In the last entry I introduced some of the literature around the concept “performativity”. It is not possible to cover all the issues and theoretical controversies raised in relation to this topic. I have selected several that I hope are relevant to your work.

I mentioned in the last entry that many theorists who adopt a performative perspective (and at times the language of “performativity”) distinguish their approach from “social construction”. Social construction marks a significant development in sociological thinking that can be traced back to Berger and Luckman’s The Social Construction of Reality (1967). A distinction can be drawn between constructivism that sees the person as “actively engaged in the creation of their own phenomenal world”, and social constructionism, which emphasises the extent to which our understandings of the world are the product of social forces (Burr 2003: 19-20). In past publications I have distanced WPR from constructivism because of its reliance on a foundational subject who stands outside of and shapes “reality” (Bacchi 2015), a position inconsistent with poststructural premises. I linked WPR to constructionist premises, emphasising the role of socio-political processes in shaping forms of knowledge (Bacchi 1999; 2009: 33; see also Phillips 1995: 8). 

The shift in my work from constructionism towards a performative perspective, mentioned in the “Kick-off” presentation (Bacchi 2021) and in my Keynote address at the Symposium (Bacchi 2022), indicates a disquiet with the presumption in social constructionism that the world (as we know it) is constructed once and for all. The concern therefore is that social constructionism appears to fix “reality”, as is suggested in the “construction” metaphor. John Law, an important “performative” theorist, clarifies the issue: 

“We are no longer dealing with construction, social or otherwise; there is no stable prime-mover, social or individual, to construct anything, no builder, no puppeteer. … Rather we are dealing with enactment or performance. The metaphor of construction – and social construction – will no longer serve. Buyers, sellers, notice boards, strawberries, spatial arrangements, economic theories, and rules of conduct, all of these assemble and together enact a set of practices that make a more or less precarious reality.” (Law 2007; emphasis in original)

Judith Butler (1990, 1993, 1997), whom we met in the last entry, also favours performativity over constructionism. In Butler, sex and gender are “neither essences nor pure constructions” but “the contingent outcomes of the manner in which they are performed and reiterated” (Cochoy et al. 2010). Poststructural Policy Analysis (Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 89) explains the shift to a performative perspective in relation to the “object” of “addiction”: 

“For some time sociologists have drawn attention to the cultural construction of the concept [“addiction”] (Room 1983; Gusfield 1996). A poststructural approach moves beyond social constructionism to focus on the practices involved in the production of ‘addiction’ as a particular kind of condition or disease in specific contexts. A prominent place is assigned to the role of governmental practices and technologies in this production … .” 

The next question is whether a performativity perspective delivers on this promise to move beyond cultural “fixity”. And, it seems – no surprise here – that the answer to this question depends on how performativity is conceptualised. This point is best illustrated in an exchange between Butler and Callon.

You may recall from the previous entry (29 Sept. 2022) that Callon’s (1998, 2009) position is that the discipline (or practice) of economics constitutes (or shapes) the economy. Butler (2010: 152) expresses reservations about Callon’s interpretation of this point. Her concern is the presumption in Callon that “performativity works” and “that we only trace the ways in which economic life is ‘made’”, which, in her view, assimilates performativity to “the notion of cultural construction”. By contrast, Butler (2010: 152) emphasises that “it is only under certain conditions, and with no degree of predictability that theoretical models successfully bring into being the phenomenon they describe”. Hence, there is space for “misfires” and “counterperformatives” (2010: 151). This debate between Callon and Butler is raised again later in relation to the kind of politics associated with a performative perspective.

A key issue here is what it means to say that something constitutes something else. For Butler (2010: 147) “performativity starts to describe a set of processes that produce ontological effects, that is, that work to bring into being certain kinds of realities”. In poststructural discourse theory, “a performative is that which enacts or brings about what it names” (de Goede 2006: 10). According to Brisset (2017) economists, such as Callon, do not use performative in this constitutive sense, despite their adoption of the terminology. Recall from the previous entry that Callon (2009) dismisses the idea in some interpretations of Austin that “language creates the world from scratch”. In his view, the analytic separation in Austin between illocutionary effects, which produce ontological effects and result in the constitution ex nihilo of new realities, and perlocutionary effects, the alteration of on-going situations, is “a difference of degree and not of nature” (Callon 2010: 165; see Austin 1962). To say that economics constitutes the economy, then, as Callon argues (1998, 2009), means something very different from poststructural arguments about how practices constitute “realities”.

