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Poetics Today 22.3 (2001) 669-670

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The Use and Abuse of Speech-Act Theory in Criticism:
A Corrective Note

David Gorman
English, Northern Illinois

Since publishing my essay “The Use and Abuse of Speech-Act Theory in Criticism” (Gorman 1999) in these pages, two errors have come to my attention, one major, the other minor.

The major error was repeatedly to include Richard Ohmann’s name in lists of those literary theorists who have undertaken to discuss speech-act theory without, evidently, bothering either to learn much about it or, much worse, to think much about it (94, 96). This is a major error because the half-dozen or so items that Ohmann published on speech-act theory during the early 1970s, listed in Sandy Petrey’s bibliography and discussed in chapter 5 of his book (1990: 70–75), are exempt from the main charges I made against the appropriations of speech-act theory by literary critics. Specifically I criticized literary theorists for obsessing over J. L. Austin’s exclusion of linguistic phenomena associated with literature from theoretical consideration. Far from falling into this mistake, however, Ohmann’s aim was always to extend the speech-act approach to literary language. To take another example, I complained about the recent critical fetishization of the “performative.” Ohmann’s work of course predates this development. I might have realized my mistake if, instead of rushing to assimilate Ohmann into a trend in literary theory to which I strongly object, I had gone back to reread his writings, which in hindsight appear to represent the beginnings of an alternative path in the literary-critical response to the theory of speech acts. [End Page 669]

The minor error that I made was to mischaracterize Jacques Derrida’s response to John Searle in “Limited Inc” (Derrida 1988 [1977]). As I put it (1999: 102), Derrida attempted to cast Searle as a defender of some Austinian orthodoxy, and against this I emphasized the critical, revisionist nature of Searle’s response to Austin. Upon rereading Derrida, however, I must note in fairness that Derrida’s treatment is (ever so) slightly more nuanced than this. In section J of “Limited Inc,” Derrida quotes Searle as making the same point that I did, Derrida’s reaction to the point being the claim that Searle “would like to be Austin’s sole legitimate heir and his sole critic” (42). This error is a minor one because it pertains to nothing more than the exegesis of Derrida. In my essay (95–96), I had already pointed out the tendency of these interpretive subtleties to distract from reflection on the theory of speech acts, which I simply assumed to be the primary aim and justification of the material discussed there.

David Gorman is associate professor of English at Northern Illinois University and is the book-review editor for Style. He has published essays on the history and theory of literary criticism and is currently preparing a monograph on the work of Gérard Genette.


Derrida, Jacques
1988 [1977] “Limited Inc a b c . . . ,” translated by Samuel Weber, in Limited Inc, edited (uncredited) by Gerald Graff, 29–110 (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press).

Gorman, David
1999 “The Use and Abuse of Speech-Act Theory in Criticism,” Poetics Today 20: 93–119.

Petry, Sandy
1990 Speech Acts and Literary Theory (New York: Routledge).



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