Performativity : Bonnie Honig

Unknown / Porileus wordt door Phalaris in bronzen stier verbrand, 1550-1570

Performativity : Bonnie Honig

I have sought to bring to light—by putting it to work—the fecundity of the performative, grasping it in its passage through the literary “thing.”—Shoshana Felman, The Scandal of the Speaking Body

[I]n appealing from philosophy to, for example, literature, I am not seeking illustrations for truths philosophy already knows, but illumination of philosophical pertinence that philosophy alone has not surely grasped—as though an essential part of its task must work behind its back.—Stanley Cavell, Must We Mean What We Say?

“Everybody’s talking about performativity, now,” Eve Sedgwick said in 1993.1 She said it was because of Judith Butler’s book Gender Trouble, which cast sex/gender as performative, that is to say, as a discursive product, not the natural cause, of words uttered, gestures performed, clothes worn, bodies moving. But, as Sedgwick knew, “performative” or “performativity,” by then a key term in what would go on to be called “queer theory,” originated with J.L. Austin’s How to do Things with Words, a contribution to ordinary language philosophy in the form of lectures given in the 1950’s, which were then published, posthumously, as a book in 1962.2 Austin’s performatives are “speech acts” because they are utterances that do things, by contrast with constative utterances that describe things. From the mid-20th century to the turn to the 21st, “performativity” travelled beyond Austin’s speech act theory to democratic, feminist and queer theory. Signaling the inaugural, creative, or disciplinary powers of language, performativity careened between ritualized or compelled utterance, on the one hand, and powerfully innovative or subversive speech acts of resignification, on the other.3 In the last twenty-thirty years, however, performativity has come to mean something else entirely—hypocrisy or pretense, as in the now popular castigation: “That’s so performative!” This means performativity has collapsed into just one branch of what Sedgwick called its “dual history,” becoming all theater, no speech act theory.4 And importantly, “theater” here connotes not performance (which can be powerful), but insincerity, which means we are well away from Austin, who began his lectures ruling out internalist or psychological considerations in connection with performatives’ meaning or impact.5 He focused on the grammars of worldly behavior and the behavior of worldly grammar.

My questions are: have we lost anything in the contemporary collapse of performativity into mere performance? And might we need Austinian performativity now? Austin’s performatives are, potentially, part of a radical grammar of collective self-authorization. This is what Austin has to offer, I argue here, and it is approached by (i) returning to his 1990’s feminist and queer theory critics, specifically Butler and Sedgwick, who criticized performativity as sovereigntist, queered it, and later retheorized it as embodied; (ii) rereading Austin’s work closely in part to reassess queer theory’s criticisms and in part to revisit a critique of conjugality that was, at around the same time, in the 80’s and 90’s, central to Black studies; and, finally, (iii) thinking with Austin in the company of Hannah Arendt, whose account of political action—as “action that appears in words” with the power to “establish relations and create new realities” (HC 200)—is performative, though Arendt never uses that term nor is there any indication she knew of Austin.6 Still, Arendt says in The Human Condition that “No other human performance requires speech to the same extent as action. In all other performances speech plays a subordinate role, as a means of communication or a mere accompaniment to something that could also be achieved in silence” (HC 179).7 Only in the domain of action is speech singularly performative—the vernacular of political life.

I argue here that a close reading of Austin shows his How to do Things with Words to be less sovereigntist than his queer theory critics charge. This makes him a more amenable partner to Arendt, for whom speech acts in the domain of political action are expressly non-sovereign.8 In queer theory, the human condition of non-sovereignty is connected to experiences of embodiment and desire. But in Arendt’s account of action, non-sovereignty is connected to worldly conditions of plurality and contingency. When we act politically, our words pinball through the world, landing unpredictably with others who are different from us, and all this is beyond our control.

In Arendt, this non-sovereignty is exclusive to the domain of action. But, drawing on Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, I show that, although Arendt distinguishes the different operations of language in labor, work, and action, all three postulate the same traits: in all three we are language speakers and languaged creatures. At least this is how things look if we think of Arendt’s labor, work, and action as Wittgensteinian language games, phenomenologically distinct rather than ontologically or teleologically unique. I think Arendt’s text, The Human Condition, supports this move and I argue that Arendt’s account of action is improved if we also take seriously conjugations of performativity and the body offered by some of Austin’s queer theory critics, as well as by Hortense Spillers, who was writing at the same time. Spillers does not refer to Austin or performativity, not by name, but in her iconic essay, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” she highlights how slavery’s destruction of Black kinship created room for new conjugations of the conjugal.9 If, as Spillers says, “the feeling of kinship is not inevitable,” if it describes a relationship that appears “natural” but must be “cultivated” in the context of “actual material conditions,” and can be uncultivated in actual material conditions, then a way is opened for improvisation, and the moralization of one kinship form over others is undone. This possibility resonates with the claims of Austin’s queer theory critics (many of them also poststructuralists). This is unsurprising since, as Spillers says years later, she was in 1987 “trying to bring the language of a postmodern academy to a very old problem.”10 I conclude with a call to add Arendt to the archive of performativity because she presses on us now, as thinkers or theorists of the performative, a fuller confrontation with the inaugural powers of language, what Arendt calls the power to begin—in words.11

1. From Language to Bodies: Queer Performativity and the Bird of Language

Queer theorists criticized Austin for what they saw as his sovereigntist account of performativity. They might have preferred Arendt for whom action is singularly non-sovereign due to the political realm’s contingency and plurality. But, for queer theorists of performativity, performativity was non-sovereign for different reasons: the iterability of performative sex-gender norms (compelled repetitions that are always imperfect, sometimes misfire, or are possibly subverted) and, later, the embodied experience of vulnerability, also called “performativity.” This is the second and theoretically more interesting slippage in the meaning of performativity since Austin: the shift enacted in queer theory from performativity in/as language to performativity as corporeal vulnerability and collectivity. Jeffrey Nealon says that Sedgwick “pivots from performativity understood primarily as a linguistic question about meaning to understanding performativity primarily as a series of questions about lives and identities.”12 Heather Love notes, there is a “transition” in Sedgwick’s work “away from the strategy of denaturalization to an emphasis on affect and embodiment. . . . Sedgwick redefines performativity as a social scene, and a form of attunement . . . she imagines a queer collective.”13 So, too, the work of Butler moves, roughly, from language to bodies or, better, from the languaged body (in the late 80’s and 90’s) to embodiment in and beyond language (roughly after 2000). The latter, as they put it, is an embodiment that signifies beyond the “old notions of signification as discursivity.”14

This shift was at least partly in response to supposed limitations of Austin’s account, which was said to postulate or install a straight male sovereign subjectivity: the “I” of the performative utterance. Vindicated and (falsely) verified by such speech acts, the sovereign “I” was seen as most obviously in play in Austin’s first listed example in How to do Things with Words, the “I do” whereby a straight couple is married by dint of words said. Sedgwick treated that “I do” as Austin’s primal scene of performativity. This made the performative into something of a Trojan horse for queer theorists, even though, for Sedgwick, “the weird centrality of the marriage example for performativity in general isn’t exactly a sign that this train of thought is foredoomed to stultification in sexual orthodoxy.”15 New conjugations of performativity were possible, and Sedgwick would go on to offer several.16 Still, the “weird centrality” of the “I do” in Austin was key to Sedgwick’s 1993 critique of Butler’s Gender Trouble which claimed sex-gender was performative, the product and not the premise of norming speech acts of sex/gender. In response to Sedgwick, Butler argued that terms like performativity could be resignified by queer theory/practice for new purposes and new politics (just as the stigmatizing term “queer” had been resignified).17 Moreover, Butler noted, Austin, whom Butler, too, would go on to criticize as sovereigntist, was not in any case their primary source on performativity in Gender Trouble.”18

Many assumed, though, that there was something problematically sovereigntist and statist going on in Austin. Since the privilege of straight marriage was largely due to its state-licensed recognition, another sovereignty, state sovereignty and not just the sovereign subject of language, was also at issue. The other side of this state licensing is named by Hortense Spillers, who traces the work of marriage as a raced normativity weaponized against the kinship arrangements of Black families. Black kinship arrangements were pathologized in the American Moynihan Report of 1968 for deviating from preferred, dominant kinship norms (Blacks in the Reconstruction South had also been attacked for hewing to them).19 In the United States, Spillers shows, the idealized “I do” reproduces daily a racially privileged normative kinship that pathologizes alternatives, while disavowing implication in the destruction of Black kinship structures under slavery and in its wake.

Reading Austin with Spillers, it is newly startling to note that the performative that follows the “I do” in Austin’s first list of performatives is the naming of a ship for Queen Elizabeth, the monarch (1588–1603) who oversaw and underwrote the initiation of England’s maritime slave trade.”20 Austin’s other two performatives in the opening list of Words are bequest, as in a will, also state-backed, and wagering, as in a bet, which is more of an off-licensed activity, but then so was the privateering on which Elizabeth also relied to build an emerging Atlantic empire. Spillers does not comment on Austin directly, but her rejection of the pathologization of Black kinship chastises not just the authors of a government report on the supposed state of the Black family, but also philosophers of language cloistered behind the veil of such haunting histories.

In a different register, in Limited Inc (1988) Jacques Derrida also aired the concern that what seemed to be a set of claims about language in Austin’s account actually presupposed or even furthered state legitimation, institutionalization, or violence, in the form of policing or insuring.21 Later, in 2000, Derrida went further, saying performativity is, as such, an institutionalizing and legitimating form of speech that was disguised to pass as event. This is what makes it necessary, he says, for “the ethical [to] be exposed to a place where constative language as well as performative language is in the service of another language.”22 But we may find traces of “another language” in Austin too.23 Indeed, there is, contra Sedgwick and Butler, a queerer performativity than previously thought in Austin’s own text.

Austin arguably himself queers performativity (that is, he is less in need than we thought of the critical queering provided in the 90’s and since). His repeated but neglected example of a bull that may be about to charge can be read as a waywardness that foils or counters the would-be containments of straight, sovereigntist marriage (HTW 33). The wayward bull may not be Austin’s first example (the “I do” is) but indicators of the bull recur several times in Austin’s text, and almost all feature a character named John, which is Austin’s own first name, suggesting an identification of the author with the bull example that is not there in the wedding scene treated by so many as iconically Austinian. Notably, Arendt, who theorizes action as performative (“action that appears in words”), also turns to a bull. As we shall see, Arendt’s bull, which has a classical provenance and is far more dangerous to both bodies and language than any bull Austin imagined, pairs well with Austin’s. The two bulls span an arc of performativity that puts freedom at one end and torture at the other. Together, they pattern the queer reading of performativity—as both potentially freeing and painfully compelled.

