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Performativity

Performativity is a term used to describe the capacity of speech and gesture to produce actual consequences, i.e. to produce reality itself. It derives from the language philosopher JL Austin’s c.1955 work in Speech Act Theory. Austin used the term ‘performative utterances’ to describe situations in which saying something is doing something - with the classic cases being ‘I do’, ‘I name this ship’ or ‘I now pronounce you man and wife’. Through the work of Judith Butler in particular, performativity is used to address how speech and language produce individual identities in relation to the constructs (e.g. gender) that connect individual bodies to a wider social sphere. The term has further relevance for how history is performed and made ‘real’ - through speech, music, ritual, or the written word. The question of who speaks, who creates the past and who says that this or that history is the real story is of particular relevance in the context of struggles for identity and representation. Although deriving from the study of language, the term has widely used in interdisciplinary contexts and it gains relevance for forms of artistic or practice that involve speech, action or gesture - or understandings of the work of art that extend beyond the material object and encompass the situations of production, presentation, reception and affect.

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