- They Aren’t, Until I Call Them: Performing the Subject in American Literature by Enikö Bollobás
The author explains her opaque title on her first page: in baseball, a strike is not a strike until the umpire pronounces it a strike, so the title-anecdote raises a question about existence, when a word can make a thing, but also a question about agency when a good umpire understands the performative power of his rulings. “His being a good umpire does not pre-exist his call” (9), and the realities of the game and the umpire are brought about in the speech-act, on the spot. Enikö Bollobás, recently the author of a Hungarian-language history of American literature where she re-thinks the canon with the help of discourses of gender/sexuality/race, in this new book has narrowed her concerns to the literary implication of one productive discovery in speech-act philosophy. This is the performativity of (what used to be called illocutionary) utterances that declare strikes, dub knights, pronounce man and wife. Under Bollobás’ generous development, performativity theory gathers strong claims for connecting speaking and writing, writing and social-historical agency. She gives warrants for those claims by extensive readings that show how various-genre American texts, from the Declaration of Independence to a recent novel by Philip Roth, produce subject-positions and perform gender, sexuality, and the racial and sexual phenomenon of passing.
The book consists of three chapters that expose the main theme—that summarize speech-act philosophy as relevant in the work of J.L. Austin, Mary Louise Pratt, and several others (e.g., Wittgenstein, Grice, Derrida, Searle, Strawson), and that give the author’s own arguments on how the theory can be extended to literary-social [End Page 238] relevance; and three concluding chapters designed to foreground, with plentiful examples, a feminist and gay-lesbian position that would surpass the texts and readings of texts that take women as objects. A new performativity theory developed in Chapter 2 and through the massive evidence in the book’s examples, would promote what the author mentions frequently, “a speaking-seeing-acting subjecthood.” This argument is furthered by a distinction, pursued relentlessly with special italics (see especially 85–89), between performance of social scripts, and performativity where the speaking subject, realizing she is produced discursively, can see beyond and resist the power of a dominant group’s beliefs. The examples chosen range across American literary history, so that every chapter has “chronology as a framework within sections . . . not otherwise chronological” (22), but usually there is a contrast between texts before 1890 that perform social norms and those after that date. The historical point: after the modernist breakthrough, writers are more able to free themselves from the script (89), and can “try out [subject] positions of in-betweenness” (181).
Narrative and dramatic works by these authors are taken up for brief or extended analysis: Twain, Hurston, Mailer, Bierce, James, Albee, Dreiser, Chopin, Wharton, Faulkner, Williams, O’Connor, Stein, Cather, Barnes, McCullers, Nabokov, Hwang, J.W. Johnson, Larsen, Roth. In all texts analyzed, the performative is shown to work by producing the subject of the literary character, and also the narrator; so social construction is the overall methodological assumption. The readings are often brilliant, and at times are enhanced by practical points about teaching American texts in Hungarian universities (also welcome: reference to Hungarian scholarship on American themes). While these evidences are essential to success of the book, the main contribution lies in the summary and extension of performativity theory.