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...

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