The Performative

An Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory - Andrew Bennett and Nicholas Royle 2016

The Performative

’I confess my ignorance’: Chambers Dictionary gives this as an example of a performative. The word ’performative’, declared J.L. Austin in 1956, ’is a new word and an ugly word, and perhaps it does not mean anything very much. But at any rate there is one thing in its favour, it is not a profound word’ (Austin 1970, 233). The present chapter is concerned to sort out what this rather odd, perhaps unprofound word does mean. A performative is a statement that not only describes an action but actually performs that action. A performative is, in principle at least, the opposite of a constative statement. A constative statement involves a description of how things seem to be, a statement or assertion of something that can be true or false. ’The teachers are ignorant’, for example.

All language can be thought about in terms of the constative and the performative. On the one hand, there is language as descriptive, as saying something about something. On the other, there is language as performative, as not only saying something but doing or performing something at the same time. ’I do’ (as words spoken by the prospective wife or husband in answer to a particular question in the marriage service), ’I declare this meeting inquorate’, ’I promise to pay the bearer on demand the sum of twenty pounds’: these are all examples in which language is clearly supposed to be doing something. If it were not, marriage would be impossible, committee meetings would never end (or, more happily, might never take place at all) and a twenty-pound note would be quite worthless, a mere curiosity. The distinction between constative and performative statements is derived from a particular strand of Anglo-American philosophy known as speech-act theory. Speech-act theory is most famously associated with the work of the Oxford philosopher J.L. Austin and in particular with his book entitled How to do Things with Words (1962). It has become an important area of contemporary philosophy and linguistics but has also proved groundbreaking in the field of literary criticism and theory.

At first this idea may seem baffling. Surely, we may tell ourselves, literary texts are simply ’words on a page’ and moreover words that relate to fictional or poetic worlds, not to the so-called real world in which marriage ceremonies are genuinely performed, committee meetings truly take place and money is real. But the truth of the matter is a little more complicated than this. Literary texts can indeed be considered from the perspective of the performative. The American poet Wallace Stevens points us in this direction when he writes in a letter, in 1945: ’[T]he power of literature is that in describing the world it creates what it describes … You are describing a world and by describing it you are creating it’ (Stevens 1966, 495). It is in this respect that we may recall that the very word ’poetry’ comes from the Greek verb poiein, ’to make’, ’to create’: this suggests that poetry might in fact be a making or doing, as much as a saying or stating.

In order to start exploring this idea in more detail, we will look at one or two poems that are particularly illuminating in this context. First of all, John Keats’s ’This Living Hand’ (written c. 1819):

This living hand, now warm and capable

Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold

And in the icy silence of the tomb,

So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights

That thou would wish thine own heart dry of blood

So in my veins red life might stream again,

And thou be conscience-calm’d—see here it is—

I hold it towards you—

These chilling lines, which as it happens were not published until 1892, more than 70 years after Keats’s death, are apparently about this death. The text functions as a bizarre and complex kind of curse or threat: it suggests that if the writer were dead (if this hand were no longer living but cold and in the grave), ’you’ — the reader — would be so haunted that you would be willing to die in order that the writer could live again. The last words then weirdly suggest that this hand really is still living, despite the fact that we know the poet is dead: ’see here it is— / I hold it towards you—’.

Keats’s poem may or may not be ’unfinished’: we only have the text as recorded in the margin of a manuscript of another poem. Our doubt as to whether it is a fragment or a finished poem is part of a more general sense of uncertainty. ’This Living Hand’ promotes a strong sense of the strangeness of writing as such. It testifies on the one hand (as it were) to the fact that a hand, the writer’s or anyone else’s, is always capable of being outlived by the writing which it produces. Paradoxically, what lives on is the writing and not the hand. On the other hand (so to speak), the poem insists — in a quite threatening and disturbing way — on the power that language has to be deictic, to point (like, precisely, a finger) and to say ’this’ (’This living hand’) and ’here’ (’here it is’), now, in a strangely ’icy’ present. We may not know how we feel about this poem, we may not know how to understand or earnestly ’grasp’ it. But however we may want to think about it, one thing seems clear: the poem is doing something to us as readers. It can be related to the notion of the performative in at least two ways: first, in that it is a threat and, second, in that it enacts the curious logic of holding out a hand (’This living hand’) to us as readers, here and now. Austin notes, in How to do Things with Words, that the classic examples of performatives are ’all with verbs in the first person singular present indicative active … Examples are “I name”, “I do”, “I bet”, “I give” ’ (Austin 1962, 56). Other instances might include ’I promise’, ’I swear’, ’I bequeath’, ’I forgive (you)’, ’I love (you)’, ’I order (you)’, ’I confess’, ’I profess’, ’I testify’, and on on. Austin also adds that another ’useful criterion’ for a performative statement is the presence, whether explicit or implicit, of the word ’hereby’ (57). Keats’s poem, whether considered as finished or unfinished, is clearly saying in some sense: I hereby threaten and haunt you. (To threaten is another sort of performative: indeed, as we hereby promise to show in greater detail below, a promise is itself a sort of threat and a threat a promise.)

