Performativity, Binaries, and Mimicry in Genesis

With our recent class discussions on performativity, binaries, and mimicry, I cannot help but notice these recurring themes in relation to gender while reading Genesis 1-10.

As discussed in class, performativity finds its underpinnings in philosophical theories of language, such as the work of J. L. Austin. It implies that language and words can do more than just describe the world; rather, they have the potential to do things to the world. Language can be used not only to create an image of reality but also to create reality itself. Performative language changes the state of things, brings something into being. A certain person, given the authority and context, can effect change in the world by words alone. The example we discussed in class was that of the priest bringing two people together in union at the altar. Similarly, Judith Butler and Katherine McKinnon employ theories of performativity to describe how representation is both descriptive and productive of sexual identity.

Genesis is abundant with use of performative speech. The second sentence of the first book proclaims: “Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light” (11). His words alone had the power to bring something into being, to effect a change in the state of things. Not only do God’s words create light, but they categorize it: “God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day” (12). Here, we see the creation (by the power of mere words!) of the first of many binary oppositions in the world.

This pattern of performative speech to create something and its corresponding opposite is repeated near the end of the first book: “God said ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness…’ So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them, male and female he created them” (13).

While the creation of oppositions such as “day and night” and “male and female” may be presented as symmetrical, the reader is quickly reminded that one term often serves as “origin” while the other as “imitation.” God made humankind in his image, but he also made woman from the bone of man: “this one shall be called Woman, for out of Man this one was taken” (14).

Another important observation readers of Genesis may keep in mind is that the power of performative speech is granted to God and perhaps man, but not woman. We have seen that God creates the world and its inhabitants by speech. Although not on the same scale as God’s power, Adam and Noah seem capable of employing some form of meaningful speech. Such statements as “the man gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air” and “the man named his wife Eve” are not found with women as subjects anywhere in the text. Upon Noah’s birth, Lamech proclaims that “this one shall bring us relief from our work and from the toil of our hands,” and sure enough, Noah does (19).

I would like to hear all of your thoughts: the words of Adam and Lamech also “performative,” or simply descriptive? Do Eve or any other female characters in Genesis employ forms of meaningful speech?

–Andrea H


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