Monday, April 01, 2013

Happy Acts

In his classic How To Act With Words, J.L.Austin effectively brought about the idea that words (and by extension - other symbolic actions) can change things in the world - they are "performative". In his analysis, he used several categories of his own design. 
Claiming they cannot be considered true or false, Austin proposes to divide speech acts into happy and unhappy ones (the terms seem to have been later substituted (?) by effective, successful or fortunate). The happy ones would be those which achieve the goal of changing reality. The unhappy ones - those which, although they have been constructed correctly, did not achieve this goal (e.g. someone promises something but does not intend to keep his promise).
Austin could have named his categories Alfa and Beta. Instead, he gave them emotionally charged descriptions. As in: insanely charged. You could say this is just British pragmatism, which has a thing for being playful. But this is a text about the performativity of words. A far-going analysis of the effectiveness of language. Why would the term happy appear in such a context? Is Austin making fun of us, engaging us in value judgements, which, being the decent participants of performativity we are, won't be able to leave? Maybe he implies that even the description of communication requires emotion and engagement. Conventions couldn't possibly be innocent. Accepting them is always burning hot, irrational, un-conscious.
One other thing - calling an act happy is anthropomorphizing it. More precisely - it is claiming that acts have an agency. 
You know, when artists talk about works as if they were people: What does the work need? What does it ask of me? 
Even when we act alone, the act - also the artistic act - doesn't allow for solitude. The more of an act it becomes (does every action get to be an act?), the more it challenges us, burdening us with its agency.
And if we want it to perform, it better be happy.



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