Here is another example, a three-line poem by the contemporary English poet Michael Ayres, entitled ’Bittersweet’ (1993):

Survivors again. I never thought we’d make it.

I never thought I could be forgotten,

Or that it would be so bittersweet.

There are intriguing similarities between the Keats and Ayres poems. Both are concerned with the idea of survival and both can be read as poems about themselves, in other words as poems that are self-reflexive or self-referential. And like ’This Living Hand’, ’Bittersweet’ is self-reflexive in a decidedly paradoxical sense. The deployment of the title-word ’bittersweet’ at the very end of the poem establishes the self-reflexive or self-referential dimension: it invites us to suppose that what ’would be so bittersweet’ would be the poem of that title, the poem we are or have just been reading. The word ’bittersweet’ at the end of the poem leads us back to the beginning of the poem, or rather to the very title of the poem, in a way that calls to mind Coleridge’s favourite image for a story — that of the ouroboros, or snake with its tail in its mouth. If the sense of time in this poem is paradoxical, so too of course is the very word ’bittersweet’. This word is an oxymoron — an apparent contradiction in terms, comparable to Milton’s phrase ’darkness visible’ (Paradise Lost, Book 1: 63). Finally, Ayres’s poem is paradoxical as regards the idea of being forgotten. The ’I’ of this poem declares, ’I never thought I could be forgotten’. This can be read as saying ’I never thought I could be forgotten and look, sure enough, I haven’t been’, but it can also be read as saying the opposite: ’I never thought I could be forgotten but the truth is that I have been.’ The more plausible of these interpretations would perhaps be the latter, but if we read the poem in this way we encounter what appears to be its central paradox: being a survivor involves being forgotten. How should we make sense of this? One way would be to say that this is a love poem about the bittersweet experience of surviving some crisis or great difficulty in a relationship: the ’I’ of the poem survives but only at the cost of no longer being the ’I’ he (or she) used to be. We are left, in this case, with the enigma of an ’I’ who has been forgotten, but who nevertheless survives in writing, that is to say, in the very words of the poem. If ’I’ simply depends on writing, then perhaps so does the ’we’ referred to in the first line. This ’we’, in turn, could be read not only as referring to the speaker and the speaker’s lover, for example, but also as referring to ourselves, the poem’s readers. In this sense the poem would be doing something to us, turning us into survivors: reading becomes bittersweet.

As if haunted by an aftertaste, we could carry on trying to describe here what ’This Living Hand’ and ’Bittersweet’ seem to be doing as poems. The basic point, however, is precisely that: they are not poems that are simply descriptive, they are also performative. Keats’s text pulls us into its strange and icy grasp; Ayres’s poem makes reading bittersweet. Both poems are in fact kinds of riddle. Each is saying, in effect: without your being able fully to understand it, this is a poem about the fact that you have read it. Each of these poems draws particular attention to the fact that it is writing and that it can survive its author, like a monument. In this respect both poems exploit the monumentalizing character of writing in a way similar to that of Shakespeare’s sonnet 55:

Not marble nor the gilded monuments

Of princes shall outlive this powerful rhyme,

But you shall shine more bright in these contents

Than unswept stone besmeared with sluttish time.

When wasteful war shall statues overturn,

And broils root out the work of masonry,

Nor Mars his sword nor war’s quick fire shall burn

The living record of your memory.

