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I say, therefore I do: J. L. Austin’s How to Do Things with Words

While I took great pleasure in reading Austin’s How to Do Things with Words, I am daunted by the task of summarizing and reflecting on it. Here I’ll try talking about what seems to me most important from Austin’s observations and what applications do I see for these theories for my work in composition.

I was initially drawn in by Austin’s distinction between the constative and performative uses of language. By offering a wealth of everyday examples (such as “I do” when said in a marriage ceremony or “I bet” when playing a card game) he convinced me quite quickly that there are many ways that we use words to do things. By examining how performative uses of language either fail or succeed to have their customary effect, Austin further distinguishes the ways performatives function within social and cultural contexts.

Neither of these points were revelations for me: Language is clearly an important tool we use to do things, like conduct business or set cultural laws. However, I found his taxonomy of infelicities–ways speech-acts can go wrong and fail in their effect–compelling, especially as he takes a joking tone when producing examples, occasionally absurd. I often felt dragged through his later taxonomizing, when he tries to evaluate grammatical heuristics for distinguishing performatives. The humor helps.

Austin finds no clear way to distinguish performative utterances from mere statements of fact.  Through his investigation, he establishes to three key senses in which to say something is to do something. In one sense, to say something is to perform a locutionary act–that is, to make noises (he’s not interested in gestural languages) that correspond to an accepted vocabulary and grammar. In another sense, to say something is sometimes also to perform an illocutionary act–that is, it’s a performative in the initial sense, like “I apologize” or “I object!”. Sometimes the sentences we make invoke a particular ritual force that performs a further action. Austin provides six major types of illocutionary acts, including utterances that pass judgment (“I judge you to be guilty of murder”) that commit oneself to further action (“I promise to bake you a cake”) or that enact a social  interaction (“I apologize for . . . ” or “I thank you for . . .”). Finally, he explains that sometimes when we say something we’re performing a perlocutionary act–that is, we affect an audience, often through complex, indirect means. The model here goes, “By saying X, I Y’d” as in “By saying ‘you’re so confrontational,’ I offended her.” Unlike the illocutionary act, which has its effects because it adheres to pre-determined (if sometimes hidden) social rules, in this case, my speech act is doing something out in the world that’s internal to my audience. I haven’t invoked a social ritual, but I have done something. To offend someone with my words is not to use any particular grammatical or syntactical structure, but it is one thing I can do when I perform an utterance. (Put I perform so much more than utterances!)

While I may not retain the particulars of Austin’s distinctions between, say, the types of infelicities to which performatives are vulnerable or the destinctions between the of illocutionary acts one might do (not so solid even for Austin), I am facinated his illusidation of the illocutionary and perlocutionary forces of speach-acts. I found myself reflecting on how this distinction applies to the kind of rhetoric I teach in my freshman composition course. It seems like an exceptionaly elastic way of considering how utterances function (whether in an argument or a story or a memo) : that is, without discussing rhetoric explicitly, Austin’s theory explains how rhetoric is possible.

I want to consider the pedagogical implications of each of these performative forces of utterances.

1. Locutionary– to teach students to be aware of the locutionary powers of their utterances is to focus on elements of grammar, mechanics, and vocabulary usage. We do this work frequently, and current-traditional pedagogies do this work above all others. Imperative here is training students to understand how to forge utterances that adhere to and exploit the capacities of (usually) standard academic English for making meaning. Prime concerns, then: spelling or capitalizing words conventionally (typographical version of Austin’s phonic act): or we might teach students how to choose the correct words and using them according to their proper meanings  for instance, the difference between affect and effect, and how to deploy them (Austin’s phantic act); we might also teach students about subject/verb agreement or about constructing sentences logically to make clear meaning (Austin’s rhetic act). Teaching students to level of sentence construction and correctness is to sensitize students to the locutionary forces of their speech-acts.

You’ll note that I’m trying to adapt Austin’s distinctions to suit the context of the writing classroom, where most utterances are written in prose For instance, I am rendering Austin’s phonetic act as equivalent to typographical distinctions like capitalization and unconventional spelling, which may have no phonetic effect at all, but seem roughly equivalent. I may be working in rough analogy here and thus overgeneralize. But for my purposes, I couldn’t help trying to extrapolate into what I know, which is writing instruction. At the end of this post, I’ll go further, and consider how these categories might work for other sorts of communicative acts we study and make in the classroom, including visual and digital performances. That will be pure speculation.

