Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly, by Judith Butler

Book of the week: A shared sense of precarity is at the heart of recent disparate mass protests, says Mary Evans

December 10, 2015
Crowd of 'End Austerity Now' demonstrators
Source: Michael Candelori

The publisher’s notes for Judith Butler’s latest work call it “her most political book to date”. In one sense that description is apt, since the eminent philosopher and gender theorist is here engaging with the public assembly politics of the past decade: anti-precarity demonstrations, the Arab Spring, the Occupy movement and, most recently, the protests in Ferguson, Missouri in the wake of the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, a black man, by a white police officer.

As the book’s title makes clear, Butler’s discussion of these events draws on the theory of “performativity”, for which she is known. That concept – which articulates the ways in which, through the repetition of specific forms of behaviour and speech acts, individuals come to be (and endlessly reinforce) themselves – allows her to consider the way in which mass protests may suggest new political possibilities. Such forms of assembly, she says, “already signify”, before and apart from the demands that participants make: “showing up, standing, breathing, moving, standing still, speech, and silence are all aspects of a sudden assembly…that puts livable life at the forefront of politics”.

All the events that Butler considers here, in a volume that presents her 2011 Mary Flexner Lectures given at Bryn Mawr College, have involved large numbers of people coming together to make visible and audible their horror at some (or all) aspects of the status quo, and to make evident their aspirations for various forms of social and political change. In each of the book’s six chapters, her starting point is the thesis that people acting in concert “can be an embodied form of calling into question the inchoate and powerful dimensions of reigning notions of the political”, as protesters “make manifest the understanding that a situation is shared”. But it is not this observation that supports the publisher’s claim for the political nature of this book; rather, it is in the clarity with which Butler condemns the precarious conditions in which millions of people live their lives. This is an analysis in the tradition of powerful and passionate condemnations of slavery, child labour and poverty, traditions that should be as much a feature of our present as of the past.

So in that sense, Butler’s book is everything that a book about our planet in the 21st century should be. It does not turn its back on the circumstances of the material world or give any succour to those who wish to view the present (and the future) through the lens of fantasies about the transformative possibilities offered by conventional politics. Butler has the courage to acknowledge precarity in all its forms and its many corrosive effects, among them the disappearance or diminution of various kinds of state support, such as that for higher education, and the violence and hostility provoked by what are perceived to be unconventional sexual choices. There are, as Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly makes clear, more than enough contemporary illustrations of the hideous energy of interpersonal hatreds and vicious institutional sanctions.

In citing such material, Butler demonstrates a clear engagement with an aspect of the world that is becoming in many political contexts almost illicit to discuss: the idea that capitalism, certainly in its neoliberal form, is failing to provide a liveable life for the majority of human beings. The rhetorical question that Butler asks at the conclusion to her introduction – of how we might act together when we live in worlds in which so many forms of solidarity are diminishing – is a central question for politics throughout the world. Although she notes that not all public demonstrations share her own politics, she does not take the further step of recording the forms of rhetorical coincidence shared by mass movements with very different politics. Terms such as “freedom”, “change” and “progress” are often used by those whose interpretation of the problematic word “radical” is very different from Butler’s, and mass public assemblies are deployed by the anti-immigrant group Pegida as well as by Black Lives Matter. Instead, Butler assigns the responsibility for distinguishing between various forms of public assembly to the quotidian world of social and legal historians.

There are two key questions that this book provokes. The first is the age-old one, “what is to be done?”; the second is the no less complex question of how to understand the various forms of cultural energy that the modern world can create in relationship to the very drama of politics itself.

