A priest that pronounces a couple “husband and wife” can be said to be involved in two activities: the simple uttering of words, and actually binding two people into marriage. If the best man were to shove the priest aside and utter the same words, he is considered to be involved only with the simple uttering of words, but not the marrying of the bride and groom. What is it that gives the priest's words binding power? There are various instances of social convention in which words have binding power, and as Judith Butler notes,1 certain utterances bind a person to shame. I will present an analysis of Butler's view, and I'll attempt to show that while she offers a good theory of how certain utterances by authoritative figures acquire binding power, there is little explanation as to how non-authoritative citizens seem to execute the same kind of binding power as it pertains to slurs and derogatory remarks. Examining Butler's position will help to establish the authoritative aspect of performative utterances, and I will turn to Nietzsche to provide a hypothesis of how non-authoritative citizens also exhibit binding power.
Performative Speech Acts
Austin defines performatives as those utterances that when stated one is not describing what one is doing, nor is one simply stating what one is doing, rather, one is performing said action; it is to do it.2 When a priest states “I pronounce you...”, the utterance is neither a description, nor is it stating what it is the priest is doing, but the given phrase is to bind a couple in marriage. The success of a performative act depends on whether the act proceeds under certain circumstances: there must exist an accepted conventional procedure (certain persons uttering certain words in a certain context), the given procedure is executed correctly and completely, and the appropriate thoughts and feelings must accompany the act as well as the appropriate subsequent behavior.
Citation Of the Law
Butler is not adhering to all of the circumstances of performativity as she does not seem to express concern of whether the appropriate thoughts and feelings accompany a performative act for it to be successful. On the contrary, she seeks to dispense with the notion that a subject is what construes the power of performativity. This is not to say that thoughts and feelings aren't involved, but that a performative does not achieve success through a self-contemplative process in which a judge, for example, considers the situation, and by an instance of will, pronounces someone to be guilty or innocent: it is not a subject that establishes that a judge's words confer a sentence onto a guilty party. Austin's first condition states that there must exist an accepted conventional procedure for a performative to work, and in the case of a judge's sentence, Butler thinks that what the judge utters has binding power only if the judge cites the law. In addition to this, it must be the case that prior to the current trial, there must be a conventional legacy by which current “activity” emerges in the context of a chain of binding conventions: a trial cannot proceed in its contemporary fashion unless trials have successfully proceeded as such in the past, and the current trial mimics, or reiterates former trials.
We'll return to the idea of dispensing with the subject later. Sticking with citation, particular statements a judge utters acquire a binding force from previous discourse in the practices of law where other such successful performative acts were performed. Citing serves as an invocation of convention—a discursive practice that appeals to prior authoritative sets of practices, to a conventional legacy. If not for these prior, particular, law oriented linguistic activities concerning matters of authority and lawful citizenship, then a judge would be in no position for his utterances to have any binding power over the affairs of people in court.
Given that certain performatives have been repeated by certain persons on numerous occasions in the past, they have accumulated a force of authority and normativity over time. Whether it be the verdict of a judge, or the vows in marriage, either, as a performative act, gets its force due to an appeal to prior exercises that have been repeated on numerous occasions. Seeing as the best man in a wedding has not been the one to utter vows in the past, his butting in seems uncanny, and no one takes him seriously. Another of Austin's conditions of success is that the appropriate subsequent behavior compliments the performative. It is the string of successful performatives over time that constitutes conventional legacy; the best man has had no such success in the past, so he is condemned to being a bored spectator rather than the one doing the binding.
Femininity Is Not a Choice
Remaining with the wedding example, the best man cannot will it that his utterances having binding power because there is no historical force to support him, due to which his attempt will not be followed by the appropriate subsequent behavior. Instead, he will become the victim of ridicule for disrupting the ceremony. There are ways to fail in the face of conventional legacy, acts that are thought to disrupt, or not coincide with, the chain. In the case of the marriage ceremony, Butler thinks that the performative nature of the ceremony to bind two people together also establishes that the performatives involved succeed only if the players are of a particular sort. A priest cannot marry anyone, it must be the case that it be a bride and groom. Butler explains how this sense of performative success regarding marriage ceremonies also establishes taboo activity, acts that do not meet the conditions of performative success. In this instance it's the sex of the two persons to be wed. The performative nature of the marriage ceremony, then, establishes a heterosexualization of social bonds between people.
