The notion of the performative—an utterance that accomplishes the act that it designates—was proposed by the philosopher J. L. Austin to describe a type of utterance neglected by philosophers. This article follows the vicissitudes of the concept in literary and cultural theory to show (1)why it appeared useful for literary theory and what happens when literature is construed as fundamentally performative; (2) how it functions in theory and criticism associated with deconstruction, and (3) what role it plays in recent work in gender studies and queer theory, where Judith Butler has developed a performative theory of gender. The shifts in this concept pose questions about how to think about the constitutive force of language, the nature of discursive events, and literature as an act.

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