Media @ McGill

Tawny Andersen | Performativity as Critical Praxis

Submitted by Media@McGill on


My research seeks to respond to what I identify as three current, theoretical problems: 1) the future or fate of “writing” in post-Derridean philosophy, 2) the disparities among definitions of “performativity” upheld by the philosophy of language, gender and queer theory, and performance studies, and 3) the possibility of attributing a gender to the voice, given the lack of a philosophically-grounded account of the “feminine” that reconciles the American tradition of gender studies with the French tradition of the ontology of sexual difference.

In order to attempt to weave these three axes together, my dissertation will stage the textual performances of a group of contemporary, female philosophers (Judith Butler, Avital Ronell and Catherine Malabou) as modes of critical, feminist, performative praxis. Considering the concept of performativity as a medium, I frame my work methodologically within the emerging, inter-disciplinary field of Performance Philosophy. Questions that impel my research include the following: how do Butler, Ronell and Malabou enact modes of discursive resistance and embodied transgression? How is their thought produced in the event of its performance and how does it arrive on the scene of writing? How do these philosophers negotiate the tensions between materiality and immateriality in the dramatic embodiment of their ideas? What might a study of the phenomenology of the voice suggest about the agency of their (locutional and embodied) speech acts?

In order to qualify Butler, Ronell and Malabou’s philosophical disseminations as “performative” events, the first chapters of my dissertation will trace the intellectual history of this ubiquitous concept. I will review performativity’s genesis in British philosopher of language, J.L. Austin’s, 1955 lecture series How To Do Things With Words, which introduced a form of discourse that performs the event that it designates. I will then analyze Derrida’s 1971 article “Signature Event Context”, which deconstructed the ontological barrier between fictional and non-fictional discourse and performatively enacted Derrida’s contestation of logocentrism. By emphasizing the significance of the media through which these seminal texts were originally disseminated (a lecture series, a radio emission, and a philosophical colloquium), I seek to situate performativity between the bifurcated histories of theatre and philosophy and orality and technologies of writing. I wish to explore how the logic of performativity, which is inherently anti-deterministic, might offer a productive alternative to the insistence on the ontological differentiation between rhetorical forms, thereby making the borders between performance and philosophy more porous.

I have just returned from a research trip to Paris, where I took part in the Paris Program in Critical Theory, directed by Prof. Samuel Weber of Northwestern University (and notably, the English translator of “Signature Event Context”) in cooperation with Université Sorbonne­­ Nouvelle (Paris 3). I plan to spend the winter semester in Montréal writing the opening chapters of my dissertation, which will stage Austin and Derrida as pioneers of the performative philosophy that Butler, Ronell and Malabou practice. I extend my gratitude to Media@McGill for its generous support of my research.