The conventional legacy of heterosexual marriage establishes a shaming taboo that “queers” all those who contradict the convention. “Queer”, then, serves as an insult, and similar to how a judge or priest cites prior authoritative practices in order for their utterances to have binding force, the insulting nature of “queer” gets its performative force by referencing historical operation: how it has been used to indicate contradiction to convention in the past. A part of the conventionality of the marriage ceremony is that it harmonizes two people in such a way that it produces jubilant feelings amongst attendees. Anyone who is seen as disruptive to such conventionality is outcast and ridiculed, and thus “queering” has developed as an instance of shame.
In a certain sense, one can infer that the past determines the future, and that all present conduct is the result of conventional legacy. There are those who oppose such an inference, and believe that one can create oneself in the moment, free from history and surpassing convention. Language, by this standard, appeals to a “will” or “choice”, and does not constitute a history of discourse. Sartre is a proponent of such a notion, and in his existentialism asserts that “existence precedes essence,” from which we are meant to understand that one creates who one is in each moment of one's life by means of choice.3 Sartre thought that if there is one truth to man it is that he is a conscience subject capable of overcoming history by conscientiously considering alternative actions. Butler believes this to be erroneous in that identity categories do not surpass historical discourse. There is no term, or statement, that can function performatively without a preceding historical force—no binding can occur without there being past instances for one to cite. In order to identify as some gender, that is, to be able to be bound to what one utters, there has to have been instances in the past where doing so bound others to respective identities.
Identity terms such as “I”, work in the same way, the successful use of which are predicated on a history of discourse. “I” is preceded by discourse—language has to have been designed in such a manner that allows for talk of subjectivity. It is in this sense that gender roles, such a femininity, are not a choice as Sartre conceives them to be. Instead, a history of discourse comes to form the subject. In the present day, “queer” has taken a more positive tone of performativity, one less confined to shame. However, Butler argues that one is mistaken in holding the idea that one identities as “queer” in an “out of the blue” fashion. It is because “queer” has existed as a mark of conventional contradiction that one is able to take it up at all—even in aiming to change the meaning of a term, one does so by reiterating the conventional use of it.
Our examples have been instances of authority executing performatives. How is it that those who are non-authoritative are able to cite for the sake of binding force? This question can be held to any and all instances in which the common person means to commit successful performatives. Is this to say that the common citizen is unable to self-identity if an authority figure is not present to bind one to a gender personality? Butler does not offer much in answer to these questions, and given “queer” seems to have been shamefully bound to particular individuals over time that we now look to challenge it today, it might assist us by having some sense of how performative success occurs in non-authoritative social circles.
Nietzsche: the Creditor/Debtor Relationship
I will focus primarily on the second essay of Genealogy Of Morals, in which Nietzsche discusses how it is we come to bind people to shame and punishment. Nietzsche's account does not depend on whether a person is authoritative or not, rather, his view offers the idea that the more distant one is from authority in the social chain of command, the more binding one's utterances become.
Nietzsche's theory refers to a certain type of relationship between creditor and debtor in which the memory of one's debts to another is what binds one to the performative utterances of others. In this relationship, an individual, or a group, confers something to another, and the latter fails to fulfill on what is conferred. Nietzsche also dispenses with the subject, and thinks that each of us is born into, and subjected to, a world that has started without us. A conventional legacy is already in place in that the language of the legacy immediately administers performatives onto a newborn: a “doctor” in a “hospital” utters one's “sex”—each of the elements in the equation successfully emerge through language in being a reiteration of how, by whom, and where similar activity has occurred in the past. As Butler points out, a doctor pronounces “It's a girl!” and from that point forward one is committed to “girling”, much like how a criminal is sentenced to jail by a judge, and how one is committed to “queering” if one deviates from normative social bond; the doctor's utterance is successfully performative. Due to the vulnerability of youth, one grows up absorbing the language of what constitutes “girling”, as well as “queering”, that latter being an indication of punishment should one deviate from the former. Any measure one takes against “girling” will be in the language of “girling”, as discussed above, as will any talk of subjectivity depend on the language of which being designed prior to such deliberation.