In the 1970’s and 1980’s, Derrida noted the dependence of performatives on a (fictive) constative subject, which meant that performative freedom was implicated in the coercions of constation and the ruse of reference.24 But Austin’s queer theory critics sharpened Derrida’s criticism, noting how the words of performativity were not only inaugural and compelling but also a “noose” of normative gendering (I cite here “the noose of words,” from Euripides’ Hippolytus, the tragedy that Austin mentions in passing in How to do Things with Words). Derrida rightly emphasized the productive undecidability of constative/performative entanglements. But in politics, the question of whether either or both are in play, and with what effects, “is in [our] hands.” These words are from Toni Morrison’s retold parable, in which an old blind woman, a respected visionary, responds to youths that test her, asking her to say if the bird they hold is alive or dead. Is this a trick? Do they mean to test the old woman’s powers as a seer? She responds as a prophet: “it is in your hands.”25 Morrison “choose[s] to read the bird as language and the woman as a practiced writer.” If the woman can respond as she does, that is because “she thinks of language partly as a system, partly as a living thing over which one has control, but mostly as agency—as an act with consequences.”26 Language as an act with consequences is a good characterization of what Austin had in mind when he coined the term “performative.” But that is not the end of Morrison’s story. It goes on and on, through violence, mistrust, disappointment, and a sense of betrayal before it lands, ultimately, with a bit of hope. It turns out, Morrison says, that the question “Is the bird we hold living or dead?” was not a trick, but “perhaps” a way to ask: “‘Could someone tell us what is life? What is death?’ No trick at all; no silliness. A straightforward question worthy of the attention of a wise one.”27 And soon the woman replies again, now granting the seriousness of the questions put to her: “Finally,” Morrison says, the woman says to the youths “I trust you now. I trust you with the bird that is not in your hands because you have truly caught it. Look. How lovely it is, this thing we have done—together.”28 This thing we have done together is in the give and take of language in all its powers. It is the bird of language, nested in the loosened grip of newly learned trust. 

In the next two sections of this essay, I trace schematically the performative’s permutations through some of the work of Butler and Sedgwick, respectively. Each published an essay in the 1993 inaugural issue of GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, asking about the promise and limits of performativity for queer theory in a moment of its emergence. Butler and Sedgwick drew on different sources: Butler on Derrida on Kafka, and Sedgwick on Austin. When Butler turned to Austin three years later, their Austin was quite similar to Sedgwick’s, likely because both of their readings were informed by Shoshana Felman’s The Scandal of the Speaking Body: Don Juan with J.L. Austin, or Seduction in Two Languages. Felman’s book appeared in French in 1980 then in English in 1982 as The Literary Speech Act.29 It was Felman who centered, somewhat exaggeratedly, marriage (or its proposal) as not just an example in Austin but as the exemplary Austinian performative.

Looking back more than twenty years later, Butler notes Felman is a shared point of departure for both them and Sedgwick. “Could Eve Sedgwick’s readings of the performativity of the marriage ceremony have taken place without Felman’s work?,” Butler asks, as they go on to credit Felman’s early work with the turn to the body that displaces Austin’s performativity as a speaking act.30 In Felman, “speaking is, in part, a bodily act” and this, Butler says, is a “divergent deconstruction,” one dependent not, as in Derridean deconstruction, on a turn to writing but, rather, on a turn to the body.31 Both writing and body demote or compromise the would-be sovereignty of the speaking “I” but, in Felman, Butler argues, grammar is displaced by embodied voice and the grammatical subject by the embodied one. Butler thus locates in Felman’s book the slide from language to body that I trace in 1990’s queer theory and since.

But why did it take so long for Felman’s 1980 turn to the body to find traction with feminist and queer theorists of the performative? One answer may be that another text was also needed, the aforementioned essay by Spillers, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe,” published in Diacritics in 1987. Subtitled “An American Grammar Book,” the essay provides a reading of the (de)gendering grammar of the flesh in the context of slavery. Where people are branded as property, Spiller says, and stored in holds like cargo to be sold upon arrival, the body and writing of deconstruction become flesh and text. From this perspective, and in the aftermath of 1960’s public handwringing in the United States about the breakdown of the black family, the analytic and queer theory attention to the performative “I do” can seem quaint and cruel. But, as Vincent Lloyd rightly notes, there are resonances between Spillers and Butler that date back to the 80’s and 90’s.32 And Butler saw the resonances too. They said at the time, in an interview with Art Forum in 1992: “Kobena Mercer, Paul Gilroy, Patricia J. Williams, Hortense J. Spillers, and Kimberle Crenshaw . . . are trying to think race and sexuality together, and asking some pretty interesting questions about what it might mean to have one’s sexuality formed through race—to understand one’s sexuality as racialized.”33 For those interested in theorizing, mobilizing, or recovering performativity, this Black studies archive remains to be read as a contribution to, or in connection with, Austin studies and ordinary language philosophy; that is, not only as a racialization of sex but also as a rival theorization of performativity’s promise and limits. The bird of language is in our hands. Performativity’s grammars have been multiplied and mutated by Patricia Williams, Saidiya Hartman, Christina Sharpe, and others, often in dialogue with Spillers. To appreciate this work now means recovering Austin’s text from his 1990’s queer theory critics, to whom I now turn.34

2. Butler’s Performatives

I originally took my clue on how to read the performativity of gender from Jacques Derrida’s reading of Kafka’s “Before the law.” There, the one who waits for the law, sits before the door of the law, attributes a certain force to the law for which one waits. The anticipation . . . is the means by which that authority is attributed and installed: the anticipation conjures its object.—Judith Butler, Gender Trouble (2nd ed., 1999)

In the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, Butler theorized performativity as a site or practice of symbolic resignification that re-sexes and re-genders the sexed/gendered body, daily, seeking to bring it into normative conformity with the conventional sex/gender binary over and over again. At this point, Butler’s subversive performative feminist politics of sex/gender, critically opposed to identity politics, draws its power from the arbitrariness of the sign, whose irreducibility to reference opens new possibilities of understanding and renovating gender practices. Without reference, the subject of feminism was not an always already known identity (“woman”), but rather yet to be achieved, or reconfigured, subjectivities. Butler’s examples at this stage of their thinking were speech acts, word use, discursive formations, and renegade grammars. As they put it in a 1994 interview with Peter Osborne and Lynne Segal, “It is important . . . to understand performativity—which is distinct from performance—through the more limited notion of resignification.35

Through the 90’s, Butler claimed that “the body [that is] signified as prior to signification is an effect of signification.”36 If this signifying act produces the body that it, then, claims “to find prior to any and all signification,” then the language or signifying powers in question are: “productive, constitutive, one might even argue, performative,” they said.37 This statement is from 1992’s “Contingent Foundations.” In 1993, Butler says that “the effects of performatives” are “to be understood as discursive production,” which means “gender performativity calls to be rethought . . . in terms of a norm that compels a certain ‘citation’ in order for a viable subject to be produced.”38 Deviations from the mandated sex-gender binary produce unviable subjects. Most people are motivated to compliance because we crave viability.39 But we also refuse. In 1997, Butler puts it pointedly: the “sedimented usage [of performatives] comes to compose, without determining, the cultural sense of the body” and this means the body can “expropriat[e] the discursive means of its own production.”40 Claims such as these, which Butler made in 1992, 1993, and 1997, give way over the 2000’s to claims like this one in Notes toward a Performative Theory of Assembly (2015): “Embodied actions . . . signify in ways that are, strictly speaking, nether discursive nor prediscursive.”41 Here, what counts as “performative” shifts, and it shifts in a (more) phenomenological direction.”42

Sara Salih, Amy Hollywood, Zeynep Gambetti, and many others see the word “performativity” in Butler’s work and assume, reasonably enough, the presence or influence of Austin.43 But Austin is not present or central to Butler’s thinking about performativity. In their 1988 “Performative Acts,” a set piece for Gender Trouble, Butler cites, only in passing, John Searle, a follower of Austin, criticized by Derrida for restricting his speech act theory to the “idealized case of the promise.”44 In “Performative Acts” and, later, in Gender Trouble, Butler’s points of departure on performativity are: Nietzsche (no doer behind the deed), Beauvoir (the body is a “situation”), Foucault (power is productive), Althusser (language is interpellative), and Derrida (performativity is citational, iterative, and ruptural).45 In 1993, Butler mentions Austin to respond to Sedgwick, whose criticism of Butler begins by locating Austin as the originator of performativity. Later, in 1996, Butler mentions Austin again, briefly, and then, in Excitable Speech (1997), for the first time, they attend to his work in a bit more detail, centering what he calls the perlocutionary force of performative utterances, whose extra-intentionality and gapped effectivity, Butler argues, are promising for a subversive politics of resignification.46

Asked why they finally turned to Austin in 1997, Butler says in a 1999 interview with Vikki Bell: “I suppose the use of Austin became important because . . . it is a theory of the performative, and this is a word that I’ve been using all along without quite dealing with him, which has already been somewhat scandalous. I think in Gender Trouble I actually took it from Derrida’s essay on Kafka, “Before the Law,” which had Austin as its background but which I didn’t bother to pursue.”47 Now, scandalous is an interesting word in this context since Butler, who does not mention Felman here (the conversation just turns in a different direction), will later expressly attribute their turn to the body to Felman, whose Scandal of the Speaking Body centered Austin and his “I do” alongside Jacques Lacan and Don Juan, the myth, the play, and the opera.48

But, as Butler explains in the interview with Bell, theirs “is not a loyal use of Austin” because Austin “gives us a fantasy,” Butler says here: “He charts, without knowing it, a fantasy of sovereign power in speech.”49 This comic critique of Austin for his non-sovereign charting of sovereign power (“without knowing it”!) is like Sedgwick’s. She, too, citing Felman, insists that Austinian performatives are centrally modelled on marriage and its sovereignty-installing “I do.” Both Butler and Sedgwick position Austin as a placeholder for a certain unvexed sovereigntism in sex and politics, and this marks a missed opportunity. It obscures a more agonistic sovereignty that is also there in Austin, tensely positioned between—or, better, produced by the tensions between—the so-called “I do” and a “not you” that stands for all that Butler limns via hate speech in Excitable Speech and that Sedgwick nearly summons from Austinian performativity when she nominates deformativity as a kind of performative. Deformativity is the “not you” in which all hate speech traffics, and which, arguably, all performatives risk.

