Theistic Performatives

I spent some time talking about performativity with a content-based class this summer, in both the linguistic “I now pronounce you man and wife” sense and the Butlerian “gender is created through its performance” sense. I didn’t anticipate to find the principle illustrated in the responses to two mass shootings in the days after our class ended, in the usual round of “thoughts and prayers” (sometimes in those words exactly and sometimes in other words as the original phrasing has become a bit of a cliché) being offered for the victims.

To be precise, he describes “thoughts and prayers” as a feigned interaction rather than as a performative utterance.

(To be clear, although this post is about language, I think the news and the banal responses are horrifying. This is a topic for a separate post, but you can always count on an ESL teacher not to buy arguments based on national exceptionalism – they seem more ridiculous the more of them you encounter.)

To be clear, I don’t mean “performative” as a synonym of “fake” or “for purposes of pure appearance”. I just mean that, like the canonical example of sentences with the adverb “hereby”, you make it true by saying/performing it. That is, by tweeting “I’m sending my thoughts and prayers”, one ipso facto sends thoughts and prayers. This seems to be an exception to the general rule that performative verbs come in the present simple, as in “I deny” or “I promise”, but it has other hallmarks of performativity, like not functioning when the subject is something other than the speaker, lacking declarative content, and accomplishing a social function that people regard as important.

(It seems to me that the phrase “I’m begging you” could be interpreted as either a performative or a declarative – one where the begging is literally done by saying that phrase and the other where the begging is done by other actions around that phrase and the phrase merely describes them – whereas “I beg you” is clearly a performative.)

To elaborate on those last 3 points, it is a completely different utterance when the subject is another person. “Bob sends his thoughts and prayers” conveys a message but doesn’t perform the sending any more than “Bob declares you husband and wife” performs a marriage. “I’m sending my thoughts and prayers” similarly doesn’t contain a proposition which could be proven true or false, as “I prayed yesterday” or even “I am praying now” do. As for the social function, well, some people consider the sending of prayers to be just as important if not moreso than many other acts we associate with performativity, like being declared not guilty or being fired, partly because of the audience that they suppose is listening.

On that last point, whether one considers sending thoughts and prayers to be performative, or in what sense it is performative, depends quite a bit on your idea of what a “prayer” really is. If you believe that “praying” is an act with effect purely of the human social sphere, as is the implication of calling it performative, you strongly imply that there is no god to hear or act on prayers or that it is irrelevant to their effects – notice that we don’t need to assume a supernatural listener for other performative verbs like “recommend” to have performative effects. On the other hand, if you believe that god or gods exist and need prayers to be performed in some other way (besides tweeting them) for them to take effect, then “sending my thoughts and prayers” is not a performative utterance at all, just a declarative a la “I’m jogging in the park”. Someone could tweet “Sending my thoughts and prayers” and then (at least from their perspective) actually go and accomplish the act of sending thoughts and prayers separately, with the first describing the intention to do the second. It seems that one’s interpretation of the performativity of the verb “pray” might incline one toward atheism.

There is a third option, which I’m coining the phrase theistic performative to describe, in which prayers, including phrases like “sending my thoughts and prayers”, are indeed heard by a god or gods but also need to be uttered to have effect. In this case, the deity being appealed to doesn’t react to intentions or desires unless they are verbalized (orally or mentally), and the use of a performative verb is part of what carries them to god’s proverbial (or literal?) ear. One still performs the act of prayer by the use of performative verbs, but perlocutionary effect is on a supernatural being rather than another human.

This would distinguish the verb “pray” from many other other performative verbs in that it requires no recognition of authority from other people for its felicitousness (the word for what allows a judge or jury but not the court reporter to “find you guilty”). Rather, it depends on the mental state of the person performing the speech act – if he/she believes that prayers are felicitous, then they are.

This is separate from the question of whether the recipient of the prayers acts on them – it is purely a question of what kind of discourse a person who “sends thoughts and prayers” imagines him or herself to be involved in.

I wish that didn’t sound as condescending as it does. Is it me, or is it the subject matter?

2 thoughts on “Theistic Performatives

  1. Well, after 9/11, I remember emailing friends and colleagues who lived in Manhattan, basically to tell them I was thinking of them and hoped they were all right. It might have been a banal response, but it did have the virtue of being true. I think it’s a mistake to attack people’s sincerity. To anyone who offers “thoughts and prayers” after a mass shooting, I would say “Thank you. However, for me thoughts and prayers aren’t enough. I intend to take action to keep weapons out of the hands of individuals who wish to harm themselves or others.”


    • I was afraid this post would come off that way. There are certainly people who criticize “thoughts and prayers” as meaningless pablum, or self-centeredness as in the comedy clip. I am, at least at this point, more concerned with how one accomplishes the sending of a thought or prayer, and whether saying so publicly is enough. Someone who doesn’t believe the utterance is performative might agree with you that further action (i.e., actually setting aside time and praying) is necessary, and someone who doesn’t believe that prayer is meaningful might definitely see the gesture as empty even when they agree that the prayers were indeed sent.


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