Sunday, January 30, 2005

How to Do Things with Words

Philosopher J.L. Austin distinguishes two types of speech act: constative and performative. Constative speech acts describe a situation and can therefore be evaluated for their accuracy, how well they describe the world (Austin probably would have said: constative speech can be true or false). By contrast, performative speech (itself) produces an action (e.g. "I sentence you to life in prison"). Austin further delineates two forms of performative speech: illocutionary and perlocutionary. In illocutionary speech, the utterance itself is the action (e.g. the classical example, "I pronounce you man and wife"). In perlocutionary speech, the utterance is not the action, but produces the action as one of its effects (e.g. "Don't move!"). In light of later work in semiotics and cultural theory, constative and performative speech acts appear not nearly so distinct (e.g. does an influential critic's "description" of a photograph merely describe the work, or does it effect a certain way of seeing). But I think we can say that Austin's typology is still evocative: even if not politically useful, it does speak, at the very least, to the intention behind certain speech acts as well, therefore, to the ways in which certain speech acts are dissembled and disseminated.

Blogs, I think, as public speech acts, are more performative than they seem; and I think they operate in both illocutionary and perlocutionary modes. In fact, this is a pretty good summary of the work I was trying to do in my first paper on photoblogs, "What Does the Photoblog Want?"
web statistics