There is something strange about Lyotard’s use of the term ‘performativity’ in The Postmodern Condition. One way of trying to state this summarily is to say that he seems to conflate the notion of ‘performativity’ (in an open system) with that of ‘productivity’ (in a closed, or rather controlling or constraining, system, not so much a system that does not interact with its environment as one that seeks to control or dominate its internal and external environments, a system that is ‘blind’ to its environments)…
He begins by discussing the performative in terms of different modes of action in and through language in the context of social interaction. Some of these modes of action are capable of acting upon the processes of contextualization and thereby altering context (open system). However, he quickly shifts register, to discuss performativity as efficient production in an input-output system (‘blind’ system).
All actions within this (‘blind’) system, he seems to suggest, are operatively and productively oriented to optimization of the system itself, which is self-regulating (and, as ‘blind’, incapable of changing or evolving). The system forms a singular (‘blind’) context, which is an unalterable totality. This unalterability, he claims, is a result of adopting a systems theory or cybernetic perspective on society. That perspective, as (constative) language game, has come to dominate all other (performative) language games, as forms of life.
His discussion of performativity, as efficient, operative productivity (‘blind’ system), does not seem to follow from his characterization of language use (open system). Open systems do not permit such control of context as Lyotard suggests has occurred and continues to occur. Such closures as occur require adherence, either through active assent or enforced consent. Without such adherence, contextualisation, as a dynamic relation among knowledge, action and situation, does not lead simply to ‘control’ in the way suggested, if by ‘control’ is meant suppression of all alternative outcomes than the efficiently produced ‘output’, that which is ‘seen’ amidst the general ‘blindness’ of the system to its own diversity and prolificness.
In short, the operation of an attempted closure of an open system, as in the operation of a ‘blind’ system, requires active suppression of the multifarious forms of performative action and interaction that occur in the process of seeking and defining a singular, efficient, operative, productive output, a process that might be described as ‘wasteful’, and whose main ‘products’ are material and environmental ‘waste’ and human and social exclusion and marginalisation.
By characterizing performativity in this way, in terms of the automaticity of input-output in a ‘blind’ system, thereby making it a synonym of productivity, he loses a potentially valuable tool by means of which to try to understand the complex and reflexive dynamics of contextualization and therefore how computerization, as a language game with constative and performative dimensions, might affect society and, his object of study, knowledge in an open system.
Is his characterization of performativity in this way a symptom? Is he demonstrating, performatively, through his text what he is arguing, constatively, is the actual state of affairs of society?
Is his text a set of statements (constative utterances) or a set of acts (performative utterances)? Or both, intermingled?