Performative writing is a form of post-modernist or avant-garde academic writing, usually taking as its subject a work of visual art or performance art. It is often loosely semi-autobiographical, free-flowing in an ersatz stream-of-consciousness mode, and heavily informed by left-wing critical theory, but arises ultimately from linguistic ideas around performative utterances. It often weaves together a bricolage of other writing styles; since performative writing sees "the form as being as important as the content". In this it is claimed to be politically radical, because it thus 'defies' literary conventions and traditions.
It is often practiced by feminist writers. The most notable current writer in performative writing is the feminist theatre theorist Peggy Phelan. She describes the form as one which....
"enacts the death of the 'we' that we think we are before we begin to write. A statement of allegiance to the radicality of unknowing who we are becoming, this writing pushes against the ideology of knowledge as a progressive movement forever approaching a completed end-point." (Mourning Sex, 1997)
Such a writing form is claimed to be, in itself, a form of performance. It is said to more accurately reflect the fleeting and ephemeral nature of a performance, and the various tricks of memory and referentiality that happen in the mind of the viewer during and after the performance.
Critics of performative writing have described it, in practice, as: self-indulgent; insular; politically neutred due to its tiny elite audience and its neo-romantic individualism; obscurantist; often bearing only a loose relationship to the works of art it claims to be about; and dependent on the funding (of universities and public arts funding) of the very state that it claims to be against. Also that, when taught, it often paradoxically expects students to reveal personal truths and use experimental forms within a strict classroom regimen of grades, lesson attendance and exams. It can generally be seen to follow the pattern of much modernist writing, in that it seeks to create complex new literary approaches in order to seal off 'high art culture' from the attention of ordinary people and from a mass culture.
The term performative writing should not be confused with "writing that is performed", i.e.: plays, radio or poetry readings.
Performative writing is sometimes referred to by the alternative name of 'creative critical writing' - which is not to be confused with straightforward creative writing.
- Lynn Miller & Pelias Ronald (Eds.) The Green Window: Proceedings of the Giant City Conference on Performative Writing (Southern Illinois Press; 2001).
- Jeffrey Williams. "The New Belletrism". Style; Fall 1999. (Full text link)