"Words Make Things: They Aren’t Until I Call Them. Performing the Subject in American Literature by Enikő Bollobás" – Review by Réka M. Cristian
Réka M. Cristian is Associate Professor at the Department of American Studies, University of Szeged, Hungary. E-mail:
They Aren’t Until I Call Them. Performing the Subject in American Literature
By Enikő Bollobás
Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 2010.
223 + 9 pages
Published by Peter Lang, They Aren’t Until I Call Them. Performing the Subject in American Literature explores the domain of performativity and subjectivity through a distinguished selection of American texts. This study is a captivating read about the ways words make things in particular texts and about how these things shape subjectivities in specific contexts. For this purpose, Enikő Bollobás uses texts taken from several genres of different periods and written by authors of diverse backgrounds. Committed to an interdisciplinary approach, the author employs a unique interpretive strategy mastered with incisive wit: the result is a finely tuned selection of linguistic and literary theories with fiction and non-fiction texts into a dialogic location.
The book starts with a parable about baseball umpires that inspired the eye-catching title of the book. In this story, “[T]wo novice umpires compete in boasting how good they are, how they respect ‘truth’ and the way things ‘really’ are. One says, ‘I call them the way I see them;’ the other, trying to trump this remark, responds, ‘I call them the way they are.’ Then enters the third, most seasoned umpire, who has been in the business for decades, saying, ‘They aren’t until I call them’” (9). The umpires’ answers indicate the way words ‘make’ things due to the performative power of language and show how, in turn, the performative power of words can construct one’s subjecthood. Bollobás follows this twofold approach to words and things. Her analysis is based on the original Austinian framework of speech acts involving constatives that usually describe things and register events, and performatives, which create things and events. This framework is restructured to accommodate the poststructuralist stance by focusing on performative acts through which individuals (more precisely, fictional characters) construct themselves and create additional discourses producing new subjectivities (10). Bollobás interprets case studies of fiction and non-fiction by applying both speech act theory and the performative approach, the latter bridging over to feminist, deconstructionist and post-deconstructionist methods of inquiry. By expanding the range of the performative condition the author re-reads previous texts from a poststructuralist vantage point in order to reevaluate the original poststructuralist interpretation of given works. The theories at work here inform each other by coalescing into a “usable theory” (19), a truly efficient critical strategy defined as “performative constructionism” (13). At this point, the author introduces two pivotal terms: performance (with the last syllable italicized) referring to a “particular mode of performativity, characterized by mimetic replaying of norms and the replaying of ruling ideologies when constructing the subject” and performative (with its last syllable italicized), which points to “another mode of performativity, characterized by resistance to ruling ideologies and the bringing about of new discursive entities in subject constructions” (21).
They Aren’t Until I Call Them. Performing the Subject in American Literature is thematically grouped into five chapters. The first chapter defines and exemplifies “strong performatives” by focusing on the “word magic” of logocentric instance of performatives (14). Among the strong performatives invoked by the author there are Biblical excerpts involving the figure of the Almighty Subject (32) converging in God’s wor(l)d creation “by virtue of his own agency” (31) as well as declarations and manifestos (as subcategory of declarations). The Declaration of Independence is envisaged here as a “classroom case of the self-referentiality of the performative” referring to a reality that it programs and produces (40). Its power
lies in the fact that the delegates produced the ‘We” of the American people by pledging to each other (as opposed to pledging to the Crown), yet managed to retain their allegiance to God. Actually, the text evokes the authority of God to validate the speech act: it is by His ultimate authority (as Nature’s God) that performative language claims entitlement for the people. God, who is (once again) performatively produced by being named and being assigned ultimately authority, now authorizes the claim of entitlement to the signers as representatives of the American people. (41)
Unlike the Declaration of Independence, The Seneca Declaration of Women or Seneca Falls Declaration (1848) is regarded as unsuccessful from the point of view of speech acts because as Bollobás points out, it was unable to “either invent American women as a legal entity or to achieve what they stated in the propositional content of their Declaration: independence from and equality with men” (42). As part of the strong performatives cluster, the book displays the most pertaining selection of texts containing the wounding power of language (materialized in hate speech) along with texts exhibiting the empowerment through words. The first chapter examines the hurting power of the words in Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn shedding light on the relationship between the objectification of African Americans and the use of oppressive language. As opposed to the word “queer,” which was adopted by gay activists and theories, Bollobás emphasizes that the word “nigger” was never cleared of “its original context of insult,” nor subversively re-signified by African Americans activists and theorists (47). In Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, the condescending use of words hurt Jenie, only to later empower the black woman, who finally gets a voice of her own. Likewise, in Norman Mailer’s “The Time of Her Time” derogative words both injure and empower: Denise experiences sexual encounter with Sergius O’Shaughnessy as both trauma and therapy. She gains power by talking back to the racist-misogynist man who aimed to victimize her. Thus, she “unconstructs herself as a woman subjected to male sexual control and reconstructs herself as a sexual subject on her own right” (50).
