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What the Performative Can’t Perform

On Judith Butler

Judith Butler‘s Notes Towards a Performative Theory of Assembly (Harvard, 2015) is a series of occasional pieces which, taken together, show both the extraordinary range of her thought, and perhaps also some of its limitations. Here her thinking extends from questions of gender performativity, seen as an instance of precarity more generally, to a view of the political grounded in interdependency. Along the way, Butler touches on questions of antagonism, media, infrastructure, the living and non-living, and labor, but each of these are perhaps limit-points beyond which she could not go without modification of her essential theses. Butler: “there is a war on the idea of interdependency, on… the social network of hands that seeks to minimize the unlivability of lives.” (67) Indeed, but one might need to press on into some of these other questions to understand why.

A performative theory of assembly is where these texts are headed. Butler reprises her famous theory of gender performativity as a place to start.  “One does not begin as one’s gender and then later decide how and when to enact it.” (57) A performative utterance brings what it names into being (illocutionary act) or makes an event happen (perlocutionary act), but Butler is more interested in what bodies do than what they say. One could think of Butler’s performativity as starting from Althusser’s famous theory of ideology as interpellation. Ideology works by calling to us, addressing us. We misrecognize ourselves in the address, adopting the point of view provided for us.

To this Butler adds a soupçon of Derrida, where the act of repeating something brings with it an unavoidable variation. Hence while gender performativity does not mean being free to chose one’s gender, there is still always some slippage in the performance of gender norms. That gender comes into being through its performance implies that there is always something a bit off about it. Butler: “something queer can happen, where the norm is refused or revised.” (64) Gender norms not only hail us but call us to repeat them, and even if we don’t intend to, our performances will be a bit different. “If gender first comes to us as someone else’s norm, it resides within us as a fantasy that is at once formed by others and also part of my formation.” (30)

The reproductions of the norm reveal its weaknesses. The very repetition of the norm risks undoing it. The norm is bodiliy enacted, but with little turnings, deviations, inadvertent agency. One cannot separate genders and sexualities from the right to assert them publicly. Their power — and also their vulnerability — is in the act. Gender is always a bit precarious. But those who are furthest from the norm are likely to be particularly precarious. We need an ethics of protecting those who break from such norms.

But first, a word on this word precarious. Its roots are Latin, meaning something obtained by asking or praying. It used to mean dependent on the whim or favor of another, but over time its core meaning has shifted to dependency on circumstances, being at risk. One might wonder, however, if the discourse around precarity has tended to privilege the first meaning over the second. I’ll come back to this. Butler: “Precarity names both the necessity and difficulty of ethics.” (109) Perhaps, but maybe it also hints at what exceeds not only ethics, but also the politics in which Butler will ground an ethics.

Certainly, precarity can be felt, as Lauren Berlant suggests, as a kind of expendability. One is supposed to be self-reliant, but as such one becomes isolated, which in turn makes one feel more precarious, escalating anxiety. Gender norms are not just about individual identity, they are about how and who and were one can appear publicly. Butler: “the term queer does not designate identity, but alliance…” (70) Who can be recognized in a field of appearances, and as what? Gender politics should make alliances with precarious populations. Precarity brings together all such claims to act in public, whether as a particular sexuality, as disabled, as stateless, or homeless. Butler: “identity politics fails to furnish a broader conception of what it means, politically, to live together, across differences, sometimes in modes of unchosen proximity…” (27)

Precarity is about a differential exposure to suffering. Why are only some human subjects recognizable? “Which humans count as the human?” (36) One answer is in the very slogan: Black Lives Matter. “The struggle becomes an embodied one for recognizability, a public insistence on existing and mattering.” (37) Precarity is the performance of unspeakable peoples, whose appearance is disruptive. What they claim is what they need. They have to act politically to secure the means of existing.

