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Performativity is an interdisciplinary term often used to name the capacity of speech and gestures to act or consummate an action, or to construct and perform an identity.

Performativity is the process by which semiotic expression (in language or a symbol system) produces results or real consequences in extra-semiotic reality, including the result of constructing reality itself. That is to say that in saying something, the speaker is also doing something, and the thing done goes beyond simply the act of speaking. 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 performatives. In the frequently cited Butlerian vein of performativity, even gestures and every day speech acts do not express an interior identity; they perform that very identity and even its assumed quality of interiority.[1] 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.

Performativity problematizes notions of intention and agency; it complicates the constitution of gender and subjects.


J. L. Austin[edit]

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."[2] 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[edit]

In A Taxonomy of Illocutionary Acts, John Searle takes up and reformulates the ideas of his colleague J. L. Austin.[3]

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.”[4]

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.[5] 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.”[5]

Jacques Derrida's critique of Searle[edit]

Later conceptual turns[edit]

Judith Butler's performativity[edit]

Main article: Gender performativity

Theoretical ideas[edit]

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.[6]

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.[7] 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[edit]

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).

Surface politics[edit]

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.[1]

Butler’s surface politics explicitly abandons a Cartesianism that, according to Butler, accepts “a material body prior to discourse.”[8] 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."[8] 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.[9]

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.”[10]

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.[1]

Theoretical criticisms[edit]

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. Butler downgrades gender's constructed nature to fight for oppressed identities.

Other applications[edit]

Video art[edit]

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 Transformation."[11]

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.


  1. ^ a b c Butler, Judith (1990). Gender Trouble. New York: Routledge. 
  2. ^ Austin, J L (1962). How To Do Things With Words. p. 5. 
  3. ^ John Searle (1979). Expression and meaning : studies in the theory of speech acts. Cambridge University Press. 
  4. ^ John Searle (1979). Expression and meaning : studies in the theory of speech acts. Cambridge University Press. p. 12. 
  5. ^ a b John Searle (1979). Expression and meaning : studies in the theory of speech acts. Cambridge University Press. p. 7. 
  6. ^ This idea was first introduced in 1988 in an issue of Theatre Journal (Brickell, 2005).
  7. ^ Halberstam, Jack. "An audio overview of queer theory in English and Turkish by Jack Halberstam". Retrieved 29 May 2014. 
  8. ^ a b Butler, Judith (1990). Gender Trouble. New York: Routledge. p. 164. 
  9. ^ Butler, Judith (1990). Gender Trouble. New York: Routledge. p. 165. 
  10. ^ Butler, Judith (1990). Gender Trouble. New York: Routledge. p. 172. 
  11. ^ Jose Esteban Munoz. Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Austin, J. L. 1962. How to Do Things with Words. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  • Austin, J. L. 1970. "Performative Utterances." In Austin, "Philosophical Papers", 233-52. London: Oxford University Press.
  • Bakhtin, Mikhail. "Discourse in the Novel," The dialogic imagination : four essays; edited by Michael Holquist; translated by Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist Austin: University of Texas Press, c1981.
  • Barad, Karen. 2003. "Posthumanist Performativity: Toward and Understanding of How Matter Comes to Matter." Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 28.3: 801-831.
  • Brickell, Chris. 2005. "Masculinities, Performativity, and Subversion: A Sociological Reappraisal." Men and Masculinities 8.1: 24-43.
  • Butler, Judith. 1993. Bodies that Matter. On the Discursive Limits of Sex. London and New York: Routledge.
  • Butler, Judith. 1997. Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative. London and New York: Routledge.
  • Butler, Judith. 2000. "Critically Queer", in Identity: A Reader. London: Sage Publications.
  • Callon, Michel. 1998. "Introduction: the Embeddedness of Economic Markets in Economics". In M. Callon (ed.), The Laws of the Markets. Oxford: Blackwell.
  • Derrida, Jacques. 1971. "Signature, Event, Context," in Limited, inc., Evanston: Northwestern Univ. Press, 1988.
  • Dunn, R.G. 1997. “Self, Identity and Difference: Mead and the Poststructuralists.” Sociological Quarterly 38.4: 687-705.
  • Felluga, Dino. "Modules on Butler". Retrieved on 10/30/06 from Modules on Butler II: Performativity.
  • Felman, Shoshana. 1980/2003. The Scandal of the Speaking Body: Don Juan With J.L. Austin, or Seduction in Two Languages. Translated by Catherine Porter. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
  • Garfinkel, Harold. 1967. Studies in Ethnomethodology. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
  • Goffman, Erving. 1959. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Garden City, NY: Anchor.
  • Goffman, Erving. 1976. "Gender Display" and "Gender Commercials." Gender Advertisements. New York: Harper and Row.
  • Goffman, Erving. 1983. "Frame Analysis of Talk." The Goffman Reader, Lemert and Branaman, eds., Blackwell, 1997.
  • Green, Adam Isaiah. 2007. “Queer Theory and Sociology: Locating the Subject and the Self in Sexuality Studies." Sociological Theory 25.1: 26-45.
  • Hall, Stuart. 2000. "Who Needs Identity?" In Identity: A Reader. London: Sage Publications.
  • Kessler, Suzanne, and Wendy McKenna. 1978. Gender: An Ethnomethodological Approach. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Lloyd, Moya. 1999. "Performativity, Parody, Politics", Theory, Culture & Society, 16(2), 195-213.
  • Membretti, Andrea. 2009. "Per un uso performativo delle immagini nella ricerca-azione sociale", Lo Squaderno n.12 (
  • Muñoz, Performing Disidentifications. Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics. 1999.
  • Oliver, Kelly. 2003. "What Is Transformative about the Performative? From Repetition to Working Through." In Ann Cahill and Jennifer Hansen, eds., Continental Feminism Reader.
  • Parker and Sedgwick, Introduction: Performativity and Performance. Performativity and Performance. 1995.
  • Pickering, Andrew. 1995. The Mangle of Practice: Time, Agency and Science. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Robinson, Douglas. 2003. Performative Linguistics: Speaking and Translating as Doing Things With Words. London and New York: Routledge.
  • Robinson, Douglas. 2006. Introducing Performative Pragmatics. London and New York: Routledge.
  • Roudavski, Stanislav. 2008. Staging Places as Performances: Creative Strategies for Architecture (PhD, University of Cambridge)
  • Rosaldo, Michele. 1980. The things we do with words: Ilongot speech acts and speech act theory in philosophy. Language in Society 11: 203-237.
  • Searle, John. 1969. "Speech Acts: An Essay in the Philosophy of Language". Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Sedgwick, Eve Kosovsky. 2003. Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
  • West, Candace and Don Zimmerman. 1987. "Doing Gender." Gender and Society 1.2: 121-151.