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
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
– “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
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
 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).
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
 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/
 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
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
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 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
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
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