Performativity was one of the excrescences of academic jargon when I last listened to academic jargon, which was not as recently as yesterday. The noun “perform” here means to consciously put on an act. To perform an act is not simply to do it, but to do it with a histrionic or performative purpose. Indeed the purpose is often purely performative, in which case the act is done solely to communicate a meaning.
When actors perform a love scene in a movie or play, for instance, their petting and moaning is performative. Its sole purpose is to communicate the meaning “love scene,” and sexual arousal of the actor or actress, if it occurs, is just a byproduct of their performance. If I loudly wash the dishes after being (in my opinion) unjustly accused of never washing the dishes, my loud washing of those dishes is performative. Its purpose is to communicate my indignation at having been unjustly accused of selfish sloth, and the fact that dishes actually get washed is no part of my histrionic purpose.
Performativity is therefore a noun that denotes an act having this histrionic character. In an older and slightly less excrescent academic jargon, such acts were called “gestures.”
Although I do not sympathize with the aims of the recent riots, I will grant that many of the riotous acts were performative, or gestural. The use of charcoal lighter fluid is, for instance, performative arson. Its purpose is to act like you are trying to burn down a building without actually burning the building down. There is a reason we use the word “riot” as a metaphor that means extremely enjoyable and a whole lot of fun. A riot can “turn ugly,” but until it takes that turn, a riot is a surprisingly festive event. Riots have often been described as “street theater.”
But I am thinking this morning about private performativity, which is nowadays, I daresay, a conservative predilection. Bonald has written about this. Public performances of Progressive pieties is nowadays status enhancing. Public performance of conservative pieties is status degrading. This is why most Christians have finally begun to heed Christ’s admonition that they retire to their closets before praying, although I fear it is social shame rather than Christ’s admonition that has caused them to do so.
I remember somewhere reading that British colonial administrators made an especial point of dressing for dinner when they were posted in the tropics. The most scrupulous did this even when dining alone. I do not “dress for dinner,” but I do understand the performative superstition of these old colonial administrators. We discover who we truly are when we observe the performance we put on for ourselves when no one else is watching. The kernel of Christ’s admonition is that we retire to our closets and discover who we really are.
I suspect that private performances are more important for conservatives because conservatives believe that decay is the way of all flesh. If you are bushwhacking through a rough country, you will walk downhill if you do not make a conscious attempt to walk uphill. If you are dining alone at a colonial outpost in the tropics, you will go to the dogs if you do not go and put on a dinner jacket. I am not aware that Christianity has an opinion about dinner jackets, but it does tell us that heedless men and women go to the dogs. It tells us that our life on earth is bushwhacking through a rough country, that we will walk downhill if we do not make a conscious attempt to walk uphill, and that when we walk downhill we are going someplace worse than to the dogs.