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Performing the state of emergency in situ, part 1 (intervention)

Performing the state of emergency in situ, part 1 (intervention) Section of The Crusaders Conquering the City of Zara in 1202 (oil on canvas), Vicentino, Andrea (Michieli) (1539-1614) / Palazzo Ducale, Venice, Italy/copied from The Encyclopedia of War – From Ancient Egypt to Iraq, Dorling Kindersley, London 2012, p77

I. Linguistic (and other) suggestions


In the opening chapter of his book Violence: Six sideways Reflections, Slavoj Žižek adduces the following story: “there is”, he writes, “an old story about a worker suspected of stealing: every evening, as he leaves the factory, the wheelbarrow he rolls in front of him is carefully inspected. The guards can find nothing. It is always empty. Finally, the penny drops: what the worker is stealing are the wheelbarrows themselves...” [1]. Here, Žižek utilises the paradox of this story to reveal the hidden mechanisms of meaning-giving activated for the needs of the conceptualisations of violence. Part of a near-reflex associative process, the worker’s daily exiting of the factory with a wheelbarrow-form insinuates and logically presupposes the existence of an object-content. As part of his sideways reflections on violence, Žižek matches this automatism of thought to the “visible expressions of violence” that occupy the centre-stage of our minds and which, in the vortex of dominant symbolisms, take on their only too familiar moral and value form. The empty wheelbarrow ––let alone its repetition–– obviously comprises an act that is void of meaning, should one interpret it in a more or less self-evident context. Yet what the worker does comprises a deviation from the framework set by the automatism in question. The worker chooses to steal the wheelbarrow itself, showing that what had in its initial interpretation comprised form-for-some-content for him comprises, paradoxically, the content itself. The peculiar rupture in this meaning continuum helps Žižek claim that we must learn to disentangle ourselves from the fascinating lure of this directly visible 'subjective' violence” and to try to understand the contours of the background which generates such outbursts [2]. This attempt will inadvertently lead us, according to Žižek, to the revealing of a more foundational form of violence ––one that he terms “symbolic”–– which is embodied in language and its formsand that pertains to language as such, to its imposition of a certain universe of meaning” [3].

If there is anything worth keeping from this symbolic use of the small, repeated “mischief” of the worker’s it is that we owe, every time that such processes of meaning-assigning are activated, to carefully examine the terms and the conditions of their activation –– and therefore, the legitimization of any such given process. And it is not coincidental that Žižek’s main conclusion from the use of this “parable” inadvertently leads to the kingdom of language. Not only because the human “made their own life, their nature, a stake of their speech” and, as eloquently summed up by Giorgio Agamben, “they placed their own existence at the stake of language”[4] But also, at the same time, because language equips us with a paradigmatic interweaving mechanism of form and content through its everyday function. Agamben, attempting to articulate some very basic thoughts on the nature of language and the function of command, refers to a small chapter in the book of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari A Thousand Plateaus, and he utilises some relevant linguistic observations of theirs. Following the two theoreticians he then claims that there are many facets of language “...that cannot be reduced down to a system of signs for us to communicate the signified through their signifier. For example, between “John walks” and “John, walk” there is apparently the same semantic framework, yet at the pragmatic level it is completely different –– the framework is shifted altogether[5] Effectively, Deleuze and Guattari commence from the research of the philosopher J.L. Austin on performative verbs and from what he had initially termed performative hypothesis. But primarily, since the latter was consequently abandoned by Austin himself, they rest upon his subsequent theory concerning statements as acts, i.e. his theory of speech acts [6] –– and the strand of pragmatics to which this theory paved the way.

Austin effectively made a tripartite distinction for the purpose of comprehending the function of these acts. Following the collapse of the performative hypothesis, he distinguished three different dimensions for each act. He termed the first one locution/locutionary act: this one relates to all that was actually said. The second one, illocution/illocutionary act: this relates to the intention of the speaker behind their words. And the third one, perlocution/perlocutionary act: this is no other than the result of the speech act upon the audience[7] What Austin revealed, then, is that there is something much more meaningful in everyday language than the mere meaning of the words that we use; that words, after all, perform some acts[8] And this is precisely where Austin’s valuable contribution to the field of thought and interpretation of communication lies. Should we therefore carefully follow this reading, it would seem that speech acts pertain a relative ––if important–– autonomy in relationship to the system of signs within which we would expect statements to acquire their meaning and their semantic content[9] In this sense, it would not be too far-stretched at this point for one to argue that Austin’s novelty points at another way for us to read Žižek’s parable adduced earlier on. In his case, the wheelbarrow is not merely empty, it is also void of meaning. But also beyond that which is visible, the worker makes another act that has its own importance and its own meaning. If, in the linguistic examples, the linguistic forms (statements) appear to safeguard some autonomy in relation to the semantic content of the words used ––even acting as content per se––, in the case of the worker the wheelbarrow-form of his pertains its own autonomy, both in relation to the content that one would expect to find inside it and to the act of such an expectation in itself. And as we saw already, for the worker this act comprised the content itself from the upstart.

