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LanguagePrintCritical dictionary

Performative Act

Maria Lucilia Marcos

Are the drawings found on the banks of Côa simply an expression of the elements of the world? Do they represent forms captured by the eye and reproduced by the hand? Is the relationship between the figures drawn and reality of a mimetic nature? Or do these images, which are considered art, say more about this relationship, saying more about Man and the genealogy of his own developmental process? Will something be said about the nature of these figures similar to what Austin said about the word? These questions are crucial for the reception of pre-historic images and may call for different approaches. The speech act theory extends the expression of utterances to an action function, projecting the utterance in activity into the world, intervening upon the realities of the world.


Keywords: symbolic; language; drawing; gesture; mark

Traditionally, logic, grammar and linguistic theorists have always asked themselves about the appropriateness of speech acts with the real or fragments of the real. Truth or falsity would be a part of that appropriateness, which would reduce the propositions to information transfers, an almost epistemology of the truth. But this criterion is only applicable in a certain context: the utterances are exact or not in certain conditions. John Searle (1932-) showed that in a world with gravity, without opposition between “top” and “bottom”, the utterance “the cat is on the rug” loses meaning. The situation in which the word is uttered, with all its parts, is decisive in assessing the criterion mentioned.

In fact, the enunciation is an activity of the production of utterances, that is, acts occur that are made with words. John Austin (1912-1960) followed up on the work that Sandra Peirce (1839-1914) and Charles Morris (1903-1979) had begun in the field of linguistics pragmatics. Austin gave numerous conferences based on studies about language, in which a series was published with the suggestive title How to do things with words (1962). In a first stage, he distinguished the real descriptive utterances, which are representations that are as much as possible true of a segment of reality, called constatives, from other utterances that, for the simple fact of being stated, perform themselves the content of the utterance. These are performative utterances, a concept derived from the English verb to perform that means do, carry out. Classic examples of performative utterances: an authorised person in a conference says, “The session is now open” (and the conference begins); during a wedding ceremony, the person performing the ceremony declares that at that moment two people change there civil status. Orders, requests, promises, contracts, bets, nominations and verdicts are also part of this category. The performative nature depends on the circumstances of the utterance and the legitimacy and competence known to the person who utters them, evaluating them in terms of success or failure, according to whether the utterance produces or not the effect of the sentence.

At a second stage, Austin re-analysed this theoretical distinction, given that many utterances are not able to be analysed in one or the other of the two categories. For example, the descriptions may be well or badly performed, well or badly understood, well or badly achieved. Only acts may be evaluated by the effects produced, which means that the description is an act of language that involves the speaker and receivers, and not only the speaker, as it would intuitively be thought in the case of the definition of truth and false of the descriptive utterance. Therefore, Austin would end up generalising the action and performative nature to the entire language, including the constative utterances, and define three types of acts:

-              Locutionary Act. Speaking is an act that occurs in the world, regardless of what is said, produced by the speaker: production of a phonetic act (sound), production of vocabulary items (verbalization); production of meanings and references (meaning).

-              Illocutionary Act. Speaking is also saying something about the world and intervening in the world; it is acting in a network of interlocutive circumstances that confer illocutionary value to the utterances, making meaning and the respective implication different each time, and for that reason, being determined and determining in the relationship between subjects; the modalization of utterances confer to the enunciation a differential value in the definition of the speech act that exceeds the proposition said.

-              Perlocutionary act. Speaking produces indirect effects that result from the utterances as prior consequence to the discursive act, effects that many times coincide with the illocutionary dimension (or, at least, of a difficult distinction).

Austin’s idea of performative emphasises the intrinsic relationships between the word and certain actions that are performed because they are said, and the illocutionary idea accentuates the relationships between the word and actions that are performed because we speak interlocutively, showing that the performative utterances are not an exception in language. Implicit assumptions, not made into speech and interior to the words said, allow language to make specific and immanent acts, such as command, doubt and promise. Pragmatics is insinuated in syntax and in semantics and these are only defined in speech acts.

