Uttering performances revisited

In revisiting the subject of 'uttering performances' we may be brief. Actions 'speak', as gestures do. Verbal utterances are actions too, and so 'utter' as all actions speak, and not just as words uttered. Therefore, within verbal utterances we may distinguish between what is said in saying the words, and the meaning which the action of saying them bears. Judas greets Jesus with a kiss. But there is irony in the kiss because what the kiss says is subverted by what Judas' action of betraying Jesus by means of it says. One and the same act has a double meaning, therefore, only because there are to be distinguished what is said by an utterance, and what its being uttered says. And these two ways in which a communicative act can 'mean' may stand in many different kinds of relationship with one another. They may ironically contradict each other, as with Judas' kiss; or they may complement each other, as when a beautiful poem is complemented by the beauty of its typography, or when its beauty is doubly enacted by the beauty of its being uttered. In that case, the shapes of the squiggles on the page, or the musicality of the speech, are from one point of view that which we read or hear, the words; from another point of view, those same shapes or sounds seduce by their typographical or tonal beauty, so the same shapes or sounds speak twice and do not twice 'say' the same. Sometimes the relationship is 'hermeneutical'; for the thing said is interpreted in a particular way by the material qualities of its being said, as when, in a poem, rhythmic speech-patterns read a layer of significance into what the words themselves say. 'Thou mastering me / God' are the opening words of Hopkins's The Wreck of the Deutschland, and the combined effect of alliteration and of natural inflection, which is to pile the first three words up upon one another and to cause a caesura before the fourth, alerts us to the fact that the poem opens with a vocative address, and that the first three words form a single compound hyphenated adjective qualifying the fourth: 'Thou-mastering-me//God!': and so the rhythm reads the sense.

To say that human beings are 'rational' is to say that human beings cannot help but that their grossest actions should speak, they cannot do anything meaninglessly. Hence, they cannot speak but that their action of speaking also says something. We may be able to choose to say something, or not. But even the avoidance of speech, being an action, can say something, as when we grasp the significance of a silence, or as when someone noticeably fails to say 'thank you'. And if we speak, we may be able to choose what we say, but we cannot choose what our utterance means, and often enough it does not mean what we intended to say. And all this is what is meant when we say that human animality is rational; all human action is speech, including the speech-acts themselves. All human 'performances' utter.17

I shall say, simply to stipulate a terminology, that everything to do with how the actions of human communication themselves speak is the domain of'rhetoric'. The 'rhetorical', therefore, refers to those features of human speech-performance which are themselves meaningful qua performed, as distinct from what the speech itself means, however enacted; and, as a next step in the exploration of human rationality, we must consider two ways in which rhetorical features of language interact with semantic features, in, in turn, the poetic and the musical. And the purpose is to explore in what way human language as such, and therefore human rationality in its broadest conception, lays itself open inherently to the transcendent.

Was this article helpful?

0 0

Post a comment