Although utterances between team members might serve, as Goffman would argue, several purposes conducive to the performative ends, there are of course instances where words are less reflective of the agency of those involved. Instead, these utterances might be considered more as elements of the act that is being engaged in. Severing utterances from the agent(s) involved is an impossibility. In some instances, however, words are less anchored in the illocutionary categories that Austin discerns and more so in the context in which they are uttered. In focusing on the environment in which they are uttered and what task they support, we can see utterances may possess a spectrum of performative value especially between team members who are well attuned to a common purpose.
This is remarkably illustrated in a scene from the first season of HBO’s The Wire wherein two detectives examine the kitchen where a young Baltimore woman had been brutally shot several months prior. During the episode “Old Cases,” detectives Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West) and Bunk Moreland (Wendell Pierce), have been tasked with the investigation of a cold murder scene that they believe to be unsolvable. What is remarkable about the scene itself, which spans slightly under five minutes, is that it is almost entirely devoid of dialog between them except for variations of the word “fuck.” Instead of being fueled by the dialog, the scene was explicitly written, in a slightly humorous way, to demonstrate the versatility of the term and how utterances perform in several meaningful ways. Through what Austin refers to as “verdictive” statements, which provide assessment of a situation, the repetitive use of the word “fuck” demonstrates how utterances articulate and confirm performative actions between team members.
Broadcast early in the first season, the audience of The Wire has not had much evidence to determine whether the main character, detective McNulty is capable or the self-serving egotist his superiors make him out to be (turns out he’s both). The scene begins with the landlord, who greets the detectives at the vacant apartment. Silently watchful throughout the investigation, the landlord provides assurance that the crime scene has been untouched since the murder. “This is the one?” confirms Moreland. “Yup. Hasn’t been rented since.” Although the landlord at first glance appears to have little significance in the scene, I would argue that he be considered as a surrogate audience. Opening his landmark work The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, Erving Goffman describes how performances convey characteristics and traits to an audience. Through these behaviors, the performers confirm that they are qualified and capable of accomplishing a particular task (18). Considering this, the landlord serves as our proxy for which the detectives are performing. As the landlord/we eavesdrops and peers over the shoulders of McNulty and Moreland, we are both examining the detectives to determine whether or not they are capable.
The detectives enter the apartment and begin reviewing the evidence that was provided from the earlier investigation. Moreland examines the forensic photos of the naked girl sprawled across the kitchen floor. Upon comparison to a profile photo of the girl alive and smiling, Moreland utters a sympathetic reaction, “aww Fuck,” and glances towards McNulty. Moreland’s assessment is one that conveys his comprehension of the tragedy involved in the crime. For us, this utterance not only serves to foster the audience’s sympathy but also contrasts with McNulty’s response: “Motherfucker.” Austin refers to these sorts of utterances as verdictives, or those that “Are typified by the giving of a verdict” (151). Although both detectives’ responses are rooted in “fuck,” the tonal quality of their response is a performance that provides us with evidence of the characters’ personalities: compared to Moreland’s initial response, McNulty’s is one that implies more emotional distance. He is more shocked at the violence of the crime – that the girl was naked and defenseless when shot – more so than the shame of a promising young college student being murdered in their own home.
As we find in the remainder of the scene however, utterances of “fuck” work less to convey character identity for the audience and more as signifiers of the detectives’ rapport and their ability to complete the investigation. The audience begins to be ushered from our concern with character identity towards recognition of McNulty and Moreland as competent detectives. Both begin performing their investigation in ways that are consistent with their characters. Moreland scatters photos of the victim across the floor, echoing his previous sentiment with a somewhat more playful response of “fuck, fuck, fuckity fuck.” Meanwhile, McNulty begins unpacking forensics paperwork from his case. He scans measurements, comparing the height of the victim with the corresponding photo to which he responds a dryly-intoned “fuck.”
Through these illocutionary verdictives, the detectives are again providing us (at this point we are also shown that the landlord continue to observe) with evidence that they are in a diagnostic performance. Although less affected by their personalities, the detectives’ responses continue to confirm their capability of maintaining attention to their task. As McNulty continues to compare the victim’s numbers with the photos, his inquisitive “tha fuck?” conveys that he has noticed something that has given him pause. Here, we know that McNulty has picked up on information that may have been missed in the previous investigation. Whomever it was that had been assigned to the crime earlier, we are told, they clearly did not possess the investigative quality that a detective should possess. Compared with Moreland’s listless repetition of “Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.” as he lays out the photos on the floor, McNulty’s performance allows us with another glimpse at his capability as an investigator.
Curiously, McNulty’s nest utterance occurs as his measuring tape snaps back, hitting his thumb in the process. However, it is our first glimpse of this instrument – one typically not featured in depictions of crime analysis. In this instance, “Fuck” perhaps articulates the usage of the tape measure. The detectives move from the previous investigation and, based on McNulty’s inquisitive quality, proceed to examine the space in which the crime occurred. As they begin moving about the kitchen, measuring and reenacting the position of the victim, McNulty and Moreland redress the context of the crime. With the landlord’s presence again queuing our attentive presence, McNulty and Moreland discover that their measurements don’t add up. McNulty shakes his head and Moreland responds with “Aww fuck.” This is not the same sympathetic response Moreland uttered at the beginning of the scene. It is instead more frustrated with the inaccuracy of their initial examination. Recalibrating his position, McNulty kneels down, reassesses the bullet’s trajectory, eventually discarding his theory with an exasperated “Fuck it.”
Both characters’ performances continue to support our impression that they are capable detectives. However, we are now provided with evidence that they are compelled to pursue the task further after being thwarted by conflicting information. This entails prioritizing the crime scene over their instinctual hunches. As McNulty continues to look for the elusive shell casing, Moreland assesses the kitchen and responds with an exclamatory “Motherfuck.” As he begins to piece together the evidence, McNulty provides further verdictive affirmation in his response of “Aww fuck. Aww fuck.” Compared to Moreland’s utterance of the same, McNulty’s is neither sympathetic nor exasperated but excited at the prospect of succeeding at the task.
After a “fuckity-fuck-fuck-fuck-fuck” provided by McNulty, Moreland utters a contemplative “Fucker.” We now recognize, in the utterance of the embodiment of “fucker,” that the detectives have envisioned the position of the perpetrator and are closer to completion of the task. McNulty and Moreland then engage in exchanging inquisitive “fucks.” It is Moreland’s exclamatory “Motherfucker!” that signals a moment of progress in the investigation. The verdictive assessment confirms the suspicion of his partner who, in turn, completes the dialogic moment with an affirmational “Fuckin’ A” when McNulty uncovers the location of the bullet hole, now sealed within a recently-patched refrigerator door. With a strenuous “Fuck,” McNulty pries off the seal and retrieves the bullet with a satisfactory “Motherfucker” to which Moreland responds with “Fuck me” signaling the imminent completion of the task.
When describing performance teams, Goffman reminds us that “it often happens that the performance serves mainly to express the characteristics of the task that is performed and not the characteristics of the performer” (77). In this scene, the utterance of “fuck” and its variations work conveys the expertise of the detectives through the verdictive quality of their performances. For the landlord, who represents the audience of the scene, the performance is required to justify the detectives’ presence in the vacant apartment. As soon as the investigation is completed, the apartment may be rented. The audience, meanwhile, is provided with evidence of the character of Jimmy McNulty. As the investigation and the scene wraps up and the detectives unearth the bullet casing that will eventually lead them to the murderer, we (and the landlord) nod in satisfaction. Not only has the task been completed, the capabilities of the characters have been confirmed by their performances.