’Gainst death and all oblivious enmity

Shall you pace forth; your praise shall still find room

Even in the eyes of all posterity

That wear this world out to the ending doom.

So, till the judgement that yourself arise,

You live in this, and dwell in lovers’ eyes.

This is a love poem which asserts that it will ’outlive’ marble, gilded monuments, masonry and so on. It is thus concerned with the idea that writing — and this text in particular — has a capacity for monumentalization greater than that of anything else that humans might create. Because the poem itself will last until the end of the world (’the ending doom’), so will the memory of the lover who is being addressed. The haunting irony of Shakespeare’s poem is that it constitutes not only the ’living record’ of the lover’s ’memory’ but also the very existence of this lover: ’You live in this, and dwell in lovers’ eyes.’ The poem is not simply a ’record’. Rather, the lover (’you’) only exists thanks to these 14 lines. Poetry, then, in keeping with its etymology, can be performative in the most radical way: it can create ’you’.

The notion of the performative is extremely helpful for thinking about literature, then, because it allows us to appreciate that literary texts not only describe but perform. Literary texts not only say but do things: they do things with words and do things to us. More precisely they do things by saying. They create the world they describe (to recall the phrasing from Stevens we cited earlier), but this creation is not a single event, occurring at the time of writing: it happens with every new reading of the literary work. After declaring, in his poem ’In Memory of W.B. Yeats (d. Jan. 1939)’, that ’poetry makes nothing happen’, the poet W.H. Auden qualifies and even contradicts this by observing that ’it survives’, as ’A way of happening, a mouth’. (The mouth and way of happening here would have to do with the reader at least as much as with the writer.) Alongside this we could juxtapose a remark made by Jacques Derrida, who says that ’promising is inevitable as soon as we open our mouths — or rather as soon as there is a text’ (Derrida 1986a, 98). A promise is, of course, a classic example of a performative. In this context we might consider looking at poems and other literary texts for examples of the poet, author, narrator or characters literally making promises to the reader or to other characters. Literary texts are more ’promise-cramm’d’ (to borrow Shakespeare’s phrase: see Hamlet 3.2.92) than one might have supposed. Everywhere in a literary work, for example, that we encounter suspense, deferral of explanation, withholding of facts or truth, hinted at revelation, anticipation, prolepsis or flash-forward, the logic of the promise is at work.

More generally, it is a matter of recognizing that literary texts are, in their very structure, promises. To recall an example that Derrida gives: ’A title is always a promise’ (Derrida 1986a, 115). Even (or especially) with its title, a literary text has begun to promise. As soon as there is a text, perhaps before anyone (the poet, author, narrator or character) even opens their mouth, the performativity of a promise is under way. In order to get a sharper sense of the way a title works as a promise, we could consider how a text might be read if it had a different title from the one it has been given. Imagine Shakespeare’s King Lear if it were retitled Cordelia, or Sylvia Plath’s ’Daddy’ if it were retitled ’Why I Love a Fascist’. Tom Stoppard captures this bizarrerie in his script for Shakespeare in Love (1998, dir. John Madden) where the Bard’s working title for Romeo and Juliet is Romeo and Ethel the Pirate’s Daughter. And we might wonder how differently we would conceive T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land had Ezra Pound not persuaded his friend to alter the title from He Do the Police in Different Voices. With a different title, a quite different kind of promise is being made: the work starts doing something quite different to us.

Let us conclude with a few words about one of these examples, Sylvia Plath’s poem ’Daddy’. This poem is about the speaker’s love and hatred of her father and describes the process by which she comes to exorcise him — by ’killing’ him twice and finally driving a stake through his heart. ’Daddy’ neatly encapsulates many of the points we have been discussing in this chapter. If ’Daddy’ is a particularly crucial word for this poem, starting from its very title, so too is the word ’do’. Plath’s text is fundamentally about doing and most of all, we can suggest, about doing by saying, about doing things with words. ’You do not do’, the poem emphatically opens. ’I do, I do’, the speaker exclaims. A powerfully disturbing rhetorical mixture of a marriage and an execution, Plath’s poem appears at once to describe and perform the process by which the speaker can finally disconnect herself from the addressee (’The black telephone’s off at the root’) and conclude: ’Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through’. The force of the poem involves the sense that the speaker is exorcising her father as she speaks, that these words are what finally get rid of him. The text is like a poetic equivalent of psychoanalysis as ’the talking cure’. Whether or not we construe Plath’s poem as autobiographical, ’Daddy’ operates in the form of a kind of confession. (It is not by chance that Plath’s work is identified with the ’confessional school’ of poetry.) It is here, too, that we might note how profoundly the notion of the performative illuminates the intimate depths of psychoanalysis, just as it does the genre of autobiography. At some level all autobiography has a confessional character: it entails an ’I confess’ (however implicit this may be) in which the person confessing makes the truth.