3. Sedgwick’s Deformatives

What? You think we should commit ourselves to stay with the first object that takes our fancy?—Don Juan (quoted in Shoshana Felman, The Scandal of the Speaking Body)

I like to speculate about a performative elaboration that might begin with the example, not “I do,” but, let us say, “Shame on you.”—Eve Sedgwick, “Queer Performativity”50

For Heather Love, Sedgwick’s redefinition of performativity “was a bold first move in a campaign to seize queer studies by the root” in the hope of stepping “to the side of the deconstructive project of analyzing apparently nonlinguistic phenomena in rigorously linguistic terms.”51 It began with Sedgwick’s 1993 “Queer Performativity: Henry James’s The Art of the Novel,” which addressed Butler’s turn to performativity. “I don’t remember hearing the phrase ‘queer performativity’ used before,” Sedgwick said, “but it seems to be made necessary by, if nothing else, the work of Judith Butler in and since her important book Gender Trouble.”52 Sedgwick then located the term performativity in J.L. Austin’s work, and claimed that Austin develops the idea of performative utterances by treating the “I do” of the straight couple as exemplary in How to do Things with Words: it is not only his first example, it is also one to which he returns repeatedly, she claimed, and the result was a rather partial and homophobic kind of performativity, right there, at the source.53 Sedgwick cited Felman: her “work in The Literary Speech Act,” i.e., The Scandal of the Speaking Body, “confirms the weird centrality of the marriage example for performativity.” But, for Sedgwick, in 1993, the problem was larger than Austin because of the place of performativity in Gender Trouble.

Moving beyond Felman, Sedgwick argued that Austin’s performative “I do” did not only marry a couple and install a sovereign, straight I. It also shamed the sexually minoritized who were excluded from such state-sanctioned marriage. (It was 1993. I write in 2023, when 1993 may yet be our future not our past.) This is why, Sedgwick explained, straight couples may find gay friends reluctant to attend their weddings. If performativity was to be useful, then the “I do,” the performative that Sedgwick took to be exemplarily Austinian, had to be replaced with one more familiar to queers, she argued: and she singled out “Shame on you.” Heather Love summarizes the proposal as follows: “By shifting from the marriage ceremony to a scene of childhood shame, Sedgwick questions the heteronormativity of Austin’s account. What would it mean, she asks, to ‘begin with stigma,’ that is, to understand performativity in the context of unauthorized or debased social experience—for instance, in the context of ‘gender-dissonant or otherwise stigmatized childhood?’”54 Hearing the words “Shame on you” was a constitutive experience of queerness. Also notable, and this is crucial from the perspective of performativity’s grammars, is that “Shame on you” was a performative that dispensed entirely with the “I.” That “I” was a source of consternation for Sedgwick: “Austin keeps going back to that formula ‘first person singular present indicative active.’”55 This caused Sedgwick to “wonder about the apparently natural way the first-person speaking, acting, and pointing subject, like the (wedding) present itself, gets constituted in marriage through a confident appeal to state authority, through the calm interpellation of others present as ‘witnesses,’ and through the logic of the (heterosexual) supplement whereby individual subjective agency is guaranteed by the welding into a cross-gender dyad.”56

This is key: “Persons who self-identify as queer, by contrast, will be those whose subjectivity is lodged in refusals or deflections of (or by) the logic of the heterosexual supplement; in far less simple associations attaching to state authority; in far less complacent relation to the witness of others. The emergence of the first person, of the singular, of the present, of the active, and of the indicative are all questions, rather than presumptions, for queer performativity.”57 For Sedgwick, that is, performativity as theorized by Austin (that sovereign I, the first-person, singular present indicative active that Nietzsche gives us reason to call the “grammatical subject” and is insecure enough that it requires the support of a state apparatus, as Spillers and Derrida argued in their different ways) is incompatible with the fundamental anti-complacency of queer politics and theory which refuse, deflect, and question what others insist should be taken for granted.

For Butler, commenting not only on Felman but also on Sedgwick in their Afterword to the 20th anniversary edition of Felman’s Scandal, it is the “failure of the marriage ceremony to do what it says [that] opens up the possibility of understanding marriage as that which harbors queer possibilities.58 (For Felman that failure is in marriage from the start.59). Indeed, in 1993, following on the case made in Gender Trouble, Butler had singled out the performative’s vulnerability to failure as its saving grace: “To the extent that gender is an assignment, it is an assignment which is never quite carried out according to expectation.”60 In sum, Butler fends off the critique of their politics of performativity by making clear they are arguing for the productivity of performative failures and for resignification as a “critically queer” practice.

But, Sedgwick says, there is something else queer about performativity, as Austin theorizes it, beyond its vulnerability to failure. “‘Performativity’ is already quite a queer category,” she says, though this is “maybe not so surprising,” she explains, given its mongrel crew of deployers, from Lyotard to Hillis Miller to de Man, with no clear genealogy.61 Thus, it is queer for another reason, too: not just because of its failures, as in Butler, but because of “the tenuousness of its ontological ground, the fact that it begins its intellectual career all but repudiated in advance by its originator, the British philosopher J.L. Austin, who introduces the term in the first of his 1955 Harvard lectures (later published as How to do Things with Words) only to disown it somewhere around the eighth.”62 A Frankenstein of a concept, then: a monster spurned by its creator and possibly bent on revenge, performativity is here cast by Sedgwick as dreamed into a short, tragic existence by Austin.

This once spurned monster need not necessarily be spurned again, however. Other readers of Austin embrace it. For Cavell, Austin’s performative “I do” enmeshes the I in relationality, modeling a much-needed reconciliation that remains politically elusive in the United States. Commenting on Cavell, Imani Perry agrees with the various critiques of Austinian sovereignty but finds an important Austinian alternative in the “disorders of desire” that Cavell will introduce when he adds “passionate utterance” to Austin’s repertoire of performativity: “A performative utterance is an offer of participation in the order of law . . . A passionate utterance is an invitation to improvisation in the disorders of desire,”63 Cavell says, and Perry agrees.64 Cavell adds to Austin’s repertoire to counterbalance what he sees (more mildly than Austin’s queer theory critics) as a too strong note of sovereignty in performativity.65

Sedgwick also adds to performativity’s repertoire. “I am struck by the potential interest that might also lie in speculation about versions of performativity (okay, go ahead and call them ‘perversions’-or ‘deformatives’) that might begin by placing some different kinds of utterance in the position of the exemplary,” she says.66 She proposes a partitioning of speech acts. Some performatives, those that are sovereignty-installing, belong to Austin, but others, she proposed, such as “Shame on you,” should be called “deformatives.” These are performatives with a deforming impact, weapons in the homophobic arsenal of normalization.67 Sedgwick adds them to the Austinian repertoire and makes clear that deformatives have a dual impact: they not only constitute a (singular or plural) subject, but also constitutively exclude some from the circle of belonging.68 Sedgwick’s deformatives or perversions are a brilliant addition to the Austinian repertoire, not least because deformatives decenter the “I do” (which is actually warranted by Austin), as we shall see. There is no “I” in “shame on you.”

We might also go further and ask whether deformatives are not a separate class of utterance, as Sedgwick proposes, but the seamy underside of performativity, as such. Thus, we could see shaming not as separate from the “I do,” but as its audible stage whisper. The bully who shames the queer draws a crowd that joins his taunts. So, too, the marriage ceremony gathers witnesses to its speech acts. The two come together when the straight, marrying couple interpellates everyone as witness. In so doing, the couple excludes some (open or closeted gay or non-binary people) from the rite they claim as their right. That is why it is their special day. And that right is reclaimed, and its exclusions reperformed, in every straight performance of the ritual. Thus, “shame on you” does not just decenter the “I do,” as Sedgwick intends. As the seamy underside of the “I do,” “shame on you” also re-centers the wedding, but in a way that harkens less to Frankenstein’s monster than to Robert Luis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: two sides, same coin.

4. Austin’s Bull

“This bull is dangerous”—J.L. Austin, How to do Things with Words

Beginning on page 33 of How to do Things with Words, Austin commences a nearly book-length thread about a bull. As we have seen, Austin’s critics and admirers position themselves differently around the “I do” and its installations of sovereign subjectivity, but none mentions Austin’s bull even though Austin’s several mentions of the animal rival the frequency that Sedgwick treats as one justification for her focus on the conjugal vow. “Austin keeps going back to that formula ‘first person singular present indicative active,’” she says. But Austin also repeats the bull example several times in the book, and the “I” of performativity appears in none of the bull-related utterances under consideration: “This bull is dangerous,” for example, or “There is a bull in the field” are among the bull thread’s speech acts of warning, cautioning, or informing.

Moreover, if we pair the bull and the “I do,” we may see a reservation regarding the latter’s exemplarity, rather than an endorsement of it. Indeed, where the “I do” marries a couple, Austin’s bull will gather—or disperse—a crowd. The pairing recalls Don Pedro’s bromide to Benedick in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing: “In time, the savage bull doth bear the yoke.” The bull and the yoke are the uncontainable desire and the containing marriage that are, I want to argue, the twin pillars of Austin’s How to do Things with Words. But we do not need Shakespeare to make the point. Google too provides: when I Google the phrase “the bull represents extra-conjugal desire,” my search engine is swarmed by cuckoldry links (many of them how-to’s) and my laptop is forced out of its “safe mode.” Austin’s bull moves us out of “safe mode,” too.

