Wednesday, October 04, 2006


J.L. Austin, How to Do Things with Words:

“Suppose, for example, I see a vessel on the stocks, walk up and smash the bottle hung at the stem, proclaim ‘I name this ship the Mr. Stalin and for good measure kick away the chocks: but the trouble is, I was not the person chosen to name it (whether or not—an additional complication—Mr. Stalin was the destined name; perhaps in a way it is even more of a shame if it was). We can all agree (1) that the ship was not thereby named; (2) that it is an infernal shame. One could say that I ‘went through a form of’ naming the vessel but that my ‘action’ was ‘void’ or ‘without effect,’ because I was not a proper person, had not the ‘capacity’ to perform it; but one might also and alternatively say that, where there is not even a pretence of capacity or a colourable claim to it, then there is no accepted conventional procedure; it is a mockery, like a marriage with a monkey. Or again one could say that part of the procedure is getting oneself appointed.”


Blogger Anonymous Brigham Young said...

Might not this "mockery" become more notorious and permanent than its proper name if as a nickname or pseudonym it gets reiterated by a large population who believes it to be more indicative of the thing's true character? Are speech acts that perform functions related to the state apparatus fundamentally different than those of social functions related to a more organic Law?

1:54 PM  
Blogger Johannes said...

Yes, that's the trick, isn't it?

2:37 PM  
Blogger Anonymous Brigham Young said...

What do you mean by "trick"?

In my philistine reductiveness Austin's position seems reducible to "iterations of language depend on social context but certain phrases still retain some kind of transcendental performativity in certain situations"
This doesn't seem to hold in an age where social capital is generated quite freely apart from any official ceremony or duty to the law. And even if it were, wouldn't the legal code as *written* text be the performative an illocutionary act merely gives assent to?
Whether an utterance performs, or sticks, constitutes good faith seems to have much more to do with collective desire than particular features of language.

10:47 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...

By trick I mean that I think you are probably right - if the Stalinists are in fact not an impotent minority (as the example assumes!), but a "large population" then the boat's "nickname" might have more "permanent." Absolutely. There are many examples of this in history.

The fact that Austin uses such an oddly archaic ritual as ship-naming may suggest more than he realized when he picked it.

6:20 AM  

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