Hunger and Gender: Attitudes towards Performativity

Hunger and Gender: Attitudes towards Performativity

Written by Matthew Iakov Liberman

for Prof. Kristopher Woofter

Hunger and Gender: Attitudes towards Performativity

And I eat men like air.

—“Lady Lazarus”

Poststructuralism has long been concerned with the alluring failure of representation, as succinctly vocalized by Faulkner’s Addie Bundren: “words are no good,” she plainly states; “[they don’t] ever fit even what they are trying to say at” (171). The “performance art” of Franz Kafka’s “A Hunger Artist” (1922) seems unrelated—until considered through that fracturing  insight—to David Henry Hwang’s M. Butterfly (1988); yet evidently these works hinge on the failure of a performative medium—be it words, textuality; gender and its expression; or the art of hunger—to represent meaning. Nevertheless, in spite of the  “Addian’ viewpoint” and the opinions of characters themselves, I contend that both the Artist’s performance of hunger and Song’s performance of gender are meaningful, in spite their failure to represent the meaning their spectators—both those within the narrative and those without, the readers—expect from them. If the performances do have meaning, then each work demonstrates a different attitude towards performativity. Better-informed by postmodernism’s reflexive love of representation, M. Butterfly portrays a healthier stance—martyrdom—than “A Hunger Artist”, which  instead orstaciszes the performance, and it with it—all art.

1.      Does the Performance Mean?

Deception first: these works culminate with iconoclasm, the link between the works: Kafka reveals his titular Artist, who entertains crowds by fasting for forty days, to be but a fraud who “can’t help but fast” because he “couldn’t find the food [he] liked” (231); however, this deceit isn’t about his art’s authenticity, as he never willingly breaks his fast, but about the insincerity of what it represents. M. Butterfly’s Song likewise—if more obviously—deludes us: “Song goes to a mirror … She removes her makeup …. he [gasp!] removes his wig and kimono…” (Hwang 623, emphasis added). We expect hunger and the expressions of gender to signify—represent—“great self-denial” (Kafka 226) of the Artist, and the sex of Song—whose deceit consists of not being a ‘true’ woman but merely a spy tasked with seducing an French ambassador—making their[1] expression of gender counterfactually ‘false’, as it fails to accurately represent ‘the truth’: Song is a fraud, a show, and should be on stage or, like Kafka’s Artist, in a cage. The latter in turn deceives us because he merely never enjoyed eating, and this makes his performance meaningless—because that performed hunger fails to represent ‘true’ self-denial. “The hunger artist”, Machosky confirms, “was always dissatisfied with his performance because he did not fully perform hunger. Something”—which I consider veritable self-denial—”was missing” (299). Their deceits thus shatters and burns (-clast) their holy icons: their performance, their representation, their art.

Such negativism and inconclusiveness at first seem to confirm traditional poststructuralist thought: the medium—hunger art, gender performance—fails to successfully mediate meaning. Sometimes, however, the modernist textual medium imparts meaning without mediation, as with Heidegger’s ‘language of poetry’ which “does not strive to represent … [but] allows its subject to become and unconceal itself” (Olsen 100). Perhaps instead of representing, that performed gender and artistic hunger of the poetic—“the saying of the unconcealment of beings.” (Heidegger qtd. by Olsen 99)

What could those mysterious ‘beings’ be? We, the readers, the spectators, the audience of the performance, expect a very specific ‘being’ to be unconcealed, and refuse to see any other. “If art doesn’t represent self-denial,” we say, “then it mustn’t not be art”—”if gender expressions don’t represent sex,” the in-story spectators prompt us, “then it must just be a transvestite. These performances aren’t real.” Blinded by our expectation, it is not easy to notice that the performative medium nevertheless brings forth a different, ardorously powerful meaning than can make men die, or fall in love—after all, the love and suicide of Song’s French lover Gallimard, as the death of the Artist must have significance. I therefore contend that those loves and deaths are the ‘being’ which is ‘unconcealed’ by poetic performativity.

