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Oral Tradition 20.2 (2005) 217-232

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Performance, Visuality, and Textuality:

The Case of Japanese Poetry

Columbia University

Performance and Text

The purpose of this paper is to explore the complex relationship among performance, visuality, and textuality, using examples from traditional Japanese poetry, and to reveal how the interaction among these three elements is integral to understanding Japanese poetry as process or action.

I use the word performance to mean an action that is carried out, judged, and appreciated according to a set of commonly shared aesthetic, literary, or social codes. Performance is a one-time action, but it is usually repeated so that the audience has an established horizon of expectations. The audience (participants) implicitly will compare one performance to the next. In performance there is direct interaction between the performer and audience, who judge the action according to how well it conforms to, deviates from, or employs a commonly shared set of conventions. As material object, the poem exists in two fundamental forms: the handwritten manuscript and the printed text (which emerged from the early to mid-seventeenth century in Japan, first as movable type and then as woodblock printing). Both kinds of texts can be read and appreciated by audiences who are not witness to the initial utterance of the poem. These texts in turn are appreciated and read according to a set of pre-established aesthetic, literary, or social codes, but those codes may drastically change with time and place.

Constative and Performative

I would like to begin by drawing on a distinction made by the British philosopher John L. Austin in his classic book How to Do Things With Words (1965) between constative and performative utterances. Austin [End Page 217] distinguishes between the constative utterance, a statement that can be judged in terms of its semantic content, and the performative utterance, where language functions as action, such as a promise or a guarantee for the future. Austin himself shows that the constative often mixes with the performative. The phrase "how are you?" as a constative utterance asks about your health or condition, but performatively, which is the way the phrase is normally used in a social context, it means something more like "hello, I am glad to see you," and when the other person replies "fine," he (or she) is not talking about his health so much as the fact that he wants to acknowledge your attempt to affirm his existence and good health. Similarly, Mikhail Bakhtin in his study of linguistics (1986) argues that each word is not only a sign in a large system, but an utterance, part of an implied dialogue. A necessary feature of every utterance is its "addressivity," its quality of turning to someone.

These notions of performance and addressivity are key elements in poetry, particularly traditional Japanese poetry. Let me start with a simple example from Japanese poetry: haiku, the seventeen-syllable poetic form developed in the sixteenth and seventeenth century. The following is by one of its foremost practitioners, the late seventeenth-century poet Matsuo Bashō.

Shiragiku no Gazing intently
Me ni tatete miru at the white chrysanthemums—
Chiri mo nashi not a speck of dust.

As a constative utterance, the poem is very simple. The speaker is viewing white chrysanthemums and seeing that they are absolutely unsoiled. To understand the poem as performance, as an utterance, we need to reconstruct the original setting. Bashō originally composed this poem after arriving as a guest at the house of Madame Sono, one of his disciples, and in this context the poem functions as a greeting and a compliment to the hostess. The poem employs the white chrysanthemums as metaphor for the hostess, implying "this is a beautiful house, with a beautiful hostess, just like an elegant white chrysanthemum, and there's not a speck of dust here. You and the house are in perfect condition." This haiku, like much of Japanese poetry, functions simultaneously on two levels, as constative utterance and as performative utterance. As performative utterance it must be understood, to use Bakhtin's terms, dialogically, in...


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