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«Mallan, Kerry M (2002) Picture books as performative texts: Or how to do things with words and pictures. Papers: Explorations into Children’s ...»

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Mallan, Kerry M (2002) Picture books as performative texts: Or how to do things

with words and pictures. Papers: Explorations into Children’s Literature

12(2):pp. 26-37.

Copyright 2002 Kerry M. Mallan

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Mallan, K. (2002) ‘Picture books as performative texts: Or how to do things with words and pictures’. Papers:

Explorations into Children’s Literature, 12, 2, pp.26-37.

Picture books as performative texts:

Or how to do things with words and pictures Kerry Mallan The subtitle of this paper is, in part, an acknowledgement of the work of the British philosopher J. L. Austin and his influential publication on speech act theory, How to do things with words (1962). Austin’s work on language study marked a significant shift in linguistic philosophies by concentrating attention on what language does rather than what it is, and away from language as a formal structure to language as a social process. Such understandings have resonated through critical theory and other theoretical writings of the past four decades.

‘Performative’ is Austin’s term for language with the primary function of doing something.

Rather than view language as describing some objective reality, Austin contends that the performative indicates that ‘the issuing of the utterance is the performing of an action’ (1962, p.6). Furthermore, the performative utterance will invariably be accompanied by other performed actions, either by the speaker or others, and that the circumstances in which the speaking occurs should be appropriate (p.8). While Austin distinguishes performative utterances from constative utterances (that is, utterances that say rather than do something), he also focuses on the illocutionary and perlocutionary force of the performative. In the act of saying something, such as informing, warning or ordering, the speaker performs an illocutionary act. A perlocutionary act brings about or achieves something by saying something, such as convincing, deterring, or surprising (pp. 99-100). These aspects of the performative will be considered later in the discussion with reference to selected picture books. However, because picture books contain a dual code -- verbal and visual--the visuals will be considered as non-verbal acts which may also carry (like the words) an illocutionary and perlocutionary force. To extend the application of Austin’s performatives to visuals could be regarded as a misuse or mis/appropriation. Afterall, Austin himself claimed that the term was the province of ‘ordinary circumstances’ and should not be used in consideration of plays, poems or other literary texts; such texts, he considered, were parasitic upon the more conventional use of language (p.22). However, as Petrey argues, ‘to read a work of imaginative literature is to encounter words that do things through processes like those allowing all other performative language to produce what it names’ (1990, p.10). In literature, the fictional characters and their fictional world reproduce conventional speech acts and performances common to the real world (we know the kinds of characters depicted, we are familiar with the conventional acts and rituals they perform and so on). The verbal and visual codes of picture books necessitate a widening of the application of the performative in order to see how visuals similarly encode and perform the narrative.

The concept of performativity is one that has also been given considerable attention in recent years in the work of Judith Butler in formulating her notion of gender performances; in particular, the ways in which gender identity is constructed iteratively through complex citational practices (Butler 1990; 1993). Butler’s notion of gender as being performative in the sense that the ‘acts’ and ‘corporeal style’ that the gendered body performs ‘suggest[s] a dramatic and contingent construction of meaning’ (Butler 1990, p.139). That is, these various performances of gender create the idea of gender. While Butler sees gender as a compulsory performance, and identity as ‘an effect that is produced or generated’ (p.147), she does not dismiss the idea of agency. For Butler, agency is located in the way that variations of action, and the possibility of variation in repetition carry meaning and create identity.

Parker and Sedgwick (1995, p.6) suggest that the two strands of performativity expressed variously through the works of Austin and Butler have a common meeting point in their interrogations of the relation of speech to act (Austin) and of act to identity (Butler). For Austin, the performative occurs in a single act, whereas for Butler the performative is a regular repetition of an act. Hence, the ‘act’ or the doing of something is pivotal to the two notions of the performative.

Another strand that I want to consider in this paper is the notion of reader response. It seems a logical extension of both Austin and Butler’s theorising to consider an audience: one who is a witness to the act while engaging in the act of reading. As the child encounters the picture book text, she participates in a reading practice which, in its broadest sense, is a performance whereby she negotiates various roles of reader, spectator, witness, social commentator, art critic, and performer. Each role has its own specific sets of acts and situated identities which mimic and iterate to some extent something heard, seen, or experienced before; hence, the iterative nature of the reading ‘act’. In addition, there are the cultural and artistic conventions which permit, to a large extent, these reader roles or states to be enacted by shaping ways of reading pictures and constructing meaning, and prompting dramatic interpretation.

Reader response critics look to the relationship between text and reader. Proponents of reader response theory, such as Wolfgang Iser (1989), contend that an intentionalist understanding

of the meaning of a text is inadequate. As Culler explains:

the meaning of a work is not what the writer had in mind at some moment during composition of the work, or what the writer thinks the work means after it is finished, but, rather, what he or she succeeded in embodying in the work (1997, p.66).

Furthermore, Iser contends that a text’s indeterminacy makes certain kinds of demands on readers who must bring a text to life when it is read. As Iser suggests, these gaps or indeterminate parts of a literary text are not deficiencies but ‘are a basic element for the aesthetic response’ (1989, p.9). It is by attending to the verbal and visual codes in picture books that response can be extended beyond basic decoding to a fuller appreciation of its cognitive, perceptual and aesthetic possibilities.

