Last week’s Chronicle 569 was inspired by Phillip Cary’s exposition of Martin Luther’s “performative” Christianity. That led me to think about how the notion of the performative, not mentioned in the first Origin of Language (TOOL), should be understood in the context of GA’s originary hypothesis.
The performative is not an utterance-form like the ostensive, imperative, or declarative. Performativity, “doing things with words,” is a quality of the effect of the utterance on the human community in which it is pronounced. J. L. Austin’s original idea was inspired by the fact that certain utterances (“I now pronounce you man and wife,” “I sentence you to …,” “I baptize you…,”) are guaranteed by social or religious authority as doing things, both in formal contexts (marriage, church sacraments, legal decisions…) and informal ones (making a promise).
But in the seventh of the twelve lectures that comprise Austin’s groundbreaking How To Do Things with Words (1955/62), having failed to find a grammatical criterion for the performative (understandable, given that performativity is not a specific utterance-form), Austin makes a “fresh start” that leads him to describe the effects of language in more general terms. Rather than seeking to define a class of performative verbs, he introduces a new vocabulary that permits him to distinguish among the effects of all speech-acts, effects which he separates into locutionary, illocutionary, and perlocutionary. The locutionary act consists simply in saying something, and its effect is simply comprehension. The illocutionary act is that of (successfully) communicating the effect implied by one’s words, whereas the perlocutionary act is the actual effect caused by the speech act. The specific nature of performatives is that their illocutionary effect automatically becomes perlocutionary by virtue of the power given to the words under specific conditions. In contrast to argue–persuade or warn-deter, as models of the illocutionary-perlocutionary distinction—a necessary consequence of your understanding my words as intended is that you have been argued (to)/warned, but only if the argument/warning takes effect have you been persuaded/deterred—if I sentence you to death, or promise to give you $100, you are ipso facto affected by my speech independently of any response on your part.
In this context, it is worth remarking that in Terrence Deacon’s The Symbolic Species (Norton, 1998), his speculative scenario for the origin of language is the need for hunters about to leave on a hunting party to secure their relationship with their mates, given the particular difficulties of gestation and child-rearing for our large-brained species. Thus Deacon suggests that the first use of language was in a kind of marriage/fidelity ceremony, insuring that the returning hunter would have only his own progeny to bring up. This speculation is obviously fanciful, and hardly as “minimal” as the scenario proposed by the originary hypothesis, but it is clearly dictated by Deacon’s intuition that the first utterances must do something rather than merely exclaim/inform about it. How then should GA approach the questions of performativity and illocutionary/perlocutionary effect?
As the previous Chronicle made clear, the performative, and more broadly the Austinian perspective of linguistic functionality, provides an opportunity to deepen our understanding of originary language. Performativity is another word for the transformative effect of language in creating meaning, and thereby a cultural reality, where none previously existed. Whence the pertinence of Cary’s description of Luther’s insistence on the efficacy of the words of Christ in promising salvation, promising being one of the primary categories of performative—one that, significantly, is not limited to formally defined situations such as marriage or baptism, but available to any person in linguistic communication with one or more of his fellows.
That the illocutionary/perlocutionary element of the originary ostensive is indeed the key to its functionality is a tautology; were it not for its effect on the group performing it, it would never have been remembered and repeated. What Cary’s portrayal of Luther’s understanding of Christ’s promise adds to GA is to clarify from a fideistic perspective the link between the linguistic act and the social order it establishes—an human communal order in the place of an animal pecking order.
The hypothetical originary sign collectively enacts as a deliberate act the deferral of appropriative action toward the central figure, while emphasizing at the same time the unique non-instinctive attention given to it. This act of “joint shared attention” is the inception of a new, uniquely human attitude toward the world, focused on an object to which it attributes for the first time a significance, not a simple appetitive attraction but the mediated product of one so great as to defer appetitive action. This is the origin of linguistic performativity, the demonstration of the power of a communal sign over the appetites of the human community, and of the originary identity of the sacred and the significant.
In Austin’s terms, the illocutionary force of designating the significant central object produces the perlocutionary effect of deferring its appropriation, and in doing so, demonstrates the new power of the sign, by naming it, to do so. The institution of “illocutionary force” is the product of the originary sign; the fact that when we hear language, we are affected, “argued” even if not persuaded, warned even if not deterred, has clear parallels in animal behavior, but now the effect is produced not by an indexical signal but by a symbolic sign, a word, or Word. By focusing our understanding on this originary moment we are able to grasp the experiential source of all other forms of significance and of the sacred.
