Review: Notes toward a performative theory of assembly by Judith Butler

It’s been a while since anything was written here. I’ve been sunk with wage-labour. Or more precisely the labour that you have to do along side a paid job but which isn’t paid. I’m not sure what that’s called.


But anyway, I didn’t have time to write but I did have time to read – Judith Butler’s Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly. I remember being involved in a direct action campaign a few years back where we were blocking construction machinery on an infrastructure project. One thing that did my head in was when the construction workers would ask “but there is only a handful of you” as if that implied that what we were doing was not reflecting widespread public opinion. Even worse was when some of our own would say “It’s disgraceful that there aren’t more people here. If they really cared they would be here”. This whole dynamic brought forward a sense of righteousness: we are the only ones with the commitment to act on our beliefs and we were burdened with doing the heavy lifting on behalf of the majority who were on our side but too lazy to do something about it.

I never felt comfortable whenever this attitude started to assert itself in our group. Two interrelated topics that Butler deals with in this book are the socialised support required for a person to ‘appear’ and take political action, and the relation between the messages put forward through the actions of activists and the opinions of the broader population, the democratic will (And there are plenty others). What I’m taking away is that we should be humbled by the privilege to have the opportunity to act politically where others cannot (even if often getting beaten by the police, or ostracised trying to find a new job doesn’t make it feel like much of a privilege). It is also singularly important not to drift into the whole ‘doing this on behalf of those who could not be here’: certainly it’s good to acknowledge that there are those who can’t be there, and that out of solidarity we should do what they would like to have the chance to do, that is, to push the struggle in ways they would like. But we cannot assume the right to act or speak for others. This gives rise to the politics of representation. Ok not in the traditional sense where we think of it as a party claiming to represent a constituency of voters but then being given free reign with no accountability. But think about the elections last year in Kenya: anti-democratic electoral interference prevented Odinga from winning, but the flip side is that reclaiming democracy is now reduced to getting him into power. We can see a similar pattern with high-profile women hit by the glass ceiling (e.g. Robin Wright campaigning for equal(ly astronomical) salary as Kevin Spacy on House of Cards), persecuted whistleblowers dominating campaigns with their egos (e.g. Julian Assange), when asylum is granted to a limited number of refugees who took action, or arrested activists becoming the voice for the next directions of the campaign, namely to try to secure their release (e.g. Nelson Mandela). In each of these cases we have genuine subversions of democracy and genuine experiences of repression, leading to a situation in which the personal projects of a set of select people get projected as the only way the democratic will can be respected. Anarchists and activists involved in direct action like to think their forms of organisation and repertoires of action are based on directly democratic participation and are opposed to a politics of representation, but as Butler shows, and as seen in the examples above, saying your actions are against representation is one thing but there are ways for the logic of representation to creep back into things, which is not something that anarchists are used to being accused of.

Other themes dealt with in the book that are relevant to us today include ethics – important to guiding or situating intersectional struggle, including the right (even necessity) to subdivide multi-dimensional autonomous identities even in places where strategically only unity will advance struggle; breaking the separation between body and speech – think about the ability to write, or the talent to write well, and the exclusions that are created and voices lost when cultures or movements elevate the status of print over vocal and emotional knowledge; and, as the title suggests, a theory of assembly – what could be more important to understand seeing how the most explosive forms of revolt of the last 10 years were almost entirely defined by stripped down assembly, or simply being, together (compared to previous tactics like shutting down meetings in the days of the alterglobalist movement, or strikes and workplace occupations further back in the syndicalist wave of the early 20th century). Indeed evidence of its importance can be seen in how Hardt and Negri have made a comeback to deal with precisely that topic.

I’m probably over extrapolating in drawing out these lines, which is partly as a result of me reading too deeply into her thoughts, and partly as a result of her reading too deeply into hypothetical situations. The problem with hypothetical or abstract reasoning is that you can make very convincing arguments about a dilemma or contradiction that really is not such a big issue in practice. For example, she asks “Does the freedom of assembly depend on being protected by government, or does it depend on a protection from government? And does it make sense for the people to rely on government to protect itself from government” (p158). The problem is that this abstract logic creates a paradox which in reality people, rationally, are pragmatic about.

For example, I was reading something about a series of movements in India where it was observed how movements negotiate this false dilemma strategically rather than ideologically when deciding which avenues have the best prospects of getting their aims realised. As the author observes, movements recognise the necessity

“to steer a strategic course between anti-statism on the one hand and state-centrism on the other hand. The basic argument against anti-statism would be this: an awareness of the structural limits to the changes that can be achieved via the state-system and the state-idea does not translate into a principled rejection of any engagement with the state. […] this does not entail a position in which interaction and negotiation with the state is seen as the beginning and the end of the strategic scope of oppositional collective action. […] In other words, it is a position that advocates an instrumental rather than a committed engagement with the state-system, and the state-idea – that is, an approach to interaction with the state based on limited expectations of what can be gained and, simultaneously, a clear perception of what cannot be gained and what is risked in pursuing this avenue.”