2. Floating On the Shoulders of Gas Giants

Looking back for a moment, we might cry out: “How could this false performativity suddenly elevated to the status of primum movens? A lie cannot ‘unconceal’ anything true!” In the murky depth of these ostensible falsehoods, a curious inversion has occurred: the causal, representative or constituting relation between Song’s transvestial ‘lie’ and their ‘sex truth’ is the exact opposite of what seems to be the case. “[Gender] identity”, affirms Judith Butler, “is performatively constituted by the very ‘expressions’ that are said to be its results” (Gender 25). The Artist’s distress is nearly likewise mirrored: “What was a consequence [his outbursts of fury] of the premature termination of hungering, was represented as the cause or the motive” (Kafka trans. Machosky 298, emphasis added).

In other words, the conclusive meaning we spectators expect, the absence of which supposedly discredits the performance, is not real: “there is no recourse to an essential and unrealized ‘sex’ or ‘gender’ which gender performances ostensibly express”, Butler illuminates (“Performative” 278). Instead—and here spectators so greatly desire to inverse causality—“the ‘reality’ of gender is constituted by the performance[2] itself” (278). Similarly, the Artist’s outbursts—the result of being denied a chance to prove his artistic authenticity (which is undermined by the lack of self-denial) rather than, as his Impressario claims, the reverse.

3. Significance?

The performance thus restored to significance, we must ask what it signifies and conceals: only “true gender” and “true fasting”? I contend that although the performance does legitimize the ostensible falsehood[3], it does more that that. We had started our speculation by noticing the lethally affective power of performance. Delving deeper into that same power, we may constate that it conjures more than gender: it conjures Gallimard’s love. It conjures, so to speak, the Artist’s all-too-real death.

When we were considering Song’s performance as mere military deception—Gallimard’s love was utterly imbecilic, as many agree; the play is then critical of abstract love such as his. However, considering that Song’s performance creates a powerful, disembodied meaning, then the significance of Gallimard’s love becomes less obvious. It is not a relational love that stems from any experience shared with the factual Song, but an appreciative love that stems purely from the imagined experienced with the disembodied performance that Song created. Our opera lover, figuratively pathetic, is susceptible to the literal pathos of Song’s delivery—utterly and completely blinded to whichever ‘sex truth’ might of existed in the first place. Such naïve and wholeheartedly guileless rushing headlong into a dream, in turn, effectively affects readers with similar (but less fatal) experiences.

The Hunger Artist’s performed hunger is more straightforward: his performance is certainly “true fasting”, but can engender only sorrow. The greater his fast, the greater his self-consuming hunger for legitimacy. This downward spiral is simple and tragic, ultimately leading to a symbolic—perhaps even nominal—redemption through biblical death. Is the Artist liberated, or condemned by being supplanted by the wild panther? Not undifferent from the factual reality of an artist, Kafka’s indifferent quietus remains silent.

4. Exile or Stage: Framing the Art

In any case, though love and death seem to be as distant as can be, they ultimately converge. Lacking conventional reality, their ‘unconcealed being’ is fraught with impermanence. Though none of us, ultimately, are more than ephemeral, the difference lies in our attitudes towards that inevitable, ultimate existential crisis. Those attitudes, at the end of the day, stem from our context, which binds literature with the gender’s limitations. Thus, the postmodern[4] M. Butterfly passes through a venerative celebration of performativity to make death—martyrdom, savoring the implied significance born of tearing down conventional meaning and representation. In contrast, the unexpectedly Romantic[5] Kafka makes no ado about the death of his Artist, leaving him to die in the exiled misery of not–enough–self-denial, in the caged ostracism from society which deprives his performance of an audience.

