Performatives to Performativity: What Kind of Move?

This post is in response to the difficult questions that Allan raises (and plays with) in his earlier post, ‘Re-Reading “The Postmodern Condition”….’, but it is far too long to be appended as a comment. Thanks to both Allan and Steven for starting the discussion (and apologies this is such a long and quite speculative response).

Let’s agree that the conflation of the “performative” and “performativity” is one Lyotard explicitly makes:

The term performative has taken on a precise meaning in language theory since Austin. Later in in this book, the concept will reappear in association with the term performativity (in particular, of a system) in the new current sense of efficiency measured according to an input/output ratio. The two meanings are not far apart…’ (n.30, p.88)

As Allan’s original post claims, what is at stake here is whether such a conflation (of terms and of language games) is itself legitimate. How one attempts to answer this question of legitimacy depends on whether one is persuaded by and adopts the position on knowledge advanced in The Postmodern Condition. To do so, requires the acceptance that all knowledge involves a “general agonistics of language” in which every utterance is a “move” within a language game with a set of rules invented and adhered to by the players. In this post, I’d like to suggest what kind of rules I think are governing Lyotard’s “move” from performatives to performativity.

chessI would like to make the suggestion that the main distinction drawn in the book between Scientific and Narrative knowledge provides a particular contrast between two broader aspects of knowledge: that of Learning and that of Competency. I’m going to quote at length here, because it clarifies my point above but also because the particular conditions ascribed to Science relate to the issue of performative/performativity that I’ll return to later:

 Knowledge in general cannot be reduced to science, nor even to learning. Learning is the set of statements which, to the exclusion of all other statements, denote or describe objects and may be declared true or false. Science is a subset of learning. It is also composed of denotative statements, but imposes two supplementary conditions on their acceptability: the objects to which they refer must be available for repeated access, in other words, they must be accessible to explicit conditions of observation; and it must be possible to decide whether or not a given statement pertains to the language judged relevant by the experts.’ (p.18)

As an aside, it is worth reminding ourselves that Lyotard is using the term “Science” in the more general sense conveyed by Wissenschaft in German (systematically researched knowledge of the kind taught as disciplines) and not the narrower sense of “natural science” implied in English. It therefore includes not just biology, chemistry, physics, and medicine but also history, law, politics, and literature, etc. In the quote above, Lyotard says that Learning is a kind of Knowledge whose principle utterances or moves all follow the rules of denotation (they describe a referent in terms that the one addressed can give assent to as “true” or that are capable of being disproved as “false”). But Science is a specific kind of Learning that requires the additional conditions of (i) being observable and (ii) subject to the authority of a disciplinary expertise (this second point is less clear, and related, I think, to the systematic nature of Scientific research, but not important for my argument here). Both of these undergo a subtle transformation in the supposed shift from the modern to the postmodern, but it is changes to the first (observability) that bring in the criteria of “performativity” in the sense of efficiency.  

In the main part of the text, Lyotard’s more general claim is that the pragmatics of Science cannot legitimate its utterances without recourse to moves only permitted by the rules of other (non-Scientific) kind of language games. In particular, Scientific knowledge draws on the pragmatics of Narrative knowledge which does perform its own legitimacy through the transmission of a set of rules that constitute kinds of social bonds.

Contrast the denotative utterance made by a customer (“The shop is open”) with the same performative utterance made by a mayor (“The shop is open”). The former can be true or false depending on whether we agree that the referent (“the shop”) has the quality of being “open” at the time the utterance is made, but the latter gives the referent the quality of “openness” in the very act of being uttered. As an aside, note here that the utterance “the shop is open” might constitute Learning, but it does not meet the conditions of Science, since without further information it is not capable of repeated observation (it does not propose a law) and it is not assignable to a language judged relevant by experts (it does not belong to a disciplinary discourse).

The important point, however, is that just as the particular move made in performative utterances is one that produces the qualities of its referent, so knowledge transmitted according to the more general pragmatics of Narratives determines the legitimacy of its rules in the very act of narrating. Narrative knowledge may involve a variety of language games and kinds of utterances but performative utterances are the clearest example of this kind of legitimation. The mayor is an authority to the extent he or she can make performative utterances of this kind (that is, you or I are incapable of using such performatives, as is evident when I stand outside a closed shop and say, “I declare this shop open”). Narrative knowledge more generally confers this kind of authority on the speaker but not through an acquired political position but simply by virtue of the utterer having also been the addressee of the narration. This is a social situation it produces and therefore constitutes the rules – in its narrating – of a social bond.  A subtle example, which I’ll elaborate on later, might be taken from Marx’s The Communist Manifesto: “Workers of the world unite!”

