Monday, February 21, 2005

Documentation and performativity. I.

Earlier, I imagined that I would just cobble together some thoughts on documentation and performativity. After the reading and study I’ve been conducting over the last few months, I had a pretty good idea of how to tackle documentation and materiality. Unfortunately, performativity seems to be a tougher nut to crack (and I may delving into the wrong type of snack food completely).

My first foray into performativity has been a bit of a wash. The term is loaded up with a bunch of different meanings and interpretations and I suspect that conducting a thorough literature search would lead me off into a morass of contradictions and suspicions. Instead, I’m going to play a little game. In the next 30-minutes, I intend to attain some sort of mastery over the concept of performativity. The rules are simple: One--I’m only allowed to use resources that are conveniently at hand such as articles accessible through my master EndNote library, Google (first screen of results only please), and Wikipedia. Hardly thorough or rigorous, I realize, but at least I’ll develop some buzz-word compliancy. Two—I have to limit my search to particular authors, particularly John Austin, John Searle, Judith Butler, Jean F. Lyotard, Michel Callon, Donald MacKenzie, and Andrew Pickering.

Austin wrote the book How to do things with words. Of particular importance is his work on speech acts or performative utterances. In his formulation, language has to be understood in its actual usage. Performative utterances are sentences that do something in their usage. For example, a judge saying “I convict you to 10-years in prison” has a profound effect on the object. This example of an illocutionary statement actually describes the action being performed. However, other statements may be perlocutionary in that they are not actually self-referencing.

Searle—like all philosophers—presents a whole whack of stuff that seems to resist my quick investigation. Searle, like his teacher Austin, is a scholar of performative utterances. He has extended the concept to explore a variety of different aspects of human interaction. Of particular interest to me, however, is his elaboration of intentionality in social constructs. For example, a five-dollar bill is only actually worth five dollars if both the seller and the buyer accept it as currency; The performance of presenting a coloured piece of paper to a vendor means something very specific given the shared context of the two individuals involved in the transaction.

Butler is a scholar of gender and sexuality. She adopts Searle’s articulation of speech acts to explore the creation and maintenance of daily experience. In particular, Butler notes that our ongoing linguistic practices create our reality.

Lyotard takes a bit of a different slant from the work of Austin, Searle, and Butler. I’m not even sure if his articulation of performativity shares a common etiology with the work of the others. In The postmodern condition Lyotard comments that the grand narratives of truth that we have used to legitimate reality are no longer valid. Instead, we use a variety of different methods such as performativity, consensus, and paralogy. Lyotard’s articulation of performativity seems to have a cybernetic flavour. In a world focused on efficiency, anything that demonstrates “performativity” by minimizing inputs while maximizing outputs is legitimate. Of course, performativity is a frightening beast given that it operates outside of the world of ethics (Brugger, 2001).

Callon and MacKenzie seem to have done the most work in bridging this gap between Austin and Lyotard with “generic performativity”. MacKenzie notes: “economics is performative: a version of what I call ‘generic performativity.’ That is where an aspect of economics such as option theory is used in economic practice, and where the use 'makes a difference': for example, economic processes in which use of the model is involved are different from those from which the model is absent.” MacKenzie’s manuscript entitled Is Economics Performative? Option Theory and the Construction of Derivatives Markets seems to be most informative in this regard ( In the paper—which I’ve only skimmed—MacKenzie offers a description of both “generic performativity” and “Austinian performativity” and discusses a critique presented by Bourdieu. It looks like a good place to start!

Pickering describes two different epistemologies for the study of science: the representational idiom and the performative idiom (Pickering, 1994). Pickering claims that the representational approach takes for granted that the purpose of science is to create representations. His conceptualization of the performative idiom is based on the actual practice in which science is situated. This practice can subsume the representational but recognized that there are many different elements within scientific practice. In his presentation, Pickering attempts to overcome the micro-macro split inherent in so many other descriptions of science. Pickering’s conceptualization—while certainly reinforcing for documentalist studies—seems to represent a separate thread of performativity from those of Austin or Lyotard.


Brugger, N. (2001). What about the postmodern? The concept of the postmodern in the work of Lyotard. Yale French Studies(99), 77-92.

Pickering, A. (1994). After representation: Science studies in the performative idiom. In PSA: Proceedings of the biennial meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association, 1994. Volume two: Symposia and Invited Papers (pp. 413-419).


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