Remembering Bodies

By Alan Van WykDecember 28, 2015

Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly by Judith Butler

AUGUST 29 MARKED the 10-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s devastating landfall. It seems necessary to admit that we — at least those of us who no longer live with the daily reminder and reality of loss; of communities, neighborhoods, and homes destroyed; family, friends, neighbors gone or still missing; streets still not passible; a city dislocated from itself — do not yet know how to mourn the destruction, and death of that event. While we cannot forget the images of people stranded on rooftops, or swept down flooded streets, it’s difficult to remember that any of it happened. And in our active failure to remember, we often and too quickly turn to a future of New Orleans built on nostalgia.

Although Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly, Judith Butler’s most recent work, begins in Tahrir Square, the theory of assembly that these Notes propose remains accountable to a world in which the event of Hurricane Katrina is exemplary — where that “natural disaster” happened. A “natural disaster,” that was Butler recalls, natural, but also political: the effect of a deliberate and extended dismantling of the material and social conditions of a livable life. In New Orleans during and after Hurricane Katrina we see (if we do not look away) the ways in which a livable life is possible only within a series of political decisions — or, as is more often the case, is made impossible through a series of political decisions. “It is as if,” Butler conjectures in the shadow of Katrina, “under contemporary conditions there is a war on the idea of interdependency, on […] the social network of hands that seek to minimize the unlivability of lives;” a war, in other words, on the existential, social, and political conditions of living.

Hurricane Katrina made visible what Butler has called the differential distribution of precarity: the ways in which certain lives are exposed to violence and/or made unlivable. One thesis of Butler’s Notes is that bodies on the street in protest and solidarity resist these distributions of precarity, that “acting in concert can be an embodied form of calling into question the inchoate and powerful dimensions of reigning notions of the political,” and “a bodily demand for a more livable set of economic, social, and political conditions no longer afflicted by induced forms of precarity.” But gathering in the street is also an embodied act of mourning, a remembering of lives lost and those rendered unlivable. To gather in the street, in public, is an act of living together that brings into being another body politic. Beyond mourning, and maybe even the messianic, a gathering of bodies becomes in these Notes a remembering of what has been lost as an embodied imagining of what might be.

Many of the chapters and arguments gathered here began as occasional and public addresses. Whatever we may think of Butler’s recent attempts at a more public discourse — her taking up of a public voice outside the technical grammar of theory — these chapters seem to be caught in between the public and the technical. They are plagued by an unevenness. Moments of philosophical and critical brilliance and public political passion are interrupted by arguments we have already heard and read, and thoughts not quite developed. There is no obvious sense of continuity in the work as a whole, and so these Notes never quite arrive at the theory toward which they are moving.

There may be, though, a philosophical justification for this deferral. In the fourth chapter, in the midst of trying to theorize the striving together of a multitude gathered in the street, we, reader and author alike, are overcome by a proliferation of concepts. Rather than acquiescing to a philosophical logic of simplicity, Butler acknowledges the resistance that bodies gathered together sometimes offer to theory: “I’m using one word after the other, searching for a set of related terms as a way of approaching a problem that resists a technical nomenclature; no single word can adequately describe the character and the aim of this human striving, this striving in concert or this striving together that seems to form one meaning of political movement or mobilization.” Butler has always been more interested in a productive materialism, of a proliferation of bodies and concepts moving against philosophical simplicity. With her recent readings of Isabelle Stengers in mind, we might now call this cascade of concepts a “free and wild creation of concepts” — a conceptual grasping after the assembly; a conceptual grasping after the coming together of bodies, moving in their own rhythm not as a unity but as a plurality, speaking not in the singular voice of a popular will, but the lived multiplicity and sociality that is both subject and object of politics. The unevenness of these Notes, then, might more properly be designated as the vulnerability — conceptual, political, and philosophical — of attempting to grasp, while also living within, a body politic of the living.

With this we might propose that these Notes are grasping in two directions at once: at an embodied conception of precarity, and a performative conception of assembly. Butler herself suggests a threefold division of the Notes: first, an exploration of assemblies that “presume modes of belonging and site-specific occasions for political demonstrations, second, a questioning of ethical obligation that holds between those who do not share an immediate sense of belonging together, and third, a taking up of Theodor Adorno’s question, ‘Is it possible to live a good life in a bad life?’” Although this division does represent the formal organization of the chapters, the more interesting struggle is with the embodied politics of precarity — the ways in which political distributions of precarity are challenged and resisted by and through, and maybe most importantly, in assemblies. And this is, for Butler, a struggle precisely because of the difficulties in thinking both precarity and assembly in their performativity.

