SSHRC Application 2009 – 2010 (successful)


The research for my MA thesis focuses on the influence the online world Second Life has had on the way language effects change (is ‘performative’) in both real and virtual environments. My research is organized around the problem of explaining how the status of language is altered when utterances made in a virtual realm begin to exert powerful force on the real world. Examining Second Life using the theories of performative language proposed by John Austin, Jacques Derrida, and Katherine Hayles shows that the double effect of utterances made in Second Life can only be explained by a modified theory of performativity. Only through my new theory of cyber-performativity can both the virtual and real-world effects of utterances made in Second Life be understood. Cyber-performativity describes the doubly performative force of an utterance made in Second Life. An utterance made online—in speech, writing, or computer code—has the power to transform both the virtual world it is made in and the real world it is made from.

Within the realm of digital humanities, a wide range of studies have focused on either the linguistic or the social and political effects of cyberspace. For example, in Language and the Internet, linguist David Crystal makes an elaborate analysis of the influence “netspeak” has had on creativity and expression. On the other hand, in Skin of Culture, media philosopher Derrick de Kerckhove investigates the impact our “new electronic reality” has had on media, politics, bodies, and minds. Though these and similar texts have made important contributions to either linguistics or sociology and political-science, none have investigated the influence of digital technology on the changing status of language as a social and political force. Virtual worlds such as Second Life are built using performative language—not only computer code, but also speech and writing. As Austin recognized, utterances with this generative force do at the same moment they say. In the past five years Second Life has accrued immense social, economic, and even political force: more than nine million people participate in Second Life’s online community; several governments (including Estonia, Malta, Macedonia, the Philippines, and the Maldives) have constructed virtual embassies; and a wide range of companies (from Adidas and American Apparel to SunMicrosystems and Nissan) have established marketing and research programs in this virtual space. More than 125 colleges and universities (including Harvard Law) have used Second Life to host classes, conferences, and meetings. In 2006, Anshe Chung became the first person to earn $1million (US) in Second Life. A better understanding of the literary and linguistic mechanics of cyber-performativity will not only help track the growth of virtual spaces such as Second Life, but will also help explain the growing influence these virtual settings are having on the real world.

My research is concentrated largely on Austin’s How To Do Things With Words, Derrida’s Limited Inc, and Hayles’ My Mother Was a Computer. J. Hillis Miller’s Speech Acts in Literature is an important secondary resource. The official Second Life blog ( and news centre ( keep me informed about the development of Second Life and its impact on the real world.

My research project has three objectives.
My first objective is to juxtapose the theories of performativity outlined by Austin, Derrida, and Hayles. I will show that Austin’s initial theorization of performativity and speech-act theory privileges speech and emphasizes the determinate role of a stable, knowable context. In contrast, I will show that Derrida’s notion of performativity privileges writing and inverts the relationship between utterance and context that Austin described. For Hayles, “code that runs on a machine is performative in a much stronger sense than that attributed to language.” Hayles’ theory helpfully indicates the performative nature of code, but I will show that her analysis of Austin and Derrida is reductive and incomplete. Borrowing from Austin, Derrida, and Hayles, my second objective is to describe a cyber-performative that is capable of addressing the performativity of speech, language, and code. Because utterances made online work simultaneously as computer code and human language, my theory of cyber-performativity describes the relationships between two utterances, two contexts, and two performative effects. My third objective is to apply the concept of cyber-performativity to Second Life. I will show that the growth of Second Life has lead to an increase in the real world force of performative language. Utterances made (in speech, writing, or code) in Second Life not only create the virtual world, they also, with increasing performative force, shape the real world. For example, in her 2007 Wall Street Journal article (“Is This Man Cheating on His Wife?”), Alexandra Alter notes that Jeff Atkinson, the author of the American Bar Association’s “Guide to Marriage, Divorce and Families,” has warned that cyber-affairs “may be cited as grounds for divorce and could be a factor in determining alimony and child custody.” In October 2008, the Associated Press reported that a Japanese woman was arrested after “killing” the online character of a man who had recently demanded a virtual divorce from her online persona.

In order to focus my application of cyber-performativity to Second Life I will pay particular attention to virtual marriages. For Austin, the “I do” utterance that represents the climax of the marriage ritual is deeply performative.

I will also use the three levels of performativity proposed by Miller to focus my analysis of the effects Second Life has on performative language. Miller’s three levels are: (1) The performativity of utterances made by characters in a text; (2) The performativity of passages presented by the text’s narrative voice; and (3) The intertextual performativity of the text as a whole. These three levels allow me to contrast the relative force of a wide range of utterances.

My MA research builds on the work I did for my English Honours graduating essay, “Derrida’s Speech-Act theory: the basis of an iterable historiography.” This undergraduate project helped me establish a strong understanding of speech-act theory and performative language. As a member of UVic’s Cultural, Social and Political Thought (CSPT) program I am required to complete a 27,000 word, research-based MA thesis. The CSPT program encourages me to undertake interdisciplinary research, and UVic’s English department strongly supports work in the digital humanities. Several English faculty members are involved in digital humanities projects: Dr. Raymond Siemens, the Canada Research Chair in Humanities Computing, directs UVic’s annual Digital Humanities Summer Institute; and Dr. Janelle Jenstad continues her work on The Map of Early Modern London database. My research will be supported by two CSPT faculty members: my MA supervisor, Dr. Evelyn Cobley (English), and the CSPT director, Dr. Arthur Kroker (Political Science). I am currently enrolled in courses in cultural, social, and political thought (with Dr. Kroker); research methodologies; and literary theory (with Dr. Cobley). My instructors have encouraged me to tailor my class work to benefit my research project.

My MA thesis will serve as the starting point for further research. By developing my theory of cyber-performativity and applying it to Second Life, I will not only advance a method for analyzing utterances made on and offline, but I intend also to promote continued interest in theories of performative language.

Works Cited
Alter, A. “Is This Man Cheating On His Wife?” The Wall Street Journal. 10 August

Austin, J.L. How To Do Things With Words. Eds. J.O. Urmson and M. Sbisa, 2nd ed.
Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1975.

Crystal, D. Language and the Internet. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006.
de Kerckhove, D. Skin of Culture. Toronto: Somerville House Publishing, 1995.

Derrida, J. Limited Inc. Ed. Gerald Graff, Trans. Samuel Weber and Jeffrey Mehlman.
Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1988.

Hayles, N. K. My Mother Was a Computer. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.

Miller, J.H. Speech Acts in Literature. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001.

Yamaguchi, M. “Angry online ‘divorcee’ kills virtual husband in cyber revenge.”
Associated Press. 23 October 2008.


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