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Poetics Today 21.2 (2000) 423-433

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Whose Acts? Which Communities?
A Reply to David Gorman

Sandy Petrey

It seems a safe bet that readers of David Gorman’s “Use and Abuse of Speech-Act Theory in Criticism” (1999) will suspect this already, but let me say it anyway: I think more highly than he does of literary critics’ adaptations of speech-act theory. I will therefore not use the space generously provided me by the editors of Poetics Today to explain why I don’t agree with Gorman (1999: 3) that “sheer badness” and “catastrophic inadequacy” are valid categorizations of my literary colleagues’ work with J. L. Austin or that “the most striking problem with Petrey’s study is that he simply doesn’t understand Austin well” (ibid.: 26) provides a reliable overview of my own. I assume that anyone bothering to read my response has admitted at least the possibility that my inadequacies, however numerous, stop short of catastrophe. Since Gorman’s essay makes his own adequacy apparent, the question I want to address isn’t which of us apprehends more astutely, but how we could have come to such disparate apprehensions of Austin’s How to Do Things with Words (1975). The answer I will propose is that our differences arise not because one of us understands and the other doesn’t but because each of us understands through distinct conceptual frames.

I am a literary critic, as are almost all the scholars whose work Gorman finds catastrophically inadequate. Literary critics work and think within categories and paradigms that, despite their variety, have enough in common to give us a common scholarly identity. Although he is a member of an English department, Gorman takes his perspective from different categories and paradigms, those developed by the tradition of Anglo-American philosophy, to which Austin himself belonged. As Gorman points out early in his essay, the interrelations between literary critics and Anglo-American philosophers have not been numerous or fruitful, which has exacerbated the dissonance normally felt when disciplines confront one another. Critics and analytic philosophers have evaluated Austin’s version of speech-act [End Page 423] theory in such dramatically diverse ways that ideas striking one group as sheer badness have produced sheer delight in the other.

On looking at what critics do with Austin, Gorman (ibid.: 36) finds multiple examples of a “kind of failure endemic both to Petrey’s book and the kind of literary-theoretical work that it represents.” Those of us who have done that literary-theoretical work see something quite different: a fresh and exciting perspective on the text and its readers, derived from Austin’s fresh and exciting perspective on language and its users. We critics have read Austin with pleasure and profit, and a major part of Gorman’s indictment is that both—our pleasure and our profit—have proved immune to philosophers’ protestations that they haven’t experienced either one.

Gorman (ibid.: 35) specifies the “aspects of Austin’s thought that have impressed literary theorists in spite of philosophers’ failure to hail them” in order to argue that theorists’ excitement is inappropriate so long as philosophers remain blasé. But our reaction to what Austin has taught us has nothing to do with philosophers’ suspicion that he has nothing to teach them. Distinct disciplines produce distinct perspectives; distinct perspectives produce different evaluations. Analytic philosophers and literary critics think in different ways, and it’s not at all surprising that they assess thinking in different ways as well. The badness and goodness of intellectual work are almost never sheer, almost always generated in function of a disciplinary paradigm. Rather than follow Gorman’s lead and insist that my paradigm is valid with the same fervor he displays in asserting it is defective, therefore, I want simply to recognize the paradigms without hierarchizing them. Literary critics can exuberantly welcome a thinker whom analytic philosophers fail to hail without one response being necessarily inferior to the other.

Yet it is undeniable that one response has from the beginning been more positive than the other. While...


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