English 456: C20 Criticism and Theory

Performatives and Constatives Compared: A Summary
Jennifer Thompson, UC Irvine

Al Drake | Cyber Cafe | Thurs. 6-7 | 714-434-1612

The distinction between performatives and constatives is a heuristic one, and it breaks down under close examination. However, under certain circumstances the distinction can be handy. So, with that warning....

A constative utterance performs the following functions:

1. It conveys a message;

2. That message can be compared to the "real world" and declared true or false;

3. A failed constative is false, unclear, or void of reference (that is, the thing it's talking about doesn't exist).

Examples of successful constative utterances:

1. "Jennifer's hair is now a light ash blond called 'champagne.'" Sure enough, we can confirm that the TAs hair is blond, and if we dig the dye box out of the garbage, it will be labeled "champagne."

2. "Critics speculate that Friedrich Nietzsche's madness resulted from brain damage characteristic of the advanced stages of syphilis." We can't do an autopsy on Fritz, but we can confirm, by reading, that his critics have so speculated. The statement is true, as far as it goes.

3. And even, "Jennifer's Siamese cat Tai is remarkably handsome," if clear criteria for handsomeness have been established, and we confirm that Tai meets them.

Problem constatives:

1. "Jennifer? She's the redhead who's missing a tooth." Oops. She changed her hair color before we made this statement; the facts render it false.

2. Unclear sentences, or ones that can't be properly confirmed: "I have forgotten my umbrella," when scrawled on the margins of a dead philosopher's notes; "That's unfair," when it's not clear what "that" is, or why I object to it.

3. "The king of France is bald." The referent--the king of France--doesn't exist. "Twas brillig, and the slithy toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe." Huh? It's grammatically clear, but there's no such thing as a "slithy tove."

A performative, on the other hand, does the following:

1. Rather than conveying a message, it acts upon the world; it doesn't say something, it does something;

2. Rather than being true, a successful performative is happy; rather than accurately stating that something's the case, it makes it the case.

3. A failed performative is unhappy rather than simply false; under certain circumstances, it can be unhappy and still have effects.

4. To be happy, a performative must fulfill certain conditions. The participants and circumstances must be appropriate, and the performative must invoke a recognized convention that preexists the performative utterance. The convention may be more or less strictly defined, and may only apply among certain groups of people. Therefore, a performative may be happy in one context, and unhappy in another. So, for example, if two gay men marry, their friends and family may recognize their vows as a happy and binding promise, but the state will not.

Happy performatives:

1. "I now pronounce you man and wife," when spoken by a clergyman or ship's captain, during a wedding ceremony, to two people of different sexes who are not related and have signed (or are about to sign) the appropriate paperwork;

2. "I sentence you to life in prison with no chance of parole," spoken by a judge to a prisoner who has been found guilty by a judge or jury;

3. "I promise to come to your Halloween party," when spoken by someone who has been invited, to the host of a scheduled party.

4. "Doo-wop, doo-wop," when sung in the context of a '50s love ballad.

Unhappy performatives:

1. "I now pronounce you man and wife," spoken by a defrocked clergyman, or to two raccoons, or to two men in a state that prohibits gay marriage;

2. "I sentence you to life in prison with no chance of parole," when the prisoner has smuggled a gun into the courtroom;

3. "I promise to come to your Halloween party," spoken to several hosts successively by a mendacious invitee.

4. "Doo-wop, doo-wop," when belted out by a student in response to a question whose answer is clearly not "doo-wop, doo-wop."

Note that in the first case, the pronouncement is simply void; the raccoons are not legally married. In the second, the pronouncement is void in a special way; the prisoner refuses to accept the sentence, and it must be imposed violently. In the next case, the guest intends to break her promise. Her statement isn't so much false as it is deceptive, and her action is manipulative, not mistaken. In the case of the singing student, "doo-wop" is not true or false, it's weird and inappropriate. That inappropriateness is more striking than the fact that it's not a "true" answer to the TA's question.

Remember, too, that unhappy performatives do have consequences. The invitee is bound to her promise whether or not she intends to come, and even if her car refuses to start. The prisoner will be sent to jail if she can be subdued by bailiffs, even if she was framed and the jury was mistaken. In Arizona at least, if one of two marriage partners simply believes that the clergyman is qualified to performs the ceremony, the two are legally married whether or not he's been defrocked. It's also possible to flub a ceremony and still have it be valid (think of the stuttering priest in Four Weddings and a Funeral ). The singing student will probably be ostracized, if not referred to Student Health.

In short, constatives depend on the facts, and can only be judged in reference to them. Performatives depend upon the context in which they're spoken, and the reception of the audience.

As I mentioned above, the distinction between performatives and constatives is not always clear. For instance, what if Jennifer's boyfriend is remarkably handsome, but the established criteria apply only to Siamese cats? The statement may or may not be false; it is certainly inappropriate. Still more unhappily, what if Jennifer's boyfriend is remarkably handsome by Siamese standards (slightly crossed eyes, spindly limbs), but unremarkable by human standards? Is the statement false, or unhappy, or both?

Perhaps the most unfortunate case occurs when Jennifer's boyfriend is actually a Siamese cat. He may or may not be remarkably handsome, and certainly the statement "Jennifer's cat is her boyfriend" is true, but that truth is trivial compared to the urgent problem of persuading Jennifer that cats are inappropriate boyfriends, and the relationship is therefore void (not "false" or "illusory"). And what if the boyfriend in question is a human jerk, or a woman? By declaring that cats (or jerks, or women) are inappropriate boyfriends, are we stating a truth, or are we attempting to legislate behavior performatively? If we state that "Cats are inappropriate boyfriends for people," aren't we simply trying to pass a performative off as a constative? And so on....