The Performativity Principle Defined

Let’s give a concise formulation of the Performativity Principle, based on the above discussion of its three parts.

First, intercultural communication is a process of playing out our identities and moving from rules to roles. In every intercultural encounter, people from one culture present a certain image of themselves and act in such ways that this image is understood by people from another culture. This is done by engaging in various language games (both verbal and nonverbal). The structure of intercultural communication as performance is as follows: from activity through actions to operations, and then back to activity.

Second, intercultural communication as performance can be analyzed at three levels—activity (driven by a certain motive), actions (directed toward specific goals), and operations (routine processes dependent upon certain conditions and causing adjustments of actions).

Third, enactment of meaning that constitute cultural identity is a reiterative process. In this process, Self and Other go through the hermeneutic circle as many times as it is necessary for meaning to be enacted.

And, fourth, intercultural communication can be viewed in terms of hospitality as the absolute obligation to welcome Other. Such authentic hospitality as performance involves risk-taking and vulnerability.

In a nutshell, the Performativity Principle can be formulated as follows:

Intercultural communication is a reiterative process whereby people from different groups enact meanings in order to accomplish their tasks.


Case Study: ‘Translation zone(s): A stuttering’

The case study is based on the article entitled ‘Translation zone(s): A stuttering: An experiential approach to linguistic hospitality’ (Connelly, 2018). It is recommended that you read the article in its entirety; below, you find its summary. Be ready to identify and then discuss the following topics:

  • 1. Why did the researcher decide to use language stripped to its basic units as her empirical material?
  • 2. Can translation zone(s) be viewed as the space of'hospitality’?

3. As performative and embodied activity, how can intercultural communication be seen as a mutually beneficial act?

‘Translation zone(s): A stuttering’ was a six-week research project conducted by Heather Connelly in 2016 at Birmingham City University. The premise for the project was that, when we rely on translated texts (mediated and already interpreted by someone else), we may miss out on nuances that exist in the original language. In that light, Connelly invited ten strangers from different linguistic communities to explore their relationships with language through performance.

The researcher saw her own role as a host facilitating interactions. The participants were to play the role of a host to the language of Other that has been stripped to its basic units—letters, symbols, and sounds. Before the actual public performances, the participants were asked to reflect on their alphabet and decide which sounds should be articulated to represent the peculiarities of each language system. Most participants explored in-depth the sound system of their language and their special relationships with it, including an emotional connection with the language they spoke. During the performance, the participants were asked to enunciate their own alphabets as well as to listen and attempt to reproduce unfamiliar sounds, rhythms and harmonies. The performance took place at the Library of Birmingham; one digital video still in Connellys article shows the participants standing in a circle in the rotunda performing the call and response activity (p. 167). Connelly experimented with individual units and various groups of sounds as well as different formations of the participants, such as duos and trios. The researcher observed how the sounds worked when performed by the participants; she noted how the participants used their bodies and voices in trying to work with one another, both in harmony and discord.

Connelly writes that her project was designed to create ‘contact zones’ as sites that are in-translation and do not belong to any single individual, language, or medium of communication. In such contact zones, new conditions are created and new relations formed. She sees such zones as hospitable places, while not necessarily harmonious ones, where differences are highlighted and alternative perspectives emerge. In this respect, the project was designed to destabilize the dominant English language by providing a space for other languages to be heard. As mentioned earlier, semantic content was (largely) absent in the use of language, which was limited to its basic building blocks in the form of letters and sounds. Such seemingly insignificant practices, though, create points of determinacy and open up the possibility of new modes of thinking and being. We may consider such points to be moments of noise or call them glitches, but they free language from its signifying self. As Connelly puts it,

the Othering of English, the movement between languages, of rearticulation and mispronunciation, make language stutter: they open it up and create new possibilities.The reduction of language(s) to a collection of sounds draws our attention to the grain of the voice, to the one who speaks.

