- 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...