When Austin first says “There is a bull in the field” (HTW 33) he seems only interested in asking whether the utterance is a constative/descriptive or a performative/speech act. And the answer he gives is “it depends” (on how it is said, whether there is a danger, and so on). But, later, just before returning to the bull, who now may be “about to charge” (HTW 55), Austin discusses the utterance “John is running” (HTW 54). Eight pages later, reference is made to a signed memorandum from John, a legal-ish document in which John Jones asserts “this bull is dangerous” (HTW 62). This makes the earlier “John is running” very funny but it also, again, suggests a pairing (HTW 54). The marrying couple has the signed legal contract that yokes savage desire; the effort to contain the bull is done by way of a signed legal warning, a signed memorandum from John Jones about the bull, warning of the danger (ibid.). And John is in fact J.L. Austin’s first name.

Austin’s turn to legal documentation is arguably less about containing the bull than it is about mocking legal and philosophical efforts to contain the uncontainable (recalling Melville’s discussion in Moby-Dick of the legal distinction between loose and fast fish, also making a mockery of law). This would apply to the marriage contract, too, showing that signatures on a page are not enough to norm desire, though they are part of an apparatus with that purpose. Later, Austin, without mentioning the bull, turns to ponder the truth or falsity of an utterance like: “it is going to charge” (HTW 98). Other “warnings” or distinctions, strewn throughout the book, trigger thoughts of the bull, many without mentioning him explicitly (HTW 74). In all of them, the question is suggested: will the crowd gather to marvel? Will it disperse in time? Like a magnet, the bull attracts and repels. (I note that Sedgwick says about performativity that it exerts on her a certain “magnetism”; it has the same effect on me69).

In sum, Sedgwick sets out to critically transform How to do Things with Words for queer theory, but I think queerness is already there and not just in the ways she herself suggests in 1993 (the spurning father, the multiple made-kinships of citationality, the magnetism—all elements of the Frankenstein motif).70 The bull in Austin shows a more wayward, less sovereign, queerer, and less stigmatizing view of subjectivity than previously thought: we can sign all the contracts and memoranda we like, frame them, post them on fence posts, or pass them in state legislatures but, Austin shows, they will give way long before the bull gives up its fight to be free of enclosure.

“There is a bull in the field” is an utterance that has the power to gather a crowd, curious to observe, as well as the power to disperse a crowd, fearing the danger. Contra all those who center the sovereignty-installing couple in Austin and treat it as exemplary of Austinian performativity as such, I find in Austin’s text, especially by way of the bull, a queer invitation to move from couple to crowd and from a sturdy sovereignty to a more precarious kind. If Felman is, as she says, “seduced by Austin,” she neglects this scene of seduction in How to do Things with Words. Where Felman connects Austin’s speech acts with eros, by way of the mouth, eros surfaces in Austin by way of the bull. What else to call it when, in spite of the danger, people seem to want to cluster round?

5. Arendt’s Holdings

[A]lthough the referent instates reality rather than describing it, the referent always institutes reality within an already constituted field. It is not God’s performative, which brings into being what it names and thereby exercises the performative in a creation ex nihilo.—Judith Butler, “Afterword” to The Scandal of the Speaking Body71

There is also a bull in Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition and it, too, is instructive about the limits of sovereignty. This one, mentioned only in passing, brutally violates key elements of the performative apparatus: authenticity, voice, disclosure, and inaugural worldly impact are all obliterated by it (HC 235). The bull comes up in a passing joke made by Arendt about the reality-denying ethos of antiquity’s Epicureans. Arendt shares the joke in the context of her larger discussion of the betrayal of worldly freedom by the “tradition,” which wrongly turns freedom into an internal trait of sovereign subjectivity. Arendt says: “Just as Epicureanism rests on the illusion of happiness when one is roasted alive in the Phaleric Bull, Stoicism rests on the illusion of freedom when one is enslaved” (ibid.).

Hollow and made of metal, the Phaleric Bull is named after the ancient King who had foes thrown inside it and a fire lit beneath it so as to roast his victims to a gruesome death. The bull had a tantalizing feature: its creator (also its first victim) had placed near its nostrils pipes and reeds that turned the agonized screams of the tortured into pleasurable sounding music; or perhaps (there is some disagreement on this point) the screams were turned into imitations of what a real bull might sound like. Either way, through a sonic ruse, the Phaleric Bull transformed the sounds of anguish into happiness, thus performing mechanically for spectators the trick that the Epicureans claimed to have mastered for themselves: the triumph of enjoyment over suffering.72 This sonic betrayal recalls that noted by Saidiya Hartman, who also notes the subversive response to it in Scenes of Subjection: Hartman says when those in the slave coffle en route to market were ordered to sing, they sometimes resisted this “disavowal” of their suffering and turned the ordered song into an expression of their suffering: a dirge.73 

Making music of suffering, the Phaleric Bull, so passingly mentioned, might help illuminate something about Arendt’s broader theorization of action as speech acts or “action that appears in words.” In On Revolution, Arendt offers, as a classic example of an action that appears in words, the “We hold” of the American Declaration of Independence, drafted by Thomas Jefferson.74 Arendt argues that the Declaration’s celebrated freedom is compromised by its turn to foundational anchors like nature and god. The power of the “we hold” is denied or obscured, she says, if the truths upheld are said to be self-evidently natural or divine. Arendt wanted the power of the Declaration to inhere in nothing but the declared “we”, that is, in the human capacity to hold certain things as true, to act together to found them, and rise up against domination. Arendt singles out the freedom of the act against all priors, lest it be reduced to causalities. But the Declaration was not ex nihilo, and it was compromised or constituted by another absolutism, authored by a slaveholder on behalf of a society of free men and slaveholders. This was the “already constituted field” into which the Declaration was released.75 Thus, it is hard not to think of Arendt’s endorsement of the performative power of the “we hold” as, in effect, reperforming the work of the Phaleric Bull, muffling with song (national, democratic, revolutionary, celebratory) the suffering of those subjected to its terrible violence. The freedom of some to pursue happiness (later entrenched as market or private freedom) is bought at the price of the re-subjugation of others.76

I suggested earlier that we do well to extend deformativity, Sedgwick’s conceptual innovation, into a possible trait of all performatives, rather than treat it as a special class of some of them (as Sedgwick does). We saw how the “I do” is shadowed by the whispered (or loudly proclaimed) “not you” directed at those remaindered by the straight wedding. We may now say, with and against Arendt, that the “We hold” is not just a performative but also a deformative: a “Not you.” Since the “We hold” that helped to bring a democratic people into being also licensed a planter’s constitution, since the United States was at this point not a “society with slaves” but a “slave society,” as Moses Finley put it, then the performativity of the “We hold” is absolutely connected to the anguish expressed by Frederick Douglass’ “What to the Slave is the 4th of July?”.77 But Arendt, and others, could not hear Douglass over the loud sounds of the holiday whose music and fireworks are deafening. This is a way to describe the problem with Arendt’s account.

Here is another way, by way of the philosophy of language. Arendt did not use the terms performative and constative, but when she contrasted the domain of action, where speech is performative, with the domain of labor, where “signs or sounds” are enough, she was saying that reference or constation has its place, just not in politics. We know that Austin gave up on the performative/constative distinction. We do well to note that Wittgenstein opposed such foundational distinctions, too, and this by way of examples that evoke, strikingly, Arendt’s labor, work, and action. Wittgenstein begins his Philosophical Investigations by considering seemingly simple, referential, or “primitive” language games, contrasting them with more sophisticated varieties.78 Wittgenstein turns first to a scene of exchange in a shop and then to a scene of labor, the language game of “Slab!”. In “Slab!”, the laborers seem able to make their needs understood with the signs and sounds that Arendt says are typically enough for such activities.79 Their gestural and monosyllabic modes of communication are seemingly entirely referential, in keeping with Arendt’s depiction of labor. But Wittgenstein’s point is this is a wrong understanding of what is going on.

His first example—in which someone wants to buy five red apples, a request written on a slip of paper that the shopkeeper obliges—is offered not to confirm the differences between “primitive” and more sophisticated language games, nor between referential and performative utterance, but to upend such distinctions.80 Wittgenstein’s point is that even a “primitive” language game like Slab! or apple-shopping is not strictly referential since all language games postulate other quite sophisticated linguistic skills. How do we know what pointing means, or what is five, what is red, what are apples? Are the nouns all simply labels for Lockean “ideas,” sense-impressions in our minds? Do they all work the same way in one single language game of reference? For Wittgenstein, the answer is “no.” If we follow him, then the language games of “Slab!” and “Five red apples,” located in the Arendtian domains of labor and work, respectively, both require the full linguistic facility postulated by inaugural speech action. This means that reference is one thing we do in language but not the anchor of its operations, which means, in turn, that even reference relies on non-reference. Thus, there is no hierarchy among these realms from the perspective of Wittgenstein’s philosophy of language (notwithstanding Wittgenstein’s use of the word “primitive,” which may be ironic).

Arendt is less concerned than is Wittgenstein to fend off linguistic essentialism. She risks it by giving a phenomenological account of speech-acting in which different language games attach to different registers of human conduct. She describes labor’s communications as language that is referential or constative, so much so that gesture alone is sufficient. And she says that, in action, language is performative, so much so that it brings into being new “relations and new realities,” rather than just facilitate existing ones. Work has its own facilitative linguistic properties, but what matters here is that this somewhat Wittgensteinian approach (it is Wittgensteinian in its pluralism) allows Arendt to locate performativity in one domain (action) and specify, as Austin did initially, its uniqueness. In the end, Austin gives up that uniqueness, as he comes to concede that even constative utterances “do things.” Where Austin sees all of language ultimately overtaken by performativity, collapsing the distinction between constative and performative, Arendt fears the reverse: with the rise of the social, all of language will be overtaken by referential communications rather like Wittgenstein’s “Slab” (or by the post-referential language of advertising­ performative about which Arendt also worried). The result could be that performatives like the “We hold,” which are, on Arendt’s account, uniquely non-sovereign, will be overwhelmed and we would lose the unique powers of inaugural action in concert.