What precarity performs is not so much its power as its weakness. What it claims is the right to be recognized as something other than the self-sufficient body. In Butler all bodies are dependent and interdependent. The are dependent on infrastructures that support them. They are also interdependent, dependent on each other. The latter is reciprocal but not symmetrical; the former is not reciprocal at all, as we shall see. In Butler, dependency is a trans-historical quality of the body. This body that has needs is what political theory tends to exclude. “The republican ideal is yet to give way to a broader understanding of sensate democracy.” (207)

Butler makes this a problem for critical theory. Who are these needy bodies that don’t appear as subjects? What do the excluded call themselves? Can the illegible form a group? Can they be recognized? Full recognition may well be a fantasy for anybody. As Althusser and Laura Mulvey would insist, when ideology hails us, we misrecognize ourselves in its calling. But what would it feel like to not be called at all? To be a subject, to become a political being, means being about to perform some version of the norms that call us.

What the gender-nonconforming and the undocumented share then is a demand to be recognized which puts a lot of pressure on existing norms of the good subject. Hence Butler’s call for alliances of the unrecognizable that seek to expand what we mean when we say we. “I am already an assembly, even a general assembly…” (68) This might not in the end be a demand for some kind of universality, so much as a practice of showing, through what it excludes, its impossibility.

Such a politics happens in the context of a war against interdependency. A politics of p-rcarity demands access to an equally livable life for all by linking groups from diverse class, racial, religious or other backgrounds. But here we strike one of the things Butler still has to exclude: antagonism. Who or what is conducting this war on interdependency? Agency is all on the side of resisting it. The ruling class never appears, is hardly mentioned.

Not only are gender and precarity performative, so too is the public space in which such performances happen. “Plural and public action is the exercise of the right to place and belonging, and this exercise is the means by which the space of appearance is presupposed and brought into being.” (59) Occupying such space together calls into question accepted distinctions between the public and the private. Public space is refunctioned, as Brecht would say, or perhaps what the situationists called détournement was and is always performative.

Butler: “What does it mean to act together when the conditions for acting together are devastated or falling away?” (23) It means calling into question forms of the political that exclude too many people and too much of the conditions of a liveable life. Butler acknowledges Chantal Mouffe’s insistence that a polity always excludes someone, and constitutes its ability to name an us by an exclusion of a them. But perhaps extending who can be included extends at the same time the unrecognizable the constitutive limit. “The body politic is posited as a unity that can never be.” (4) Democratic politics is more about changing the relation between what can be recognized and what can’t than aspiring to some Kantian universality (as in Karatani). Butler: “acting in concert can be an embodied form of calling into question the inchoate and powerful dimensions of reigning notions of the political.” (9)

At issue here are forms of action that might take the form of assemblies, strikes, or vigils, although the paradigmatic examples are movements of the squares. Butler privileges bodies together. These are not versions of the multitude, however. Butler is more interested in what a body can’t do that what it can. She does not celebrate the active body so much as the fragile one. In appearing in its fragility, the precarious, dependent body performs the right to appear and reveals that part of the population deemed disposable. It challenges what Achille Mbembe calls the necropolitics which decides without consultation which bodies can live and which not. Not to mention Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s definition of racism as exposure to premature death. Against that, “the public assembly shows a shared situation of people enduring, “obdurately living.” (18)

Interdependency is not a matter of making an ethical choice about the other. Following Emmanuel Levinas, Butler thinks that the other impinges on me before I can even make any ethical choice. Those who act on us are other to us. It is not sameness that makes the ethical relation. This relation is reciprocal but asymmetrical. The other has priority over me. Ethics is not a matter of either self-interest or altruism. The face of the other demands my ethical attention regardless of my will.

Butler wants to join Levinas to Hannah Arendt as thinkers who refuse bourgeois liberal individualism. Much of what Butler has to say about politics here takes shape against a running commentary on Arendt. In Arendt the body does not enter politics, which is a realm of the speech act. The model of the polis is the one handed down through the ancient texts, where men occupy a public space and discuss matters of state in a world of freedom separated from everyday necessity. Arendt did not think the poor in the streets, demanding bread, was quite politics. Necessity is not politics to her, only freedom is politics. Butler wants to ask if one can be hungry and rational, but this still insists on a certain distinction between necessity and politics as the sphere of reason. But what if to be hungry is already rational?

And yet there is something useful in Arendt, picked up by Bonnie Honig, in the idea of the right to have rights, the claim of the stateless, a claim made outside the claim itself. To which Butler adds: those ineligible for rights need to form alliances, to bring about a tension in the realm of appearances, in which gender nonconformers and undocumented immigrants might, in their different ways, be making analogous claims. “To be a political actor is a function, a feature of acting on terms of equality with other humans…” (52) The freedom to appear as central to democratic struggles of all kinds, whether trans visibility or occupy.

