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:
Establishing (characterizing) the phenomenon
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.”)