Recent arguments about the construction of race as performance are indebted (sometimes unknowingly) to J. L. Austin's How to Do Things with Words (1962), in which he defines, then continually refines and revises, the term "performative." Subsequent scholars and theorists in fields as diverse as sociology, philosophy, gender, race, and performance studies have expanded the concept of performativity and identified some of its potential strengths as well as limitations in elucidating and complicating notions of racial identity. Generally overlooked from these revisions of performativity is the important work by Frantz Fanon who was working through these questions of identity much earlier and, I argue, much more effectively than Austin.
Austin excludes literary, dramatic, and comedic uses of language from the performative category and focuses instead on normal, serious, or ordinary uses of language. Initially, he isolates performative utterances as those utterances which are not nonsense, yet are "intended as something quite different" from straightforward statements of fact which Austin terms constatives. (1) Austin argues that contrary to philosophical assumptions about the verifiability of statements, performatives are neither true nor false, and their very utterance "is, or is part of, the doing of an action" (5).
Austin's concern with the total speech act places him firmly in the rhetorical tradition. Rejecting philosophy's view of a statement as an outward sign of an "inward and spiritual act" (9), Austin focuses almost entirely on language use--language in action and as act. Language then does not become a purveyor of interiority, meaning, truth or falsity. Instead, Austin takes into consideration the social and contextual elements of language. Austin is ever mindful of the dynamic between speaker, listener/audience, and context as he presents cases "in which to say something may be to do something, or in saying something we do something (and...in which by saying something we do something)" (91). Austin's myriad of conditions and classifications of the performative illustrates the degree to which the performative is dependent on the varied potential connections between speaker, audience, and context. The complexity and variety of speech acts that Austin considers show that the sole or primary function of language is not to make statements. The extralinguistic aspects of language exemplify the numerous other ways in which we use speech.
Performatives provide one such example. They do not merely say something; they perform the action which is the object of the utterance. For example, by saying, "I baptize you" or "I forfeit the game," the baptism or forfeiture is not described but is actually carried out. Of course, the words must be spoken in the appropriate circumstances within the guidelines of the agreed upon conventions. For example, in the case of a Catholic baptism, the priest must perform the ceremony in a church using water previously blessed; and in the case of a baseball game, only one of the coaches or umpires can call the game if a team does not have the proper number of players or for some other violation of the rules of the game. Austin would consider these examples explicit performatives because the statements, "I baptize you" and "I forfeit" clearly reveal what actions are being performed with the statements. By contrast, primary performatives do not clearly reveal how the utterance is to be understood and what resultant action should be taken. For example, the utterance, "I shall be there" may or may not be intended as a promise. The action that is solicited with the utterance cannot be clearly determined without additional information (69-82).
Not even all explicit performative utterances result in the desired or anticipated action. Yet, even in their failures, performatives cannot be regarded as true or false because they do not describe or report anything. For this reason, Austin proposes to evaluate the success or failure of the performative as happy or unhappy, felicitous or infelicitous instead of true or false (5-14). …