Radical Democracy, Activism and the Specter of Theater, or, A Theatrical Haunting of Judith Butler
Judith Butler’s early work often performs a philosophical reflection on the nature of theatricality and the language of activism. These ruminations on mimeticism, repetition and iteration meet in Butler’s theorization of “gender performativity,” a theory which opened up powerful ways for those in the Anglo-American humanities to rethink gender and sexual oppression, and which has also been appropriated as vital source material by various transnational feminist, lesbian and gay, and queer activisms since the 1990s. Yet in these early works, Butler moves repeatedly to maintain a distinction between performativity and theatricality, a distinction that wants to prevent the concept of performativity from being misappropriated to reduce any and all human experience to mere play, or, to the realm of inconsequence, or “theater”. In what becomes a reiterated distinction between the consequential and the theatrical, Butler’s theory uneasily (perhaps unwittingly) conjoins a history of anti-theatricality in Western discourses on democracy. This article explores the ways in which this distinction inevitably haunts notions of democracy, activism and performativity theory, leaving room with every iteration for the specter of theater to make its troublesome return along with its spectral personification, the spectator of theater. By considering what I will call the trans-theatrical performance of U.S.-based artist Ann Liv Young (whose troublesome work is regularly presented in France and Western Europe), and by examining Judith Butler’s own precarious relationship with “activism” (vis-a-vis feminism and her most recent public commitments to the BDS and #occupy movements), it might be possible to rethink radical democracy and theater together as spaces in which the freedom to say everything (via Derrida) is entangled with the imperative to represent ourselves and/as others; a performative task that cannot be reduced to a mere distinction between the consequential and the spectral.
Ryan Tracy is a writer, composer and performer based in New York City. His critical writing is published in print and online magazines. His music and theater have been performed at venues throughout New York City. Academic interests include music, queer theory, performance studies, feminisms, continental philosophy/post-structuralism, political philosophy, literary theory, and psychoanalysis. He currently resides in Brooklyn, NY.