Introduction: Performativity of Literature, Transformation, Repetition

Michel Foucault states that, “one writes in order to become other than what one is.” In autobiography studies, Leigh Gilmore takes Foucault’s dictum and explains it as follows: “Autobiography offers an opportunity for self-transformation.” Moreover, by being “less a report with a fixed content summarized at the end of a long life, autobiography becomes a speculative project in how ‘to become other.’” Here, the transformative effect of autobiography points at one performative aspect of literature.

Jonathan Culler points at the performativity of literature by stating that first, literary utterance “brings into being characters and their actions”, and second, “literary works bring into being ideas, concepts, which they deploy.” Culler concludes that literature “takes its place among the acts of language that transform the world, bringing into being the things that they name.” In this regard, Culler’s ideas add one further point to Foucauldian sense of transformative effect of writing, in the way that, writing can not only transform the “self” but also transform the “world”. In both cases, we can observe the performativity of literature.

In this regard, let us discuss J. L. Austin’s and Judith Butler’s use of performativity through Culler’s interpretations. Culler states that “Austin is interested in how the repetition of a formula on a single occasion makes something happen (you made a promise)”, while “for Butler this is a special case of the massive and obligatory repetition that produces historical and social realities (you become a woman).” Culler defines Austin’s understanding of the performative as follows: “Performative utterances do not describe but perform the action they designate.” While an Austinian approach would focus on the singular performative effect of men’s utterance in Islamic tradition, say in the case of “boş ol! boş ol! boş ol!” which actuates the divorce; Butlerian approach would emphasize the repeated speech acts by which ongoing relations between individuals and discursive formations in society are made possible. In that regard, the act of “repetition” is productive in the sense that it enables the reproduction of the relations in society.

Culler quotes Butler, who says that “‘Queer’ derives its force precisely through the repeated … invocation by which a social bond among homophobic communities is formed through time.” This example indicates the negative aspect of performativity since the speech acts are repeated in order to enhance the oppression of the oppressed group in society. Besides as Culler also mentions in his article, the adoption of “Queer” by homosexuals is a counter act to the oppressors who use the expression “Queer” repeatedly in order to insult homosexuals. However, the adoption of “Queer” also brings about repetition; for instance say, now that “Queer Theory” is invented and uttered in the academia and in public for the struggle against homophobia. The word “Queer” (and sets of discourses that succeed it) is now repeated constantly during the war against homophobia. Eventually, this constitutes the positive aspect of performativity; which not only reveals to us that it is possible to make use of the performative in course of struggling against the oppressor, but also signals the solid link between repetition and performativity. A particular performance in a society might have negative or positive effects; nevertheless, it is a result of previously “repeated” performative acts.

Culler, in his essay beautifully brings together Austinian and Butlerian approaches to discuss the performativity of a literary work. For him, “the Austinian version of the literary event” would suggest that, at first, the literary work “accomplishes a singular, specific act”, and secondly that “it creates that reality which is the work, and its sentences accomplish something in particular in that work.” Besides, Culler states that “on the other hand, we could also say that a work succeeds, becomes an event, by a massive repetition that takes up norms and, possibly, changes things.” And this constitutes the projection of Butlerian performativity onto literature. Culler further claims that the “changing” or “transforming” effect of literature might occur when a literary work is “effecting an alteration in the norms or the forms through which readers go on to confront the world.” Hence, one more point is added to Foucault’s dictum, as a third aspect of the act of writing: The act of writing can perform in a way that it can transform: 1) The writing self 2) The World 3) The reader. All in all, a literary work’s performativity might not be “a singular act accomplished once and for all but (can be) a repetition that gives life to forms it repeats.” Let me now illustrate this dichotomy in the definitions of performativity – as singular and as repetitive – through an analysis of “autobiography” and “minor literature”.

