December 19, 2017


Literature As Performative Writing

I was closing my last essay with the idea that the attack on political correctness, coming from both the conservative right as well as, paradoxically, from the left who would give up on a concept considered inefficient in adequately representing its vision, would affect what we call today experimental literature, often identified as a form of neo avant-garde. In fact, the misunderstandings floating around the syntagma of political correctness can very well help us to better understand precisely this confusion because both issues are actually the result of a similar approach to the notion of representation.

We must give up certain concepts, it is said, because they are no longer efficient, just like certain structures and genres are in need of revisions because they no longer represent contemporary reality, the actuality. From here also stems a belief in progress to which the avant-garde has always been faithful. The focus will always be on an exaggeration of creativity, on sustaining the power of innovation at a linguistic, theoretical, stylistic, etc. level. This desire to gain access through creation to a reality that is faithfully represented is old and almost not worth the effort of even being mentioned – the two contradicting directions faithful representation / presence vs letting go of representation and closing any representation in the autonomous language / absence; accompanied, of course, by critiques, theories and intermediary methods trying to find some middle ground – progress that creates innovation is always overworked. And the only possibilities oscillate between realism and the fascination for language void of any exteriority.

In Unmarked. The politics of Performance, using Lacan’s psychoanalytic theories, Peggy Phelan will apply to the image the same treatment that a psychoanalyst applies to language, bringing into discussion the issue of representation with all its socio-political implication. To become visible or to have your voice heard, to be given, in other words, an identity which makes you present is not an acceptable solution as long as the signifier does not hint at anything outside of himself. He is engaged and creates a (cultural) reality via the relationships with other signifiers so that The Real remains impossible to be told or seen; but it is precisely this resistance to representation that only facilitates a re-presentation/a repetition of what already is present, thus it is being ignored by those who support the right to become visible. Moreover, “visibility politics are compatible with capitalism’s relentless appetite for new markets and with the most self-satisfying ideologies of the United States: you are welcome here as long as you are productive. The production and reproduction of visibility are part of the labor of reproduction of capitalism.” Representation will always side with those who gaze; that’s where the power lies, it will never side with those who are gazed at. Those who are gazed at will be taken into possession, they are the Other as the imperfect image of the gazer, the gazer’s object of desire in which they seek themselves, creating the gap – because “the Phallus can never be taken in possession”. The problem that arises in psychoanalytical interpretation is that it is not compatible with history, denying reality as Real, the Other exists only as an image, the negative image of the gazer, thus realizing a double exclusion. And yet, Phelan asks, how can we allow the object to exist? Precisely by leaving it invisible, by cultivating its invisibility. It becomes present not by being seen, but through the relations it establishes in/with others. So, it will remain invisible but present. This conclusion can only lead to an ecological perspective, perhaps a more efficient understanding of the importance of invisibility for contemporary art. Naturally, besides the psychoanalytical approach, we can resume the entire discussion from the perspective of appropriation of new resources, especially labor and energies used freely and capital gain. What is invisible is always outside the system, nature (which is in no way the absolute opposite of culture, of that which is “created through language” within culture; it only is an object with no value of use that is yet to be part of the relation system in order to be known and possessed) which the system appropriates as resource for production and capital gain. The more visibility, the more resources and capital; only that which is seen can become propriety, detained and transformed. This entire process takes place in time; for production, all that matters is the past, as in all that has already been accumulated, and the future, namely all that will be produced, added. The relation system is missing that present moment where the object existed as nature, that moment remains invisible, we only have access to the product, the style, but not the gesture. Nevertheless, it is precisely the present, the gesture, which is the only time we could have access to what has been transformed, trans/figured into product. The product is merely bringing into presence what was already present – alienating my image in the other, a me that cannot adequately represent me, always inferior to me and despised for it.  

“The current contradiction between identity politics with its accent on visibility, and the psychoanalytic/deconstructionist mistrust of visibility as the source of unity or wholeness needs to be refigured, if not resolved. […] I am not suggesting that continued invisibility is the proper political agenda for the disenfranchised, but rather that the binary between the power of visibility and the impotency of invisibility is falsifying. There is real power in remaining unmarked; and there are serious limitations to visual representation as a political goal. Visibility is a trap.“ (Peggy Phelan, Unmarked. The Politics of Performance, p. 6)

Peggy Phelan turns to performative art in order to understand this crisis of representation. Performance art with strong political implications only happens in the present, it cannot be saved, recorded, transformed into document because if so, it is no longer a performance, it becomes something else. Herein lies the problem with literature as performance art. How could literature which relies on notes, documentation through writing, memory, but also on changing the values, originality, creation, progress, be performative, namely to be an art of the present, anti-production and anti-accumulation? How is performative writing possible?

Literature marks, it leaves markings on white surfaces, imprints. How can we recover the present from the accumulations of the past? From what has been already marked?

