Performativity and Black Lives Matter

Who we are and what we do

In declaring 'Black Lives Matter' the speaking selves, not just the speech acts, are performative. In these acts, individuals seek to transform the value of their own lives, explains Judith Butler. 

I am not sure that I would defend the thesis that the self is performative, although that position is sometimes ascribed to me.  The reason for my hesitation is that the meaning of performative is highly contested, so I would want to wait and see which meaning of that term is in play when someone makes that claim.  Further, I am fairly certain that whatever the self is, it is not exclusively performative.  So though there may be performative dimensions of selfhood, it would be too general to claim simply that the self is performative and that is the end of the story.

I notice that very often “performative” is used with the adjective “merely” so that when we hear that someone has taken a stand and that it is merely performative, we are meant to understand that this is a gesture of some kind, but surely not substantive.  I am not sure why gestures are not substantive (I think Brecht would argue that they are), but the “merely performative” is itself, well, a gesture which is meant to discount or devalue whatever is being described. 

Though there may be performative dimensions of selfhood, it would be too general to claim simply that the self is performative and that is the end of the story.

Sometimes people say that a claim or assertion is “performative” and they mean that it is a show and certainly does not represent the true or reliable intentions of the speaker. Or they mean that something is fake.  A synthetic substance is performative insofar as it acts like a natural one, but is not really natural. 

These operations of ordinary discourse are surely circumscribed within certain life-worlds, cultural spaces, and historical moments.  In the past, perhaps it would have been said simply that somebody was putting on an attitude, saying something for show, or simply performing something, but not really meaning it.  These modes of speaking rely on a term, “performative”, that is derived from speech act theory, probably most importantly the work of J.L. Austin, but my wager is that those who use the term in the above mentioned ways have not read Austin very closely.

related-video-image SUGGESTED VIEWING Paul Mason | In-depth Interview With Paul Mason

They’re interested in echoing a contemporary usage without finding out where the term came from or how it travelled through the work of Derrida, Searle, Sedgwick, Felman, or legal theory or even theatre and performance studies.  The list is actually very long, but the contemporary usage seems to run counter to the intricacies of academic debate, and might even be said to be an anti-academic usage.  Or, rather, it is an anti-academic deployment of the term that has an academic ring to it.  In that sense, the use of the term “performative” is, well, performative in the sense that the non-academic usage intends.

Some say that Erving Goffman started this debate about whether or not selves are performative when he wrote, The Everyday Presentation of Self.  In that book, there is a self and then there are the roles that a self can play.  Alfred Schutz claimed something similar in his theory of typification.  We act according to type, and type supplies a condition for our action. In Austin, the performative was a general way of referring to speech acts, understood as actions that take place as forms of assertion and speech.  The illocutionary forms tended to be speech acts that bring about the reality that they name.  That happens when judges declare people to be married or send people to prison with punishments.  The speech act is binding – it changes relationships, circumstances, standing, especially when considered as the speech act of a judge who has the established power to pronounce in these ways.  The perlocutionary speech acts do not immediately enact or change a reality, but they do initiate a set of consequences. For instance, it would be quite amazing if the claim “Black Lives Matter” were suddenly to establish the value of Black lives.  More probably, the claim, when publically repeated, starts to assert the importance of considering the claim, acts in a persuasive way, but also gives form to an idea that seeks to give form, in turn, to a new political consensus.

When, then, a black life claims that it matters, it is not only the speech act but the living self that is performative.

Much depends on how we understand those who speak such utterances.  They are seeking to change the world or to initiate a set of consequences.  And for many who speak “Black Lives Matter” it is their own lives that are at stake, Black lives, lives that have for historical and contemporary reasons, been given to understand that they do not matter, that they are negligible.  So when they make use of that speech act, they are also speaking, and as speaking subjects, they are seeking to transform the value of their own lives or others who are in the same social condition of being devalued. The speaking asserts the value, which means that the one who speaks designates itself implicitly as one who deserves to be valued.  The performative act of the self – the speech act – is also a way of asserting that self and its value.  When, then, a black life claims that it matters, it is not only the speech act but the living self that is performative, and so performative is not mere show or some kind of fakery.  On the contrary, it is a way of really mattering. 


Latest Releases
Join the conversation