A Teachable Moment: Austin and the Inauguration Edition

So, apparently there is some hubbub about whether or not Obama’s oath counted because Roberts flubbed the delivery and Obama echoed his words, and not the text as written. I imagine nothing will come of this, and that Obama’s oath will not be seriously questioned (although it may well give conspiracy-minded types something else to go on about, in case they were low on ammo). I wonder, though, if the oath and its flubbing might be a good example of Austin’s notion of “felicity conditions”* for performative utterances. In “How To Do Things Words”, Austin argues that same sayings are also doings. So, when you say “I solemnly swear…” you are not just saying something, you are performing an oath. But not every utterance of a set of words (“I do”) has the same meaning – the performance only works if certain felicity conditions are fulfilled (otherwise the performance is “infelicitous”). So, reframing, we can ask, was Obama’s oath a performative utterance or was one of the felicity conditions violated? Obama seems to be president right now, so it looks like changing the word order did not violate anything important, given that everything else was right (having been certified by the House, voted on by the electors and before that the populace, no legal opposition, proper date, time and place, chief justice swearing him in, hand on a bible, etc.). But it’s a nice example of how something we might not have thought was flexible – the words of the oath themselves – might have a bit of give.

* I really like this phrase, and think it could be used in other sociological contexts as well. I’ve been trying to come up with a short list of other such phrases that either are currently used in Sociology and I enjoy, or that are not used but I would like to popularize. Here’s a sampling:
Archimedean Point
Unanticipated Consequences
Establishing (characterizing) the phenomenon
Always already
God-Trick (and the rejection of)
DiFranco Problem (“If you don’t ask the right questions, every answer seems wrong.”)
Mirowski Problem (“[B]ehind every measurement controversy lies a deep problem of metaphoric interpretation.”)

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4 Comments

  1. Natalie Cotton

     /  January 21, 2009

    It may be helpful here, since this is partly a legal question, to note that there are two very different legal worldviews that exist (and in our modern legal environment, have been made to co-exist peacefully).

    The older approach to law (I think symbolized best by the older “Courts of Law” when there was a Law/Equity distinction) treats power and rights as things that can *only* be transfered via performances. You cannot have a right unless you have been invested with it — for example, you cannot validly use my property unless I have properly conveyed the right to you to do so. It doesn’t matter if we both act *as if* you have such a right. No, if I did not convey the right to you, you do not have it. Similarly, if we decide to enter into a contract (I will buy your couch for X dollars), then our agreement is the performance (i.e. “it’s a deal” — a verbal performance). If we decide to put it into writing a minute later, that is only *evidence* of the agreement. The rights to the couch/dollars have already been transfered by our agreement, and the written contract is simply documentation which is helpful to be assured that there will not be later questioning re: whether we had an agreement.

    The other approach to law (and which has perhaps become more dominant for us) however sees things in a different light, and is symbolized best by the old “Courts of Equity”. From this approach, deciding on whether someone has a right, or has powers, hinges upon looking at the entire circumstances — how the parties acted, and what seems the best and fairest conclusion. If I act as if I gave you something, and you act as if I gave you something, then that might be reasonable enough to conclude that you have the right to that thing — even if I didn’t properly transfer “rights”. If we all act *as if* Obama is president, then the oath is just a formality. If we instead have a concept of the investiture of power, however, then the oath is expressly performative; if he did not say it correctly, then he does not have presidential power. But both approaches have grounding in our current legal environment.

    Just my two cents — I will happily defer to others who have better knowledge of this! My point is though that the idea of performative utterances has a strong connection to traditional legal approaches (where the felicity conditions are fairly strictly specified and treated with some reverence); but the fact that there is no “one way” to look at this legally makes this also somewhat ambiguous sociologically?

  2. Well, future crisis averted:
    Obama Sworn in Again, Using the Right Words. Of course, they aren’t negating everything that happened yesterday so.. you could read this either way.

  3. To complete what Austin wrote, we all have to re-read Goffman on that “Felicity Conditions” stuff.
    By the way, the fact that Obama sworn again is a very good exemple of repairing an order that one was affraid could have been endangered

  4. Because it is pertinent to the kind of blogging you do vis-a-vis your disaggregation of texts to create your commonplace postings, you might consider adding the term “information compounds” to you list of phrases.

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