Following the thought of the linguist Oswald Ducrot, Deleuze & Guattari articulate this clearly. There are terms and statements in everyday language that appear to be unquestionably self-referential due to their illucationary force. “And the illocutionary is in turn explained by collective assemblages of enunciation, by juridical acts or equivalents of juridical acts, which, far from depending on subjectification proceedings or assignations of subjects in language, in fact determine their distribution”[10] Here, the juridical reference is anything but coincidental. To the extent that the primary mission of language, as per Deleuze & Guattari, is not to transfer information but order-words, their conclusion is logical in that order-words do not concern commands only, but every act is linked to statements by a 'social obligation'”[11] This social obligation is obviously juridically mediated and articulated. Ducrot goes as far as constructing “a pragmatics covering all of linguistics and moves toward a study of assemblages of enunciation, considered from a 'juridical', 'polemical', or 'political' point of view”[12] The importance of such referral to other sectors of meaning-assignment of the human experience is enormous ––and it proves that the value of performativity–– or to be more precise, of illocutionarity and perlocutionarity, concerns fields that exceed far beyond the field of strict linguistic use. The position of Deleuze & Guattari is indicative –– according to them, in the shadow of this omnipresent command, linguistic acts “seem to be defined as the set of all incorporeal transformations current in a given society and attributed to the bodies of that society”[13] They are, in other words, body-less linguistic apparatuses applied ––and performing something–– directly on the bodies. “Every order-word […] carries a little death sentence”, write Deleuze & Guattari [14]. Would it not be here, then, that the citation of Habeas Corpus acquires its full meaning, one which Agamben referred to –– and one that ensured from the 13th century already, the physical, bodily presence of a person before the court? [15]

In light of these observations, there is no thinker that has highlighted the importance of performativity for the purposes of embodied conceptualisation better than Judith Butler. Her incisive observations, commencing from the notion of the engendered self as a performative construction, revealed some unique sensitivity concerning the understanding of the complicated nature of the construction of the subject. And –– as should be expected –– one of the primary starting points in Butler’s thought lies in the aforementioned theory of the speech acts of Austin’s –– more specifically, as noted by Athina Athanasiou, in the Derridean critical readingof this theory, introducing anupdated version of the theory of performativity in the context of gender and the engendered/sexual difference[16]Gender is no way a stable identity”, writes Butler. Rather, it is an identity tenuously constituted in time – an identity instituted through a stylized repetition of acts[17] It is not, then, that gender is –– it is that it happens. And its performative expression acquires meaning precisely upon this difference. Butler’s contribution to the ongoing reflection on the production of identity appears invaluable, now in a sense making necessary and unavoidable a passing through the world of performativity, should one wish to seriously deal with the meaning-giving of the Self and the Other. The emphasis upon the processes of production of engendered difference has highlighted, in the most exemplary of ways, the leading role that the body holds as the field in which the reproduction of dominant cultural conventions is at stake, on an everyday level. And it updated the importance of our acts not only as political acts, but as performative ones –– highlighting their unavoidably public character[18] Butler gets to the point, in the end, of claiming that “gender reality is performative which means, quite simply, that it is real only to the extent that it is performed”[19]

