Project WAMEDAC - "The King's Speech" Acts: On Illocution, Representation, and Reality

            I was originally hoping to keep the film analysis and criticism stuff off of this blog, despite the fact that film analysis is a purely semiotic process of engagement with both proposed and unproposed realities (something quite relevant here). However, a King's Speech is gonna break that short, short-lived rule, as it obviously deals quite heavily with some of the concepts that this blog focuses on and grants me an opportunity to ramble at you about the chunk of Pragmatics that is Speech Acts. What's a speech act? Basically, a speech act is a conceptual view of an utterance, a linguistic expression, as performing a social action in addition to communicating the information encoded in it. Previous ideas, claiming every utterance has some level of "truth value" that represents reality (or doesn't), were challenged by the development of speech act theory, the understanding that (at least some) utterances were actually "performatives," devoid of any sort of truth value. Performatives, instead, carry out an action in the act of speaking, as in "I now declare you wife and wife," or "I swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me god." These are, in a fashion, actions that take place entirely within the realm of semantics, requiring only social agreement, validation, and legitimation that the concepts and actions involved actually exist and can be carried out in order to be "real" in a basic sense.

            How I view expression, communication, and reading/receiving fits overtop J.L. Austin's ideas of Locutionary, Illocutionary, and Perlocutionary Speech Acts in an interesting way. Rather than different kinds of speech acts, these three categories are different layers at which one can analyze and describe a single speech act. One of the clearest examples used to explain the concept is the utterance, "Is there any salt?" when at the family dinner table. The locutionary act is the physical performing of the speech act, the connection of those words (signs) along the grammar (syntax) of English, and the vocalization of the cognitive product (the actual physical act of expression). It can also be understood to be the basic, surface-level, "literal" meaning of the utterance (a question about the presence of salt). The illocutionary act, then, is the intended meaning of the utterance (an act of communicating that the speaker would like the hearer to pass them some salt). The perlocutionary act, according to Austin, is the psychological effect and response that the utterance creates (such as getting someone to pass or refuse to pass the salt). All of these three layers of action and meaning occur within the single utterance, the single speech act.

            Austin created a basic trifold form for explaining these intricately intermingled layers of speech acts. Though he later abandoned it as a test, I think it functions quite well to demonstrate my trifold understanding of cognitive communication. "[T]he illocutionary act, he says, is an act performed in saying something, as contrasted with a locutionary act, the act of saying something, and also contrasted with a perlocutionary act, an act performed by saying something" (Wiki). I would take the locutionary act (of saying something) as the act of expressing something, whether it be by speaking, writing, painting, singing, snapping a picture, whittling, or whatever that could be constituted as an expression, made of signs, that can be "read" by an observer to mean something. The locutionary act is the physical creation of an expression via the manifestation of signs (transferring them from the cognitive internal to the material external). I would take the illocutionary act (performed in saying something) as the actual act of communicating something, when an expression is taken-up by another cognitive experiencer in the acts of observation and reading/receiving, turning it from an expression of meaning through signs made physically manifest, into a communication of meaning between multiple cognitive experiencers through a medium. Apparently, in Stephen Schiffer's book Meaning (p. 103), he represents the illocutionary act as just the act of "meaning something." Such an idea could be built on quite well to form an understanding of the concept of meaning as internal and solitary (thought), while the act of meaning as external and social (communication).

            The important thing to note here is that in a communication, nothing directly transfers from the speaker to the hearer, the performer to the audience. The meaning that the expresser wants to "get across" never actually leaves their mind. Symbolic representations of that meaning are crafted through the expresser's thinking about the medium, genre, context of the situation, and innumerable other variables and tailoring a particular instance of encoding the meaning they wish to communicate into something physical: speech, writing, images, colors, percussion, foley work, etc. They haven't communicated yet, though, only expressed. That expression must be observed by their audience, so that, in so doing, their audience will be given enough information to be able to read the context, genre, medium, and other variables in relation to the signs in the expression and form their own meaning in their own mind. If that meaning in the audience's head, what they get out of the expression, is congruent enough to the meaning the expresser wanted to get across, then they have been comprehended, or understood. This is a matter of degrees on a spectrum, not an either-or phenomenon. That's why an expression can be understood in varying degrees. ("Just take the next turn." "Which turn?" "The next one." "The left one?" "Right, left.") It's essentially different levels of congruity between the expessor's meaning and the receiver's meaning that determine how well an expression, and its expresser, are understood. When all participants believe a sufficient level of understanding has been achieved, they're believed to have communicated.

