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Austin's Infelicities

This Prezi shows a chart of all the ways in which one of J.L. Austin's performative utterances might fail to come off -- might become, as Austin puts it, infelicitous.

Matthew Schratz

on 30 April 2013

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Transcript of Austin's Infelicities

How Performatives Go Wrong It can be confusing to work through all the infelicities that J.L. Austin's performative utterances are heir to. This map will help look at the same utterance, failing six different ways. Performatives Recap A performative, according to Austin, is a sentence that does something rather than is something. Therefore, instead of being true or false, it is felicitous -- it works -- or infelicitous -- it doesn't work. "I call this game of Eschaton to order" can't really be false; it simply can (or can fail to) effect the beginning of a game of Eschaton. Eschaton is the game, in Infinite Jest, in which participants play as countries (or clusters of countries) on a map of the world, and lob tennis balls at each other to simulate airstrikes. Now we will look at some of the ways in which Otis Lord, who calls the game of Eschaton to order and acts as its sort of referee, might get this initial utterance wrong. Infelicities Family One Misfires Austin calls the first group of infelicities misfires. These occur when there's something off not about the person uttering, but about the situation he's in. This can happen either because the performative utterance fails to work (the act is disallowed) or fails to work completely (the act is vitiated). For my example utterance, I'm using Otis Lord's utterance "I call this game of Eschaton to order," an utterance he might have made in the world of David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest. Wallace was interested in Austin and the possibilities of language breaking down. Infelicities Family Two Abuses Abuses occur when the person doing the performative uttering is somehow not herself acting in good faith. There are two varieties of this: insincerities, and another category for which Austin did not come up with a name. I will call them nonfulfillments, as they refer to a sort of insincerity perpetuated not in the moment of utterance, but over time. Misinvocations These are the infelicities that cause the whole performative act to be scrapped, or disallowed: somewhere, the whole attempt at a performative utterance went awry (usually because the surrounding circumstances were off in the first place). There are two: misapplications, and one that Austin did not name, but which I will call pure misfires; they happen when there is a major misunderstanding about the conventions that would govern this kind of utterance. Misexecutions These infelicities occur when the surrounding circumstances are correct, but there's a failure in the act of performative utterance itself. Pure Misfires This is what would happen if there were simply no procedure for Eschaton when Otis called it to order. We say the act is disallowed, but in a pure misfire, the act is barely coherent. When there's no conventions lying in place for a performative utterance, it's doomed to infelicity from the start. Misapplications This type of infelicity occurs when there are conventions in place -- we know how to play Eschaton -- but right actions for the conventions are performed by the wrong people, or in the wrong place or at the wrong time. If Keith Freer illegally stole Otis's beanie and said "I call this game of Eschaton to order, the game still wouldn't properly be said to have started. Similarly if Otis said "I call this game of Eschaton to order" during a tennis tournament, or on a football field. All of these prevent the game from officially, or properly, beginning. Flaws These occur when there's a more local problem with the performance: say, Otis forgot his beanie; or he said, "I call this game of Scataton to order". Like the misinvocations, which disallow the entire performative, these smaller mistakes can have ramifications -- chief among them, that the game of Eschaton doesn't start when it is supposed to. Hitches In this category, the performative utterance is carried out incompletely: Otis can't finish saying "I call this game of Eschaton to order" because he is hit before he finishes by an overeagerly lobbed tennis ball, or because the noise of the wind and snow drowns him out. Again, we should say that the game has not begun: although the correct conventions for beginning a game of Eschaton exist, and we've got the right guy trying to say the right words, the perfomative utterance has not yet come off. Insincerities This type occurs when the person uttering the performative is not herself properly oriented toward the conventional utterance -- when someone doesn't really mean it. Otis might have no intention of doing anything that he obliges himself to by calling the game of Eschaton to order... Nonfulfillments ...and he might not do it (even if he had meant it at the time). He might wander away from the Eschaton map; he might sit in silence (instead of, properly, appealing to Michael Pemulis) when questions about how to treat the snow falling on the tennis courts arise. The performative utterance projects forward in time, and thus, even actions occuring well after the fact can show that it may have never properly come off (if Otis turns out to be a bad official, we might want to say that the games of Eschaton he called to order never *really* started). When Nothing Goes Wrong The performative, and the way in which the performative might fail to come off, is one of J. L. Austin's most enduring contributions to ordinary language philosophy. This map should show the different ways in which a particular version of performative utterance might fail to work, and I hope the examples and the spatial arrangement illuminate the way in which Austin conceives of these potential failures. In Infinite Jest, Eschaton does start; Otis Lord begins the game properly; but the game ends amid a different kind of language breakdown, as the ETA students can't sort out whether to understand -- and to speak of -- the snow falling as though it's falling on the map of the world or, in the game of Eschaton, on the world. Wallace was interested in a variety of such breakdowns, and in the ordinary language philosophy of Austin, Wittgenstein, and Stanley Cavell, and I hope this map illuminates some of ways to think about ordinary language philosophy's methods of describing language going wrong.
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