Habermas's Linguistic Theory Applied to David Mamet's Films: Communicative Action in Action

By Jenna N. Neumann
2012, Vol. 4 No. 10 | pg. 1/2 |


Jürgen Habermas - a prominent German philosopher and critical social theorist - offers a theory of language use that identifies and analyzes the rationality potential of communicative understanding between two parties. Habermas champions this theory of language use as a means to repair the breakdown of the surrounding lifeworld. This breakdown results from the use of strategic action, harboring deceptive perlocutionary aims. With strategic action, trust in communication breaks down and leads to disorder and disarray in their shared lifeworld. Habermas advocates communicative action as the reservoir of reason capable of reproducing the coordinates of social order through faith in linguistically mediated problem solving. David Mamet’s three early films- Glengarry Glen Ross, American Buffalo, and Oleanna- seem to offer a radically contrasting view of language as a repository of rapacious social power.

In this essay, I demonstrate the fascinating points of critical comparison between Habermas’s philosophical theory and Mamet’s tragic drama. Mamets reveals that in contemporary linguistic situations, communicative action is not always capable of repairing breakdowns in the lifeworld. However, despite the bleak and sinister portrayal of language use in Mamet’s films, his cinematic masterpieces also raise a higher ethical question regarding language use. His films demonstrate the necessity to adopt communicative action in order to cooperatively and democratically solve dilemmas and prevent destructive situations. It is essential to ensure both Mamet’s sociological realism and Habermas’s philosophical idealism to provide the most precise model of linguistic philosophy.

In On the Pragmatics of Communication, Jürgen Habermas offers an account of the rational potential of language, arguing that mutual understanding is the original telos of language use. Habermas defends the rational potential of communication as a mechanism for repairing the breakdown of the lifeworld, resulting from the pursuit of deceptive perlocutionary aims characteristic of strategic action.

Communicative action is a reservoir of potential reason that, if set in use, will allow for the reproduction of the lifeworld along progressive coordinates. With this concept, Habermas provides an account regarding how social order is possible. Habermas’s linguistic theory encounters both support and criticism in light of David Mamet’s three films, which are adaptations of his plays, Glengarry Glen Ross, American Buffalo, and Oleanna.

The linguistic interactions among the characters in these three Mamet films provide the careful viewer with a variety of scenes that initiate a dramatic inquiry into the feasibility of Habermas’s theory of language use. Where Habermas theorizes communication as a reservoir of reason that allows for the rational reproduction of social order, Mamet seems to demonstrate that contemporary contexts of linguistic interaction affect precisely the opposite: namely, language as a repository of irrational social power.

The encounter between Habermas and Mamet dramatically illustrates what is at stake in this debate: namely, what role language can play in resolving social problems encountered in everyday situations. Moreover, this question, framed in terms of intersubjective exchanges, has a palpable bearing upon questions of how to best repair linguistically mediated situations in a cooperative, democratic light.

Habermas’s formal pragmatic theory focuses upon the concept of communicative action. Communicative action rests on the ability to coordinate cooperative action through reaching a mutual understanding. In communicative action, “…all participants unreservedly pursue illocutionary aims in order to arrive at an agreement that provides the basis for a consensual coordination of individually pursued plans of action” (Habermas, 1998, p. 129-130).

By illocutionary aims, Habermas refers to the action a speaker preforms by saying something. Habermas (1998) expounds, “What we mean by reaching understanding, and an attitude toward reaching understanding, has to be clarified solely in connection with illocutionary acts” (p. 127). Communicative action is fundamentally characterized by illocutionary acts.

With the concept of communicative action, Habermas rejects the concept of formal semantics in which one need only know the meaning of a sentence and the meaning of the speaker in order to understand the validity of an utterance. The prominent linguistic philosopher, John Searle, posits that speech acts have both an illocutionary force and a propositional content which he symbolized as ‘F(p),’ with ‘F’ denoting illocutionary force and ‘p’ denoting the propositional content. Habermas uses these components of Searle’s theory to formulate his theory of communicative action.

