Performativity

How does telling stories make a difference? Having made an arbor­escent narrative that is also a description of the TSR2 project, this is the next question I want to explore.

In one way we already know the answer. It is built into the semi­otics that subjects perform objects and objects perform subjects. It is built into the structure of the book. Telling always makes a difference 174 Arborescences of one kind or another. But if some stories make more of a difference

Cultural Bias

 

Reading an earlier version of this book, Bruno Latour suggested the following thought experiment.

Would it be possible, he wondered, to build a sense of ”the project as a whole” out of a set of bits and pieces, little stories that had to do with this or that project-related matter? Would it be possible to build the present book in this way by offering a series of small stories and then, at the end, to have generated a chronological time-space story of”the project as a whole”?3

Until this last story I’ve largely resisted the arborescence of project narrative. So a possible question is whether you, the reader, have built a chronologically and spatially ordered narrative out of the bits and narratives that have composed the earlier chapters: whether you have supplied your own project-relevant arborescence.

If you have indeed done so then we have learned a little about the distributions of narrative, about the relations between what Deleuze and Guattari call the arborescent and the rhizomatic. Or, to put it in another language, we have learned something about the character of cultural bias: about a tendency to find smoothness and coherence, and the possible character that coherence might take. About our aversion to noncontinuity. Or noncoherence. Or to sensing the oscillations be­tween continuity and discontinuity, the interferences that make sin­gularity out of multiplicity in a movement that is continually deferred. Perhaps, then, we have learned something about the current perfor­mance of the conditions of possibility.

 

176 Arborescences

than others, then we need to think harder about interferences and the conditions of possibility. And if we start to ask questions of this kind—and in particular about interferences—then we blunder into a place inhabited by linguistic philosophers, and in particular a place that is occupied by the words ‘‘I do.’’

Philosopher J. L. Austin (1966; 1970, 235) argued that if these par­ticular words are uttered at the right moment and in the right place, under what he called “felicitous” circumstances, then they are also actions and not just words. But what is the ‘‘right place’’? In this con­text, it is a properly constituted marriage ceremony where, for in­stance, neither of the prospective partners is already married. Under these circumstances if I say ‘‘I do’’ at just the ‘‘right moment,’’ I end up married. Such is his definition of the performative: it is a word or a set of words that is also an action.

Let’s displace the example a little. Staying with the humanist theme of romance, if I say ‘‘I love you’’ to a person in ‘‘real life’’ (to be sure, the definition of what should count as real life is precisely one of the issues at stake), then this has another kind of effect. In Austin’s terms it would be a constative; that is, it states something. It is a descrip­tion, which means, at least in the paradigm case, that it is either true or false. But it is also in some sense performative, and this is what’s important here. The question is, what is it performing? If it were said in good faith and all the rest, it would be a performance of love. But it might also (and here the uncertainties crowd in) be the start of a love affair, or (no doubt equally uncertain) its reaffirmation. Or, if it were said in the ‘‘wrong way’’ or under the ‘‘wrong circumstances,’’ it might be the end of a love affair or a friendship.

So what do we learn? The answer is that to say ‘‘I love you’’ is prob­ably performative too. Like ‘‘I do’’ it also makes a difference. It enacts something and it has force. But at the same time it is also clear that the focus of attention has started to shift from a relatively clear set of conditions that secure a specific form of performativity (‘‘I do’’), a specific outcome, to a whole lot of uncertainties both in degree and in quality—which uncertainties are interesting, indeed crucial, if we are concerned to make a difference and think about the kind of dif­ferences that are made when stories overlap.

Let’s displace the example once more, or better, replace it with something entirely different. If I say, ‘‘The government has fallen,’’

then this is different again, isn’t it? If I’ve just heard it from the BBC news (as opposed to a novel by Anthony Trollope), then something else is happening. Commonsensically, we could say that I’m report­ing on a state of affairs or the affairs of state. This means that it is a constative and not a performative at all. Thus we could also add that what I say doesn’t make much difference, indeed perhaps no differ­ence at all, not, at any rate, to the government. This is because the toppling of the government has happened, as it were, ‘‘out there,’’ and my words simply report on something. They are not (how to say this?) a part of the action. They perform, instead, a kind of perspectivalism and belong to epistemology instead of ontology.

Let’s make one further displacement, again on the political theme to do with the falling of governments. If I say ‘‘the government will fall tomorrow,’’ then here we have something different yet again. Once more it sounds a little like a report, a perspective taken on something that is out there—or will be out there. This sounds like the world of the constative, but the difference between ‘‘is out there’’ and ‘‘will be out there’’ is crucial, for now we are starting to move back toward the earlier declarations of love. The prospects are uncertain, and, as a part of that, the declaration itself may turn out to be performative—as it was when, for instance, tens of thousands of brave people stood and clinked their keys in Wenceslas Square in Prague on what turned out to be the eve of the Velvet Revolution. ‘‘Your time is up,’’ they clinked.

And the clinking (it turned out) performed the departure of that sad and vicious government. ‘‘The government will fall tomorrow’’: these words have become, albeit uncertainly, a part of the action. Consta­tive and performative both, they are constative precisely because they are performative.

I don’t much care for such armchair examples. Michel Foucault’s work teaches us that philosophy is better pursued by empirical means, which is why I have written this book in the way that I have, as a book ‘‘about’’ an aircraft. But before we move on, look at what happens if we put the four ‘‘philosophers’ examples’’ that I’ve created side by side (table 8.1).

This helps to make the story that I’m trying to tell clear, or so I hope. Sometimes words, stories, and no doubt pictures are also ac­tions. That is, they make the worlds that they describe. And some­times they aren’t, and they don’t. And then again (a somewhat differ – Arborescences 177

”I do” ”I love you” ”The government ”The government will fall tomorrow” has fallen”

Action

3

3

3

(performative)

Report

3

3

(constative)

ent but equally important distinction), sometimes words and stories act in clear and unambiguous ways, and sometimes they don’t. Such is the space that I would like us to investigate, the performativity of narrative, as overlap and interference with other narratives.

Back to the empirical.

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