Just as Science belongs to a particular kind of knowledge called Learning, so I interpret Narrative as belonging to a different category of knowledge – comprised of a variety of language games and their permissible utterances or moves – concerned with Competency more generally. This does not concern denotative correctness but a whole field of utterances concerned with the criteria of “good” performance:

Understood in this way, knowledge [note that Lyotard doesn’t say “Narrative” here] is what makes someone capable of forming “good” denotative utterances, but also “good” prescriptive and “good” evaluative utterances …It is not a competence relative to a particular class of statements (for example, cognitive ones) …On the contrary, it makes “good” performances in relation to a variety of objects of discourse…’ (p.18)

Narrative offers one kind of criteria of “good” performance, conferred through the competency of the act of narrating itself (the author becomes an authority) and comparable to that of performative utterances, but Competency in general pertains to a host of language games and criteria. Perhaps this interpretation is too schematic here – and I’m not sure it is necessary in order to follow Lyotard’s claims – but it helps emphasise how that the question of legitimacy (lacking in Science) involves criteria for the competency of performance, e.g. Science as the political project of social improvement or the philosophical project of Enlightenment.

This sets us up for the other major claim of the text: that the way in which Science draws upon Narrative has been transformed in the shift from the Modern/Industrial to the Postmodern/Postindustrial or Cybernetic. Recalling that the question of the social bond (the relation between players in a language game) is itself a move in one such game (Narrative), shifts in knowledge produce shifts in the nature of the social bond.  In the past, Modern Science explicitly drew on Grand Narratives for its legitimacy.

Furthermore, Lyotard seems to claim that one of the Grand Narratives of Modernity is that which sees society as a unified totality of a self-regulating system (originally organic, later cybernetic), whose goal is the optimization of performativity in terms of technical efficiency (minimum input and maximum output). One of the consequences of this view is that all “theory” (i.e. theoretical, Scientific knowledge) ultimately contributes to the self-regulating of the system (as negative feedback). A theory that sees itself as “critical” of this system (and Lyotard is referring to Frankfurt School “Critical Theory” here, and primarily the critical theory of Jurgen Habermas who is The Postmodern Condition‘s chief antagonist) therefore possesses a different conception of society as internally opposed and divided in order to legitimate its claims through a possible Narrative of human emancipation.

Social systematicity (cybernetic sociology) and social contradictions (Marxist historical materialism as the history of class struggle) were both Modern Grand Narratives through which Science sought to legitimate itself. But this demand for legitimation, once it became self-conscious rather than simply accepted, produced a process of delegitimation which produced an incredulity towards Grand Narratives and consequently placed the language game of Science on a par with all other games.

This is why Lyotard equates the postmodern transformation of knowledge with the “computerization of society”. It is felt as the “atomization” of the modern social bond into flexible networks of multiple language games, whose rules are based on the greatest possible flexibility of moves (not a single, master discourse) and whose knowledge is legitimated not by Grand Narratives but Little Narratives of localized and short-term pragmatics. ‘Each [move] ….must formulate its own rules and petition the addressee to accept them’ (42), either by inventing new moves within the existing rules of the language games or switching language games.

This leaves me in a position to return to the legitimacy of Lyotard’s conflation of performatives and performativity in the postmodern condition of knowledge. The two specific conditions that make Learning a Science were defined as having an observable referent and disciplinary expertise. The latter (expertise) is transformed into networks of interdisciplinary researchers and teachers, reflecting an anxiety about expertise in general and more specifically any kind of discipline that makes claims to be a master discourse. The former (observability) is transformed as the human sense organs (and their technological appendages, e.g. microscopes or telescopes that enable the human eye to see better) become superseded by digital technology independent of verification by human sense organs (e.g. scanning equipment that can read and verify the image or sound itself and translate that into information). The transformation of the observability condition of Scientific knowledge entails that the pragmatics of Little Narratives make an appeal to the competency not of humans but of technical efficiency: the criteria of “good” or “bad” performatives becomes based on the technics of performativity. This is no longer the pragmatic rules for social bonds constituted by the Grand Narrative of human narration (a human speaker, a human listener, a performance that confers authority on the former because she narrates and on the latter to narrate in turn). As Lyotard writes, ‘a technical “move” is “good” when it does better and/or expends less energy than another” (44): it minimizes input (human effort in however a mediated form that takes) and maximizes output (information/data).

