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The politics of performative resignification: translating Judith Butler's theoretical discourse and its potential for a sociology of education
journal contributionposted on 2023-06-07, 19:25 authored by Valerie Hey
More than any other recent social theorist, constructing a disquisition on Butler’s ideas draws the writer into speculating on the formation of their own intellectual grammar, perhaps to confront the disconcerting truth of how often their own cherished analytical rationality is broken up by glimpses into the imagination of more provocative thinkers. I have come to the conclusion that it is not so much that we self-consciously assemble all of the resources for the making of research imaginaries as those vivid ideas (and frequently their authors) come to haunt us. Butler’s work has been of this ‘disturbing’ order. The ‘unconscious of intellectual work’ is worthy of more attention than I can offer here but it is important to bear this in mind in the course of the following. In this paper I will describe the concept of ‘performativity’ and its theoretical elaboration in Gender Trouble, Bodies that Matter and subsequent and secondary texts. Performativity conceptualises the paradox of identity as apparently fixed but inherently unstable, revealing (gender) norms requiring continual maintenance. Her works thus contribute a new conceptual grammar in the inter-related concepts of performativity and citationality to denote a reading of gender not as essence nor socialisation, but as the consequence of the performative (i.e. recurring) ‘citations’ of gender thought as actions that institute ‘girling’, for example. Butler’s insistence on seeing gender as constitutive (as literally making the material of the embodied self) signifies the social and cultural forces that come to sculpt femininity and masculinity as norms on the body and the psyche. In arguing that the Butlerian performative has complicated a reading of the discursive and material conditions of the processes of (gender) identification, I will review my own poststructuralist vocabulary with its focus on the sociality of subjectification as a way to interpret and interrogate the power and limitations of Butler’s ideas. Despite the awkwardness entailed in transposing performativity to embodied practices of classed distinction, her work continues to expand the ethnographic imaginary. My exegesis of performativity also serves another purpose, as a methodological comment about academic praxis, as I simultaneously open up and share in the modes of translation used in coming to appreciate Butler’s important and exhilarating theoretical landscape.
JournalBritish Journal of Sociology of Education
PublisherTaylor and Francis
Department affiliated with
- Education Publications
NotesThis commissioned paper is a strong theoretical contribution to poststructuralist debates reconfiguring the sociology of education. The Special Issue was a feminist intervention in discussions of identity, subjectivity and social difference, arguing for the untapped explanatory power of Butler's work. Hey's paper counter-posed sociality to Butler's more elusive idea of performativity. Hey cited `belonging' as a moral project (manifest in critical ethnographies of girls and young people's social relationships (Hey, 1997; 2002). Hey urged how cultural readings of social actors (in educational spaces) more adequately grounded the possibilities and limits of performative agency. This was a newly posed original problematic. Yet it is one that has arisen out of a long intellectual trajectory culminating in recasting individual agency as 'embodied' discursive performances elicited by the regulatory role of the ethnographic 'audience'. This conceptual shift speaks to, but also questions, Bourdieu's equally abstruse idea of habitus.
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