‘Performative’ is not just a fancy way of saying ‘performed’.

This seems to be a very common misunderstanding that I keep seeing all over the place, which is unfortunate because the confusion ends up missing pretty much everything that is important and powerful about the idea of gender performativity.

If ‘performance’ refers to the expression of some symbolic gesture, the ‘performative’ refers to what the performance does, how the performance transforms the world.

When Judith Butler says gender is performative, she is not simply saying that gender is something we perform, and especially not that gender is nothing other than performance (which would imply that everyone has a radical freedom to change gender from performance to performance, something that is obviously not true, and is I think the major misunderstanding that causes a lot of trans people to react against her). What she is saying is that gender performance does not express some interior truth that pre-exists performance, but rather that the sense of interior truth of gender is the effect of repeatedly performing expressions of gender.

That doesn’t mean that the interior sense of gender is any less real; it’s a position on where that (very much real) interior sense of gender comes from. It’s a rejection of the traditional understanding that in the beginning there is gender and then subsequently there is the expression of that gender, which was, somehow, always already there. The idea that everyone has limitless freedom to self-create from moment to moment does not follow from the theory of gender performativity. Gender congeals over time, perhaps into something that, for some, is experienced as genuinely immutable. It does, however, mean that there is always some indeterminacy within which we have a limited and constrained kind of agency: we all have some capacity to reconfigure what we are, and whatever limits exist cannot be known in advance. So, e.g. the idea that everyone is free to be whatever they want is not ‘true’, but believing and acting on the basis that it is might allow some to become something other than what they already are (it might also result in a harmful process of self-denial, but this can only be determined through experimentation with one’s own limits). Or, more to the point as regards trans people, because there is this indeterminacy, being forced over and over to repeat certain kinds of expression does not mean we automatically become what these expressions mean, as in TERF theories of ‘male socialisation’. Because we have agency, we can resist being formed a certain way by coerced expression.

The idea that gender is performed, on the other hand, simply says that whatever gender is, it is something we do. Gender could be biologically fixed from birth and we would still perform it. And if gender wasn’t something performed, there would be no way of knowing it exists in the first place, it would have no social presence at all. Of course, we can deduce things about what gender is from the kinds of performances we need to do to secure recognition from others or to feel it in ourselves. But on it’s own, the idea that gender is performed is not a theory of gender, and the claim ‘gender is performance’ is just straight-up wrong.

One common misuse of the term ‘performative’ is as a way of saying something is inauthentic. So, for example, there is a commonly used concept of ‘performative allyship’ which refers to inauthentic and exaggerated performances of feminism, anti-racism or whatever that are clearly more about being seen (by others or by oneself) as a ‘good ally’ than authentic personal commitment to the politics being performed. The idea of performativity does have something to say about this idea of authenticity, but it’s not at all what this usage would imply:

Returning to gender, what does an ‘authentic’ expression of gender look like? With essentialist understandings of gender there is, at least in principle, a clear way of judging: Deep down inside there is something that constitutes the truth of one’s gender; an authentic expression is one that conveys this truth to the world, an inauthentic one attempts to convey something else. If you’re anti-trans, this is the biological truth of sex which means that everything other than normative cisgender performance is a denial of the fixed unwavering truth of your being. There are putatively pro-trans versions too that attempt to construct some basis for adjudicating between real and fake expressions of transness: you’re authentically trans if you have a brain-sex/body-sex mismatch, or if you meet the diagnostic criteria for gender dysphoria, or whatever.

From the point of view of perfomativity, this kind of valuation is not possible. ‘Really being’ whatever gender, is, for everyone, nothing other than the conformity of the desire which pushes us to become with our being, what we already are. What is authentic are the acts by which we self-create according to our desire, not any predetermined idea of what we should create or how we should engage in this process. There is no position of externality nor privileged set of facts about us that would allow for judgement from outside between authenticity and inauthenticity. Perhaps the consequence is that we should dispense with the concept of authenticity altogether, or perhaps that the only authenticity that matters is immanent to the process, rather than one to be found in, say, scanning one’s history or comparing one’s experience to others’ in the search for legitimating signs. I think these amount to much the same thing.

