DO THINGS WITH WORDS.  The book contains twelve lectures, delivered at Harvard University by JL Austin on the nature of language.  The importance of these lectures is, to me, the uncovering of language as a particular kind of instrument between people, and how literal meaning is not the only use of language.

Information provided in these lectures is almost unavoidable.  On any given day an encounter with some of its ideas is noticeable, and can be used to clarify misunderstandings.  Even the first post I wrote—the one where I promised of this post and the others following—contains examples of Austin’s ideas.  In promising to write the posts, I made something happen in the world.  I didn’t describe something, so much as make clear my intention to do something, thereby making it a reality.  It is here that the first lecture begins to detail its course.  Austin begins by making a distinction in how language is understood.  The use of language purely to describe things is questioned, as is the fact that language ever really states anything by itself.  To construct a sentence is to prepare the way for a statement which is a holding together of speaker, said, and situation.  The sentence “I am going to kill you” written on a piece of paper and dropped off a bridge is not the same as saying “I am going to kill you” to a person standing next to you.  Saying “I am going to kill you” to the person standing next to you is not the same as saying “I am going to kill you” to the person standing next to you if you are reading a poem, etc.  Whereas a statement can be true or false, language also exists in forms that are not true or false.  Saying “Boo” is not true or false, it is a noise made in order to scare.  A naming is not true or false, it is the induction of a reality.  A question is not true or false, it is an action made on the part of a person in the mode of questioning.  It puts a person before a specified object and challenges the mode of the object.  If one poses a question and then decides on its answer, the domain is then that of true or false, depending on further development, position etc.  A statement of truth or falsity is thought to be-able-to-be-determined-as-determined.  Meaning, if I make a statement, and it is grammatically correct, then it will have a truth somewhere outside its statement, based on a grammatical assessment of reality.  Or, it might not have that truth based on the same criteria.  If I say, “My house is blue,” and you check my house and it is blue, then what I have said is true.  The saying of “my house is blue” is true by itself only according to grammatical standards.  This seems obvious.  But rather than restating the obvious, it uncovers the situation of a statement, something often confused.  Taken alone, no sentence or statement is true, except according to grammar.  I can test a truth only by way of grammar.  This means that I could not have a house that is blue, but say I do, and the saying is still, in one mode, correct.  It can be thought, but its meaning is untrue.  Here Austin makes his first distinction.  He states that there are words, or arrangements of words, that do not add a descriptive quality to what he calls an “utterance.”  These words, or arrangemen, in fact change the situation of the utterance.  The use of a true or false statement, to Austin, is of a category he calls “constative.”  A constative statement describes a reality and therefore can be called true or false.  It has an objective correlate.  You will notice that a true or false description always follows its grounds.  It comes from the world rather than into the world.  Meaning, a description takes place after the occurrence “in reality” of what it states.  The other mode of language, according to Austin, is the “performative”.  The performative is different from the constative in that it cannot be called true or false.  Its weight or force is in the saying of it  (in correct conditions).  For example, if I say, “I bet you a hundred dollars one or more htmlgiant contributors will mention Gordon Lish today,” I enact that bet, provided I have stated it correctly, provided I have stated it to another person who then accepts the bet, provided upfront there is a such thing as htmlgiant and the conditions are such that the object of the bet can or can’t happen et cetera.  However, if I say to you, “I bet you a hundred dollars yesterday that…” then I am simply describing something that happened and that can be verified by both people involved or others witness to it.  My simple stating of the bet initially was not true or false, it was a reality that happened in the statement.  In stating it,I did something.  The stating brought about a present and future reality, rather than describing a past reality in the present.  Austin gives the example of marriage.  In saying “I do” we utter a performative, where by saying, “I do” I then (provided I am not sleeping, or already married, or talking to a non-human being etc.) enact that reality.  One of the keys to characterizing this kind of language, in the context of the first lecture, is its reliance on intention and/or oneness with an ability to choose.  For instance, if I promise to bring you a cookie, and I know I will not, then the perfomative has not taken place in a state Austin calls “happy.”  It is almost the same as pointing at an empty space and saying, “there is a cloud” while the cloud is behind you.  The performative is different from a descriptive in that, aside from my intention or honesty, I can state truths that I might not even be aware of.  