Analysis Of Judith Butler’s Idea Of Gender Performativity

When Judith Butler contemplates about gender, she uses the concept of the productive nature of iteration, continuing the tradition of Derrida. As she argues in Gender Trouble, the iteration of conventional behavioral practices precede bad, excessive or infelicitous performances, this is exactly why the performative speech acts become “trouble”. According to Judith Butler, performativity is “not a singular ‘act’, for it is always a reiteration of a norm or set of norms, and to the extent that it acquires an act-like status in the present, it conceals or dissimulates the conventions of which it is a repetition.”

Therefore, when she asserts that performativity is an iterative and citational practice, what she means is that performativity implicates the win of repetition over singularity. Discussing any kinds of performances – whether they are “too perfect” or “excessive”, “playful” or “inverted” Butler argues that performativity is iterative and conventional following Austin’s tradition. Misfires and bad performances are not always welcomed in our everyday life. However, in the creative arts these “misfires” usually become the source of novelty and performative shifts. The notion of conventionality and iterability does not fully comply with the presupposition that the artistic act is always original or singular. Nor does it sit well together with the fact that the performance must conform to the common bias that the transformative power of the art is brought by repetition with the difference. Furthermore, Butler distinguishes between “performance” and “performativity” making use of Performance Theory in her consideration on gender performativity, she argues that performance supposes the presence of a subject while performativity questions the notion of the subject itself. Hence, performance can be perceived as an intended of willful “act” (as a theatre production, film performance, performance art or painting by an artist or a group of artists), performativity, on the other hand, must be understood as the iterative and citational practice that brings into being that which it names. To understand how she shifts from just performative speech acts to the performative body constitution, one needs to look into Bodies That Matter. When Butler says, that to some extent, sex is always performative she claims that bodies are always constructed in the act of description, not just described. When at the child delivery, the doctor declares “It’s a girl!”, they do not merely account on what they see, thus constituting the female body of the subject. They actually assign female sex and a feminine gender to a body that otherwise has no opportunity to exist outside of the discourse of this speech act. Nevertheless, Butler tries to present the solution for the “gender trouble”, her theory of performativity supposes the formation of the subject and proposes the room for the agential change. She claims “there is no subject who precedes the repetition.”

In Butler’s argument, “there is no performer prior to the performed, the performance is performative and the performance constitutes the appearance of a ‘subject’ as its effect.” On the opposite, “I” come into existence through performance. Though Judith Butler’s argument mostly focusses on the way in which sex and gender are materialized in every day, nevertheless one might argue that there are some parallels between this materialization and the way in which “art”, in our case, performance art, in particular, becomes materialized. By the analogy with Butler’s theory, one might say that there is no artist who exists before the repetitive practice of art. The artist comes into being through artistic practices and consequently they are performative by the fact that they produce “art” as an effect. “Artists” engage with, re-iterate and question the “norms” of “art” existing in the socio-cultural context at a specific historical period, according to Butler, they are involved in the “process of materialization that stabilizes over time to produce the effect of boundary, fixity and surface”, which is also possible to demonstrate by an “artist’s style”. The re-iteration that operates in an artist’s practice produces a “naturalized” effect, which we come to label as an artist’s style.

In the same manner, art practice attempts to disguise the conventions, which it is a repetition of. Butler’s argument that the “process of materialization for subverting the “habit” or the “norm” in the frame of the repetitive and reiterative behavior “too bad performances” or “too perfect performances”, “distorted performances”, “excessive performances” and “inverted performances” create (de)constituting possibilities through the re-iteration, repetition or citation of the discursive law.

Thus, in this way, Butler discovers the existing possibilities for subversion in the cultural context at exact historical circumstances. The ground of what is perceived as a “norm” is usually shifted by what we may call distorted or excessive performances and ironic repetitions. These disrupting performances are usually applied in political and artistic practices deliberately. Postcolonial, feminist, queer and post-structuralist theoretical frames were mostly successful in opening the gaps and fissures produced through re-iteration, in order to subvert and disrupt the “norm”. This is what the artistic strategies of contemporary art movements or individual artists consist of the most, they are “distorted”, and “inverted” performances, which attempt to create something “new”.

14 May 2021
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