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‘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.

“NOTHING can/will define me! Free to be EVERYTHING!!!”

Miley Cyrus

I wish to speak of something without knowing quite what it is. A disposition; a sensibility; a micropolitical strategy; a navigational heuristic; a performative absence; a forgetting, perhaps; a queer site of refusal and resistance; a creative potential; an experiment, a mode of living within, despite and against the regime of gender, which I’m going to call “gender nihilism”.

Gender nihilism designates a kind of radical agnosticism at the level of (gender) identity; a refusal of the injunction to know what one is, to objectify oneself as knowledge, and to make oneself known; a persistent “no comment” to the police who surround and suffuse us, and marshall against us a vast array of tactics – promises, threats, insults, lies, seductions, manipulations, forms of violence – to extract a confession. It names a possibility latent within any particular gender position: that of disidentification, of non-identification.

Silence too is performative.1 If gender is in some sense the effect of the repetition of gendered expressions, what is the effect of the repetition of a silence when the question of one’s gender is posed? It is not an escape. Norms continue to inscribe gendered meanings on the body, to produce modes of embodiment, and to act upon expression. One remains both a relay for and a product of gender as a form of power.2 It is more like a strike or an act of sabotage, a refusal to function as a site of production for a particular kind of knowledge and an effort to disrupt one’s normal functioning as a force of production.

There is nothing natural about having a gender. The shift from sovereignty – whose mode of action is necropolitical and whose instrument is law – to discipline – in which the fashioning and control of life (rather than consignment to death) becomes the primary concern of power, and the norm its instrument – as the dominant form of power required the expansion of modes of inquiry and knowledge production. Simply: that which is to be disciplined must be rendered intelligible to disciplinary powers; the norm must be defined and delimited and deviance understood in order to be corrected and eliminated. Gender, sex, sexuality are conceptual instruments of this form of power. The belief that one must have a gender, that is, that one must know oneself in gendered terms and be capable of transmitting that knowledge, that gender self-knowledge is a necessary condition for a livable life, and that the absence of such knowledge is a form of crisis, is a historical phenomenon and an effect of power. Gender nihilism is the lived refutation of that belief, the demonstration that life can be lived without such knowledge, and that such a life can flourish.

If the disciplinary society aimed at the elimination of troublesome difference through institutional power, the new capitalism, the society of control, produces a fresh twist on the politics of intelligibility. Control is interested not in the elimination of difference but in its assimilation, the recuperation and reincorporation of renegades into the market, the state, the family and so on by adding additional axioms which conditionally and selectively allow access to the norm. Homosexuality no longer requires a cure, rather the marriage norm is expanded to include gays who conform to certain norms of acceptable difference, while the rest are further abjected. Disciplinary power is tactile and direct, control is remote and abstract. It effects biopolitical control through the modulation of differential access to markets, food, shelter, recognition, rights, protections.

If the assertion of abjected identities, and the hybridisation and invention of new identities directly confronted disciplinary power, such gestures are increasingly incorporated by new forms of control. The assertion of identity becomes the means by which a population delimits itself and renders itself intelligible to power and begins a trajectory of assimilation which assigns it a place within marketing strategies, state institutions, culture and social life.3 It thereby structures oppositional politics according to a logic of recognition, drawing renegade flows back toward the state and the reproduction of the present.

Gender nihilism is disinterested in recognition. Recognition is always “recognition as…” and therefore remains always conditional: “I recognise you as…” is always conditional on a prior identification, always implies a “because you are…”, and always retains the possibility that recognition will be withdrawn if you become something else. The power of recognition is also simultaneously the power of misrecognition and non-recognition, and the goal of recognition, whether demanded or asked for, exposes one permanently to these forms of violence. However forcefully we assert “I am…”, we remain vulnerable to “You are not…”, “You are instead…”4

