As a Performance Studies scholar, nothing gets under my skin faster than people talking about “performative activism” on social media. Take for example, this article from the satirical feminist website, Reductress. In this context, individuals use the term “performative” to mean that something is fake, inauthentic, or only for show. That anyone posting about social justice issues is somehow only “performing” activism, rather than actually being an authentic activist (whatever that means). This represents a complete misunderstanding of what the terms performance and performativity actually mean.

J.L. Austin, a Communications scholar, gave a speech called “How to do things with words” to an audience at Harvard University in 1955. In it, Austin creates a new word to describe what is happening with language in moments like during a wedding ceremony, where the bride or groom says, “I do.” In that moment, an action occurs – a marriage is consummated, and along with it the new identity role of husband or wife is created. Austin decided to call this type of utterance a performative. “The term ‘performative’ will be used in a variety of cognate ways and constructions, much as the term ‘imperative’ is. The name is derived, of course, from ‘perform’, the usual verb with the noun ‘action’: it indicates that the issuing of the utterance is the performing of an action.” Here, Austin reaffirms that to perform is to act, or to take action. Saying, “I promise…” can create a verbal contract, and when you are talking to your bookie, saying, “I bet…” can have tangible consequences if you lose.

Austin goes on to say, “Speaking generally, it is always necessary that the circumstances in which the words are uttered should be in some way, or ways, appropriate, and it is very commonly necessary that either the speaker himself or other persons should also perform certain other actions, whether ‘physical’ or ‘mental’ actions or even acts of uttering further words.” So, back to the original example, just saying, “I do,” in and of itself, would not necessarily create a marriage bond. But saying it in front of an officiant and witnesses, in the context of a series of marriage vows, and combined with the exchanging of rings and a kiss, completes the ritual performance. Saying, “Oh, I bet!” to your friend in a sarcastic way is not a performative utterance, but saying, “I bet…” in a gambling parlor and pushing a stack of chips forward is something altogether different.

So, if it were true that there is an individual who only speaks about social justice and does not also complete any of the physical or mental actions otherwise associated with activism (a fact of which I am not convinced), that speech would NOT be performative in nature. This individual, assuming they are trying to convince others that they ARE taking these related actions, would certainly be acting in bad faith. They would be insincere, dishonest, or hypocritical if they do not follow through with what has been promised or implied, but they would not be a “performative activist.” Because a performative activist would back their words up with subsequent deeds and actions. Furthermore, Austin goes on to explore in detail what such an utterance is to be called when things go wrong. In a case where an otherwise performative utterance has an unhappy outcome (i.e. is not correctly accompanied by the necessary actions) it is – infelicities, which can be shown through misinvocation or misexecution, among others.

Judith Butler wrote the book Gender Trouble in 1990, where Austin’s performative is taken a step further, through the creation of the concept of gender performativity. This video gives a general introduction to the concepts outlined in the book as well as its historical and cultural importance, as it can be rather dense and confusing for those not accustomed to reading academic writing. In a preface written for a reprint in 1999, Butler attempts to clarify some of the confusion around the term performativity. “The view that gender is performative sought to show that what we take to be an internal essence of gender is manufactured through a sustained set of acts, posited through the gendered stylization of the body.” In other words, an individual through their embodied actions, manifests, reinforces, and creates their gender identity in a tangible way the external world. It is this performance which makes gender real. (Butler references Jacques Lacan and his theory of the Real vs the Symbolic which can also be difficult to understand). Without the process of translating our internal sense of gender into a series of ritualized actions, gender would cease to exist.

Butler also goes on to explain that the concepts in Gender Trouble were developed as a part of activist work in the gay and lesbian community – the theory of performativity was created by watching how queer individuals were acting at meetings, in bars, and during marches. Yes, sometimes the term “acting” can be used to describe what an actor does in a film or in a play, but here again, the verb “to act” literally means “to take action” which is the most common usage of the word. Furthermore, actors are called actors because they take a written script and translate it into embodied action – not because the character in the play is a work of fiction.

Queer activists who formed the group ACT UP in the 1980s are representative of the types of actions Butler was considering when writing Gender Trouble and discussing performativity. Activists lying down in front of traffic were being performative – they were translating their (internal) anger into (external) action, and literally putting their bodies on the line to do so. They were performing what it felt like to be a queer person living during the HIV/AIDS crisis, and the direct actions which resulted from their activism were therefore performative.

