H is for Phatic Expression (Speech, Gesture, and Art)

| April 19, 2014

“I have nothing to say and I am saying it.”

-John Cage

“Hi, how are you.”
-My neighbor

-My cat

-A car

In human speech, words are signifiers – symbols representing concepts. But phatic speech represents nothing beyond its own sound. On one hand, I feel like all speech has meaning.  But on a pragmatic level, I often feel like a lot of the words we hear and use are meaningless.  For instance, we’ve all been in a conversation (or perhaps even a seminar) where someone is merely speaking to hear the sound of their own voice. But can speech ever be truly devoid of meaning?

“Uh-huh” and “umm” are utterances that are ostensibly meaningless, but they do serve some kind of rhetorical strategy. “Uh-huh” is a way to express affirmative agreement, while “uhh” is an utterance that indicates “I’m still speaking, but the words are still formulating.” “What’s up?,” and “how are you?” are more complex examples of phatic speech, in that they do have meaning, but when we deploy them in common speech, they are stripped of that meaning.

In a sense, phatic speech is the opposite of silence. The content of phatic speech is its emptiness. Phatic speech exists for itself, a kind of pure gestural utility. “Phatic utterances constitute a mode of action just in their being voiced. In short, a phatic utterance communicates not ideas but attitude, the speaker’s presence, and the speaker’s intention of being sociable.”¹

The notion of “small talk” is most often used to exemplify phatic speech. For instance, you talk to someone about the weather, but the words you’re using are totally superficial. When you’re discussing the amount of rain in April, you’re really just building social solidarity with your interlocutor. “Phatic communication, or small talk, is an important social lubricant. In the words of Erving Goffman, ‘The gestures which we sometimes call empty are perhaps in fact the fullest things of all.'”² Interesting point…

So this makes me wonder – is there any such thing as phatic art? Or is this definitionally an oxymoron?  Does Cage create a paradox with his declaration or is there a logic to it? Just as I mentioned that much of the small talk I hear on a daily basis strikes me as meaningless, I can think of many examples of “meaningless” art, music, and dance. Is minimalism a type of phatic gesture?  When there is no composition, is the (ostensible) emptiness itself a “meaningful” gesture?

Andy Warhol’s “Empire” – an 8 hour ‘movie’ of the Empire State Building

Yves Klein's "Monochrome Painting" - Phatic art?

75 minutes of Drone

1. Brooks Landon, Building Great Sentences: How to Write the Kinds of Sentences You Love to Read. Plume, 2013.

2. Diana Boxer, Applying Sociolinguistics. John Benjamins, 2002.