Performing Politics: Judith Butler and the Struggle for the Street

We may hate that we are vulnerable and dependent upon one another, argues Judith Butler, but it's that very interdependence that allows us to mobilize together as social movements.

Judith Butler’s latest intellectual volley strikes at an opportune moment. Although her focus is the series of ‘public assemblies’ – popular strikes, occupations, vigils and other mass movements -- which have become a defining characteristic of this decade, the lessons it offers apply with even greater poignancy to the masses of refugees pouring over European borders and demanding recognition within the heart of an unsettled West.

In the conceptually rich (if stultifyingly titled) Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly, Butler redirects her profoundly remarkable ideas on gender and performativity to understanding the nature and implications of public assembly: of what the sudden and mass assembly of bodies in public signifies to our understanding of the political, the personal, and human nature itself.

Writing in response to the powerful wave of mass movements whose defining characteristic often involves people sitting or standing in the same place – Gezi Park, Tahrir Square, Occupy, etc. – Butler argues that freedom of assembly is an inextricable part of freedom of expression. And freedom of assembly is coming under increasing assault, in part because the very spaces in which people are assembling to voice their protest (which is often simply the demand for a decent life) are the ones under threat from capitalist regimes bent on privatizing public space, public goods and services, and on the violent enactment and enforcement of the private sphere.

This leads Butler into an interesting and prolonged engagement with political philosopher Hannah Arendt, whose famous discussion in The Human Condition offers an important framework for re-evaluating the way we understand the relationship between private, social and political life today. Arendt’s famous formulation held that laboring for one’s basic needs did not constitute an active and political life, that one ought to aspire toward an active life operating in the public and political sphere, and that such a life was, of course, implicitly reliant on the idea of a strong private sphere (slaves, women) who would support and service the needs of those who were able to act publicly and politically.

Butler takes aim at this ‘laboring’ sphere, since it is precisely that sphere with which we need to concern ourselves in today’s world: the poor, the disenfranchised, migrant workers, racialized and gendered workers, refugees, who are all too often considered disposable and invisible, and whose only hope in life often comes in the form of assuming this invisible, private status of servicing the needs of those who have rights, including the right to act politically (that is to say: citizens, and especially citizens with access to social and economic wealth).

It is from the ranks of this growing sphere -- which is expanding as more and more people become disenfranchised and impoverished in an increasingly unequal, neoliberal capitalist world -- that the mass movements we have been witnessing often emerge. They are emerging in response to a growing precarity of existence, that is the result of neoliberal capitalism and the democratic forms it so effectively mimics. In such a world, this suggests, the struggle to achieve basic needs of survival is a political struggle; and in a world of neoliberal precarity, perhaps it is the defining political struggle of our time.

Performativity and Public Space

Butler’s interest lies in what these mass movements (of often motionless people) signify. The manner in which they’ve riveted public consciousness -- including the way media does or does not portray them -- and the way they have so unsettled and provoked violent responses from the powers that try to suppress them, suggests that these precarious bodies enact a form of political power through the very act of coming together, of assembling as bodies in the same space. What does the assembly of these bodies signify? What power does it have, and what potential can it achieve? What does it signify to us about the nature and form of political action?

“[W]hen bodies assemble on the street, in the square, or in other forms of public space (including virtual ones) they are exercising a plural and performative right to appear, one that… delivers a bodily demand for a more livable set of economic, social, and political conditions no longer afflicted by induced forms of precarity,” Butler writes.

During the ‘Occupy’ movement -- and also during rioting in the banlieus of Paris and London, and during any number of other recent mobilizations and occupations -- one critique that is made of these movements by those in power (and those in the media) is that the protestors seem to have no clear and consistent demands; no articulated programme or ideology. Such a critique is often used to dismiss these public assemblies as non-political, or as somehow less of a form of political expression than what passes for political speech in our legislatures and in our media.

Butler challenges this notion, arguing that “parliamentary modes of written and spoken contributions” and other traditional forms of ‘verbalization’ should not be considered “the norm for thinking about expressive political action.” She argues for a broader understanding of what is meant by political expression. ‘The people,’ she writes (a fraught term which she unpacks at length) “are not just produced by their vocalized claims, but also by the conditions of possibility of their appearance… and by their actions, and so as part of embodied performance.”

A gathering of hungry, poor, disenfranchised bodies is as articulate a statement as any resolution or report delivered in a legislature; particularly when it is a demand for a more livable life, a demand against the precarity of one’s existence, and particularly when it is on the exploitation and disenfranchisement of these precarious bodies that the legislators rely for their own secure, classed existence. “Indeed, we have to rethink the speech act in order to understand what is made and what is done by certain kinds of bodily enactments: the bodies assembled 'say' we are not disposable, even if they stand silently.”

Butler achieved her intellectual prominence by articulating a relationship between ‘gender’ and ‘performativity.’ In her latest work, she explains her move to discussing public assemblies and precariousness as a natural progression, since gender and precarity have been linked historically (she also makes some important clarifications to the way ‘gender performativity’ has been interpreted lately). Precarity, she explains, “designates that politically induced condition in which certain populations suffer from failing social and economic networks of support more than others, and become differentially exposed to injury, violence, and death… precarity is thus the differential distribution of precariousness.” Gender performativity, she explains, was a theory and practice of resistance among precaritized gender and sexual minorities, and while gender and precarity remain indelibly linked, the notion can be applied more broadly as well. Just as it was used to resist gender norms, performativity can be conceptualized to resist other oppressive and exploitative norms as well. When those who cannot or do not conform to normative ideals are erased and rendered invisible and disposable, public appearance becomes a vital form of resistance and demand for change: “only through an insistent form of appearing precisely when and where we are effaced does the sphere of appearance break and open in new ways.”

Butler draws on Arendt while at the same time challenging the limits of Arendt’s philosophy. Where Arendt appeared to dismiss bodily survival as a non-political form of activity (gathering food, etc), Butler argues that politics is inextricably linked with bodies: with the needs, the desires, the complexity of bodies (she does not limit her thinking to human bodies either, but tentatively embraces a more complex understanding of living bodies including non-human ones). “[W]hat about the possibility that one might be hungry, angry, free, and reasoning, and that a political movement to overcome inequality in food distribution is a just and fair political movement?”

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