Developed originally in literary theory, performativity is a rhetorical device for thinking about the way in which identity is produced (Hubbard, Kitchin, Valentine,2004 pp.348, glossary).Beside the fact it is used as a device for thinking about the production of identity, is it also one of the Post-structuralist strategies. The meaning of the term performativity can be partly derived from the word itself. The verb ‘to perform’ is the base of the word and is an important concept in performativity itself. It is important not to be confused with the term performance. Performance is something a person does while performativity is the process through which the person emerges. It implies a form of human agency. It is closely connected to a concept such as speech act and has been used by a number of well known social scientists such as Jacques Derrida, Felman and Butler. The basic concept however has been developed by Austin.
Geographers have been identified to use the term 'performativity' in three ways, namely:
i) to refer to practices, such as music and dance,
ii) within studies made of scripted performances demanded by/in particular workplaces,
iii) performative utterances such as 'I pronounce you...' are seen as acts that perform the action it refers to. (Johnston, Gregory, Pratt & Watts, 2000, pp.578)
Performativity can be placed as one of the strategies within the post-structuralist view of looking at knowledge and society. Given that post-structuralism embraces the constitutive power of discourse as one of its core values, the performativity analysis highlights the very nature of discourse as performative. (Gibson and Graham, 2000)
Butler describes performativity as: “…that reiterative power of discourse to produce the phenomena that it regulates and constrains.”. In other words: Discourse, the way we think, talk and act at length about a certain theme or subject, is not just representational and descriptive. No, it also repetitively ‘performs’ in a way that creates and shapes human agency and thinking. And recognising this performativity of discourse, as Butler points (Gibson and Graham, 2000, pp.104), is recognising its power to " produce the effects that it names". For example, Butler uses the expression 'It's a girl' to explain this. When a doctor says to a mother after giving birth 'it's a girl' it's not just descriptive, it is performing. Saying this reasserts the effect that the mother will take care of a 'girl' instead of a 'boy'.
Another simple definition of performativity is provided by Gill Valentine (2001, pp.345 glossary) as "The notion that identity is produced through the repetition of particular acts within a regulatory framework".
Judith Butler's performativity
Butler is probably the most well known social scientist to have extensively worked with the concept of performativity. She uses the idea in her research about gender. Geographers have been drawn to her concept of performativity as a model for thinking about sexual and gender identities. Her highly debated argument is that gender should not be seen as something biologically fixed but moreover as something that is constructed and reconstructed in the moment of performance. At the same time, gender performances are not freely chosen according to Butler, but rather the norms of compulsory heterosexuality dictate that the subject cannot exist outside gender (Johnston, Gregory, Pratt & Watts, 2000, pp.578).
Butler ‘deconstructs’ the binary system of gender (male vs. female) by claiming that gendering is a cultural process. A process in which the actors (we) continually perform an act to establish and live up to the idea or ideal of masculinity and/or femininity in our environment. She argues that since we never quite inhabit this ideal there is room for disidentification and human agency.
Butler's concept of performativity not only provides a model for thinking about language but also social processes more generally (Johnston, Gregory, Pratt & Watts, 2000, pp.578). In acting out our actions we are performing and therefore producing phenomena, reiterating the power of both agency and discourse at the same time.
An example of the concept performativity that makes the whole idea clear in an instand and that also is used often in other literature to make clear what performativity is about, is that of a judge condemning someone to a prison sentence. When he does so, he says the simple words: "We found the suspect guilty and therefore sentence him to five years imprisonment." What this means in a performative sense, is that the judge uses his power to put someone in prison for some time. By saying these words, the life of the "suspect" changes in a dramatic way.
A more geographic example is when someone "uses his power" to claim a piece of land, a piece of space, as his own. Such a statement of ownership is also something radical and it could have all kinds of concequences. But it all started with a few simple words.
- Gibson and Graham, 2000, post structural interventions
- Cameron, D. & Kulick, D. (2006). The language and sexuality reader. Oxon: Routledge.
- Hubbard, Phil., Kitchin, Rob., Valentine, Gill. (2004) Key Thinkers on Space and Place. Sage. London.
- Johnston, R.J., Gregory, Derek, Pratt, Geraldine, Watts, Michael (eds.), (2000), The Dictionary of Human Geography, 4th edition, Blackwell, USA
- Valentine, Gill (2001), Social Geographies: Space & Society, Pearson Education Limited, England
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