Media @ McGill

Tawny Andersen | Performativity as Material Praxis

Submitted by Media@McGill on


With the support of this Media@McGill Graduate Research Fellowship, I will be writing the fourth and fifth chapters of my dissertation. The project stages the textual performances of a group of contemporary, female philosophers—Judith Butler, Avital Ronell and Catherine Malabou—as modes of critical, feminist praxis that bridge the performative and the material. I undertake this research in order to attempt 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 in 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 qualify Butler, Malabou and Ronell’s work as “performative”, I begin my dissertation by tracing the intellectual history of this ubiquitous concept. My first chapter reviews performativity’s genesis in the work of British philosopher of language J.L. Austin, who first introduced the term in the 1950s to characterize a mode of locution that performs the act that it designates. In it, I narrate my phenomenological experience of listening to “Performatives”, a lecture Austin delivered at Gothenburg University in 1959. My second chapter analyzes “Signature Event Context”, Derrida’s 1971 intervention into Austinian speech act theory, which deconstructed the ontological separation between fictional and non-fictional discourse. This chapter focuses on how the absence of an audio-visual archive of the 1971 oral dissemination of this text ironically serves to reiterate the contestation of logocentrism that Derrida performatively enacted within it. My third chapter reviews how Judith Butler transposed the theory of the iterability of the semiotic signifier onto the level of corporeality in her canonical work on gender performativity from the early 1990s. Positing gender as performative, as opposed to expressive or ontological, in nature, Butler invited us to think about how performativity is enacted through the medium and materiality of the body.

In the second half of my dissertation, I will hone in on the issue of the relationship between performativity and materiality. My fourth chapter will examine the case study of philosopher and literary theorist Avital Ronell, who was notably a performance artist before she entered academia. I will argue that Ronell’s work foregrounds both the materiality of writing/language and the materiality of the book as a performative/art object. I will suggest that her 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. I will provide an art historical analysis of Ronell’s experimental mise en page in order to argue that she exploits the potential of performativity as a medium, thereby foregrounding the intersubjective relationship between writer and reader.

In my fifth chapter, I will consider how French philosopher Catherine Malabou’s concept of “plasticity” might be brought to bear on the theorization of performativity within the context of post-poststructuralism. 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” (Of Grammatology, 1967), 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. Malabou employs this notion, which she initially came across in Hegel’s theorization of subjectivity, to describe the subject’s capacity to both give and receive form. Conceiving of the graphic and the plastic together, Malabou proposes that we engage “deconstruction in a new materialism” (Plasticity at the Dusk of Writing, 2010). I am interested in exploring two ideas here. First, if performativity already exists in the tensions between discursivity and materiality, and language and corporeality, is it not already plastic? Secondly, how might Malabou’s non-essentialist notion of the essence of gender contribute to the elaboration of a theory of feminist, performative writing?

Throughout my dissertation, I consider the tensions between materiality and immateriality in the dramatic embodiment of ideas, the phenomenology of the voice and the agency of the (locutional or embodied) speech act. I explore how the logic of performativity might offer a productive alternative to the insistence on the ontological differentiation between rhetorical forms. Inherently anti-determinist, performativity resists representation and exceeds ontology: we can never truly be “x” nor secure the enclosure of the meaning of “y” since our enactments and enunciations are modes of citation and our identifications always involve some degree of failure. I wish to explore the potentials of performativity as a critical and political praxis as much concerned with how knowledge is produced and circulated, as with how subjectivities are formed.

I am grateful to Media@McGill for its generous support of my research.