Literature is the other made visible, made the inferior-same. But this is not in plain sight. In literature we see something else. A few months ago, during an investigation on literature by women and the condition of female writers in Romanian contemporary literature, with many authors having acknowledged discrimination, but always placing it outside of text, outside of literature as the totality of all written texts because, as many explained, literature has no gender, it belongs to no one. And yet, language tells a different story – in many languages, literature is not a gender-neutral noun, it is feminine. This brings us to another story. Literature represents the feminine, thus the feminine is associated with an image, the incomplete image of ideal masculinity, or the castrated Phallus. Through literature, the feminine is taken into possession, owned and created by the masculine. In order to set literature free, we must first reveal the act of possession, show how it is detained and by whom; but we must also hide the feminine, return its reality, capture it directly, with no representation. So we reach the last question: how can something that has already been seen and represented/possessed become invisible?

Let’s get back to the two images from Jennifer Scappettone’s The Republic of Exit 43: Outtakes & Scores from an Archaeology and Pop-Up Opera of the Corporate Dump (Berkeley, CA: Atelos Press, 2017), that I also included in my last essay: “a murmur of folk” – a pop-up pastoral, p. 34, and “Our digression on / Alice” – a pop-up pastoral, p. 37.


If we look closely, visible are only some fragments of text, sectioned images which reveal parts that are hard to pieces together, they all have a common background over which they are layered and over-layered. Neither the text fragments nor the sectioned images hold priority, nothing is privileged, zoomed in or highlighted. The whole must be gazed at carefully, bit by bit in order to discover not necessarily a unifying possibility, but rather certain details that one might recognize and use in order to make some sense of this labyrinth, a real map for nonsense. Sometimes, excess suffocates any displacement.

This hint at the nonsensical is no accident, from the very beginning, through an introductory note, “An Underture” (overture, beginning of an opera or the return-trip to the under/ground, in perforated spaces, the ribbed and the smooth, surfaces of all kinds are broken) is put in relation to the well-known “Alice in Wonderland”, or a girl’s journey in Wonderland. This note highlights a few essential facts for what performative writing should be which are further detailed in the volume:

“This is an archaeology of the dump and opera of pop-ups. It performs a virtual and analog return to the Exist / in which its author was raised – the dual / […] The pop-ups choruses, which interrupt the archaeology, sample the syntax and nonsense logics of Lewis Carroll / to graft / last-ditch pastorals of poetasters, from Virgil to Victorians, onto the quarrels of buried corpuses, CEOs, the EPA, / estimated pupils / and halflives of chemical substances, tracing the pathways of a malice in Underland that is incompletely virtual, for which responsibility has been rendered abstruse. These pieces / score the frustration of de facto digital efforts to apprehend ecochemical calamity as archaeology, disclosing the poem’s status as both material and pixelated artifact;“

*Note: “a malice in Underland“ is in fact hinting at “Alice in Wonderland“ (me Alice in Underland), thus hinting at the entire literature of nonsense.


Thus, we will have to deal with an archaeological work for waste, for all that has been used and abandoned over time, losing its value, but forms the foundation on which the beautiful world of pastorality was raised. Of course, here we are talking about archaeology as the science of the historical past through the analysis of materials revealed through digging, but there is also an archaeology of knowledge, the method of researching discourses, discursive assemblages, relation systems, profound epistemological rifts etc. The digging of forgotten remains whose surface holds all that we see built today, are interrupted by pop-up assemblages, never before seen materials that research pulled out. Pop-ups are true nonsense assemblages, linguistic structures set in layers, mixes of images and text as discursive remains, fragments of history with lost origins.

If the surface, that old smooth surface ribbed by pastoral discourse, is an idyllic image dominated by harmony and unity, the act of performing this stretch through digging changes and will be simplified along with the digital era (“…is also a site of penetrability – of expressive claims of beings with more fluid boundaries” – Scappettone, op.cit., p. 49), where the surface and depth are in the same plane – the screen which sometimes opens windows generated by the browser security issues. Sometimes, behind a pop-up window there is a pop-under window (in the poem there is always mention of this under-: underture, Underland etc.) which, in fact, hides a browser window under the active window and remains unseen until the active window is closed. In the virtual world and its way of functioning there are many aspects borrowed from the real world,  the mechanism that was once impossible to see now becomes a spectacle. This way, the true pastoral power and its invisible, silent consequences can be understood only via the discovery of this Underland, a version of Wonderland – that place Jean-Jacques Lecercle described in Philosophy of Nonsense. The institutions of Victorian Nonsense Literature as a textual locus, a linguistic universe that illustrates an abstract playground, like chess or playing cards etc. The entire world of Wonderland is flat, the perforated spaces becomes accessible. But signification is no longer possible, the text does not speak anymore, it just happens in the from of the reader that is performing it, making it active. Lecercle calls this manner of turning literature as the literary genre of nonsense – a form of canceling the authorial voice and freeing the municipality of discourses, a rewriting machine, a work for corrupting language that catches significant texts, separates them from their historical content and de/re/semnaticates in order to give the impression that it speaks a truth that cannot be put in any other way – it makes visible that which is unwatchable. Actually, we are confronted with a form of contamination, described by Foucault, by the first two systems for exclusion that affect the discourse: forbidden speaking (here lies the entire issue with political correctness) and sharing the madness, of the third system: will to truth. Consequently, the older ritualistic discourse with its performativity will always be subordinated to being given a meaning; we can no longer believe in the word’s power of action, only in their use as medium for transmitting information. In the Victorian era, the role of the nonsense institution was to educate, education seen as absurd, but the unique chance of reaching the truth, of passing on the system’s laws of functioning to children. Alice did indeed descend into Wonderland, but like a true colonizer, she crossed it and got to know it by always trying to grant it its missing meaning, transform it into herself, because the world above, her world filled with meaning was seen as superior to this flat space. She transformed Wonderland into a museum of curiosities, an object of research. The Republic of Exit 43 shows how the world colonized by Alice has been “cultivated”, how the extra-human has been appropriated and introduced into the economic circuit, how its growth can be obtained through added chemical substances, fertilizers that accelerate its production, the consequences of visibility, knowledge etc. 