So, if the police protect particular bodies on a particular night from attack, taking that protection doesn’t mean you are a statist. I remember being involved in a camp and on one occasion being called to intervene in a case of partner violence. When we joined together to ask the guy to leave he started punching out at all of us until eventually us weak bodies managed to somehow overpower his macho mass. And we sat on him to immobilise him and called the police, who by day had been trying to evict us. For us it was a no-brainer that we had to rely on the state to protect us, regardless of what the state tried to do to us other times.

And just to give another example (because it is annoying me how much of a non-issue this can be for people), unemployment benefit is often an important form of protection by government for activists. Without it many people I know would not have the time or energy to get involved in projects that they are in, while for others, it saves them from activism rendering them homeless or turning them into alcoholics. Activists often draw unemployment benefit without falling into the illusion that the state is somehow benevolent and that they don’t need protection from it. Indeed, in some countries unemployment benefit is necessary in order for unemployed people to be entitled to social and medical security – often precisely to pay for the medical costs for treatment for injuries received at the hands of the police at a protest.

This is just one fleshed out example of how Butler’s style of argument (and possibly the whole area of political philosophy in general, I can’t say I read enough of it to be able to tell) can create its own problems rather than dealing with problems that people encounter in struggle. As a consequence you need a fair bit of concentration to stay focused on the eventual point. I’ve heard other people speculate that Zizek doesn’t write his books – he just records himself on a rant and then has that dictated. I can well picture Butler doing this, only instead of recording herself while riled up and foaming, she records herself when stoned. And the result goes like this:

“It is true that I am trying to struggle toward an affirmation of interdependency in what I have offered here, but I am trying to underscore just how difficult it is to struggle for social and political forms that are committed to festering a sustainable interdependency on egalitarian terms. When any of us are affected by the sufferings of others, it is not only that we put ourselves in their place or that they usurp our own place; perhaps it is the moment in which a certain chiasmic link comes to the fore and I become somehow implicated in lives that are clearly not the same as my own. And this happens even when we do not know the names of those who make their appeal to us or when we struggle to pronounce the name or to speak in a language we have never learned. […] Indeed, certain bonds are actually wrought through this very reversibility, however incomplete it is. And we might find ways of understanding the interdependency that characterises cohabitation precisely as these bonds. For if I am here and there, I am also not ever fully there, and even if I am here, I am always more than fully here. Is there a way to understand this reversibility as limited by bodily time and space in such a way that the other is not radically other, and I am not radically over here as an I, but the link, the joint is chiasmic and only and always partly reversible and partly not?” (p 120)

As I said above, I don’t know if this kind of thing is a problem of this specific book or of political philosophy in general (Zizek certainly comes up with some things which sound fascinating and enigmatic but have zero relation to anything going on outside his head). One thing though in terms of the substance of her argument that I do disagree with is the second last chapter, ‘We the people’: thoughts on freedom of assembly. A big part of her conclusions here are built on, amongst other things, how she deconstructs the idea of ‘the people’. Don’t get me wrong, it is a valid problematisation of what is and has always been an exclusionary and elitist concept of constituency. But why not just skip all these problems and just go with the multitude? The reason I ask is that elements of the multitude don’t try to speak for or act in the name of other elements. Butler even makes an important point with this critique of the concept of ‘the people’: civic units are (in part) constituted through the means by which they are permitted to access the public and/or political area. As she says,

“All of these are reasons why those with the freedom to appear can never fully or adequately represent the people, since there are people who, we know, are missing from the public, missing from this public assembled here in Gezi Park; they are those who must find representation, even as those who seek to represent them risk imprisonment for doing so. And it is not just that there are some people who happen to be missing from the gathering because they had something else to do; rather, there are those who could not have gathered in Gezi Park, or can no longer gather, or who are indefinitely restrained from gathering. That very power of confinement is a way of defining, producing, and controlling what will be the public sphere and who will be admitted to public assembly” (p 173)

Incidentally, for a great example of how this works in practice, have a read of this article on ‘minority politics’ in Amsterdam and how the local government switched the framing from multi-ethnic integration (involving social justice-oriented leftist immigrant groups) to religious inclusion (centred on religious associations), with the result that where left activists once campaigned as leftists, they then campaigned as muslims. But regardless, why not just sidestep the entire theoretical dilemma by using the concept of the Multitude? – which incidentally also happens to free itself from the further dilemma of tacitly legitimising a state that represses it.

So, on the one hand Notes toward a performative theory of assembly deals with a lot of relevant themes and ideas. On the other hand, there are problems which I have outlined. I’m going to embrace the contradiction rather than trying to tease it out.

Diversity commentary:

Monograph written by a homosexual woman. University-educated, working at Professor rank at a university in an advanced capitalist country (USA). She was born in the US, is white, but comes from a Jewish family, of whom previous generations were persecuted and killed by the Nazi regime.

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