I can say, “there is a blue car parked by our apartment” and this may be true without me even intending to be true, etc.  I can also state false statements with the overwhelming belief that they are true.  The performative is neither.  The performative act takes into account agency and its course.  Promising, threatening, warning, nominating, declaring war, these are all ways of performing something through a statement.  To begin, Austin has given us the idea that the insistence of language is only through existence.  To apply this to the “internet scene” or the psychology of online spirit, it seems that people confuse the two types of speech often.  For instance, in debates about quality, such and such works are stated as either possessing or not possessing quality.  Something sucks, something does not suck.  These qualities are stated in such a way that they become the essence of the work. They describe an actuality of the work.  The same can be said of positive statements.  A work is described as great.  A work is described as beautiful.  In taking into account an experience, we judge that experience in terms of value, a value narrowly prescribed and shortsighted.  For instance, Goosebumps books affect me differently now than they once did.  This is because the book itself isn’t any one thing, but rather, comes to me ultimately as a performative utterance based on an experience of judgment.  It isn’t as good now as I thought it was, and it wasn’t as bad then as I think it is now.  It has existed and played an indefinite role in my reading and writing experience.  This seems like an obvious distinction, fully apparent to anyone talking about writing or art or whatever.  And yet, quality debates occur all the time on this website and on other websites such that they confuse statements.  These statements can be constative.  For instance, if I say, “I read it and I did not enjoy it.”  That is a statement describing my experience.  It takes into account a present reflection (whether honest or misguided or whatever) of the past and secures it for others to consider.  If I say, “It sucked” and argue with that premise, then I create a situation where I make something that occurred between myself and a piece of writing something that IS for others too.  This is not to say that discussion of things is worthless, because if done in a way that describes things or affects, it thereby realizes the intent of discussion, which I think, maybe, is the mode of exchange.  Constative statement in terms of personal experience with writing or art or whatever, can lead to an opening of a larger understanding, one not accessible to a single person alone, one not attempted by a single person alone.  If you describe your reaction to something, it maybe uncovers something another has lost or failed to see.  This all amounts to saying that understanding, from which descriptions are taken, can be made broader if given the chance to be discussed and exchanged.   The very exstence of this website supports that intention in everyone.  If not, then there is no mediation of ideas, and there is only back and forth firing off of conclusions, having no connection or bearing at all.  Many times discussions here seem to be a back and forth of preestablished ideas connected with a truth that is believed to transcend individuals and cannot be brought down by honing.  “This sucked.”  “This is wrong.”  “This is immature.”  I admit, you could counter this by saying, “You are being simple, if I say ‘it sucked’ that means ‘I thought it sucked in my experience blah blah.’”  I would then true that is a more constative phrasing, but, given a broader context, it is more than just a simple statement.  It states itself.  It is instated when said.  It is made a condition, a context.  Austin considers context as part of immediate meaning to language.  Part of its unfolding.  Context conditions language sometimes more than the actual wording.  If I take the time to state that something sucked, on a public website, I am doing more than describing my personal experience.  That would be to put it on a level comparable to commenting that you dislike air fresheners, or that you are sitting.  It is a making known of personal experience.  I make a choice to uncover something I feel, to make it known to others.  Why? Firstly is assumed the realization of this state only through a statement.  You don’t tell someone watching a movie that it is a movie.  You don’t because it’s obvious.  This thing I want known, is only a statement.  Following that there are more considerations than this article permits.  This is an issue too deep for right now, but it seems to point to a subtle use of a performative act.  By giving my opinions on things, by arguing with others about their opinions, I perform a warning of value (at best), and (at worst) an act which I feel somehow gives me character, as someone who likes X, who agrees with X, et cetera.  I perform an identity, based on how I feel others feel about something.  The act also assumes authority.  To give my opinion on TWILIGHT, I suppose myself important to others in determining an opinion.  I suppose myself as possessing something that needs to be heard.  It is not enough for me to understand myself in relation to TWILIGHT as indifferent, antagonistic etc. [I haven’t seen TWILIGHT so this is just an example] I must provide myself as an agent in the discussion.  This seems to suggest that any negative critique of something will be seen as unnecessary.  That is not true unconditionally.  The very act of starting or continuing a website like this takes into account the ability to provide whatever adequate negative feedback one feels necessary.  