With respect to the first question, it is here that the work that Butler invites cultural and legal historians to do will be crucial in identifying the central aims of mass public demonstrations. Locating the similarities between, let us say, the Occupy movement and the Arab Spring demands both that we record the particularity of each event and at the same time take forward Butler’s views on public assemblies in which people are “exercising a plural and performative right to appear”. Butler herself notes that defining both these movements’ demonstrations as calls for democracy does not necessarily take the building of a subsequent politics very much further. It is only when we start to ask highly specific questions about both Occupy and the Arab Spring that we start to see not only the immensity of the issues the protesters raise, but also the scale of the opposition to them. In both cases, there are oppositional forces – the military, the police, sections of the media – that are hugely powerful. Speaking truth to power is one thing; steadfastly maintaining a collective presence in the face of punitive and sometimes life-threatening attacks targeting individuals or groups is another.

The issue of those individuals who become the focus of state power takes us to the second point: the way in which we have become habituated, in the modern world, to what John Jervis has described as “sensational subjects”. These subjects, who may be “the terrorist” or indeed any media figure, are the people through whom our politics and our daily lives are very often presented. This focus obscures much that is important about the social world and becomes emblematic of a refusal to engage with the complexity of contemporary events. Having said that, the tangled knot of politics in the 21st century demonstrates that the very culture of sensation that so often has links to the repressive and the coercive may also have more positive aspects. The apparent goodwill that has accompanied high-profile cases of transgendering, for example, suggests that collective attitudes to the body and its possibilities can, in certain circumstances, be tolerant. Those transformed bodies speak for individual choice (a much heralded aspect of neoliberalism), but they also speak, as Butler suggests, for the principle of the equality of being able to choose. If that principle can then be enlarged to other areas of human existence, it becomes the principle through which people establish other claims.

The building of political movements representing the shared aspirations of millions of people who wish to have politics serve the interests of the many rather than the few must take that first step of accepting our shared human vulnerability. Butler – and Bryan Turner before her – have taken and set out this considerable and crucial point. As forms of work are increasingly individualised and support for secure lives is eroded, the means for resistance to this tsunami of potential general impoverishment must find both a form and a location where it can begin to be effective. In this book, Butler does a great deal to assist in developing ideas about that location. We have to consider the performative politics of assembly as opening up – if only implicitly – the way in which we must join forces to voice a morality that decries the creation and toleration of vulnerability, and to bring about an acceptance of the needs of all bodies, whatever their human forms.

Mary Evans is centennial professor in the Gender Institute, London School of Economics.

Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly
By Judith Butler
Harvard University Press, 256pp, £21.95
ISBN 9780674967755
Published 26 November 2015

The author

Author Judith ButlerJudith Butler, Maxine Elliot professor of comparative literature and critical theory at the University of California, Berkeley, lives in Berkeley “with Wendy Brown, the political theorist, and we have a son, Isaac Butler-Brown, a musician studying at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. There are a few other creatures as well that come and go as they please.”

She was born in Cleveland, Ohio, and “raised in a household where there was a great deal of debate, where we were asked to define our terms, and check books to make sure we had our arguments right. Sometimes what happens in a small group can give some insight into politics. Debate and gathering can characterise intimate groups and large parliamentary assemblies. It is unclear to me how we make our way politically without being able to exercise these freedoms.”

As a child, Butler “was always in an independent study with teachers and rabbis starting at age 13. I loved literature and philosophy, existential theology, and radical Left politics. My rabbi supported me by challenging me. In some ways he taught me how to read.”

Her undergraduate studies were undertaken at Bennington College in Vermont and then Yale University. “I think I was intense and argumentative, but also very studious. I loved learning and felt myself to be lucky beyond belief to be able to dedicate myself to the life of the mind. I was an activist as well, but the life of the mind remained, and remains, my anchor.”

When she is asked by someone – say, a taxi driver – what she does for a living, what is her response?

“I say I am a professor, that I teach literature and philosophy, feminist and gender studies, and if they ask me what I am working in, I usually talk about non-violence. Everyone has a view about non-violence, since even the most principled defenders of non-violence usually admit to some exceptions. It leads to a broader discussion, and I can end up learning a great deal from my interlocutor. Everyone has views. Everyone is a theorist.”

Does she believe that a presidential victory for Hillary Clinton would be a positive thing for the US, beyond the specifics of the Democratic frontrunner’s policies?

