Performative love

The philosopher of language John Austin, in his theory of speech acts, distinguishes two types of speech: the constative and the performative[1]. A constative refers to an existing reality, declaring such reality to be the case. A performative produces a new reality. Most speeches fall into the first category, as speaking, writing and verbal communication in general are conventionally considered to describe/express things. But the performative does not express anything. It performs, acts, does things. Example are the “I promise”, “I swear”, “I order you to”, “I accept”, “I declare”, and the famous “I do” in a wedding ceremony. These sentences are neither true or false. The very reality that they “express” comes into being with the utterance.

Roland Barthes wrote that the sentence “I love you” (Je t’aime) is a performative[2]. According to the semiologist, it does not express what the amorous subject feels; on the contrary, it is said with the desire to produce an effect, “I expect you to return my love”. Even the subject herself, by saying “I love you”, reifies her love: I do not love you until I declare my love for you.

I think that not only performative utterances — in the way that Austin defines them — are performative, but all speeches are. Do we not always have the feeling that something is not real until it is said? The signifier, i.e. the written word or the acoustic voice, does not exist independently from the signified, i.e. the meaning, the concept, the mental representation of “the thing”. In the same way that humans are embodied subject and the mind is not separated from the body, meanings and words might not be two distinct entities, but come into being together.

For me, language is the public life of ideas, feelings, or whatever abstract thing it conveys. The love that is kept secret is private. Once spoken, it takes up a social existence in the eye of the Other, be it the lover or society. This leads me to reflect on the nature of being itself: do we exist without being recognized by others? Is a solipsist existence possible?

When two people are in a relationship, they make it official by announcing it to their families and friends. “Official: having the approval or authorization of an authority or a public body.” The idea of authority and publicity is central here. Such public approval marks the moral distinction between an official and recognized relationship, which exists in the light, and a love affair, which is kept secret. Love is a thing between two individuals. Is it? I’m not so sure. It depends on whether you take the perspective of love-for-love’s-sake or love as embedded in a wider web of social relations.

Years of being in a long-distance and secret relationship, i.e. one that was not known to everyone in my circles and was intended to be so, has resulted in my profound skepticism of the reality of love. On the one hand, recognition acts as a kind of social surveillance assuring that you stay faithful to your partner, otherwise there would be severe public sanction. In the end, it is what makes the love real. Two people are in love because they are so in the eyes of others. But then it is not a private thing anymore. On the other hand, if this love is not made official, then it might not exist at all. My ex-partner had a social life of which I was not a part. Therefore, when he took on his other social roles (than the role of being my lover), our love was dismissed. He could very well have another lover as secret as I was, whose existence remained undisclosed.

In the end, what is real? How do we know that feelings are real? Do we need words and social conventions to make them real?

I often imagine myself waking up one day only to find out that it has all been a hoax. I figure that one could very well delete all the proofs that testify one’s love, such that there would be no trace or evidence left. Would it still exist then? But then I remember how deeply feelings can be engraved in one’s heart. After all, the things that we cannot erase by a physical gesture are the most difficult, if not impossible, to remove.

 —

[1] J. L. Austin, How to do things with words. Oxford / New York 1975 (1st edition 1962), 1–11.

[2] Roland Barthes, Fragments d’un discours amoureux, “Tel Quel”, Seuil, 1977.

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