More specifically, I attribute the Artist’s death not to the self-consuming nature of his hunger, but to how it is understood by the genre: upon the ripening of his performance art’s fruit―a hunger for legitimacy―the genre uproots him, exiles him, ostracizes him, ostensibly to satisfy that hunger: his art, Romanticism promises, will finally be made truly real when he is freed of audience’s whims—when he stops ‘selling out’. The genre, as per its cruel ideology of authenticity, “annihilates its creator”, when in fact—the art of performance can not exist, is meaningless, without an audience: to survive, it must, as Casaretti depicts in the context of other discourses of appetite, deal “simultaneously with the possibility of life and death” to be meaningful. Thus it is the Artist’s internalization of Romanticism’s ideal of artistic authenticity and independence above all else that leads and condemns him to a lethal ostracism.

What of Hwang’s spectacular veneration of death, his crucifiction of performativity? The latter Hwang substitutes for the habitual, generalized representation, and addresses it with all concern of Postmodernism. As the main narrator, Gallimard—and through him Hwang and the deluge of the postmodern—gets to show us value claims, and the prime value claim he shows is veneration, even obsession, with regard to Song’s performance. Song themselves, the moment they finish their masterpiece of a fiction, become wholly irrelevant. Like Dorian Grey’s violent rejection of Basil Hallward, Gallimard refuses the factual, mundane creator of his apparently immortal fiction: “Get away from me!”, calling Song “as real as a hamburger” (Hwang 629).

The deeply moving denouement dramatizes the immolationary destruction of the masterpiece fiction, in which Gallimard with uncharacteristic realism reenacts the finale of Madama Butterfly, performed by Song when they first meet, and commits suicide. The crux of the difference between these two deaths is the attitude and mood with which they occur: Gallimard doesn’t die in the reality of a cell or cage with but passerby for meager audience; he dies within the overwrought spectacle of fiction. The sudden modernistic turn of nostalgia for an imagined, bygone purity serves to martyrize the masterwork

fiction, the performance—and its naïve appreciation, the dreamlike “vision. Of the Orient. That, deep within almond eyes…” (630). This unexpected enactment of purity echoes how he first describes his understanding of Song’s initial performance: “pure sacrifice. He’s unworthy, but what can she [Gallimard-performing-Butterfly] do? She loves him … so much”; foolhardy love, but love enough to die rather than be disillusioned (590).

Thus, the overperformed swan-Song martyrizes exhilarating, tortuous, reality-unconcealing performativity: René Gallimard does not commit suicide; the fiction of Butterfly commits suicide, bequeathing a shocked state akin to remorse or wistfulness to the stunned Song, who finds ‘her’ costume lifelike enough to not only stand up and walk away, but tear itself to pieces when it discovers that it is ‘only’ a costume—a character who burns in fury realizing their ‘falsehood’ to leave his author, moments ago holding the book, with but a handful of ashes.

5. Unfortunate Implications

Unlike with the Artist, that conclusion does not—can not—replace eponymous Butterfly. But what should we care for these overwrought deaths? These lethally deceptive, self-consuming performances are just—nothing but—that: stories, performances, make-believe.

With his parting words, the artist apologizes for his performance, begging forgiveness for the ruse he had staged. He knows himself as artifice, and turns on himself. The … artist [and here the label fits Gallimard or Song just as well] terrifies us because he is like us, not a cat but a paper tiger. We are forced to confront that we, too, are paper tigers. Our lives, human lives, are literary, staging a ruse of reality so convincing that it becomes the supreme fiction (Machosky 302).

This point, unfortunately falling outside the scope of this essay, could be further developed by delving deeper into the abyss of post-structuralism, where would be discovered that everything—the entirety of words we cannot help but live in, the entirety of our understanding, the whole ostensibition unshrouded to be no more than Song’s gender and Butterfly or the Artist’s hunger: unfounded performance, whimsical abstraction.

The veil, ostensibly of deception, that we think must be pierced to get at meaning, at “the real thing” is in fact but the doodle-covered napkin of performativity, the veil of Veronica which itself bears the vera icon of our Lord and Savior: meaning, conjured ex nihilo from baseless art rather than existing externally. As the performance dies, M. Butterfly puts it under gaudy spotlight, sees it bleed to death on stage. “A Hunger Artist” instead exiles that death onto a desolate isle in an impossible attempt to ‘liberate’ the inherently transitive performance art from both subject and object. Of the two, the former seems a healthier choice, it’s awareness more appropriate to the search of both beauty and any true gender equality.


