In contributing to Linda Adler-Kassner and Elizabeth Wardle’s Naming What We Know: Threshhold Concepts of Writing Studies, I tried my hand at discussing the performative nature of writing:
Students are sometimes puzzled by the notion that writing is performative. Yet some discussion usually clarifies the concept as students quickly see that their writing performs for a grade or other reward for an audience of academics (mostly teachers). In these pieces of writing, students adopt the role or persona of the “good student.” But writing is performative in other important senses as well. Kenneth Burke’s concept of “language as symbolic action” helps explain why. For Burke and other contemporary theorists, language and writing have the capacity to act, to do things in the world. Speech act theorists such as J. L. Austin speak of “performatives,” by which they mean spoken phrases or sentences that constitute an action: saying “I now pronounce you husband and wife” actually performs the act of wedded union, as does the judge who says “I sentence you to X. . . .
But we can see other ways in which writing performs: from The Declaration of Independence to the petition that leads to a change of policy or a Kickstarter site whose statements are so compelling that they elicit spontaneous donations, writing has the capacity to perform. At its most basic, saying that writing is performative means that writing acts, that it can make things happen. This is the meaning students in the Stanford Study of Writing, a longitudinal exploration of writing development during the college years, meant when they told researchers over and over again that “good writing is writing that makes something good happen in the world”. . . .
I have been thinking about this “threshold concept” recently as I re-read some of Peter Elbow’s work on voice (his edited Landmark Essays on Voice and Writing) is another very rich source for thinking through this difficult and often problematic concept. Elbow is an eloquent proponent of voice in writing, arguing that its attention to voice can help students improve their writing and actually enjoy their writing; moreover, voice in writing helps captivate and guide readers.
I don’t want to join the debate for or against “voice,” partly because Elbow has already tracked that debate pretty thoroughly. Instead, I’ve been thinking about whether describing writing as “performative” might get at some of the same qualities Elbow and others extol in good writing. A few years ago, a student challenged my claim that writing was performative: “I don’t see how you can say that. The writing I do in college doesn’t perform anything. It’s just lifeless prose I turn in because it’s assigned.” This student later decided to spend a term exploring the claim, and we spent ten weeks debating and looking at examples of writing he felt was “like a performance, like doing something.” Many of the examples he brought in to discuss came from speeches, particularly those by Martin Luther King. These speeches seemed to him clearly to be performances – to be performative.
So then I challenged him to figure out, concretely, what that meant. By the next week, he had a list of characteristics he said helped to make a text performative, “and it didn’t take rocket science,” he said, “to figure it out.” At the top of the list of features was rhythm, followed by repetition (and even rhyme). Vivid images, strong active verbs, concrete, specific nouns, metaphor and other figures of speech, and direct address followed in quick succession. These are some of the elements that make a text come alive, that make it “speak.” Now I’m wondering whether the individual choices writers/speakers make in deploying these elements can account for a good portion of what we think of as “voice” in writing. My guess is that the two are strongly connected—and I plan to follow up with some students this summer to push a little further into this exploration.