Performative and Performativity

RELATED TERMS: Performance; Actant; Paradigm; Methodology and Method

The relevance of the notions of performative and performativity, alongside that of performance, to the design of narrative environments is that narrative environments are performed or enacted. In being enacted, they constitute a field of actantiality or performativity in which different levels of narrative, different levels of existence and different modes of existence are intertwined, forming a tangled hierarchy in which specific diegetic or ontological metalepses (transgressions from one level of narrative to another or from a narrative modality of existence to a more everyday mode of existence) may be realised. In these ways, the interweaving of the material and the immaterial aspects of cultural practices can be explored as well as the inter-relationships between the actual (the ‘is’) and the potential (the ‘as if’).

Chris Salter writes that,

“Performance as practice, method, and worldview is becoming one of the major paradigms of the twenty-first century, not only in the arts but also the sciences. As euphoria for the simulated and the virtual that marked the end of the twentieth century subsides, suddenly everyone from new media artists to architects, physicists, ethnographers, archaeologists, and interaction designers are speaking of embodiment, situatedness, presence, and materiality. In short, everything has become performative.” (Salter, 2010: xxi)

Performative in the design of narrative environments

In the design of narrative environments, performative typically applies to the behaviour that is evoked in participants when they, through engagement, express themselves ‘unconsciously’, as part of a system or network of performativity or actantiality, rather than ‘consciously’ and deliberately, which is more in the realm of performance.

Performative in Philosophy

A performative utterance is one which does what it says. For example, if a person says “I promise to be there”, in normal circumstances this constitutes a promise to be at the specified place at the specified time, i.e. implies a course of action to fulfil the promise. The concept was originated by J. L. Austin, who contrasted performatives with constatives. Constatives make statements about the world which are either true or false. Performatives are neither true nor false (although whether the person making the promise turns up at the specified time and place will determine whether a promise was actually made or a deceit uttered).

The difficulties, and indeed the more interesting questions, arise when it is realised, as Austin did, that any utterance may be performative and that a clear and permanent distinction between performative and constative is hard to maintain. More depends on the circumstances of the utterance than the form of the utterance, although both have significance, e.g. barking out an order (Halt!) does much to constitute its status as ‘a command’ to act in a specified way.

Matters get even more interesting when the notion of “in normal circumstances” is opened to question (what are they?) and the question of whether the person uttering the performative fully intends to do what they say they will do, for example, whether they really intend to be there at the specified place at the specified time when they say “I promise to be there” (as noted above, concerning whether a promise was actually made, or some other act performed, such as a deception). The utterer may be lying, joking or may have forgotten a previous arrangement that they have made in which they promised to be somewhere else, i.e. intentionally or unintentionally invalidating the performative act. Alternatively, they may be uttering the sentence in the context of acting in a play.

In short, circumstances are the important factor, and their ‘normality’ should not simply be assumed but carefully considered.


Austin, J. L. (1970) ‘Performative utterances’, in Philosophical papers. 2nd edn. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Salter, C. (2010). Introduction. In: Entangled: technology and the transformation of performance. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, xxi–xxxix.