Callon comes closer to a constitutive position when he discusses the production (or performance) of “economic agents”. As Lee (2014: 901) describes: “Because all actions are calculative, economics creates calculated actors (Callon 1998). Therefore, the economic man [homo economicus] is not a myth.” There are useful connections here with the focus in governmentality studies on subjectification processes – the “diverse techniques from multiple sources” that act on the body, the mind, and the will to make individuals, families, and collectivities “governable” (Ong 2003: 89; see Question 5 in WPR).

The place of the “subject” in performative theories is complicated by the common usage of “performance” in ways that describe conventional subject-actors as the originators of practices (think for example of theatre actors as “performers” and as “performing”). To avoid confusion on this point John Law (2004: 159) and Annemarie Mol (2002: 33), both associated with actor-network theory, have replaced the language of “performance” with the language of “enactment”. In their view, “enactment” removes the presumption of subject-actors and better captures the plurality of factors, human and non-human, involved in producing “realities”: 

“Events are made to happen by several people and lots of things. Words participate too. Paperwork, rooms, buildings, the insurance system. An endless list of heterogeneous elements that can either be highlighted or left in the background.” (Mol 2002: 25-26; see Schwertl 2016)

In performativity accounts, as Butler (2010: 151) describes them, “subjects” are constituted in practices and “the assumption of a ‘sovereign’ speaker is lost”. She follows Derrida in removing Austin’s focus on the speaking subject and “the authentic intentions of the speaker” (Gond et al. 2016: 10):

“performativity implies a certain critique of the subject, especially once it is severed from the Austinian presumption that there is always someone who is delegated to speak or that performative discourse has to take the form of discrete verbal enunciation.” (Butler 2010: 150; emphasis in original)

Given the proliferation of practices well beyond verbal utterances, the formation of one’s subjectivity is an ongoing and always incomplete process: “the doer/subject/person is never fixed, finally as a girl or a woman or whatever, but always becoming or being” (Jones 1997: 267).

These various incarnations of performativity and enactment lead to contrasting understandings of politics. On this topic, in a 2002 interview, Callon (Barry & Slater 2002: 301) made a claim that has provoked much debate: “What is very important is to abandon the critical position, and to stop denouncing economists and capitalists and so on. Instead, we need to engage with debates on specific markets” (see discussion in Brisset 2017).

Butler (2010: 153) expressed her misgivings: 

“But as much as I admire his breathtaking contributions to the field, I am hesitant to accept Michel Callon’s view that ‘it is very important to abandon the critical position’.”

She put the case that “the thesis of the performativity of economics and the embeddedness of the economy in economics” has “the effect of depoliticizing the question of the economy”. Callon (2010) replied that there are two ways in which his version of performativity is political: first, he identifies plural theoretical frameworks, allowing for democratic debate about which is preferable; second, he allows for failures and “misfires” that need addressing (Lee 2014). 

These allowances are deemed inadequate by Butler and others (see discussion in Lezaun 2017), because they appear to restrict critique to existing economic structures. Paul du Gay (2010), for example, questions the grounds for determining a “failure”. Schroter (2017: 252) asks: “When ‘a world is put in motion by the formula describing it’ (Callon 1998: 320), how then can “unexpected events” (Callon 1998: 326) appear?” Butler (2010: 153) asks pointedly if Callon’s position 

“means abandoning any effort to evaluate and oppose those multivalent operations of capitalism that augment income disparities, presume the functional necessity of poverty, and thwart efforts to establish just forms for the redistribution of wealth”.

Butler’s comment highlights a key area of concern around performativity and indeed around other constitutive approaches. Is it possible in these accounts to adopt a normative position and/or to promote a specific reform agenda? According to Schwertl (2016) a shift has occurred among actor-network theorists from looking at “stabilizing and closing processes” (cf Callon 1986) to focusing on “transformative, fluid aspects of actor-networks” (Verran 2001; Mol 2002). Lezaun (2017) also detects evidence of a shift towards normativity and the positive identification of values in at least some actor-network accounts. He mentions as an example Annemarie Mol’s (2013) elaboration of the concept of the “ontonorm” in her studies of diet and eating.