Autobiography and Austinian Performativity

Smith and Watson, in their article “Life Narrative: Definitions and Distinctions”, mention of Philippe Lejeune, a key scholar in autobiography studies, who “defines the relationship between the author and reader in autobiographical writing as a contract”, and asserts: “What defines autobiography for the one who is reading is above all a contract of identity that is sealed by the proper name. And this is true also for the one who is writing the text.” Moreover, what distinguishes novel from autobiography for Lejeune is that, “the ‘vital’ statistics of the author, such as date and place of birth and education, are identical to those of the narrator; and an implied contract or ‘pact’ exists between author and publisher attesting to the truth of the signature.” In his analysis, Lejeune underscores the determining and authoritarian role of the author by highlighting his/her prominent role in the constitution of the autobiographical pact. If the author declares that “this book is my autobiography”, the readers have to treat that book as autobiography no matter to what extent the narration represents reality. That pact is secured with the cooperation of the author and the publisher: The publisher notes in the cover page the expression, “autobiography”, or “memoir”, or “diary”. According to the pact, whenever it writes “memoir” on the cover, the book becomes a memoir. For Lejeune, it becomes a memoir because the author wants it to be so. However, ultimately it is the language that performs. Although Lejeune’s theory of autobiography seems to constitute an autonomous space for the author as opposed to Barthian “death of the author”; in the end, performativity of the language (as determining factor of the genre) implies that “it is language which speaks, not the author.” At this point, language performs a single act, it constitutes the genre of the book, it makes the book; the book becomes and is ready for the attention of the reader. Thus, this kind of performativity in Lejeunian autobiographical pact is an Austinian one.

Minor Literature

Now let us undertake a discussion of minor literature for an illustration of Butlerian performativity. Here, I take the term “minor literature” as theorized by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari in their book, “Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature”. Deleuze and Guattari first of all indicate that a minor literature doesn’t originate from a minor language; “it is rather that which a minority constructs within a major language.” Deleuze and Guattari define the first characteristic of minor literature as that in minor literature, “language is affected with a high coefficient of deterritorialization.” Furthermore, they present Franz Kafka as an author of minor literature: “… Kafka marks the impasse that bars access to writing for the Jews of Prague and turns their literature into something impossible – the impossibility of not writing, the impossibility of writing in German, the impossibility of writing otherwise.” In this respect, the major language is deterritorialized through a minor literature. In that regard, minor literature can introduce specific expressions, words, literary conventions of minor language to major language. In Turkish literature, Mıgırdiç Margosyan can be given as an example as an author of minor literature. Margosyan is of Armenian descent; but he writes in Turkish which is a major language. His use of Armenian and Kurdish words (minor language) in his memoir-novel “Tespih Taneleri” represents the ways in which minor language operates within major language and deterritorializes it.

According to Deleuze and Guattari, another characteristic of minor literature is that, “everything in them is political.” Moreover, political nature of minor literature is also related to its collective aspect; for them, in minor literature “everything takes on a collective value”, as “what each author says individually already constitutes a common action, and what he or she says or does is necessarily political, even if others aren’t in agreement.” According to Deleuze and Guattari, “the political domain has contaminated every statement. But above all else, … literature finds itself positively charged with the role and function of collective, and even revolutionary, enunciation.” Through the act of enunciation, minor literature “produces an active solidarity” among members of a community. In doing so, “the literary machine becomes the relay for a revolutionary machine-to-come.” This machinic property of minor literature that Deleuze and Guattari propose, corresponds to the performative aspect of the literary work, since minor literature performs (in major language) in a way that it not only deterritorializes that major language but also creates new possibilities of speaking, thinking, writing in major language: As products of minor literature, Kafka’s and Margosyan’s works perform with (the major) language and in (the major) language.

