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#special issue: Knowledge in Action

Pavel Arsenev /// Performative Knowledge

J.L. Austin defines a performative statement as the opposite of a statement of fact. It therefore functions not in the categories of true/false, but in the categories of successful/unsuccessful. This shifts it from the register of describing or explaining the object to the register of altering it (in the nominal form of an appeal to the world as such). The performative speech act is constituted by its involvement in action (as its accentuating component) or by its total identity with action (to say “I declare” is the same thing as to declare something). To the degree to which knowledge can be related to the utterance or speech act, it can be performative—that is, it can appeal to reality, being a part of action or identical to action insofar as it alters reality. Moreover, considering the fact that any utterance or form of knowledge is by definition ideological, it is all to the better if its subject interprets it as performative—that is, as something situated not in the jurisdiction of “truth,” but in the coordinates of pragmatics.

J.L. Austin defines a performative statement as the opposite of a statement of fact. It therefore functions not in the categories of true/false, but in the categories of successful/unsuccessful. This shifts it from the register of describing or explaining the object to the register of altering it (in the nominal form of an appeal to the world as such). The performative speech act is constituted by its involvement in action (as its accentuating component) or by its total identity with action (to say “I declare” is the same thing as to declare something). To the degree to which knowledge can be related to the utterance or speech act, it can be performative—that is, it can appeal to reality, being a part of action or identical to action insofar as it alters reality. Moreover, considering the fact that any utterance or form of knowledge is by definition ideological, it is all to the better if its subject interprets it as performative—that is, as something situated not in the jurisdiction of “truth,” but in the coordinates of pragmatics.

Its progressiveness notwithstanding, the postulate that states that all discourses are ideological depends on the notion that all ideologies are discursive, that all utterances, even the most radical, are (inter)textual. And it is right here that we should clarify what we mean by performative: not so much discourse that is aware of its own engagement, as direct nondiscursive action in public space, knowledge engaged in action, in the collective action of protest.

Direct action is obviously opposed to mediated action—to action mediated by social institutions, democratic or so-called democratic procedures, and elected representatives. Direct action becomes possible and essential when these intermediaries are understood to be falsifications. Strictly speaking, it is the emergence of a weak establishment that makes the activist statement possible. Despite the heyday of activism in the nineties (which had been the apotheosis of freedom as it were, but in fact had been marked by the reshaping of public space), the first “direct” utterances were onomatopoeic and self-referential rather than full-blooded affirmations. Gestures and mimicry precede speech activity, although they never cease to accompany it.

In the Soviet Union, the exemplar of oppositionist knowledge was the written word, and literature was subversive; hence the character of the Soviet opposition. Nowadays, however, no one is forced to take part in demonstrations. This form is rising again from its discredited status, and politics might return to the street. This doesn’t mean the current state of things is in any way predisposed to a politics “from below,” but only that the regime of social representation creates the structural possibility of such a politics. In the nineties, this possibility was intoxicating more than anything else; today, it can be used the way it was meant to be used.

There is a certain transgressive component (“The simplest Surrealist act consists of dashing down into the street, pistol in hand, and firing blindly, as fast as you can pull the trigger, into the crowd”) in direct action, and the consequent danger of auto-aestheticism for participants, the trap of becoming dependent on the action’s “murderousness” vis-à-vis passersby and philistines. Of course there is the risking of one’s own body, but the willingness to take this risk can be determined by other motives that in their general outlines approach that terrible word “self-representation.” The primacy of the statement’s functionality and a clearly articulated political message can tame the action’s form, make it a tool of the statement’s “blackmail.”

And even so a street action can become a tool in the hands of art’s structural mechanics. The glow of transgression (a notion quite popular in intellectual circles) in direct action shouldn’t eclipse the political statement, whose constitutive function is to open a new front of liberation.

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