2. Illocutionary–what would it mean to teach students about the illocutionary force of language? This amounts, I think, to social constructivist pedagogy–showing students how to perform important rhetorical moves that make up our academic genres and teaching them how to avoid the particular infelicities to which those moves are vulnerable. The work I do with my students on discourse communities often wanders close to this model of literacy acquisition. Of the six styles of illocutionary act, some seem more applicable to thinking about teaching than others.

We often ask students to evaluate or assess another author’s point of view, essentially asking them to perform a verdictive. Verdictives pass a judgement. While other illocutionary acts might commit the speaker to some future action (“I swear to X”) or express the establishment of a social interaction (“I denounce you!”), verdictives speak from a position of authority and define something based on reason or evidence. Austin’s examples are an umpire calling “out” or a judge declaring that an accused person actually is guilty based on the evidence. Verdictives must come from those with clout and must corrispond to the accepted rules of evidence in order to work. Our job as instructors is to help students avoid the pitfalls of issuing verdictives, namely that the student doesn’t hasn’t established the authority to issue her assessment, that she’s basing her verdict on unacceptable reasoning or evidence, or that the assessment is vague. When we ask students to evaluate, estimate, assess, diagnose, describe, analyse, characterize (157) our role is often to help them see how their utterances may be sound or unsound, authoritative or amateurish.

The other most obvious category of illocutionary acts that correspond with what I teach fall into Austin’s category of expositives. An utterance is expositive when it involves “the expounding of views, the conducting of arguments, and the clarifying of usages and of references” (161) Here we see verbs like argue, describe, accept, agree with, begin by, conclude by, analyze, distinguish, illustrate, explain, etc. When I teach students to use these verbs consciously in their writing, I often think of it as teaching them to employ a distinctive argumentative voice, finding ways to make explicit the thinking process they intend their essay to perform with the reader. These kinds of performance are also subject to infelicities that we try to help our students avoid. So, when a student sets out to describe something and actually ends up summarizing instead, or when they set out to argue and do not actually present an argument. Or when they set out to disagree with an author’s perspective but don’t in fact offer a disagreement or merely deny or refute or reject the author’s position.

Since illocutionary forces rely on accepted convention, I think of approaches like Graff and Berkenstein’s They Say / I Say: The Moves that Matter in Academic Arguments method as essentially illocutionary pedagogy. Using templates, TS/IS shows students how to make the conventional moves that make up an argument in certain academic contexts. Within a social constructivists pedagogy, much of what it means to help students learn to write boils down to helping students understand the that rules govern a particular scholarly or professional discourse. Students learn how to employ conventional forms, how to perform “the moves that matter” without infelicities.

You will note that I’ve slid from talking about performances at the level of individual sentences or utterances to talking about them on a much larger scale–perhaps at the level of a paragraph or an entire essay. I’m uncomfortable with this elision, but I won’t go into it much here beyond giving a few quick examples of why I’ve done this. If students are going to use words to report the speech of someone else, for instance, academic conventions usually demand a more complicated ritual than can be performed in a single sentence. Strictly speaking, our students perform the act of quoting when they say, “I quote Austin, ‘these are all distinct from the producing of effects which is characeristic of the perlocutionary act’.” However, by itself, we as teachers would say that in order for the student to quote effectively (for it to be carried off “well”), he needs to perform other related utterances, like introducing and contextualizing the quotation to be presented, employing proper punctuation, analyzing or explaining the quotation’s relevance, altering the quotation with brackets to fit his own syntax, and so on. The act of performing a quotation in writing seems to be spread out over a great many individual sentences, as does the act of arguing or summarizing or describing. I wonder if in this sense a paragraph or an essay performs.

3. Perlocutionary–The truth is that I understand the perlocutionary much less well than I want to. Since it’s not the target Austin’s primarily aiming at, he doesn’t spend as much time elucidating it. An example:

In saying “I like other boys” I frightened my babysitter.

My language definitely did something: but what it did and why is a very difficult thing to figure out, and conceivably completely idiosynchratic to the babysitter. The exact same speech act could carry differing perlocutionary forces with different audiences (maybe the babysitter could have been delighted by the comment). If I understand the distinction he’s drawing, it seems like thinking about perlocustionary forces must lead down exceptionally complex theoretical terrain deeply wrapped up in the mess of affective experience, psychology, brain science. A connection to follow onward in the lists.

