What do we mean by ‘performativity’? What are we saying of something if we call it ‘performative’? These words have become much more common in recent decades, but what they mean isn’t always readily understood. The term was coined by J. L. Austin in his facetiously-titled book How To Do Things With Words, but it’s been on something of a journey since. Over a number of years I’ve taken a keen interest in the history of the idea of ‘the performative’, in the contexts in which it has been used, and in the ways in which it has been developed by successive generations of writers, thinkers and activists.

Talking together is acting together, not making motions and noises at one another, not transferring unspeakable messages or essences from the inside of one closed chamber to the inside of another. The difficulties of talking are, rather, real ones: the activities we engage in by talking are intricate and intricately related to one another.

Stanley Cavell

Rather than attempt to give a simple definition of what the performative is, I’ve sought to explore its function within different ways of thinking about language and action – the ordinary language philosophy or ‘linguistic phenomenology’ of J. L. Austin and Stanley Cavell, deconstruction and poststructuralism, the thinking of gender and identity pioneered by Judith Butler. One of the key things here has also been the unstable and uneasy relationship between performativity and theatrical performance – how do concepts and understandings of these intertwine? How do they differ?

When we examine what we should say when, what words we should use in what situations, we are looking again not merely at words … but also at the realities we use the words to talk about: we are using a sharpened awareness of words to sharpen our perception of, though not as the final arbiter of, the phenomena.

J. L. Austin

Throughout, my sense of what makes the idea of performativity important has always come down to two things. Firstly, there is its deep implication in how we understand the social world we share (or fail to share) with each other, and what we can expect our philosophical exploration of that understanding to yield for us. Secondly, there is its pertinence to some of the key political and ethical discussions and conflicts around speech, identity, community and belonging which continue to matter to us.

Performativity describes this relation of being implicated in that which one opposes, this turning of power against itself to produce alternative modalities of power, to establish a kind of political contestation that is not a ‘pure’ opposition … but a difficult labor of forging a future from resources inevitably impure.

Judith Butler