Precarious Politics: On Butler’s Notes Towards a Performative Theory of Assembly
There is a general consensus in both the popular media and scholarly publications that the past six years have seen a historic upsurge in popular protests and movements. Judith Butler’s Notes Towards a Performative Theory of Assembly (2015) is firmly situated within this context of political struggle. Butler is explicit about the events that inspired her analysis: the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt in December of 2010 and January of 2011 respectively; the indignados movement in Spain and student protests in Chile in late spring of 2011; Occupy Wall Street in September of 2011; demonstrations in Turkey, centered on the planned replacement of a public park with a luxury shopping and residential development, in the spring of 2013; and, finally, the Black Lives Matter movement, founded online in the summer of 2013 but with its first national protest in August of 2014. As Butler’s analysis highlights, in many of these cases, the physical spaces of mass assembly, encampment, and experiments in communal life became synecdoches for the uprisings and their demands: Tahrir Square; Puerta del Sol; Zuccotti Park; Taksim Square. Even where protest was not organized around a central point of convergence, the material settings of mobilization were no less important to contentious dynamics and demands: the flooding of streets, the blocking of highways and mass transit, the occupation of government buildings, and the direct and corporal encounter with the forces of security, military, and police. These collective actions have—by their geographic range, temporal proximity, and visibility—incited many-sided analysis of their social bases, grievances, demands, strategies, and degrees of success.
Butler reflects on the shared conditions of these popular uprisings, and asserts the capacity of bodily assembly in public space to performatively enact a more livable world:
… when bodies assemble on the street, in the square, or in other forms of public space (including virtual ones) they are exercising a plural and performative right to appear, one that asserts and instates [End Page 260] the body in the midst of the political field, and which, in its expressive and signifying function, delivers a bodily demand for a more livable set of economic, social, and political conditions no longer afflicted by induced forms of precarity(11).
This quote captures Butler’s evolving conceptual vocabulary, developed in conversation with seminal works of social and psychoanalytic theory, and salient political events since her first publications in the mid-1980s. In Notes, the shared condition of uprisings across the globe is precarity, and their shared political power is linked to their “embodied character,” doubly understood as the bodily occupation of physical space and as the body-as-object (its physical needs, its protection from harm, its right to assemble) of political demands (1, 17–18). Her contention is that by visibly and publicly inserting their bodies into the “sphere of appearance,” those who live under conditions of induced vulnerability not only disrupt that sphere—exposing themselves as its constitutive exclusions (its “structuring absence”)—but also through the concrete practices of resistance, assembly, and occupation prefigure a more livable world to come, “a future that is yet to be lived out” (86, 169). The crux of this claim is Butler’s abiding analytic interest in performativity, central to her account of gender as the repeated enactment of, and deviation from, gender norms in practice (Butler 1988; 1990; 1993), which now reemerges in a more politically optimistic register, to refer broadly to the poïesis of assembly: its agentive capacity to engender the conditions of its own political action and, in the process, to bring into being a more livable world. In what follows, I evaluate each of these components of her conceptual apparatus in turn: precarity; assembly (bodies, infrastructure, media); and performativity. Then, I discuss two shortcomings of Butler’s conceptualization of precarity as a basis for the transformative potential of popular assembly.
Precarity, first explored in depth in Frames of War (2009), “designates that politically induced condition in which certain populations suffer from failing social and economic networks of support more than others, and become differentially exposed to injury, violence, and death” (2015, 33). In this unequal economy of vulnerability, certain populations are, at a minimum, denied the institutional and infrastructural support necessary for what Butler refers to as “livable life” (a state of affairs for the most part implicitly defined as precarity’s opposite; e.g. 11, 25, 69, 210). At a maximum, precarious populations are subjected to injury and untimely death, a death at once biological and social, a death that through its ungrievability works backward and inflects the present with “a sense of a damaged future” (198, 201). Precarity comprises a wide range of states of marginalization and exclusion, from the victims of neoliberal privatizations, which deny the public goods necessary for livable life, to those exposed to bodily harm [End Page 261] and untimely death within the walls of prisons and at the hands of police, to those who risk swift repression for acts of public assembly or who lack the status of citizenship. In all these examples, the damage wreaked is at once bodily, social, and psychological. Echoing Berlant (2011), Butler elaborates the cruel affective logic of precarity in neo-liberal times, which simultaneously denies the conditions of livable life, and requires of subjects the very “self-reliance” that is structurally foreclosed to them, marking disposable populations as “moral failure[s]” (14–16).
