winterkoninkje: shadowcrane (clean) (Default)

Although the words have superficially similar pronunciations, performativity and performance are two extremely different notions. In her book Gender Trouble (1990) and its sequel Bodies That Matter (1993), Judith Butler put forth the thesis that gender identity is performative. Over the last decade performance-based theories of gender and identity have become popular, even mainstream, despite a number of deep-seated and readily-apparent flaws. Unfortunately, these latter performance-based theories are often portrayed as successors of Butlerean performativity. They're not.[1]

To understand performativity one should go back to Austin's original definition of performative speech acts. Whenever we speak, we speak for a reason. Austin was interested in explaining these reasons— in particular, explaining the contrast between what we say and why we say it. When we ask "could you pass the salt?" we are not literally interested in whether the addressee is capable of moving the salt shaker, we're making a request. When we ask "how do you do?" or "what's up?" we do not actually want an answer, we are merely greeting someone. It is within this context of discussing the why behind what we say that Austin became interested in performative speech acts: speech acts which through their very utterance do what it is they say, or speech acts which are what it is they mean. When the right person in the right context utters "I now pronounce you married", that vocalization is in fact the pronouncement itself. To state that you pronounce something, is itself to make the proclamation. In just the same way, when under the right circumstances someone says they promise such-and-so, they just did.

There are a number of interesting details about what it means to be a performative speech act. For instance, just uttering the words is not enough: if a random stranger comes up to you and pronounces you married, that does not actually mean you're married. For the performative speech act to have any force it must be uttered in a felicitous context (e.g., the words must be spoken with the proper intent, the pronouncer of marriage must be ordained with the ability to marry people, the partners must be willing, the pairing must be of an appropriate sort according to the bigotry of the times, etc). Another detail is that performative speech acts do more than just enact what they say, they also create something: pronouncing a marriage constructs the marriage itself, declaring war brings the war into existence, giving a promise makes the promise, sentencing someone creates the sentence, etc. Because of details like these, claiming that a particular speech act is performative says a heck of a lot more than just saying the act was performed (i.e., spoken).

On the other hand, a performance is the enactment of a particular variety of artistic expression ranging from theatrical plays, to musical opuses, to religious ceremonies, to performance art, and so on. Whether a particular act is performative is independent of whether it is (a part of) a performance. Many performative speech acts are of a ceremonial nature (e.g., marriages, divorces, christenings, declarations of war, etc) and consequently we like to make a big affair of it. Thus, these particular acts tend to be both: they're performative performances. However, many other performative speech acts are executed with little fanfare: ordering food in a restaurant, apologizing, accepting apologies, resigning from a game, etc. These are all performative acts, and yet there's absolutely no need for any sort of performance behind them. Indeed we often find it humorous, or rude, or severe, when someone chooses to turn these performative acts into performances.

The distinction between performativity and performance is crucial to understanding the thesis Butler put forth. We can expand the idea of performativity to include not just speech acts, but other acts as well. Doing so, Butler's thesis is that one's identity as a particular gender is not something which exists a priori, but rather that it is constructed by the enactment —and especially the continuous ritualistic re-enactment— of performative gender actions. The specific claim being made is that one's gender identity is an artifact whose ontological existence arises from particular deeds, in the exact same way that a marriage is an artifact arising from nuptial ceremony, that a promise is an artifact arising from the swearing of a vow, that a state of war is an artifact arising from the declaration of its existence, and so on. The performative theory of gender is often paraphrased as "gender is something we do"— but this paraphrase is grossly misleading. The paraphrase elides the entire specific content of the thesis! Sure, gender is something we do, but it's something we do in very specific ways and it is in virtue of doing those things in those ways that we come to identify with our gender. That's the thesis.

As discussed before, there are some crucial issues with performativity as a theory of gender. (Though these issues can be corrected by changing the focus without giving up the crucial insight.) But the issue with performativity has nothing whatsoever to do with the fact that performances are artificial, that performances are interruptible, that performances can be altered on whimsy, that performances can be disingenuous, that performances are "only" art, etc. Those latter complaints are why performance-based theories of gender are flat out wrong. And they're evidence of why claiming that performance-based theories were built upon performative theories grossly misconceptualizes performativity.


[1] Don't take my word for it, Butler herself has continually argued that performance-based theories are a gross misinterpretation of her work (Gender Trouble, xxii–xxiv; Bodies That Matter, 125–126; "Gender as Performance: An interview with Judith Butler", 32–39; Judith Butler (by Sara Salih), 62–71).

winterkoninkje: shadowcrane (clean) (Default)

As discussed last time there's a deep-seated problem with performativity as a theory of social categorization. Specifically, it puts the focus on the wrong thing. That our actions are performative in nature gives us important insight into the role agency plays both in forming our own identities and in defending those identities against silencing, marginalization, oppression, and colonialism. But, by centering discussions of identity on our own personal agency we miss out on other important facets of the issue. When we say that someone belongs to a category, we do so because we've decided they belong to the category, or because we think they belong to the category. The statement that they belong to the category is not merely true (or false), we are projecting it to be true (or false). That is, we do not passively observe people's gender, race, class, etc; instead we actively project our own notions of gender, race, class, etc upon them. This projecting of beliefs onto others is called projectivism[1].

