Chapter 1: A Performative Turn?

The first part of The Provoked Economy (“The Problem of Performativity”) has two chapters. The first one (“A Few Theoretical Rudiments”) opens with a section on “The Performative Turn in the Social Sciences”. A “turn”, really? A clear-cut epochal shift? A coherent intellectual revolution? Well, not quite in my opinion:

“First, the notion of performativity (or the idea of the performative) has been used in a variety of ways which are often unrelated and perhaps even contradictory, in reference to speech, theatre, efficacy, and so forth. There is, as far as I can say, no integrative, consensual, coherent view on this and we are therefore in the somewhat uncomfortable, but quite fertile ground of ambiguity. Second, identifying an intellectual turn requires situating a relevant shift in a particular time and place, which is unlikely in cases such as the one to be examined here. It is a well-known fact that novelty in the social sciences is almost systematically accompanied by the rediscovery of old precursors.” (p. 7)

There is nonetheless, I believe, something going on — an air of performativity — in some parts of the social sciences from the 1970s onwards. I sort this out in four (far from exhaustive and obviously porous) intellectual clusters.  The first one emphasizes performance in operational achievement and considers that thing that was known as “knowledge” in the pre-postmodern era from the vantage point of its usefulness and productivity. Jean-François Lyotard‘s famous assessment is an obvious reference here, and so is the critique of the jargon of performance in managerial parlance (e.g. The New Spirit of Capitalism). The second cluster looks at the constitutive, generative capacities of science, especially of experimental science. Andrew Pickering is a natural resource here, of course, together with Michel Callon, Bruno Latour and much others. The third one relates to the problem of enactment and representation, of play and display, understood from a theatrical angle. Judith Butler comes as a crucial ingredient, but also the tradition derived from Erving Goffman, for example. The forth cluster is rather about a properly semiotic understanding of the efficacy of signification and its organizing properties. I rely mostly here in the work of authors such as François Cooren and also of course on some classics of the Quartier Latin.

After a very brief review of these currents of thought, I go straight to what they share or, rather, ought to share in my view:

“What is common among all, implicitly at least, is an idea of signification as act (to signify is an active process) and of reality as effectuation (to effect is to bring reality about). What is also shared, concomitantly, is an intellectual background often referred to as pragmatism.” (p. 16)

Indeed, “reality as effectuation and signification as act” is a persistent motto in the book. The reference to pragmatism too (especially to Charles Sanders Peirce):

“At least in my understanding of pragmatism, the emphasis is not on things just as things, but on things happening. A fact is an act: the act of taking place.” (p. 16)

True, this looks more like a proposal than a claim that scholars versed in the crafts of performativity would all naturally embrace. And this call from a more profound clarification! Which is what I try to provide in the next section of the first chapter (“Four Distinctive Philosophical Problems”).


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