‘Performative allyship’, viewed this way, means something rather different from what is intended by those using the term. Rather than being some kind of fake performance, the analysis of performativity would suggest that such performances might function as a mechanism by which individuals cement the desired form of political consciousness in themselves, by repeatedly presenting themselves to themselves as the kind of person they wish to be, a function which, however annoying or unhelpful its manifestations might be, is at the very least not monodimensionally negative. The authenticity question becomes a personal one, unanswerable by others except speculatively: “do I simply wish to seem, or to seem in order to be?” The former leads only to a narcissistic loop where the goal becomes eliciting the positive valuations of others in order to maintain one’s self-image, forever chasing superego approval no matter where it leads. It is only through the latter that a useful kind of political consciousness can be constructed, where external valuations can be brought into relation with goals and values that are one’s own first. So the issue is not performativity (which is inescapable anyway), but what that performativity is performative of.

cw: discussion of depression and suicide

It was with great sadness that I learned of the death by suicide of Mark Fisher.

My first encounter with Mark’s writing was during the explosive and bitter controversy that followed the publication of his Exiting The Vampire’s Castle. I wrote a response, without really having much idea who I was responding to, in which I treated it a case of “neoconservative Marxism”, following Judith Butler’s usage of the term in ‘Merely Cultural’.

Subsequent to this, I dived into Mark’s writings, and discovered an altogether different mind to the one I thought I had been engaging with. It became clear that this was not just another bog-standard Marxbro threatened by feminism, nor a conservative in any sense (although I maintain that my usage was strictly-speaking correct in line with Butler’s, whatever that’s worth). What I discovered was a wealth of perceptive, thoughtful, lucid and emotionally sensitive writings on life in late capitalism, and as I read I had the sense of thoughts at once clicking into place and opening out onto new possibilities – the kind of sensation you only get from the thought of someone you feel sees the same things you do and has been able to understand them in ways you have not. In particular, as someone who has struggled for most of my adult life with depression, and more recently with suicidal impulses, I found Mark’s writing on mental illness extremely important in understanding my own condition as part of a collective phenomenon imposed by a bleak, ugly, inhuman world that never should have been. I think it’s no exaggeration to say that these works have made a significant contribution to my still being here.

At the same time, as I gained a greater understanding of the politics around ideas of intersectionality, privilege and social justice, and as I was forced to slog through numerous bad faith interactions with people weaponising these ideas, my patience for the more excessive aspects of this discourse waned. My perception is that I am far from the only one whose sympathies have shifted in this way: most of the people I know who at the time of the VC controversy were, like me, finding a footing within politics that were relatively novel to the much of the left, and to some degree enmeshed in its more problematic tendencies, have since grown bored and frustrated with the ritualised combat and rule-driven emotionally impoverished forms of engagement it often produces, and have come to a more nuanced and constructive understanding of what that politics is and is for.

While I still consider ETVC to be a bad intervention that paints its borders too broadly and ends up implicating a range of political tendencies that deserve much greater consideration than they are afforded, it is nonetheless clear that the tendency being criticised is real. But the problem was not, as the piece heavily emphasised, the class background and interests of those engaged in these discourses, but that we had ended up, for whatever reason, with a superego politics that enabled a self-destructive indulgence in cruelty at the expense of compassion, and this was more-or-less all that actually needed to be said about the phenomenon. It would have been better expressed, better received, and more effective had it been approached with sensitivity as a warning from within, rather than an attack from without. I’ve come to regard the piece as an outburst, an embittered and clumsy effort to tackle a real problem which he had not properly understood – one that is very much at odds with the tone and ethic of Mark’s other work, and which can be safely bracketed in considering his legacy as a writer and thinker as a whole. It is very much not what I would like to emphasise and remember in light of his death.

But sadly and predictably, those on both sides of the controversy least capable of learning and growth have chosen to respond by attempting to re-ignite it. On one side, prominent internet feminist stavvers response to the tragedy was to attempt to blame Mark for the mental illnesses of others, and to express the wish that “left misogyny would die with him“. Not to be outdone, Ross Wolfe’s response was to blame those targeted by the piece for the suicide of its author, albeit with sufficient caveats to evade responsibility for stating this directly.

