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--Butler's performativity

Judith Butler’s Bodies that Matter deals largely with interrogating notions of femininity and queer and the association of those terms with materiality. In a move that some might see as unnecessary, Butler retraces materiality to its humble ”origins” in both the Latin and Greek senses. She writes, “The classical configuration of matter as a site of generation or origination becomes especially significant when the account of what an object is and means requires recourse to its originating principle” (p. 31). She argues that matter, when not associated with reproduction, is generally linked to origination and causality. To talk of matter is to locate the substances of which any physical object consists or is composed. These substances themselves assume a history and a form. Matter is itself composed of matter. As Charles Peirce conceives it, “[a]ll inspired matter has been subject to human distortion or coloring” (p. 59). The point that Peirce is trying to make pertains more directly to the doctrine of fallibilism, which neither affirms nor denies that “men cannot attain a sure knowledge of the creations of their own minds,” and “only says that people cannot attain absolute certainty concerning questions of fact” (p. 61). For Peirce, there is no room for conservatism in science, only room for a “radicalism that tries experiments.” According to Butler, Marx understood matter “as a principle of transformation, presuming and inducing a future,” and Aristotle conceived of matter as “potentiality [dynameos], form actuality” (p. 31). For all of these figures, matter itself is not an absolute certainty but is, however, invested with a “certain capacity to originate and compose,” which leads to intelligibility, a particular reading of that matter. Butler further proposes that matter is “clearly defined by a certain power of creation and rationality,” so that to know the "significance of something is to know how and why it matters, where ‘to matter’ means at once ‘to materialize’ and ‘to mean’” (p. 32). If the body then is clearly matter, how that body comes to materialize, mean, or matter is contingent on its origination, its transformation, its potentiality. The body’s intelligibility therefore is not a given but is produced. Butler identifies the production of this intelligible body at the site of performativity or “specific modality of power as discourse.”

Of performativity, Butler writes:

For discourse to materialize a set of effects, “discourse” itself must be understood as complex and convergent chains in which “effects” are vectors of power. In this sense, what is constituted in discourse is not fixed in or by discourse, but becomes the condition and occasion for further action. This does not mean that any action is possible on the basis of a discursive effect. On the contrary, certain reiterative chains of discursive production are barely legible as reiterations, for the effects they have materialized are those without which no bearing in discourse can be taken. (p. 187).

Butler wants to avoid any misreadings of performativity as “willful” and “arbitrary” by arguing forcefully that domains of intelligibility are bound with effects, that “historicity of discourse” and “historicity of norms . . . constitute the power of discourse to enact what it names” (p. 187). Hence, the normalization of the material depends largely on reiteration but also exclusion. Similar to Austin’s perlocutionary and illocutionary force of the performative, Butler’s performativity works through a normative force, the practice of reiteration. Exclusions, on the other hand, “haunt signification as its abject borders or as that which is strictly foreclosed: the unlivable, the nonnarrativizable, the traumatic” (p. 188). According to Butler, identity categories are troubled by its impossibility to fully establish an identity contingent on both reiteration and exclusion. While she sees performativity as a potential to “open the signifiers to new meanings and new possibilities for political resignification,” one could also view her project as an indispensable tool, insofar as it allows us not only to envision a futurity, but also locate that which challenges new possibilities.

The set of sequenced assignments I have developed encourages my students to open signifiers to new meanings and new possibilities in a space where they might find relations to the world and its inhabitants or to locate a “difference of force.” In its inchoate stage, the Internet is precisely one of these spaces, I believe.