- The Subject of PerformativityBetween the Force of Signifiers and the Desire for the Real
After the Law: The Limits of Indetermination
In certain intellectual circles it has become a truism to assert that the subject is multiple and nomadic. Indeed, after deconstruction permeated the cultural field, from academia to popular culture, since the turn of the twentieth century we have borne witness to a post-essentialist understanding of the subject, one whose plural identities, in their indeterminacy and fluidity, have indeed become since then the object of myriad political struggles. This conceptualization of the subject as a hybrid entity, enmeshed by mobile and indeterminate identities, is heir in part to the prior expansion of the semiotic turn in the humanities that started a century earlier. This development has influenced the posthumanist critique of identities concomitant with the later consolidation of interdisciplinary fields such as cultural and postcolonial studies, as well as feminist theory and queer and trans studies.
Indeed, the contribution of feminist theory to the problematization of identity has been central to this intellectual course, and the conception of the subject as a point of convergence and becoming has been thoroughly explored by authors like Rosi Braidotti (1994) and Donna Haraway (1991), whose work continues to inspire younger generations of scholars and activists. In particular, as far as the deconstruction of gender is concerned, the post-essentialist conception of the subject is also in line with the acute de-essentialization of gender, already advanced by scholars [End Page 55] like Teresa de Lauretis (1987) with her notion of "technologies of gender," by Gayatri Spivak's call for a "strategic essentialism" (1985), and by the performative theory of gender developed by Judith Butler, whose Gender Trouble (1990) has become an ineluctable reference around which many axes of current feminist debate are still organized, to name a few of the landmarks that now form part of the classic corpus of current feminist literature.
This fluidifying of the subject appears to run counter to the concept of a more solid subject, whether understood to be the master (or perhaps victim) of an essentialized imaginary identity or conceived as an agent in command of a set of identities that, although recognized by this subject as plural, historical, and ultimately imaginary, remain fixed as a transparent effect that could be apprehended by the subject in a comprehensive and complete manner. Both conceptions suppose the discursive mediation of social configurations and to a certain extent base their arguments upon the semiotic dimension of experience. However, what appears to distinguish the hypothesis of fluidity and indeterminacy from the imaginary forms of fixedness is that, even accepting the historicity of identity as an artificial and arbitrary construct, the latter often appears to convert the idea of identity as a construction into a kind of "second nature." That is, it tends to treat identity constructs as if they exhibit indelible characteristics similar to given facts, thus producing new ontological effects for what now would count as historically produced realities.
The observation is certainly apt. Indeed, we witness this particular production of ontological effects when we come across descriptive studies that claim to "tell" the "experience of the other" or "give voice to the other," without considering that the other is being produced and signified as such in the same interaction that forms part of the research, which, in turn is also enmeshed in the realm of discursivity (Arfuch 1992), or in the case of certain feminist approaches, when, for instance within the research of "women's histories" the construction of the category of "woman"—an ideal that regulates and crystallizes myriad power effects to configure only certain subjects as women—is not analyzed but rather [End Page 56] presumed as a natural (and therefore universal) fact. As Joan Scott (1986, 1991) has astutely pointed out, in these cases the category "woman" functions as the supporting base for the experiences of a collective that is presumed to be prior to such experiences, while in fact it is precisely through the historical experience that such a collective has been actually configured. Even when sexual difference is not taken for granted, this is also the case when...