I once argued for reading Arendt as a theorist of performativity because Austinian performativity was a way to solve certain problems in her work; specifically, how to understand her claim that political actors were the products not the premise of speech action, and her insistence that intention was not relevant to the domain of action. But I am here arguing that Arendt should be next to Austin in the archive of performativity, and for a different reason. She can help solve certain problems in performativity’s conceptualization, specifically since queer critics of Austin have criticized his performatives’ sovereignty-installing properties. I have here argued that such concerns can be dispelled by Austin’s own text, as I read it, if we attend to the bull in the field that may be about to charge. But Arendt’s bull is useful too, in that it is part of her argument against the confusion of sovereignty with freedom. Arendt, more than Austin, offers an account of performativity (in politics) that is uniquely anti-sovereigntist. Specifically, on Arendt’s account, promising and forgiveness create by way of word and deed new “relations and new realities,” but they do not install a sovereign I, nor even a sovereign we.81 Doing so would violate the miracle of action. For Arendt, sovereignty wrongly displaced the experience of freedom, which is non-sovereign. Freedom postulates not control but contingency, not autonomy but exposure, vulnerability, mutuality, and equality. Hence a performative speech act like promising, one of Arendt’s “action[s] that appears in words,” can only create limited securities, only islands of stability in oceans of uncertainty. On her account, action does not presuppose but produces political actors with identities about whom stories can be told. Hence too the need for forgiveness as a necessary postulate of the realm of human affairs.82

Considered as a theorist of performativity, Arendt is also able to provide performativity with something Butler, in 2004’s Undoing Gender, worried it lacked: norms to guide what might otherwise be a formal practice of resignification. The missing norms, Butler said, “would have to be derived from a radical democratic theory and practice,” one whose parties “live a life politically, in relation to power, in relation to others, in the act of assuming responsibility for a collective future.”83 Arendt would agree. She provides this by way of her account of action in concert among plural equals. She scans history for examples that might illuminate and motivate a performative politics. She does not always get it right: she misses and even denigrates some salient inspirations, like the Haitian revolution and the Little Rock Nine, and lends to others, like the American Founding, a far more full-throated affirmation than they deserve, thus reperforming the injuries of their rites of relegitimation and their asymmetrical distributions of rights.

But Arendt nonetheless offers up a flawed but worldly itinerary for a political theory of performativity with some powerful implications for our moment. Arendt would have resisted the idea that the place to defend performativity now is in the domain of sex/gender politics. But in my view her account of action as, in effect, performative, and of identity as its precarious product, invite precisely that: this is especially and importantly so in our current context of sex/gender’s politicization as “gender ideology,” in which, as Butler shows, non- (or post-) referential gender is called a “demonic social construct” and is cast as invasive, with queers, jews, migrants, people of color, and the poor said to carry “gender” like a virus into the vulnerable, uninoculated body of the social.84

6. Conclusion

[T]he names by which I am called in the public place render an example of signifying property plus. In order for me to speak a truer word concerning myself, I must strip down through layers of attenuated meanings, made an excess in time, over time, assigned by a particular historical order, and there await whatever marvels of my own inventiveness. The personal pronouns are offered in the service of a collective function.—Hortense Spillers, “Mama’s Baby”

Arendt has thus far not been widely recognized as a theorist of the performative. She is not included in 21st century assessments of the field, such as James Loxley’s Performativity, Nealon’s Fates of the Performative, or Nikhil Krishnan’s review of performativity in and after Austin.85 Arendt’s absence from these three recent reckonings with performativity may be in part because of the impact of affect studies, which displaced Austinian performativity too early, I want to say, helping to shift theory’s emphasis or attention, as I noted earlier, from linguistic performativity to corporeal vulnerability. This resulted in a kind of “hasty foreclosure” (Butler’s term about sex/gendering) that prevented fuller encounters between the literary/philosophical (key terms in the subtitle of Felman’s Scandal of the Speaking Body) and the political (Arendt).86

But the missed encounter between Arendt, political theory, and speech act theory is also due to political theory’s efforts in the 90’s and since to resist literarity and claim Arendt exclusively as a juridical or deliberative theorist (or to criticize her for her failure to fully live up to those legal and political approaches).87 In political theory, in the 80’s and 90’s and in some places still, the arbitrariness of the sign, and the Nietzschean insistence that there is no doer behind the deed, were said to be incoherent claims that would spell the end of any responsible or coherent politics. The arbitrariness of the sign was seen as capable only of generating a nihilism against politics. The performative perspective on both sex and identity was heartily resisted. In my view, though, what was really at stake was neither sex nor identity but the reliability of the referent.88 It was assumed that politics required the secure signage of constation, not the vagaries of performativity. Indeed, it is possible that, contra Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations as I read it, it is not (at least not only) pain that is the last refuge of the referent, but sex or the heteronormative sex/gender binary. That is, Wittgenstein’s critique of reference, his claim that reference is just one thing we do in language and neither its essence nor regnant over the scene of language is arguably a contribution to Sedgwick’s epistemology of the closet. For Sedgwick, the specific passion to know is one honed by a phobic demand to know the secret of sex: the demand that the identitarian truth of diverse sexual practices be referentially knowable, rooted in a referent, and unambiguously disclosable as straight or gay, once and for all.89

This fits with Felman’s claim regarding Austin that, in the theorization of the performative, what really matters is “the change of status of the referent as such.”90 The referent is, like the body in Beauvoir, always already a “situation.” In our own time, the “situation” of the referent is again troubled as anti-trans activists fight to return the referent back to the secure box of cis-genderism, which is our very own Phaleric Bull. Those targeted today, though not trapped in a metal contraption that transmutes their screams, are nonetheless muffled by a kind of sonic sabotage. This is the real scandal: the violence done to the minoritized by journalists and commentators whose referential attachments, to truth, facticity, neutrality, and naturalized or prepolitical identity, are mostly unyielding and supposedly harmless, though they lend credence to fascist assaults on freedom, gender, and democracy. They cloak the referent in facticity, obscure its phantasmatic quality, while paying lip service to parental rights—in support of book-banning, said to enhance parental authority, but not in support of parental discretion over gender-affirming care for their offspring. The full force of the state is brought to bear on, or on behalf of, “parents,” who are now not simply or primarily “citizens,” but cast, rather, as custodians of the country’s normative national future.

If Austin’s country bull, with its resistance to enclosure and its awesome, magnetic power to gather or disperse a crowd, represents the free waywardness of performativity, Arendt’s Phaleric Bull represents the constative powers arrayed against performativity’s errancies, as in the sovereign power to box us in to the heteronormative binary and to deafen everyone, even ourselves, to the pain and suffering of the viable existences thereby denied. We may see these two bulls as converging when Austin notes, late in How to do Things with Words, that the performative/constative distinction gives way. He is tuned in to how constatives also do things. We may see Sedgwick and Butler as his mirror insofar as, in their work, too, constatives do things, but that is because they are simply performatives piled up, having acquired in time the seeming irresistibility or incontestability of constation. Arendt has a response to that: her rejection of the constative anchors of the Declaration’s “we hold.” But the constatives that Arendt wants to reject can be, rather, resisted or reinterpreted. This is what secures the politicality she seeks.

We have marked the limits of Arendt’s reading of the scene of American independence – in which a “declaration” is also a “scene of subjection.” But what is of value in Arendt, nonetheless, when we read her as a theorist of performativity, is that, on her account, performative speech acts uniquely enact not just subversion but also founding, not just uprising but also possible (re)constitution, not just refusal’s dissociation but also shared joy, and this not by collapsing into corporeal vulnerability, but by inspiring courage in the face of it. Courage is Arendtian action’s unique affect in The Human Condition, where performativity puts the cart before the horse and models a kind of political hopefulness when there seems to be no basis for it. It is a kind of speech act that produces the basis it seems to presuppose. This is its extravagance, its errancy, and play.

Austin sided with the bull of freedom over the (Phaleric) bull of containment.91 We have seen this by reading How to do Things with Words literarily, which is different from bringing literature to bear on philosophy, as both Stanley Cavell and Shoshana Felman call us to do. Cavell appeals “from philosophy to, for example, literature” because literature provides philosophy with “illumination of philosophical pertinence that philosophy alone has not surely grasped”92 Felman attributes philosophy’s (i.e., performativity’s) “fecundity” to “its passage through the literary ‘thing’” (in her book, that ‘thing’ is Don Juan), as if philosophy is impregnated by literature. But when Cavell adds that literature’s gifts to philosophy occur as if working “behind its back,” he shifts the scene of interdisciplinarity from his and Felman’s proposed conjugations of philosophy with literature to something more like the literary, political, and queer theory approach enlisted here, in which philosophy is not maître chez nous but un comme les autres. Reading literarily, we find a wayward, crowd-gathering and crowd-dispersing bull that sneaks up on Austin and his readers. Away in this country field, philosophy is no longer just borrower from the literary but also lender to it; the literary makes it so and we are invited to imagine, collaboratively and interdisciplinarily, new itineraries for performativity and for politics.

When Sedgwick said, in 1993, “Everybody’s talking about performativity, now,” she was right. But it was not just because of Butler’s Gender Trouble. That book was an apotheosis. It was preceded by the term, performativity, coined by Austin, and enlisted by other critical theorists (by way of Derrida, Foucault, Beauvoir, Nietzsche, Arendt, Spillers, and Hartman) in whose work text and flesh were intertwined—as were writing and branding, discourse and embodied speech, descriptive and inaugural language. These cross-contaminations of literature and philosophy, political theory, history, queer theory, and Black studies, make new thinking, then and now, possible, in caring attentiveness to the diversity of paths by way of which we have all arrived on this shore.

Against sovereigntist readings of Austin, and the 1990’s queer theory reception of Austinian performativity, and in dialogue with work in Black studies from the same period, I have argued that the longtime critical focus on the speech act, “I do,” distorts How to do Things with Words by obscuring possible interactions between Austin’s repeated example of the wedding vow and the wild bull-thread that also runs through his text. Moreover, extending Eve Sedgwick’s “elaboration” of Austin, elaborating it further, I have argued for reading the “I do” not only as performative but also as “deformative.”93 So, too, various other speech acts, like the American “We hold” or “It’s a girl!” may be both performative and deformative at the same time. Such performative/deformative declarations (re)birth a person or a polity, again and again, in performative rites of repetition that single out outliers and gather up crowds in mockery, ostracism, affirmation, or even (non)normative embrace. Some people flourish in such settings; others suffer. Many flourish and suffer. Thus, we have found in Austin, but more importantly with Austin, new ways to think about performativity’s politics at the crossing of philosophy, literature, and politics.

