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  • The Nonperformativity of Antiracism
  • Sara Ahmed (bio)

In this paper, I reflect on institutional speech acts: those that make claims "about" or "on behalf" of an institution. Such speech acts involve acts of naming: the institution is named, and in being "given" a name, the institution is also "given" attributes, qualities, and even a character. By "speech acts" I include not just spoken words but writing and visual images—all the materials that give an institution interiority, as if it has a face, as well as feelings, thoughts, or judgments. They might say, for example, "the university regrets," or just simply, "we regret." More specifically, in this paper, I examine documents that are authorized by institutions (such as race-equality policies, which are often signed by, say, the vice-chancellor on behalf of an institution), make claims about the institution (for instance, by describing the institution as having certain qualities, such as being diverse), or point toward future action (by committing an institution to a course of action, such as diversity or equality, which in turn might involve the commitment of resources).

Such speech acts do not do what they say: they do not, as it were, commit a person, organization, or state to an action. Instead, they are nonperformatives. They are speech acts that read as if they are performatives, and this "reading" generates its own effects. For John Langshaw Austin a performative refers to a particular class of speech. An utterance is performative when it does what it says: "the issuing of the utterance is the performing of an action" (1975, 6). For Austin, conditions have to be in place to allow such words to act, or in his [End Page 104] terms, to allow performatives to be "happy." The "action" of the performative is not in the "words," or if it is "in" the words, it is "in" them only in so far as the words are "in the right place" to secure the effect that they name. Performatives succeed when they are uttered by the right person, to the right people, and in a way that takes the right form. As Judith Butler argues, "performativity must be understood not as a singular or deliberate 'act', but, rather as the reiterative and citational practice by which discourse produces the effects that it names" (1993, 2, emphasis added).

The speech acts that commit the university to equality, I suggest, are nonperformatives.1 They "work" precisely by not bringing about the effects that they name. For Austin, failed performatives are "unhappy": they do not act because the conditions are not in place that are required for the action to succeed (for example, if the person who apologizes is insincere then the apology would be unhappy). In my model of the "nonperformative", the failure of the speech act to do what it says is not a failure of intent or even circumstance, but it is actually what the speech act is doing. In other words, the nonperformative does not "fail to act" because of conditions that are external to the speech act: rather, it "works" because it fails to bring about what it names. My paper will be structured by taking up four specific forms of institutional speech acts: admissions, commitments, performances, and descriptions.

Second, in this paper, I want to suggest that the nonperformativity of antiracist speech acts requires a new approach to the relation between texts and social action, which I will be calling "an ethnography of texts." Such an approach still considers texts as actions, which "do things," but it also suggests that "texts" are not "finished" as forms of action, as what they "do" depends on how they are "taken up." To track what texts do, we need to follow them around. If texts circulate as documents or objects within public culture, then our task is to follow them, to see how they move as well as how they get stuck. So rather than just looking at university documentation on diversity for what it says, although I do this, as close readings are important and necessary, I also ask what they do, in part by talking to practitioners who use these documents to support their actions...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1547-8424
Print ISSN
1536-6936
Pages
pp. 104-126
Launched on MUSE
2007-02-12
Open Access
No
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