by Geoffrey Nunberg


For starters, recall the notion of a performative utterance, which was introduced by the philosopher J. L. Austin in his 1955 William James lectures (later published as How to Do Things With Words). Unlike "constative" utterances--statements and the like--performative utterances do, rather than merely report. "I now pronounce you husband and wife"; "I hereby dub you Sir Nigel"; "I bet you ten dollars it will rain tomorrow"--when utterance like those are produced in the appropriate circumstances, they don't simply describe the world, but change it, creating contracts, bestowing names, and so forth.

But while the effects of acts of betting, christening, marrying, pronouncing a verdict and such are obvious, Austin also gave some examples that are a little more puzzling--or always have been to me, anyway. "I apologize," for example. Austin described that as a performative utterance, as opposed to a constative utterance like "I repent." That certainly feels right, but what exactly does an apology do? Austin didn't say, nor do most other writers who talk about the subject. You can find no end of lists of conditions that an utterance has to satisfy to count as a true apology: the speaker has to regret the act and its consequences, feel sorry about it, accept responsibility for it, vow not to repeat it, and so on. But few of them explain how an apology actually makes the world different, unlike mere expressions of regret, remorse or penitence. The most enlightening discussion of this that I know of comes (not surprisingly) from Erving Goffman, in his books Interaction Ritual and particularly Relations in Public. (Goffman's account has since been built on by others, but his story will do for here.) Apologies, Goffman said, are remediation rituals that

represent a splitting of the self into a blameworthy part and a part that stands back and sympathizes with them, and by implication, is worthy of being brought back into the fold.
After an offense has occurred, the job of the offender is to show... that whatever happened before, he now has a right relationship--a pious attitude--to the rule in question, and this is a matter of indicating a relationship, not compensating a loss.
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Does anybody really care whether Pat Robertson was genuinely remorseful about suggesting that Hugo Chavez should be assassinated, or whether Charles Stimson felt a pang of conscience after attacking the lawyers representing the Guantanamo detainees? Sometimes, the more insincere and grudging a nonapology is, the better it makes the point: it doesn't matter whether you're really sorry--if you say this kind of stuff, you're going to have to go out there and take it back.