So there is a first proliferation of concepts beyond the title: not only performativity and assembly, but also precarity and livability. Yet it is not always clear if and how these concepts are related or are to be organized. In the first chapter, after a brief reiteration of her early theory of gender performativity, Butler suggests that “perhaps it is possible to see how precarity has always been in this picture.” Since performativity is a theory and practice that opposes the unlivable conditions of gender and sexual minorities, it is always already concerned with precarity. A first suggestion, then, is that performativity is a theoretical concept for resisting precarity. This would lead us to anticipate that assembly is an embodied political practice of that same resistance. Performativity in theory and assembly in practice would then be related as two complementary ways of resisting precarity. But this doesn’t quite hold; performativity and assembly cannot so easily be distinguished by theory and practice in relation to precarity, for performativity and precarity are both ontological concepts with political effect, or political concepts with ontological weight — Butler’s grasping after concepts has always been too serious and rigorous to respect philosophical limits.

In one sense, precarity is a rather simple name for “the politically induced condition in which certain populations suffer from failing social and economic networks of support more than others, becoming differentially exposed to injury, violence, and death.” But it is also much more than this. Or rather, to be a bit more precise, precariousness is much more than this, working as an ontological concept with a number of similarities to performativity. Already in Frames of War Butler has argued for a distinction between precariousness and precarity: while precariousness is an ontological concept, naming a certain openness, an ecstatic vulnerability that all subjects share, precarity is a political concept, naming the ways in which that openness and vulnerability is exploited, exacerbated, and differentially distributed. Continuing with this distinction, in the Notes, being precarious designates a general and near universal ontological openness of all subjects. “We can,” Butler proposes, “make a broad existential claim, namely, that everyone is precarious.” And this claim, Butler continues, “follows from our social existence as bodily beings who depend on one another for shelter and sustenance.” Here in the Notes, more so than in her previous work, precariousness is directly tied to being bodies, to human existence as bodies that are dependent on a surrounding material world for their existence. Simply stated, bodies require other bodies to survive: other human bodies and other non-human bodies. Or, as Butler says, “Part of what a body is is its dependency on other bodies and networks of support.” Butler is continuing to move into more ecological territory here, and to be clear, this is more ecological than environmental: in her grasping for concepts to determine this bodily dependency she will include the environment, but always with infrastructure and architecture, social relations and networks of support that are human, animal, and technological.

In previous works, particularly Precarious Life, Frames of War, and Parting Ways, Butler has drawn on Emmanuel Levinas and Hannah Arendt to further develop this concept of precariousness. In Notes, she repeats much of what she has already accomplished there. With Levinas she argues that the subject is always preceded by an Other, that it comes into being by being solicited by another, by being called and addressed by another. Rather than a self-contained and self-responsible ego, the “I” is first and primarily ethically responsible to another. This being called, being solicited, happens before and outside any choice the “I” might make; no one chooses the other(s) who call them into being, and so ethical responsibility crosses differences not of the subject’s making. For Butler, this also means that the subject is fundamentally social, dependent on these others who call it into being: “whatever sense ‘our’ life has is derived precisely from this sociality, this being already, and from the start, dependent on a world of others, constituted in and by a social world.” Butler also argues that this primary being called, this primary solicitation, is dependent on a bodily appearance. “The bounded and living body,” she argues, “is the condition of being exposed to the other; exposed to solicitation, seduction, passion, and injury; exposed in ways that sustain us but also in ways that can destroy us.” Before anyone is, there is a being addressed by another, a being called into a social world that is not chosen, and this address is made by and to a body, as the exposure of living flesh to living flesh.

With Arendt, Butler further develops the unwilled aspects of this social exposure. As Arendt famously argued, no one gets to choose with whom they cohabit the world. Drawing on and moving beyond Arendt, Butler argues that this has two main consequences: first, everyone is fundamentally dependent for their being and freedom on these others with whom they share the earth; second, because of this fundamental dependency there is an obligation to protect and sustain this world that has been given. In other words, the earth is not ours to do with as we please, there are always others upon whom we depend for our existence, and to these others we owe a responsibility to the sustainability of the earth. In reading Levinas and Arendt together, Butler unfolds a conception of the precarious self as open, as fundamentally constituted by others, and as a bodied openness fundamentally exposed to others. Further, this open and dependent precarious self is also an ecological being, living and existing in a world that extends beyond itself, in a world populated by a host of others, human and non-human.

