How To Do Things With Word (Book Cover) by J.L. AustinAusten J.L. How To Do Things With Words. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1975.

The book is a collection of lectures given by Austen, dating back to 1955. The lectures present the authors argument and analysis of performative utterances and speach (coined “Performatives”). Austin describes his method of isolating and identifying what separates Performatives from other types and functions of speach. His approach is philosophically analytic while placing emphasis upon practiced linguistics. Though Austin observes that Performatives can be performed without use of the spoken word, he notes that behavior unto itself is not usually the sole act necessary. Words which are intended as acts, however, can be the singularly affective Performative. At the crux of his theoretical proposal is an observance that there are instances in which what we are saying is actually ‘doing something’. He describes three principal acts of statements: Locutionary, Illocutionary, and Perlocutionary; the latter two forms of utterance were of particular interest to him. Illocutionary acts are explicit, intentional, and are successful only if that intent and meaning is understood by another. He explains that Performatives can have a contractual and / or declatory quality, and be successful even where accidental (rather than intentional); instantiating some or another form of alterity to the mutual circumstances of the persons involved. The latter describes the affective quality of Perlocutionary utterances. Whether the character of the speach act is explicit or otherwise, the author emphasizes the necessity for some degree of mutual comprehension (references and / or cultural expectations) in order for a speach act to be successful.

Austin provides very many examples of Performatives common to Occidental societies, including statements used in legal processes (such as oaths and justice instructives), marriage and social rituals, and common figurative language that is propositional or symbolically inferential. Though he thoroughly addresses differing classifications, motivations, and purposes for these acts, some are in more pure form than others, they can be successful or unsuccessful, and some are happy or unhappy performances, etc. Performatives are not viewed as necessarily subscribing to rational nor logical uses of language, and may even lack in the formation of proper words or sentences, even while referencing an object that is not present. Instead Performatives substantiate interpersonal and inter¬relationally meaningful dynamics, agreements, practices, and deliberations via a mutually perceptible object or objective. Austin also proposes some useful sub-categories, that may aid in facilitating an understanding of how performativity today is perceived or understood among artists.

Austen’s reference to Verdictives (an exercise in judgment), Exercitives (an asserting influence or power), Commissives (assuming of an obligation, declaration, or intention), Behavitives (adopting of an attitude), and Expositives (clarifying of reasons, arguments, communications) may serve well as means of investigating classification distinctions in performance processes and qualities across disciplines.

We are simple-minded enough to think that if we were saying something we would use words. We are rather doing something. The meaning of what we do is determined by each one who sees and hears it.

– Qouting John Cage (1957)


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