What is worse, the meaning of performative in contemporary parlance, while not very precise, is almost exactly the opposite of the word’s original meaning. When journalists refer to former president Trump as a “performative” figure, or accuse celebrity activists of “performative wokeness,” all they are saying, in that absurdly pretentious way, is that “it’s all for show.” Something “performative” is a mere performance, an act of theatricality, a tableau of artifice behind which there is nothing, or at least nothing substantial or authentic. Dare one point out that there are better ways—more vivid, precise, effective, and cogent ways—to express the same idea, without resorting to the wooden abstraction of this Latinate word?
But more to the point, and in defense of performative, it is a technical academic word that was invented to serve a particular purpose. The British philosopher J.L. Austin (1911–60) was an influential exponent of the view that our use of language must in some instances be understood as a form of action, and not merely as a system of signifiers that record and order the structure of reality. His most famous work, How to Do Things with Words (1955), is the locus classicus for the understanding of what he called a “performative utterance,” and he would go on to label such utterances “speech acts,” uses of language that are not describing something—indeed, are not even susceptible of being judged true or false, real or artificial—but doing something.
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