What’s the Point of Performativity?

By Roj Amedi

There are two conversations being had in response to our current moment of global pandemics, entrenched racial injustice and ecological collapse. On one side is a growing push to change the way our societies function ― a call to interrogate the hierarchies of race, ability, class and gender that benefit from the status quo. On the other is the same old symbolic and self-referential acts designed to absolve those with power of the guilt they confess to harbouring.

These very same acts are performed by a predominantly white and financially privileged class of people within an echo chamber of their own making. A daily round of applause for the UK’s National Health Service can be supported by a Conservative government whose main aim is to destroy it. Texan realtors announcing they’ll stop using the word ‘master’ to describe bedrooms, while denying Black people from renting properties in certain neighbourhoods. McDonalds changing their display name to ‘Amplifying Black Voices’ for two days while they make profits off employees of colour paid below minimum wage. 

The definition of performativity comes from ‘performative utterances’, a term conceptualised by John Langshaw Austin that refers to words which perform an action, like ‘I do’. It doesn’t describe anything or hold any tangible  value ― it simply is an act in itself. Hence these acts actually replace actions that are not being taken. But is there any value in performativity? Can an individual signalling a desire to act for gender equity, anti-racism and class solidarity ever influence culture long enough to lead to structural change? And how do we assess when an act of performativity builds, reinforces or usurps power?

Let’s take social change campaigning for instance. The purpose of social movements is to build up a base of supporters that can then build a momentum strong enough to dismantle or shift a system in a certain direction. That base of supporters can include a range of individuals and institutions that start to echo the main objectives of your campaign. A little different to community organising, social change campaigning can build the drive to remove children and their families from offshore detention centres, or it can confront discriminatory policies that would criminalise people sleeping rough. The objective is to build public commitment to a cause, polarise your opposition and convince those in the middle ⁠— often referred to as ‘the persuadables’⁠ — to join your side. By shifting the terms of the debate, campaigners push out alternate narratives and build the power for change. 

A majority of people sit in this ‘persuadable’ category on many issues. They don’t devote themselves to a specific value system, and can shift their perspectives at any given time, according to context or broader public sentiment. This means that the opinions that they hear the most, and are oft repeated by authority figures, generally stick. So in order to achieve social change, campaigners need to provide an alternative narrative that will convince and influence those in this group. 

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Can an individual signalling a desire to act for gender equity, anti-racism and class solidarity ever influence culture long enough to lead to structural change? And how do we assess when an act of performativity builds, reinforces or usurps power?

But how then do individual projections lend themselves to social change? As individuals, we fashion our online and offline personas around who we want to be and how we want to be perceived. In the world of social theory, this is nothing new. We signal to others what values we hold in order to create bonds and feel connected, in the hopes that by projecting our most desirable self, we can become it. Or at least be rewarded for it. Despite the fact that our actions ultimately expose our underlying socialisation and prejudices, our intentions still stand. 

That means if people who sit in the persuadable camp begin to hear a cacophony of support for a cause, it makes it easier and more likely for them to shift their opinions on a particular issue. It signals to others that a set of values is available, giving language to an alternative vision. Like we have seen with the culmination of work by the Black Lives Matter movement in Australia, First Nations people’s tireless work have built a base of allies who not only declare their support, but also repeat the movement’s abolitionist demands and then turn up on the streets in solidarity.

When these acts are defined by those with lived experience, it allows for their messages to reach those they may not have the resources to reach. This is particularly imperative when public discourse is often dominated by those with concentrated wealth and power, who then deploy language that reinforces their position. Sharing the message is an act in itself, giving space for people to learn and continue to act in service of that message.

However, while individuals acting in a collective have the potential to create space for solidarity and accountability, institutions acting as if they only hold individual morality do very little to dismantle underlying power structures. And they can in fact do the opposite: when institutional leadership is disconnected from affected communities — a majority of the refugee sector or the work of White Ribbon comes to mind — and refuse to challenge their inherent power, they end up setting the parameters of symbolic acts and do so to suit their own comfortability. By co-opting the language of justice, they actually vanquish its radical potential. As a consequence, they often derail the opportunity to have meaningful conversations, and fail to shift or displace their own power. 

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Last month, at the height of the Black Lives Matter protests, a slew of US-based tech companies vocally pledged their support, only for journalists to blow the reality of their discriminatory hiring practices wide open. Instead of holding themselves accountable to a standard that was relative to their power, they chose a public admission in its place. In The Nonperformativity of Antiracism, Sara Ahmed explains, ‘The speech act, in its performance, is taken up as having shown that the institution has overcome what it is that the speech act admits to. Simply put, admissions of racism become readable as declarations of commitment to anti-racism.’

A screenshot of the (now private) database of tech companies who have pledged their support to the Black Lives Matter movement, and the percentage of Black employees on their roster (Source: The Plug)

Accordingly, performativity becomes just another tool used to reinforce dominant power and control, rather than usurp or redistribute it. This symbolism then turns into another extension of what Janet Mawhinney describes as a ‘move to innocence’, in that these acts serve to foreground a sense of guilt or shame, rather than direct action. In other words, the term explains how performativity results in white people within anti-racist and decolonial movements distancing themselves from the violent structures that perpetuate their material privileges, and which hides the dominance they benefit from. By maintaining what Gloria Wekker terms as ‘white innocence’, white people continue to assuage their guilt rather than make the tangible change required to dismantle white supremacy. 

Last month, at the height of the Black Lives Matter protests, a slew of US-based tech companies vocally pledged their support, only for journalists to blow the reality of their discriminatory hiring practices wide open. Instead of holding themselves accountable to a standard that was relative to their power, they chose a public admission in its place.

Which brings us back to where we started. We’re facing challenging times that require us to stop reaching for symbolism and pageantry. In assessing the statements employed by an individual or institution, we need to understand how much power they are harbouring. By understanding the nature of that power, we can then distinguish when an individual or institution is in the act of redistributing power, or if their acts of performativity are in place of that redistribution. 

Roj Amedi is a writer, strategist  and community organiser based in Melbourne. She sits on the board of Overland and the Human Rights Arts and Film Festival. Her life’s work is economic and racial justice.

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