Butlerian Performativity and Minor Literature

Jonathan Culler quotes Judith Butler who says that “subjected to gender but subjectivated by gender, the ‘I’ neither precedes nor follows the process of this gendering but emerges only within and as the matrix of gender relations themselves.” The relation between subjected to and subjectivated by gender as Butler proposes is also a matter of discussion in Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of minor literature. Claire Colebrook discusses language as “collective assemblage” which performs enunciation, in relation to Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of minor literature, in terms of the distinction they make between subject and subjugated groups in society. In the light of Deleuze and Guattari, she states the following: “… We need to think of language as an act or event that produces the effect of underlying speakers or subjects. … A subject group forms as an act of speech or a demand, as an event of becoming.” Consequently, Deleuze and Guattari’s analyses elucidate that “the subject group forms itself through speaking or becoming” while on the other hand, “a subjugated group, by contrast, speaks as though, it were representing, rather than forming, its identity.” At this point, for Deleuze and Guattari, writing becomes majoritarian, as opposed to minoritarian, since “it is now based upon an identity and demands recognition, rather than constitution of that identity.” In sum, Deleuze and Guattari’s theory implies that minor literature constitutes a performative domain through which a group of people can produce and construct their identities by deterritorialization of the majoritarian (language or literature), rather than only representing themselves or being formed and subjectivated by others.

Furthermore, Deleuze and Guattari emphasize the repetitive aspect of minor literature; as Colebrook says, “what is repeated in minor literature is literary becoming.” Hence Deleuze and Guattari’s approach explicates that “a minor literature repeats, not in order to express what goes before, but to express an untimely power, a power of language to disrupt identity and coherence” , and that “a minor literature repeats the past and present in order to create a future.” According to Deleuze, the only thing that is repeated or returns is difference and the power of life is difference and repetition. Deleuze interprets Nietzsche’s concept of eternal recurrence as a constant repetition of difference, and together with Guattari, they point out minor literature as “great literature”, which repeatedly performs the act of deterritorialization of major language and by which the oppressed or subjectivated groups might find a way to express themselves in order to fulfill their lives; in other words, their (Deleuzean) becomings. Therefore, minor literature which consists of repeated performances is in this sense very similar to Butlerian understanding of performativity.


In this essay I intended to draw relations between autobiography, minor literature and performativity. Minor literature is first connected with Foucauldian dictum of transforming the writing self since minor literature provides the individual with the possibility to deterritorialize the major language and perform in accordance with his/her own identity and becoming within literature. Lejeune’s theory of autobiographical pact reveals the functioning of Austinian (singular) performativity; hence one might suggest that it is language that speaks and not the writing self. Deleuze and Guattari’s theory of minor literature encounters with Butlerian theory of performativity by means of repetition. Culler’s description of the performativity of a literary work when he says that “a work succeeds, becomes an event, by massive repetition that takes up norms and, possibly, changes things” is realized in Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of minor literature. Through minor literature, one can also manifest a resistance by constantly deterritorializing major language; thus it is possible that the writing self who disappears (in Austinian performativity of language like in autobiography) might come into being again as an authorial figure with an active agency. Eventually, not only minor literature provides the individual with the opportunity to perform within literature in various ways, but also it is minor literature itself which performs a counter-hegemonic mission against majoritarian modes of writing and thinking. All in all, theory of performativity and minor literature is very much interconnected with one another.

Works Cited

Leigh Gilmore. “Introduction: The Limits of Autobiography.” The Limits of Autobiography. Ithaca & London: Cornell University Press, 2001. pp. 1-16.

Jonathan Culler, Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997

Smith & Watson. “Life Narrative: Definitions and Distinctions.” Reading Autobiography: A Guide for Interpreting Life Narratives. Minneapolis & London: University of Minnesota Press, 2001. pp. 1-14.

Roland Barthes, “The death of the author” in Modern Criticism and Theory: A Reader. Ed. David Lodge, Pearson Education Limited, Essex, 2000 (1988), pp. 145-151.

Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, “Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature”. trans. Dana Polan. Minneapolis & London: University of Minnesota Press, 2003.

Colebrook, Claire. “Gilles Deleuze”, Routledge, London and New York. (2002)
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