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Political Philosophy

Austin's Ditch: The Political Necessity and
Impossibility of "Non-Serious" Speech

James Hersh
Salve Regina University

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ABSTRACT: This essay seeks to show that there are political implications in Jacques Derrida’s critique of J.L. Austin’s notion of performative speech. If, as Derrida claims and Austin denies, performative utterances are necessarily "contaminated" by that which Austin refuses to consider (the speech of the poet and the actor in which literal force is never intended), then what are the implications for the speech acts of the state? Austin considers the speech acts of the poet and the actor to be "parasites" or "ordinary language," "non-serious," and would relegate such speech to a region beyond his consideration, to a "ditch" outside the border of meaning for the performative. Derrida argues that the "contamination" Austin fears for language is necessary for its very performativity. If Derrida is correct, then the performative utterances of the state (e.g. the decree of the judge, "I sentence you...") from the biases of racial or sexual identity is also based upon an impossible desire, a desire that goes against the manner in which language functions. I argue that this desire for a just state cannot be satisfied unless racial and sexual identity is viewed not as "parasitic" and "poetic," but as necessary to the performativity of the state’s liberal power.

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"One will not be able to exclude, as Austin wishes, the 'non-serious', the oratio obliqua from 'ordinary language'."  Jacques Derrida (1)

In his lectures included in How to Do Things With Words J.L. Austin seeks to exclude from his analysis of performative speech all utterances that do not fall under his notion of "ordinary speech".(2) Ordinary speech that is performative, according to Austin, effects a circumstance by means of the speaking, e.g. a sailor names a ship or a judge says, "I sentence you to six months' probation." Often, the desired effect is not produced because of what Austin calls "extenuating circumstances". But Austin's main concern is for what he refers to as instances of "relative purity" in which there is less a chance of failure or "infelicity" (his term) to spoil the intentions of the speech. Also to be excluded from his considerations are instances of citations of performative speech, as in a play:

...a performative will be in a peculiar way hollow or void if said by an actor on the stage, or if introduced in a poem, or spoken in a soliloquy....Language in such circumstances is in special ways—intelligibly—used not seriously, but in ways parasitic upon its normal use—ways which fall under the doctrine of the etiolations of language. All this we are excluding from consideration. Our performative utterances, felicitous or not, are to be understood as issued in ordinary circumstances. (3)

Austin adds that the performative utterances cited in a play are to be considered "hollow or void". Derrida, in his analysis of these passages, suggests that for Austin this region of danger that surrounds language like a void is "a kind of ditch, a place of external perdition into which locution might never venture, that it might avoid by remaining at home, in itself, sheltered by its essence or telos."(4) Derrida turns Austin's notion of the void as a precinct of language or as a parasite on language into a necessary condition for all performative speech, a condition which Austin himself was to acknowledge later in his career as the "impurity" of all performative utterances. "Successful" performatives require citation in the form of iterability in order to work at all.

This makes reasonable sense. However, we must consider the possibility that there exists a political need for maintaining a clear distinction between the utterances of Austin's "ditch" and a certain kind of legal performative enacted by the state. That is, regard the possibility that there exists a real need for Austin's distinction, never forgetting Derrida's point about iterability and the necessary "impurity" of all performatives, but that unlike Austin we refuse to jettison the speech of the actor on the stage from our consideration. We cannot reject such speech from our consideration of performative utterances, not only for the reasons which Derrida provides, but also because such speech has political implications which have been ignored in both accounts. Against Austin, I wish to argue against the jettisoning of the actor's speech and for the consideration of the ditch of poetic utterance and its relation to so-called "pure" performatives. Against Derrida, I wish to argue the impossible, i.e. for the maintainance of the distinction between the "home" of the "pure" performative in certain legal utterances of the state and "the place of external perdition into which locution might never venture"(5). I wish to argue that this distinction must not only be thought, but must be enacted and maintained in certain instances. Here I want to say maintained "as a fiction", but the problem with saying this is that the ditch whose separation we wish to establish is the arena of fiction, itself, and the decree by which we constitute the distinction between "home" and "ditch" is a performative decree. Moreover, our desire here is confounded by the fact that we wish to make a performative decree for political purposes and are using two poetic tropes to achieve that very purpose. Thus, this performative is already contaminated by the parasite of poetic speech as soon as we lable it a fiction and employ poetic imagery. We are speaking poetically to establish the arena of poetry. But we are getting ahead of ourselves in this conundrum. We must first ask what are the consequences of a failure to maintain the distinction between literal state power and the phantasmatic. In other words, why do we desire this distinction and what approach do we take regarding its impossibility?

Austin's Ditch and Aeschylus' Underworld

Is it possible to make a separation between the discourse which expresses the literal power of the state and the discourse which expresses (or attempts to express) sexual or racial identity? This is a question which is tied to the wish to produce a state which has no sexual or racial bias, an extention of the same desire, originating with the Enlightenment, which seeks the separation of church and state. But before the question can be answered it must itself be questioned for its presumption of such entities as "literal state power" and racial/sexual identity. Both notions, literal state power and identity, are indeterminate regarding their referents, but we nevertheless presuppose their difference when we imagine a state that is fair regarding its treatment of the "races" and the "sexes". That is, marking this desired difference between identity and state power is necessary to the Enlightenment's legacy of the pursuit of happiness in a fair and just society.