Projecting the pragmatic analysis related to verbal language upon the Palaeolithic inscriptions and art, considering them as performative acts of an illocutionary dimension, occurs from a non-historicist vision of human experience. It means that the extension of the analysis of the word to the analysis of the drawing and after, to the analysis of writing, participates from the meeting in man between the technique and the symbolical, a finding that art has always translated in diverse ways.

The inscriptions on the rocks made by our Palaeolithic ancestors express a relationship of proximity to nature, closely connected to the life of hunters and collectors. Creative activities made outdoors, art of light, open to life, inscribed on the horizon of societies in movement, contrary to mural art in caves, immobilized in the deep darkness, hidden from everyday life. Hunting and harvesting vegetables are tasks aimed for survival purposes; they are actions of people that move through space, driven by what the environment offers them and by time that marks the rhythm of the paths. They are tasks carried out during the day or night, in the summer or in the winter, at a certain moment in the group’s life and of each one of its member. Hence, there is a dynamic context that determines the doing of each one of these activities that while repetitive, is not in fact so. Each time, it is a hunt, a harvesting; each time, there is a drawing of another path; each time, there are historical remains that are left behind; each time, men inscribe their passage in the places of their passage. The inscriptions reveal essential human behaviours, they are also actions upon the places, actions upon the real exterior to man that thereby make its exteriority and participate in that exteriority.

The gesture that draws the sign is part of the so-called dynamic context, before, after or during other activities or gestures: before or during the hunt, before or after having slept, before, after or during many other actions. The circumstances would always be particular: moment of loneliness or of socialization, a place of multiple noises or of related silences. Each sign inscribed is also each time part of a private and public time, part of the personal life of its author and of collective life, life tasks, action upon space and environment.

These life tasks always add something new to the tasks of immediate survival. Man is the builder of the world – what makes him the bearer of the world, as opposed to the “stone without world”, where man draws animals, and as opposed to the animal “poor in world” that man draws on stone (cf. Heidegger). Those life tasks – hunting, harvesting, travelling, inscribing – are activities, acts of building the world. They are instrumental activities and symbolical activities, simultaneously instrumental and symbolical. Also the language of inscriptions, that writing prior to writing, has an effect of changing the state of things.

Drawing a mammal, a bird or tree leaves on rocks on the beds of rivers, is already an act of interiorising the exteriority and simultaneously the exteriorisation of interiority; it is a drawing that in addition to being expressive, draws maps in the territory, shows itineraries and group movements – but it is also an initiative, a gesture and a sign of individualization, a value like the signature of the author, social hierarchy, recognition of each man for himself and for others. Speculating about the magical effects (also performative), as is frequently done, on cave figures found in the interior of caves, or speculating about the narrative dimension (also performative) of episodes already lived (for example, to list the animals already hunted); or said in another way, to affirm that the inscriptions were produced before or after certain activities (for example, of a hunting expedition), may seem less interesting than to try and imagine men in movement, taking possession of the world and creating the world through its symbolical and technical evolutionary skill.

The drawing of these figures produces an action that will reveal itself exterior to its own act of drawing, at the same time that the drawing is a system of notation and codification of a performative act: project-like and representative strategies of an action or transfer of actions, given that the performativity of the drawing is a mirror between an act-image and an image-act. If it is true that one accesses a linguistic utterance by the marks left on the utterance, it is also true that it is in the semiotic aspects of the drawn figure that one can access the somatic dimension of the act of inscription – inscribing on stone, transforming objects in movement and three dimensions into a static trace to two dimensions, demands a heavy and vigorous act, and the use of any tool made technical. It is simultaneously a concrete and abstract act.

And is there any utterance more subtly performative than to mark in the world the presence of the author of the mark?



AAVV, “L’art des commencement. Peintures et gravures rupestres”, Le Courrier de l’Unesco, Paris, Avril 1998.

J. L. Austin, How to do things with words, Oxford, Oxford University, 1962.

Christian Baylon et Xavier Mignot, La communication, Paris, Nathan Université, 1994.

Adriano Duarte Rodrigues, A partitura invisível, Lisboa, Colibri, 2001.





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