~ Judith Butler ~ Allen Feldman ~

Performing Feminisms: Feminist Critical Theory & Theatre (Book Cover) Eds Sue Ellen Case.
Butler, Judith. “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory.” Performing Feminisms: Feminist Critical Theory and Theatre, ed. Sue Ellen Case. John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore: 1990.

In this chapter Judith Butler briefly reviews a difference of viewpoints regarding agency and the identity of social agents in contemporary philosophical discourse, referencing prominent phenomenological theorists (Edmund Husserl, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, George Herber Mead, for example). She points specifically to a view of female social agents as subjects which are seen to constitute social reality, and a view where social agents are seen as an object of constitutive acts. Butler cites Simone de Beauvoir’s assertion that one is not born a woman but rather ‘becomes a woman’ while describing what comprises a constitutive social temporality. The latter more performative-natured process, she proposes, contradicts popular belief in gender as a stable identity. She posits that Woman as an identity, and in sociological context, is a performative accomplishment that is constituted by repetitively stylized behaviors and acts. In this way gender is not only an identity, but an object of belief compelled by social sanctions and taboos.

The author does not dismiss the social causalities that structure corporeal existence and meanings of sex (in terms of bodily experience), but finds agreement among philosophers that cite the cultural gendering of the body as a historical situation. It is in context with this historicity that agency can be seen as a process of rendering identity (embodiments that reproduce a historical situation), and the (re)production of a cultural sign. Butler adds that the encouraging forces and punitive consequences associated to gender construction are regularly concealed, perpetuating regulated cultural fictions which are both embodied and disguised. This premise of concealment and manifestation is a common touch-stone for phenomenological theory, as is the reference to the historicity of constitutive acts that are also concretely mediated in the temporal experience of Being. She notes also the necessity of mutuality for performative success, including tacit convention and cultural construction of the way the body is perceived (for example; the cultivation of binary genders in a heterosexual kinship and marriage structure). This conforms to a general consensus surrounding the successes of performative instantiations.

The author is careful to add that the relation between acts and societal conditions is neither unilateral nor unmediated, and that transformation of social relations relies upon a transforming of hegemonic social conditions, rather that of individual acts. If gender is performative rather than an expression of natural predisposition or ‘essence’, it is still entirely real in so far as it is performed and mutually perceived and engaged with, reified with role-premised acceptances and political legitimization. She suggests that acknowledgement and elucidation of the anxiety and pleasure of gender constitutive performativity offers unique opportunity for investigation and the expression of women’s experiences.

The text offers intriguing insight upon the issue of identity formation and inter-relational states or modes of Being in everyday life, while also presenting an approach to the question of gendered relations which transcends or, perhaps, encapsulates queries surrounding the nature and character of the human creature in broader context. The text offers exemplification of a phenomenological approach to performativity in relation to microcosmic sociopolitical agency in mundane context (as opposed to acts of resistance or conflict engagements).

Feldman, Allen. “Artifacts and Instruments of Agency”. Formations of Violence: The Narrative of the Body and Political Terror in Northern Ireland. The University of Chicago Press:1991.

While this introductory chapter offers a very dense summary of the book’s contents, in relation to a phenomenological investigation into the subject indicated by the title of the text, it also provides some very intriguing insights upon the instantiation and manifestations of alterity in context with sociopolitical power dynamics. If alterity is taken to represent important attributes of performance and performativity, this author’s analogies may then be viewed as both congruent and exacting. Feldman views political agency as “achieved on the basis of practices that alter the subject” and he positions the subject (agent or actor) as situated in practices predicated upon a self-reflexive and interpretive framing of power. This accentuates the inter-relational character of what is culturally constructed as political (as opposed to viewing individuals as merely absorbed or reactionary, in a political framework). In this way the subject (the political agent) is tied to the cultural construction of history. It is through practices that the subject and his/her objects become articulated. By this, the author means to investigate and interpret the contexts within which the “politicized body, violence, and oral history emerge as artifacts and instruments of agency”.

Referred to as traces upon a historiographic surface, the author views orations, narratives, corporeal expressions and inscriptions, and temporal circumstances as among these artifacts. He also cites the significance of a fictive, performative, contingent power centre in the political and body space of a society, which are rationalized with associative narratives, and which lay claim to legitimized and illegitimate violence, while attempting to define whom is subject and what is object. While this frames social perceptions, it is perpetually engaged in predicating and reconstructing these perceptions via violence, thus observing a stable relationship between construct and agency is problematic in such circumstance (exemplified by the Irish example). He adds that the legitimization of violence (by granted or imposed authority) seems less ephemeral than violent acts of instantiation (by a counter-agent, or illegitimated actor, for example).

This references a difference in the character of the engagement (such as it is between, for example, performer and spectator or audience). An ephemeral mode of engagement infers less an emphasis upon ideating and interpreting communications or meanings, and moreso generates an experience of difference, otherness, alterity. Feldman cites a shift too, in late modernity, where both humankind and nature transit from objects to subjects, and the body emerges as a political scene of domination and resistance. In fact, the experience of violence, and the experience of immersion in violence, may be seen to politicize the body regardless. The politicized body thus traverses either pole (between subject and object), becoming as much a politicized artifact as a political agent, as the author of the violence.

Another matter of interest discussed in this chapter is the relationship between space and the body, in context with power dynamics. The spatialization of power is seen to command use of space, and the body then becomes a spatialized unit of power accordingly, the distribution thereof can construct sites of domination. One might understand this in terms of a place, a neighbourhood, or in context with prescribed settler tactics. In this and other ways, the body becomes central medium of the political instant. Too, the author notes that the body becomes the primary site for visualizing “collective passage into historical alterity”. This infers a multidirectional faculty for experiencing the past in-the-moment, experiencing an altered state of awareness or perception, or experiencing a moment not yet arrived but as having a different character than one they are physically immersed in. The author remarks upon the ability of his interviewees to envision, inhabit, and thus manifest alterities, and therefore returns to a Nietzschean statement that agency is not ‘the author’, but the product of doing. Feldman also comments upon the polarity of between text and Self and narration, which does not exist when in the form of an “originary source of orality”.

The author’s methodology of analysis compliments contemporary performance theory, in the context of art production. The text also offers observation and explanation for the transience of roles, or positions, in the subject-object / perspectival worldview.


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