- Bodies on the Line:The Performativity of Protest
Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015. 248 pp.
Judith Butler's recent book, Notes toward a Performative Theory of Assembly, is a timely meditation on the surge of popular protests around the world. It is inspired by the 2010 Egyptian revolution, the 2011 Occupy Wall Street protests, the 2013 demonstrations in Turkey's Gezi Park; and the 2014 Black Lives Matter protests in Ferguson, Missouri. In the United States the timeliness of the text seems only to have grown since its writing. In 2016 Black Lives Matter expanded to more cities, NFL sidelines, and college campuses. In 2017 the election of Donald Trump brought millions to the Women's March in Washington, DC, New York, Los Angeles, and other cities and towns across the country. According to Butler, when bodies assemble in the streets, they open time and space "outside and against the established architecture and temporality of the regime" they oppose (75). In effect, assembling bodies performatively enact new—more livable—modes of political life.
Like many of Butler's texts since Precarious Life, Notes draws on and develops [End Page 156] an expansive corporeal notion of performativity. For Butler, assembling bodies have performative effects in two senses. First, when gathered together in protest, strike, vigil, or occupation, they enact contestation. Second, they are the object of these contestations, especially in assemblies that challenge the "accelerating precarity" of our times (10). Today, neoliberal forces devalue and imperil bodily life by waging endless wars and shredding systems of social support. "The body . . . is at the heart of so many demonstrations, it is also the body that is on the line, exhibiting its value and its freedom in the demonstration itself" (18). By putting it "on the line," protests affirm that the body is a condition of social and political life.
Throughout Notes, Emmanuel Levinas and Hannah Arendt provide deeper theoretical framing to Butler's account of performative assembly. Levinas's theory of ethical relations illustrates how humans are vulnerably constituted by one another "from the start" (108). Although Levinas endorses Israeli nationalism and suggests that ethical relations are only possible within the Judeo-Christian tradition, Butler reads against this strand of his texts, finding an emphasis on the unchosen character of ethical relations (106). The social nature of human embodiment means that we are precontractually bound to others regardless of their religious affiliation (or political location) in ways that "we did not choose and could not have chosen" (107). Butler turns to Arendt to substantiate this notion of unchosen cohabitation, although again, Butler must read the author against herself. Arendt's theory of political action must be reimagined to appreciate the infrastructure of action. Here "infrastructure" includes not only public space but also the vast, unchosen interdependent networks of bodies that make up sociality. "It is only when we understand that what happens there, also happens here, and that 'here' is already an elsewhere . . . that we stand a chance of grasping the difficult and shifting global connections in ways that let us know the transport and the constraint of what we might still call ethics" (122).
Butler uses the term ethics with some hesitation. What do unchosen ethical connections require of bodies in assembly? What values should assemblies enact? Playing with the phrase "we the people," Butler favorably describes assemblies that perform "equality in the face of increasing inequality" (181). She also expresses a strong commitment to nonviolence, arguing that protests should seek to "constitute a different world from the one [they] encounter, and that means encountering violence without reproducing its terms" (187). Unfortunately, Butler's arguments for nonviolence are quite general, and she does not anticipate or engage antifascist arguments in favor of defensive or strategic violence. When a protestor punched neo-Nazi Richard Spencer at Donald Trump's inauguration on January 20, 2017, antifascists praised the action on the very bodily performative terms that [End Page 157] Butler affirms in Notes. When genocidal actors threaten people's lives, can strategic counterviolence play a role in defending the infrastructure of popular assemblies? This is an important question, especially given...