            Communication isn't a transfer, it's an attempt to trigger mirror neurons, pathways, concepts, and associations in another person in a fashion that resembles what we have in our own head. This is one reason I enjoy the commonality between "communication" and "community." In both, the individual actors don't meld anything together, yet they all, collectively, have generated a common (enough) understanding within themselves about each other. A community is a collection of people that have effectively communicated enough of their commonalities to be favorably viewed by each other within a particular frame (whether it be geographical, occupational, class-based, sub-cultural, etc.). But I digress, this illocutionary act of communicating, in my mind, is the act of approaching or achieving relative congruency between one cognitive experiencer's conception of something and another's.

            This act of spurring a congruous meaning or understanding in another, or in a way, achieving a sort of relative co-cognition, relies not just on the locutionary act of forming a physical expression, but also on the perlocutionary act. I would take the perlocutionary act (performed by saying something) as the act of an interlocutor, an audience member, speech-participant, reader, etc. to engage with an expression, to generate their own meaning from it. We know from art/film criticism, literary theory, abstract and surrealist works, conversational misunderstandings, "mixed signals," conspiracy theorists, psychoanalysis, schizophrenics, synesthesiacs, the phrase "You're reading way too much into that, man," and much more that expresser's/speaker's/artist's intentionality can matter for shit in the perlocutionary act of reading an expression, of discerning what and all that it means to someone. I didn't intend (or "mean") to offend anyone with my word-choice, but merely to express my understanding with signs that may generate similar understanding in you about my value and truth judgement of source intentionality when it comes to the constituent features of meaning-making. If I did offend someone, my intentionality can only alter that if they decide that my intentionality matters to them when forming what understanding they take from my expression. In that way, intentionality only matters as much as how it gets the expresser to shape their expression, its creation, and its presentation, or as much as the receiver is both able to discern it and willing to consider it as having saliency, or relevant importance, for their own internal, cognitive, meaning-making process that they do with the expression.

            Regardless of intentionality, the primary goal in (pretty much?) all expressions and attempts at communications is to be understood, comprehended, or, more specifically, to be relatively fairly and accurately represented as we would like to be seen, or as we believe we should function, in the perlocutionary (read: "reading") process that collectively generates another cognitive experiencer's understanding, comprehension, or, more specifically, their reality. Their worldview is sourced by the myriad of inputs their brain takes in through their senses. To be understood is to have communicated, or generated in another person, the meaning that you wanted to express, an act performed entirely in the cognition of the "understander," based on how they process the signs in the physical manifestation of the expression that comes in through their senses, and how they're encoded: an illocutionary process, generated by the locutionary and perlocutionary acts. When this is successful, and the meaning generated is fairly congruent with the meaning hoping to be communicated, then the expresser's understanding, their conception of things, is fairly represented in the mind of the receiver/interlocutor as a legitimate concept, judgement, or valuation in their worldview.

            This long-winded explanation and pontification is all just one example and extrapolation to show how one could understand other theories of different types of expression, such as speech acts, to fit quite nicely with my conception of communication as an isolated, but "communing," congruency generating process of multi-lateral, cognitive, socio-semiotic meaning-making, and also to demonstrate the importance of the physical manifestation of the expresser's meaning(the message, encoded with signs, in the medium) as the core site of meaning negotiation beyond one's internal cognition, regardless of the theoretical assumptions and analytical model being applied. This is what, basically, forms the A-story of The King's Speech (that's what this post is about, right?): the importance of the form and particulars of the physical expression, the locutionary act, because of how it constitutes the socio-semantic realm, the boundaries within which the audience (and, reflexively, the expresser) can generate what meaning to take from the expression, shaping the nature and perlocutionary effect of the communication. In particular, it touches on some of the root, cognitive origins of a breakdown in the locutionary process, and the suffering it can cause the fully-functioning cognitive experiencer that must, well, suffer that physical breakdown.

