Performativity is a term for the capacity of speech and communication not simply to communicate but rather to act or consummate an action, or to construct and perform an identity. A common example is the act of saying "I pronounce you man and wife" by a licensed minister before two people who are prepared to wed (or "I do" by one of those people upon being asked whether they take their partner in marriage). An umpire calling a strike, a judge pronouncing a verdict, or a union boss declaring a strike are all examples of performative speech.
Some theorists in philosophy and gender studies, notably Judith Butler, have argued that even commonplace communication and speech acts are performative, in that they serve to define identity. 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. This view is influenced by philosophers including Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida.
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, beginning in the 1950s, 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
In A Taxonomy of Illocutionary Acts, John Searle takes up and reformulates the ideas of his colleague J. L. Austin. Though Searle largely supports and agrees with Austin’s theory of speech acts, he has a number of critiques, which he outlines: “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’ do not need ‘extra-linguistic’ contexts to succeed. As opposed to Austin who thinks all illocutionary acts need extra-linguistic institutions, Searle disregards the necessity of context and replaces it with the “rules of language.”
Philosopher and feminist theorist Judith Butler 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
Butler sees gender as an act that has been rehearsed, much like a script, and that people, as actors who make a script a reality through repetition, come 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).
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 does not 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 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. Butler downgrades gender's constructed nature to fight for oppressed identities.
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 Transformation."
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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- Austin, J L (1962). How To Do Things With Words. p. 5.
- John Searle (1979). Expression and meaning : studies in the theory of speech acts. Cambridge University Press.
- John Searle (1979). Expression and meaning : studies in the theory of speech acts. Cambridge University Press. p. 12.
- John Searle (1979). Expression and meaning : studies in the theory of speech acts. Cambridge University Press. p. 7.
- This idea was first introduced in 1988 in an issue of Theatre Journal (Brickell, 2005).
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