Date: Tue, 14 Oct 2003 00:50:02 +0800 From: Wang Shaoxiang Subject: Performative Linguistics: Speaking and Translating as Doing Things with Words
Robinson, Douglas (2003) Performative Linguistics: Speaking and Translating as Doing Things with Words, Routledge.
Wang Shaoxiang, Foreign Languages Institute, Fujian Teachers University
Apparently inspired by J. L. Austin's famous distinction between "constative" utterances that convey information and "performative" utterances that perform actions(Austin 1962/1975), Douglas Robinson, in his pioneering book under the present review, takes issue against the "constative" approaches - the innate "operative methodological choice" (p.4) - of the traditional "linguistics" and endeavors to expand the realm of linguistics to include performative approaches with a view to studying language in all its complexity. With his habitually infectious argument and illuminating intellectual insights, Robinson engages the reader throughout the entire book in the discussion and development of "performative linguistics" and the establishment of its place in the explanatory framework of language against the hegemonic constative linguistics. Now let's take a closer look at the full force of Robinson's argument.
The book is divided into three parts. Part I draws our attention to J. L. Austin's distinction between constative and performative utterances, first proposed in his posthumous work How To Do Things With Words. Rather than taking the terms to apply to utterances, Robinson chooses to apply them to approaches to utterances, and proposes a new distinction between constative and performative linguistics, with the former focusing on the stability of linguistic structures and the latter language use in real-world contexts. By way of introduction, Robinson explores the relationship between linguistics and translation, pointing out that the inadequacy of the explanatory power of traditional linguistics is largely due to the treatment of translation as a "mechanistic process" (p.8) and it is precisely here that performative linguistics excels.
Chap 2 highlights the rediscovery of the performative, its subsequent changes by a number of scholars, a brief history of the tension between the performative and the constative and the integrational linguists' critiques of the constative.
In Chap 3 the "key" or "definitive" issue of the entire book - "whether a translation might ever be thought of as a performative utterance" (p.19) - is raised, in which Anthony Pym is engaged for a discussion.
Part II provides Jacques Derrida's notion of "iterability" as one of two possible answers Robinson offers to Austin's question of parasitic speech acts, the other being Paul Grice's conversational implicatures (see below). By way explanation, Derrida's theory is outlined in Chap 4. However, due to the fact that Derrida's abstract philosophical concept may thwart easy understanding, a series of theoretical approaches such as Robinson's somatic theory of language, Antonio Damasio's neurological studies and Daniel Simeoni's the translator's habitus, and more importantly, Mikhail Bakhtin's theory of "double- voicing", is called for as the wonderful analytical tools to shed illuminating lights on "iterability" and puts Austin's settled problem of parasitism into the perspectives of language history, language change and language evolution (p.20).
Part III is an extended discussion (totaling seven chapters: Chaps 8- 14) of Paul Grice's concept of conversational implicature (1975), which is offered as the second answer to Austin's problem of parasitism. Except for Chap 8 which is confined to the presentation of the core of the theory itself (the cooperative principle and its maxims), the rest 6 Chaps in this part are in fact devoted to a drastic analytical expansion of the theory with an obvious bias in favor of the performative approach. Starting from the constative applications of Grice to translation, Chap 9 demonstrates that Lawrence Venuti's critique of Grice is not only misdirected but fails to see that Grice virtually solves "all Venuti's problems" (p.143). This is by no means a sure indication of Robinson's alliance with Grice. In fact, the Gricean conversational implicature is, according to Robinson, "riddled with problems" (p.143). Therefore, as one of the series of explanations that follows, Chap 10 explores illocutionary and perlocutionary implicature by framing Grice's implicature in Austin's concept, and suggests a "metalocutionary implicature" (148) which views translation as self-discovery. Chap 11 slots Grice into the "interpretant triad" of Charles Sanders Peirce in order to show different levels of implicature, namely, conversational and conventional implicatures in Chap 12 and "invocative" implicature in Chap 13. Chap 14 examines the interpretive power of metalocutionary implicature in cross-cultural contexts. The last chapter - Conclusion - ends the book with a nutshell summary of the argument and a prediction on the "next thing" in language study.
For the one thing, this is a very engaging book, though sometimes the argument becomes lengthy and complex: appropriately so, given the very nature of serious theoretical inquiry. However, when one proceeds to venture into an intellectual dialogue with Robinson, one could not help but be overwhelmed by his special rhetoric in developing his argument: Robinson seems to have a knack of putting his idea across, taking the reader along with him, and finally winning the reader over in a particularly convincing way.
What Robinson is arguing is not absolutely "new", though. Some of it has even been around for "at least half a century" (p.6). But this does stop Robinson from pushing and prodding the force of his argument through the pages of his work along the lines of performative linguistics. Indeed, what he has been striving to do is the time- honored trick of "putting old wine into new bottles", yet Robinson does it creatively and persuasively. Taken separately, the performative, iterability, double-voicing, conversational implicature etc. are all but sporadic sparkles in the long intellectual history; pieced together under a new banner of "performative linguistics," they seem to be radiating with all the promises of ushering in a "performative revolution" (p.218). This is Robinson's rhetoric, to say old things in new ways and bring other people's ideas into a new framework (p.224).
Some people, however, may well complain that all that has changed are names. In this very Information Age, we are bombarded almost every day by neologisms spawned by electronic communication, and new terms seem to keep popping up from God-knows-where places. Before we have Linguistics, now we have Performative Linguistics. Before we have Translation Studies, now we have Performative Study of Translation. What will be the next thing? Well, we don't have to see eye to eye with Robinson on everything he has said. And we don't even have to echo Robinson on an imminent "performative revolution". But if we do adopt a more tolerant attitude toward neologisms (Neologisms may not be that bad, given that they do not claim all-encompassing explanatory power), we may at least be aware of the fact that linguistics today is not doing fine. If it IS doing fine, then we may miss the fascinating interplay of different voices. The performative methodology is not the only way but an alternative way to approach language. The task of performative study of translation is not to eliminate the previous constative study of translation altogether, but to emphasize the doer - the more humane side of the act of translation, and as such expands the scope of translation theory by including the more radical theories of translation previously excluded by cultural studies such as TAP theory, skopos theory etc. When we know that a new explanatory and analytical framework of language study is transforming the way of language study toward a significant and beneficial direction, we have no alternative but just let it happen and surrender the final test again in the hands of actual language?
Austin, J. L. (1962/1975) How To Do Things With Words. Second edition. Edited by J. O. Urmson and Marina Sbisá. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Grice, H. Paul (1975/1989) "Logic and Conversation." In Studies in the Way of Words, 22-40. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
ABOUT THE REVIEWER Wang Shaoxiang is a lecturer and doctoral candidate at Foreign Languages Institute, Fujian Teachers University, China. His research interests include translating, interpreting and cultural studies.