We have been dealing mainly with poems in this chapter, since they provide an especially clear sense of how the ’I’ of the text, or how the text itself, can be seen to create and transform — to perform. But as the example of titles indicates, the idea of the performative is of fundamental importance for all literary texts. In conclusion we would like to suggest another way of approaching this, namely to consider that every literary text is a kind of letter. It is a text addressed privately to each of us, me or you in isolation, at the same time as being a letter that has been made public, published. To read a literary text is to agree to the idea of a possible relationship. The literary text — whether poem, play, short story or novel — is a letter, and by reading it you become its recipient. Pursuing this analogy between a literary text and a letter, J. Hillis Miller argues that what is particularly striking about the performative dimension of literature is that it is in some ways fundamentally unpredictable. Literary texts give an exemplary ’twist’ to the conventional, Austinian notion of the performative. Miller writes: ’The “twist” lies in the fact that the performative power of the letter is not foreseen or intended. This is contrary to the strict concept of a performative utterance as defined by Austin’ (Miller 1991, 172). We have tried to suggest the workings of such a ’twist’ in the paradoxical and ’riddling’ effects of the poems we have looked at: poems are performative but not in ways that we can necessarily expect or completely, earnestly grasp. Indeed, the ’twist’ may consist in the very failure intimated here. Every performative (a promise or threat or whatever) is haunted by the necessary possibility that it will fail or go astray. The ’twist’ of performatives in literature might be illustrated in relation to the final words of Sylvia Plath’s poem ’Daddy’: ’Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through’. Something appears to be happening here, but what? Is calling daddy ’bastard’ a way of renouncing his legitimacy and thus, as it were, excommunicating him? What does ’I’m through’ mean? Can the ’I’ say this, while still addressing ’daddy’? Does ’I’m through’ mean ’I am finished’ or ’I have finished’? Or does it mean, paradoxically, that the ’I’ is finally through to ’Daddy’, only now, beyond the last word of the poem, finally able to address him?

Further reading

J. Hillis Miller’s work on performatives is particularly accessible. See his excellent studies Tropes, Parables, Performatives (1991), Speech Acts in Literature (2001) and The Medium is the Maker (2009). For an essay specifically focusing on the poetic and the riddle, see his ’Deconstruction and a Poem’ (Miller 2000). More difficult but extremely good are the essays of Paul de Man, for instance in his Allegories of Reading (1979). De Man gives some startling accounts of literary texts as works of persuasion. From a more psychoanalytically oriented perspective, see also Shoshana Felman’s challenging but thought-provoking studies The Literary Speech Act (1983) and (especially of interest regarding the act of promising in relation to literature, philosophy and Lacanian psychoanalysis) The Scandal of the Speaking Body (2003). On the performative in the context of British and German Romanticism, see Esterhammer’s fine book The Romantic Performative (2000). Judith Butler’s work offers a complex but compelling account of identity, gender and politics in general as ’performative’ in ways explicitly indebted to J.L. Austin, even if he would not readily have recognized them. Alongside influential earlier books such as Gender Trouble (1990), Bodies That Matter (1993) and Excitable Speech (1997), see also Butler’s Dispossession: The Performative in the Political (2013). Jonathan Culler has a helpful and stimulating account of Butler and performative language in his Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction (1997). For a very good general guide, paying special attention to the work of Stanley Cavell in tracing out the complexities of Austin’s thinking, see James Loxley’s Performativity (2007). Finally, for a wide-ranging and valuable collection of recent essays, see Mauro Senatore, ed., Performatives after Deconstruction (2013).