Unhappy Performatives

Unhappy Performatives
For Red Dot intervention at the Royal Academy summer show,
Organised by F.A.T.

Unhappy Performatives

A red dot placed on a gallery wall, next to a painting, is a sign. Obviously. I wish to have a little fun considering some linguistic equivalents of this sign in order to broach the question of what kind of act, or actys, an illegitimate placing of dots might be.

J. L. Austin begins his lecture seies, later a posthumous bood, ‘How To Do Things With Words’ by making a distinction between ‘constative’ and ‘performative’ utterances. The former are something like statements: for example, ‘This painting is sold’. These are true or false. The latter are somethinglike actions: for example, ‘I bet you sixpence it will rain tomorrow’, where to say ‘I bet’ is precisely to make a bet: the saying is the action. Performatives cannot be true or false; they are, however, happy or unhappy. They are happy if made in good faith, successful, and so on; and unhappy when they do not come off.

Now it is not difficult to see the placing of a red dot as a constative, proclaiming “This painting is sold”. This is good utilitarian stuff, but this is not the only reason why we should be suspicious of leaving things there. Austin was at pains to point out that every utterence has differentiated and structured levels of meaning (although he wouldn’t have put it quite like that). The constative (and pragmatic) meaning may or may not be the justification for the red dots, but if it is, it is feigned innocence (which is not to say that this an individual trait, rather than a cultural and social one). In fact, it is the cultural field which lies behind and gives symbolic value to this (and similar) actions, which is in need of recognition. Thus, to construe the red dot as a performative is much more interesting: something like, “The Royal Academy informs you that this painting is sold”, or, perhaps, “The Royal Academy wants you to know that this painting is sold”. Once you’ve seen the red dot (and you could hardly see the painting without seeing it) you just have been informed it’s sold. This kind of performative (I, eg. inform you, that + statement) Austin calls an ‘expositive’.

The expositive is happy when the red dot is placed under a painting which has indeed been sold, by the legitimate authority. As such, it is not only a representation of that sale, but also a display of monetary and cultural capital. The buyer is not only wealthy, but cultured: the red dot is a symbol of the exercise of taste. As Bourdieu has shown, the making of cultural judgements not only classifies the objects of culture, it classifies the classifier; and it classifies the classifier as cultured. So the red dot, qua expositive, is determined by, and motivated by, the need of those who see themselves as cultured to display their culturedness. This is part of the symbolic economy of cultural domination, and the domination of culture, by the cultivated, in terms of their experience and knowledges. In its own small way the red dot is a kind of act and part of a regime of taste. The expositive is happy.

As an aside, it is no accident (and indeed it gives me pleasure) to purloin Austin’s terminology of ‘happy and ‘unhappy’ performatives. These terms carry with them not just the idea of successfullness but also the idea (not, I think, at all intended by Austin) of satisfaction and discontent. 

The placing of rogue red dots in the gallery is not equivalent to the making of false statements; is not constative. If it was, it would just be bad behaviour. Rather it is bad faith: an unhappy performative. And as I have just hinted, this unhappiness is a discontent. And this discontent is with a culture, and its institutions, which reproduce and reinforce the taste of the cultured, thereby perpetuating privilege and domination.

The unhappy performative is, of course, impotent in the symbolic and monetary economies involving the Royal Academy and its public (and customers). It is, perhaps, in practical terms, an intervention: something to be removed like an unwanted heckler at a polite gathering. But perhaps our unhappiness is born from our voicelessness, our not being able to say what we want to say, at the polite gathering which is art. And if it is this, our voicelessness, to which we wish to give expression, then it is not important that our performative is unhappy within the transactions of the Royal Academy, because this is not the only meaning it carries. Outside of that dotty symbolic economy of cultured taste, the unhappy performative might become in some sense a ‘picture’ of it. The action can become, suddenly, a happy performative after all: something like 

“We want you to know that the Royal Academy is complicit with the symbolic economy of class domination.”

This is, perhaps, not exactly news; but, perhaps also, we must begin a murmur in the silence.I am going to consider it also as an act, in something akin to the way that J.L. Austin treats some utterences as acts. For the purposes of applying Austin I’m going to invent some linguistic equivalences to the red dot sign. My aim isimate placing of dots might be, and for whom.But such a reading is not able to address any social or cultural circumstances in and out of which such a practice might have arisen. Let me note that ite like that). So that although t,, in the minds of those who administrate the Royal Academy (and indeed of those who look at the pictures, etc.) it is not the extent of its symbolic functioning. I will also(which ) in order to address its symbolism in a cultural role. A performative equivalence will be something like: I declare this is pertinent to the case in hand. Power is expressed and imposed as much through cultural capital as it is through wealth So the mischiefous red dot is placed in relation to the cultural domination symbolized in the officially sanctioned dots.rritaisThis is primarily to a constituency of us, the culturally discontent. In this other discourse, the intervention takes on other meanings as a symbolic action. Indeed, t a happy performative after all. S: to the culturally discontent. But the intervention does provide an interface between the worlds of the Royal Academy and the discontented; and the former are not, necessarily, homogenous and content; so thatthis symbolic action might not be restricted to our discourse. It might begin a murmur in the silent halls.