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?”

Vulnerability and Interdependency

In Butler’s thinking about precarity, vulnerability emerges as a key concept that needs to be unpacked. Designating populations or groups as ‘vulnerable’ has become a political and legal tactic of groups seeking to help others, whether it’s feminists pointing out the disproportionate vulnerability of women vis-à-vis male violence or human rights organizations designating refugees, ethnic minorities, and other targeted groups as ‘vulnerable’ and in need of special assistance.

Acknowledging our vulnerability and interdependency could bring about a new and transformative kind of politics, says Butler.

There’s a paradox to what this produces, though. On the one hand, Butler argues that when we respond to vulnerability “the need to establish a politics that avoids the retrenchment of paternalism seems clear.” All too often, acknowledging the vulnerability of a population has the result of creating a self-fulfilling and self-perpetuating designation, where the vulnerable group comes to be seen as vulnerable not because of the political conditions that impose and create vulnerability — American bombs, Israeli missiles, tuition fees, border guards, cutbacks to social programs, institutional sexism — but they come to be recognized as vulnerable simply because that is what they are: a vulnerable group. It becomes naturalized for women to need shelters, for refugees to live in camps, for students to graduate in debt. When the response by those in power toward vulnerable groups that protest is to simply improve conditions slightly in order to bring an end to their political protest, this achieves some practical improvement yet undermines the important thing which that political protest does: namely, drawing awareness to a relationship that allows for the creation and imposition of vulnerability in the first place.

On the other hand, if rejecting paternalism also means rejecting the welfare and social institutions that are designed to support livable lives, as neoliberal opponents of state welfare would argue, then any demands for support or change become “illegible… even self-defeating”. Welfare, social and infrastructural support, social goods, all matter, even if they don’t necessarily change the relationship which allows for targeting groups as vulnerable.

Further complicating things is the fact that vulnerability, like precarity, can come to be used strategically, warns Butler. Men claiming they are vulnerable to discrimination by feminists; Israel claiming it is vulnerable to Palestinian missiles; white dominant populations claiming they are vulnerable to immigrants or refugees. In the same way that we must not assume all mass street protests or public assemblies are good things (they can also be orchestrated by the state, by right-wing conservatives, by xenophobic neo-Nazis) we can’t assume that all claims to vulnerability are grounded in the demand for a more decent, livable life. It’s a conundrum, and perhaps an irresolvable one.

What Butler suggests is that we recognize that we are all vulnerable, and that our vulnerability is a product of our dependence upon each other. Several caveats: vulnerability does not necessarily mean injurability; it simply means being open and responding to economics and to history, to the things that happen around us and affect us, often without our consent. It is also a product of our dependency. Dependency is also non-consensual; we cannot help the fact we are interdependent on each other. Dependency and vulnerability could even be considered fundamental aspects of the human condition (or, more rightly, of the living condition — Butler observes that we are vulnerable and dependent on the natural world and other living animals just as we are on each other). Interdependence, she warns, is not “some beautiful state of coexistence; it is not the same as social harmony.”

We may hate the fact of our vulnerability and our interdependence. But the point is that recognizing this is what allows us to mobilize as social movements, to gather together in social bodies on the street or elsewhere, to organize together in coalitions. It’s our shared vulnerability and dependence that brings us together, in order to demand recognition, “support and the conditions of a livable life”. It’s our shared precarity that makes our alliances with other precarious people possible, and which therefore creates the possibility of overcoming that very precarity.

This is part of the reason that our present era’s public assemblies seem to lack a unified message. They are comprised of alliances — awkward alliances, to be sure, but alliances predicated on a mutual acknowledgement of our shared vulnerability and the at times unpleasant and undesired fact of our interdependency. Butler uses the example of a conference she attended in Turkey to oppose homophobia and transphobia: “[O]n the street, after the conference, feminists lined up with the drag queens, genderqueers with human rights activists, and lipstick lesbians with their bisexual and heterosexual friends; the march included secularists and Muslims… To oppose the police violence against trans people was thus to be openly against military violence and the nationalist escalation of militarism; it was also to oppose the military aggression against the Kurds and the failure to recognize their political claims, but also, to act in the memory of the Armenian genocide and against modes of disavowal on the part of states that continue their violence in other ways.”

Transforming Politics

While it sounds like much of this is a call for the disenfranchised to be re-enfranchised, what Butler is proposing is in fact something even more radical. She suggests that “ways of avowing and showing certain forms of interdependency stand a chance of transforming the field of appearance itself.”

The transformation she calls for takes a variety of forms. It means avoiding the ‘double bind’ of such traditional political debates as those pitting idealism against pragmatism. Again, the example of gender and sexuality comes to hand. Gains that expand public space in existing institutions for those who have previously been excluded, e.g., gay marriage for non-heterosexuals and gender reassignment for trans folk, offer the opportunity to reduce precarity for those willing and able to enter the newly expanded, yet still normative, space. Yet it risks exacerbating violence for those who do not: for non-monogamous gay and lesbian couples; for genderqueers who defy normative gender roles, expressions and identities. “What if the gender that establishes the norms required in order for us to be recognizable also does violence to us, imperils our very survival?” she asks.