In responding in the January 2018 issue of First Things to the objection that the sacrament of penance in its standard Catholic formulation requires an appropriately penitent attitude on the part of its recipient, Cary simply insists once more on the performative nature of the sacrament:
The word is: “I absolve you of your sins in the name of the Father . . .” This contains no conditional clause such as “if you have sufficient contrition, your sins are absolved.” Hearing this unconditional word addressed to us means we cannot doubt that our sins are absolved, unless we believe the word is not true.” (6)
Just as pronouncing a couple “man and wife” or declaring a defendant guilty or innocent is effective regardless of their feelings at the time, so in Cary/Luther’s understanding, the sacraments are fulfillments of Christ’s promise to humanity and not conditional on their recipients’ inner state.
From the religious standpoint, this distinction clearly has important consequences for the penitent’s future behavior and his confidence in his future salvation. The paradoxical Calvinist reading, as I understand it, of “salvation through faith” is not merely that our faith is always imperfect and requires God’s constant help to maintain us in a state of grace, but that since human faith can never be sufficient to respond properly to God’s promise, the only possibility of salvation comes from God’s own decision, which our actions in life cannot possibly affect without God’s prior knowledge, so that we can be said to be “predestined” to eternal life or damnation.
Although generative anthropology can rephrase these doctrinal differences in anthropological terms, it cannot determine which side is “more anthropologically correct.” Its function is merely to understand the underlying anthropological basis that permits such distinctions to be made, and that Cary’s presentation of the faith-works distinction facilitates.
I can say as the initiator of the originary hypothesis that very few subsequent insights have added to my understanding of its foundational nature. One has been Adam Katz’s point that interpreting the originary sign as a gesture of deferral and as a sign of its referential object would not have occurred simultaneously to all the members of the group. It would have been an individual revelation to each individual, with some becoming aware of this before the others, and so to speak teaching them its truth: the originary basis of human firstness or individual initiative, without which the very action of the sign in deferring our “instinct” of appropriation would be incomprehensible.
Now Cary’s article has allowed me to understand that the faith, inherent in the sign, that God/the human community guarantees the meaning of its signs, and by the same token, the integrity of its promise of peace, is whole in itself and not dependent on any additional conditions. For at the origin, the group would have had no other guarantee than the collective manifestation of the sign itself, as the substitute for the action of appropriation originally intended.
This foundational element of the originary hypothesis once put in its place, we might ask what clarification it offers to those who wonder how GA’s anthropological understanding may or may not contribute to their religious belief. To the extent that I myself ask this question, my answer is that as a Jew, I am blessedly not obliged, as Christians are wont to do, to agonize over the reality or the degree of my individual faith. Having been inducted into the Jewish people as a Bar Mitzvah in 1954, I am until further notice a member of this religious community—a membership that, had I been born in the same place as my ancestors a couple of generations back, would no doubt have made my life much shorter, but for which I have fortunately suffered very little if at all during my life in the United States. That I have always identified myself as a Jew, although I cannot say I “believe in God,” is to my mind an advantage of the Jewish religion that, whatever the rabbis say about it, we should appreciate.
Christianity—and all Western Jews in the modern sense of the term are Jews-within-Christianity—requires more in principle of its adherents, and from “our” perspective, too much. Yet I if anyone should have sympathy for the desire to “be as Gods” that Jesus’ example offers to Christians. Freud, Einstein, Durkheim were Jews, but the man I learned the most from was René Girard, a Christian who never denied the relevance of Judaism, but who was nonetheless convinced that Christianity represented a step closer to the truth—and who am I to deny this?
But I can say that if Jesus is the Word, then as someone history has defined by his non-acceptance of Jesus’ mediation, I am better equipped than René to understand both the truth and the danger of Jesus’ usurping the community’s role in defining and performing the originary gesture/sound/sign of deferral that first made us aware of the sacred. Or at the very least, to recognize that this originary gesture of the human cannot be, as John and even René himself must have been aware, understood without reference to originary language.
Let us hope as 2017 comes to a close that humanity will profit from the coming year to productively defer its resentments in the interest of love and self-understanding.