Performative identities: From identity politics to queer theory

  • Chinn S
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For gay men and lesbians who had courageously held onto their sexual autonomy despite a crushing psychiatric and social consensus that condemned them as sick and perverse, the idea that their deeply felt desires were ‘no more’ than discursive formations struck them as a diminution of their core selves. For theorists of performativity, by contrast, Butler's book seemed like a way out of dead-end arguments about what ‘made’ people gay: indeed, her acknowledgment that all identities were constructed and could, however subtly, change over time was taken as a sign that things do not have to be the way they are, that there is the possibility of a more flexible, varied, and just way (or ways) that gender and sexuality can be expressed. By contrast, Derrida claimed that performatives seem self-evident and self-referential because speech acts are by nature reiterative. That is, they conform to a pre-existing model that can, in fact must, be cited in order to make sense, and that exists outside of its performers and witnesses. (Derrida claims that this iterable citation is, in fact, the defining characteristic of all language, but that's a whole other story.) More importantly, these conventions have no origin except in themselves; the citation of performative speech, rather than being the result of commonly held understandings of what speech acts do, in fact produce those understandings. Ultimately, then, when we utter performative speech acts we are not acting with full or even conscious intention within a given context, but instead constructing the context through our citation of the utterance. But what Derrida does not explain is what these iterable events actually mean in terms of cultural practice: who says them, and about whom, with what results. While he takes for granted that language is citational and performative language plays out that citationality in particularly sharp relief he does not explore where the assumption of the models to be cited comes from, or why people feel so unselfconscious performing them. Why do we cite some utterances and not others? Why are some contexts produced by the practice of reiteration rather than other contexts? Althusser theorized that there must be social mechanisms that teach everyone to agree to their own domination by capitalism, to consider it not just acceptable or even a virtue, but self-evident and inevitable, something that one would have to be crazy or evil not to accept as true. Those mechanisms operate through ideology. Ideology's power lies in its ubiquity. For Althusser ‘children at school learn the rules of good behaviour … rules of morality, civic, and professional conscience’ (1971: 132), but these rules, while masquerading as universal, are actually created by and intrinsic to bourgeois hegemony Foucault believed that sexual identities as we inhabit them today ‘gay’, ‘heterosexual’, ‘bisexual’, ‘homosexual’, ‘lesbian’, and so on are not fixed or ‘natural’, but rather are a product of the interlocking systems of power that form subjectivity. In other words, in order to be a subject one has to ‘have’ a sexuality, something that makes an specific set of identities out of a collection of sexual practices, desires, and partnerings. After all, only some practices [p. 110 ↓]get attached to identities, mostly in connection to the gender of the partners; other practices are just ‘preferences’. Part of the work of these discourses of sexuality is to seem self-evident and natural as well as compulsory. [Note - do practices of learning mathematics similarly get attached to identities?] But if gender is not an identity that is, a set of attributes and behaviors that belong to a certain kind of person, whether by nature or by training what is it? Drawing explicitly on the groundwork laid down by Austin and Derrida, Butler claimed that gender was an embodied act in the same way that performative language is a speech act. Gender is performative. The greatest irony inherent to this insight is that built into this process of citation and reiteration is the continual threat indeed, the ongoing reality of our failure to fully and completely achieve what gender demands. In large part, this is intrinsic to performativity itself: if we are endlessly copying something that has no original, no wonder we feel insecure about the authenticity of our performance. But another element is that gender's failure is inscribed into its performance, very much as for Foucault resistance is a constitutive and inevitable part of the exercise of power.

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  • Sarah E. Chinn

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