Published on March 8, 2024


Bonnie Honig is is Nancy Duke Lewis Professor of Modern Culture and Media and Political Science at Brown University


1. Eve Sedgwick, “Queer Performativity: Henry James’s The Art of the Novel,” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 1 (1993): 1–16. Thanks to readers and listeners Lori Marso, Joe Litvak, Jacques Khalip, Amanda Anderson, George Shulman, Dan Orrells, Miriam Leonard, Bruce Robbins, the 2023 Political Concepts conference (Literature Edition), the members of my 2022 Language and Politics seminar at Brown University, two anonymous readers for this journal (especially the one who dared me to take on an “exploding footnote” in the penultimate draft), to Political Concepts’ Jacques Lezra for finding them, Alissa Simon and Agnese Di Riccio for MS preparation, and, above all, thanks to Jill Frank, this essay’s dream-interlocutor.

2. J.L. Austin, How to do Things with Words (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1962); henceforth HTW, followed by page number.

3. Sometimes these traits attached to a same, single utterance. Take, for example, Sedgwick’s “everybody’s talking about performativity now,” in “Queer Performativity.” It seems to be a constative description of a matter of fact but it is also a performative, a complaint—in this instance one likely to increase the use of the term here lamented.

4. Eve Sedgwick, “Queer Performativity,” 2.

5. Later in How to do Things with Words, internalism, or at least sincerity, seems to creep back into Austin’s account, when he rules out unserious or theatrical utterances as possessed of performativity’s powers. Marianne Constable highlights this development in Our Word Is Our Bond: How Legal Speech Acts (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2014).

6. Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958); henceforth HC, followed by page number.

7. See also Bonnie Honig, “Toward an Agonistic Feminism: Hannah Arendt and the Politics of Identity,” in Feminists Theorize the Political, ed. Judith Butler and Joan W. Scott (New York: Routledge, 1992): 215–235. 

8. Subject to contingency and misconstrual, Arendt’s exemplary performatives include, therefore, not just promising and bequeathing (both of which Austin discusses) but also forgiving (which Austin does not discuss). Were it not for forgiveness, Arendt argues, no one would ever risk acting in the public realm: “Without being forgiven, released from the consequences of what we have done, our capacity to act would, as it were, be confined to one single deed from which we would never recover” (HC 237). Promising and forgiving, Arendt says, are “the two sine qua non of political action” (HC 220).

9. Hortense J. Spillers, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” in Culture and Countermemory: The “American” Connection, special issue of Diacritics 17:2 (1987): 64–81.

10. Hortense J. Spillers, “Whatcha Gonna Do?: Revisiting ‘Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book’; A Conversation with Hortense Spillers, Saidiya Hartman, Farah Jasmine Griffin, Shelly Eversley, and Jennifer L. Morgan,” Women’s Studies Quarterly 35:1/2 (2007): 299–309, here 308. 

11. This extends my arguments to the late 1980’s, early 1990’s, for Derridean/Nietzschean readings of performativity as a welcome correction of Arendt’s speech acts, which I found too pure. I now see this purism as a feature of Arendt’s phenomenological approach and not as a normative commitment as such, though it may have normative implications. I am indebted to the work of Ainsley LeSure on this point. For those early efforts, see Bonnie Honig, “Declarations of Independence: Arendt and Derrida on the Problem of Founding a Republic,” American Political Science Review 85:1 (1991): 97–113; Bonnie Honig, “Toward an Agonistic Feminism”; and Bonnie Honig, Political Theory and the Displacement of Politics (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2023 [1993]). I was drawing on Austin alongside Jacques Derrida, “Signature événement context,” in Marges de la philosophie (Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1972), 389; “Signature Event Context,” trans. Samuel Weber and Jeffrey Mehlman, in Limited Inc, ed. Gerald Graff (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1988), 1–23; and Jacques Derrida, “Declarations of Independence,” New Political Science 15 (1986): 7–15.

12. Jeffrey T. Nealon, Fates of the Performative (Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2021), 61.

13. Heather Love, Underdogs: Social Deviance and Queer Theory (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2021), 2–3.

14. Judith Butler, Notes toward a Performative Theory of Assembly (Harvard: Harvard University Press, 2015), 9.

15. Eve Sedgwick, “Queer Performativity,” 3; emphasis added. The italics indicate the permissibility of thinking with Austin, as Sedgwick herself went on to do, criticizing but also building on his categories and conjugating performativity’s queer, aberrant possibilities.

16. The shift in performativity’s meaning, from words to bodies, is already evident in Sedgwick’s 1993 essay, “Socratic Raptures, Socratic Ruptures: Notes toward Queer Performativity” (in English Inside and Out: The Places of Literary Criticism, ed. Jonathan Kamholtz and Susan Gubar [New York: Routledge, 1993]), which tells the story of Sedgwick’s participation in a gathering to protest the local PBS station’s refusal to broadcast Tongues Untied. The story begins with the signs and shouts of protest and ends with Sedgwick fainting and taken away in an ambulance. I thank Daniel Orrells for calling my attention to the relevance of this essay, whose opening scenario mirrors and even enacts the larger 90’s shift in performativity from language to embodiment. On Sedgwick, see also Daniel Orrells, “Socrates and Sedgwick: Ancient Greece in Epistemology of the Closet,” in The Routledge Handbook of Classics and Queer Theory, ed. Ella Haselswerdt, Sara H. Lindheim, and Kirk Ormand (New York: Routledge, 2023): 360-375.

17. See Judith Butler, “Critically Queer,” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 1 (1993): 17–32.

18. See Vikki Bell, “On Speech, Race and Melancholia: An Interview with Judith Butler,” in Performativity and Belonging, ed. Vikki Bell, vol. 2 of Theory, Culture, and Society (1999): 164.

19. On the destruction of schools that taught housekeeping to the formerly enslaved after Emancipation, see Shatema Threadcraft, Intimate Justice: The Black Female Body and the Body Politic (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016). Spillers quotes the Moynihan Report: “In essence, the Negro community has been forced into a matriarchal structure which, because it is so far out of line with the rest of American society, seriously retards the progress of the group as a whole, and imposes a crushing burden on the Negro male and, in consequence, on a great many Negro women as well” (emphasis is Spillers’, citing Moynihan [ibid., 75]).

20. In other words, there is more to be said, via Spillers, about the sovereigntism of Austin, even while I argue here for decentering it, via the bull-thread that I trace out below. On Elizabeth and the slave trade, see L.P. Jackson, “Elizabethan Seamen and the African Slave Trade,” The Journal of Negro History 9:1 (1924): 1–17. See also Emily Weissbound, focused on some of Queen Elizabeth’s royal performatives: her so-called “edicts of expulsion” (“Those in Their Possession’: Race, Slavery, and Queen Elizabeth’s ‘Edicts of Expulsion,’” Huntington Library Quarterly, 78:1 [2015]: 1–19).

21. Jacques Derrida, “Afterword” to Limited Inc, esp. 111–3.

22. In Derrida’s words: “theories of the performative are always at the service of powers of legitimation, of legitimized or legitimizing powers” (“Performative Powerlessness: Jacques Derrida,” Constellations 7:4 [2000]: 467).

23. This was Derrida’s response in “Performative Powerlessness” to Jürgen Habermas who is absent and (replaying the above-noted ruse of the performative) appears here in the guise of Simon Critchley. If Derrida’s claim seems here to differ from his own earlier account of the performative as itself event-ful, this may be because he is here replying to Habermas’ different use of “performative.”

24. On this point, see Bonnie Honig, “Declarations of Independence.” 

25. “She is worried about how the language she dreams in, given to her at birth, is handled, put into service, even withheld from her for certain nefarious purposes” (Toni Morrison, “Nobel Lecture, 7 December 1993,” The Georgia Review 49:1 [1995]: 318–323).

26. Ibid., 319.

27. Ibid., 322.

28. Ibid., 323.

29. See Shoshana Felman, The Scandal of the Speaking Body: Don Juan with J.L. Austin or Seduction in Two Languages (first published in 1980 in French: Le scandale du corps parlant: Don Juan avec Austin, ou, la séduction en deux langues [Paris: Seuil, 1980]. Republished in 1983 in English but under the title The Literary Speech Act [Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1983]; then republished, in English, with Stanford, 2002) with a Foreword by Stanley Cavell (xi–3) and an Afterword by Butler, the latter later then reprinted as: “Afterword” to The Scandal of the Speaking Body,” in The Claims of Literature: A Shoshana Felman Reader, ed. Emily Sun, Eyal Peretz, and Ulrich Baer (New York: Fordham University Press, 2007), 142–152.

30. Judith Butler, “Afterword” to The Scandal of the Speaking Body, 114.

31. Ibid., 115.

32. Vincent Lloyd says that “Three years before Judith Butler published Gender Trouble, Spillers argued that gender was a performance enforced by a normative order” (“Critical Theory for Political Theology 2.0: Hortense Spillers,” January 11, 2022; available at [last accessed February 9, 2024]. But Spillers’ essay appeared in Diacritics in 1987 and Butler’s set-piece for Gender Trouble, “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory,” appeared in 1988 (Hortense J. Spillers, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe” and Judith Butler, “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory,” Theatre Journal 40:4 [1988]: 519–531). Spillers’ mention in her essay of then-current work on “gender ‘undecidability’” suggests she was party to the conversations in Derridean and queer theory at the time: “At a time when current critical discourses appear to compel us more and more decidedly toward gender ‘undecidability,’ it would appear reactionary, if not dumb, to insist on the integrity of female/male gender,” Spillers says. Nearly twenty years later, she explains, as I noted above, that she was, at the time, “trying to bring the language of a postmodern academy to a very old problem” (“Whatcha Gonna Do?”: 308). 

33. Liz Kotz, “The Body You Want: An Inteview [sic] with Judith Butler,” Art Forum 1992, available at (last accessed February 10, 2024). Here, in 1992, Butler acknowledges the work of Spillers and others working on race, not, per se, the impact they were having on performativity and kinship (which Vincent Lloyd singles out), but rather on the intersectionality of race and gender and sexuality, on “what it might mean to have one’s sexuality formed through race,” as they put it. Of course, all sexuality is formed through race, but the point here is, I think, to attend to how it means.