Butler’s is a politics of bodies assembling, but as more than a mass of individual bodies. Politics emerges between bodies. “Those who find themselves in positions of radical exposure to violence, without basic political protections by forms of law, are not for that reason outside the political or deprived of all forms of agency.” (79) To say so is already to accept that they are non-persons. Unlike Giorgio Agamben, Butler refuses to reduce the excluded body to bare life, which might be how biopolitics might view a body from above but is not necessarily how the body of the excluded appears to itself or its neighbors.  “If we claim that the destitute are outside of the sphere of politics — reduced to depoliticized forms of being — then we implicitly accept as right the dominant ways of establishing and limiting the political.” (78)

From Arendt, Butler extracts the principle that nobody has the right to choose who to live with on earth. We are obliged to cohabit with others. There is an unchosen condition of freedom in Arendt just as there is an unchosen condition of ethics in Levinas. Community has to be subordinated to this non-communitiarian refusal of genocide. But could this be extended even further? Or are we such with a politics (with Arendt) and an ethics (with Levinas) that begins with other people (with Arendt) even if it then skips off toward a more theological other (with Levinas)? Is there a way to let in the co-presence of non-humans, even the non-living? That might be the sort of ethics and politics Donna Haraway wants, but it seems beyond the limits of where Butler wants to go.

There there is no one part of the species-being that can claim the whole of the earth. “Thus, from unchosen co-habitation, Arendt derives notions of universality and equality that commit us to institutions that seek to sustain human lives.” (115) Arendt thought the lesson of Nazi genocide, internment and dispossession was opposition to illegitimate use of state violence. Equality has to extend beyond language, ethnicity, religion, to those nobody ever chose to be around. Politics is about obligations to unchosen people. Butler: “everyone is precarious, and this follows from our social existence as bodily beings who depend upon one another for shelter and sustenance, and who, therefore, are at risk of statelessness, homelessness, and destitution under unjust and unequal political conditions.”

Butler mentions the problem of the unchosen cohabitation forced upon the colonized, but that case clearly puts more pressure on this Arendtian and Levinasian framework than they would have wanted to acknowledge. Butler: “… our precarity is to a large extent dependent upon the organization of economic and social relationships… So as soon as the existential claim is articulated in its specificity, it ceases to be existential.” (119) Even if in Butler it never quite becomes historical.

Against forms of politics that increasingly restrict the possibility of liveable lives to fewer and fewer, Butler counterposes those gatherings that embody demands for justice and equality are as those that are worthy. But is there ever an unmixed example? That the people constitute themselves performatively through a détournement of norms that they take over and inhabit queerly is going to mean that the people are never quite a consistently ethical collective subject. A hostile media played up the existence of anti-Semites among Occupy Wall Street and misogynistic Bernie-bros who supported Senator Sanders against Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Democratic primary. Media reproduce familiar stories, extracting elements from situations that can only be known retrospectively as fragments of such simulations.

The media remain only marginally present in Butler’s body-centric political theory. Yet media is necessary to the performance of gender: “Recognizing a gender depends fundamentally on whether there is a mode of presentation for that gender, a condition for its appearance; we can call this its media or its mode of presentation.” (38-39) And media is necessary for assembly: “there is an indexical force of the body that arrives with other bodies in a zone visible to media coverage…” (9) But we never arrive at much of a concept of media, which can’t really be grasped from the point of view of that which it produces.

For Butler, “the media have entered into the very definition of the people.” (20) Might it not rather be the other way around? There is a sort of latent Platonism at work here, where the bodies gathered in and as a body, come first, and their mediated double second. But surely it is the other way around in any modern polity. The media are the primary space; public squares and so forth are sets for media performances. One cannot simply add media onto some fantasy of the Greek polis and call it modern politics. The thing to occupy is media time; the way to do it is to take space. It is not the case that “the media extends the scene.” (91) The scene is a retroactive production of media. If an assembly gathered and nobody noticed, did it make a sound?

