Performative and Propositional

Terry Eagleton
Terry Eagleton

Something increasingly clear to me is the importance of the relation between the propositional content of an ideology and its performative content. It initially became apparent to me when I read an interview with Terry Eagleton in which he accuses Richard Dawkins of having a far too ‘propositional’ notion of Christianity. What he means by this is that Dawkins takes propositional statements (e.g. ‘Love your enemy’, ‘God exists’) and judges them out of all context of their ritual performance. In other words, a propositional critique of religion deals only with abstract statements and ignores the lived texture of reality in which they are performed. When pushed on this point with a useful question by the interviewer (‘how far can one go believing in God performatively, through political acts, before it becomes a proposition?’) Eagleton replies with the following:

“All performatives imply propositions.  There’s no point in my operating a performative like, say, promising, or cursing, unless I have certain beliefs about the nature of reality: that there is indeed such an institution as promising, that I am able to perform it, and so on.  The performative and the propositional work into each other.  But it is a typically positivist kind of mistake to begin with the propositional, just as it would be for someone trying to analyze a literary text, which is basically a performance.  Somebody who didn’t grasp that would be making a root-and-branch mistake about the kind of thing being confronted.  These new atheists, and, indeed, the great majority of believers, have been conned rather falsely into a positivist or dogmatic theology, into believing that religion consists in signing on for a set of propositions.”

Although Eagleton doesn’t use these terms, one of the problems with positivistic analyses of social phenomena (unlike, say, scientific phenomena) is that the analyst thinks of herself as inhabiting a dominant, neutral territory, a position of truth. There is a certain Olympian, condescending gaze inherent to this kind of thinking, and it is this which means that the analyst is not prepared to put herself on the line: in short – and at the extreme – she is not capable of sacrificing herself to something, be this her surroundings or an idea.

Of course, the obvious response to this is ‘Well, why should she sacrifice herself to something which isn’t true?’ And here, like Eagleton, we can only respond by emphasising the dialectical interplay of proposition and performance. Moreover, we can point out that the ‘neutral’ observer is already unwittingly performing in ways which are deeply inscribed with certain ideologies (in this case, positivism – one of the many upshots of the quantitative mindsets generated by an economic system numb to qualities) and whose propositional tenets, if laid out like those of the ideology (say, Christianity) she is critiquing, might bring down upon them a similar ridicule.

Raymond Williams
Raymond Williams

One of the consequences of an approach towards Christianity which focuses on the performative aspects of the creed would be to consider what it means for a believer to live out his beliefs on a day-to-day basis, or how it feels to do so. These are obviously no guarantees to discerning a classically positivist truth or falsity, in which veracity is cold and unlived. But it would surely make the debate between Christians and non-Christians far less polarised. They could at least begin to speak the same language.

But what really interests me about this debate is not its effects on understanding ‘religion’. Rather, it is the far more important issue of politics. I’ll cut to the chase: I, as a suburban petit bourgeois, have never encountered socialism as a lived reality. My first experience of it was as a set of propositions which appealed to my intellectual outlook and to my practical reason. This is a far cry from someone like Raymond Williams, born in 1921 and raised in a family of socialists, with a father who was a signalman and who took part in the General Strike of 1926. For Raymond Williams, socialism was a way of life; for me, it is a sensible set of propositions which, when judged on the basis of my unsocialist lived reality and my overall moral temperament, rings true.

My personal experience is far from universal, but it is also far from rare. The aim of this blog post is to invite discussion on the following questions:

  • What are the consequences of the fact (if it is true) that many young people in the West encounter socialism as a set of propositions – or at least as reported past events – rather than as a way of life?
  • What can we do to rekindle the lived reality of socialism – of communal networks, of fraternity, of popular education, of communal demands for justice, of class-struggle – in a historical time which is amnesia and a historical place which is a(n) (sub)urban desert?

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