Media @ McGill

"Performativity as Critical Praxis"

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Tawny Andersen


The humanities are witnessing the birth of an interdisciplinary field of scholarship. Known as “performance philosophy” in English-speaking, academic circles, and “philo-performance” in their French counterparts, this rapidly growing field was founded in response to the recent and concurrent philosophical turn within performance studies and performative turn within contemporary philosophy.[1] While scholars working in this field explore both the philosophical potential of performance and the performative dimensions of philosophy, it is the latter that impels my research. I maintain, however, that before we can assess the “performative” dimensions of philosophy, it is crucial that we clarify this much-deployed, yet little understood, term. My doctoral dissertation, Performativity as Critical Praxis, investigates the recent shift within philosophy toward new modes of performative discourse. In order to do so, it conducts a rigorous historicization and theorization of the concept of performativity by means of an analysis of texts by its major theorists. Each chapter foregrounds the specific ways in which a given text’s signified is determined by its signifiers.

My first chapter returns to performativity’s genesis with British philosopher of language J.L. Austin, who first coined the term “the performative utterance” in his 1955 How To Do Things With Words to characterize a mode of locution that performs the act that it designates.[2] It demonstrates that Austin produced and disseminated his research orally, dialogically, and pedagogically through contexts that privileged the inter-subjective exchange. I frame his self-described practice of “linguistic phenomenology” as a pragmatic one in which philosophy is context and collective labour. In addition, I suggest that this mode of “doing” or “performing” philosophy is also at play within the dramaturgy of Austin’s texts, which restage his thought processes and invite his readers to become spectators to the dramatization of his ideas.

My second chapter argues that it is by virtue of the interdependence of the oral and written disseminations of his 1971 “Signature Event Context”, that Derrida was able to performatively enact his contestation of logocentrism and to deconstruct the binary opposition between orality and writing. However, when I emerge from my search for an audio-visual archive of the lecture empty-handed, I suggest that its absence ironically serves to support Derrida’s thesis that there is no outside the text (il n’y a pas de hors texte). Entering the text, then, I foreground the ways in which “SEC”’s performativity is expressed through its materiality. Here, I focus on the mise en page of the article’s concluding paragraph, and argue that, as a material trace of a live event (yet a trace that, in a sense, preceded its own origin), “SEC” self-consciously incorporates the absence of its Other into its own, embodied form.

My third chapter analyses Judith Butler’s recent lecture “When Gesture Becomes Event”, in which she questions how her early work on gender performativity (that transposed Derrida’s theory of the iterability of the semiotic signifier onto the level of corporeality in order to denaturalize the relationship between sex and gender) resonates with Walter Benjamin’s readings of Kafka and Brecht.[3] This chapter highlights the somatic dimensions of Butler’s speech acts, thus engaging in a meta-level reflection on the role of gesture (understood as both citation and event) in a lecture about gesture. In so doing, I touch upon the generally “untouchable” subject of the philosopher’s body. Lastly, I draw upon Husserl’s writings on temporality, Derrida’s concept of “teletechnologies”, and performance studies scholarship on the perceptual experience of viewing mediatized v/s live art, in order to take up the epistemological problem of how a spectator can know or access a philosopher’s embodied subjectivity.

My fourth chapter will frame philosopher and literary theorist Avital Ronell as an exemplary performer-philosopher whose writing foregrounds the intersubjective relationship between writer and reader through performative strategies such as role-playing and experimental mise en page.[4] I will argue that Ronell’s writing, which twins the scholarly with the vernacular, is performative in the original Austinian sense of doing what it says. I will highlight the roles Ronell plays in The Test Drive (2005), in which she “steals” the personality of Husserl, and The Telephone Book: Technology, Schizophrenia, Electric Speech (1989), in which she stages herself as a switchboard operator who receives an incoming call from Heidegger. Providing a hermeneutic and formal/art historical analysis of Ronell’s experimental mise en page, I will question how she exploits the potential of performativity as medium.

My fifth chapter considers the implication of French philosopher Catherine Malabou’s hallmark concept of “plasticity” (which designates the subject’s capacity to give, receive, and annihilate form) on the future of performativity. In Plasticity at the Dusk of Writing (2005), Malabou argues that we are no longer living in what Derrida had baptized the “epoch of writing”, marked by the logic of différance and the trace, but instead in an era in which plasticity has become the dominant heuristic tool and motor schema.[5] Conceiving of the graphic and the plastic together, Malabou proposes that we engage “deconstruction in a new materialism.”[6] In Changing Difference, she makes the controversial claim that the theory of gender performativity represents yet another form of violence perpetrated on women. In my chapter, I wish to create a dialogue between Malabout’s reflections on writng and her reflection on gender that she, herself, tends to keep separate. I ask: if performativity already exists in the tensions between discursivity and materiality, language and corporeality, is it not already plastic? How might plasticity and performativity be thought together in order to elaborate a theory of feminist, performative writing?


[1] While one could cite numerous examples of texts that emblematize this growing trend, Dr. Laura Cull, Senior Lecturer in Theatre Studies at the University of Surrey and core convener of the recently founded Performance Philosophy Network, lists the following: Samuel Weber’s Theatricality as Medium (2004); Jacques Rancière’s The Emancipated Spectator (2011); Martin Puchner’s The Drama of Ideas (2010); and Alain Badiou’s multiple publications on theatre. See:

[2] Austin, J.L. How to Do Things with Words, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1962.

[3] “When Gesture Becomes Event”. Lecture by Judith Butler given during the “Theater, Performance, Philosophy: Crossings and Transfers in Contemporary Anglo-American Thought” Symposium, La Sorbonne, Paris, June, 2014.

[4] As stated in my application letter, I am writing the last two chapters of my dissertation out of order. This is because I worked with Catherine Malabou in London in June, and want to write the chapter about her first.  The Ronell chapter will thus be written last.

[5] Derrida, Jacques, Of Grammatology, Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 1997, p.6.

[6] Malabou, Catherine, Plasticity at the Dusk of Writing, New York: Columbia University Press, 2010, p.61.