performative love

John Austin distinguishes two types of speech: constative and performative. 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 language 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 it “expresses” comes into being with the utterance.

Roland Barthes wrote that the sentence “I love you” (Je t’aime) is a performative. 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 as in Austin’s category 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”. The same way humans are embodied subject and the mind is not separated from the body, meanings and (written/spoken) words are not two distinct entities, but come into being together.

I often think that 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. It exists 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 family and friends circles. “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, recognized relationship, one that exists in the light, and a love affair, one that 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 one hand, recognition acts as a kind of social surveillance that makes sure that you stay faithful to your partner, otherwise there will be severe public sanction. In the end, it 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, as it was in my case, then it feels like it does not exist at all. My partner had a social life of which I was not a part. So when he took on his other social roles (than the role of being my lover), our love’s existence was dismissed. He could very well have another lover, as secret as I was, that I did not know anything about.

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, or an illusion. Nothing personal, though. I imagine that I could delete all the proofs that testify our love, and there will be no trace, no evidence left. Would it still exist then? But then I remember how feelings could be so deeply 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.


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