Sunday, November 13, 2005

Listening to J.L. Austin's 1959 Gothenburg Lecture, "Performatives"

Last Monday I took the tube from Pimlico to Euston to have a listen to J.L. Austin's lecture "Performative Utterances", given at Gothenburg in Sweden in 1959. The British Library owns a tape of the lecture. I was hoping to get a copy so that I could return from my trip with a tape to play for Ted Cohen's class on Austin. That didn't work out, but I am now working on part II of the project to acquire a copy of the lecture, which involves finding out who the copyright holder is. (If anyone has any idea who I should contact with regard to the copyright, please let me know.) Apparently the tape was loaned by Bjorn Haglund of the University of Gothenburg.

In order to listen to the tape, I had to make an appointment with the British Library sound archive and apply for a reader's card, deposit my bag in a locker, put all of my personal belongings in a transparent plastic bag and make my way into the rare music reading room. I was set up in a small glass cubicle and told that the lecture would be piped in from a control room somewhere in the "back". I was told that the tape was two hours long. I took off my jacket, kicked my feet up on the desk and settled in for the afternoon.

The tape began with a sound engineer stating the information the library had about the tape. He said that its provenance was "unknown" (other than the information I gave above). The recording begins with with a lot of shuffling around as the person making the recording tries to get the mic close enough to Austin. Soon, though, Austin's precise, nasal voice comes through loud and clear, and he says how he's going to talk about Performative Utterances. He apologizes for the fact that he is going to set up a distinction (the distinction between performatives and constantives) that he's then going to reject, then he starts his talk. The ensuing talk is an updated version of "Performative Utterances", with additional material from How To Do Things With Words. (Austin at one point acknowledges the point Urmson makes on p.5, note 2 of HTDTWW, about the fact that the British do not actually say "I do" in the marriage ceremony, but says that he's been saying it long enough that he's not going to change it now).

I enjoyed listening to the normal background noises of any typical lecture: scraping chairs, coughing, loud cars driving by outside, people coming in and leaving the lecture hall, etc. After Austin's monologue wound down, I was excited to find out that the lecture would be followed by Q&A.

The discussion that followed the lecture was pretty lopsided, since Austin was in dialogue with a room full of non-native English speakers. None of the questions really provoked him to consider anything new, but it did give him a chance to deploy some new examples. Some of his examples caused me to laugh out loud in my sound-proof booth:

-In the context of a discussion of "France is hexagonal", a Swede asked Austin whether it would be best to say that "hexagonal" has a meaning that is ambiguous, meaning "having six straight sides" in some contexts and something else in other contexts. Austin responded to this question by asking, [this is just paraphrasing, from my notes] "Should we say that in some contexts the meaning of 'hexagonal' means 'having six wiggly sides' or 'having six wobbly sides'?"

-Austin offered as another example of a "rough" statement, "Her behavior at the party was kittenish". He then had to explain to the Swedes what "kittenish" meant. Then followed a discussion of what standards a statement like "Her behavior at the party was kittenish" needed to live up to.

Most interestingly, Austin said that instead of looking for a multiplicity of meanings that a sentence might have, we should try to find a multiplicity of different relations that a statement can have to the facts.

There was also an exchange about whether vagueness and roughness were the same thing. Austin claimed they were distinct, and that they shouldn't be run together.

I left the booth wishing the audience had pressed on certain questions more forcefully, but feeling closer to Austin for having heard his voice.


Anonymous said...

Thank you very much for that. I hope to hear that recording myself someday. Cheers!

Nat Hansen said...


If you're ever in London it's definitely worth a trip to the British Library.

Anonymous said...

I know you wrote this on 2005, did you ever find a recording?

Nat Hansen said...

No, I never did, sadly. The British library told me to contact the copyright holder if I wanted a copy but I couldn't figure out who that is.

Teague Tubach said...

If I ever track it down I'll be sure to contact you.
I've reposted this on my new blog if you'd like to take a look.

victoria said...

At some point the tape was in the possession of Mr. J. O. Urmson (1969). See "Symposium on J. L. Austin", 1969 edition, footnotes page 20.

hamlet82 said...

Thanks for this report. I have a thought about who might hold copyright (or know who does). The philosopher Sari Nusseibeh is married to one of Austin's children, Lucy. A recent review he wrote mentioned some biographical material discovered by one of Austin's grandchildren (i.e., one of Nusseibeh and Lucy's own children). In any event, they might hold the rights or know who does. A publicly available sample of a full Austin lecture would be a fantastic addition to the extant material, particularly given that so little of his work was in publishable form at his death.

Nat Hansen said...

Hi Hamlet82,

That's a good suggestion. I read that review and I'm interested in what Nusseibeh has found. For the time being you still need to go to London to hear the lecture. I'll keep looking around for copyright info.