Judith Butler is influenced by Lacanian psychoanalysis, phenomenology (Edmund Husserl, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, George Herbert Mead, etc.), structural anthropologists (Claude Levì-Strauss, Victor Turner, Clifford Geertz, etc.) and speech-act theory (particularly the work of John Searle) in her understanding of the “performativity” of our identities. All of these theories explore the ways that social reality is not a given but is continually created as an illusion “through language, gesture, and all manner of symbolic social sign” (“Performative” 270).
A good example in speech-act theory is what John Searle terms illocutionary speech acts, those speech acts that actuallydo something rather than merely represent something. The classic example is the “I pronounce you man and wife” of the marriage ceremony. In making that statement, a person of authority changes the status of a couple within an intersubjective community; those words actively change the existence of that couple by establishing a new marital reality: the words do what they say. As Butler explains, “Within speech act theory, a performative is that discursive practice that enacts or produces that which it names” (Bodies 13). A speech act can produce that which it names, however, only by reference to the law (or the accepted norm, code, or contract), which is cited or repeated (and thus performed) in the pronouncement.
Butler takes this formulation further by exploring the ways that linguistic constructions create our reality in general through the speech acts we participate in every day. By endlessly citing the conventions and ideologies of the social world around us, we enact that reality; in the performative act of speaking, we “incorporate” that reality by enacting it with our bodies, but that “reality” nonetheless remains a social construction (at one step removed from what Lacan distinguishes from reality by the term, “the Real“).
In the act of performing the conventions of reality, by embodying those fictions in our actions, we make those artificial conventions appear to be natural and necessary. By enacting conventions, we do make them “real” to some extent (after all, our ideologies have “real” consequences for people) but that does not make them any less artificial. In particular, Butler concerns herself with those “gender acts” that similarly lead to material changes in one’s existence and even in one’s bodily self: “One is not simply a body, but, in some very key sense, one does one’s body and, indeed, one does one’s body differently from one’s contemporaries and from one’s embodied predecessors and successors as well” (“Performative” 272).
Like the performative citation of the conventions governing our perception of reality, the enactment of gender norms has “real” consequences, including the creation of our sense of subjectivity but that does not make our subjectivity any less constructed. We may believe that our subjectivity is the source of our actions but Butler contends that our sense of independent, self-willed subjectivity is really a retroactive construction that comes about only through the enactment of social conventions: “gender cannot be understood as a role which either expresses or disguises an interior ‘self,’ whether that ‘self’ is conceived as sexed or not. As performance which is performative, gender is an ‘act,’ broadly construed, which constructs the social fiction of its own psychological interiority” (“Performative” 279).
Butler therefore understands gender to be “a corporeal style, an ‘act,’ as it were” (“Performative” 272). That style has no relation to essential “truths” about the body but is strictly ideological. It has a history that exists beyond the subject who enacts those conventions:
The act that one does, the act that one performs, is, in a sense, an act that has been going on before one arrived on the scene. Hence, gender is an act which has been rehearsed, much as a script survives the particular actors who make use of it, but which requires individual actors in order to be actualized and reproduced as reality once again.” (“Performative” 272)
What is required for the hegemony of heteronormative standards to maintain power is our continual repetition of such gender acts in the most mundane of daily activities (the way we walk, talk, gesticulate, etc.). For Butler, the distinction between the personal and the political or between private and public is itself a fiction designed to support an oppressive status quo: our most personal acts are, in fact, continually being scripted by hegemonic social conventions and ideologies.
Butler underscores gender’s constructed nature in order to fight for the rights of oppressed identities, those identities that do not conform to the artificial—though strictly enforced—rules that govern normative heterosexuality. If those rules are not natural or essential, Butler argues, then they do not have any claim to justice or necessity. Since those rules are historical and rely on their continual citation or enactment by subjects, then they can also be challenged and changed through alternative performative acts. As Butler puts it, “If the ‘reality’ of gender is constituted by the performance itself, then there is no recourse to an essential and unrealized ‘sex’ or ‘gender’ which gender performances ostensibly express” (“Performative” 278). For this reason, “the transvestite’s gender is as fully real as anyone whose performance complies with social expectations” (“Performative” 278).