Media Theory for the 21st Century

January 27, 2008

code, performativity, Austin.

Filed under: Discussion — lindsaybrandon @ 8:17 pm
Tags: , , , ,

[I’m unaccountably nervous committing to blog-print. Here goes.]

I got a little excited about Adrian Mackenzie’s article—something with “performativity” in the title made me excited to have some context to bring to the table, since so much of what we’ve read and discussed thus far is so new to me.

My strongest impression is that perhaps one doesn’t have to make much of an argument for the performativity of code. I would be more surprised to see anyone argue against it—not only due to the breadth of topics and disciplines performance studies claims for itself generally, but because it seems undeniable that code is largely built for action. I suppose to the extent that code exists as an aesthetic object (like Rita’s description of the code in Talan Memmott’s work that exists as “a static linguistic and aesthetic artifact rather than as a functional program”) performativity might not be its primary characteristic, but even if we discuss it as an artifact rather than a piece of functionality, we might still talk about the work that it accomplishes in that state, about what the aesthetic object achieves or fails to deliver; its performance. At the risk of being reductive or simplistic, in my view, the performative lens is almost endlessly applicable (though certainly more useful in some contexts than others). Performance theory may often be deployed with more sophistication and specificity, but I think any time you’re discussing what something does rather than what it is, the performative is invoked.

Given that, I was intrigued by the move Mackenzie makes by anchoring his (her?) argument for performativity specifically in speech-act theory. It’s an interesting idea; if J.L. Austin’s point was that we can “do things with words,” doing them with and within the language of code seems like a logical extension. I’m curious, though, about what exactly is involved in treating spoken language and code as cognates, or even conflating them. There must be some slippage there, and I’m still pondering what might have . . . well, slipped. The move to speech-act theory is also interesting given that, although Austin may introduced the idea of performativity (or at least the term), to the extent that behavior itself is performance studies’ object-of-study, Austin isn’t specifically necessary in order to look at what code does. Mackenzie asks us to connect the technical performance of Linux to its performance as cultural object, presumably by way of speech-act theory; it seems to me they’re already inexorably connected, and that what would bear argument is the idea that we could somehow separate them. I’m not familiar with the work of Lee and LiPuma that Mackenzie cites (or at all, actually); I see how practices of circulation produce “performative effects,” although still I’m still mulling over Mackenzie’s implication that performativity requires objectification of social practice. Maybe I’m not sure what s/he means by objectification. I just hope it leaves room for the idea that performance—even of an OS—can be, in turn and even simultaneously, both normative and transformative.

(Has anyone read Jon Mackenzie’s book Perform or Else? From what I’ve heard, it seems like it might be germane to a discussion of how to work with performances of technology, but I’m still waiting on my recall of the library copy. If anyone has/has read it, I’d be interested in hearing how it jibes with this stuff.)

Blog at