On happiness, or the performative without conditions?     Note


Saying hello is a performative. It is neither true nor false. By saying hello, I do something. I greet you, or maybe I’m just kidding. (Or I may give you an example, just now.)

Derrida focuses on the performative nature of the professional/university field of utterances. University, he suggests, is the domain of performatives, and not of constatives. The proper speech act of the professor is performative; the profession of the professor is placed in the moment of engagement and responsibility. Later on, it is suggested that at the university constatives and performatives co-exist, in the classical alliance of constative and performative. As a whole, in the vision of the professor/professionalism and new Humanities, it is the performative of the professor which is underlined.

Derrida himself has some doubts about the performative/constative distinction. Although he pretends to use these terms without reservations, in the last section of his lecture (and in the introductory chapter) he refers to the deconstruction of the distinction, to the mocking of both terms: “le débordement du performatif et de l’opposition constatif/performatif.” He arrives, then, to a conclusion which has been prefigured in Austin’s work. As you will remember, Austin’s distinction did not survive the eleventh chapter of his lectures: Austin himself deconstructs the opposition, challenges the borders between the terms. As if the distinction was forged just in order to be deconstructed, to show the Austinian way of making our clear-cut, simple, evident concepts collapse. A constative, then, is no more special or outstanding or distinguished a speech act than a performative is, and vice versa: we always perform, just in some cases our performatives happen to be statements.

Still, one may wish to preserve the distinction, however deconstructed. The question is, whether it is a distinction in and by itself, or it is brought about, fait arrivée. Is in not made via a performative act of distinguishing? And what are the conditions of speaking in a performative or else in a constative way? Are there conditions of their having their proper place, let it be at the university or anywhere else?

For Austin, the conditions of the constatives are truth conditions, whereas for the performatives, happiness (or felicity) conditions. While a statement can be true or false, a promise is neither true nor false, but it can be kept or it can go wrong in a way or another. If we can preserve the constative/performative distinction, it is only because we have this distinction of their conditions. Constatives may not have a distinguished place among utterances; but truth seems to have a very special place in our culture, and, consequently, utterances which can be judged along the dimension of truth/falsity still seem to have a particular position.

By uttering performatives, we do not want to say the truth. We may keep our promises, but maybe we won’t. We warn somebody and may punish him, maybe we won’t. We say hello, and we cannot help meaning it. All these utterances are not meant to get closer to some truth; they are uttered in order to secure the smooth operation of things, to make things happen, les faire arrivée. But if we use the unqualified term of performative, regardless of their specific nature, we will miss the point where professing differs from any other activity. What performatives do a professor or a professional use? Saying hello, warning, banishing? Certainly not. What Derrida must have in mind (and he also refers to it) is promising. But is promising the only, or the most outstanding, or central performative of the professiona/professor?

If we tend to preserve the distinction between constative and performative, how far are the utterances of the professional or the professor performatives? Are they performatives because they are meant to produce something, to make something arrive, to bring about something, rather than to belong to the realm of truth conditions? Derrida seems to suggest that what is going on at the universities is much more a declaration or expression of responsibility and engagement than that of a truth. But is this declaration unconditional?

What about happiness?

What are the happiness conditions of the performatives of the professional? Are the words of the professional performatives by themselves? Are they really performatives? Are there any conditions of their being performatives and of their being well formed performatives? What do they bring about? What do they do if once they are uttered? Do they have any common with the constatives at all - that is, do they have anything to do with truth?

Although performatives, if and inasmuch as they exist, are considered by their happiness conditions, the moment of truth is always present in their utterances. When I make a promise, I am responsible of something to take place in the future, for the truth of some future event; when I ask something, I make an inquiry about the truth; and when I order, I wish that something be the case. Similarly, the performatives of the professional express a relation to truth, let it be a confession, a challenge, a wish, or a promise of truth. But their conditions are not truth conditions. A performative is well formed not only if the speaker feels it expresses his or her confession, challenge or whatever; but it also must be understood, taken account of, it must have the proper audience on the proper place, it must invoke a particular procedure, etc. To be a professor, to be a professional, to speak in a performative way, then, is not a solitary activity.

What is a profession and what is a professor? Is it (or is he or she) what it (he/she) is by virtue of what is said, that is, by virtue of (his or her) performatives? Or, rather, is it a function of some conditions? (And, I add, these must be happiness conditions, rather than truth conditions.) Is not being a professor or a professional a function of some institutions? When Derrida confronts the profession of the lawyer or the professor and the “mastery” (métier) of the season worker, on the grounds that the lawyer and the professor and the doctor has a responsibility, a vocation, an engagement. But is it only a function of the free decision of these professionals? Certainly not. The lawyer, the doctor, the professor is woven into a intricate network of institutions and conditions which make their word their bond. One is not a professor by the performatives; rather, performatives are produced by the conditions of being a professor. It is the institutional conditions of the professor, the invocation to the procedure of professing which makes a professional performative, and not, or not exclusively, the vocation of the professional.

On Derrida’s scene of the university, there is the professor professing, the speaker speaking and performing his or her performatives; what is missing, though, for me, is the dialogue; the voices interrupting and distracting the lonely performative acts and the voices elicited by the speaker. If the professor must have a profession, if he or she has a vocation, then there also must be a pro-vocation in his or her utterance, giving place for other voices. What should be present in the profession is not only the invocation of the procedures, but also the provocation of perhaps the same procedures, or the provocation of the position of the participants in the procedure, or the provocation of the seemingly unconditional relation to truth, etc. For Derrida, professing and profession in the professors’ performatives seems to be a solitary action. There is no room for the voice of the other, the uptake and the participation.

As a whole, I am not really happy with the re-introduction of the constative/performative distinction. Not only because Austin himself has shown long ago that stating is an action just as any full-blood performative; not only because I have theoretical reservations. But also because by using these terms, and by associating performative with the active, devoted, responsible personality (the professor, the professional, the university citizen), and assigning a special position to this behavior, one can be trapped by a drifting and charming rhetoric, a rhetoric which renders the subversive Austinian thought a comfortable and domesticated dichotomy, a rhetoric which will obscure the specific conditions of being a professional, the happiness conditions of uttering a performative, of the difference between saying hello and promising (or warning) to see you again.

Hello, I’ll see you again.



This is a contribution to the round table discussion of Jacques Derrida's lecture entitled L'université sans conditions, in Pecs, Hungary, October 2000. To appear, hopefully, in Neohelicon.