Gender nihilism has no positive content. In itself it does not prescribe or recommend any particular way of being in the world. It makes no claims about what it is. If identification is drawing a circle in the sand saying “here are the things I am, there are the things I am not”, gender nihilism simply lets the circle be washed away by the waves. The gender nihilist is therefore indifferent to the names they are called and the genders they signify.* Gender nihilism opens the entire space of gendered possibility as a terrain for exploration, but does not replace fidelity to an identity with fidelity to an ethics of exploration. One can stay where one is just as surely as one can set off at a sprint. In this sense it is less a nomadism than a homelessness.5 It opens up gender as a space of play, or of combat, without mandating either. It’s mode of address is “you can…” – “you should…” and “you must…” only emerge when other components are bolted on. It is futural in the sense that it refuses the conception of historicity that grounds identity (“I am what I always have been”) which is always in any case a founding myth, a constantly reworked fiction that establishes continuity with the past. Gender nihilism is at ease with rupture. It allows us to treat our histories as a resource, an archive of past styles, ways of living, memories, experiences, beliefs to be reworked and refashioned in any way desired, but is not innately a postmodernist, or futurist, or accelerationist disposition towards novelty or innovation.

Gender nihilism is political but it is not a politics. It is queer by definition, but proposes no ideal queerness, nor any queer horizon towards which to direct itself. It is a negation that doesn’t presuppose some future dialectical turn. Clearly it is in various ways a marginal and precarious position and thus its structural position pushes towards certain forms of alliance, and indeed may in itself open unique political possibilites. In this sense gender nihilism may be a valuable conceptual component in a political assemblage, but one ambivalent to the particular political projects it connects with.6


1 One stock example of performativity is the “I do” of a wedding ceremony. Consider how the same ceremony also incorporates a performative silence to sanction the legality of the marriage: the moment after “speak now or forever hold your peace”.

2 A question arises here: if we assert that gender cannot be escaped, are we not legislating against the identities of those who claim for themselves a position outside of the gender binary, or outside of gender as such – those who call themselves agender, non-binary, or third gender, for example? This, I think, is a problem that arises in all forms of gender identification, which I call the problem of ‘lived ontology’. That is: any particular assertion of gender identity involves claims about what kind of genders can exist and which cannot, whose implications extend beyond the self to the whole social body. For example, a trans person’s insistence that their anatomy does not dictate their gender troubles the gender of a cis person who understands their gender as grounded in biological fact, while in turn forms of lived gender fluidity trouble some trans people’s understanding of their lived gender as grounded in fixed interior truth. The various forms of gender identity in the world are mutually incoherent, and in some cases mutually canceling. This should not be seen as a problem, rather we should seek to understand the ways that a variety of mutually incompatible forms of gender dissidence each open up their own spaces of freedom and effect their own disruptions of the gender regime. I intend to return to this topic in a more systematic way in the future, but provisionally we can say that all genders are in some sense impossible, and that the extension of recognition despite or even because of that impossibility is one of the ways in which we can collaborate and support one-another to performatively open up possibilities that are barred by gender norms.

3 Of course, this process is not inevitable. Identity categories can be queered and re-queered to resist assimilation. And identity-based movements can exceed containment and threaten power. My aim here is not to proscribe identification, but to question its necessity and sketch an alternative.

4 This condition is perhaps never fully escapable. As social beings we are always minimally vulnerable. We never fully control how we are affected by the names we are called. In this sense perhaps gender nihilism designates a horizon rather than an actuality. In any case, it is certainly not a delusion of invulnerability.

5 My point is not that a nomad ethics is not desirable (I think it is, and there is clearly an affinity or compatibility between the two), simply that this question is external to the proposition of gender nihilism.

6 Indeed I write this in part because I am convinced of the political value of nihilism both as a point to pass through and as a position to act from, but that’s another essay.

* EDIT 11/11/15 The struck-out sentence is one I no longer endorses since it prescribes indifference as an ideal way of living queerness – prescisely the kind of prescriptivism this text seeks to escape. I have struck it out because, while I feel it can safely be removed from the text without loss of coherence, I don’t believe in simply deleting problematic/contentious mistakes so it appears as if I never said them.