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Review of  Performative Linguistics

Reviewer: Shaoxiang Wang
Book Title: Performative Linguistics
Book Author: Douglas Robinson
Publisher: Routledge (Taylor and Francis)
Linguistic Field(s): Translation
Issue Number: 14.2770

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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-
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
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
is not only misdirected but fails to see that Grice virtually solves
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
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
conventional implicatures in Chap 12 and "invocative" implicature in
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
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

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 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.