Butler goes on to speak about performativity as it relates to gender non-conforming performances of gender. “To the extent the gender norms (ideal dimorphism, heterosexual complementarity of bodies, ideals and rule of proper and improper masculinity and femininity, many of which are underwritten by racial codes of purity and taboos against miscegenation) establish what will and will not be intelligibly human, what will and will not be considered to be “real,” they establish the ontological field in which
bodies may be given legitimate expression. If there is a positive normative task in Gender Trouble, it is to insist upon the extension of this
legitimacy to bodies that have been regarded as false, unreal, and unintelligible.” In this way, Butler is exploring the places where the performance of gender breaks down, and betrays itself. Butler asserts that genderqueer and trans bodies are no less real than cisgender heterosexual bodies that align with normative expectations about the performance of gender. Performativity allows us to unpack the coercive power dynamics of our culture, and the ways they can restrict our ability to exist authentically.

Butler says, “The iterability of performativity is a theory of agency, one that cannot disavow power as the condition of its own possibility.” The performance of identity is a way that we can reclaim our agency and autonomy from a system which would try to tell us who we are allowed to be, and what aspects of the self we are able to express. At the same time, there are real consequences for violating social norms, or deviating from the scripts that our culture gives us which define the roles we are allowed to take.

There are so many ways to be an activist, and holding a sign or marching in the street is only one possible way to perform activism. I am also aware of the fact that many of those who are accused of armchair activism or “performative activism” are disabled. Sharing information and educating others is valuable. Helping to teach those who do not yet understand systemic oppression is valuable. Attempting to police those who are trying to find meaningful ways to contribute to social movements is not productive. Speaking about social justice issues is one way to perform an activist identity, and helping to keep current issues in everyone’s conscious awareness makes it more likely that action will be taken by as many members of the community as possible. Reminding ourselves and each other about what is at stake is a way to keep ourselves grounded in the reasons we have decided to become activists in the first place.

From a psychological perspective, the stages of change also become relevant. Before an individual is able to take action, first they must contemplate and then prepare. Educating oneself about possible courses of action and the reasons behind them, as well as discussing what options are available and weighing pros and cons, are part of a process of change that empowers the individual to take an action that is most likely to be successful. Interrupting that process with shame and blame will only make it that much more difficult for the individual in question to translate their desire for change into action. Rather than accusing such a person of being “performative” (which as I have illustrated is false), it would make more sense and actually be productive to instead embrace curiosity, and encourage them to consider the most effective way they could translate their passion, desire, and interest in social justice issues into actions which could benefit the larger community.

Butler says, “gender proves to be performative—that is, constituting the identity it is purported to be. In this sense, gender is always a doing.” In the same way, I argue that performative activism is always a doing – through our actions we create changes in the social fabric of our society, and influence the norms and policies which would attempt to constrict our choices and our lives.

Edit: This also applies to accusations of “performative” allyship. I am following the lead of Layla F Saad who in Me & White Supremacy uses the term optical allyship to describe this phenomenon. One definition of optics is: “the way in which an event or course of action is perceived by the public.” So the term optical allyship actually better describes actions which are taken or words expressed based on how they will be perceived by one’s audience or following, rather than how they tangibly support the needs of those who are impacted by oppression.

2 thoughts on “What does it really mean to talk about “performative” activism?

  1. I disagree. Someone can say I do with the kiss, make the promise and then not keep the promise. So use a different example. In any case, for this time and day, recognize what people are saying about folks being performative. The debate should not be over the word used but of the lack of sincerity of people pretending to support important matters until it no longer serves them .

  2. You seem to have misunderstood the marriage example. In the case you mentioned, when a spouse has not followed through with their marriage vows, the couple would still have to go through a legal process of divorce in order to undo or dissolve the marriage itself. The social roles of the individuals within the marriage have been changed through the performative power of their marriage vows, and that process would have to be undone through another performative process (signing paperwork, going to court, etc.) And, language and semantics do matter in this case. Performativity is a revolutionary concept, and misunderstanding or misappropriating the terminology prevents a clear understanding of what is actually happening socially and culturally when individuals say one thing and do another.

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