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Bodies (and Spaces) do Matter: the limits of performativity

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This article explores the insights and limitations within geography of Judith Butler's concept of 'performativity'. As a processual, non-foundational approach to identity, many feminist and post-structuralist geographers have incorporated performativity into their work on the intersections between gender, sexuality, ethnicity, space and place. Yet few have explicitly undertaken a close and critical reading of Butler's theory. The author argues that performativity ontologically assumes an abstracted subject (i.e. abstracted as a subject position in a given discourse) and thus provides no space for theorizing conscious reflexivity, negotiation or agency in the doing of identity. Butler posits a subject abstracted from personal, lived experience as well as from its historical and geographical embeddedness. Uncritically transcribing this abstracted subject into geography limits how we can conceptualize the linkages between emerging identities, social change and spatially-embedded, intentional human practice. A more thoughtful and nuanced use of performativity would allow geographers to map how concrete subjects (individual or collective) do identity in relation to various discursive processes (e.g. those that constitute race, class, sexuality and gender), to other subjects, and to layers of institutions and practices.

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: December 1, 1999

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