If precarity is the shared condition of recent uprisings, their quint-essential form is the assembly. Drawing on Arendt’s theory of action, but rejecting her public/private binary that determines what counts as ‘political’ and expanding her category of speech to include the expressive character of congregating bodies, Butler attends to the corporal, technological, and infrastructural dimensions of assembly. These entangled dimensions are at once assembly’s condition and demand, or rather, they are the structurally disavowed conditions of political assembly that assembly performatively enacts. Butler thematizes the multivalent character of bodies and spaces—simultaneously conditions, demands, and effects of political action—throughout the text, but especially in Chapters 2 and 4. Assembly, therefore, does not only or primarily refer to the grouping together of discrete bodies on the public stage, but rather encompasses the dynamic co-constitution of bodies and stages. In many of the aforementioned uprisings, it is the “very public character” of a given site of mobilization (park; square; street; building) that is under dispute, whether due to neoliberal privatization, authoritarian repression, or the ever-present threat of incarceration (185–186). “[C]ollective actions collect the space itself”: material environments are not inert stages for protest, rather, they actively support action, are produced by action, and, with a Latourian touch, even can be said to “act” themselves (71). Here Butler echoes but also takes issue with Arendt: she agrees that action creates its own space of unfolding, but refuses to relegate the vectors and supports of action—body, technology, infrastructure—to the private spheres of work or labor. Instead, these “material urgencies” are central to a political context wherein the systematic denial of the material conditions of livability (in its biological and social senses) to a large subset of the population is the crux of shared grievances and trigger of mobilization (95). Butler writes, “At such a point, the condition of the political is one of the goods for which political assembly takes place—this might be the double meaning of the infrastructural under conditions in which public goods are increasingly dismantled by privatization” (127).
It is not just space that is gathered by gatherings: bodies too, conceived of as networks, gather. Drawing on the work of Donna Haraway and the field of disability studies, Butler conceptualizes the body [End Page 262] as enmeshed in and made possible by material and social “conditions, technologies, and life processes” that exceed the individual (129, cf. 130, 138). As they navigate the environment, even ‘our’ senses “dispossess” us, and we are dispossessed yet again by the senses of others that register and ratify our visual, auditory, tactile, olfactory, and (perhaps less frequently) gustatory presence (97, 149). The sensory dislocation of experience is redoubled as events are transmitted beyond their initial setting through the visual, auditory, and textual transmission of events through the channels of mass and social media. Like the body dispossessed, the scene of action is translocal. In our bodies, in space, and replicated in representation, we are “always over there, yet here… constituted in a sociality that exceeds us” and “establishes our exposure and precarity” (97). And exposure is key to the political-ethical power of assembly: through embodied assembly, the political action of the precarious “exposes our sociality, the fragile and necessary dimensions of our interdependency,” an interdependency that in turn grounds our mutual ethical obligation (119).
To account for this unique political-ethical power, Butler relies on the concept of performativity. Explicitly building on her past work, she asserts the performative capacity of bodily assembly under conditions of precarity (26–40). In speech act theory, performativity refers to the capacity of linguistic utterances to generate the social conditions they explicitly describe (e.g., “I now pronounce you man and wife,” in Austin’s famous example). In her well known analyses of gender (1990 (1993), Butler expands upon such direct speech acts to elaborate a theory of performativity that encompasses bodily comportment, gesture, dress, and a whole range of semiotic phenomena. She compellingly argues that gender is not biological cause but social effect: the ongoing enactment of gender norms in practice, combined with the ever-present possibility of deviation, resignification, and creativity, links performativity to agency (Butler 1990). In Notes, however, the social mechanics through which bodily assembly generates enduring social effects are unclear. Even in the case of non-linguistic semiosis, performativity entails meeting some identified felicity conditions. If, as Butler states repeatedly, bodies “speak,” then under what conditions does what they ‘say’ intervene in and shape the world? In contrast to Butler’s analysis of gender, the “authoritative discourses” or forms of social reception that ground the performative capacity of assembly remain unspecified. Instead, performativity is broadly defined as “acting, and in the acting, laying claim to the power one requires” or “the process of being acted upon and the conditions and possibilities for acting” (58, 63).
Butler does, however, specify one mechanism through which assembly can “[transform] the field of appearance” and, more radically, create a more “egalitarian social and political order” (43, 69). This [End Page 263] mechanism is not so much performative as it is prefigurative: the modeling of a future, desired world in the present of political practice, usually used to refer to the participatory decision-making and communal sociality that marked civil rights and student movements in the 1960s, or more recently in the alter-globalization movement and Occupy. Butler proposes that in the practices of assembly, “equality is experimentally and provisionally asserted in the midst of inequality” via “the insistence on interdependency and a fair distribution of labor tasks, the notion of a commonly held ground or ‘the commons’” (181). Her argument in favor of nonviolence as ethos and tactic also rests on a prefigurative logic: nonviolence “crafts the self and its relation to the world in a new way, seeking to embody, however provisionally, the alternative for which it struggles” (187). Prefigurative practices extend beyond moments of popular mobilization: they are an ethical attitude, “a daily practice of mindfulness that attends to the precarious character of living things” (191).
