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Performativity is an interdisciplinary term often used to name the capacity of speech and gestures to perform an identity.
In the frequently cited Butlerian vein of performativity, gestures and speech acts do not express an interior identity; they perform that very identity and even its assumed quality of interiority. In this way, Performativity reverses the idea that an identity is the source of more secondary actions (speech, gestures). Instead, it inquires into the construction of identities as they are caused by performative actions, behaviors, and gestures. However, these acts are not performed by lone individuals. Rather, the production of cultural signification for bodies (e.g. gender) relies upon and is enforced by discursive power and so they are always already situated within larger social contexts.
J. L. Austin
The term derives from the founding work in speech act theory by ordinary language philosopher J. L. Austin, who did not use the word "performativity," but did give the name performative utterances to situations where saying something was doing something, rather than simply reporting on or describing reality. The paradigmatic case here is speaking the words "I do." Breaking with analytic philosophy, Austin argued in How to Do Things With Words that a "performative utterance," cannot be said to be either true or false, as a constative utterance might be. It can only be judged either "happy" or "infelicitous" depending upon whether the conditions required for its success have been met. In this sense performativity is a function of the pragmatics of language. Having shown that all utterances perform actions, even apparently constative ones, Austin famously discarded the distinction between "performative" and "constative" utterances halfway through the lecture series that became the book, and replaced it with a three-level framework:
- locution (the actual words spoken, that which the linguists and linguistic philosophers of the day were mostly interested in analyzing)
- illocutionary force (what the speaker is attempting to do in uttering the locution)
- perlocutionary effect (the actual effect the speaker actually has on the interlocutor by uttering the locution)
For example, if a speech act is an attempt to distract someone, the illocutionary force is the attempt to distract and the perlocutionary effect is the actual distraction caused by the speech act in the interlocutor.
Austin's account of performativity has been subject to extensive discussion in philosophy, literature and beyond. Jacques Derrida, Shoshana Felman, Judith Butler, and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick are among the scholars who have elaborated upon and contested aspects of Austin's account from the vantage point of deconstruction, psychoanalysis, feminism and queer theory. Particularly in the work of feminists and queer theorists, performativity has played an important role in discussions of social change (Oliver 2003).
The concept of performativity has also been used in science and technology studies and in economic sociology. Andrew Pickering has proposed to shift from a "representational idiom" to a "performative idiom" in the study of science. Michel Callon has proposed to study the performative aspects of economics, i.e. the extent to which economic science plays an important role not only in describing markets and economies, but also in framing them. Karen Barad has argued that science and technology studies deemphasize the performativity of language in order to explore the performativity of matter (Barad 2003).
Other uses of the notion of performativity in the social sciences include the daily behavior (or performance) of individuals based on social norms or habits. Philosopher and feminist theorist Judith Butler has used the concept of performativity in her analysis of gender development, as well as in her analysis of political speech. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick describes Queer Performativity as an ongoing project for transforming the way we may define - and break - boundaries to identity. Through her suggestion that shame is a potentially performative and transformational emotion, Sedgwick has also linked queer performativity to affect theory. Also innovative in Sedgwick's discussion of the performative is what she calls periperformativity (2003: 67-91), which is effectively the group contribution to the success or failure of a speech act.
John Searle's Reformulation
Searle largely supports and agrees with Austin’s theory of speech acts, but he has a number of critiques. He outlines them clearly in his text: “In sum, there are (at least) six related difficulties with Austin’s taxonomy; in ascending order of importance: there is a persistent confusion between verbs and acts, not all the verbs are illocutionary verbs, there is too much overlap of the categories, too much heterogeneity within the categories, many of the verbs listed in the categories don't satisfy the definition given for the category and, most important, there is no consistent principle of classification.”
His last key departure from Austin lies in Searle’s claim that four of his universal ‘acts’ don’t need ‘extra-linguistic’ contexts to succeed. As opposed to Austin who thinks all illocutionary acts need an extra-linguistic institutions, Searle disregards the necessity of context and replaces it with the “rules of language.”
Jacques Derrida's Critique of Searle
Later Conceptual Turns
Judith Butler's Performativity
Judith Butler, the philosopher and feminist theorist who offered a new, more Continental (specifically, Foucauldian) reading of the notion of performativity, which has its roots in linguistics and philosophy of language, describes performativity as “…that reiterative power of discourse to produce the phenomena that it regulates and constrains” (Butler 1993). She has largely used this concept in her analysis of gender development.