Habermas argues that one must not only understand what is said, but must also understand the conditions under which such an utterance would be deemed acceptable. He acknowledges that one must understand the conditions of satisfaction, or the propositional content of an utterance, in order to, “…grasp the meaning of what is said” (Habermas, 1998, p. 131), but argues that one must also know why the speaker considers it legitimate to issue the utterance. Habermas (1998) terms this requirement the Acceptability Theory of Meaning, stating:

We understand a speech act when we know what makes it acceptable…A speech act may be called “acceptable” if it satisfies the conditions that are necessary in order for the hearer to take a “yes” position on the claim raised by the speaker. (p. 132)

With this concept, Habermas transitions away from John Searle’s formal semantics to formal pragmatics.

With the Acceptability Theory of Meaning, Habermas (1998) highlights an internal connection between meaning and validity, stating, “…we understand the meaning of a speech act if we know the conditions under which it may be accepted as valid” (p. 253). One can either accept or reject one’s utterance, or validity claim, on three separate grounds, which are built into the structure of every speech act.

These three points of potential evaluation are the sincerity of an expression, the truth of the propositional content, and the rightness of the illocutionary force. To best understand this trichotomy, one must first delineate Habermas’s three-fold classification of the atomic, or institutionally unbound, speech act: expressive, constative, and regulative speech acts. With expressive speech acts, “…the speaker refer to something in his subjective world, and in such a way that he would like to reveal to a public an experience to which he has privileged access” (Habermas, 1998, p. 162).

In regards to constative speech acts, “…the speaker refers to something in the objective world, and in such a way that he would like to represent a state of affairs” (Habermas, 1998, p. 161-162). Lastly, with regulative speech acts, “…the speaker refers to something in a common social world, and in such a way that he would like to establish an interpersonal relation recognized as legitimate” (Habermas, 1998, p. 162). Each thematize one type of validity claim: expressive speech acts constitute a validity claim to sincerity, constative speech acts a claim to truth, and regulative speech acts a claim to rightness.

Habermas further explicates the Acceptability of Meaning Theory with the concept of illocutionary binding force, wherein the speaker forms a bond with the hearer through the use of communicative action. The hearer accepts a warranty from the speaker, understanding it as something to be relied upon. As a competent language user, the speaker is condemned to mobilize reasons to support their validity claim should it be questioned.

Habermas (1998) makes an epistemic turn stating, “With his validity claim, the speaker appeals to a reservoir of potential reasons that could be provided in support of it. The reasons interpret the conditions of validity, and to this extent they themselves are part of the conditions that make an utterance acceptable” (p. 297). Each speech act can be rejected on the basis of any one of these claims to validity. Habermas (1998) clarifies:

In contexts of communicative action, speech acts can always be rejected under each of three aspects: the aspect of the rightness that the speaker claims for her action in relation to a normative context (or, indirectly, for these norms themselves); the aspect of the truthfulness that the speaker claims for the expression of subjective experiences to which she has privileged access; and finally, the aspect of the truth that the speaker, with her utterance, claims for a statement (or for the existential presuppositions of the context of a nominalized proposition). (p. 141-142)

A speaker’s claim to validity may be rejected if not adequately supported.

Being able to challenge the validity of one’s utterance establishes the grounds for communicative exchange between individuals. Habermas (1998) affirms that the important aspect here is not as much the notion of validity but the creation of cooperative grounds on which to discuss those validity claims, stating, “Thus a speaker owes the binding and bonding force of her illocutionary success not to the validity of what is said but to the coordinating effect of the warranty that she offers- a warranty to redeem, if necessary, the validity claim raised with her speech act” (p. 136).

In his three-fold classification, Habermas suggests that communicative action is a reflexive and rationally coordinated form of interaction with others. These interactions are fundamentally social in that:

These conditions cannot be satisfied one-sidedly, either relative to the speaker or to the hearer. They are rather conditions for the intersubjective recognition of a linguistic claim, which, in a way typical of a given class of speech acts, grounds an agreement with a specified content concerning obligations relevant for the sequel of interaction. (Habermas, 1998, p. 132)

Communicative action presupposes communicative freedom, allowing the hearer symmetrical and reciprocal autonomy to adopt a rational, evaluative, and critical stance toward the speaker’s utterance.

