by Tavia Nyong’o

About Tavia Nyong’o

Tavia Nyong’o (he/him) is William Lampson Professor of American Studies at Yale University and member of the Yale Prison Education Initiative. He is the author of The Amalgamation Waltz and Afro-Fabulations.


Hey you! Yes… you! Now that I have your attention, let me ask you a question. How did you know it was you I was addressing? I didn’t call you by your name, after all. In fact, I don’t know your name or any other distinguishing characteristic. Nonetheless, I called out, and you turned your attention to me. There is a lot of power in what just happened, more than you might initially suspect. Or maybe you do already suspect. Perhaps you are already conscious of the coercion in my addressing you in this abrupt and unceremonious manner. Maybe you rankle a little at my interruption of what you intended to be doing, my disruption of what you were expecting to find here in this essay. Who am I, you may be asking, to presume to command your attention as I have just done?


When I was a graduate student union organizer, and was searching for that Holy Grail in which to combine “theory” with “practice,” a mentor gave me some useful advice. Theory, he said, wasn’t best used to arrive at the correct practical action, but as a reflection and assessment afterwards. This advice wasn’t quite as simple as the recommendation to “act first, think later,” but it did help confirm in me a retrospective and historical bent, or what I now think of as an inclination towards the theory of what went wrong. Although theory is often seen as either predictive of the future (especially in our current era of speculative financial capitalism, where the multinational corporations are seeking to make those futures a wholly owned subsidiary) or explanatory of a present crisis (as in those experts brought onto the media whenever disaster strikes to tell us what we already know it means), theory of what went wrong takes time to look through the detritus of a struggle, and takes the measure of loss and defeat in as concrete but also as generalizable a set of terms as possible. As we respond to the present conjuncture, in which “theory” itself, critical race theory, is under concerted rightwing attack in the U.S., all three tenses of critical reflection—retrospective, predictive, and crisis-response—must be drawn upon to make full sense of what is going on.


Performativity is one of the most consequential and contested ideas to emerge from feminist and queer theory. For better or worse, “queer performativity” was one of the signal queer theory catchphrases of the 1990s, and it continues to reverberate today, even as the heavily linguistic theory from which it emerged has given way to a subsequent turn to affect, new materialism, and ecological approaches. But where did performativity come from? In the midcentury language philosophy of J. L. Austin, the performative speech act was a way of noticing that language did things in the world, which is to say, it was a way of noticing that linguistic statements could not be reduced to transparently true or false descriptions of “the real” (as some of Austin’s fellow thinkers held). Austin (1975) originally sought to classify speech acts in terms of whether they were “performative” or “constative”—that is, whether they did things or merely described them. Yet in the end, he concluded that all language contained aspects of performative force in it. This conclusion opened the way for a subsequent philosopher, Jacques Derrida, to give speech act theory a deconstructive emphasis. In order for speech to do something, to act as a force, Derrida argued, it paradoxically must cite some precedent within language that granted that act intelligibility.