Mr. Lears’ Big Chance

Jackson Lears is the author of Fables of Abundance: A Cultural History of Advertising in America, and most recently, Something for Nothing: Luck in America. Mr. Lears spoke to us from his office at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, where he is Board of Governors Professor of History and the editor of the journal Raritan.

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conduit: So can we consider poetry, or at least a certain strain of poetry, to be “performative,” that is, based on performative speech acts as opposed to empirical speech acts? For example, Wallace Stevens famously said “The only emperor is the emperor of ice cream.” Can we consider that a performative expression?

jackson lears: Absolutely. I think that is one of the great liberating in-sights of this whole Austinian tradition. Whether Austin him-self fully recognized it or not is another question, but I would say that it really opens up an alternative—viewing language outside the framework of empirical description—and I think that’s one of the great connections between archaic rituals and modernist poetry. They both share in this performative dimension.

Johan Huizinga, the great Dutch historian and theorist of play, talked about the element of play-acting in sacred rituals, that the gesture was both meant to be taken seriously and at the same time there was an element of theatricality and play-acting in it. This again points to that ambiguity, that we don’t ask poetry or ritual to conform to the same kinds of empirical criteria of truth-telling that we ask scientific experiments to conform to. To make that demand on those uses of language and gesture is to commit what philosophers call a category mistake, because it’s a different form of knowledge than empirical knowledge. I would certainly argue that a great deal of poetry, even though it may be rooted in very precise observation of the natural or social world, is nevertheless engaged in that same kind of attempt to perform truth rather than merely report it.