“William Godwin does not trust words to do things” (553). Thus begins Angela Esterhammer’s compelling article on the political philosopher’s relationship to performative speech acts. As the first line makes clear, Esterhammer is not only engaging with speech acts but also participating in and promoting the larger critical discourse regarding the Romantic era’s preoccupation with the relationship between words and things, or, to borrow language from William Keach, the “thinginess of words.” Drawing on J. L Austin’s landmark How to do Things with Words as well as J. Hillis Miller and Jacques Derrida’s critique of Austin’s work, Esterhammer examines Godwin’s anxiety regarding words doing things and the way that this anxiety manifests itself in his political writing as well as his novels.
According to Esterhammer, Godwin condemns speech acts and dedicates much of his writing to “showing again and again that disastrous situations come about” because those making pledges, oaths, declarations, promises, and indeed any type of performative utterance can not know what pressure the future will place on such binding speech (555). In other words, temporality troubles all performatives. Esterhammer turns to the chapter “Of Promises” in Political Justice and shows how Godwin’s suspicion of speech acts forms the central tension of his novels Caleb Williams, Clouesley, and Deloraine. Indeed Godwin’s fictions turn on the implications of promises and pledges. Here it is interesting to note that Esterhammer argument could, perhaps, be extended to incorporate Godwin’s dramatic writing as well. Godwin’s 1793 play Antonio; or, The Soldier’s Return: A Tragedy in Five Acts is full of competing vows and pledges that are troubled by unpredictable circumstances.
Perhaps the article’s most provocative claim is Godwin’s reluctant admission that despite the fact performative speech acts should not play a role in constituting “sociopolitical experience,” they remain “inescapable” (562). Although Godwin criticizes the French revolutionaries for falling into the very trap they fought to liberate themselves from by “attempting to legislate for all time,” he cannot seem to shake performative speech acts in his own work (560). In fact, Esterhammer claims, the framing of Godwin’s novels speaks to the looming presence of performatives. The novels not only document performative speech acts between characters but are themselves presented as being constituted by speech acts. That is, Caleb Williams speaks his story in the novel that bears his name. Ultimately, Esterhammer concludes that “in paying such obsessive attention to the way speech acts do construct interpersonal relationships and sociopolitical reality – even if, in Godwin’s opinion, they should not – novels like Cloudesley and Deloraine become profound, early analyses of how things are done with words” (555).
The novel becomes one means for Godwin to expose the problems inherent in performative speech acts even further.
–R. A. Sessler