#2. Understanding the Butlerian Notion of Performativity

The (gender) performativity is commonly misinterpreted as synonymous with ‘performance’ or ‘theatre’, which presupposes a notion of an autonomous and natural body. On the contrary, performativity reflects a notion of the discursively social-constructed body that indicates to a reiteration of a range of bodily acts that conform to the normative discourse generated by the repetitive discipline of the hegemonic discourse through its resignification. More specifically, (gender) performativity is by no means autonomous acting of the body; it is not a category of acts that are conducted by the body which is perceptible and has an efficacy of self-selection and self-determination as the position of a ‘naturalised body’ is related to a self-governing, self-unifying aspect of the subject. The ‘natural body’ is a naturalised effect of societal discourses — a body as the signified which is a result of the discursive and linguistic construction by a variety of performative utterances that within the existing patriarchal society. For gender performativity, the gender is not derived from what the body itself is; instead, it is proffered by what is inflicted on the body. In order to carry out a subsequent series of research concerns with sex-gender issues related to the body, this short essay intends to paraphrase Judith Butler’s constructive addressing on the discursively constructed subject and its bodily style.

Certain of post-structural theorists (such as Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault) deprived the comprehensive function of Hegel’s dialectics, viewing it as a process of continual negation, ceaselessly seeking for others and never seizing the satisfaction of desire. After the absolute ultimate telos has been abandoned, the Hegelian subject is no longer placed in the internal relationship, nor a phased progression onward a straight line. The subject is deposited continuously elsewhere, continually recognising and denying itself within the process of division and displacement, which its series of ‘selves’ are sustained in the relationship with ‘alterity’. As Jean-Paul Sartre declares: “using ‘exist’ as a transitive verb-that consciousness exists its body.” (Sartre, 2013: 329); the body is the result of the effect and action of consciousness, Sartre’s ‘consciousness’ here should be comprehended as exteriority, which is closer to Lacan’s interpretation of “the unconscious is structured like a language.” (For Lacan, ‘alterity’ is the discourse of the Other; in Derrida’s view of ‘exteriority’, it originates from the irreducible differences inside the symbol; for Foucault, ‘exteriority’ is the historical accumulation of power-discourse). Through the semiotic/linguistic description of ‘exteriority’ and a Saussurian structuralist style of presentation, Judith Butler also appealed the origin of the formation of the subject to the social and cultural system that represented by the structure of the linguistic symbol — “The turn from Hegel to semiology thus casts the discourse on difference permanently outside the framework of internal relations; the exteriority of the signified can never be reappropriated, and language itself becomes the negative proof of this finally inaccessible exteriority” (Butler, 1987: 179). The signifier is only the effect of the signifier instead of the cause, the constructed subject by the signification of discourse is only an agency or the agency of an agency — the process of ‘become’ of the subject is passive, that is, the subject is constructed by cultural symbols. Exploring objects and their composition through the signification function of symbols not only avoids natural physical objectivism but also avoids the plight of solipsism. However, the introduction of semiotics is not to resolve the epistemological intricacy, but to examine how the subject is constructed and how the symbols function in the construction process. The initiative in construction is attributed to the linguistic symbol, in that the signification function of the symbol is derived from the difference within the symbol system rather than rely upon the signifier or the reference to the symbol; the emphasis on the signification ability and construction capacity regarding the symbol makes it become a productive discourse that is integrated with the operation of power. Besides, as for the etymology of ‘performativity’, Butler also cites J. L. Austin’s theory of performative (utterance) acts to proves that the subject of gender is formed by discourse and is not a static fact existing in advance and awaiting verbal description.

Thus, the constructiveness of ‘performativity’ is the discursive practice in which the performative utterance (perlocutionary act) establishes or produces the object it names. What needs illustration is that the performativity is by no means an “efficacious expression of a human will in language” (2011: 139), instead the signification function of utterances as ‘alterity’ in which as the reiterated citation of the entire normative discourse system, “the understanding of performativity not as the act by which a subject brings into being what she/he names, but, rather, as that reiterative power of discourse to produce the phenomena that it regulates and constrains” (2011: xii). Since the subject is only an empty place to acquire sociocultural construction and anticipate language to permeate, the constructed subject can only be embodied in the surface of the body in a concrete schema, “through a stylised repetition of acts. The effect of gender is produced through the stylisation of the body and, hence, must be understood as the mundane way in which bodily gestures, movements, and styles of various kinds constitute the illusion of an abiding gendered self” (2006: 191).

Regarding the stylised representation of the bodily construction, Butler analysed the meaning of ‘inscription’ in Foucault’s ‘the model of the bodily cultural inscription’ in order to strengthen the thoroughness of her concept of body construction. According to Butler, “inscription” indicates the origin of the stylised body which is the discourse/power inscribes itself on the surface of the body through events, whereby the surface of the stylised body is a ‘text’. Notwithstanding, there might be a paradox of body inside Foucault’s inscription model, “Although Foucault appears to argue that the body does not exist outside the terms of its cultural inscription, it seems that the very mechanism of “inscription” implies a power that is necessarily external to the body itself.” (1989: 603), hence, no matter how to grasp the “inscription”, this mechanism is easy to elicit, “constructed” or “inscribed” body has an ontological status apart from that inscription, precisely the claim that Foucault wants to refute.” (1989: 603). The constructed body does not mean the presupposition of a pure material body as a carrier or correlate to a ‘whiteboard’ enduring subsequent cultural inscriptions on the time series. Correspondingly, the construction is not Zeus’s ‘inscription’ to Pandora, which supplements radiant styles to a mass of earth. Gender performativity is not the cultural representation of a naturalised body, nor a casting of discourse upon the pre-discourse body, but as a discursive production of repetitive disciplined practices.





Reference List:

Butler, J. (1987). Subjects of Desire: Hegelian Reflections in Twentieth-century France. New York: Columbia University Press.

Butler, J. (1989). “Foucault and the Paradox of Bodily Inscriptions” in The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 86(11), pp.601–607.

Butler, J. (2006). Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (3rd ed.]. ed., Routledge classics). New York: Routledge.

Butler, J. (2011). Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex” (Routledge Classics). London: Routledge.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. (2013). Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology (Routledge Classics). London: Routledge.