Butler so strongly emphasizes the transformative capacity of movements to be the change they wish to see that she slides from description to prescription: “When a social movement calls for a new way of life, a form of livable life, then it must, at that moment, enact the very principles it seeks to realize” (218, emphasis added). Putting aside the critique that an emphasis on prefiguration can devolve into a fetish of process (the endless meeting, the infinite search for consensus), one might still ask how, exactly, the enactment of democracy and communality in the context of assembly or occupation generates the world it models. There are, in fact, many potential answers to this question. At a minimum, participatory and decentralized decision-making yield strategic benefits for movements (by rendering them more flexible in response to contextual changes, or by allowing for the diffusion of leadership skills among rank and file, Maeckelbergh 2011; Polletta 2002, 2003). More maximally, in the form of the self-governing commune, such practices directly confront the power of the state and/or private capital (Bosteels and Dean 2014). However, Butler neither relies on one of these explanations nor provides her own.
This inattention to the mechanics of performativity and prefiguration reflects two shortfalls of Butler’s theorization of precarity as the shared condition, target, and source of the performative potential of recent uprisings. First, if precarity is a “politically induced condition,” the subject of this passive construction is left unnamed (neoliberalism? nefarious politicians? police and prison wards?), as is the implied timeframe wherein more unequal distribution of “injury, violence, and death” has occasioned “sudden” and “unpredictable” outbursts of popular action (1, 11, 33). The concept is therefore liable to stretching: is the precarity induced by privatization the same as that induced by incarceration, by authoritarianism, or by hierarchies of gender or race? [End Page 264] Second, and more fundamentally, there is a tension within Butler’s definition of precarity. In earlier work, she carefully distinguished between precariousness and precarity (2009, 25; cf. Watson 2012). The former referred to the human condition of corporal vulnerability, a condition that can be denied or effaced but never eradicated (2015, 150). Precarity, in contrast, referred to the politically induced condition of the unequal distribution of vulnerability and the resultant differential exposure to “injury, violence, and death” (33). However tenable this distinction, Butler has not maintained it in Notes. Here, precarity at times seems to overlap with or encompass precariousness: “a shared condition of precarity situates our political lives, even as precarity is differentially distributed” or “our shared exposure to precarity is but one ground of our potential equality.” (95, 218; emphasis added). Despite her assertions that she is not proposing “a general ontology of the body” (on the contrary, she claims, the body is vulnerable to history in ways that are always “economically and historically specific”), these claims certainly read as statements about the nature of human existence (148). Distinguishing between precarity-as-political-condition and precariousness-as-(inescapable) human-condition is essential if Butler wants to account for the specificity of what variously marginalized populations have in common, of what constitutes the condition of their political alliance and (always provisional) collective identification as a “we,” and for the capacity of such assemblies to construct a more livable world. If the precarity of the many is the flipside of the security of the few, then the political mobilization of the excluded does not reveal our universal humanity, but rather exposes the injustice and contradictions of a particular social order—the undoing of which would necessarily involve wresting power and resources from recalcitrant elites.
To conclude, I suggest that Butler’s insufficient explanation for the generative power of assembly is intimately connected to her emphasis on vulnerability as basis of popular mobilization. Throughout Notes, precarity is defined as unequally distributed vulnerability to “injury, violence, and death”; that vulnerability is in turn the basis of popular mobilization and resistance. Butler urges readers to “pay attention to what it means to mobilize vulnerability, and what it means, more specifically, to mobilize vulnerability in concert” (140). She is aware of the pitfalls of grounding collective action in collective injury; she devotes several pages to the potential for “vulnerability” to slide from sociological to normative description, and of the attendant risk of inviting paternalism on the part of the powerful (139–143). But she is more concerned with the risk of disavowing our shared vulnerability, a disavowal she sees as implicated in the (re)production of precarity itself (211). How, then, is vulnerability mobilized, and what are the effects? In particular, I would question her invocation of the “deliberate or willed mobilizations of vulnerability, what we might more aptly describe as [End Page 265] political exposure” (184, emphasis added). For Butler, these are acts of exposure in two senses. First and most immediately, they expose participants to further precarity (e.g. repressive state responses). Second, they expose our sociality, our interdependency, our vulnerability:
… such movements do not seek to overcome interdependency or even vulnerability as they struggle against precarity; rather, they seek to produce the conditions under which vulnerability and interdependency become livable… Our shared exposure to precarity is but one ground of our potential equality and our reciprocal obligations to produce together conditions of livable life(218).
As myriad examples of popular movements have demonstrated, the power of the exploited, the oppressed, the marginalized, and the excluded does not lie in their shared weakness, but in their collective strength: their numbers, their skills, their organization, and their strategic locations within processes of production and circuits of exchange. If all that the excluded share is their vulnerability, vast systems of policing, incarceration, and other forms of social control would not be necessary to contain them, nor would elites be perennially haunted by the specter of unrest and revolt. Assembly is not powerful because it stages our universal humanity but because it stages the political capacity of the excluded to threaten the reproduction of social order. Indeed, this is one promise of the older figure that Butler replaces, namely the proletariat. By seeking redemption instead in the plight of the precariat, Butler narrows the horizon of radical politics to an equality founded in our shared vulnerability, rather than in our collective power to create a more equal world.
Thea N. Riofrancos is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Providence College. Her work focuses on radical critiques of resource extraction in South America, and their implications for constitution-making, democratic sovereignty, and the possibility of a “post-neoliberal” polity. Thea may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org