Wonderland/Underland is in no way a utopia, nor a dystopia, it does not create a possible world for it is a realm of non-creative, of repetition, refraction and imitation, a place for discursive remains but also home to extra-linguistic realities (the problem of pollution and waste from big companies and institutions). It is, after all, repetition under a current form of carnivalesque literature or grotesque realism. Lecercle establishes this parallel between dialogical literature, the carnivalesque literature described by Bahtin and the literature of nonsense – the world unleashed here is actually the real one and certainly not a possible one. It does not reveal itself to us via representation, it is never the case of a mimetic literature in the traditional sense of mimesis as a reflection of reality. The process through which reality is reached is refraction, deformation (“the form of dumb mimesis” – Scappettone, op.cit., p.67), and it does not function with the logic of representation, but with constituting assemblages, the way the fragments are arranged and assembled. It refracts not only the field elements, but also its structure, resulting in a figure that hides and through which the excess of seen reality is granted to invisibility, it becomes invested with power (“Not to render the invisible visible, but to bruise and multiply the channels of its invisibility” – Scappettone, p. 44). Just like the carnival, reality is presented to us like a mask, and in Underland it becomes the stage for a parody of the eternal return to nature, of the appropriated disfigured reassembled extra-human. And this best plays out in an environment where the virtually archived body (the discourse) is presented as a frontier thought-image – “the possibility of thinking in different spaces which break away from eurocentrism as a unique epistemological perspective. This is the double critique of modernity from a colonial perspective, from outside the modern/colonial world-system” (Escobar, Designs for the Pluriverse). In this environment, there is no imaginary solution for a real problem, but the questioning of network structures and discursive assemblages, the differences between the results of these building efforts and each individual vision and effort that contributes to realizing these structures. In other words, a deconstruction of utopia, of the imaginary and its illusory unity. This way, we don’t capture the product of labor, but the gesture of producing, labor itself.  

Jennifer Scappettone might provide the best answer for all these questions on performative literature, especially for those questions that demonstrate how literature can become a performative act. Although an art of memory, of memoirism or, quite the opposite, of possible worlds, utopias, it can sometimes position itself on the line that separates them, thus becoming a frontier art through which the archived past that was passed on in the form of ascertaining descriptive discourse that becomes action, present action played out for the receiver not through the technique of representation but via direct participation – the authorial voice will have been canceled because, in the midst of total nonsense, we allow ourselves to be talked, we do not talk. Metaphor is replaced with metonymy – meaning or a unit for sense are no longer sought out. The past becomes the present as a performative gesture, but only one time for each individual reader. Moreover, through repetition and recycling the archive, the presence of utopian/dystopian worlds looses its importance for this type of literature. It will only analyze the procedures that lead to their occurrence, the type of labor and the way in which they were produced and added to what has already been imagined. Performative literature therefor remains a laboratory where history is replayed, reassembled in order to make use of its waste, materials that have been used and abandoned – not the significance of the material itself, but what it can do, its manner of action. With this process, reality can be extracted via subtraction. What remain visible are the hybrid structures where image, text, sound are all treated equally, on a flat surface, and preferring one over the other does not pose an issue of visual accuracy – the receptor’s gaze.

This kind of action is a feminine endeavor, a labor reserved by history, literature as a feminine is captured in this gesture because SHE has always been in charge with the housekeeping (“Lydia Maria Child’s The Frugal Housewife, owned by Emily Dickinson’s household, opens ‘The true economy of housekeeping is simply the art of gathering up all the fragments, so that nothing is lost. I mean fragments of time as well as materials.“ – Scappettone, op.cit., p.117). Through this form of labor and action, the invisible feminine, or literature, becomes a manifesto.

Ultimately, if performance art, as Peggy Phelan claims, is the art of all that is unmarked, absent, then performative writing should own up to its role of turning into unmarked all that has already been marked and expropriate all that has already been possessed. But more on the types of appropriation and ways of liberation, literature as experiment and performative writing as an alternative to creative writing in a future discussion.


Iulia Militaru

Iulia Militaru is Chief Editor of frACTalia Press and the Editor in Chief of InterRe:ACT magazine. After a few children’s books and her study "Metaphoric, Metonimic: A Typology of Poetry", her first...

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