Triangulations on Linguistic Phenomenology: Austin, Seattle and Derrida

Even if the main motive behind How to do Things With Words is a description of total speech situations, Austin admits to his work as linguistic phenomenology in order to investigate the uses of everyday linguistic practices in situations where for some reasons, these practices could prove defective. This stance only opens up Austin’s position to re-description of total speech situations if any implausibility sets in.

A speech act could be infelicitous, happy or unhappy, and Austin attaches a parasitic tag to the speech act, when it can mean either non-serious usage falling outside the proper context of linguistic use, or an abnormal placement within the context of linguistic use. Searle wholeheartedly agrees with the parasitic tag when it is employed within language in a facetious manner. Parasitic feeding upon the speech acts could either be pretentious or metaphorical, yet real illocutionary acts. In short, a status of dependency is accorded to such parasitic acts. If one looks at the fictional discourse, it is the reference that becomes parasitic, for even if the failure of the reference happens to be error prone, in case of pretentious speech acts, this error is simply replaced by a parasitic reference. If for Austin, non-serious utterances infect the speech acts, thus impacting its normal use on the way, and thereby falling under the doctrine of etiolations (to cause, make pale) of language, then this clearly entails Austin’s faith in the theory of performative utterances that include non-serious, abnormal utterances that impact the normal usage of speech act. Now in order to discover any nexus between these non-serious, abnormal discursive practices with infelicities, even if abnormalities are culpable of misinvoking conventional references and commands/orders, one has to fall back onto Searle’s invocation of intentionality of the speaker to sort out the said connection. The problem, however, in Austin lies in the derogatory sense attached to these abnormalities with the use of the word ‘infection’, thus aligning these pejorative senses even to the parasitic instances of speech acts. Searle breaks free from this pejorative sense, and even argued that Austin himself never meant any derogatory sense for ‘parasitic’ manner.

Derrida criticizes this positionality of Austin’s parasitic discourses, while Searle comes to Austin’s defense, in turn opening up the gates for Derrida criticizing Searle’s more refined theory of parasitic discourse. Derrida’s criticism of Austin rests on the former’s use of iterability, dissemination and citationality. Even if utterances are repeatable, they carry seeds of alterations, and hence iterability. Derrida’s analysis of speech and writing clearly exhibits that utterances are irreducibly polysemic thus underlining any particular/singular/univocal meaning attached with them, and hence dissemination. Citationality refers to every utterance being called upon during repetition to unveil sameness and difference with the previous such utterance thus throwing open the field for further modification. Derrida’s reading of Austin takes on two implications, a principle of citationality in Austin, and an impossibility of determining the performative act that is either normal or parasitic. In other words, Derrida criticizes the notion of felicity conditions, even if he holds true beliefs towards the potency of illocutionary acts to enable language undergo transformations. He never believes in the success of a performative utterances as rule-based upon conventions.

The real problem begins with Searle’s understanding of Derrida, which is nothing short of poor interpretation. Searle’s type/token distinction gets muddled up in Derrida’s iterability. For the former, when one says that an element in linguistics is iterable, is just to say that logicians’ type-token distinction must apply to all rule-governed elements of language in order that the rules can be applied to new occurrences of phenomenon specified by the rules. Without this feature of iterability, there could not be the possibility of producing an infinite number of sentences with a finite list of elements. A cursory reading is enough to show the paucity of this logic.


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