However, if we postpone pondering the details of what this happiness might entail, we can ponder instead the question of the necessity of constituting a difference between identity and power. Two tropes that best express this desired difference, the second of which bears an interesting connection with Austin's ditch, are the image of "Blind Justice", probably the Roman Iustitia and the Greek Dike, and the Aeschylean image of the enthroned Erinyes from the conclusion of the Oresteia. The image of Blind Justice is usually read as signifying that justice as enacted by the state must be fair by being "blind" to the religious, racial, or sexual identity of the accused. Sight of the identity of the accused would lead to prejudice on the part of the law.

Therefore, the law must not only not see the identity of the accused in racial or sexual terms, but the law itself must not have racial or sexual identity since that identity might also lead to bias. If the law is "white" or "male" its judgements will place blackness and femaleness in an inferior and vulnerable position. We have inherited a Graeco-Roman female image to suggest the necessity of a law that is neither "raced" nor "sexed". Racial and sexual identity is relegated by means of this image to a precinct beyond sight. In Austin's terms, we are dealing with performative utterences such as "I sentence you to life imprisonment" and we desire in the use of such utterences that they be "purified" of contamination by the possibility of speaking subjects , either on the part of the law or the accused, who are raced or sexed. By means of this move, racial identity and sexual identity are imagined as banished beyond the margins of "sight".

It is this desired border between state power and sexual/racial identity that must be questioned. This border was first suggested by Aeschylus(6) at the conclusion of The Eumenides, the third play in the Oresteian trilogy, when he pictured the ordered state as founded upon the removal of the Erinyes from the polis and their consequent enthronement in the "underworld". The Erinyes, or the Roman Furies, were black hags whose sole concern was for offences to the "blood bond". In Aeschylus' play they are wreaking havoc on Athens by driving Orestes' mad for having murdered his mother on orders from Apollo. For Aeschylus therefore, the polis required for its stability a clear border between the forces of the "blood bond" and the forces of legitimate state power. The Erinyes, literally "the angry ones" who existed primarily for blood vengeance, were to be afforded "golden thrones" in the underworld beneath the court of Athena. When Athena grants them such thrones, the Erinyes are appeased and agree to support the polis "for all time to come". Aeschylus play was first produced in 458 B.C.E., so it may have been that the reforms of Cleisthenes in 508 B.C.E. were a precident for what Aeschylus expressed in his tragedy. Cleisthenes had ordered a redistricting of the voting precincts of Athens in order to break the hold of the aristocratic family-clans on Athenian politics. Nevertheless, early on in Athenian democracy the necessity of a clear border between state power and the "blood-bond" of family identity became a preoccupation. In China, at roughly, the same time, Confucius attempted to break the hold of the aristocracy on political power by opening up the civil service examination to males of all classes. All these moves sought to render the "blood-bond" secondary to the needs of the state and to create a rift or border between state power and at least one form of personal identity.

This attempt to banish the forces of the "blood-bond" beyond the margins of "the civil" is an attempt to create a divide in the interest of order and control. For Aeschylus this control was political. For Austin, as Derrida argues in his essay "Signature Event Context", the control sought by creating a divide between "the serious" (performative speech-acts intended to work literally) and "the non-serious" (e.g. the speech-acts of actors and poets) was semantic. As Austin said, "All this ["the non-serious" ] we are excludingfrom our consideration....I must not be joking."(7) The non-serious, for Austin, becomes a blanched, pale, sickly form of speech that operates on "pure" language like a parasite. Performative utterances that are acted, written in a poem, or spoken in a joke are merely repeated; they are characterized by Austin as "etiolations of language".(8) Performative utterances have real force, and to understand how this force operates, Austin wishes to exclude from his thinking all utterances that merely pretend force. In response, Derrida shows that this desire to create a divide between "the serious" and "the non-serious" is always thwarted, that all speech acts suffer the same loss of original context and consequent shift in meaning that characterizes writing:

Austin has not taken into account that which in the structure of locution ...already bears within itself the system of predicates that I call graphematic in general, which therefore confuses all the ulterior oppositions whose pertinence, purity, and rigor Austin sought to establish in vain. (9)

For Derrida, the "ordinary situations" or "the serious," which Austin sought as the arena for his considerations, the arena of "the original" as opposed to the arena of the merely repeated, is haunted by the non-serious as a kind of necessity that makes language itself possible. He questions the notion of the non-serious as external to language and suggests that that which Austin would like to see as a ditch or a parasite on the margins of language is actually "its internal and positive condition of possibility".(10)