Yet in her latter work, the American theorist exceeds the field of the strictly engendered production, trying out a performative reading of the wider notion of precarity or to be more precise, the precarious subject. As part of this attempt, then, she claims that it is now an urgent matter for us to listen out to the suggestions of a social ontology “according to which we are, each and every one of us, exposed to one another –– and precarity comprises a generalised condition of this social ontology”[20] Precarity, then, is related to this foundational interaction with one another, lying in the shade of those social and cultural contexts in which our everyday experience (is forced to) acquire its meaning. In the heart of this interaction, Butler persistently raises the question of “how could it then be that the way in which we act, the way in which we specialise the forms of our existence ––what we can term the field of performativity–– is placed within a sphere of relativism without which we cannot insist upon our own Being? We do not construct our self on our own, nor are we completely defined[21] In this ambivalent and suspended position of the subject, then, the performative relationship becomes the way of reproduction but also of rejection and diversion of social conventions. This suspension comes out of the world of enunciations and social obligation,to bring Deleuze & Guattari back to our discussion, and as an amphoteric position that at times hosts negation, and at other times acceptance, within an environment of rules and orders. But let us remember”, says Butler, “that performativity does not just refer to explicit speech acts, but also to the reproduction of norms. Indeed, there is no reproduction of the social world that is not at the same time a reproduction of those norms that govern the intelligibility of the body in space and time”[22] Therefore, performativity as the field in which the potentialities of belonging, as we all as exclusions open up –– and therefore, as the field in which the recognition and the reading of the subject is assessed –– can only interact with the possibilities of precarity that linger and constantly haunt the reproduction of this social world –– implying, in the end, that to an extent precarity itself is performed.

It is in light of this implication ––and particularly amidst the dark environment created by the “crisis”–– that Athanasiou suggests a conceptualisation of the state of emergency (a primary producer of precarity) as a performative act. Here, the condition of precarity comprises the necessary connecting material –– since, as Athanasiou writes, “the state of emergency renders every form of life vulnerable to the possibility of the imposition of any status of exception, such as the removal of rights[23] And she points out that “it is particularly important […] for us to conceive the act of suspension of law, under the state of emergency terms, as a performative act ––some act that “refreshes” the phantasmatic of an otherwise “redundant” sovereignty–– therefore creating a contemporary form of sovereignty in the field of governmentality[24] The importance of this observation lies upon the fact that the state of emergency does not merely apply ––as part of a typical correspondence–– a suspension that has been theoretically conceived in the field of law, but it constantly reformulates the model of sovereignty itself, which has in turn ensured to allow it (ie. the state of emergency) an exceptional position (exceptional, in both senses of the term) amidst its legal arsenal. And it is precisely this transformative dynamic that testifies to its performative function. Not only because, as pointed out by Agamben, the notion of necessity theoretically becomes a “primary source of law, doing something much important than merely forming law –– since it is this notion that provides, first and foremost, the capacity for it to become conceivable at the first place[25] But also because, should the passage from the field of logic (semantics, as Deleuze & Guattari would have it) to the act field (i.e. pragmatics) did not take place, with the application of a real state of exception, sovereign power would not have been able to ritualistically re-affirm its own triumph, which is not other than the performance of the suspension of the law[26]

The importance of the act, and by extension of the performative function, in the field of law emerges from the structural interweaving of language an law, as this was schematically revealed from our brief passage from Deleuze & Guattari. Agamben reminds us that it is not at all certain that a norm will be applied, “just as between language and world, so between the norm and its application there is no internal nexus that allows one to be derived immediately from the other”[27] To the contrary, what ensures the application of the norm, the Italian thinker assures us, presupposes a “trial” which reaches its apogee, ritualistically, with the activation of a statement (i.e. linguistically) that directly acts, as we saw, upon the body (and more specifically, the delivery of a verdict in a courtroom –– that is, the speech act par excellence, utilising the illocutionary force of words and their perlocutionary dynamic[28] A statement “whose operative reference to reality is guaranteed by the institutional powers”[29] From the same institutional authorities that had erstwhile instructed the exception to constitute law –– providing, in this way, an honorary position for the state of exception within the latter, including the exception within the rule and allowing, eventually, for a logical short-circuit. Following, therefore, Athanasiou’s inducement we ought to see, indeed, a performative case within the state of emergency, a case whose weighty material consequences have already started to make an appearance in the city of Athens today.


by Christos Filippidis



[1] Adduced in Žižek Slavoj, Violence – Six Sideways Reflections, Picador, New York 2008, pp.1 (go back to text)

[2] Ibid (go back to text)

[3] Ibid, pp.9,10 (go back to text)

[4] Agamben Giorgio, Biopolitics: the interview on ET3 [state TV in Northern Greece – transl.]. This is the interview that Agamben gave to Akis Gavriilidis as part of the TV series Places of Life, Places of Ideas. Available at  (go back to text)

[5] Ibid (go back to text)

[6] See also the extremely condensed and substantial overview of Austin's thought by Jenny Thomas, in the second chapter (“Speech Acts”) of her book Meaning in Interaction: An Introduction to Pragmatics, Longman, London 1995. (go back to text)

[7] Ibid (go back to text)

[8] This is precisely what Austin means in the title How to Do Things With Words of his series of lectures at the University of Harvard in 1955. (go back to text)