Is this the best we can do? Could we not treat the suicide of a comrade beloved to many as an occasion for reflection on the inter-implication of our lives, our vulnerabilites, our need for hope, within the collective project for liberation in which all of us are entangled-together? After all, if there is to be a better world at all, those of us struggling towards it need to keep one-another alive, and that calls for the practice of compassion and love even across profound and deeply-entrenched internal battle lines. Must we re-open old wounds and rehearse our nastiest conflicts as if nothing has been learned and nothing could ever be learned from them?

The central problem with Mark’s piece, and the present renewed attacks on forms of feminist, queer, anti-racist etc. politics implicated by it, is that the critique remained entirely immanent to its object: bad tempered, essentialising, disinterested in active listening and constructive dialog, and ultimately no less identitarian. Its main effect has been to legitimate the desire to dismiss and refuse engagement among those on the side within which it placed itself, thereby retrenching precisely the problems it aimed at overcoming. If, in retrospect, it appears to some as an apt diagnosis, that’s at least partly down to the diagnosis being self-reinforcing. If there is to be a way out of the Vampire’s Castle, the interventions that make it possible must be qualitatively different in form and content from the phenomenon we wish to escape. What I think now in this regard is more or less what I thought at the time, although I didn’t then have the language to put it succinctly: the only useful way for the class-struggle left to interact with this politics is to refuse to treat non-antagonistic contradictions antagonistically, even if the gesture is not reciprocated, to place ourselves within these discourses (which, after all, whatever their faults, are expressions of the desire for the universal emancipation of humanity, often coming from those who are young and very new to political consciousness) and proceed patiently, via immanent critique, towards an overcoming-together of their limitations and problems.

Whatever “side” we’re on, if we’re serious about what our politics means, that means placing compassion before competition, and fostering forms of collectivity that refuse lines of division laid down for us to reinforce our impotence. If a lesson is to be drawn from reflecting on the Vampire’s Castle at this moment, let it be that.

The use of queer as an umbrella term is not a description of an empirically or pre-discursively existing quality common to certain forms of difference, but a normative conception of how difference is to be understood: abjected forms of difference should be positively embraced not merely despite but because of the way they clash with prevailing social norms. Put another way: queer does not describe static pre-political facts about subjects who are essentially queer, but articulates difference-in-conflict with a society that seeks to dominate and constrain it.

There is no politically neutral act of naming. To name a collection of people queer is to impose a meaning on that collection of people that those people do not necessarily endorse. It is without a doubt an exercise of symbolic power. But this is equally true of any other name you might choose for anything. The term ‘gay’, for example, is not embraced by all of those for whom it is routinely used. There are plenty of men who fuck other men who do not call themselves gay, not simply because they are closeted or because of internalised homophobia, but because they do not see themselves reflected in the political, cultural and social dimensions of gay identity. Supposedly non-political merely-descriptive terms such as ‘homosexual’ or ‘men who have sex with men’, on the other hand, are often rejected precisely because they detach sexual practices from forms of community that give them meaning. Any attempt to aggregate a set of particulars under a common term involves an overwriting of their particularity. The coherence of any particular symbolisation is purchased through an elision of some dimension of reality, which is always infinitely more complex and heterogeneous than language can cope with. The alternative is to never have names for anything.

The terms we choose to announce ourselves collectively are never simply descriptive of pre-existing realities, but are attempts to produce forms of collective subjectification at particular historical moments to engender particular forms of solidarity and struggle, and as such are necessarily tied to the exigencies of organising resistance. ‘Gay’, ‘lesbian’, ‘transsexual’, ‘transgender’, ‘bisexual’ (as well as the ever-evolving alphabet soup names for The Community) are all terms insisted upon by particular political factions at particular moments in history as assertions of the positive social value of particular forms of difference against stigmatisation, criminalisation, violence and discrimination. Queer likewise is a response to a perceived need to develop new forms of self-definition due to the shift from repression to co-optation and assimilation in straight society’s strategy for our containment. It is a conscious project to outmaneuver the dynamics of co-optation through understanding ourselves not in terms of positive attributes we supposedly commonly possess but negatively and fluidly in terms of our common relation to structurally enforced norms. The repurposing of the slur ‘queer’ is inextricable from this definition because it is precisely from the position of abjection it implies that we choose to fight: we are the other that straight society must continually exclude in order to sustain itself and it is on that basis that we organise.