Performativity, precarity, and precariousness, then, are attempts to name not just a political reality but also the ontological condition of an embodied, ecological, ecstatic subject. Yet in a final conceptual grasping, Butler turns to vulnerability as a way to understand this open subject. At first, it is not entirely clear why this third or fourth term is being explored. As Butler notes, vulnerability is a rather dangerous concept. Historically, it has often been used to justify stifling and repressive paternalistic projects, “protecting,” in the name of their inherent weakness, populations and groups of folks who cannot do so for themselves. But the conceptual benefit of vulnerability, for Butler, is that it prioritizes a fundamental dependency and relationality. Precariousness, in other words, may indicate an openness that the individual subject suffers on her own, it is the nature of her own being. Vulnerability, on the other hand, indicates a condition that always requires another. Although the self may be simply precarious, it is always vulnerable to another. As Butler continues to push in an ecological direction, it might be possible to say that unlike the precarious self, the vulnerable self is not also an ecological being but is an ecological being, fully saturated by human, non-human, environmental, and social relations.

Of course, performativity, precariousness, precarity, vulnerability are not context-independent concepts; they are always practices in the world, a world that Butler here designates as neoliberal. She does not in these Notes provide a strict economic determination of what she means by neoliberalism, but she does offer an outline of its general ideological contours: neoliberalism is a political ethos of radical independence, self-sufficiency, and self-responsibility. Philosophically it demands that we see ourselves as individuals, living out our lives of private desire and conscience, responsible not only for our own well-being but also for the infrastructural and material conditions of our survivability. These philosophical demands are enforced and enacted through economic and political practices of austerity, the deregulation of the economy, the privatization of social and public life, and the dismantling of public infrastructure and the conditions of livability. As Butler describes this, “neoliberal rationality demands self-sufficiency as a moral ideal at the same time that neoliberal forms of power work to destroy that very possibility at an economic level.” Neoliberalism is the logic through which precarity is today differentially distributed. It is an insidious logic presented as a morality tale: the inability to be responsible for oneself, the inability to be self-sufficient in a world where self-sufficiency is made impossible for all but a few is read as a moral failure, and so one becomes responsible for their failure to survive in a world where survivability is at permanently at risk. And it is that which brings us back to New Orleans: even when the buses no longer run, you are still responsible for not getting out of town before the storm.

Within this neo-liberal world performativity, precariousness, precarity, vulnerability are concepts of both critique and possibility. As critical concepts they offer ways of understanding how a neoliberal political and economic order works. At the same time, they also offer an alternative, ways of living differently within that order and so creating new orders of being. They are concepts for prying open the neoliberal world, creating spaces for living in. And it is into these spaces that assemblies grow — or rather, in their growing, in their sprouting up assemblies create these spaces for living. Clearly, not all assemblies, Butler admits, are organized around precariousness and precarity. But all assemblies do make an embodied “claim to the political.” So in a first grasping after a conceptualization of assembly Butler argues that bodies gathered together and appearing in public make a political claim to the right to appear in public, or, as she says, “making a set of claims about the right to be recognized and to be accorded a livable life.” One way precarity works is to deny the right of certain folks to appear in public, to be recognized as belonging to the public, to be one of us. To appear in public together is a short-circuiting of the norms of appearance. It is a bodily entry into public space, into the field of appearance that forces an appearance not only of those specific bodies, in that place, at that time, but also the norms which work to exclude those bodies from public appearance and from reality. In appearing where they do not belong, bodies gathered together make clear the now contested conditions of their not belonging.

Working through a further reading of Arendt, Butler recognizes that this entry into appearance is itself a performative act. In Arendt’s phrasing, claiming the right to appear in public is making a claim for “the right to have rights,” a claim for which “there is no ground […] outside the claim itself.” In making the claim in public the right itself is being enacted. Yet in entering into the field of appearance, making this claim, asserting this right, these bodies are not simply becoming a part of an “embarrassed etc.” simply adding new bodies, new identities to the list of those that can appear. These appearance are, rather, a reconfiguration of the norms themselves, creating “a rift,” as Butler calls it, in the sphere of appearance, a possibly “anarchist moment or anarchist passage” that forces a redistribution of the norms by which bodies and lives are recognized and made livable.

Again, although all demonstrations are arguably embodied bids for recognition, for the right to appear, they are not all organized against distributions of precarity. Those that are concerned with precarity offer resistance in a number of ways. First, as Butler finds demonstrated in the mass gatherings in Tahrir Square, to gather together in the street or the square, in public, is to enact a certain interdependence, to live in a way that recognizes a shared precariousness, the vulnerability, the exposure to others that is the nature of embodied life. And to do so specifically in ways that make possible livable lives. Interdependency is brought into public life, is made a part of public being-together, and so is made a part of politics. In Tahrir Square this was a matter of directly being bodies, and so the assembly and the square were organized not simply in protest, but also as a living, with room to sleep, cook, eat, shit, and heal; all shared activities, necessary for living. It was, in other words, an organization for living and living together.

