Performative doesn’t mean performed

‘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.

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