34. See Bonnie Honig, “Toward a Democratic Theory of Contagion: Virality and Performativity with Eve Sedgwick, J.L. Austin, Hortense Spillers, and Patricia Williams,” London Review of International Law, 11:1 [2023]: 3–29; on Hartman and Arendt, see Bonnie Honig, “Fabulation and the Right to the City: Hartman with Arendt,” chapter 3 of A Feminist Theory of Refusal (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2021); on Wittgenstein with Spillers, see my “Grammars of Refusal,” in Post45 Contemporaries, ed. Yanbing Er and Sarah Bernstein, 2022). Elsewhere, in work in progress, reading Sharpe’s recent Ordinary Notes as a kind of “notes on the ordinary,” that is, as a contribution to ordinary language philosophy and politics, I note that the “anagrammatical,” theorized by Sharpe in In the Wake (2015), which cites and extends Spillers’ claims about the grammatical subjects of American language and politics, is legible as a critique of performativity (see my Wordplay; forthcoming). In “Care for Language: An Interview with Bonnie Honig,” with Annabel Quinn Barry in Qui Parle (2024; forthcoming), I read Spillers, Patricia Williams, Hartman, and Sharpe as part of a Black philosophy of language tradition that centers language as embodiment, vulnerability, and (il)legibility. Further connecting the three main archives of Wordplay (Austin Studies, Queer theory, Black Studies), it is notable that, when Spillers later revisits her essay’s early reception (“Whatcha Gonna Do?), she notes that, in the late 80’s, the first serious readers of her “hieroglyphics of the flesh” were gay white males: “I knew that something weird or odd had happened because the people who were telling me that they had read the essay, or who were talking about the essay, were white men. And so I thought? uh, oh, is this good or bad? I don’t know what this means! And it was gay white men” (ibid., 302). As one of her interlocuters notes, they were reconjugating kinship too.

35. See “Gender as Performance: An Interview with Judith Butler,” Radical Philosophy 67 [1994]: 33. This is already a bit of a turn, however, since Butler had begun thinking about sex/gender performatively by drawing on performance-oriented work by Victor Turner and Esther Newton (1988, 1990). “I’m still thinking about subversive repetition,” they say in the interview, “which is a category in Gender Trouble, but in the place of something like parody I would now emphasize the complex ways in which resignification works in political discourse” (ibid.). The parody that is now said to be replaced names Turner and Newton, I think.

36. Judith Butler, “Contingent Foundations: Feminism and the Question of ‘Postmodernism,’” in Feminists Theorize the Political: 21n.13.

37. Ibid., 21n.13; emphasis in the original.

38. Judith Butler, Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex (New York: Routledge, 1993), 241 and 232; emphasis added.

39. The stakes of viability are clear when American anti-abortion activists and judges make fetuses ever more viable, referring to early pulsations as a “heartbeat” (now there’s a performative that “matters”). Expanding fetal viability in this way is part of a larger aspirational fascist politics devoted to making whole forms of life unviable. See my “Banned Books/Banned Bodies, and the Displacement of Politics,” Cornell University Press blog post, Tuesday, May 9, 2023 (available at: [last accessed Feb 10, 2024]). On aspirational fascism see William E. Connolly, Aspirational Fascism: the Struggle for Multifaceted Democracy under Trumpism (Minnesota: Minnesota University Press, 2017).

40. Judith Butler, Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative (New York: Routledge, 1997), 159. James Loxley says that Butler’s 1997 book “makes much more explicit use of Austin’s thinking on the performative than is the case in the earlier work on gender and identity” (Performativity [New York: Routledge, 2006], 128). He implies that it was the turn to law that drove Butler to deal with Austin in more detail: “indeed as [Butler] has admitted [in a 1999 interview with Theory, Culture and Society], [their] dealings with Austin in that earlier work were conducted only through [their] reading of Derrida, says Loxley, citing the 1999 interview with Vikki Bell, in which Butler says: ‘I think that the only reason that Austin is interesting is that he gives us this distinction between the illocutionary and the perlocutionary” (ibid.).

41. Judith Butler, Notes toward a Performative Theory of Assembly, 8. My observation here is in keeping with, or parallel to, my earlier tracing of a shift in Butler’s reading of Antigone as a speech actor extraordinare, vying for sovereignty in Antigone’s Claim, to an embodied and lamenting sufferer of injustice and sovereign violence, as in, for example, Precarious Life (36, 46). For the detailed reading, see Honig, Antigone, Interrupted (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013).

42. To be clear, my point is not that there is a contradiction in the overall argument, nor that Butler is inconsistent. Indeed, Butler asks in Gender Trouble if there is “a difference between the embodying or performing of gender norms and the performative use of discourse” (ibid., 231). Here, Butler refuses to distinguish bodies and discourse: “It may seem that there is a difference between the embodying or performing of gender norms and the performative use of discourse. Are these two different senses of ‘performativity’, or do they converge as modes of citationality in which the compulsory character of certain social imperatives becomes subject to a more promising deregulation?” (ibid.). Still, I would argue that there is a shift of emphasis. Performativity in the first—discursive—sense is the dominant thread through the 90’s texts, from “Performative Acts” (1988), Gender Trouble (1990), Bodies that Matter (1993), The Psychic Life of Power (1997), Excitable Speech (1997), to Antigone’s Claim (2000). In Excitable Speech, the focus is on the symbolic and material harms of hate speech and the possibilities of discursively subverting it. Antigone’s Claim might be a site of transition or tension between the two strands of performativity, linguistic and embodied, since that book attends both to (subversive) speech acts (Antigone’s citation of Creon’s sovereign voice), and to dead bodies (Antigone’s quest to bury Polynices), tracing Antigone’s appropriation and subversion of Creon’s sovereign speech acts but also ruminating on the significance of the dead body of Polynices, and the incest that cast Oedipus’ offspring out of the domain of the human (see Judith Butler, Antigone’s Claim: Kinship between Life and Death, New York: Columbia University Press, 2002 [2000]). The focus on language does persist after 2000, as in, for example, Butler’s “Hannah Arendt’s Death Sentences,” though it is by then, more generally, a more minor note (see Judith Butler, “Hannah Arendt’s Death Sentences,” Comparative Literature 48:3 [2011]: 280–95).

43. Those who see “performativity” and infer Austin, include Sara Salih (1999 interview), Zeynep Gambetti, “Queering Performativity,” Representations 158:1 (2022): 64–76, and Amy Hollywood, Acute Melancholia and other Essays: Mysticism, History, and the Study of Religion (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016), which notes Butler’s reliance on “Austinean notions of performativity” (ibid., 214). See also, for example, Nikhil Krishnan’s overview of performativity in and after Austin. Krishnan assumes that “The American theorist Judith Butler . . . drew on Austin’s idea of the ‘performative’ utterance as part of her theory of how gender roles are constituted: by repeated performance” (“How Not to be a Chucklehead,” Aeon [2016]; available at [last accessed Feb 10, 2024]. See also Jordan Schonig noting that J.L. Austin is a mid-century philosopher “that Butler has been inspired by” (; 00:06:30). Salih says “It is with Judith Butler that the theory of the performative took on a definitive turn toward comprehending the body in its materiality and desires.” In my view, that is both accurate and a bit misleading because (i) it obscures the role of Felman, later singled out by Butler as initiating and influencing this turn and does not see Spillers and others as part of the story and (ii) it short-circuits the difference between Butler’s own (initial, Derridean) efforts, which focused on how to subvert the compelled norm of sex/gender in speech and performance, and their later ones which turned to the body as a locus of performative analysis. For Butler, performativity was a way to deconstruct identity as the necessary ground of feminism.

44. Judith Butler, “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution,” 519. The essay by Derrida appeared earlier in French and then later in a volume in English in 1988, the same year as Butler’s “Performative Acts.” Derrida says that Searle fails to “integrate the possibility of borderline cases, the essential possibility of those cases called ‘marginal,’ of accidents, anomalies, contamination, parasitisms,” what Butler will characterize in similar terms as “failures” in heteronormative contexts (see Derrida, “Afterword,” 118).

45. J. Hillis Miller says that “Strangely enough, Austin is never mentioned in Gender Trouble, though the term speech act occasionally appears” (For Derrida [New York: Fordham University Press, 2009], 139; emphasis in the original). With the word “strangely,” Miller mirrors those noted above who see “performativity” and assume that Austin is the source. Indeed, Miller faults Butler for failing to have “specified just how her use of performative differs from Austin’s” even though he has himself just noted that Austin is not their source (ibid.). In 1988’s “Performative Acts,” Butler mentions Searle but does not use him. He is dismissed in the first paragraph (Judith Butler, “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution,” 519). My abovementioned 1992 contribution to Butler’s and Scott’s co-edited volume (“Toward an Agonistic Feminism”) drew on Austin’s performativity to read Arendt as a critic of identity available for a post-identitarian feminist politics that was, I argued, in keeping with Butler’s reading of sex/gender performativity in Gender Trouble.

46. In a 1996 article published in the University of Chicago Law Review, a set piece for 1997’s Excitable Speech, Butler says: “The subject as sovereign is presumed in the Austinian account of performativity; the figure for the one who speaks and, in speaking, performs what she/he speaks, is the judge or some other representative of the law” (“Burning Acts: Injurious Speech,” The University of Chicago Law School Roundtable, 3:1 [1996]: 203).

47. Vikki Bell, “On Speech, Race and Melancholia: An Interview with Judith Butler,” 164. Three years later, Butler says their turn to Austin is licensed by Derrida, who, they say in their afterword to Felman’s twentieth anniversary publication of Scandal, gave permission to “those trained in the tradition of continental philosophy . . . to turn to Austin for intellectual resources . . . in conjunction with Derrida’s engagement with speech act theory” (Judith Butler, “Afterword” to The Scandal of the Speaking Body, 114). 

48. Judith Butler, “Afterword” to The Scandal of the Speaking Body, 115. 

49. Vikki Bell, “On Speech, Race and Melancholia: An Interview with Judith Butler,” 164. 

50. Shame was key for Butler, too, as noted in “Critically Queer” and indicated by the importance to them of Kafka’s work. 

51. Heather Love, Underdogs, 6. Austin’s version of performativity, however, offers attention to both language and embodiment, but this goes unnoted in the 90’s critique of his work. Notably, what Love refers to here as the deconstructive project could also be described as phenomenology’s project and we know Austin was reading Merleau-Ponty and referring to his own project in the philosophy of language as a “linguistic phenomenology.” Love’s project is to track the disavowal of queer theory’s origins in the social sciences (Goffman’s work on stigma), which she attributes to the linguistic turn. I am writing to reclaim what was lost in the disavowal of Austin in queer theory’s linguistic turn, then followed by the turn to affect. 