It seems a metaphor like “audience” is the pedagogical corrispondant to Austin’s perlocusionary performative. We train our students to anticipate the expectations of their readers, how their readers will likely react to what they’ve written. I often work with a model of peer review that focuses exclusively on familiarizing students with their audience and their audience’s responses to their work. My approaches largely derive from my experience with Sondra Perl and Mimi Schwart’s workshop model from Writing True, as well as my other research into cognitive comp folks like Peter Elbow. (He’s up soon on the list!). Most of the work in peer review is focused on the listeners explaining to the author exactly what their experience of the text was, exactly what it communicated and how. The idea is to help students make connections between their linguistic choices on the page and the effect it produced in an attentive audience. Over time, students use one another’s capacities to be listeners to hone their skills at effectively communicating ideas or feelings using their writing.

Well, not just their writing, of course. Or not in the traditional sense. In making these extrapolations, I’ve had to expand Austin’s scope pretty wide, and probably I’ve done a rough job of it. So, when I think of the possibilities if we include other sorts of textual performance in the mix, I feel certain I’ll stretch too far. However:

I don’t know a terribly large amount about visual rhetoric. I consider myself to be a visual thinker, and I’m certainly a voracious consumer of visual media, but I couldn’t tell you very much about what scholars have said about visual rhetoric. Dominique Zino has given me some idea, though, that it’s about analyzing and deploying non-verbal rhetorics, as visual artists or advertisers might do when composing an image for an audience. So, a Kara Walker image uses scale and size and medium and subject to communicate its message, to perform its desired effect. Since Walker’s an artist, it’s not trying to communicate facts, but a particular affective response–shame, intrigue, disgust, some admixture? Within the context of visual rhetoric, the communication relies almost wholely on that aspect of the perlocutionary performative that Austin attaches to non-verbal cues like gesture or expression. We teach students to read the visual cues in advertisements because we recognize the value of visual critical discernment in our present visual moment. Also, with the capacity for multimodal digital composing, students are able to experiment with performing utterances in formerly impossible of means. A cool example of something a student could conceivably make: http://pitchfork.com/features/cover-story/reader/janelle-monae/ (You know, but not so glossy and perfect and if I knew how to teach someone to make something like this.) I wonder: What would it mean to think of providing a hyperlink in a sentence as a quality of utterance? Another thread to track further, probably into the multimodal composing books on Mark’s list.

Other upcoming connections will probably come from the queer theorists and disability theorists on Mark’s and Joe’s lists. McRuer, Davis, Sedgwick, Halberstam (right?).

My next big reading, though, is Elbow’s Writing with Power: Techniques for Mastering the Writing Process. It’s one of my texts with Jason looking at process-era interests in cognition and the mind-brain. That strand will take me forward into contemporary cognitive composition work, and maybe link me there to multimodality. We’ll see what shakes loose as I read and write here.

My secondary reading at the moment is Lennard Davis’s Disability Studies Reader (4th edition). I’ve picked out all the chapters I think will be worth reading for my interests, which is still, like, 25 chapters. Thankfully, this includes many I read for Joe’s Disability Studies class last term, so I should be done within the weekend. I’m not yet sure how I can productively blog about that one. Obviously, brevity isn’t one of my strengths, and I really don’t think I need to summarize many of the ones that are quite distant from my dissertation work. For instance, I’m very glad I’m reading Ruth Hubbard’s historical essay on early 20th century hereditary science (read: eugenics). If I teach a DS course soon, I’ll likely assign it. But I doubt it will come up in my publishing life unless my scholarly interests take a severe turn in the coming years.

I guess I’ll use that, then. Out of the DS Reader, which articles will I want to write about going forward?

Finally, a rogue sentence I like but didn’t find a home for:

The total speech act, which exists within concurrent socio-cultural matrices: language (phonetic, phantic, rhetorical structures), custom (conventions of performatives, such as the rules of in/felicity for a given utterance), and affect (how an audience receives an utterance, makes meaning of it, and has a reaction).

Something a bit less . . . lyrical next time, I think.

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One thought on “I say, therefore I do: J. L. Austin’s How to Do Things with Words

  1. Phil says:

    Your analysis of the text is superb! It has made me understand the Austin’s ideas.

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