Judith Butler‘s Notes Towards a Performative Theory of Assembly (Harvard, 2015) is a series of occasional pieces which, taken together, show both the extraordinary range of her thought, and perhaps also some of its limitations. Here her thinking extends from questions of gender performativity, seen as an instance of precarity more generally, to a view of the political grounded in interdependency. Along the way, Butler touches on questions of antagonism, media, infrastructure, the living and non-living, and labor, but each of these are perhaps limit-points beyond which she could not go without modification of her essential theses. Butler: “there is a war on the idea of interdependency, on… the social network of hands that seeks to minimize the unlivability of lives.” Indeed, but one might need to press on into some of these other questions to understand why.
A performative theory of assembly is where these texts are headed. Butler reprises her famous theory of gender performativity as a place to start. “One does not begin as one’s gender and then later decide how and when to enact it.” A performative utterance brings what it names into being (illocutionary act) or makes an event happen (perlocutionary act), but Butler is more interested in what bodies do than what they say. One could think of Butler’s performativity as starting from Althusser’s famous theory of ideology as interpellation. Ideology works by calling to us, addressing us. We misrecognize ourselves in the address, adopting the point of view provided for us.
To this Butler adds a soupçon of Derrida, where the act of repeating something brings with it an unavoidable variation. Hence while gender performativity does not mean being free to chose one’s gender, there is still always some slippage in the performance of gender norms. That gender comes into being through its performance implies that there is always something a bit off about it. Butler: “something queer can happen, where the norm is refused or revised.” Gender norms not only hail us but call us to repeat them, and even if we don’t intend to, our performances will be a bit different. “If gender first comes to us as someone else’s norm, it resides within us as a fantasy that is at once formed by others and also part of my formation.”
The reproductions of the norm reveal its weaknesses. The very repetition of the norm risks undoing it. The norm is bodiliy enacted, but with little turnings, deviations, inadvertent agency. One cannot separate genders and sexualities from the right to assert them publicly. Their power — and also their vulnerability — is in the act. Gender is always a bit precarious. But those who are furthest from the norm are likely to be particularly precarious. We need an ethics of protecting those who break from such norms.
But first, a word on this word precarious. Its roots are Latin, meaning something obtained by asking or praying. It used to mean dependent on the whim or favor of another, but over time its core meaning has shifted to dependency on circumstances, being at risk. One might wonder, however, if the discourse around precarity has tended to privilege the first meaning over the second. I’ll come back to this. Butler: “Precarity names both the necessity and difficulty of ethics.” Perhaps, but maybe it also hints at what exceeds not only ethics, but also the politics in which Butler will ground an ethics.
Certainly, precarity can be felt, as Lauren Berlant suggests, as a kind of expendability. One is supposed to be self-reliant, but as such one becomes isolated, which in turn makes one feel more precarious, escalating anxiety. Gender norms are not just about individual identity, they are about how and who and were one can appear publicly. Butler: “the term queer does not designate identity, but alliance…” Who can be recognized in a field of appearances, and as what? Gender politics should make alliances with precarious populations. Precarity brings together all such claims to act in public, whether as a particular sexuality, as disabled, as stateless, or homeless. Butler: “identity politics fails to furnish a broader conception of what it means, politically, to live together, across differences, sometimes in modes of unchosen proximity…”
Precarity is about a differential exposure to suffering. Why are only some human subjects recognizable? “Which humans count as the human?” One answer is in the very slogan: Black Lives Matter. “The struggle becomes an embodied one for recognizability, a public insistence on existing and mattering.” Precarity is the performance of unspeakable peoples, whose appearance is disruptive. What they claim is what they need. They have to act politically to secure the means of existing.
What precarity performs is not so much its power as its weakness. What it claims is the right to be recognized as something other than the self-sufficient body. In Butler all bodies are dependent and interdependent. They are dependent on infrastructures that support them. They are also interdependent, dependent on each other. The latter is reciprocal but not symmetrical; the former is not reciprocal at all, as we shall see. In Butler, dependency is a trans-historical quality of the body. This body that has needs is what political theory tends to exclude. “The republican ideal is yet to give way to a broader understanding of sensate democracy.”