Gender is performative, which is what that means


The American philosopher Judith Butler takes the term performativity from John L. Austin's speech act theory. According to Austin (On the Theory of Speech Acts; 1972) performative utterances are illocutionary acts, i.e. speech acts with which a certain action is carried out at the same time (from to perform = to perform something). Examples of performative utterances are "I apologize", "I hereby baptize you in your name ..." or "I promise you ...", whereby the act of apology, baptism or a promise is performed in each case. With Austin, these utterances derive their power to perform an action from the fact that they refer to existing conventions. Beyond the mere designation of things, performative speech acts generate material effects, that is, they create something at the moment in which they designate it.

In Gender Trouble (1991) Butler develops the concept of the performative in relation to sex and gender further. Butler assumes that identity categories such as “woman” are not neutral descriptions or even natural categories. They are to be understood as normative social statements, since they describe what they produce at the same time. This performative production of gender begins with the exclamation or invocation of the midwife at the time of the birth, “It is a girl”. Through this “invocation” (butler Louis Althusser borrows this term) the gender is only established at that moment. A constantly repeated invocation as a girl or woman then solidifies this identity
constantly anew. “In what sense is gender identity an act? Similar to other ritual social stagings, the drama of gender identity requires repetitive performance. […] We must not constitute gender identity as a fixed identity or the locus [place] of activity from which the various acts emerge. Rather, it is an identity that is constituted by the stylized repetition of the acts in time or is instituted in the external space. "(Butler 1991: 206; italics) Accordingly, there is no natural connection between the sound image (signifier)" woman " and the associated idea (signified) "woman".

Meanings are subject to endless cultural change and displacement processes that had and will have different meanings depending on the historical context. These meanings are constituted within the language (see post-structuralism). This is what Butler calls the performativity of gender. It assumes that discursive processes (see discourse) produce and materialize gender in the first place (for Butler, materialization means the historically specific appearance of gender). A system of heterosexual bisexuality is permanently created and thereby simultaneously fixed and materialized. This creation of identities within a heteronormative bisexuality goes hand in hand with the processes of discarding deviating identities. These rejected identities become the non-intelligible (not understandable by reason) other, the constitutive outside. The constitutive outside limits what is “livable” and creates a space for rejection, so what is rejected in the hegemonic conception as not “livable”. This constitutive outside can only create the inside through the demarcation and by setting it apart from the outside. In the demarcation from the other lies the possibility of one's own coherent identity and normality.

In this understanding, homosexuality becomes e.g. the other of heterosexuality and to delimit it to assure heterosexuality and its normality and naturalness. In Gender Trouble, Butler also discusses subversive strategies in the form of misappropriations and parodies, as she sees constant repetition as an opportunity to create breaks with the context, since repetitions can never be exactly repeated (see poststructuralism). It is precisely the break with the context (the idea of ​​the break with the context takes it from Jacques Derrida) that is decisive for a political strategy of performative utterances.
"I would even like to claim that precisely in the fact that the ruling authorized discourse can be expropriated, there is a possibility of its subversive resignification." (Butler 2006: 246; italics i.O.)

Butler, Judith (1991): The Discomfort of the Sexes.
Butler, Judith (2006): Hatred Speaks. On the politics of the performative.

As a first step, Hannelore Bublitz's introduction to Butler (2002) is easily accessible.

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2 responses to "performativity"

  1. The theories of Austin and Butler are greatly simplified in this text and are therefore also partially falsified. Austin, for example, describes every speech act as performative, be it locutionary, illocutionary or perlocutionary. The references in the above text also leave a lot to be desired. I recommend E. Fischer -Lichte for reading, even if there are also deficiencies in the accuracy of what is described. The best thing to do is to read the philosophers themselves right away, because you at least get some of your reading time ...

  2. I am not a butler specialist, but I am an expert on the Austin factory. What is in the text about Austin is incorrect in crucial places. “Beyond the mere designation of things, performative speech acts produce material effects, that is, they produce something at the moment they designate it.” The term “material effect” does not belong to the vocabulary of Austin speech act theory (nor does it by Searle). Perlocutionary acts are performed with some speech acts. These effects can be cognitive, emotional, or practical. I can do the illocutionary act of threatening and thereby perform the perlocutionary act of intimidation. None of this has anything to do with “designate”. According to Austin, designation belongs to the rhetical act. In the rhetical act (= part of the locutionary act) the linguistic means of the phonetic and phatic act are used with "sense" and "meaning" (Frege's phrase), i.e. with reference to things. The notion that the locutionary act or one of its sub-acts in some way produces the things or references that they designate is alien to speech act theory. Here something that belongs only to the perlocutionary act is ascribed to the locutionary act.