This reflexive and rationally coordinated form of interaction with others is further developed by Habermas’s conception of the lifeworld.1 Habermas divides the lifeworld into two main constitutive components: the foreground and deep-seated background knowledge. The foreground of the lifeworld consists of the ability to understand an utterance in a given situation; this ability relies upon knowledge such as a speaker’s personal history or familiarity with culturally specific contexts in which a given topic is typically discussed and made explicit without difficulty.

Habermas refers to these as situational-specific horizontal knowledge and topic-dependent contextual knowledge. The foreground draws a sharp distinction from the background. Habermas (1998) characterizes the background as, “…the deep-seated, prereflexive, taken-for-granted background knowledge of the lifeworld that, as a horizon of shared, unproblematic convictions, cannot be summoned to consciousness at will or in its entirety” (p. 16). The background of the lifeworld is always implicitly present.

The lifeworld as a whole fuses together three sociological models of action: teleological action, norm-conforming action, and dramaturgical action, corresponding respectively to facts, norms, and feelings.2 Habermas (1998) briefly explicates these sociological models of action stating, “Teleological actions can be judged under the aspect of effectiveness… Normatively regulated actions embody moral-practical knowledge and can be contested under the aspect of rightness…Dramaturgical actions embody a knowledge of the actor’s own subjectivity” (p. 170).

Each in turn corresponds to an associated domain of practical engagement, positing the three successful conditions for any society to function.3 Facts correspond to the efficiency or competency of work embodied in science and technology. Norms correspond to the legitimacy of interaction, quintessentially represented via society’s moral and ethical-legal institutions. Lastly, feelings correspond to the erotic nature of play typified in art and educational and therapeutic institutions.

In order to maintain itself, any lifeworld must continually reproduce around social integration, or action coordination, cultural reproduction, or reaching understanding, and socialization, or personal identity formation. This renewal revitalizes the lifeworld until the coordinates of work, interaction, and play breakdown.4 Explicating the breakdown of the lifeworld, Habermas (1998) states, “Absolute certainties remain unshakable until they suddenly disintegrate” (p. 243-244), arresting the renewal of the lifeworld.

Habermas’s account of strategic action as a form of language use provokes this breakdown.5 Strategic action occurs when an interlocutor adopts an egocentric attitude oriented toward success. Here, “…a speaker acts with an orientation toward success and, in doing so, simultaneously connects speech acts with interactions and instrumentalizes them for purposes that are only contingently related to the meaning of what is said” (Habermas, 1998, p. 123).

The ‘other,’ or hearer, becomes objectified since in this case, “These purposive actors, who condition one another with regard to their own respective successes, are accessible for one another only as entities in the world” (Habermas, 1998, p. 204). The speaker does so in order to effect individual action goals.

Strategic action is dependent upon toxic perlocutionary effects3, a subcategory of perlocutionary effects. Habermas (1998) defines general perlocutionary effects as, “…all goals and effects that go beyond this [the understanding and acceptance of speech acts under illocutionary success] are to be termed “perlocutionary” (p. 223). Habermas recognizes that not all perlocutionary effects are deceptive, yet perlocutionary effects3 harbored in strategic action are distinctly toxic.

Perlocutionary effects3 are parasitic upon illocutionary acts and come to fruition under the false pretense of validity. One can achieve one’s strategic aim, “…in the form of a nonpublic perlocutionary effect3 only if he achieves illocutionary success with his request” (Habermas, 198, p. 224). In strategic action, such deceptive perlocutionary effects3 cannot be directly proclaimed, but rather must be constructed indirectly. Habermas (1998) explains with the example of soliciting aid for a criminal act stating that the criminal will:

…succeed in this only if the speaker professes to be pursuing unreservedly the illocutionary aim of his speech act, that is, if he leaves the hearer in the dark as to the actual violation of the presuppositions of action oriented toward reaching understanding by one of the parties involved. (p. 223-224)

Whereas with illocutionary goals in communicative action one can comprehend the communicative intention from the content of the words, the same cannot be paralleled for strategic interaction.