(p. 172)

It must be emphasized that 'Translation zone(s): A stuttering’ is not simply a public performance but also a research project. As such, it adopts an experimental approach to language and uses different theoretical frameworks, including epistemology that deals with ways of knowing. The project draws on Paul Ricoeurs view of translation as both a linguistic paradigm (translation between languages) and also an ontological paradigm (translation between one human self and another). Ricoeurs theoretical view of translation is embodied in his concept of ‘linguistic hospitality’, ‘contact zones’ created in the project being an example of such hospitality. Connelly also draws parallels between Ricoeurs work and Emile Benveniste’s cross-cultural etymological analysis as well as Jacques Derrida’s building on those ideas, the term ‘hospitality’ epitomizing the complex nature of intercultural encounters. Connelly argues that her project makes it clear that successful intercultural communication requires everyone to act as both host and guest. The participants kept shifting between these roles as they enunciated their own alphabets and tried to reproduce unfamiliar sounds.The researcher, too, admits that she felt somewhat vulnerable since she had to rely on the participants’ generosity and letting her carry out the research, in the first place; as she says,“without the performers, there was no work, no project, no research output” (p. 168).

In spite of, or rather because of. linguistic hospitality being a risky practice that requires both parties to move towards Other, Connelly sees the performance that takes place in the ‘translation zone’ as an ethical and mutually beneficial act. She notes the importance of considering the ethical valence of researching multilingualism. Lack of language is transformed into a benefit as it fosters attentiveness to nonverbal communication, including paying close attention to the shape of other people’s mouths and lips—an intimate practice usually common between lovers or close family. Overall, translation in the contact zone is seen as a transformative, performative, and embodied activity.

  • **********
  • 1. Why did the researcher decide to use stripped to its basic units as her empirical material language?

As you recall, the project’s premise was that we cannot rely only on translated texts because they have been already interpreted by someone else. If we don’t want to miss out on nuances, we must focus on how the language is actually performed. Most monolingual speakers, however.

Performativity Principle 77 cannot speak another language and so can focus only on how it sounds. Hence, in the project, language was brought down to phonemes as its basic elements and such paralinguistic features as rhythm and harmony.

It may appear as if such empirical material is quite trivial and may not shed much light on the nature of intercultural communication. After all, phonemes don’t mean anything the way words do; phonemes simply serve a distinctive function helping us to differentiate them from other phonemes. And yet, learning a foreign language as a step toward successful intercultural communication must begin with mastering the sound system of that language—learning to hear and pronounce new sounds. More importantly, sounds provide a rupturing of representation by breaking our habit of'making sense.’ Since semantic content was bracketed out, the participants were able to immerse themselves in the experience of the material and sensuous qualities of the sounds, including their emotional connection with the language they speak. This amplified the relational and affective nature of the intercultural encounters.

With semantic content absent, such a seemingly insignificant practice of focusing on the basic units of the language allowed the participants to pay attention to the grain of the voice and the one who speaks. Making language stutter, as it were, opened new possibilities for thinking and being.

2. Can translation zone(s) be viewed as the space of'hospitality’?

As was shown in the chapter, the nature of hospitality is complex and ambivalent. Obviously, we need to open ourselves to Other; this, however, involves a risk and cultural shock, including self-shock. While observing the sounds performed by the participants, Connelly noted how they used their bodies and voices in trying to work with one another both in harmony and discord.

In every ‘translation zone’ all participants, including the researcher, acted as both host and guest. The researcher invited the participants and gave them instructions at every stage of the performance. At the same time, she felt vulnerable having to rely on the generosity of the participants who let her carry out the research. The participants shifted between the roles of host and guest, as well: they both enunciated their own alphabets and tried to reproduce unfamiliar sounds. Therefore, in Connelly’s words, “to be truly hospitable each person must be willing to leave the safety and certainty of what they know in order to become open to the other—to be altered in this encounter” (p. 169).

3. As performative and embodied activity, how can intercultural communication be seen as a mutually beneficial act?

Connelly shows how our being monolingual can be transformed into a benefit for all parties involved. Because we lack another language, we’re motivated to pay more attention to nonverbal communication,

including the shape of other peoples mouths and lips. By engaging in such intimate practices that are usually reserved for lovers or close family, we’re able to learn something new about Other and ourselves. It must be recalled that the body is “the last frontier of authenticity” (Peters, 1999, p. 221). Only in the contact zone can intercultural communication be truly successful as a performative and embodied activity.

The contact zone can be viewed as the hermeneutic circle within which all the participants kept going through distance-experiences and near-experiences, switching between the roles of spectators and actors. They even literally formed a circle when engaged in these interactions when they performed the call and response activity in the rotunda of the Library of Birmingham. It was only when each participant made the full circle that they were able to fully understand the intercultural experience. As noted in the chapter, genuine understanding occurs only when one comes back to where one started with new meanings and starts looking at the world with different eyes—the way the participants’ mother-tongues became estranged. All the participants have been transformed by the experience of this intercultural performance.

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