Sex, Performativity, and the Nation State

Performance and performativity have developed into key terms in the more recent approaches to tourism. Examples are Tim Edensor’s previously quoted book National Identity, Popular Culture and Everyday Life, as well as the anthologies Tourism: Between Place and Performance (2002), edited by Simon Coleman and Mike Crang, and Travels in Paradox: Remapping Tourism (2006), edited by Claudio Minca and Tim Oakes. Although the precise ways in which the contributions in these volumes theorize performance/performativity for their specific approaches vary, they ultimately all refer to Judith Butler’s conceptualization of the performativity of sexual identity. As Butler famously argued, first in her book Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity and later in Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex”, not only is gender the result of cultural discourses, but so is sex. What we accept as the biological, essential, or pre-discursive opposite of gender–namely the supposedly immutable and materially fixed category of sex–is in fact discursively constructed that way by the social discourses of gender.

This notion of performativity has shaped my work on tourism and Austrian national identity decisively from the very beginning. Especially helpful has been Butler’s view that the normative power of social and cultural categories–a power that we are supposed to understand as always already existing, as quasi-eternal–is, in fact, created by the constant reiteration of these categories, in other words by their ongoing performance in everyday life. To quote Butler: “In the first instance, performativity must be understood not as a singular or deliberate ‘act,’ but, rather, as the reiterative and citational practice by which discourse produces the effects that it names” (Butler, Bodies that Matter 2).

How does this relate to my investigation of tourism and Austrian national identity? It addresses the point I tried to make in my previous post: Tourism did not cover up the “true” image of Austrian identity, but it facilitated the construction of Austria. Or, in other words, the discourse of tourism created that which it seemed to represent, namely Austria after 1945.

Recently I re-read an article by political scientist Cynthia Weber, “Performative States” (1998), whose innovative reading of Judith Butler’s concept of performativity helps me to further clarify my approach. Weber summarizes Butler’s main argument as follows:

“Gender should be thought of as ‘the discursive/cultural means by which “sexed nature” or “a natural sex” is produced and established as “pre discursive”, prior to culture, a politically neutral surface on which culture acts’” (the phrases in quotation marks inside Weber’s quote refer to Butler, Gender Trouble, p. 7;  emphases added by Weber).

 Thankfully, Weber highlights a frequent misinterpretation of Butler’s work as saying that there is no such thing as “the body” or “sex”:

“Rather, she is saying that the identity of any body, the ways we understand the materiality of the body, does not pre-exist all manners of performative expressions of sex and gender. Her point is not that bodies only exist in discourse as citational processes. Rather, her point is that it is through discursive performances–repeated, yet, varied citational processes–that our understandings of material bodies are mediated.” (Weber 80-81)

 She sees a parallel here to the ways in which political scientists talk about the relation between state and sovereignty:

 “Butler’s discussion of sex and gender through performativity effectively dismantles the nature/culture dichotomy through which we so often think about these terms. In this respect, what Butler has to say about sex and gender is equally relevant for understandings of states and sovereignty. For how is the state coded in much international relations theory and practice except as the pre-discursive, natural realm of international politics to which the discursive, socially constructed, cultural referent of sovereignty refers.” (Weber 82)

 Against that, Weber posits her reading of Butler as it relates to the connection between state identity and sovereignty:

 “If we accept that–like sex and gender–states and sovereignty are both discursive effects of performative practices, then it follows … that there is no sovereign or state identity behind expressions of state sovereignty. The identity of the state is per formatively constituted by the very expressions that are said to be its result. One of these expressions is sovereignty ….” (Weber 91)

 When scholars, journalists, and literary authors criticized tourism as a cover-up of Austria’s postwar reality, they basically reaffirmed the nature/culture dichotomy in which an already existing state tries to shape its national identity by utilizing a specific set of touristic images and narratives. (One could also say that this is the performance-based notion of identity, one in which the state’s existence is independent from the sovereignty, or, as I like to see it, from its national identity. The critics, after all, seem to suggest that the state Austria could have used a different set of images to represent itself.)

The important question for me is: How can we argue an already existing Austria in 1945? Of course, there were international legal acts such as the 1943 Moscow declaration that guaranteed the resurrection of Austria in its pre-1938 borders. There was also the proclamation of the Austrian Second Republic in 1945 based on the constitution of pre-1934 Austria. Yet, if we take into account that national identity requires more than legalistic acts, that it relies on things such as “invented traditions” (Hobsbawm and Ranger) and “imagined communities” (Anderson), we face the problem that even in 1945 most of the available identity options were related to the “imagined community” of greater Germany, not a very welcome association at that point in time.

In his book The Ambivalence of Identity (2001), Peter Thaler argued that Austria’s biggest postwar accomplishment was the re-orientation of its “imagined community” from a focus on Germany to a focus on Austria. To a certain extent I agree with his view that the government-controlled educational system played a huge role in the dissemination of the image of a viable, autonomous, independent Austrian nation. However, I believe that his focus on a rather top-down and high-cultural process ignores the more mundane and popular processes that supported this transition. Tourism is, in my view, one of these processes that contributed not only to the reorientation of Austrian national identity, but to the construction of an entity called Austria in 1945 in the first place.

What those engaged in the reconstruction and renarration of Austria’s identity needed, thus, was an apparently pre-discursive, natural entity onto which they could project the notion of a new Austria, one that had been entangled in the National Socialist mess against its will; one, whose grand and impressive historical and cultural traditions could serve as testimony for its essentially “good” character and nature. Tourism provided just that. By reiterating older tourist narratives, preferably those from before 1918, but even those from between 1918 and 1938, those who were agents in the larger tourism discourse–government officials, tourism entrepreneurs, hosts, domestic and international tourists–were performatively invoking a natural, pre-discursive Austria, one that has existed for centuries.

What is, then, the really interesting aspect of studying tourism and Austria, is not so much how Austrians used tourism to hide their “true” identity, but, rather, to study tourism as a way to understand the re-construction of a “real” Austria; to understand how the discourse of tourism created the very Austria which it claimed to only represent.


3 thoughts on “Sex, Performativity, and the Nation State

  1. Butler argues that the performance of gender itself creates gender. Additionally, she compares the performativity of gender to the performance of the theater. She brings many similarities, including the idea of each individual functioning as an actor of their gender. However she also brings into light a critical difference between gender performance in reality and theater performances. She explains how the theater is much less threatening and does not produce the same fear that gender performances often encounter because of the fact that there is a clear distinction from reality within the theater.

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