The concept places emphasis on the manners by which identity is passed or brought to life through discourse. Performative acts are types of authoritative speech. This can only happen and be enforced through the law or norms of the society. These statements, just by speaking them, carry out a certain action and exhibit a certain level of power. Examples of these types of statements are declarations of ownership, baptisms, inaugurations, and legal sentences. Something that is key to performativity is repetition. The statements are not singular in nature or use and must be used consistently in order to exert power (Hall 2000).
Performance theory and gender perspectives
Judith Butler, as mentioned above, has done much research and writing on performance theory, and has focused much of this work on gender performativity. Butler sees gender as an act that has been rehearsed, much like a script, and we, as the actors make the script a reality through repetition, thus coming to perform in the mode of belief. “For Butler, the distinction between the personal and the political or between private and public is itself a fiction designed to support an oppressive status quo: our most personal acts are, in fact, continually being scripted by hegemonic social conventions and ideologies” (Felluga, 2006). Butler sees gender not as an expression of what one is, rather as something that one does. Furthermore, she sees it not as a social imposition on a gender neutral body, but rather as a mode of "self-making" through which subjects become socially intelligible. According to Butler’s theory, homosexuality and heterosexuality are not fixed categories. A person is merely in a condition of “doing straightness” or “doing queerness” (Lloyd, 1999).
In Butler's book Gender Trouble, she introduces her idea of Surface Politics, which is intimately related to her ideas of Performativity. Just like Performativity, surface politics questions the naturalness, stability, and causal privilege that are commonly accorded to gendered bodies.
Generally, Butler departs from the dichotomy of inner and outer space by replacing it with a body and bodily borders that are produced, i.e. the category of the internal is a surface signification.
Butler’s surface politics explicitly abandons a Cartesianism that, according to Butler, accepts “a material body prior to discourse.”  Instead, she posits that the borders of the body themselves are constructs “shaped by political forces with strategic interests in keeping that body bounded and constituted by the markers of sex."  In other words, the borders of the body are shifting and constructed; a body with contours that are “clearly marked as the taken-for-granted ground or surface” is a construction itself.
Butler clarifies the distinction between internalization and inscription, by using a quote from Foucault: “It would be wrong to say that the soul is an illusion, or an ideological effect. On the contrary, it exists, it has a reality, it is produced permanently around, on, within, the body by the functioning of a power that is exercised on those that are punished.”
Here, the soul itself–thought of as within the body—is, in fact, inscribed upon the body (as invisible). Similarly, inner-outer distinction is a surface signification, the body as an enclosure is a signification, and any interior psychic characteristics are surface significations. Inscription posits internalization as a deceptive and falsely naturalized signification onto a material surface.
There are several criticisms that have been raised against Butler's concept of performativity. The first is that the theory is individual in nature and doesn’t take other factors into consideration. These factors include the space within which the performance occurs, the others involved and how they might see or interpret what they witness. Also, the unplanned effects of the performance act are overlooked and the contingencies are not taken into consideration. (Lloyd, 1999)
Another criticism is that Butler is not clear about the concept of subject. It has been said that in her writings, sometimes the subject only exists tentatively, sometimes they possess a “real” existence and other times are socially active. Also, some observe that the theory might be better suited to literary analysis as opposed to social theory. (Brickell, 2005)
Others criticize Judith Butler for taking ethnomethodological and symbolic interactionist sociological analyses of gender and merely reinventing them in the concept of performativity (Dunn 1997; Green 2007). For example, Green (2007) argues that the work of Kessler and McKenna (1978) and West and Zimmerman (1987) builds directly from Garfinkel (1967) and Goffman (1959) to deconstruct gender into moments of attribution and iteration in a continual social process of "doing" masculinity and femininity in the performative interval. These latter works are premised on the notion that gender does not precede but, rather, follows from practice, instantiated in micro-interaction.
Other Applications of Performativity
More recently, theories of Performativity have extended across multiple disciplines and discussions. Notably, interdisciplinary theorist Jose Esteban Munoz has related video to theories of Performativity. Specifically, Munoz looks at the 1996 documentary by Susana Aiken and Carlos Aparicio, "The Tranformation."
Although historically and theoretically related to performance art, Video Art is not an immediate performance; it is mediated, iterative and citational. In this way, Video Art raises questions of performativity. Additionally, video art frequently puts bodies and display, complicating borders, surfaces, embodiment, and boundaries and so indexing performativity.
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- This idea was first introduced in 1988 in an issue of Theatre Journal (Brickell, 2005).
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