The pursuit of toxic perlocutionary effects3 leads to the breakdown of work, interaction, and play and thus results in the breakdown of the shared understanding oriented toward mutual cooperation in the lifeworld. Pure forms of communicative action then become the rational and cooperative device for repairing such a breakdown, introducing the lifeworld as a “…complementary concept of communicative action” (Habermas, 1998, p. 239). The breakdown of play through the insincerity or inauthenticity of untruthful expressions engenders the reparation of inefficiency via expressive speech acts.

Likewise, the breakdown of work through the inefficiency of instrumental coordination due to false beliefs and/or failing strategies propagates the rational potential of constative speech acts. Lastly, the breakdown of interaction implicates the use of regulative speech acts to communicatively repair the illegitimacy of social arrangements due to wrong norms and incorrect actions. The lifeworld and communicative action are directly intertwined.

Communicative action becomes the rational medium for the social integration and historical reproduction of modern societies, addressing how modern social order is made possible.6 Habermas (1998) explains:

The web of everyday communicative practices extends across the semantic field of symbolic contents just as much as in the dimensions of social space and historical time, constituting the medium through which culture, society, and personality structures develop and are reproduced. (p. 248)

The reproduction of the lifeworld through cultural reproduction, social integration, and socialization respectively brings the role of constative, regulative, and expressive speech acts full circle. This account of communicative action presupposes language use as a source of communicative power, as language use retains the potential to move social circumstances forward in the lifeworld, establishing and defining the shared coordinates of future interaction. The speech act thus becomes the smallest unit of action by means of which the lifeworld can reproduce itself.

Three Mamet films, Glengarry Glen Ross, American Buffalo, and Oleanna offer a poignant lens through which to view Habermas’s theory of communicative action. Habermas’s pragmatic analysis of communicative action encounters a unique critique in the film Glengarry Glen Ross, illustrating the demise of language use as a source of mutual cooperation. Contrary to Glengarry Glen Ross, American Buffalo provides support for Habermas’s theory of language use.

It portrays both the breakdown of the lifeworld as a result of strategic action and demonstrates that communicative action has the potential to reproduce the lifeworld. Oleanna, however, offers the most sustained critique against Habermas’s theory, depicting language use as a repository of power and revealing his deficiency regarding how one comes to be a competent language user. Despite the criticism and support these films afford, they ultimately provide a mechanism to anchor Habermas’s seemingly quixotic linguistic theory in the context of contemporary situations, stressing the importance of communicative action.

The film Glengarry Glen Ross offers a quintessential example of Habermas’s theory of strategic action. However, the film portrays the destructive nature of strategic action to such an exponential degree that it ultimately offers a critique against Habermas’s theory that communicative action has the capability to repair and reproduce the lifeworld. One might make the case from a Habermasian point of view that this film offers a factual account of the destructive nature of strategic action and the poignant breakdown of the lifeworld, and that the restoration of the telephones after the robbery near the end of the film suggests that communicative action has been restored.

Yet this more optimistic account does not appear to reflect Mamet’s analysis of linguistic interaction in contemporary circumstances, seemingly that language use as a means of cooperative communication has gone out of commission. Mamet utilizes multiple examples to illustrate a more ominous account of language use.

Almost every act of communication within the film reflects the adoption of an egocentric attitude oriented toward success. The backdrop of the real estate sales office provides a setting centered upon the merciless pursuit of deceptive perlocutionary aims. A quintessential example of this occurs when the salesman, Shelley, in a desperate attempt to make a sale, enters into the house of one of his potential clients. Shelley enters directly into his client’s house as would a familial friend, entering into their living room and making himself comfortable on the sofa.

Shelley demonstrates his proficiency in pursuing deceptive perlocutionary aims, stating that his client had won a prize of land and that he had come directly to his client’s house to allow him to redeem his prize as soon as possible. However, the client understands that Shelley’s deceptive perlocutionary effects3 cannot be proclaimed forthright, but must be constructed indirectly. Shelley’s client exhibits his ability to recognize the true nature of Shelley’s utterances, discounting Shelley’s pretense that he has won a plot of land and stating that he is not interested in purchasing land from Shelley. This scene shows the utterly pervasive nature of strategic action.

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