Performative Theory of Assembly

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Judith Butler has been an important voice speaking out against the power of the mighty and in favour of standing up against oppression. She has noted that the dead of 9/11 were separated into those worth mourning and those not.

Her work on gender performativity has been very important in developing arguments supporting the rights of sexual minorities to be heard. Her idea, that gender is not inherent in biology but is a set of ideas in society that are received by the individual and to some extent internalised and enacted by the individual, has been crucial in the extending the right to be heard to, for instance, the transgender community.

The set of speeches in this book builds on that notion and extends it to wider groups. She expands the concept of precarity from an economic category to a description of oppression, recognising that precarity can exist in the distribution of rights — for instance the right to gay marriage or to legal representation — and is unequally distributed. She recognises that many groups in society beyond sexual minorities are suffering oppression. By continuing to exist they provide a counter-argument to the propaganda of the elites. In this context Butler sees the possibility of alliances and coalitions of the various oppressed groups. However, for Butler this alliance is as good as it can get, a single unified opposition is ruled out. Class is seen as just another category of oppression.

In this book she extends the concept of performativity to the demonstration or assembly. In appearing in the streets people enact or embody their resistance by challenging what is “public” space. By so doing they extend it and constitute an alternative sovereignty to the state. The assembly calls into question our rulers’ narrative.

Butler was influenced by and supported the Occupy movement and the Indignados in Spain. She praises the “We have no demands” slogan of those movements, arguing that to even ask for something like “justice” is to ask for so many things as to become meaningless. Here Butler’s ideas become problematic.

If we look at Greece, or at the counter-revolution in Egypt, the question posed by the situation today is that of strategy: it is no longer enough to say “We are here” or “Not in my name”; we need to ask the question, “What is to be done?”

The Greek and Egyptian events have shown that representation, whether in the form of demonstrations or elections, is not enough to overcome the power of the elites. We need to discuss and argue for ways to move beyond protest — to challenge for power.

Socialists should argue that it is possible to have a unified opposition to the elites based in a working class united on the basis of its economic exploitation and its need to overcome the divisions of oppression.