(ii) Performativity


The depths at which this social-defining-person process begins have been the focus of recent attention by the group of thinkers known as the post-feminists. They have asked questions such as: does one have, or must one be, a gender? Is gender a given, that comes with our bodies, or is it as much a social construction as our personalities? If gender is culturally constructed, are we free to wear our genders like sets of clothes, perhaps even changing and rearranging as we see fit, or are there forms of social determinism which close in upon us and restrict our movement?

Where in all this does the body, the 'clothes-horse' upon which our genders are inscribed, and within which our identities are said to reside, take on its meaning? If our Selves are indeed not 'located' in the body, but are constituted as dramatic effects of our interaction with the world, how much of these Selves is defined by the 'personal front' given off by the marks of our gender?

The most powerful arguments against the 'essentialist' view of gender, are in the history of sexuality, which has changed over the millenia, changing with it our understanding of precisely what it is to be a man, or a woman.


As Elin Diamond describes in the introduction to her book, Performance and Cultural Politics, "Performativity derives from A.L. Austin's concept of the performative utterance which does not refer to an extra-linguistic reality but rather enacts or produces that to which it refers."11 The concept, in short, suggests that, at least with reference to some cultural realities, 'doing' pre- exists 'being,' and that being, moreover, is something only observable in the 'doing.' This is profoundly anti- essentialist, putting aside once and for all the notion of an 'essential' self inside the body. Yet it goes further than constructionism, too. Specifically with reference to gender, "It's not just that gender is culturally determined and historically contingent, but rather that "it" doesn't exist unless it's being done."12

The theatrical metaphor behind performativity as a concept useful for cultural theorising reveals its real depth in the acknowledgement that each doing is a repetition, a reiteration, a well-rehearsed enunciation of something already written as a cultural code. The "act one does, the act that one performs is, in a sense, an act that has been going on before one arrived on the scene."13 Gender is both a doing and a thing done - a preexisting category. Deeper than any of Goffman's shared or common values, the working consensus which imputes a gender to the social actor defines for that performer the bedrock of his/her selfhood.


Performativity then describes a gender constructivism that entails the performed repetition of gender codes, as stipulated by cultural norms, and strips these codes of the very bodily substance they attempt to signify, reducing them literally to codes, whose very existence depends upon their repetition by the performers who are themselves defined by them. This in turn reflects upon the nature of the "I" who clearly neither 'has' nor 'is' but does gender. "In the sense that the 'I' has no interior secure ego or core identity, 'I' must always enunciate itself: there is only performance of a self, not an external representation of an interior truth."14

We stike up here against what Nietzsche defined as the 'metaphysics of substance.' Basically, all the psychological categories - the ego, the individual, the person - derive ultimately from what Nietzsche identifies as an illusion of substantial identity. This illusion is in turn derived from a belief in language, and, more precisely, in the truth of grammatical categories. "It was grammar," Michel Haar relates, in his commentary on Nietzsche, "the structure of subject and predicate, that inspired Descartes' certainty that 'I' is the subject of 'think,' whereas it is rather the thoughts that come to 'me': at bottom, faith in grammar simply conveys the will to be the 'cause' of one's thoughts. The subject, the self, the individual, are just so many false concepts, since they transform into substances fictitious unities having at the start only a linguistic reality."15

Freud's argument that "the ego is first and foremost a bodily ego,"16 is of nore here. As Butler takes it up, it is an 'imaginary morphology,' a body image of self which is the lived body, as opposed to the physical body. This morphologising takes place very early on - indeed the 'sexing' of the body at birth is the first step in the process, and every step thereafter is a reiteration of the norms of sex.

The construction of the individual, in short, is a continuous, interpenetrative, and never-culminating process. But where does all this lead? Butler analyses the limits of constructivism as a concept - how it is prone to fall either into a linguistic monism, "whereby everything is only and always language,"17 or into places where construction requires the agency of a constructor, viz "If gender is constructed, then who is doing the constructing." Her proposal is to return to the notion of matter, newly defined as "a process of materialisation that stabilises over time to produce the effect of boundary, fixity, and surface we call matter."18

The body, in this analysis, is marked off through a process of erasing, of selectivity, which, through persistent reiteration, becomes a boundary that is defined rather by what it is not, than by what it is. As Butler asserts, "there is no reference to a pure body which is not at the same time a further formation of that body."19 The sexing of the body - the very first act of life beyond (and even within) the womb - is also the delimiting of possibilities, the stamp of conformity. As Butler asserts, "To 'concede' the undeniability of 'sex' or its 'materiality' is always to concede some version of 'sex,' some formation of 'materiality.'"20


To what degree, then, if there is no 'I' behind that which 'I' perform, and if my performance is necessarily a repetition and reiteration of norms and formations that have gone before - to what extent can agency be said to exist at all? Is it indeed necessary to have the power of a Will for a 'performative utterance' to enact or produce that to which it refers, literally to name a phenomenon into being?

Derrida suggest that a performative utterance can only work if it repeats a coded or iterable utterance, "or in other words,...the formula I pronounce in order to open a meeting, launch a ship or a marriage," will succeed only to the degree that it is identifiable in some way as a "citation."21 The category of intention does not disappear, but it no longers commands the "entire scene and system of utterance." Butler takes this concept of citation as a reformulation of performativity, suggesting that our performances of sets of norms are perhaps better understood as citing the norms. She touches briefly upon Freud's argument that "the ego is first and foremost a bodily ego," which she describes as an 'imaginary morphology' - a body image of self which in itself is a citation of the norms of sex which gain their power as normative codes by that very citation. This critique returns us again to Nietzsche, particularly in his critique of the notion of God: "The power attributed to this prior and ideal power is derived and deflected from the attribution itself."22

Performativity, as citationality, elucidates for us a picture of an Identity morphologised, sexed and gendered by the interweaving of the many sets of norms and cultural codes of a particular time, into which it grows and which its existence is a citing of, a reiteration of. The very citing, the very reiteration and performance of these norms and codes is, furthermore, at the same time, the source of their power.

Identity in the Pre- and Post-Modern

Having established, then, some understanding of the culturally constructed nature of identity, it is clear that identity is historically contingent. The norms and codes of one historical period are not those of another. The people we are, and the cultural codes and norms that we cite, thereby defining who we are, are all in flux, continuously changing, shifting, moving. Historical epochs come and go and leave behind not just their relics but whole modes of being, whole modalities of identity.

Central to the discussion in this paper, is the mode of being of Modernity: the Individual Subject. In the following sections, we shall attempt to chart a way through the last four hundred years or so, seeking to understand the modes of being before, during, and after this phenomenon, looking for things akin to our own, late twentieth century modality.