, Volume 25, Issue 1, pp 395–412 | Cite as

From Performativity to Ecology: On Judith Butler and Matters of Survival

  • Vikki BellEmail author
Original Article


“Cultural survival” is a crucial phrase in Judith Butler's thought. In Gender Trouble it referred to an obligation whereby the subject is obliged to emerge within certain webs of power/knowledge (the heterosexual matrix, here), such that the process of subjectification is necessarily complicit in sustaining those dispositifs: the subject survives and, even because, she sustains those arrangements. This is an argument deeply indebted to Foucault, whose understanding of critique as an exploration of the conditions of acceptability of a system accompanied by an attention to its discontinuities continues to inform Butler's work. Through an elaboration of the notion of “survival”, it is argued that it is possible to understand the “turns” in Butler's work – paying particular attention to the “turn” to the ethics of Levinas – as well as to begin to understand what is at stake in some recent debates in the literature that pool around vitality and/of matter, but that may be reconfigured as, in their different ways, about environments and survival, or ecology. In relation to the first, the question of survival arises in Primo Levi's discussions of the ethical responsibility of those who survived the concentration camps, and relates therefore to Levinas' concern with the primary asymmetry of inter-human ethical relations. In relation to the second, I argue that the term cultural survival can be related to discussion of environment or ecologies in the work of Isabelle Stengers, drawing on A.N. Whitehead, which, it is argued here, enables a provocative reconfiguration of performativity.


performativity ecology Judith Butler survival ethics ontology 


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Copyright information

© Palgrave Macmillan 2008

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of SociologyGoldsmiths College, University of LondonUK

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