Friday, December 18, 2009

Austin Gets Rhemed

*NOTE* The footnote links won't work unless you're on the specific post page (by clicking on the title link). You'll have to excuse my crappy coding.


J. L. Austin occupies a curious place in the philosophical canon. On the one hand, he began practicing what came to be known as "ordinary-language philosophy," which a professor of mine said John Searle picked up and beat to death and made ugly. And this is why Rorty can be found saying that, as with Derrida and deconstruction, ordinary-language philosophy isn't a program, but whatever it is that Austin was doing. Yet, on the other hand, as the close of Rorty's wonderful introduction to his anthology, The Linguistic Turn, intimates--Austin did seem to want to be programmatic.

I'd like to focus on a section in Austin's How to Do Things With Words in order to bring out why one shouldn't (like Searle) push Austin for programmatic purposes.

At the start of Lecture 8, Austin reminds us of his distinction between phonetic, phatic, and rhetic acts (95). The phonetic is the "act of uttering certain noises," the phatic "noises of certain types," i.e. linguistic noises, and rhetic is defined as "using those vocables with a certain more-or-less definite sense and reference."

The first thing to notice is that it is difficult to maintain the distinction between phatic and rhetic. Both phatic and rhetic are, roughly, intelligible noises, noises we recognize as linguistic, and therefore functioning in a linguistic manner (which is to say, having sense and reference). Austin quickly allays our fears of collapse by giving a simple example of what he means:
Thus 'He said "The cat is on the mat"', reports a phatic act, whereas 'He said that the cat was on the mat' reports a rhetic act. (95)
Oh, that seems simple--take off the quotes, and add "that." The trouble arises again, though, when we we try and think about how intelligible a foreign language is to us:
'He said "gibba gobba gooba"' reports a phatic act, whereas 'He said that gibba gobba gooba' reports a rhetic act.
It's gibberish. If we don't already understand prior to hearing certain noises, in a fairly definite way, what the sense and reference are of certain noises--if we don't already recognize it as a language--then all we'll hear are phonemes.

Austin doesn't quite say this, but the set-up seems to suggest that we can distinguish a pheme prior to being able to distinguish a rheme, that we can hear it's a pheme without it necessarily making any rhetic sense. Austin says later, "it is clear that we can perform a phatic act which is not a rhetic act, though not conversely." Can we? "Thus we may repeat someone else's remark or mumble over some sentence, or we may read a Latin sentence without knowing the meaning of the words" (97). So, just knowing that a set of noises is supposed to be linguistic is enough for the noises to be phatic? "If a monkey makes a noise indistinguishable from 'go' it is still not a phatic act" (96). Because the monkey didn't realize he said "go"? What if he did? What if it was a gorilla and the language ASL? What if the gorilla made a gesture, and we just sat there stupidly while the gorilla's thinking, "Hey, idiot, I just told you to get out of my seat"? We didn't recognize it as language, and so no phatic or rhetic act, despite that it was intended as such.

"The pheme is a unit of language: its typical fault is to be nonsense--meaningless. But the rheme is a unit of speech; its typical fault is to be vague or void or obscure, etc." (98) But isn't part of Austin's point (or rather, shouldn't it be) that there is no static "language" outside of the act of it's performance, outside of, e.g., speech? (It is apropos to recall Donald Davidson's remark that "there's no such thing as a language, not if a language is anything like what many philosophers and linguists have supposed."[1])

I bring this up is because of what these set of three--phonetic, phatic, rhetic--have in relationship to the more famous and important set of three--locution, illocution, perlocution.

Locution : "Look out!"
Illocution : warning
Perloction : he was warned

The locutionary act are the words being emitted, the illocutionary act is the intended effect of the words, and the perlocutionary act is the actual effect of the illocutionary act. These seem on the surface much more likely not to collapse, I will agree. What seems to be the case in the way Austin uses the first set and the second set is that he intends a locution to be a full phonetic-phatic-rhetic combo act--a fully intelligible linguistic act. From there, and this is what prompts his distinctions, we still get fuzziness in isolating meaning (which was the quest of his predecessors, something like the linguistic version of Descartes' "clear and distinct ideas"), and so he distinguishes the linguistic noise from the noises intended effect, let alone what it causes in a hearer.

Or is that right? What if the locution is simply a phonetic-phatic act, linguistic, but bereft of "more-or-less determined sense and reference," which is the rhetic? This would make sense, for to determine the sense and reference of "Look out!" we would determine that it was a warning. This would make the illocutionary effect a rhetic act, which brings us back to some trouble.

Some literary critics have turned the notion of "speech acts," and specifically the illocutionary act, towards practical duties in reading. For instance, in reading poetry (and this could really go for any piece of language) one might distinguish between the speech act of a line from its tone. To take an example:
Sorrow is my own yard
where the new grass
flames as it has flamed
often before but not
with the cold fire
that closes round me this year.
These are the first six lines of William Carlos Williams' "The Widow's Lament in Springtime." When treating a selection, the first thing you'd need to do is parcel out speech acts. A period followed by a capital letter, particularly in a poem, need not be the typographic cue for a new speech act (notice, too, the fluid nature of demarcation in speech, and follow that through in written language). The speech act of a poem would be the intended effect of the poetic speaker in "uttering" the particular words and phrases. In this case, we have a widow: "sorrow is my own yard." Noticing the elevated diction created by the odd syntax (let alone the metaphor), we might say that the widow in the first line is insisting to herself the state of her mind--speech act: to insist. We might hold from calling the tone of this speech act, however, insistent. The diction makes it dignified.

I do not doubt the efficacy in using Austin to help climb into a poem--but what I wonder is how the collapse of the phatic/rhetic, locution/illocution might effect the further plunge into a poem. For instance, wouldn't tone be part of an illocutionary act? To take "look out," wouldn't the tone in which I said it create, to a large extent, the intended effect of a warning? And if tone is part of the illocutionary act, the rhetic act, then are we really talking about the same speech act--the same poem--if we get the tone wrong? In other words, if we get the tone wrong, might we be getting the speech act wrong, and if the speech act, then the poem? Might this be why we can still talk about better and worse readings of a poem?

There are a lot of interesting theoretical conundrums lying around this area, and though the distinction between tone and speech act might seem a little artificial, it can be quite useful. The above considerations are probably more like an explanation of why any one of us may have trouble climbing into poems--poems are what they are because of their active attempt to flout their very composition as language, i.e. as having definite sense and reference. It might be important to remember Davidson on metaphors here. Davidson said that metaphors aren't the kind of things that have two meanings, one literal and another metaphorical, but are rather simply noises. Until you beat these surprising noises or marks on a page that have no initial meaning down (by giving them sense from repeated use), they are just unintelligible noises or marks. But when you do, you eventually get dead metaphors we don't even bat an eyelash (i.e. don't even recognize as metaphors, but just as having one literal sense)--like rivers having mouths or mountains feet.


[1] From "A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs," collected in Truth, Language, and History, 107.

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