In response to Allan’s question, I would suggest that we could see the legitimacy of the shift from analysing knowledge in terms of language games (pragmatics of performatives) to analysing language games in terms of cybernetics (pragmatics of performativity) as itself performed by the postmodern condition of knowledge: the deflation from the social bonds constituted by the Grand Narratives of social systems to – what has the semblance of a dehumanization or desocialization – the Little Narratives of paralogy.

But there is still a little joke to contend with:

If the performativity of the supposed social system is taken as the criterion of relevance (that is, when the perspective of systems theory is adopted), higher education becomes a subsystem of the social system, and the same performativity criterion is applied to each of these problems’ (p.48).

This claim is exactly the kind against which Allan takes issue and it is important to notice that it begins not with a denotative or peformative utterance but something far more conditional: If the performativity of the supposed social system is taken as the criterion of relevance [i.e. competency] (that is, when the perspective of systems theory is adopted)…’.

Lyotard has to phrase this in the conditional because he cannot take this position. It is that of the Modern Grand Narrative of social “unicity” (i.e. that the “computerization” of society determines the criterion of competency for all knowledge as efficiency). What is the legitimacy of this narrative and therefore of the conflation of performatives and performativity? Lyotard cannot give his assent to this description (that would by Talcott’s sociology) nor suppose a perspective which seeks to transcend it (that would be “critical theory” of the Marxist kind).

Luckily (for him), he is no longer required to affirm or critique whether the social as a fully-regulated system is “true” or “ideological”, since the need for consensus with his readers has been abandoned. What he is performing in the conflation of performatives and performativity is, rather, ‘a move (the importance of which is often not recognized until later) played in the pragmatics of knowledge’ (61) that generates blind spots and precisely aims to defer consensus. In this sense, The Postmodern Condition might be read as an anti-manifesto. Where Marx, in The ommunist Manifesto declared that,

The development of Modern Industry, therefore, cuts from under its feet the very foundation on which the bourgeoisie produces and appropriates products. What the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own grave-diggers. Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable…

this seemingly denotative statement has the quasi-performative task of making manifest that which it hopes to happen (assent by making it true). This is its the socializing function of the bond it produces via Grand Narrative: it establishes the rules for its own legitimacy. In Marx, for example, the Scientific knowledge of the overthrow of capitalism will be true (and therefore legitimate) according to the socialization produced by Narrative knowledge (the proletarian revolution). The incredulity towards Grand Narratives means that – whether Marx’s statement is true or not – it no longer enacts its mode of legitimacy (the historical narrative of revolution).

But  when Lyotard claims something like (paraphrasing Marx), “the development of Postmodern Cybernetics, therefore, cuts from under its feet the very foundation on which the intelligentsia teaches and researches the Science of Knowledge” he is trying to confuse the issue and thus fragment the social bond. Jameson, in his foreword, compares this to a Deleuzian schizophrenics of survival within capitalism; its pragmatic effect is, presumably intended not to produce consensus (assent or dissent) but to defer or delay such consensus (and this was the effect it had on Allan, who questioned it) . This is not Frankfurt School “ideology critique” – from a standpoint of a Scientific Knowledge which permits Learning from outside of the system, but only through resource to the Grand Narrative of one great big historical antagonism – but a generalized recognition that there is nothing but antagonisms (agonistics) and thus a system only in the sense of a systematic antagonisms. Lyotard’s “move” (the conflation of performatives and performativity) is one of dissensus, like a small and localized virus that spreads and mutates from within, and whose anti-manifesto performance is to unravel the referent described: the performativity of efficiency. Its a move that paralyses, blocks, or short-circuits the performance. After all, the persuasiveness of The Postmodern Condition is remarkably inefficient: it requires maximum input (cf. its accumulation of footnotes that cover a wide range of fields) for minimum output (“there, don’t you see how things are?”).

If I have time, I will write another post arguing why, nonetheless, I think Lyotard’s little game is ultimately unpersuasive because it sets off  from the wrong foot concerning “computerization”. This will concern some of the issues surrounding the mercantilisation of knowledge that Steven picks up on and the problems surrounding technological performativity that Allan’s post on ‘Command and Control’  so eloquently raises.


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