[9] We nevertheless ought to clarify at this point that these statements are not self-sufficient overall, since they depend upon any given cultural context, which legitimate these statements in having precisely, the performative force in question. See also Thomas, ibid and Deleuze Gilles & Guattari Felix, A Thousand Plateaus – Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. by Brian Massumi, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis & London 2005, pp.82 (go back to text)

[10] Deleuze & Guattari, ibid, pp.78 (go back to text)

[11] Ibid, pp.76,79 (go back to text)

[12] Ibid, pp.524 (go back to text)

[13] Ibid, pp.80 (go back to text)

[14] Ibid, pp.76 (go back to text)

[15] See Agamben Giorgio, Homo Sacer – Sovereign Power and Bare Life, trans. by Daniel Heller-Roazen, Stanford University Press, Stanford California 1998, pp.73 (go back to text)

[16] See the chapter by Athina Athanasiou, “Gender Trouble: Feminist theory and politics after the reconstruction of identity, in Athanasiou Athina, Life at the Limit: Essays on Gender, Body and Biopolitics (in Greek, Ekkremes, 2007, pp. 205) (go back to text)

[17] Butler Judith, Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory, Theatre Journal 49(1), 1988, pp.519 (go back to text)

[18] Ibid, pp.526 (go back to text)

[19] Ibid, pp.527 (go back to text)

[20] Butler, Judith, Performative Politics and Critique of State Violence, translated by Michalis Laliotis, in Athina Athanasiou (ed.) Performativity and Precarity – Judith Butler in Athens (in Greek, Athens: Nisos 2011, pp.38). This is the third Annual Lecture in memory of Nicos Poulantzas that took place on December 16, 2009 at the Goethe Institute in Athens. (go back to text)

[21] Butler, Judith “From Performativity to Precarity”, transl. by Akis Gavriilidis, in Athanasiou, Athina (ed) Performativity and Precarity, ibid pp.65. This is the lecture that took place on December 17, 2009 at the Panteion Uniersity of Athens – and effectively comprises an edited version of the lecture titled Performativity, Precarity and Sexual Politics, which took place at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid on June 8, 2009. (go back to text)

[22] Ibid, pp.75 (go back to text)

[23] Athanasiou, Athina The Crisis as a “State of Emergency” – Critiques and Resistances, Athens: Savvalas, 2012 (in Greek), pp. 84. (go back to text)

[24] Ibid, pp.88 (go back to text)

[25] Agamben Giorgio, State of Exception, trans. by Kevin Attell, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago & London 2005, pp.17,24. Agamben writes: “According to a tenaciously Latin adage [...], necessitas legem non habet, 'necessity has no law', which is interpreted in two ways: 'necessity does not recognize any law' and 'necessity creates its own laws' [...]. In both cases, the theory of the state of exception is wholly reduced to the theory of the status necessitatis...”. (go back to text)

[26] See here the renown definition by Carl Schmitt regarding the sovereign, in Schmitt Carl, Political Theology – Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty, trans. by George Schwab, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago & London 2005, pp.5 (go back to text)

[27] Agamben, State of Exception, ibid, pp.40 (go back to text)

[28]Let us not forget that this exposure-to-language had been exceptionally articulated by Agamben himself in The Coming Community, when he wrote that exposure-is pure relationship with language itself, with its taking-place. It is what happens to something (or more precisely, to the taking-place ofsomething) by the very fact of being in relation to language, the fact of being-called”. See Agamben Giorgio, The Coming Community, trans. by Michael Hardt, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis & London 1993, pp.96.Effectively, we could claim that what Agamben calls an exposure corresponds and belongs to the field of perfomativity, as this was highlighted by Butler. Both chose to keep distance from the more substantial essentialist conceptualisations of the subject –– preferring, to the contrary, to ponder over the liquid everyday ways-of-being and to the ways in which language and symbolic relations are involved in their social recognition and reading. My qualities and my being-thus are not qualifications of a substance (of a subject) that remains behind them and that I would truly be. I am never this or that, but always such, thus. [...] not presupposition but exposure”, writes Agamben. “Gender is no way a stable identity […] rather, it is an identity tenuously constituted in time – an identity instituted through a stylized repetition of act”, writes Butler. (go back to text)

[29] Agamben, State of Exception, ibid, pp.40  (go back to text)

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City at the Time of Crisis is a research project tracing and researching the effects of the ongoing financial crisis on urban public spaces in Athens, Greece. Read more...