The solution, perhaps, lies in accepting that there is no easy solution, or rather that an easy solution risks also being a false solution. “The point is not to accept such a double bind, but to strive for modes of life in which performative acts struggle against precarity, a struggle that seeks to open a future in which we might live in new social modes of existence, sometimes on the critical edge of the recognizable and sometimes in the limelight of the dominant media — but in either case, or in the spectrum between, there is a collective acting without a pre-established collective subject; rather, the ‘we’ is enacted by the assembly of bodies, plural, persisting, acting, and laying claim to a public sphere by which one has been abandoned.”

It also means striving for new social forms and structures. It’s pointless to pursue forms of equality that would make life unlivable, she warns (one assumes here that she’s referring to the extension of the West’s disastrous over-consumption-based lifestyles to newer emerging economies). “The opposite of precarity is not security,” she writes, “but, rather, the struggle for an egalitarian social and political order in which a livable interdependency becomes possible…”

The notion of interdependency is important for Butler’s transformative call. It even forms part and parcel of her understanding of freedom. Drawing on Arendt, Butler sees freedom not as something possessed (or given, or taken) by any one person, but rather as a relation between people. No human can be human, or equal, or free, alone. We are social and relational beings. Butler takes it further, however, to say that this is expressed not merely through the spoken or written word, but through the palpable and visible presence of bodies appearing together. She explores how this was instantiated in the various mass gatherings that galvanized international media in recent years; how the act of coming together of precarious bodies to seize and occupy public space — to demand recognition — was a physical enactment of the sort of politics and rights they were demanding from the state. At the same time, the non-violent nature of many of these occupations was also a physical, bodily expression of the kind of political realities they demanded: “restraint in the name of an emerging community of equals whose primary way of doing politics would not be violence.”

It’s worth noting, however, that for Butler non-violent resistance doesn’t necessarily mean passive resistance. “It does not just say no to a violent world, but crafts the self and its relation to the world in a new way, seeking to embody, however provisionally, the alternative for which it struggles… Aggression is not eradicated, but cultivated, and its cultivated form can be seen in the body as it stands, falls, gathers, stops, remains silent.”

Her discussion of non-violence is extensive and thought-provoking. Because of the nature of coalitional politics and alliances, there will always be antagonism in public assemblies, she asserts, and this antagonism can easily assume the form of violence. “[N]o political assembly can ever fully overcome its own constitutive antagonisms. The task is to find a way to cultivate antagonism into a nonviolent practice. But the idea that we might find and inhabit some peaceful region of political subjectivity underestimates the pressing and continuous task of articulating aggression and antagonism into the substance of democratic contest. There is no way to achieve nonviolence without the tactical and principled cultivation of aggression into embodied modes of action.”

Interdependency and Cohabitation

Interdependency leads us naturally to the concept of ‘cohabitation’, which Butler also notes is a fact of our global reality, and one not of our own choosing. It emerges from her discussion of ‘obligation’, in which she explores various philosophical underpinnings for the question of what obligations we have to others, including those who are far away from us, and whom we have been led to consider as different from us in some regard (through nationality, citizenship, class, ethnicity, religion, etc). Again drawing on Arendt, Butler notes that we do not and cannot choose with whom we want to cohabit the Earth: “Not only do we live with those we never chose and with whom we may feel no immediate sense of social obligation, but we are also obligated to preserve those lives and the open-ended plurality that is the global population.” Arendt, however, might not fully agree with the broadly expansive, global perspective to which Butler stretches her notion, “I think what [Arendt] has offered is an ethical view of cohabitation that serves as a guideline for particular forms of politics.”

Regardless, we must accept that we have no choice with whom we live — especially in a world of mass movements, migration, and rapidly shifting global populations — and adapt our concrete politics to such a reality, in a way that affirms the right to substantive equality and good lives for all of us. “Thus, it is not from pervasive love for humanity or a pure desire for peace that we strive to live together. We live together because we have no choice, and though we sometimes rail against that unchosen condition, we remain obligated to struggle to affirm the ultimate value of that unchosen social world, an affirmation that is not quite a choice, a struggle that makes itself known and felt precisely when we exercise freedom in a way that is necessarily committed to the equal value of lives.”

Like all of Butler’s works, Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly is a heady immersion into the thought of one of today’s most profound philosophers of action. There’s a lot to consider, here; the discussion above explores only some of this rich, albeit philosophically dense, terrain. Despite the near-universal eloquency of Butler’s style, some of it is more compelling than others. Her discussion of hunger strikes and prison protest is theoretically rich, but one wonders at what point philosophy can truly elucidate the realities, motivations, and experience of the tortured and the enslaved.

Further, there’s a certain skepticism one cannot help but feel for the privileged intellectual celebrities whose careers are founded on explicating the lives of the precarious. Still, this is a call for a truly transformative politics, and its relevance to the fraught struggles taking place in today’s streets and public spaces around the world cannot be denied. For those seeking a way to reconcile the waves of refugees, the alternating violence and silence of the streets, and the democratic ideals many of us have been raised to hold, Butler offers if not a way then the beginnings of a coherent way to think about it.

The politics of the street and other public spaces will surely continue to assert and define themselves in ways we are only beginning to understand. “The street is not just the basis or platform for a political demand, but an infrastructural good,” she writes. “And so when assemblies gather in public spaces in order to fight against the decimation of infrastructural goods, to fight against austerity measures, for instance, that would undercut public education, libraries, transit systems, and roads, we find that sometimes the fight is for the platform itself.”

While these struggles are invariably struggles against precarity, these “movements do not seek to overcome interdependency or even vulnerability as they struggle against precarity; rather, they seek to produce the conditions under which vulnerability and interdependency become livable.”