I have discussed the issue of normativity in WPR in a previous entry (30 April 2019). There I draw on Kelly’s (2018: 2; emphasis added) helpful distinction between an “inflationary” understanding of normativity as broad value commitments, and a “much stricter definition of the ‘normative’ … which takes it as merely a by-word for prescription, which is to say for ‘oughts’”. While a broad or “inflationary” normativity is clearly at work in Question 5 of WPR, as an analytic strategy, WPR does not prescribe specific reforms. This refusal to engage in telling people “what is to be done” (Foucault 1991: 84) reflects a concern that reform programs, our own included, often buy into problematic premises that need highlighting and questioning. As Wendy Brown (1998: 44) explains, the kind of poststructural approach offered here: 

“aims to make visible why particular positions and visions of the future occur to us, and especially to reveal when and where those positions work in the same register of ‘political rationality’ as that which they purport to criticize.”

The commitment in WPR to engage in self-problematization (Step 7) aims to contribute to this task, to render “problematic, difficult, dangerous” those acts, gestures, discourses “which up until then [they] had seemed to go without saying” (Foucault 1991: 84).

To return to the task set in the previous entry (29 Sept. 2022), what do I mean when I say that policies produce (or enactconstitute, or even perform) “problems” as particular sorts of problems? This way of describing this key premise in WPR (see Bacchi 2022) can be set in opposition to accounts that focus on people’s competing views or interpretations of the “problem”. The point is to draw attention to the shaping impact of problem representations, to emphasize how policies create rules that play a part in shaping people’s lives. They thus change the existing order in important ways and hence are constitutive: they (help to) form the “realities” through which we are governed (see Bacchi 2012). 

In this view, “representations do not imitate reality but are the practices through which things take on meaning and value …” (Shapiro 1988: xi). They form part of an “active, technical process” of governing (Rose and Miller 1992: 185). A problem representation therefore is not some image of “reality”; it is the way in which a particular policy “problem” is constituted as the real (Bacchi 2012: 151). 

These processes are ongoing and contestable rather than determined. Miller and Rose (1990: 1) describe “government” as a “congenitally failing operation”, which means that there have to be continuous and repeated efforts to shape citizen behaviours. Aitken (2006) makes the same point in relation to “the economy”: 

“Instead of some monolith—the economy —understood to ‘drive’ social conditions and lives, a myriad of micropractices requires repetition on a regular basis to ‘enact’ social relations. The need for repetition confirms the contingency of those relations and opens up the possibility of challenge and change.” 

Rose-Redwood and Glass (2015: 12) make this point succinctly:

“Representations are performative – they are interventions, doings, happenings, events, embodied forms of conduct, all of which may have effects beyond the meaning of what is said: yet none of which is guaranteed from the outset. The act of representation is inextricably bound up with competing claims to social and political authority.”

In this understanding, while governmental practices might elicit specific types of subjects (Introna 2016), refusal is commonplace (Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 50). Because discourses are plural, complex, and inconsistent practices, “subject positions” are neither mandatory nor determinative. As Inda (2005: 10-11) remarks, “Individuals can and do negotiate the processes to which they are subjected”. Subjectification effects therefore are neither determined nor predictable (Bacchi 2017). 

This and the previous entry (29 Sept. 2022) on “performativity” highlight the challenges involved in choosing a language to capture our political visions and assessments. Concepts come into vogue and slip from favour. It becomes useful therefore to notice the concepts we use, to be aware of their origins and associations, and to subject them to critical analysis. Because concepts are proposals about how to proceed from here (Tanesini 1994: 207) it is possible to apply the WPR questions to those concepts – that is, to ask of our concepts just what they propose, what assumptions underlie those aims/goals, where they come from, what they consider relevant, what is left out of the analysis, and the implications that follow from a particular way of conceptualizing socio-political relations. Hopefully it is possible to see that these questions have guided my preliminary forays into reflecting on the contested topic of “performativity”.  

Along these lines, Rose-Redwood and Glass (2015) produce a helpful genealogical account of performativity theory.  Carlson (2008) also offers a useful genealogy of “performance”.  (My thanks to Matthieu Floret for these references). 

Next time I hope to pick up the thread of “performativity” in relation to a concept that attracted a good deal of attention at the recent (17-18 August 2022) Symposium in Karlstad, “sociotechnical imaginaries” (SIs). 


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