Mind your language

Boris Johnson’s face can’t be ‘performative’

16 January 2021

9:00 AM

16 January 2021

9:00 AM

Veronica brought me a hundred newspapers so that I could check on one word. Well, she didn’t bring a wheelbarrow, but she has at her office one of those online databases that bring up published articles.

The word was performative, by which I had been annoyed on the wireless recently because a couple of speakers used it in a sense that I thought wrong. Of the 100 newspaper articles mentioning it, not one used performative correctly (to my mind). I must be the only person marching in step.

Performative was invented by an Oxford philosopher, J. L. Austin, who used it in lectures in 1952, then in the William James lectures at Harvard in 1955. We make performative utterances, he said, as a kind of action. Examples he gave include: I do (in the marriage ceremony), I bet, I name this ship the Queen Elizabeth, I promise, Let there be light (if you are God) and I apologise.

This was a label useful in identifying a sort of utterance that is different from a statement of fact. Austin chose the word performative because it had to do with performing actions. But all the 100 newspaper articles used it to mean ‘play-acting’, with the kind of performance we see on stage (when theatres are open).

Thus Andrew Rawnsley, writing about Boris Johnson in the Observer, said that ‘just below the surface of his performative face lurks an insecure character’. He didn’t mean that the Prime Minister’s face gets things done, but that it puts on a show.

An article in the Independentdiscussing insincere apologies included the category ‘apologies that are merely “performative utterances” ’. For Austin, by the very fact of saying ‘I apologise’, the apology is made. The Independentmeant that the utterance was made for appearances’ sake, a different kettle of fish.

The first occurrence of the new ‘wrong’ sense noted by the Oxford English Dictionary is from 2003. But now, at University College Cork, there is even a course called ‘Theatre & Performative Practices’. It does not focus on betting, swearing or dedicating songs to people.

There is nothing I can do about the loss of J. L. Austin’s meaning, but I won’t be using performative to mean ‘theatrical’. I promise.

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