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All the world is a stage

  • 08 December 2022
Recent events have highlighted the popularity of gesture as the preferred way to express conviction. The protests in China against lockdowns and in Qatar against its treatment of homosexuality and of migrant workers have relied less on words and more on such things as coloured armbands and blank sheets of paper. Once protests would have found expression in powerfully argued and persuasively delivered speeches. Now people look less to the power and skill of the words and more to the gestures in which they are embodied. This precedence given to performative language over deliberative language deserves reflection. 

There are two kinds of performative words. The purest form is when we communicate a message non-verbally. Walking silently out of a meeting, for example, sends a strong message of disapproval. Voting in elections is another wordless action that has an effect. Words themselves, however, can also be performative, when the fact of them being spoken matters more than the meaning. Enraged and incoherent words in a social media pile-on perform conviction regardless of their argument. The unheard prayers on a martyrs lips before their public execution can also affect bystanders powerfully.

Performative language is also designed to build solidarity as much as to persuade individuals. A shared hashtag can connect a million people. The knee taken before a cricket test match links players both in the opposing teams to one another and to people in their societies in rejecting discrimination on the basis of race.  

Although performative language has taken new shapes recently, it has a long history. In fact, it precedes words. A small child communicates pain, anger and hunger by crying and screaming, and happiness by smiling. Throwing things, hitting and pulling hair also form part of wordless communication. The learning of language and mastery of its use are part of a long process that rarely replaces performative language entirely. To express frustration and anger even the most verbally rich people sometimes have recourse to obscenities regardless of their primary meaning. 

More sophisticated forms of performative language are found in public rituals, particularly within cultures marked by belief in a world other than that of our everyday experience. Such gestures by the Jewish prophets as breaking pottery jars, tearing garments and even marrying a prostitute communicate God’s attitude to human behaviour and its consequences. Jesus’ healings and exorcisms both embodied and substantiated God’s activity in the world through Jesus. His death and resurrection, following