The importance of this for us is that what Austin desired semantically, the Enlightenment has desired politically. For Austin's formula of performativity to work, as Derrida shows, a consciousness must be present with a clearly intended meaning and the speech act must take place in an appropriate context (e.g. in a trial and not in a play): what is required is "the self-presence of a total context, the transparency of intentions, the presence of meaning for the absolutely singular oneness of a speech act...."(11) For Aeschylus and for the legacy he bequeathed to the European Enlightenment, the same demand is made politically in our own time: literal state power must be enacted in a context which is "pure" and "transparent", not contaminated by the parasite of the prejudices of racial and sexual identity. One hears this demand in the speech of Apollo, god of the polis, to the Erinyes, goddesses of the blood-bond: "Get out, I tell you, go and leave this house, from your presence set the mantic chamber free...." (ll. 179-180) But, like Derrida claims of the "non-serious", the Erinyes will not leave and threaten to "let loose on the land the vindictive poison" (ll. 781-782).

The Political Necessity of the Semantically Impossible

Derrida maintains the necessity of the non-serious. Aeschylus likewise maintains the necessity of the Erinyes to the welfare of the state, but he also maintains the necessity of creating a place for the Erinyes beyond the margins of literal state power. His play concludes with Athena calming the rage of the Erinyes by appealing to the goddess Peitho (Persuasion) who instructs Athena to provide for the Erinyes in a court of honor ("a place free of grief and pain", l. 893, and "deep-hidden under ground, that is yours by right where you shall sit on shining chairs beside the hearth to accept devotions of your citizens", ll. 804-808) just under the court of Athena, itself. The consequent conversion of the Erinyes, "angry ones", to Eumenides, "kindly ones", is difficult to believe. The only way this might make sense is to remember that the Erinyes and Peitho share a special relation to the goddess Ananke ("Necessity")(12) and that Peitho is able to persuade the Erinyes because she understand this necessity. Aeschylus' imagery suggests that political stability depends upon this "enthronement" in an underworld that seems similar to Austin's Ditch for the nonserious, with the important exception that for Aeschylus the Erinyes are to be regarded. In fact, the very welfare of the state depends upon this regard:

In the terror upon the faces of these [Erinyes}
I see great good for our citizens.
While with good will you hold in high honor
These spirits, their will shall be good, as you steer
your city, your land
on an upright course clear through to the end.
(Ll. 990-995)

Austin seeks no such regard for the non-serious: "All this we are excluding from our consideration." Nevertheless, it is helpful to think of Austin's ditch and Aeschylus' underworld in conjunction with each other, since the state and its "stability" relies so much on the stability of meaning and intention in performative utterances. The speech of the judge in the court must be effective, but (and here is where Aeschylus and his impact on the Enlightenment becomes important) the speech of the judge must also be free of racial and gender bias. Derrida's critique of Austin shows the problems in Austin's desire to create the divide between the serious and the non-serious; what Austin wishes to exclude is the very thing that makes performativity possible in the first place—iterability, i.e. "citation (on the stage, in a poem, or in a soliloquy), the determined modification of a general citationality—or rather, a general iterability—without which there would not even be a 'successful' performative".(13) All performative speech is contaminated and "impure" because it depends upon citationality, upon the speech and contexts of re-enacted rituals.

So what becomes of Blind Justice or of the separation of church and state? Or more to our purpose, what are we to think about our notion of the necessity of the separation of state power from racial and sexual identity? We are faced with a necessity and an impossibility: we need a divide where one is impossible. We desire the fairness of a state power that creates just conditions by means of performative utterances "purified" of racial and sexual identity, but we live under a state power whose utterances are forever contaminated not only semantically because of iteration, but contaminated politically because of racial and sexual identity that cannot be cordoned off. What Austin seeks to exclude, "the pretend" or "the poetic", is the category to which a just society must relegate racial and sexual identity. This formula demands that racial and sexual justice depends upon the notion that racial and sexual identity is itself a poetic trope, an indeterminate "parasite" on Austin's "ordinary speech". This notion is not only possible, but necessary. We began this essay with the Derridean claim that the non-serious could not be excluded from our semantic considerations; we conclude by claiming that the non-serious, i.e. the poetic and indeterminate nature of racial and sexual identity, cannot be excluded from our political considerations.

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(1) From his essay "Signature Event Context", included in Margins of Philosophy, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1982), p. 327.

(2) (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1962), p. 21-22.

(3) Ibid.

(4) Margins of Philosophy, p. 325.

(5) Ibid.

(6) All quotations from The Oresteia are taken from the Richmond Lattimore translation in The Complete Greek Tragedies, Vol. 1, ed. David Grene and Richmond Lattimore (New York: The Modern Library, 1942).

(7) As quoted in Derrida, Margins of Philosophy, p. 325.

(8) Ibid.

(9) Ibid., p. 322.

(10) Ibid. p. 325.

(11) Ibid.

(12) See my essay "From Ethnos to Polis: The Furies and Apollo" in Spring: The Journal of Archetype and Culture (1985), p. 69.

(13) Margins of Philosophy, p. 325.

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