Essays in Honor of Sandy Petrey
2. Sandy Petrey’s Unacknowledged Contribution to Historical Materialism
The title of this essay, appreciating the work of Sandy Petrey, may seem overreaching and dogmatic. Marxists often get accused of distorting facts and justifying the theories they find. Indeed, the first essay Sandy read of mine in my first semester of graduate work elicited a comment I will never forget: “In your attempt to be historical and materialist you come perilously close to being neither.” Clearly the following intended tribute to Petrey’s work and placement of his theoretical contributions within an intellectual tradition (Marxism) that Petrey does not claim may get taken in this manner. Petrey explicitly situates his theoretical lineage within the speech-act theory of J.L. Austin and his famous work, How to Do Things with Words. Speech-act theory and Marxism never, to my knowledge, have been confused—for logical reasons. Austin’s work suggests truth claims derive from the functioning of language, which seems far from the materialist or Marxist assertion that truth derives from objective material life shaped by existing social conditions.
Austin, in my extremely simplified account, distinguishes himself from other varieties of what is called “the linguistic turn” in that he offers a distinction between statements he terms “constatives,” which purport to describe the world, and those phrases termed “performatives,” which act upon the world.1 Austin stresses that when statements seem to describe the world, such as a lovers’ vow, they actually perform an action. Austin points out that much logical and conceptual confusion derives from mistaking...
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