The philosopher at the cinema and in the marketplace

Anthony Lane, reviewing The Amazing Spider-Man 2 in the May 5th New Yorker:

I lost count of the scenes in which Gwen and Peter thrash out the question of whether they should be a couple, and there is a sigh of relief in the cinema when she, deploying what philosophers would call a performative utterance, says simply, “I break up with you,” leaving us to wonder if she pulls the same trick in bed: “And now we approach the orgasm.”

On performative utterances:

In his 1955 William James lecture series, which were later published under the title How to Do Things with Words [(1962)], [J.L.] Austin argued against a positivist philosophical claim that the utterances always “describe” or “constate” something and are thus always true or false. After mentioning several examples of sentences which are not so used, and not truth-evaluable (among them non-sensical sentences, interrogatives, directives and “ethical” propositions), he introduces “performative” sentences as another instance.

When uttered by the appropriate person in the appropriate circumstances, a performative utterance doesn’t just describe reality, but actually changes the social reality. “I bet you $5 that it will rain today” makes a bet (entailing certain obigations between the speaker and the addressee).

When the conditions aren’t satisfied, the performative utterance is infelicitous, as in this Esurance tv commercial, in which a woman [Beatrice the Over-Sharer] boasts to some strangers about how much money she’s saved on insurance.

Another woman in the room says “I saved more than that in half the time.” Beatrice isn’t pleased “I unfriend you” as if they were all in a social network [failed attempt at issuing a performative]. The woman replies “That’s not how it works! That’s not how any of this works!”


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