I Want an Apology

9 Jun

A Comedy in which Dev relates how he read a letter, felt puzzled, turned to notions within the canon of analytic philosophy, felt angry, and now demands an apology

So I was unpacking some old boxes on Sunday. I sifted through a lot of old papers––notes from classes, essays, and the occasional letter. I piled the letters up into a stack for reading after I finished the grunt sorting work. My grunt work finished, I dug my knees into the carpet and began to read. Many of the letters reminded me of fun times with friends, or my attempts to be a real life Herzog. But then one letter struck me. In the face.

It started out innocently enough, writing to congratulate me for something that was really all luck anyway. That was only the first paragraph, though. The next paragraph punctured me like a butter knife to my palm. “I do want to apologize” the letter said to me.

And it was then that I thought, “Double u tee eff, what do these words mean?” There was only one place to turn for answers, only one way to quash the steadily growing and fast-approaching storm of confusion that was proverbially raining on my proverbial post-unpacking letter-reading parade. That place was Wikipedia, of course. My ethereal, ephemeral, electronic navigator directed me left, then right, then through the woods of Theory to the house of a British philosophical celebrity.

Like Galileo and Gravity (or Newton and Gravity, too…or Einstein and Gravity), or Heraclitus and Flux, J.L. Austen discovered a mighty interesting phenomenon within Language (Western, that is (not Wyatt Earp Western, though))––a species, if you will, of sentence whose discovery spat in the face of then contemporary language philosophers.

The Performative Utterance is quite a tricky bugger when one attempts to nab it. If it were a Pokemon, it would be one of the toughest to catch, even tougher than Chancey. But J.L. left some great clues to look for when hunting for Performative Utterances. These utterances

  1. are not truth-evaluable, meaning they are neither true nor false, and
  2. they don’t  just say something; they perform an action

And it was after this that my confusion turned into a silent fear. There was a tiny, five-word beast dwelling on that page that sat there glibly and innocently on my nightstand. I shuttered slightly at what I read on the computer screen as I thought more deeply about what sort of thing I was harboring in my own bedroom. I didn’t really know how to feel about all of it. It wasn’t right or wrong. It’s not truth-evaluable. Not truth-evaluable, I tell you! That means no truth value. No credits. No debits. Just a “0” in the remaining balance line. How could I keep something a-truthful in my room? I had to get rid of it.

But Wikipedia, like a siren on the shore, beckoned to me with a shrill caveat. The particular type of “Speech Act” (think of this as a pet name for Performative Utterance) I had lying lethargic on my nightstand is what J.L. called an “illocutionary act”––an act for the performance of which the performative utterer must make it clear to the utteree (or should I say uttered-to?) (anyway, me) that this performance is, in fact, performed. He later referred to this as “the securing of uptake.” When I saw that. I read it out loud. You should say it. Say it; let the consonants click in the in-betweens of your moist tongue’s smacking with the roof of your mouth. Sexy isn’t it?

No. It’s not sexy. How dare you think something like that is sexy. And better yet, double how dare you for thinking that I would think anything associated with the phrase “I do want to apologize”––that pernicious breed of sentence whose job isn’t to say anything smart, or witty, or even right, or good, but instead to do simply as it’s told (there’s a joke in there somewhere)––is even remotely sexy.

All tisks and sexgressions (sex + digression or regression (never progression, though)) aside, I can see you now (yes, my words have eyes in their… i’s) getting a bit weary of this post. “What’s your point, mistah?” I hear you asking. “Oh, and why do you hate performative utterances so?”

Well then, dear idealized reader, instead of taking you through the firing of synapses that caused this spark in my brain let me just end with my overall take-away from my meditation on Performative Utterances.

They can be useful, just as any words have the potential to be of use to whoever, well, uses them. If we didn’t have them, how could we have weddings with priests, all lovably gray and pacific, saying “I now pronounce you husband and wife”? But the problem with Performative Utterances, especially ones like “I do want to apologize” is that they are, oddly enough, performances in my mind. They act, like an actress in front of a TV camera. They are, at their basest, manufactured and overly-processed real actions. So much so that, in my mind, saying “I do want to apologize”––in its attempts to secure the fact that it is an apology––is like a drop of spittle hitting me face. And that spittle annoys me a little.

And now, I want an apology.


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