Constative Captions

Constative Captions

Jacobson’s modes of realism can also be compared with J.L. Austin’s categories and levels of speech acts. In meaning A (the subjective view of the artist), realism is tied to the illocutionary force. In meaning B (the reception of the audience), realism is tied to the perlocutionary sequel. The locutionary act itself is the work (word, picture or both), which promises similitude with the real. In the naïve conception of history or documentary, this act is believed to be constative— realism describes, or better, constitutes an effort at truth. In meaning C (the adherence to a tradition) realism reconstitutes, thus reinforcing the persistence of cultural truth(s).

In Austin’s theory, statements are problematic. There seems no possibility of constative utterance. All utterances are performative. A statement is merely a performance where “we abstract from the illocutionary (let alone the perlocutionary) aspects of the speech act and concentrate on the locutionary” (74). Constative utterances are merely a special case of performance where we minimize the speaker’s role and the audience’s response in favor of the illusion of an utterance as a thing in itself. Documentary and/or realist approaches are ultimately performative: I promise that this is a simulation of the real.

In a sense, the modern critique of representative practice can be seen as an effort to recover the illocutionary force (psychological criticism) and the perlocutionary sequel (materialist and Marxist approaches) from normative (aesthetic and vernacular) histories and documentary artifacts. Structuralist approaches like Jacobson’s have been appropriated largely to these aims. Structuralism, and by extension semiotics, has failed to find a convincing general structure for discourse, and yet remain the best hope for a specific analysis of the locutionary level of representation. Jacobson’s “On Realism in Art” functions primarily by examining the creation and reception of representations rather than the exact nature of the representations themselves. In treating artistic practice as a mode of conversation, he uncovers some of its implications.

Operating at the illocutionary level, Jacobson’s meaning A of realism (artistic intent to be real), can take the form: (A1). The tendency to deform given norms of realism. Or, it can take the form: (A2). The conservative tendency to remain within the limits of a tradition of realism. The implication at the perlocutionary level, Jacobson’s meaning B of realism (evocation of the real) is correspondingly: (B1). I rebel against the realist code and view my deformation of this code as more accurate. or (B2). I view any distortion of this code as a distortion of reality. Such observations are by definition culturally relative.

Creating or evaluating realistic statements (in word, picture, or both) requires a knowledge of the normative code of realism. Such a code is ultimately positioned in distinct situations of utterance. In the twentieth century, deformation of the code (A1, B1) has dominated most artistic movements and many vernacular movements as well, while adherence to the code (A2, B2) is seen as hegemonic. However, following the ultimate concept that underlies these assumptions—that there are conversational principles at work—begs a more complex understanding of realist logic. The conversational principle (to appropriate H.P. Grice’s terminology) involves more than simple resistance or submission to the rules of discourse. There are multiple levels of coding involved, and multiple levels of adherence/resistance.

Where are these realist codes located in texts? One of the primary centers seems to be the dynamic between images and captions. At the simplest level, as description, the caption becomes the constative linguistic marker of an images validity. However, the interaction between image and text is what truly constitutes a message; the caption is always performative— captions do not exist only as statements to be read.

1 thought on “Constative Captions”

  1. It seems you only give an interpretation of the meaning of the phrase “constative utterance” without giving the more generally excepted version. whats wrong with you?

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