“If you are asking me whether having a woman as head of state is a great breakthrough for feminism, I have to say that I am not so sure that ‘being a woman’ is enough for a feminist victory. Hillary Clinton is a feminist, to be sure, but what kind? My sense is that feminism has to be engaged in an unrelenting critique of militarism, and at this point, Clinton looks even more militaristic in her views and actions than Obama.”

Butler has held a post at the University of California, Berkeley since 1993. To what extent, in her view, has the University of California system, and its academics and students, been harmed by recent reductions in state funding? Does Berkeley remain an inspiring and transformative institution despite the cuts? 

“UC Berkeley is a thriving institution with first-rate students and excellent faculty. The tuition hikes and the cutbacks in services have certainly hurt students and faculty, and the increased reliance on contingent labour everywhere undercuts the importance of academic freedom and faculty rights. The staff have also suffered loss of jobs and increased insecurity. And yet, intellectually, it remains for me an excellent place to teach and learn. It has excellent students, many of whom are international, and the place tends to lack the pretentiousness of other equally fine universities.”

Has she followed the election of Syriza in Greece, the rise of Podemos in Spain and the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party in Britain?

“Yes, I am following these movements closely, and was pleased to see a socialist coalition in Portugal coalescing in the past few weeks. The candidacy of Bernie Sanders in the US has to be included among these developments as well. ‘Socialism’ has hardly been speakable within mainstream US politics for a long time. Perhaps we can notice as well that each of the parliamentary parties or candidacies are related to extra-parliamentary movements. After all, both Los Indignados in Madrid and the anti-eviction movement in Barcelona have helped to set in motion the parliamentary standing of Podemos, even if there is not agreement in all fronts.  

“In the US, the Occupy movement brought attention to radical economic inequalities, the unacceptable levels of debt incurred by ordinary people, the accumulation of wealth among the 1 per cent. It may be that that movement helped to pave the way for the Sanders candidacy. The tensions between those in Greece who continue to want parliamentary power and those who do not raises important questions about the ‘price’ of becoming part of a government and a state whose economic sustainability is bound up with global economic powers and their demands. It lets us see how there is a difference that has to be kept alive between the popular will and its representative structures.”

What would Butler say to those who distrust the “irrationality” of mass gatherings?

“Oh, I am very often not the one to go to a gathering precisely because I fear that it might get out of control,” she says. “So I understand that trepidation. Not all gatherings are good. There are gatherings of racists and fascists, of those who hate gay marriage and LGBTQ people, and other gatherings against migrants. So we should not be applauding all sorts of gatherings.

“And yet, if there is an interdiction on gathering, democracy itself becomes imperilled. The most important gatherings for me in the past few years in the US have been Black Lives Matter events. They are acts of mourning, drawing attention to black lives extinguished by police violence, but also efforts to assert a collective presence that makes a claim in endurance, persistence. It is interesting to see how those gatherings are affecting party politics in the US.”

Asked to name the last book or paper she read by an early career scholar that she found particularly impressive or valuable, Butler says: “I read recently a dissertation by a young philosopher named Catherine Clune-Taylor who has worked critically on the ethical implications of the medical discourse on intersex. She taught me a great deal, and it was very moving to read such a fine, clear way of thinking.”

What gives her hope? “I suppose I would have to say that I find hope through unexpected forms assumed by the senses: colour, light, song, music, poetry, film, photography. I am lost if I do not turn to art in some way or another, if I do not let it find me. I am also moved to hopefulness when I see people put aside minor differences and offer support to one another in times of great difficulty, whether that is in a situation of distress, precarity, oppression, war, injustice. One person becomes the support for another, or they inexplicably become support for one another as they resist some unlivable circumstance. They may not know or love one another, but they lend presence when it is needed, when it is obligatory, and they speak or act or move in some way that makes a collective existence known.”

Karen Shook


Print headline: Resistance, en masse

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