Clearly there is always a multiplicity of interacting factors behind any particular disavowal of queerness, but the debate over the term has oddly tended to proceed as if these always and everywhere originate in a pre-political innocence rather than being potentially strategic interventions by agents with their own divergent political commitments. Sure, there are those for whom the term itself is for them too strongly associated with shame and violence who do not embrace the label ‘queer’, but share a commitment to the kind of politics it implies. But equally, there are those who reject the term because their politics has an essentially conservative orientation: e.g. those in positions of power within the LGBT community who are threatened by the kind of political community queer attempts to bring into existence, those for whom the queer rejection of respectability undermines their project of securing acceptance through conformity and integration etc.

The act of naming is inherently contentious. It necessarily takes place in the midst of the contradictions of a particular point in time and involves decisions about how to respond to those contradictions. Calling ourselves queer is a political decision and not everyone is going to like it. Fine. Agitation for radically transformative change is never going to be about finding nice language that everyone can get behind. It’s inherently divisive, and ongoing debate is a necessary correlate. But that debate is between those who wish to define our collective experiences of difference in a hostile society in terms oriented to a particular kind of fight, and those who oppose and seek to prohibit that definition. Those in the latter camp have not chosen a neutral position and there is no reason to treat their wishes as sacrosanct.


UPDATE 8:34 01/07/2016:

Since publishing this piece I have received explicit threats of cyber attacks from the far right. Screenshot below:


UPDATE 8:34 01/07/2016:


UPDATE 22:39 06/07/2016:


Who is Ann Marie Waters?


Ann Marie Waters with Tommy Robinson (Pegida UK, formerly of the English Defence League and British National Party)

The links in this section document the evolution of Waters’ involvement in the far-right, dating back to 2013. She founded Sharia Watch in April 2014 and joined UKIP in May 2014. On the 4th January 2016 she was named as one of a three-person leadership team of Pegida UK, along with former British National Party and English Defence League member Tommy Robinson, and Paul Weston at the organisation’s relaunch.

‘Sharia Watch UK and the Metamorphosis of Ann Marie Waters’, Hillary Aked, Institute of Race Relations, January 21 2015


“In her speech, Waters linked Islam to child abuse, saying (16:08) ‘it’s all linked to Islam’, which she characterised as a dangerous ‘ideology’ being ‘appeased’, adding (17:45): ‘it is exactly the same appeasement that is allowing young girls to be raped in Britain, it’s got nothing to do with race, it’s got to do with the fact that we will not confront the misogyny at the very, very heart of this religion’.”

“Sharia Watch states that it works ‘to document the advancement of sharia law in Britain’. But much of its output attacks Islam in its entirety. Its articles range from the absurd (a conspiracy theory suggesting that halal meat is funding terrorism) to the deeply offensive, such as a piece entitled ‘Shariah and child abuse – is there a connection?‘, claiming that sharia law ‘stems from the justification of acts of physical and sexual violence of one man some 1,400 years ago.’

Articles appearing on its site include one  written by Sam Solomon, a key player in the UK’s anti-Muslim scene, and a guest post by Alan Craig of the right-wing Christian People’s Alliance, who campaigned against the building of a new mosque in East London. Despite these connections, and the fact that the activities of Sharia Watch UK have strong echoes of the English Defence League’s ‘creeping Sharia’ discourse and the hysteria in the US over the so-called ‘Ground Zero mosque‘ it has been granted a veneer of respectability by some.”

