The following article was published in N-SPHERE may 2011 issue.


Do we actually realize that every time we interact with someone we are playing a role, displaying a persona? When we are getting dressed, looking in the mirror, putting on make–up, we are using our bodies as subjects in a theatrical society, creating complex relationships within the environment. Perfomativity was brought in discussion by the philosopher of language John Langshaw Austin. He didn’t use the term per se, but he introduced the concept of “performative utterance”, which refers to situations when saying something becomes more of doing something. For example the utterance “I name this ship dog/boat Jimmy/Queen Mary”. In this case, the act of naming is performed. In his book How to do Things with Words, Austin presents a new perspective regarding speech as a form of acting (being more of a practice) that can be used to alter/affect reality. Thus, a sentence can’t be classified as true or false, but more like “happy” or “unfortunate” due to the context in which it was developed. The theory developed by J. L. Austin had a great significance in developing a large range of fields from economic science, feminism to queer theory. Therefore, in this essay I will use the work of Judith Butler, philosopher and feminist, and Claude Cahun, a French artist, to illustrate the concept of performative identity.

Judith Butler was influenced, among other things, by the philosophy of Michael Foucault, developing the idea of gender flexibility. In this case we can talk about our identity as a social construct, as something that is fabricated rather than inherent. In her book Undoing Gender, she is questioning the idea of autonomy over the body in the social context. If we examine our identity from the perspective of something unconsciously performed for the other, we shall see that we are following a script. The social environment is governed by hetero–normativity, thereby we function in specific parameters. Therefore our personal acts are in fact conventions and ideologies. In her essay Imitation and Gender Insubordination, Butler eliminates the categories of gender defining the concept of “drag”. We need to see that gender is not a feature of one of the sexes, more precisely the “masculine” doesn’t denote “male” and “feminine” doesn’t mean “female”. That way, “drag” constitutes the everyday life in which genders are worn and made theatrical, implying that all gender imprinting is an approximation. There is no “proper” gender, therefore gender is a kind of imitation for which there is no original, being an imitation itself. To sum up, the theory of gender developed by Judith Butler redefines identity.

The French artist Claude Cahun is most recognized for her photographic work. Born in 1894, in the Nantes region, under the name Lucy Renée Mathilde Schwob, she started to create her self–portraits around 1912. In 1919 she changed her name, to Claude Cahun, this one being more appropriate for her androgynous character. Her photographic imagery appeared in a controversial space and time, when women’s social and cultural statuses were debated.

She started her career engaging with symbolist themes, using in one of her first self–portraits the image of Medusa. Embodying one of the most powerful examples of “femmes fatales” in history, she re–envisions the social image attributed to women. The character which is interpreted here is a powerful woman, subverting in this way the stereotypes of femininity in that epoch. The 1914 photograph illustrates her in a chair on the floor with her body covered and her head resting on a pillow. The hair is arranged in a snake–like fashion highlighting disembodiment. This is not the only symbolic figure that she adopts, there is also a self–portrait in which she resembles Buddha.

In another piece of work, she embodied the figure of a glamorous male. Posing in front of a dark cloth pinned on a white wall, she approaches the viewer with a expressionless figure. Useless to search here for a gender, the figure constructed is more of an androgynous individual rather than of a male, much less of a woman. Holding one hand on the hip and the other by her side with the fist clenched, she presents the same body in another form. Wearing a white scarf and a velvet suit we can assume (just assume) that this could be a fashion shoot. But with Claude Cahun we can never know, our single information is that this is another form of the persona of Lucy Renée Mathilde Schwob.

Another example of a performativity in the work of Claude Cahun is a photograph of extreme camouflage. We can see a being covered in a black cloak with masks applied on it. The face is also hidden by a mask. We are not able to determine if the eyes belong of this entity behind the material or are fake, being painted on the mask. In this case we are facing the tension between looking, which is a form of knowledge, and appearance, feature of the meaning of things. We can see how masks are used to veil probably a form of alienation, but we cannot penetrate them. In her book of essays Aveux non Avenus she wrote:”Sous ce masque un autre masque. Je n’en finirai pas de soulever tous ces visages”. In the same note we can say that whenever we remove our make–up, we are reinventing ourselves, because along with the chemicals, we also remove the first layer of skin.

In her work she tries to exemplify the relation between the visual alter–ego and the conceptual one. Her features enable her to play with an androgynous image, giving to each and every single image its own personality, making herself more of an artistic subject. Efrat Tseëlon defines masks as objects of transition, as rooted in a “metaphysics of ambivalence”, concept which perfectly suits Cahun’s work, because she allows us to see her strategies of self–representation and the stage on which she performs. François Leperlier quotes the artist in his book Mise en scène when she says “The happiest moments of my life? Dreaming. Imagining I’m someone else. Playing my favorite part.” She creates her own vocabulary in which she slips between the social categories that threatened to limit her.

I will use one more example of performativity, namely the mundane carte de visite or business card. First used in 1854 by the photographer A. A. E. Disdéri, it was a very accessible photographic portrait which could be handed out to friends and associates, having engraved on the back personal dates. At first, the photographers had a difficult task to teach the public to pose. Therefore, they put in their studios celebrity portraits, especially those of movie stars. This way the clients were encouraged to imagine a role, to shape a fantasy in which they could identify themselves. Countess de Castiglione is famous for posing in more than hundreds of outfits. Also, in their studios, the photographers constructed elaborated stages where any scenario could be played out for a small amount of money. Nowadays we are using cartes de visite to represent us in the social medium putting our identity on a small piece of paper, creating an illusion for everyone else. That way it doesn’t matter if it’s a lie as long it is a good one.

In conclusion, I would like to quote Claude Levi–Strauss from his essay Split Representation in the Art of Asia and America when he says: “the face is predestined to be decorated, since it is only by means of decoration that the face receives its social dignity and mystical significance. Decoration is conceived for the face, but the face itself exists only through decoration. In the final analysis, the dualism is that of the actor and the role, and the concept of mask gives us the key to its interpretation.”

Further reading.
Gen Doy. Claude Cahun A Sensual Politics of Photography. 2007
Rice Shelley (edited by). Inverted Odysseys: Claude Cahun, Maya Deren, Cindy Sherman. 1999.

Quote. Claude Cahun. Aveux non avenus. 1930

Artwork: Claude Cahun quote. Type treatement Vel Thora

by Ioana Stan

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