An Inclusive Litany


A transcript from the June 1 wedding of Cary Wolfe and Allison Hunter. Wolfe teaches critical theory at SUNY Albany. Hunter is an artist. Both apparently have a well-developed sense of humor.
Judge Silverman:
Friends and relatives, we are gathered here today to witness the marriage of Allison and Cary. To do so, we must perform these vows in an act of ceremony.

But what are these things: to wed, to marry, to take a wedding vow? They are what the philosopher J.L. Austin, in his study How To Do Things With Words, calls "speech acts," of which there are two different kinds: constative speech acts, whose primary attribute is that they say something; and performative speech acts (of which this ceremony is an example), whose primary attribute is that they do something. A performative speech act, as Austin puts it, doesn't describe a state of affairs; it possesses the crucial feature of accomplishing the very act to which it refers. The very act of saying it makes it so.

It's not enough just to think the words of the wedding vow, no matter how sincerely you may be thinking them. (If it were enough, then I wouldn't be here and neither would you.) And it's not enough even to say them. (If it were, Allison and Cary could just recite these lines to each other on the subway, say, or while making risotto, and—voilà!—they'd be married.)

No, for a performative to carry out its function, it must meet a number of criteria. To quote Austin:

(A.1) There must exist an accepted conventional procedure having a certain conventional effect, that procedure to include the uttering of certain words by certain persons in certain circumstances, and further, (A.2) the particular persons and circumstances in a given case must be appropriate for the invocation of the particular procedure invoked. (B.1) The procedure must be executed by all participants both correctly and (B.2) completely.
Although we've just begun the ceremony—or have we?—some interesting questions have already gathered on the horizon: Is this set of words, so far, "accepted"? Are they "appropriate for the invocation of the particular procedure invoked"? Are we executing the procedure "correctly" and "completely"? Is it enough simply to say, "Do you, Allison, take Cary to be your lawfully wedded husband?"

"I do."

Judge Silverman:
"And do you, Cary, take Allison to be your lawfully wedded wife?"

"I do."

Judge Silverman:
As it turns out, it is enough, and the words just uttered by both Allison and Cary are sufficient—but not because of the words themselves.

First of all—according to Austin and according to the law—the words must be meant "seriously" and not self-referentially.

The problem with that, though, as Jonathan Culler has pointed out in his discussion of Jacques Derrida's critique of Austin, is that the distinction between the serious and nonserious is always uncertain, always subject to deconstruction, and any attempt to solve that problem by insisting on the "proper" context for a statement is bound to fail.

For example, we are all familiar with the signs at airport security checkpoints that read, "All remarks concerning bombs and weapons will be taken seriously." Such signs, Culler notes, attempt "to preclude the possibility of saying in jest, 'I have a bomb in my shoe,' by identifying such utterances as serious statements. But this codification fails to arrest the play of meaning," because "the structure of language grafts this codification onto the context it attempts to master," creating "new opportunities for obnoxious behavior," such as, "If I were to remark that I had a bomb in my shoe, you would have to take it seriously, wouldn't you?"—a statement "whose force is a function of context but which escapes the prior attempt to codify contextual force."

It's a bit like George Carlin's observation about those same signs. "NO JOKES," perhaps, "but what about riddles?"

Our point is that the distinction between "serious" and "nonserious" as determining what makes a performative binding doesn't solve the problem; it only pushes it back a notch. At which point, we can only fall back on the very invocation of "sincerity" that Austin's idea of the performative seems designed to deflate. We can only ask, Did you, Cary and Allison, seriously mean what you just said about taking each other as husband and wife?

Cary and Allison:
Yes, we did.

Judge Silverman:
Okay, good. Now we're getting somewhere, legally speaking. Austin may in the end be wrong, as Derrida suggests, about seriousness being decisive, but what he is right about is this: when such words are uttered in the "appropriate" context—by two parties who have obtained a marriage license, presided over by me ("by the power invested in me," as one often hears), and so on—then those words are nevertheless binding, no matter what anyone thinks.

All of which is why the very first definition of the word "marry" in the Oxford English Dictionary is "to join for life as husband and wife according to the laws and customs of a nation." And this, in turn, is why it is misguided to think that what validates a wedding ceremony is the making public of innermost feelings, and the sincerity or earnestness thereof. That may be a satisfactory performance, but it is beside the point of the wedding vow as performative.

This is why Austin insists (in a stipulation almost too good to be true for our purposes) that "the act of marrying, like, say, the act of betting"—which is, incidentally, one of the meanings of the words "wed"—"is to be described as saying certain words, rather than as performing a different, inward and spiritual, action of which these words are merely the outward and audible sign."

To understand the act otherwise—to see it as, indeed, the outward sign of an inward and spiritual action—is precisely what makes most wedding vows written by the bride and groom so unsatisfactory to Cary and Allison.

Such pronouncements, heartfelt though they may be, indulge in a fundamental misunderstanding. They do not understand that the power of the wedding vow as a performative utterance derives not from its external registration of the bride and groom's intimate, spiritual feelings—as if somehow the more heartfelt and confessional your ceremony is, the more married you are—but rather from the external, conventional nature of the act itself.

This is why Cary and Allison are not going to drone on today about how much they care about each other, how they promise to do this and not do that, and so on. First of all, they assume that you all already know how they feel about each other without being told in graphic and maudlin detail—that's why you're here. And second of all, it takes a lifetime, not twenty minutes, for two people to define for themselves what the word "marriage" means. Your presence here is simply to witness their commitment to undertake such a definition.

In sum, then, it is not the "uniqueness" or "originality" or "sincerity" of the vow that carries its force but precisely what Derrida calls its "iterability" or "citationality," its repeatability, its utter unoriginality (Culler: 316-17). So it is that we find ourselves at this moment in the middle of a vow that is itself largely about vows. That such a vow may itself be taken as highly "original" perfectly exemplifies Derrida's point about statement and context that provides the lift in George Carlin's joke about airport security signs: If we wrote a vow about vows, you would have to take it seriously, wouldn't you?

So it is not that you, Allison and Cary, have said particular words, or even that you have performed particular acts such as the customary exchanging of rings to symbolize your commitment to each other.

[Cary and Allison exchange rings.]

Rather, it is that you have agreed to do and say these things under certain binding circumstances—circumstances to which you have, as it were, surrendered yourselves.

And now I will say, "by the power invested in me," that I now pronounce you husband and wife. Cary, you may now kiss not your girlfriend, or your domestic partner, but your wife with a binding force more powerful than all the kisses that came before.

[Cary and Allison kiss.]

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