Performativity

Evelien Geerts

Whenever the notion of performativity pops up in a discussion amongst philosophers and feminist theorists, queer theorist and philosopher Judith Butler’s name is immediately mentioned in the same breath.

Inspired by language philosopher J. L. Austin’s theory of speech acts, and deconstructionist-provocateur Jacques Derrida’s idea of iterability, in Gender Trouble (2006/1990) and Bodies That Matter (1993), Butler urged us to rethink gender not as an innate essence or natural quality, but as something that “proves to be performative – that is, constituting the identity it is purported to be” (Butler, 2006/1990, p. 33). In the heydays of feminist postructuralist theory, the era of the self-constructed feminist sex/gender distinction were thus claimed to be over, and Butler’s radical social constructivist stance has since then taught us that even sex, in addition to the normative but easily destabilized socio-cultural script-like characteristics of gender, is in the end discursive, and (to-be-)performed. Or, as Butler has put it herself: “This very concept of sex-as-matter, sex-as-instrument-of-cultural-signification […] is a discursive formation […]” (ibid., p. 50).

Yet, with the recent arrival of the so-called new (feminist) materialist turn – a turn that was, amongst others, anticipated by feminist science studies scholar Donna Haraway’s notion of the material-semiotic that thinks the material, bodily fleshiness and the discursive-linguistic together, and thus breaks through the long-standing nature/culture divide (see e.g. Haraway, 1988 and 1997) – critical re-readings and re-engagements with Butler’s notion of (gender) performativity slowly but surely came into being. Criticized for her over-investment in the linguistic-discursive frame of reference in Gender Trouble (“What about the materiality of the body, Judy?” (Butler, 1993, p. viii)), Butler has since paid more attention to the vulnerable fleshiness of the body (see e.g. Butler, 2004). But we had to wait for physicist-philosopher Karen Barad’s “Posthumanist Performativity” piece from 2003 to really see an example of a new feminist materialist reconceptualization of performativity.

Inspired by the feminist science studies tradition and Haraway’s binary-deconstructing notion of the “material-semiotic actor” – a notion that articulates that objects (and bodies) are “active, meaning-generating part[s] of [the] bodily apparatus” and affirms that “[t]heir boundaries materialize in social interactions” (Haraway, 1988, p. 595) – Barad in “Posthumanist Performativity,” and later on in Meeting the Universe Halfway (2007) and “Nature’s Queer Performativity” (2011), radically rethinks performativity. While laying out the foundations of her quantum physics-inspired feminist philosophy that questions the primacy of the cultural turn (and its prioritization of the discursive and the representational), Barad critically but affirmatively engages with the poststructuralist philosophies of Judith Butler and Michel Foucault. For Barad, performativity is not only linked to the coming into being of the human subject and the (gendered) materialization of bodies, and the socio-political interpellation process that goes along with it (i.e. Butler’s more recent understanding of performativity as articulated in Bodies), but is about the processes of the materialization of “all bodies” and the “material-discursive practices” that engender differences between for example human and non-human bodies (Barad 2003, 810). And the matter that is central to these processes of materialization for Barad is much less passive than Foucault and Butler have purported it to be.

Additionally, in a move that reminds us of Haraway, Barad deconstructs a series of categorical oppositions – nature/culture, subject/object, knower/object-to-be-known, human/non-human, and realism/social constructivism – by proposing an agential realist or modified realist framework to examine the world, our scientific knowledge praxes, and the aforementioned processes of materialization with. This agential realist framework (which is the focal-point of Meeting) moves away from an individualistic atomistic metaphysics, the modern Cartesian mind/body split, our strong cultural belief in representationalism, our Western tendency to thingify or basically objectify, and a mere discursive-linguistic concept of performativity. It instead pushes us towards a relational understanding of what Barad labels the “intra-action” between subjects and objects in the world, or better put, “phenomena,” as the latter in such a framework are already interconnected before being agentially separated (Barad, 2003, p. 815). Seen through such an agential realist perspective, gender, amongst (and in co-construction with) other social identity categories, isn’t just discursively fashioned and performed, but bodies themselves “come to matter through the world’s iterative intra-activity – its performativity” (ibid., p. 824).

Barad’s reconceptualization of performativity – and her overall innovative framework of agential realism, which strongly links ontology, epistemology, and ethics to one another – thus forces us to radically shift all of our former traditional Western metaphysical beliefs, and reconsider notions such as performativity, agency, subjectivity, interaction and causality, together with our previous understanding of ourselves, and the world – and how we relate to the latter: This because of the fact that the world seen through such an agential realist lens is no longer “composed of things-in-themselves or things-behind-phenomena but ‘things’-in-phenomena.” Reality, according to Barad, is rather “a dynamic process of intra-activity” or “an ongoing open process of mattering through which ‘mattering’ itself acquires meaning and form in the realization of different agential possibilities” (ibid., p. 817).

Barad’s new feminist materialist, posthumanist rethinking of performativity, and of the world itself, to conclude, pushes us towards a new understanding of materiality. Materiality is no longer “either given or a mere effect of human agency,” but rather “an active factor in processes of materialization” (ibid., p. 827). And this has, as described above, profound consequences for our understanding of performativity.

Keywords: Gender performativity, posthumanist performativity, materialization, identity, feminist poststructuralism, new feminist materialism
Genealogies: J. L. Austin, Jacques Derrida, Judith Butler, Karen Barad
Synonyms: The materialization of performativity
Antonyms: Fixed identity, stability
Hypernyms: Baradian agential realism
Hyponyms: (Posthumanist) performativity

References
Barad, Karen. (2003). “Posthumanist Performativity. Toward an Understanding of How Matter Comes to Matter.” Signs 28, 3: 801-831.
Barad, Karen. (2007) Meeting the Universe Halfway. Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Durham – London: Duke University Press.
Barad, Karen. (2011). “Nature’s Queer Performativity.” Qui Parle: Critical Humanities and Social Sciences 19, 2, pp. 121-158.
Butler, Judith. (2006). Gender Trouble. Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. With an introduction by the author. New York – London: Routledge. Originally published in 1990.
Butler, Judith. (1993). Bodies That Matter. On the Discursive Limits of ‘Sex.’ New York – London: Routledge.
Butler, Judith. (2004). Precarious Life. The Powers of Mourning and Violence. London – New York: Verso.
Haraway, Donna J. (1988) “Situated Knowledges. The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege Partial Perspective.” Feminist Studies 14, 3, pp. 575-599.
Haraway, Donna J. (1997). Modest_Witness@Second_Millenium. FemaleMan©_Meets_Oncomouse™. Feminism and Technoscience. New York – London: Routledge.

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