Response: Performative Reflections on Love and Commitment
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Performative Reflections on Love and Commitment

I am very grateful for the two thoughtful essays on Excitable Speech. I thought to respond by focusing on two of the points made in those essays. The first one was posed by J. Hillis Miller. He asks me to think about the kind of effective force that speech acts have when they do not wound, but rather convey love. How do we think about the speech act “I love you?” The second is a question posed by George Shulman. He asks me to think about commitment. So I will do my best to write briefly about love and commitment from the perspective of a theory of performativity.

Miller is right to point out that if words have the power to wound, they also have the power to convey love. It is interesting that, for Miller, the opposite of wounding is not reparation but love, and it is true that the speech act that conveys love is one that brings up other questions about the relationship between language and the body. I would like to say first that to say “I love you” is, of course, to submit to a cliché. And it may be that we are only willing to submit to such a cliché for certain people and under certain circumstances. One can easily inhabit the anonymity of the phrase as a way of minimizing the exposure created by the speech act. We can ask, what kind of exposure is this? Who or what is exposed? It is a speech act that is said to some “you,” not knowing whether the “you” will receive or return the speech act as well. In fact, if the speech act is too quickly returned, it feels automatic or, rather, like the other is actually hiding within the folds of the cliché. Sometimes it seems to matter more when there is some silence that indicates that the utterance has actually stilled language for a moment. We rely on those forms of stillness even as we do not know precisely how to fill them with speech. In saying “I love you,” a [End Page 236] certain “I” is installed in one of the most repeated phrases in the English language, a marketed phrase, one that belongs to no one and to anyone. One risks a full evaporation into an anonymous citationality: I speak as countless others have spoken, say the same words, and you are equally substitutable at such a moment. On the one hand, the citationality of the speech act offends our sense of singularity or even authenticity, if that is a value we have. On the other hand, it is precisely through the citationality of the speech act that the body emerges in a specifically linguistic form. I give some somatic feeling to you, or try to, when I say these words, and I want the words to carry that feeling from here to there to find its destination with you, and to be received there, or even to alter who you are and what you feel. Even as the utterance is citational, it is also transitive. But its transitivity is never actually automatic. One can receive the Hallmark card with the love proclamation printed in gold letters, and quickly throw it away without a second thought. Sometimes someone says “I love you” and we find them slightly mad or overwrought. We recoil, step away, turn away. And of course, that can always happen to us: there is a chance that our speech act will be refused, and when and if it is, we are ourselves refused, and we feel that refusal in a bodily way.

So what then is the relation between speech and body here? It is crucial to remember, as Shoshana Felman has argued, that the speech act, when voiced, comes from the mouth and throat. The body is not only its vehicle, but something is bodied forth in the saying. Our body is not simply “over here” as a spatiotemporal given, but is itself given over, exposed, and “spoken” through the speech act that emerges either as sound, as text, or in some visual form. “The body...