How to Do "Whatever" in Three Assignments

Harun Karim Thomas
Department of English
University of Florida




the tenor of this web article's title seems familiar, perhaps you are acquainted with J. L. Austin's influential text How to Do Things with Words, in which he examines language, specifically utterances. In the book, through rigorous philosophical inquiry, he painstakingly attempts to draw a distinction between what he terms constative and performative utterances. Please allow me to rehearse briefly those distinctions here: One initial distinction might be that while the former reports something, the latter does something. For example, in the case of marriage, the utterance “I do”--one of Austin’s most famous examples of a performative--performs an action and carries with it a certain force, whose effects are substantial. One of the effects is that the two parties involved in the marriage enter into a legally binding agreement in which both parties become not only responsible to each other, but also to the State. A constative version of “I do” might be a response to a question such as “Do you feel better?” If I were to utter, “I do (feel better,)” I would not have entered an agreement, obligation, or contract. The utterance would not have carried with it a force similar to the one in the context of marriage. To respond “I do” in this case would be simply to report on the status of my health. Still, I would do well to explain these details further in a subsequent section.

In any case, this article actually serves as a practical supplement to a piece that will be published in the 20.1 issue (March 2003) of Computers and Composition titled "The Pedagogy of Whatever." In that article, I explain an experience I once had in a movie theater with the film Philadelphia; a concept called the "Whatever," as proposed by Giorgio Agamben; the relationship between my experience and the Whatever; and my pedagogical use of both. I refer the reader to that article for most of the critical and theoretical engagement underlying the article in which the reader currently finds her- or himself engaged.

In this article, I would like to focus primarily on the application of the Whatever or, more pointedly, offer 3 hypertext assignments that encourage students to think about issues of race, sexuality, gender, nationality, class, and borders in a performative way. I would argue that the success of any application of the Whatever, as I conceive it, functions significantly in a performative manner. Ideally, this article might prove helpful for those who may be new to online writing and are looking to incorporate a sense of design or telos in the classroom. First, I describe the type of class where I use these assignments. Second, I briefly explain my use of the term interconnectivity and how I implement it. Third, I describe how I orient the students to the transition underway from literacy to post-literacy. Fourth, I explain Austin's performative and establish a relation between the performative and Judith Butler's performativity as an argument for my use of hypertext. Last, I describe a set of sequenced assignments, then argue why I believe these assignments enact the performative.