In revisiting response theory, I want to examine the ways in which picture books function as performative texts and invoke ways of reading the performative through both words and pictures, and the ways in which the ‘act-like’ quality of the performative is realised through the body of both the represented subject and the implied reader. Intratextually, the body features in picture books through the artistic representation of fictional subjects and extratextually in the embodied presence of real readers. By including notions of the body in the discussion, the visual component of picture books can be given equal treatment as the verbal in discussions of identity, performative utterances and their illocutionary and perlocutionary force.

The following sections of the discussion use selected picture books to illustrate the intertwining threads of performativity and reader response and are framed by three key questions: (i) How is the performative (in its various manifestations) invoked in picture books? (ii) How do context and reader disposition affect the stance that one takes in reading?

and (iii) How does desire shape the performative?

Performing the performative Kress suggests that ‘Communication has always been multi-semiotic’ (1997, p.60) involving multiple modes of oral, visual, written, and bodily elements. When an adult reads a picture book to a child, they often provide an embodied performance of the text. For example, they might gesture, make sound effects, use vocal intonation, ad lib. While this supplementary display of language and performance is a common feature of reading practices between adults and children, children also perform and respond to the words and visuals in embodied ways -clapping, shaking their head, nodding in approval, making personal observations and so on.

Whilst we know all this through years of experience with children, we need to step back from the latent manifestations of reader response and look at the inherent characteristics of the words and visuals in order to see how picture books incite particular kinds of responses and invoke the performative.

Perhaps we come close to claiming the performative significance of picture books when we look at the ways in which narrative, performance, text, and reader intersect with one another.

In the case of many Pamela Allen books (see Bertie and the Bear (1983); Belinda (1992); Mr McGee and the Biting Flea (1998)) the visuals encode a sense of performance through their fluid design and artistry. Such semiotic representations not only lend a sense of movement to the characters but invite the reader to perform (either imaginatively or literally) -- to dance, march, join in the fun. The words too demonstrate that language (in a literary text) may also do things with a direct and perceptible impact on its characters. Consequently, Mr McGee and the dog scratch, leap, and wriggle in an attempt to be rid of the biting flea. Austin’s theatrical lexicon -- perform and act -- corresponds, in this instance, to the theatrical nature of Allen’s text where characters perform their antics before a reading audience (which may be a single reader or a collective of readers). The words and visuals together illustrate the relationship between action and language, performance and representation.

Picture books (like other texts) induce the reader to take up a position in the drama of the text and to participate in its unfolding ‘scenes’. (I use scene as it seems an appropriate term to capture both the sequence of events and the theatre of the story told in both words and visuals.) It is the rhetorical force of language and illustration that persuades readers to be caught up in the rhythms and rhetorics of the words and the expressive and convincing power of the visuals. In addition to such persuasive elements, the child reader/listener is encouraged through words, illustration, and possibly an adult reader to anticipate, speculate, and be excited by the sequential events of the story. Picture books imply a certain reader and through particular textual strategies such as dialogue, hooks, questions, repetition, rhyming scheme, and structure build up a pattern of expectation in the reader.

In Fowl Play (Allen, 1996), these textual strategies are employed to achieve both comic effect and intrigue. Thereby, the ideal reader is one who has both a sense of humour and a desire to be clever, a crime buster. However, in order for the reader to realise these roles she must also be knowledgeable about language games, other texts and genres, and semiotics. In other words, she must be able to understand the ways that both the words and the visuals achieve a playfulness and a humorous effect. Whilst children do not know that these are the knowledge and skills needed to appreciate the text to its fullest, many are, nevertheless, knowing readers in that they have a wide experience of texts and textual play. These attributes are gained through their engagement with print and other media.

Dialogue becomes a key performative effect in Fowl Play as it constitutes action. The dialogue is represented in the speech bubbles in the illustrations and as such is a continuous commentary and interchange that runs parallel to the third person narrative that is positioned above or below the illustrations. In Austin’s sense, the dialogue represents ‘speech acts’ and is the main force of linguistic interaction in the unfolding drama. As such, dialogue is not so much descriptive (although at times it is) as performative. The dialogic form, however, does not guarantee performativity. In a comedic sense, the dialogue in Fowl Play is the main means for humour, textual play and allusion as evidence in the following excerpt when Hubert Hound, in his search for the chicken thief, questions Badger about the contents of his


–  –  –

This short excerpt demonstrates the illocutionary and perlocutionary effect of dialogic discourse: Hubert Hound’s demand to know the contents of the cupboard results in Badger’s disclosure of its contraband contents. Whilst the stylistic function of the dialogue veers towards the colloquial and the spontaneous retort, it nevertheless is a mode of action.

Performance, therefore, operates through timing and repartee and is realised in the mutually constitutive moment between reader and text. Furthermore, the characters’ social situation and standing become manifest in the illocutionary possibilities open to them. For instance, Badger’s wisecrack does not clear him of being a suspect as his character and reputation as an opportunist have already been coloured in the initial cast list in the endpapers where he is described as ‘a bad-tempered animal who is known to eat chickens if he gets the chance’.

Thus, the linguistic and the extra-linguistic (in terms of the readers’ knowledge about badgers and bad-tempered characters) constitute the social world of the text and make a connection with the social world of the reader.

The endpapers serve as both a ‘rogues gallery’ and a storyboard. A series of eight frames visually introduce the characters and setting, and the supplementary text describes the personalities as well as sets up the reader to anticipate a particular kind of story, and to rely on previous knowledge of stereotypes in order to predict the outcome. This familiar narrative strategy of the red-herring serves to lure the reader into the story and to position her as a dupe. For instance, the text accompanying the picture of a very worried and guilty looking fox reads: ‘It looks like Foxy is well and truly to blame for the disappearing chickens’.

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