Re-Reading the Declaration of Independence as Perlocutionary Performative

Res Publica 22 (4):423-444 (2016)

This paper addresses the question of the constitution of ‘the people’. It argues that J.L. Austin’s concept of the ‘perlocutionary’ speech act gives us a framework for understanding the constitutive force of a specific constitutional document: the American Declaration of Independence. It does so through responding to Derrida’s analysis of the Declaration, which itself draws on Austin’s work. Derrida argues that the Declaration’s constitutive force lies in the fact that it cannot be simply understood as either ‘performative’ or ‘constative’, in Austin’s terminology. According to Derrida, ‘the people’ do not pre-exist the Declaration, but are constituted in the act of declaration itself. In response, I argue that while Derrida’s insight regarding the constitution of ‘the people’ is sound, his analysis misses two key aspects of the Declaration. These two lacunae point the way to an understanding of the constitutive force of the Declaration in terms of Austin’s ‘perlocutionary’ speech act.
Keywords J.L. Austin  The people  Performativity  Perlocutionary speech act  Declaration of Independence  Constitutional theory
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DOI 10.1007/s11158-015-9289-7
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Of Grammatology.Jacques Derrida - 1998 - Johns Hopkins University Press.

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