            But before I get to that, just one more bit about speech acts: a taxonomy. (I'll mine a textbook from the Brintons for a bit of perspective on that.) Why? I don't know. It's interesting when you can classify things you just assume and take for granted as adhering identifiable, categorical models... ...right? Anyway, philosopher John Searle expanded on his mentor Austin's identification of features of illocutionary (read: communicative) acts to define six classes of speech acts:

  • Directives: Attempts by speaker to get hearer to do something. (e.g. ordering, commanding, requesting, pleading, begging, entreating, daring, inviting, suggesting, permitting, challenging, questioning, etc.)
  • Commissives: Commitments by speaker to perform an action. (e.g. promising, vowing, pledging, threatening, guaranteeing, agreeing, consenting, refusing, etc.)
  • Representatives: Representations of a state of affairs by speaker. (e.g. affirming, declaring, describing, claiming, stating, explaining, classifying, insisting, telling, hypothesizing, recalling, mentioning, attesting, confiding, emphasizing, predicting, etc.)
  • Expressives: Expressions by speaker of a psychological state about the situation or state of affairs denoted by the proposition or utterance (e.g. thanking, apologizing, consoling, congratulating, greeting, welcoming, deploring, etc.)
  • Verdictives: Value judgements or ratings of something by speaker. (e.g. assessing, ranking, rating, estimating, grading, diagnosing, calculating, measuring, etc.)
  • Declaratives: "Prototypical speech act." Speaker brings about a change in the world by uttering a locutionary act. (e.g. declaring war, seconding a motion, adjourning a meeting, firing, nominating, christening, finding guilty/innocent, betting, passing (in a game), divorcing, baptizing, arresting, resigning, etc.)

            (There are other taxonomies, but this one has served alright for me so far. Although, it is interesting to note that all examples in the other categories could also fit in the frame of Declaratives if slightly twisted. I believe the main difference, however, is that the Declarative speech acts may not require a perlocutionary act to be considered performed actions. I'm not certain, unfortunately, as that gets into "If a tree falls in the forest and no one's around..." territory, and I only have so much mental energy at a time.) Although I do know that, if a Declarative speech act is heard/received by someone, they have to understand it and recognize it as legitimate for the declaration to at all be successful, or communicated, since these declarations are solely social constructs. It's sort of impossible for one person to declare someone guilty of a crime that nobody else, anywhere, believes is a crime. Likewise, if that single person has to arrest the "guilty" party themselves, but no one else believes anyone has the authority to place anyone else "under arrest," then that single person isn't exactly arresting the "offender," they're simply capturing, detaining, or holding them, or, in a general sense, arresting their body from free movement.

            The legitimacy of speech acts, particularly declaratives, are popular socio-semantic rallying points for socio-political action; practically any history of a monarchy, a civil war, or a court system will tell you that. With said legitimacy entirely constructed by the number and fervency of believers in one's speech acts, the importance and stressful factors of one's failure at public speaking are brought quite strongly into focus when looking at the story of someone who creates the vast majority of the world's understanding of them through public proclamations, as in The King's Speech. While certainly glossing over the nationalist, prescriptivist, and patriotically exploitative nature of kings, subjects, national identity, and whatnot, to focus instead on the personal struggles of the stammering King George VI, the film pretty much dives head-first into the field of pragmatics by way of speech acts and social structure negotiations.


            If/when you watch the movie, pay attention to things like titles, names, and other word choices that shape our social relations, laws and decrees, voice and representation, mystification of the medium, how the medium drastically alters the context of communication, and the links between expression formation and all the influences and memories that press upon consciousness. It deals with all of these themes quite straightforwardly, but they certainly take a backseat to the character drama necessary to make a compelling film. However, it's still a pretty great vehicle for introducing people to the importance of being heard, or in other words, being represented, faithfully, in the reality of others through understanding and communication.

Some choice quotes that are certainly resonant with what I've yammered on about:

  • "If I'm a king, where's my power? Can I form a government? Can I levy a tax? Declare a war? No. And yet I'm the seat of all authority. Why? Because the nation believes that when I speak, I speak for them. Well I can't bloody speak."
  • "If we were equals, I wouldn't be here."
  • "You could outshine David." "Don't take liberties! That's bordering on treason." "I'm just saying you could be king. You could do it." "That is treason."
  • "I've always been this way." ... "I can assure you, no infant starts to speak with a stammer. When did yours start?" "Four or five." "That's typical." "So I've been told. I can't remember not doing it."
  • "This devilish device [radio] will change everything if you don't. In the past, all a king had to do was look respectable in uniform, and not fall off his horse. Now we must invade people's homes and ingratiate ourselves."
  • "We're not a family. We're a firm."
  • "Don't attempt to instruct me on my duties! I am the son of a-, king. The brother of a-, of a king."
  • "Strictly business, no personal nonsense." ... "What you're asking will only deal with the surface of the problem." "Well that's sufficient. Uh no, as far as I see it, my husband has mechanical difficulties with his speech."
  • "What are you so afraid of?" "Your poisonous words!"
  • "You don't stammer when you swear."
  • "At long last, I am able to say a few words of my own. I have never wanted to withhold anything. But until now, it has not been constitutionally possible for me to speak."
  • "I'm not a king. I'm a naval officer."
  • "Is the nation ready for two minutes of radio silence?"
  • "I've seen the placards, 'God save our king.' They don't mean me."
  • "You're-, you're-" "Yes, it's 'Your Majesty' the first time, after that, it's 'Ma'am,' as in 'ham.' ... I'm told, your husband calls my husband Bertie. And my husband calls your husband Lionel. I trust you won't call me Liz."
  • "Forget everything else, and just say it to me. Say it to me, as a friend."
  • "I see your pronouncements are to be broadcast, Archbishop." "Ah yes, wireless. It is indeed a pandora's box. And I'm afraid I've also had to permit the newsreel cameras. The product of which, I shall personally edit." "Without momentary hesitations."
  • "You can't sit there. Get up!" "Why not? It's a chair." "That is not a chair! That is- that-, that is St. Edward's chair! ... Listen to me!" "Listen to you? By what right?" "By divine right, if you must, I am your king!" "No you're not, you told me so yourself. You said you didn't want it. Why should I waste my time listening to you?" "Because I have a right to be heard. I have a voice!" "Yes you do."

            When I caught Timothy Spall in the cast, I also started thinking that it must be an odd acting experience playing Winston Churchill these days, especially as a side-character, and not, say, the lead of his biopic. He's perceived as such a character in real life, and has been portrayed so many times with so many specific instances, representations, and cartoonish exaggerations. It must take much of the difficulties and awareness of performing Shakespeare these days, but with the added strangeness that your representation is a prismatic collection of a real person and all of their various representations in numerous works. Spall's portrayal certainly doesn't avoid the cartoonish peculiarities, which is one reason why I enjoyed it. I wonder how much of that image of the real Winston Churchill is informed, overemphasized, or entirely fabricated by the multitude of representations in various media we've consumed of him. (Some have considerable criticism of the film for related reasons.) I'm not historically informed enough to make any salient judgements on the accuracy of a film like The King's Speech, whether on events or persons, but I don't believe congruency with past realities is usually, if ever, the goal or function of cinema or performance.

            This acting-like-Churchill thing is a little, but not exactly, like when an impression is popular among a lot of comedians for a long time: Nixon, Nicholson, Brando, Cosby, Schwarzeneggar, Walken, etc. The large number of representations others have done in the past must echo through the performer's head, unless they're truly able to take on the persona, to inhabit it in-the-moment. Otherwise there must come a certain level of hollowness or the mundane that informs the latest performance. In a good actor, they'll utilize the audience's, and their own, expectations of the representation as a starting point to craft something a little different, a little unique. In a not-so-good actor, they'll likely try to re-create and embody the expected representation, trying to achieve the legion that past performers' echoes combine to form in people's minds, the end-result of a long chain of reflections and refractions that constitute a stereotypical representation, one that blatantly attempts to mesh with as many of the audience's plurality of expectations as possible.

            If my interests are in the inclusive and combinatory nature of cognition and communication, however, what makes the trying-to-fulfill-the-most-expectations actor the "not-so-good" one, and the other that tries something different the "good" one? My interest is largely in how we take the different, the new, and incorporate it into the existant, the given. Cognition is structured to bring the new into itself, combine it with the existant, to form it into part of the given, part of the perceived-as-actual. To aim to recreate what has been represented so much already, to be the stereotype-seeking actor, is merely to aim for reinforcement, solidification of the expected and assumed. To aim to use what has been represented so much before as a structure of expectation to build something new onto or around, however, to be the unique-seeking, "make it your own" actor, is to attempt to expand the existant in the audience's minds, the violation of the expected and assumed that, cumulatively, would hopefully grow and expand that realm known as the expected and assumed in audience's minds by annexation of the new (a change in reasoned position based on new evidence). To include more varied and different representations of a persona as legitimate on some level in your worldview is to extend the range of one's acceptance, one's understanding. As this is all pretty tangential, I'll leave this topic at that for you to brainstorm and counter my ramblings with.

            What other kinds of "speech acts" can you find in forms of communication other than spoken word? Do expressions and receptions in different mediums have different limits on the kinds of acts that they can and cannot perform? What are the rules or constituent aspects of different types of acts in different mediums of expression? How can those kinds of communicative (illocutionary) acts breakdown or succeed?