“The Strong Performative” chapter also contains three studies of performative creations with alternative realities. The first is Mark Twain’s The Mysterious Stranger, which unveils the similarity of real and dreamed worlds (and figures). References are singularly cunning in Twain’s work: wor(l)ds are structured in a way that there is little or no difference between the reality and the dream. In this case, “truth is not validated by external reality” because “there is nothing outside the text” (55). Ambroise Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” also belongs to the plethora of strong performatives. This text is a transgression of worlds as seen by Peyton Farquhar during the last moments before his death in a narrative where the “text pretends to be extradiegetic, but at the very end it turns out to be autodiegetic” (58). In this story the protagonist―as a dying man―constructs himself as a living man, setting himself free by the power of his will. “Language games of irony and make believe in Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” is a meticulously elaborated strong performatives subchapter. The dramatic genre has an inherent action-diction dichotomy perfectly fitting to the application of speech acts and performativity. The lushly exemplified verbal fights between Edward Albee’s famous couples, Martha and George together with Nick and Honey, in addition with the word games these characters talk of and play create a surrogate reality believed more real than the reality of the characters in which they hide the obvious only to be able to reveal the hidden “that would never come to light otherwise” (59).
Chapter Two of the book extends the performative over the epistemes of Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Roland Barthes, J. Hillis Miller, Shoshana Felman, Diana Fuss, Judith Butler, Eve Kosovsky Sedgwick. Here Bollobás recontextualizes the perspectives of the subject in the poststructuralist realm by demonstrating that performativity is an essential category of both textuality and discursivity. This chapter is an intensely rewarding theoretical elaboration on the extension of the performative theory, on performance and performative constructions of the subject and on articulations of gender, race, sexuality and passing. Chapter Three: “Performing Gender,” Chapter Four: “Performing Sexuality” and Chapter Five: “Performing Passing” test and analyze the theoretical findings of the extended performatives. These sections are, for some unknown editorial reason, rendered in separate chapters despite the fact that they constitute practical extensions of the aforementioned theoretical basis and thus, an organic part of Chapter Two.
The “Performing Gender” chapter offers interpretations on the performances of gender compliance through dressing in Henry James’s Daisy Miller, The Portrait of a Lady and The Wings of the Dove. While Jamesian women are subjects of stylized performances, the protagonist of Theodore Dreiser Sister Carrie unmasks her constructed womanhood as an empty signifier of the world of fashion; the protagonist of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening uses the social mask of clothes whereas “little” Mrs. Sommers from “A Pair of Silk Stockings” enacts a masquerade that culminates in her catachretic womanhood. Last but not least, Lily Bart’s performance of “feminine objecthood” (119) in Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth unveils the fact that she “owns nothing of herself” (120). All these characters construct their gender roles, Bollobás demonstrates, as “the consequence of the performance of dressing as social scripting” (ibid.). Apart from the aforementioned individual constructions, the performance of cultural codes in William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” turns out to be a joint performative venture on the part of both the protagonist and the townspeople. The icon of the Southern lady constructed by the local society through a series of cultural codes configure Emily Grierson into “Miss Emily” (121), disclosing a fictional-discursive theatrical performance in which Miss Emily’s “reconstruction is reiterated by both parties” helps the protagonist “get away with the murder of Homer Baron” (122). Furthermore, the theatrics of the old woman in Flannery O’Connor “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” echoes the fictional construction of Miss Emily’s identity. These women characters are “cultural artifacts, created by the self-serving myths of the South” signaling catachrestic figures (128). Blanche DuBois is also among the leading catachrestic Southern characters. Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire presents her as the master perfomer of the masquerade of femininity, while Stanley Kowalsky―the antagonist of the play―enacts his own performance of virile masculinity. Both Blanche and Stanley have “easily identifiable cultural scripts that clash” (125). One’s performance is the other’s counter-performance, “only the scripts” of their gender differs (126). The author of the book devotes a subchapter to the misogynist construction of women characters in patriarchal society focusing on T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” on “Portrait of a Lady” and on The Waste Land. Similar to the misogynist turn in Jonathan Swift’s “A Beautiful Young Nymph Going to Bed” and in Gulliver’s Travels, Eliot’s work follows the strategy of “reversing the normative construction of womanhood” (129). In this perspective, women are objectified into monstrous beings “without substance or wholeness” (129), into “passive extras in the grand orchestra of male supremacy” (130) in which they are mere lifeless decorative mannequins (131). Except rare instances, Bollobás notes, women did not take center stage in American literature until the turn of the 19th century (131, 133) when an increasing number of texts written by women enabled them to re-appropriate language and speech from men (132). Because the “construction of womanhood as subject or object depends on the narrative position,” (133) the author considers for detailed introspection works that regard a narrative position in which women “claim agency and construct themselves” (131) outside the essentialist position. Bollobás’s examples include instances of performative genders where women characters do not comply with social norms: Gertrude Stein overwrites the heterosexual matrix and the patriarchal narrative in Three Lives; Willa Cather constructs Ántonia’s “underfurnished” gender (138) as a narrative topos of androgyny in My Ántonia; Robin Vote appears as a transgressive, “radically subversive creature” (141) experimenting with non-conforming identities in Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood; H.D.’s HERmione maps the subject-landscape of Hermione Gart’s self-multiplicity and undifferentiated sexuality; and the “manly” Miss Amelia Evans in Carson McCullers The Ballad of the Sad Café epitomizes a complex and unpredictable (148) gender.
Chapter Four: “Performing Sexuality” is a revisionist interpretation conceptualizing the homosexual character, by making visible the implications of the “new kid on the block of binary thinking” (153) in various works beneath the heterosexual surface of the text. In this part of the book the author discusses the resisting narrative of the homosexual subtext in two works by Henry James. “The Beast in the Jungle” is about the love that dared not speak its name. Bollobás concentrates especially on the “unsaid and the unsayable,” which James constructs into an intriguingly coded narrative between a heterosexual cover-story and the implied gay plot that ends in destabilizing the decidability (161) concerning the heteronormativity of the narrative. In James’s In the Cage the author detects “the performative’s compliance with the presupposition as well as its defiance of the presupposition” in the sense that “homosexuality is made visible but presented as a secret, not to be revealed” despite the fact that James crafts the work so that that “the dialogue between the text and context reveal the secret” (163) of the “new discursive subject,” (165) the homosexual.
In line with the previous ones, Chapter Five “Performing Passing” displays radiant insights on performing passing in Mark Twain’s Is He Dead?, in Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita and in David H. Hwang M. Butterfly. Passing is “a term originally used in the context of race” that has been extended to other additional forms of boundary crossings (167). Gender and race passing are performances in which essential binary constructions become staged, acted out, performed. Bollobás discerns two types of gender passing: full passing and play passing (169). The first is always a performance (for example, when a man “passes over” for a woman or a black person for a white), while the second is performative by interrogating and subverting normative identities in a gender play beyond essential paradigms. Similar to cross-dresser women in the Civil War (171) and to John Howard Griffin’s race passing experiment in “Black Like Me,” Twain’s Millet performs full passing by cross-dressing as his own twin sister, Widow Daisy Tillou (172). The performance of Nabokov’s Lolita from nymphet to adult woman becomes a transgressive gender play on the part of the girl and Humbert, too. Moreover, the performance of gender, sexuality, race and colonialism in M. Butterfly reveals “positions of in-betweenness and multiplicity” (181) which can be best covered by play passing. Coleman Silk in Philip Roth’s The Human Stain enacts full passing from black to the “ethnically marked version of white Jewish” (195) academic. In the context of categories that converge, James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man along with Nella Larsen’s Passing present the sexualization of race and racialization of sexuality (182) and demonstrate, with the examples above, that “subjects do not preexist discourse but are produced in performance and performative processes” (202).
They Aren’t Until I Call Them. Performing the Subject in American Literature is a highly valuable resource for people with an interest in American literature, literary criticism, history, linguistics, law, gender and religious studies. This book deserves to be on the bookshelf of those seeking excellence in contemporary textual interpretation. Its spellbinding choice of speech act theory, gender studies, deconstruction, and post-structuralism effectively adapted to both fiction and non-fiction provides the reader with enlightening professional insights and joy.