Notes Towards a Femontology, from a Woman with a Penis.

Performativity and the Impossible Encounter

I am interested in expanding on some thoughts I had in my last post about “the encounter.” In particular, I want to explain what I mean when I say that performativity describes an encounter where the encountered is in the encountering. This is a strange sentence, but I think it is a true one. Allow me to explain it.

The intuitive, common-sense model of the encounter is a relationship between an acting subject and a passive object. The subject encounters, the object is encountered. The connection between these two positions is the act of encountering. In other words, the encounterer (subject) through an act of encountering, acts upon the encountered (object). 

This structure always positions the encounterer (subject) as lord, and the encountered (object) as servant. The subject position is all-powerful, and the object position is always on its knees. Even if the roles are reversed, and the encountered (object) were to become the encounterer (subject), the primacy of the subject position would still remain intact. This structure preserves hierarchy as intractable.

It is also, thankfully, not the truth. The truth of the encounter is impossibility. The subject strives towards the object through the act of encountering, but never actually reaches it. The subject orbits endlessly around the object, but never touches down on its surface. It is precisely in this reaching, this orbiting, this encountering, that an impression of the unreachable encountered can be seen.

In this model, the encountered (object) resembles what Kant would call a Transcendental Object. The Transcendental Object is not the thing-in-itself, but rather the pure limit of sensibility. It can never be grasped, because it is precisely that which cannot be experienced. The Transcendental Object is nothing more than a certain intractable flaw in human cognition that prevents us from seeing “things-in-themselves.” It says absolutely nothing about things-in-themselves, and can never be identified with things-in-themselves. There is nothing mystical or divine about the Transcendental Object. It is simply the fact that we do not experience things-in-themselves.

But that rupture in our sensibility, that divide we feel between our senses and things-in-themselves, is completely unavoidable. In fact, it is the very material of our experience. To bring it back to the encounter: the fact that the encounterer (subject) does not reach the encountered (object) is what makes the act of encountering possible at all. Because the act of encountering misses the encountered (object), it (the act of encountering) remains in constant movement.*

*This movement is nothing other than time. Time is the index of the impossible encounter.

This model of encounter I have just described could be called the performative encounter. In the performative encounter, as described by Judith Butler, the object is nothing more than “an expectation that ends up producing the very phenomenon that it anticipates.” While she was talking about gender, the same can be said of the Transcendental Object in general.

To repeat: in the performative model of the encounter, the encounterer (subject) does not act upon the encountered (object). Instead, there is something ungraspable in the encountered (object) that acts upon the encounterer (subject). The subject is drawn into action by something in the object that it can never hope to experience. It reaches perpetually towards this something but never, ever grasps it, thus perpetuating the act of encountering indefinitely. This something is the Transcendental Object, the limit of sensibility, the rocks against which the good ship reason must crash, the phantom beyond understanding, the secret, ceaseless foe of thought, against whom one is drawn into constant battle, doomed to win only valor, never victory. 

Through this understanding of the encounter as performative we can say nothing at all about the encountered (object). We can, however, speak with great certainty about the form that the act of encountering takes. This idea, of locating the form of the truth rather than the content, is the promise of any speculative project. It is certainly the promise of mine.

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