Given that the initial utterance by the doctor commits one to “girling”, Nietzsche imposes that this aligns one with particular promises pertaining to the conventional legacy—one has vowed to reiterate a particular discourse within society. Doing this allows for one to partake in all the advantages society can offer. In this manner Nietzsche thinks that the self has made itself calculable: one looks to the future by reiterating the past. Calculability is a human measure for ensuring knowledge about our fellow humans, and this is largely constitutive of creditor/debtor relations. Our memory of our initial vow, serves as a promise to others that there will be no surprises. In the case of a “no surprises” society, the advantages alluded to before emerge—change has been conquered, reason can flourish! Marriage ceremonies will continue to proceed as they always have, ensuring the jubilation mentioned before for all eternity. Those that impose calculability fulfill the creditor aspect of the relationship, and it's the promise of gender normativity that one owes to all participants of a conventional legacy: one agrees to be another link in the chain.
Nietzsche describes this relationship as being a “social straightjacket”, a set of fixed ideas that is conferred to serve as reminder of one's promises. Fixed ideas come in the shape of “memories”, in particular, those that refer to instances of punishment made upon those who broke their promises—pain serves as the great memory inducer. Similar to how one is bound to “queering” when disrupting the heterosexual social bond, one is entitled to cruelty if one does not continuously reiterate normative mannerisms pertaining to “girling”. The creditor/debtor marks the origin of punishment as the creditor feels obligated to invoke injury on those who fail to fulfill on their debts.
I hope it to be no mystery that each of us serves as a debtor in one way or another, or in every possible way (slave morality), but who exactly are these creditors? One simple answer may be that they are authority figures, for it is their words that have binding power, as convention has it. However, given the formality of the various trades each of these authorities are involved in, it is not often that we hear authorities pronouncing one to “queering”. The priest pronounces a couple to be married, and indirectly establishes homosexual taboos in that we react in a manner that predicates its success. What of when we are not directly in the presence of authorities? How is it we are adamantly inclined to performatives? Nietzsche thinks our inclination to uphold our promises is empowered by fixed ideas of punishment, and because our attachment to the promise is strong, one thinks of oneself as deserving of shame and cruelty if one opposes convention (a Nietzschian example would be a Christian flogging of oneself). The authority may not be directly present, but fixed memory allows one to privately echo performatives. This is how we develop “bad conscience”, an illness that causes one to turn against oneself—one becomes one's own menacing authority figure. Nietzsche considers this an illness because, returning to our example, one believes that it is still the doctor who is binding one to the commitments of “girling”, while it is really oneself, and it is successful! In this manner it is not only authority figures who utter successful performatives, but also those who are ill.
The above instance shows how one serves as creditor turned against oneself. Seeing as anyone can serve as a creditor, it should not be thought it is done always in bad conscience, but anyone can invoke the right of creditor upon others. For those of us with “good memory”, adhering to this social straightjacket comes without question, but Nietzsche thinks that instinct still draws one to power. Those with good memory who are non-authoritative are reduced to having to exhibit their instinct from within the confines of the straightjacket. This means that one still plays along with the game that performatives are what have binding force between people in society. However, non-authoritative citizens do not match up with the all the qualifications for a successful performatives, such as being a certain person in a certain place, but only seem to meet up with the appropriate thoughts and feelings accompanying the act and the appropriate subsequent behavior (the latter covered by bad conscience). Nietzsche feels this gives non-authoritative performatives more power in that one has to put in extra effort to “get the point across,” and rather than being able to invoke convention, one commits another to “queering” by vicious insults and physical force—one should be ashamed of not being calculable, especially when the rest of us are doing our best to be so! The more removed one is from authority, the more inclined one is to resort to cruelty in order to instantiate binding power, and this type of tactic has an unforgettable affect, a memory made salient by the terror inflicted to produce it. The cruel performatives of non-authorities cause one to be far more inclined to the promises made not to “queer”, or to continue “girling”.
The power of language to bind each other to particular values, and manners of living, will play to the fate of each of us. While authorities act by reiterating the law, riding the comfortable wave of “justification”, common folk follow at their heels and aspire to be in the “right of masters”, to partake in administrative binding and to get a sense of what it's like to have people to look down on. I made mention before of how in one way or another each of us is a debtor, but which of us are creditors? A criticism can be made against those who punish due to lack of hindsight about the true nature of their promises, but this requires a particular kind of discourse in which the criticism is turned against oneself: in what ways do I bind people to my words?
1Judith Butler, “Critically Queer,” GLQ: A Journal Of Lesbian and Gay Studies
2J.L. Austin, How To Do Things With Words (Harvard University Press, 1975), 13-16
3Jean-Paul Sartre, “Existentialism Is a Humanism”