Whether directly or indirectly, this website will maintain negative relationships with other things.  It also presupposes that one’s opinion is important.  Isn’t this how many assessments work?  They are given worth based on who states them.  If you read a review by a person you admire, whose work or prior opinion you admire, isn’t that to take it as likely fact?  Isn’t that the premise of creating a critique, that the writer should be taken for stating a fact based on his/her ability?  The question becomes, why is the person maintaining negativity in this way?  Why actively pursue the discussion of something you hate/dislike?  Is it to warn someone?  Why pursue something you love/like?  Is it for the benefit of the other or for establishing a character?  Is it for establishing a character as higher than that which is critiqued?  If so, is the worry that that person would enjoy something they “shouldn’t” enjoy?  The questions continue from there.  Why shouldn’t they like it?  Why should they like it?  If you feel it will be objectively liked or disliked for the same reasons as yourself, why put yourself in the position to dictate?  Why has that escaped them?  Etc.  I don’t mean to contradict what I said earlier about bringing new ideas to a discussion in order to broaden an understanding.  For instance, I will now revive a part of  WIGGER CHICK scandal of 09.  I will not provide a statement on the cartoon or the situation other than as it happened as reader reaction, for the purposes of giving context to Austin’s ideas.  There are, at the very least, two debates going on in the thread.  One is, artistic merit, and the other is racial standpoint.  This is nowhere near a definitive statement on the WIGGER CHICK scandal of 09 but it does uncover some things.  One debate focused on whether or not it should be up on account of being racist and hurtful, and the other on whether or not it was “good.”  How does constative and performative language work here?  One can describe his/her feelings about the cartoon, such that it was liked or not liked.  “It was funny.”  “It was not funny.”  “I laughed.”  “I was angry.”  These are descriptive statements that do not describe an objective reality though they try to make the reality objective through statement.  Meaning, by saying “I don’t think its funny,” I am really condemning such an assessment.  “I don’t think it is funny because I am not a racist and therefore if you think it is funny you are a racist.”  A performative situation has been made of an instrumental reality.  One could say that, “It is racist.”  This would be descriptive.  This would then have to be shown in conjunction with the definition of racism.  Much like if I saw a ball, I could say of another thing like it, “this is a ball.”  Which would be to put something on the plane of the immediately recognizable.  Such would be to strip out sense in statement.  why?  Because I have never once felt the need to describe objects in their simplicity to another person.  Have you ever pointed to the earth to tell someone it was the earth?  This would be to strip the cartoon of its context in all conceivable ways to make it racist.  It would only have racist implications.  And “racist” is here used as analogue for any other quality, not as the defining quality.  One would be saying that in their experience of the cartoon, the cartoon existed as racist, with all examples of its existing racism outlined.  To support the taking down of the cartoon, one would have to describe its objective effect and judge this bad too.  One would have to say that the cartoon represents a choice by a poster and a editor to convey racist sentiment for the purposes of asserting its truth.  One could easily say, “Yes, I feel this is racist but I am glad it is up since it has provoked a debate about race.”  Here, the value of such a post would be given a greater depth.  Again, I stress that I am not making a judgment of the cartoon or the situation outside of how it reflects the current lecture given by Austin.  I am attempting nothing anywhere near a value statement about the cartoon, I am using it as an example of how we attempt to breed realities in using language, namely where talking about writing, drawing, etc.  How we believe language does something.  The import of most statements made in debates here, is that of performing a public triumph, a public stand.  Whereas a thread could easily represent a true questioning of ideas and stances, (“I think it’s racist” “Why” “Because X” “I don’t get it can you explain it further” etc.) it becomes the grounds for performing a self-valuation.  It misses the broader passing of ideas and being.  In THE WAY TO WISDOM, Karl Jaspers says, “all positive exposition must be permeated by negative judgments, limitation, and critique…but this battle of discussion is not a struggle for power; it is a struggle for lucidity through questioning, a struggle for clarity and truth, in which we allow our adversary all those weapons of the intellect with which we defend our own faith.”  Some of those weapons are our own constative statements and the realization of our own performative statements as meaningful.  This has just been some thoughts on lecture one, and how it seems to play out.  I have attempted to both provide the information in the lecture and bring some of its ideas to a larger context.  I will write about lecture two in a couple of days unless I am made fun of substantially.  I thank you for reading this.  Criticism is welcome.

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