‘NSS council member and OLFA spokesperson continues to build links with EDL supporters’, Bob Pitt, Islamophobia Watch, October 1 2013

‘Anne Marie Waters finds some new admirers’, Bob Pitt, Islamophobia Watch, July 7 2013

‘Why I am proud to be in UKIP’, Anne Marie Waters, July 22 2014

IN PICTURES: Anti-Islamisation ‘PEGIDA’ Group Launches UK Chapter, Liam Deacon, Breitbart, 4 January 2016

Ann Marie Waters and Atheist Ireland

`Program for World Atheist Convention, Atheist Ireland, 2011

Michael Nugent (chair of Atheist Ireland) appears on a panel alongside Ann Marie Waters at the World Atheist Convention.

‘1,500 Women Speakers Worth Listening To’, MichaelNugent, August 29, 2012

Waters appears on a list of “women speakers worth listening to” compiled and published by Michael Nugent on his website.

‘Secular Sunday #68 – In Before the Bell’, Derek Walsh, 14 April 2013

Ann Marie Waters profiled by Atheist Ireland in their newsletter.

‘EWTS 2013 Ann Marie Waters on politics and campaigning’, Atheist Ireland Youtube Channel, 7 July 2013

Ann Marie Waters speaking at the Atheist-Ireland organised Empowering Women Through Secularism conference, on a panel that also featured Atheist Ireland Human Rights Officer Jane Donnelly.

Demythologising the rifts part 1 – the women in atheism panel at the World Atheist Convention in Dublin, MichaelNugent.com, October 20 2014

Ann Marie Waters is described as an “Irish campaigner for equality” in two locations in a piece written by Michael Nugent, published 5 months after she joined UKIP.

‘Atheist Ireland gives Taoiseach open letter on blasphemy law signed by Richard Dawkins and others’, Atheist Ireland, 11 February 2015

Ann Marie Waters appears (on behalf of Sharia Watch) as a signatory of Atheist Ireland’s open letter concerning Ireland’s blasphemy law.

Recent statements on Pegida

Opposing street thuggery in Dublin and incitement to violence, MichaelNugent.com, February 9 2016

In a piece containing zero criticism of Pegida, Michael Nugent comes out in opposition to the militant antifascist mobilisation against the organisation, which successfully prevented their demonstration from taking place.

‘Dublin Anarchist Bookfair breaks agreement with Atheist Ireland’, Atheist Ireland, 21 April 2016

An official statement by Atheist Ireland claims that Pegida violence is carried out by “the minority of violent people who attend the anti-immigration events of Pegida throughout Europe”.

Context here. In his latest response (link) Michael denies that he has supporters:

“Some people seem to think that I have ‘supporters’ on my blog. I don’t. People choose to comment on my blog based on their own agency. Sometimes they support things I say, sometimes not.”

According to this standard, people could only be said to be supporters of Michael if he was in some way in control of their minds, an absurd and implausible defence.

The below material largely speaks for itself and I encourage people to disseminate this information as widely as possible. I encourage those involved in Atheist Ireland who are concerned by my treatment to raise the matter internally within Atheist Ireland. A folder containing all of the screenshots I have taken relating to this situation can be found here: (link)

(My pronoun is ‘they’, the individuals below are aware of my trans status and correct pronoun)

Harassment on Slymepit.com

Note that tina, Shatterface and Steersman have been commenting persistently in Michael’s defence on his blog since this post.

1 2 3 4 5 6 7

(full size images here)

On MichaelNugent.com

Note that all of the below material remains on Michael’s website as of 16:00 22/02/16 Some of the more egregious material seems to have been deleted at some point in the last 24 hours, which would imply that the below has been read by Michael and remains on his site regardless.


1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9

Note: since Michael is fond of throwing around defamation threats, let me make clear from the outset that “support” in the title is intended in the sense of “provides material support”. I do not allege that Michael agrees with the hate speech he allows to be spread via his website. (dictionary definition)

He did

He did

On 15th Feb 2016, Atheist Ireland chairperson Michael Nugent published a piece titled “The outrageous smear that I am using homophobia to defend misogyny” (link) where he published publicly friends-only posts from the personal facebook page of queer writer Aoife Fitzgibbon O’Riordan. Aoife had described Michael’s reference (in a publicly available article) to a gay man (whom Aoife and I know personally) as having “flounced” away from the Atheist Ireland stand at the GPO as “dog-whistle homophobia”.