While mediation is characteristic of all modern polities, it is not all that new. It is not the case that “this conjuncture of street and media constitutes a very contemporary version of the public sphere…” (94) Unless by contemporary one means a century and a half of “twitter revolutions.” Already by the 1840s, telegraphy starts to shape a virtual geography of the event. At first it may appear as something added to contiguous, physical and embodied space, but really it constitutes a new geography of the event, dominated by telesthesia, or perception at a distance. “There is a specter haunting Europe,” as Marx and Engels famously said, precisely because of the changing materiality of space and time, where information starts to move faster than the merchant, the soldier, or even the revolutionary.

Butler: “Does the media not select what can appear, and who can appear?” (55) Indeed, but there’s been a long debate on what might constitute its criteria of selection. Do the media replicate the forces of production (as in Benjamin), the relations of production (as in Adorno), or do they reproduce the relations of production (as in Althusser) or do they express a hegemonic compromise (as in Gramsci) or a hybrid of dominant, residual and emergent cultures (as in Williams)? And is there not something performative in the manner in which people make meaning out of media, as an active audience (as in Ang) or through negotiated or resistant readings (as in Hall) or even by injecting subcultural noise (as in Hebdige)?

There is at least the beginning of an inkling of media theory in Butler, which I supposed is to be welcomed, given how much political theory still thinks it is in the Greek polis, and indeed thinks the Greek polis is more than a myth. Butler: “Of course, we have to study those occasions in which the official frame is dismantled by rival images, or where a single set of images sets off an implacable division in society, or where the numbers of people gathering in resistance overwhelms the frame…” (20) But which are those occasions? Perhaps what is crucial here is the capacity to interrupt the temporality and narrative coherence of virtual geography.

Mediated narratives precede events. The functions of news is to fit events into the template of a handful of simple stories, as Benjamin already knew. The event that frustrates the narrative framing held open for it in advance is the one most likely to receive inconsistent presence in the media and be most open, at least for a time, to queer acts of performativity. This of course need not always be a good thing. The first twenty-four hours of after the planes flew into the world trade center are a signal instance of a dismantled frame. After that, the frame was put back in place and insisted upon relentlessly.

That was an example of what I call a weird global media event. Being global, the range of interpretive performances can be even wider. Butler: “its locality is not denied by the fact that the scene is communicated beyond itself and so constituted in global media.” (92) Indeed, but again, this is backwards. Its locality is determined by the variable range of significance of that locus in a particular instance of a global media imaginary. Global media imaginaries are transnational but partial and plural. A particular locus can mean something quite different there to what it means to those local to it. To New Yorkers, the World Trade Center was a bunch of second tier office real estate; in a global media imaginary, it meant rather more than that. To give a very different example, Zuccotti Park is not even all that close to Wall Street, and in any case, Wall Street is an abstraction. How do you occupy an abstraction? Its a nicely performative example, but it depends on making meaning in a virtual geography rather than an actual one.

Butler’s approach to media is stuck in a representational way of thinking, viz: “The term ‘media’ names any mode of presentation that relays to us some version of reality from the outside; it operates by means of a series of foreclosures that make possible what we might call its message, which impinges on us, by which I mean both the foreclosure — what is edited out, what is outside the margins — and what is presented.” (102) Or as Debord put it rather more pithiliy: “That which appears is good; that which is good appears.” Note that this way of thinking about media is contrary to the performativity Butler insists on elsewhere. Here, there’s reality; then there’s its selected representation. There’s no sense here of how the mediated performance calls the real into being and designates in that act both what is included and what is ignored.

This might complicate Butler’s effort to apply Levinas’ ethics to mediated images, where we are “solicited by images of distant suffering.” (100) For Butler, these unchosen images of suffering bring the fate of the other near. I am here but also more than just here. “It is not just that one discrete population views another through certain media moments but that such a response makes evident a form of global connectedness…” (105) Consent and community don’t mark the range of obligation. But one has to ask: which images do we see of the other, suffering? Is it not most often images of children? The other is mediated within the narrative of the humanitarian obligation, which might be ethical but is never political. As both Jackie Wang and I have argued in different contexts, only the ‘innocent’ are the subject of an ethical responsibility. Hence the adult refugee, or the Black American teenager who may have had some minor run-in with the law, are excluded from the field of livable lives, for which we might care or grieve.