                                                                        Peel off the napkin …

Do I terrify?

                                                                                    —Sylvia Plath

 Works Cited

Barry, Thomas F. “German Romanticism: Its Literary Legacy.” Encyclopedia of the Romantic Era, 1760-1850. London: Routledge, 2003. Credo Reference. Web. 13 December 2014.

Butler, Judith. “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory.” Performing Feminisms: Feminist Critical Theory and Theatre. Ed. Sue-Ellen Case. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1990. Print.

—. Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. 1990. New York: Routledge, 1999. Print.

Cesaretti, Enrico. “Fictions Of Appetite : Alimentary Discourses In Italian Modernist Literature.” Oxford: Peter Lang, 2013. eBook Academic Collection (EBSCOhost). Web. 14 Dec. 2014.

Faulkner, William. As I Lay Dying. 1930. New York: Vintage International, 1985. Print. A traditional example of textualities failure.

“German Literature.” The Columbia Encyclopedia. New York: Columbia University Press, 2013. Credo Reference. Web. 13 December 2014. Kafka draws from Romanticism.

Gooldin, S. “Fasting Women, Living Skeletons and Hunger Artists: Spectacles of Body and Miracles at the Turn of a Century.” Body & Society 9.2 (2003): 27-53. Web. 12 Dec. 2014. Fasting as a performance art is not counterfactual.

Hwang, Henry David. M. Butterfly. Literature and the Writing Process. Canadian ed. Ed. Elizabeth McMahan et al. Toronto: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2005. 580-630. Print.

Kafka, Franz. “A Hunger Artist.” Trans. Edwin and Willa Muir. Seagull Reader: Stories. 2nd ed. Ed. Joseph Kelly. New York and London: W. W. Norton and Co., 2008. 222-231. Print.

Koelb, Clayton. “Franz Kafka 1883-1924.” Encyclopedia of German Literature. London: Routledge, 2000. Credo Reference. Web. 13 December 2014. Kafka draws from Romanticism.

Machosky, Brenda. “Fasting at the Feast of Literature.” Comparative Literature Studies 2005: 288.[1]  JSTOR Journals. Web. 13 Dec. 2014.

“magic realism, n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, December 2014. Web. 14 December 2014.

Melaugh, Martin. “Hunger Strike 1981 – Chronology.” Hunger Strike 1981 – Chronology. CAIN, 30 July 2014. Web. 11 Dec. 2014. People have survived for longer than 40 days without food.

Olsen, Kathryn. “Raveling Out Like A Looping String: As I Lay Dying And Regenerative Language.” Journal Of Modern Literature 33.4 (2010): 95-111. Web. 13 Dec. 2014. Interprets Heidegger for a crucial re-evaluation of postmodernist significance using the example of As I Lay Dying.

[1] Considering the ambiguous nature of Song’s gender, I use the gender-neutral pronouns they/their/themselves as singular.

[2] Accordingly, I consider Song genderfluid, since they first present as female, then male. Though one can dismiss the former as mere transvestism, “the transvestite’s gender is as fully real as anyone whose performance complies with social expectations” (Butler, “Performative” 278).

[3] Lending  further weight to the previous footnote.

[4] See Hwang 623 for a salient example of postmodernity.

[5]“A Hunger Artist” is often called either magic realism or modernism. See Gooldin and Melaugh for counterexamples of the “dreamlike” quality that constitutes magic realism which is applicable to Kafka’s other work (“magic realism, n”). His writing also succeeds magic realism, and though wrote during the period of modernism, he “owes … the Romantics” (Koelb). See Barry and “German Literature” for more  arguments of a “neo”-Romantic rather than modern Kafka . This can also be seen more directly in the parsimony of fragmentation and subjectivity, as well as in the dominance of emotion over reason Kafka uses.


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