Culler 7 - Colorado Mesa University


Performative Language

Culler – Chapter 7

What does language do?

 Autsin’s performatives: – Constative utterances describing a state of affairs that are true or false.

 (George promised to come.) – Performative utterances that are not true or false and actually perform an action.

 (I do.

Problems with this simple distinction.

 You can draw up a list of performative verbs – I promise, I order, I declare – but you can’t limit performative language to only those verbs.

 There are some implicit performatives: – – – “I will pay you tomorrow.” Can be come a promise to pay.

“Stop!” Can be “short” for “I order you to stop.” “There is a cat on the mat.” Can be come the performative “I affirm that there is a cat on the mat.” Constative utterances also perform actions – they state, affirm, describe.

Performatives and Literature

 Literature is a performative language. – They create the state of affairs to which they refer. (Joyce creates the scene which didn’t exist before he invented it.) – The bring into being ideas and deploy them. (The idea of romantic love is the creation of novels.)

Performatives and Literature

 Performative breaks the link between meaning and intention of speaker. Just because I say it, doesn’t mean I mean it.

 Literature acts the same way. What the writer intends, is not thought to be what determines meaning. A whole host of other things do that: reader, context, understanding of literary conventions, for example.

Derrida’s Performatives

  Derrida claims that performatives only work if they are recognized as versions of a familiar formula. Because we “work” or “understand” through the recognition of set pieces, rituals, if you will, the performative only works if it’s part of a larger recognizable contextual scene.  What are some rituals for which we have established langauge: religious events, meetings (Robert’s Rules), shopping (Can I help you?), literature certainly (Once upon a time).

Performative-Constative Relations

 Cullers, here, looks at that Frost poem – – We dance in a ring and suppose, – But the secret sits in the center and knows.

 He says that the metonymic action of the poem, turning the secret, which is an object in “normal language” something that we know or don’t know, into a subject, or something that knows, turns something constative into something performative.

This gets us to the “impasse” of undecidable oscillation.

 The only way to claim that language is performative is through a constative utterance.    There is no way to claim that language is constative except through the performative act of language. What’s really expressed in langauge? – what’s out there and real or what’s inside and already theorized or shaped by interaction and context.

How do you know what it is you’re asserting? Where does “truth” come from?

Judith Butler

 Butler claims that we are all “constructed” by cultural and social conditions/ expectations.

 Gender, for example, is not what one is, but what one does. You become male or female based on what you do, not on some essential quality in your biological or psychological make up.

More Butler

 The way we determine what actions make you female or male is based on social conventions or norms, repeated over and over in individual and group behavior.  This does not mean that you are free to choose. We we say, “it’s a girl” after birth, we begin the process of constructing the female self. It’s not a constative, factual statement, but rather, a performative one. The first in a long line of performatives that shape our gendered behavior.

More Butler

 All of our behaviors are linked to formulas for boyness or girlness. These behaviors accumulate the force of authority through repetition over time.

 Deviation from these norms can be clearly labeled because of the repetitive, enduring character of the imposition of the behavior on us.

Implications of Butler’s Theories

 All language, all actions, then, are performative. And, we are shaped, guided, created by these performative repetitions. We are the product of performative language.

 And, you can use language to make changes. You can change the meaning of the performance, or the norm that determines how performance is perceived through language. Possibilities for political struggle are implicit in the power of performative language.

Stakes and Implications

 How does this relate to litearture: – – Is literature a performative utterance in Austin’s sense of it, creating a reality which accomplishes a specific purpose?

Or, is it a performative utterance in Butler’s sense, in that reinforces or challenges norms and through repetition, condones or condemns, accepts or rejects the way we see things, the way we act, the way we feel.

Culler’s Questions

  1. Do we limit language to certain specific acts, or do we think about its broader effects as it organizes our encounters with the world?

What’s the relationship between social and individual acts? How much are we in control or our actions, our choices? How much are they constructed by the norms that have constructed us?

Culler’s Questions

 What’s the relationship between what language says and what it does? Is there a fusion between the doing and the saying or a tension that complicates all uses of language?

 What is an event? What is fact? What is fiction? Where do we draw the line between what is and what we perceive to be?

What’s all this got to do with Drama?

 Drama is the one genre that most obviously deals with the utterance. And, as we’ve discussed earlier, the reader/audience’s relationship to that utterance in the theatre is a complex one – we participate in two realities when we go to the theatre. The reality of our existence as people in our real lives, and the reality of our existence as participants in the lives of “fictional” people who we’re allowing to be real for a space of time.

Drama and the Performative Act

 We must also understand, that the playwright’s text is performative in more than the literal sense. As an artist, the playwright works to construct an experience that will change us, that will force us to think in a new way or to reflect on something we had taken for granted.  We must also determine how who we are affects our performance in response to the theatre. How free are we to interpret? How are our interpretations shaped by the ways we have been constructed? Why do we “get” what we get from performances?