In Butler, media is not, or is not consistently, performative. The same is the case with infrastructure. Bodies are supported, “by environments, by nutrition, by work, by modes of sociality and belonging.” (84) Bodies are dependent:  “Assembled creatures such as these depend upon a set of living and institutional processes, infrastructural conditions, to persist and to assert together a right to the conditions of its persistence.” (18-19) Occasionally infrastructure is a “collaborative actor.” (127) But mostly it is like this: “bodily movement is supported and facilitated by nonhuman objects and their particular capacity for agency.” (72)

This is because Butler has not really strayed all that far from Arendt. In Arendt, politics is a meeting of minds; in Butler, it is also a meeting of bodies. But what is not really part of this politics of bodies is the laboring body. Hence infrastructure appears as that which supports a political body; it is not that which a laboring body also builds and maintains. Like media, infastructure is not really performative. In Butler, political bodies perform with public spaces, making them part of their assembly, but the reciprocal kind of performance is lacking, in which infrastructure makes labor part of itself. “So the pavement and the street are already to be understood as requirements of the body.” (128) But the (laboring) body is not a requirement of the pavement.

To be fair, Butler does acknowledge a world beyond the assembling of bodies. “We cannot presume the enclosed and well-fed space of the polis, where all material needs are somehow being taken care of elsewhere by being whose gender, race or status render them ineligible for public recognition.” (96) Not to mention their class. Butler: “the organization of infrastructure is intimately tied with an enduring sense of individual life…” (21) With then emphasis on individual. Or as Sartre might have put it, the practico-inert of a world built out of dead labor arranges us into relations of seriality rather than interdependency. There are other registers in which one could think this. For Pasolini, infrastructure is not only the mass production of objects but also of subjects, a line of thought picked up by Lazzarato. It is curious that the one form of assembly that does attack dependency on infrastructure does not appear in Butler — that of the riot.

Its a strategy throughout this text that Butler includes the name of what her concepts exclude: antagonism, media, infrastucture, the inhuman, but not labor, which hardly appears at all. Butler: “I’m using one word after another, searching for a set of related terms as a way of approaching a problem that resists a technical nomenclature, no single word can adequately describe the character and the aim of this human striving, this striving in concert or this striving together that seems to form one meaning of political movement or mobilization.” (133) Perhaps, but the term that might cover a lot of it is labor. The labor of many genders, the labor of many species, the labor of the dead and the living, not to mention cyborg hybrids.

And so I can agree in part with Butler that “forms of political resistance that champion forms of autonomy freed of all dependency perhaps make this mistake of understanding dependency as exploitation.” (147) Eliminating exploitation would not leave a world of autonomous bodies. But the concept of dependency does not really go far enough. Precarious bodies are interdependent in Butler, but then dependent on infrastructure as support. Interdependence is a kind of reciprocal but not symmetrical ethical relation, where the other impinges upon me independently of my will. And it only seems to apply to the other that has a face, behind which lurks an infinite and essentially theological demand. But this line of thought tends from the human toward the Gods. It doesn’t tend much in the other direction. The unchosen ethical obligation starts with the human and then might be extended to other forms of life. And the ethical call of other forms of life is modeled on that of human life.

In this sense, despite some gestures towards Haraway and Stengers, I don’t think Butler has really heard them, or through them, the unbidden demand impinging on us, beyond ethics and even politics, of that which has no face. An ethical obligation to non-life doesn’t really seem thinkable within Butler at all. Infrastructure supports the body, but the body owes it nothing. Faceless things don’t call for any care. They simply are. Having remaindered labor as a category of what bodies are and do, infrastructure can’t appear as part of the body itself, as what the laboring body has made, as dead labor.

What we’re left with then is not a logo-centrism but a corporeo-centrism. It isn’t reason or speech or the individual human body that is the alpha and omega, but it is still the human body. Its an inclusive liberalism, of differences but not antagonism. It wants to eschews any claim to universality, but still takes the Greek polis as the model for political thought, and political thought to be a generalizable category. It stresses the vulnerability of the body rather than its capacity for labor. As such, it can only think the inhuman as the support of the body. As such, this is an exemplary set of essays on how far one can extend political theory, one one still limited by the partial category of the polis itself.

McKenzie Wark

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