Just about every day, I see someone complain about something being “performative.” Some action or speech will inevitably be declared “performative activism” or “performative politics.” For instance, a writer at The Atlantic called Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Met Gala dress, which was emblazoned with “TAX THE RICH” on its rump, “performative dissent.” Then, the critics calling AOC’s stunt “performative” were themselves labeled performative.
What’s generally meant by this is that the action or statement in question is empty, insincere, or just meant to burnish the reputation of the doer without making any concrete improvement to the world. But that’s not really what “performative” actually means or should mean.
The concept of linguistic “performativity” was first articulated by the British philosopher J.L. Austin in his 1955 book called How To Do Things With Words. The idea, which was later developed into an entire field called “speech act theory,” is basically that certain sentences, which Austin calls “performative utterances” do not describe the world, but actually alter it. A classic example is “I declare you husband and wife” in the marriage ceremony. Other examples are saying “bet,” “fold” or “raise” at a poker table, issuing verdicts and sentences at a trial, giving military orders, providing and accepting apologies or making promises. So, far from being empty gestures, things that are “performative” actually have some weighty content.
The more proximate cause for the contemporary use and abuse of “performative” is probably Judith Butler’s work on gender. Butler, building off speech act theory, extended the concept to all kinds of behavior. In her classic formulation of the concept, “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory,” she writes, “...gender is in no way a stable identity or locus of agency from which various acts proceed; rather, it is an identity tenuously constituted in time — an identity instituted through a stylized repetition of acts.” (Emphasis hers.)
That sounds a bit complicated, but what it means is that what you do is who you are — performances make up your gender. Think about the way a particularly macho dude might perform his gender in the way he lights a cigarette or sits down at a bar or how he orders his beer. Whatever you think of this theory, it’s clear that “performativity” is not meant to denote something empty or meaningless, but rather it’s constructing the self that society sees. And on Butler’s radical account, there’s no substantial identity prior to these performances.
So, taking all this into account, let’s ask what’s being performed when people say something’s “performative.” I think it says two things: “I am very modern and with it, I use all the new words” and “I am smart, I know theory, I am a bit of a social scientist.” The problem is that it is itself a kind of performative speech act: a trump card that declares “Bullshit!” but doesn’t really help us understand the phenomenon in question. If we believe performance is such a huge part of our social being, calling something “performative” doesn’t have much content.
Let’s just assume something is a performance, and then let’s delve a bit into the content. What does this performance accomplish or not accomplish in the world? Observers of public life are a little bit like theater critics in this regard — they judge the quality of the performances. Also, there is nothing wrong with just calling something “bullshit” if it appears as such. In fact, that might have a lot more performative weight than resorting to pseudo-theory: it sounds like your judgment, your reaction, your feeling, which is more lively and interesting than the abstract and anonymous judgment of social science.
But again maybe there’s a certain attraction and benefit in using the most abstract possible terms like “performative.” In Democracy of America, Alexis de Tocqueville has a teasing account of the way language is used in democracies, which he says are “passionately addicted to generic terms or abstract expressions.” Think of the vogue for calling things “problematic,” also an unfortunate cast off from the academic forges of abstraction. That used to mean you are going to then describe the problems in question, but now it remains vague to mean, well, “bad,” or maybe, something more complicated and smarter than that.
It can mean a lot, a little, or nothing much at all. “Men living in democratic countries are, then, apt to entertain unsettled ideas, and they require loose expressions to convey them,” Tocqueville goes on. “As they never know whether the idea they express to-day will be appropriate to the new position they may occupy to-morrow, they naturally acquire a liking for abstract terms. An abstract term is like a box with a false bottom: you may put in it what ideas you please, and take them out again without being observed.”
By using capacious words rather than specifying exactly what you mean, you can get people to go “mmm, yes, I’ve heard that word before” and never have to reveal precisely what you mean, because — who knows — it might not be a fashionable opinion tomorrow. By performing “performativity” and things like it, you never really have to show your cards but you still get to bluff at saying something meaningful. Well, I call bullshit.
John Ganz is a writer in New York.