Interestingly, by localizing "truth" as the beliefs we hold to be true[2], the projective act is itself performative: by projecting something to be true, one comes to believe that it is true. And yet there is no reason to suppose these beliefs are correct (local truths need not be global truths), nor that they will agree with others' beliefs (local truths need not be true in other locales). Crucially, in the case of categorizing or identifying ourselves, we have access to our own personal thoughts, feelings, memories, subconscious inclinations, etc. Whereas, when others are categorizing us, they do not; they can only observe our bodies, our actions, and the results of our actions. Thus arises the discrepancy in cases like transgenderism. When self-identifying, we may well prize our internal observations over our externally observable state. Nevertheless, others will continue to project their categorizations upon us, regardless of our self-identification.

Not only do people project categories onto others, we do it compulsively. Our persistent and ubiquitous gendering of others is an especially powerful example, but it is in no way unique. Projecting race is another example. And in professional cultures where there are sharply contested borders between "tribes" (e.g., academia and hacker culture), projecting these "tribes" is yet another. This compulsive projectivism —or, more particularly, our unconsciousness of it— is where issues arise.

When we are not typically confronted with evidence that our projections are mistaken, our projectivism becomes almost unconscious. Once there, we fail to notice the fact that we are actively projecting and we come to believe we're passively observing truths about the world. So when our projections turn out to be mistaken, we get a feeling of betrayal, we feel like the person whose identity we were mistaken about was "lying" to us. This subsequent projection that they were "lying" stems from the fact that we mistook our earlier projections for mere observations. Thus, because of an original error on our part, we end up imputing that others are being dishonest or deceptive.

When the identity one desires to be seen as (which may differ from the identity they claim for themselves) is often or easily at odds with the identities projected upon them, they understandably become concerned about trying to avoid these projections of "lying". If one can successfully avoid projections of "lying" they are said to "pass", terminology which turns around and suggests that they were in fact lying the whole time and only managed not to get caught. This terminology is, of course, deeply problematic.

Simply acknowledging compulsive projectivism is not enough. To undo the damage caused by misgendering, racial profiling, stereotyping, and other misprojections, we must lift this knowledge up and remain consciously aware that the beliefs we project onto others are not an observation of their identities. We must denaturalize the projectivist assumption that our beliefs are others' truths, by discontinuing the use words like "passing" which rely on that assumption. And when we feel betrayed we must locate that feeling within ourselves and stop projecting it in bad faith. The performative theory highlights the positive role of agency in our lives, but agency alone is not enough. The projectivistic theory extends this to highlight the negative role of agency when used to deny or overwhelm the agency of others.


[1] I do not mean this terminology to be the same as Hume's notion of projectivism, though of course both terms have the same etymology. Hume's projectivism is popular in the ethics literature, with which I am largely unfamiliar; thus, my use of the term here is not meant to entail whatever baggage it may have accrued in that literature.

[2] While it is not usually presented as such, Austin's original definition of performative speech acts should also only hold up to localized truth. In the classical example "I now pronounce you married", by saying the words one does the deed of pronouncing the couple to be married. However, the pronouncement of marriage does not cause the couple to be married in a universal sense; it only causes them to be married in the current jurisdiction, and a different jurisdiction may or may not recognize that marriage as valid. Because the marriage must be localized, therefore the pronouncement of marriage must be localized: one can't pronounce a couple to be married (everywhere), they can only pronounce them to be married (here, or there, or wherever). Thus, the deed performed by the utterance of the words is a localized deed: the pronouncement of a localized wedding.

winterkoninkje: shadowcrane (clean) (Default)

When it comes to explaining the social categorization of people, I've been an advocate for performative theories since long before they became popular/mainstream. To be clear, I find the current mainstream notions of performativity deeply problematic because they overemphasize social constructivism and fail to highlight what I see to be the actual insight behind the original formulation of performativity. But all the same, I've long been a fan of (my understanding of) performativity.

However, in the tail end of chapter 8 of Whipping Girl, Julia Serano raises a major complaint against performative theories of sex/gender in particular— a complaint I agree with wholeheartedly, and which is not easily reconciled. Before getting into the problem she raises, I should probably explain what performativity is and why I've been such an advocate for it.

The Question

What does it mean to be human, or a woman, or an atheist, or a scientist? For any specific categorization the exact details will vary, of course. The question I'm asking is, once we abstract over the particular category, what does it mean to say that some person does or does not belong to that category? Many social categories are uninteresting in this regard. I am an IU student in virtue of the fact that I am registered here, pay tuition, attend classes, etc; there's a clear definition, and that definition is wholly uninteresting and uncontroversial. However, for many categories things aren't so cut and dried.

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