- Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly by Judith Butler
In 2011, when Judith Butler delivered the lecture series that would become Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly, the speech act theorist joined other critical scholars attempting to work through the dark cloud of neoliberal fatigue settling over the humanities. “Identitarian ontologies” had become only more entrenched in the age of terror (68), any potential alternatives seeming destined for “discursive appropriation” by the insidious vocabulary of late biopolitical capitalism (14). Fatigued, but not yet resigned, Notes sets out “to rethink the speech act” (18), not to discover something else to say or some other way to say it but instead to take seriously what Butler (1997) described more than a decade ago as “the blindspot of speech, that which acts in excess of what is said” (11). Enter the assembly, public appearances of disproportionately injured bodies that express rather than speak the demand for shared conditions of livability. The assembly is simultaneously an ontology of vulnerability, an ethics of recognition, and a politics of persistence that puts Butler’s abiding concerns with performativity and precarity into conversation with the recent global emergence of a “politics of the street” exemplified by Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring (71). Readers of Philosophy and Rhetoric should find much of Notes agreeable enough. One recurring assertion, however, may cause discomfort: Butler’s denouncement of “proper political speech” as an underexplored vestige of neoliberalism’s differential distribution of injury (18). [End Page 356]
In direct opposition to neoliberalism’s “war on interdependency,” Notes insists on vulnerability and interdependency as our embodied conditions of existence (67). Those familiar with Butler’s older work will recognize the argument that all subjects are vulnerable because their identities are formed in language; we depend on recognition by social systems to live a livable life—one in which “freely exercise[ing] the right to be who one already is” does not mark me as disposable or ungrievable (1997, 61). Since the events of September 11, however, Butler has increasingly focused on another kind of vulnerability, embodied vulnerability, that affects all of us because we depend on material resources such as clean water, infrastructure, and care to live. It is on this point that Notes lingers, arguing that, despite the buzzwords of neoliberal enterprise, neither bodies nor the subjects who inhabit them are ever self-sufficient or independent. Rather, “part of what a body is . . . is its dependency on other bodies and networks of support” (30). Butler’s name for this social ontology is “interdependence,” metaphorized in Notes, as it was in Frames of War (2009), as, “the social network of hands that seeks to minimize the unlivability of lives” (67). Whether and how one recognizes or acts on this fundamental interdependency does not change the fact that one always already depends on—and in some cases disproportionately exploits—this sociality of care.
If we are ontologically interdependent, then we are ethically obligated to equitably distribute the conditions necessary for a livable life, what Butler (2005) previously termed “responsibility.” However, as Butler continues to explain in Notes, this is not responsibility in the usual (neoliberal) sense of the word. Rather, working with and against Emmanuel Levinas, Butler argues for an ethics of responsibility not derived from reciprocity, familiarity, or mutual interest. “If I am only bound to those who are close to me, already familiar,” Butler protests, “then my ethics are invariably parochial, communitarian, and exclusionary” and therefore unethical even if they are the convention (104). Interdependence demands not only responsibility to others but responsiveness to the Other, “the life that is not our own . . . this sociality, this being already” (108). Levinasian alterity being notoriously difficult to parse, Butler offers a useful assist: Hannah Arendt’s reading of Adolf Eichmann, the infamous Nazi middleman. “He thought he could choose which populations should live and die,” Butler summarizes, “and in this sense he thought he could choose with whom to cohabit the earth. What he failed to understand, according...