In organizing the public space of protest in this way, the gathering at Tahrir Square was also laying claim and making a demand for the ecological conditions of livability. On a certain level this was, as are other assemblies which gather in resistance to precarity, a “struggle over how bodies will be supported in the world — a struggle for employment and education, equitable food distribution, livable shelter, and freedom of movement and expression,” but at a more fundamental level it was a struggle for the street and square itself, for the space of livability. The square or the street “is also a public good for which people fight — an infrastructural necessity that forms one of the demands of certain forms of popular mobilization.” Which, speaking more generally means that if politics, especially a politics of bodies and assembly, “is oriented toward the making and preserving of the condition that allow for livability, then it seems that the space of appearance is not ever separable from questions of infrastructure and architecture,” the ecological conditions of livability. In another performative action, then, “bodies congregate, they move and speak together, and they lay claim to a certain space as public space.” This laying claim, Butler wants to insist, is, as are other claims, a performative act, a making public of a space, a street, a square that may not otherwise be public. “The very public character of the space is being disputed” when an assembly gathers, and in this contestation of public space, “the collective actions collect the space itself, gather the pavement, and animate and organize the architecture.” Especially in an age of neoliberal privatization, the public square cannot be taken for granted, as the space of gathering or as the ecological support of the preservation of bodied life.

Finally, to gather together in resistance to precarity is to assert the body into politics. When gathered together against precarity, bodies become “both the ground and aim of politics.” The appearance of bodies in the street, the livability of bodies, the organization of public space to support bodies; these are both the demands and grounds of gathering together public space as the space of gathering. Finally and fully, it seems, a performative theory of assembly is an attempt to articulate the condition and possibility of asserting and inserting the body into politics, of resisting precarity in order to open up and create space of livable life. Which means, in another sense, that “the opposite of precarity is not security, but, rather, the struggle for an egalitarian social and political order in which livable interdependency becomes a possible.”

This wild grasping after an embodied conception of precarity and a performative conception of assembly gives rise, in these Notes, to a conceptual interdependency between performativity, precarity, and assembly. In addition to making for an at once difficult, confounding, and intoxicating read, this proliferation of concepts also means that much has been left out of this reading: for example, the wonderful continuation of Butler’s reflections on media technologies, the way that, as circulated within and through the media, bodies are not simply here or there, but always occupy a place of movement, meaning that assemblies, these bodies when gathered together also always exist here and there. In Notes, this leads Butler to also reflect on the ethical responsibilities we may have to bodies that are there, but also here, a set of reflections that culminates in an exploration of the question “is it possible to lead a good life in a bad life?” a question that fully embraces the difficulty of relational being, of being only by coming to be as social and historical beings. In other words, in a relational world, what can it mean to strive after the good life when life itself is shared, and shared in ways that may already be bad?

As a way, then, to bring to an end this open and proliferating reading it is possible to pose a rather traditional political question: what is the relation between the people, the assembly, and the state? Butler recognizes, throughout these Notes, that the assembly, any assembly, cannot fully represent the people. There are always others who are either a part of the people or a part of the assembly who cannot, for a variety of reasons, appear in the streets or in public. So whatever claim an assembly might be making is always both a performative claim and an incomplete claim: bodies gather, and in that gathering become a people, laying claim to a space, to a street, to livable life, yet in this gathering, there are always others who do not and cannot gather, others who would if they could also lay claim to that space, that street, that livable life. These bodies gathered together, as a gathering, as a people are always already precarious, open, dependent on others, on a materiality that they cannot fully claim; they are, and the gathering they constitute is, vulnerable.

For Butler, the incompleteness of these gatherings, the openness of these bodies, the precariousness of the people, opens a critical distance between the people and the state. The popular will, Butler argues, can never become co-extensive with the state, nor can popular sovereignty ever be fully translated into state sovereignty. Although bodies in the street may be organized by the state, co-opted by the state, or become the state, there will always be an open remainder, an excess of bodies that will always remain outside the state, establishing a distance between the people and the state. In this way, Butler suggests, “freedom of assembly may well be a precondition of politics itself, one that presumes that bodies can move and gather in an unregulated way, enacting their political demands in a space that, as a result, becomes public, or redefines an existing understanding of the public.” And this, it seems, is the gathering together of concepts toward which these Notes have been struggling. At this moment, in our inability to mourn, when a neoliberal organization of the state enacts an ever-increasing field of precarity, bodies gather in the street not simply to demand recognition, to claim and reclaim a common space, the social, environmental, economic, material conditions of living, but to begin again, and always again, to remember ourselves as a body politic of the living.


Alan Van Wyk is a writer and independent scholar living in St. Paul, Minnesota. He holds a PhD in theology, ethics, and culture and writes on religion, culture, and ecology.

LARB Contributor

Alan Van Wyk is a writer and independent scholar living in St. Paul, Minnesota. He holds a PhD in theology, ethics, and culture and writes on religion, culture, and ecology.


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