Against my better judgement, I entered the ensuing comment thread to defend Aoife’s (and the man who was the subject of the statement’s) characterisation of the usage of the term as homophobia. The argument is in the comment thread and I won’t add to it here except to say that Michael’s insistence that the characterisation of a statement as homophobic is only permissible if the person making the statement can be shown to have a generalised ideological hatred of LGBTQ people would render it impossible to name virtually any homophobic speech – i.e. speech that transmits or lends support to negative attitudes towards LGBTQ people – as homophobic (a state of affairs that would suit the likes of the Iona Institute, but should be intolerable to genuine progressives).

Eventually, one of Nugent’s supporters, having presumably decided to Google me, came across a post by anti-trans bigot Cathy Brennan on a site she uses to attempt to associate trans people and their supporters with rape and abuse where I am accused of “harassing feminists online” and posted the link in the thread. My explanation of the link as coming from Cathy Brennan prompted this (now deleted) comment:

2(full size image)

Cindy then attempted to post a series of links in support of the thesis that trans women are men who pretend to be women in order to gain access to women’s spaces and rape women and girls (see image at top of post) but these were caught in the website’s comment’s filter. She then made a number of comments (1 2) alluding to the transmisogynistic conspiracy theory that trans women use accusations of transphobia to try and force lesbians to have sex with them. A number of Nugent’s supporters in the thread proceeded to misgender me despite my already having stated that I am AMAB trans much earlier in the thread and despite my repeated assertions that I am not a man and don’t want to be called “dude”, (1 2 3 4)

I contacted Michael Nugent first via Twitter to make him aware that his website was being used to spread anti-trans hate speech:

I then emailed him with the same request to denounce the transphobia of his supporters and/or delete the comments:

email1(full size image)

Michael’s response was to do neither, but rather to publish the links provided by Cindy in support of her claims that trans women are rapists (1 2) which includes a slew of links to the anti-trans hatesite TransgenderReality. The only anti-trans post he deleted was the one I directly linked to him, claiming he would look over the comments tomorrow. At the time of writing all of the other anti-trans posts, including the links to the hatesite remain on his website.

He did, however, find the time to remove a number my posts referring to malicious false allegations made against me by Cathy Brennan, something I did not ask for and did not want. This would imply that Michael read all of the comments in the thread (how else would he have known which comments to delete?), decided to remove those that pertained to my experience of victimisation by a transmisogynstic bigot, but decided to leave in place those that contained hate speech directed at transgender people, while allowing to be published previously unpublished comments purportedly supporting claims that trans women are male rapists.

He emailed me back to say that he had done this and I replied to say that if he hadn’t the time to moderate the thread he should have left Cindy’s comments unpublished (at this point I had not yet deduced that he must in fact have read the thread and had no problem allowing hate speech to remain on his site):

email2(full size image)

Michael replied to say “Feel free to explain what you mean by a hate site, and how the links posted support that description, and I will take that into account.” Clearly this meant he was still online, had been alerted to the content of the comments he chose to publish, and declined a second opportunity to remove obvious unambiguous hate speech from his site:

email3(full size image)

Clearly then, Michael is aware that his site, a resource and platform that he controls, is being used to spread destructive lies about transgender women and has chosen to continue to make that platform available for the dissemination of those views. In other words, he has chosen to knowingly provide material support to transmisogyists. Why? Does Michael believe that the claim that trans women are male rapists could be anything other than a weaponised lie designed to make trans women’s lives less livable? How then can he claim an unimpeachable position as an LGBTQ ally that would allow him to speak over LGBTQ people and decide what does and does not constitute homophobia?

At least he likes my music though.

UPDATE 12:00 19/02/16: Michael has now written a blog post about me where he confirms he read the transmisogynistic comments, “spent an hour on the phone discussing [the thread]” and at the end of that concluded that the “allegation” that asserting that trans women are male rapists constitutes hate speech “required more serious reflection”. Again, why does Michael think this could be anything other than a lie designed to whip up hate, that it might potentially be a sincere legitimate contribution to public discourse? All of the hate speech and the links to the hatesite (which he made a positive  choice to publish) are still publicly visible on his site.