Wednesday, 18 October 2017

Performativity and Parlance

We define a thing by naming it, but then is our understanding of that thing limited by the description itself.

How does this inform our individuality in society and culture? We looked at examples of gender, sexual orientation, and race, and the ways in which these societal constructs are defined inform the performativity of these roles.

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Words have power: Austen describes the use of the spoken word as a performative, to signify or imply action (such as the phrase “I declare war”), or in the case of a wedding ceremony where both the spoken word combined with ritual action in order to complete the performance. Butler writes that we understand our social reality through the words we use to describe that reality: “social agents constitute social reality through language, gesture, and all manner of social sign.”[1]

I find this quite Orwellian, and Debby Thompson also highlights the relationship between “language and […] power”.[2]  I feel that this also reflects Conquergood’s critique of the social power of the written word and the textrocentralism of the Euro-American culture.

Orwell, 1984, Chapter 5

Our words, actions, and intentions are only available and understood within a societal construct: Austin refers to these as “appropriate circumstances”[3] which include convention of procedure and the acceptance of witnesses. Convention and circumstances circumscribe our words, actions, and, Butler argues, our identities, which are, she argues “instituted through a stylised repetition of acts.”[4].  This recalls Schechner’s theory of Restored Behaviour[5]: our identities are described through language and reinforced through performativity.

Butler’s argument considers gender could be said to be subjective rather than prescriptive. Many cultures already recognise more than two genders, and Facebook has recently given users the option of 71 different gender identities,[6] which leads to the conclusion that if gender is constructed through performativity, then there are as many ways of performing an individual identity as there are people: using the body as a performative signifier.

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Gender and race are described through language, understood through the behaviour associated with the description, and reinforced through restored behaviour, in the same manner as Turner’s cycle of social drama[7]. Butler writes that “the body becomes its gender through a series of acts which are renewed, revised, and consolidated[…]”[8] and that “the appearance of substance is precisely that, a constructed identity, a performative accomplishment which the mundane social audience, including the actors themselves, come to believe and to perform in the mode of belief.”[9] Thompson, writing on the performativity of race, states that it “is experienced both as a fact and as a trope.”[10] both as a fact, and as a social performance. 

Would our actions within a culturally assigned role of individual ‘gender’ and a ‘race’ be different if we weren’t conditioned in expectations of associated behaviours within the social constructs of these identities?

Naming a woman as such places her within a discrete social performative contract. Identifying race and describing it proscribes an expectation and opposition; definition in opposition – by what an object, action, or individual is not. Butler writes that “it is primarily political interests which create the social phenomena of gender itself […]”[11] and Thompson writes that “Ideological state apparati make us experience ideological structures as deeply personal, natural and instinctive.”[12]

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Butler states that that a gender definition is “an historical situation rather than a natural fact.”[13] If, as Austin writes, what we name a thing defines what it is, and proscribes meaning, and Butler believes that performative action reinforces the restored behaviour, then a binary gender identity can be understood as a social construct and not an unassailable fact. However, if a society defines normative behaviour within binary gender roles, this can cause problems for those who do not ascribe to this simplistic model of behaviours.

Because the descriptive language used to define gender are inextricably linked to those which we use to define sex, then “within the terms of culture it is not possible to know sex as distinct from gender.”[14] and it is difficult to imagine agency beyond these definitions.

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Is through expanding both our linguistic understanding and our experience of performativity that socially constructed behaviours can become an expanded field of identities.









[1] Judith Butler, ‘Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory’, Theatre Journal, 40.4 (Dec 1988), P.519.
[2] Debby Thompson, ‘”Is Race A Trope?”: Anna Deveare Smith and the Question of Racial Performativity’, African American Review, 37.1 (Spring 2003), P.134.
[3] J.L. Austin, Lectures 1 and 2 in How to Do Things With Words, 2nd edn, ed. by J.O. Urmson and Marina Sibsà (London: Oxford University Press, 1976), P.6.
[4] Judith Butler, ‘Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory’, Theatre Journal, 40.4 (Dec 1988), P.519.
[5] Richard Schechner, ‘Restoration of Behaviour’, in Between Theater and Anthropology (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1985), P.38.
[6] Rhiannon Williams, 'Facebook's 71 gender options come to UK users', The Telegraph, 27 June 2014
[7] Victor Turner, ‘Social Dramas and Stories About Them’, in From Ritual to Theatre: The Human Seriousness of Play (New York: PAJ Publications, 1982), P.66.
[8] Judith Butler, ‘Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory’, Theatre Journal, 40.4 (Dec 1988), P.523.
[9] Ibid., P.520.
[10] Debby Thompson, ‘”Is Race A Trope?”: Anna Deveare Smith and the Question of Racial Performativity’, African American Review, 37.1 (Spring 2003), P.127.
[11] Judith Butler, ‘Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory’, Theatre Journal, 40.4 (Dec 1988), P.529.
[12] Debby Thompson, ‘”Is Race A Trope?”: Anna Deveare Smith and the Question of Racial Performativity’, African American Review, 37.1 (Spring 2003), P.129.
[13] Judith Butler, ‘Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory’, Theatre Journal, 40.4 (Dec 1988), P.520.
[14] Ibid., P.524.

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