52. Sedgwick’s essay “Queer Performativity” and Butler’s reply (“Critically Queer”) both appeared in the same inaugural issue of GLQ in 1993, and then in various revised, republished versions in volumes of their own (see ibid., 1). 

53. From Austin’s text, we learn, Sedgwick joked, that it is possible to say “I do” a billion times and still not end up married. If this was Austin’s real message, Austin is turned into a kind of Don Juan character, collapsing the comparison initiated by Felman. 

54. Heather Love, “Beginning with Stigma,” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 25:1 (2019): 33–38 (ibid., 33). 

55. Eve Sedgwick, “Queer Performativity,” 3. 

56. Ibid. Cavell points out, contra Derrida—but this might apply as well to Sedgwick—that the first person singular is not typical of Austin’s performatives as such (A Pitch of Philosophy: Autobiographical Exercises [Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2009 (1994)], 82). 

57. Eve Sedgwick, “Queer Performativity,” 4. 

58. Judith Butler, “Afterword” to The Scandal of the Speaking Body, 137n.2. 

59. Shoshana Felman, The Scandal of the Speaking Body, 17–18ff. 

60. Judith Butler, “Critically Queer,” 22. 

61. Eve Sedgwick, “Queer Performativity,” 2. 

62. Ibid.

63. Stanley Cavell, “Passionate and Performative Utterance: Morals of an Encounter,” in Contending with Stanley Cavell, ed. Stanley Cavell and Russell B. Goodman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 194.

64. Imani Perry, Vexy Thing: On Gender and Liberation (Duke: Duke University Press, 2018), 203.

65. That said, Cavell’s depiction of his amendment to Austin as a gentle correction may not withstand scrutiny. I suggest otherwise in Wordplay (MS), as does Stephen Mulhall in “‘Suffering a Sea-Change: Crisis, Catastrophe, and Convention in the Theory of Speech Acts,’” Reading Cavell, ed. Alice Crary and Sanford Shieh (London: Routledge, 2006).

66. Eve Sedgwick, “Queer Performativity,” 3.

67. Without mentioning performatives, yet focused on the politics of grammar, Spillers’ 1987 essay had highlighted the racist work of naming by opening with a list of terms used to name her, a Black woman in America: “’Peaches’ and ‘Brown Sugar,’ ‘Sapphire’ and ‘Earth Mother,’ ‘Aunty,’ ‘Granny,’ God’s ‘Holy Fool,’ a ‘Miss Ebony First,’ or ‘Black Woman at the Podium.’” In these “confounded identities,” Spillers finds “a meeting ground of investments and privations in the national treasury of rhetorical wealth. My country needs me, and if I were not here, I would have to be invented” (“Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe,” 65).

68. I focus here on “deformativity” because it is not just an addition to the repertoire, but can also be seen as Sedgwick annotating Austin, recalling annotation, in Christina Sharpe’s sense, as subversive commentary. Elsewhere, I have noted also the importance of the notion of “peri-performative,” which Sedgwick introduces to the Austinian repertoire (“From Lamentation to Logos: Antigone’s Conspiracy with Language,” chapter 5 of Antigone, Interrupted).

69. Eve Sedgwick, “Queer Performativity,” 1.

70. Austin’s undecidable “there is a bull in the field” (whether it is constative or performative depends, Austin says, on how it is said) suggests Austin is more amenable to a queer reading than Sedgwick or Cavell (and Butler and Derrida) think. Cavell finds in Austin the resources for perfectionism’s aspirational self and Sedgwick finds in Austin a homophobic focus on the “I do.” I find in How to do Things with Words a queer (im)perfectionism.

71. Butler may be read here as signaling a rejection of Arendt’ performative politics, but Arendtian action is adaptable from ex nihilo to “interruption” (see Bonnie Honig, “Toward an Agonistic Feminism” and Antigone, Interrupted). This fits with Butler’s view of speech acts as “the potential interruption and reversal of regulatory regimes” (Judith Butler, Preface to Gender Trouble [1999], xxviii).

72. The Epicurean and Stoic techniques of dissociation resonate with a Kabbalist counsel for Jewish martyrs, noted by Gershom Scholem, whom Arendt knew (I discuss their dispute in “Toward an Agonistic Feminism”): In “Abraham Abulafia and the Doctrine of Prophetic Kabbalism” (chapter 4 of Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism), Scholem notes the “recommendation to those who face martyrdom” that they “concentrate, in the hour of their last ordeal, on the Great Name of God; to imagine its radiant letters between their eyes and to fix all their attention on it. Whoever does this, will not feel the burning flames or the tortures to which he is subjected” (ibid., 146).

73. Saidiya Hartman, Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-making in Nineteenth-Century America (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2022).

74. Hannah Arendt, On Revolution (New York: Viking Press, 1963), 194.

75. The quoted words, “already constituted field,” are drawn from the epigraph to this section, which is Butler’s summation/assessment of Felman’s Scandal in the “Afterword” to the reissued Scandal of the Speaking Body. On the already constituted field, see my reading of the aberrant pupil in Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations (“Grammars of Refusal”). I argue that the student, who moves from counting by 2’s (as instructed) to counting by 4’s (on his own initiative) is seen as aberrant and not simply wrong when his innovations in mathematics are read as responsive to an “already constituted field” of instruction. Furthering the queer theory intimations, I suggest the move from 2’s to 4’s can also be seen as a move from couple to crowd.

76. There is yet another bull with classical provenance. This one is not metal but mates with a cow who is. That metal cow is the contraption that allows Phaedra’s mother, Pasiphaë, who lusts for the Cretan bull, to have sex with the object of her desire. Thus, the Cretan bull is lured to (the hidden) Pasiphaë, who will later birth the Minotaur. Another of Pasiphaë’s offspring is Phaedra, the would-be seducer of Hippolytus (whose own wordplay attracts Austin’s attention [see HTW 9]). I argue, in Wordplay, that Phaedra should be read as a carrier of a bull-thread.

77. Finley is cited by Johanna Hanink in her “Democracy When?: A Review of Paul Cartledge, Democracy: A Life [North Perth: Eidolon, 2016]”; available at (last accessed Feb 19, 2024).

78. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, trans. G.E.M. Anscombe, P.M.S. Hacker, and Joachim Schulte, rev. 4th ed. (Malden MA: Wiley Blackwell, 2009), paragraphs 5–12.

79. Ibid., 12.

80. Ibid., 6–7.

81. “Contestation must be in play for politics to become democratic. Democracy does not speak in unison; its tunes are dissonant, and necessarily so. It is not a predictable process; it must be undergone, like a passion must be undergone,” says Judith Butler in an Arendtian register in Undoing Gender (New York: Routledge, 2004), 39.

82. Thus, although it is technically true that Arendt “writes without the benefit of speech act theory” (Michael Lambeck, “Toward an Ethics of the Act” Fordham University Press, 2010), this does not mean we may not see her as a contributor to speech act theory.

83. Judith Butler, Undoing Gender, 39.

84. Judith Butler, “Who’s Afraid of Gender?,” Cambridge, 2023 [last accessed Feb 20, 2024]. In this lecture (forthcoming as part of a book with the same title in March, 2024, Farrar Strauss and Giroux), Butler traces the hegemonic nature of gender in anti-gender ideology as both an empty and overly full signifier that magnetizes a range of diverse and conflicting fears of destruction, deflecting attention from more obvious and direct capitalism, racism, colonial ideology and carceral society. They argue we should fight the phantasm with a counter-fantasy of collective freedom and pleasure that is opposed to the hate and fear of destruction that are mobilized in fascist politics. Exposing the falsehood of the formation of gender ideology is one move that is necessary (an exercise in ideology critique, they say). But that is not enough. “We have to do more than take apart bad arguments.” We have to make a “public argument” or “appeal” that acknowledges the “importance of a shared imaginary for joining an alliance.” Since this brings into being a not yet that might yet be, it has a performative structure. One more reason to return to performativity’s promise now.

85. See James Loxley, Performativity (London: Routledge, 2007); Jeffrey T. Nealon, Fates of the Performative, and Nikhil Krishnan, “How Not to be a Chucklehead.”

86. Except, belatedly, around the juridical, via Arendt’s 1963 account of the Eichmann trial which Felman read critically years later, in the context not of performativity—Felman’s main interest in her earlier work—but in the context of the traumatic, affective, and unconscious forces brought to the fore by the trial (see The Juridical Unconscious: Trials and Traumas in the Twentieth Century [Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000]). A performative reading of Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem is offered, actually by Butler, in 2011’s “Hannah Arendt’s Death Sentences.”  I critically engage that essay in “Hannah Arendt’s Tikkun Olam” (co-authored with Ariella Azoulay; differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 27:1 [2016]).

87. See Seyla Benhabib, The Reluctant Modernism of Hannah Arendt (Lanham MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003).

88. And elsewhere: see my “Epistemology of the Curtain: Sex. Sound and Solidarity in Singin’ in the Rain and Sorry to Bother You,” Cultural Critique 121 (2023): 1–41.

89. See Eve Sedgwick’s Epistemology of the Closet (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990).

90. Shoshana Felman, The Scandal of the Speaking Body, 50.

91. This is in disagreement with some of Derrida’s reading of How to do Things with Words in “Signature Event Context.” There, Derrida, who sees the Austin of containment as trumping rather than existing alongside and in tension with the Austin of the wild, attributes some of the wilder aspects of performativity to Nietzsche rather than Austin. In Wordplay, my contrary reading of Austin on this point is furthered by reading his bull in the field in connection with linguistic bulls such as those documented by Maria Edgeworth’s 1802 An Essay on Irish Bulls (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006).

92. Stanley Cavell, “Preface to Updated Edition of Must We Mean What We Say?” in Must We Mean What We Say?: A Book of Essays (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015): xvii–xxix.

93. Methodologically, this is a two-step approach: (i) decenter (the I do as exemplary performative) and (ii) pluralize (showing what happens to our understanding of performativity when other performatives—beyond the I do and many from Austin’s own list—are taken as exemplary).