Performative Rhetorics Course Description

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In the beginning was the deed. –Goethe Faust

Speech is a powerful lord, which by means of the finest and most invisible body effects the divinist works: it can stop fear and banish grief and create joy and nurture pity. . . . The effect of speech upon the condition of the soul is comparable to the power of drugs over the nature of bodies. –Gorgias, “Encomium of Helen”

Speech is in fact a gift of language, and language is not immaterial. It is a subtle body, but body it is. –Jacques Lacan, “The Function and Field of Speech and Language in Psychoanalysis”

A hurtful utterance can give you hives, make you want to throw up, put a dent in your appetite, or summon up any number of somatic responses and physical collapses. –Avital Ronell, “Deviant Payback: The Aims of Valerie Solanas”


In his 1955 Harvard lectures, published posthumously in 1962 as How to do Things With Words, J. L. Austin outlined the basic tenets of speech-act theory in its contemporary form, offering a tentative but perhaps necessary distinction between the “constative” and “performative” functions of language. While the constative utterance offers a statement that describes or articulates “what is,” the performative utterance produces, transforms, institutes. Austin for the most part located performative language within the realm of intentional consciousness and limited his analyses to instances of “relative purity,” excluding citations of performative speech (e.g., those by “an actor in a play”)—a position Derrida famously deconstructs. Nonetheless, Austin’s lectures demonstrated that performative utterances collapse the distinction between saying and doing, severely problematizing the conception of language as a transcendental structure of meaning (what Saussure calls langue). Again. What currently goes by the name speech-act theory, in other words, can be understood as the latest articulation in a centuries old debate between philosophy and rhetoric. What’s in question, to paraphrase Nietzsche, is whether there is any (transcendental) being behind concrete acts of saying (what Saussure calls parole). Whereas John Searle attempts in Speech Actsto systematize Austin’s subversive insights within a logical framework, arguing that “an adequate study of speech acts is a study of langue,” many of the most influential contemporary thinkers have resisted this effort, situating Austin’s lectures on the side of (sophistic) rhetoric, as a re-affirmation of the awesome and undeniable positing power of language (as parole or, perhaps, simply as “trace”).

In this course, we will zero in on rhetoric’s substantializing effects, on its capacity for concrete manifestation via, for example, hate speech, (psycho)analytic speech, poetic speech, and political speech. We won’t attempt any sort of comprehensive approach but will instead begin with a quick bounce into Gorgias and Plato, leap ahead to Austin and his contemporary interlocutors, and then spread out into linguistic avenues not so explicitly associated with speech-act theory. Freud, for example, had his own theory of performative linguistics, as did Althusser. We will end, though, on the question of the eventness of the performative “event” as Austin defined it, and we will contemplate what Derrida describes as a sort of “performative powerlessness” that would be the condition for any event worthy of the name.

Course Description / Texts / Assignments / Schedule Resources