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The Paideia Archive: Twentieth World Congress of Philosophy

Volume 41, 1998

Political Philosophy

James Hersh
Pages 104-109

Austin’s Ditch
The Political Necessity and Impossibility of “Non-Serious” Speech

This essay seeks to show that there are political implications in Jacques Derrida’s critique of J.L. Austin’s notion of performative speech. If, as Derrida claims and Austin denies, performative utterances are necessarily "contaminated" by that which Austin refuses to consider (the speech of the poet and the actor in which literal force is never intended), then what are the implications for the speech acts of the state? Austin considers the speech acts of the poet and the actor to be "parasites" or "ordinary language," "nonserious," and would relegate such speech to a region beyond his consideration, to a "ditch" outside the border of meaning for the performative. Derrida argues that the "contamination" Austin fears for language is necessary for its very performativity. If Derrida is correct, then the performative utterances of the state (e.g. the decree of the judge, "I sentence you...") from the biases of racial or sexual identity is also based upon an impossible desire, a desire that goes against the manner in which language functions. I argue that this desire for a just state cannot be satisfied unless racial and sexual identity is viewed not as "parasitic" and "poetic," but as necessary to the performativity of the state’s liberal power.

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