“Literature As Performance, Fiction, and Art” by Barbara Smith

Chapter One of Barbara Smith’s On the Margins of Discourse: The Relation of Literature to Language (1978) is titled “Literature As Performance, Fiction, and Art.” In what follows, I will provide a brief summary of this chapter, along with some of my own thoughts.

As the title suggests, Smith suggests three elements are present in literature: performance, fiction, and art. First, performance is present inasmuch as something must serve as the instrument of performance in order “to translate the inscription of that lyric into an instance of work” (6). So, in she sees two theoretically distinct activities, namely the performer and the audience, which can occur separately or together. A good example is silent reading: when one reads silently, the individual both performs the text through interpretation and reading and also acts as the audience to the performance. For this reason, literature is a performance, a simulation of natural discourse.

Second, literature is art because “literary artworks may be conceived as depiction of representations, rather than instances, of natural discourse” (8). That is, the artwork is constructed in such a way that simulates natural discourse, a fictive construction, albeit one attempting to represent nature and natural discourse. Art is not actually natural discourse, that is discourse which occurs in a particular time and space as an event in history. As such, she sees a distinction between nature and art because  nature wasn’t designed to engage us as an audience, whereas art is. This point, though, is interesting in terms of philosophy and theology. Undoubtedly, many theologians would push against this claim, suggesting that God’s creating the universe (whatever that means) was actually a work of art. Therefore, nature is art and we should not distinguish between nature and art.

At base, her fundamental claim is that “the speech of men in history and nature is distinct from the language of art” (13). That is, whereas the speech of men in history and nature is historically determinate and considered natural discourse, the language of art is constructed as a representation of the natural discourse. It is not, though, natural discourse in and of itself.