Grassroots Activism and

Democracy: Judith Butler’s 

Notes on a Sensate Democracy

– By Louis Klee | April 17, 2016


Photograph by Andrew Rusk

“To demand justice […] involves every activist in a philosophical problem”
                                       – Judith Butler[1]

Judith Butler, the American philosopher and gender theorist, has long intimated a democratic theory; or, as she has sometimes called it, a theory of “a sensate democracy.”[2] In her latest book, Notes Towards a Performative Theory of Assembly (2015), a collection of her 2011 Mary Flexner Lectures, this “radical democratic project”[3] takes centre stage. In what has been dubbed her “most political book to date,” she puts contemporary social movements – anti-austerity and anti-globalisation demonstrations, the Arab Spring, the Occupy movement, Black Lives Matter – in conversation with her celebrated theories of performativity and precarity. What better book then to review for the grassroots issue of a journal devoted to questions of radical democracy?

Butler’s starting point in Notes is the tension between “the popular form of democracy” and “the principle of popular sovereignty”;[4] a tension evident in the fact that in the term ‘democracy’ the demos (people) and the kratos (authority) never fully coincide. While democracy in its contemporary form is often thought of in terms of the ballot box and distant suit-wearing parliamentarians, there is a sense in which elections never entirely relinquish the power of the people or, as Butler writes, “something of popular sovereignty always remains non-transferable, marking the outside of the electoral process.”[5] In fact, this structure of a people that institutes a government by bestowing it legitimacy and the instituted government that then attempts to represent the people, is inherently precarious. The people cannot truly legitimate a regime unless they are, by definition, separate from it: “that is, partially uncontrolled by a regime and not operationalized as its instrument.”[6] Likewise, the people cannot become a permanent government or institution in their own right without the risk of surrendering something of “their character as popular will,”[7] or as Butler puts it: “Popular assemblies form unexpectedly and dissolve under voluntary or involuntary conditions, and this transience is […] bound up with their “critical” function.”[8]

Given, then, the defining tension between the people and the government, democracy is irrevocably shaped by mass movements. But what does it mean when people assemble on the street? Butler is quick to note the affectual dimension; the fact that the very “idea of bodies on the street together gives leftists a bit of a thrill.”[9] Yet, she is also cautious of celebrating mass movements per se in an era when street demonstrations manifest not just leftist politics, but also right-wing causes like the anti-immigrant Pegida rallies in Dresden, Germany. Her question, then, is what sort of assemblies have the right to speak for ‘we the people’? It is here that Butler’s background in gender theory is particularly expedient, for she turns to the theory of performativity to examine what is at work when bodies gather to make a public demand.

Performativity, as Butler summarises in Notes, is not so much to do with ‘performance’, as with “linguistic utterances that in the moment of making the utterance something happens or brings some phenomenon into being.”[10] In other words, when bodies on the street claim to speak for ‘we the people’ they are not just describing at state of affairs, but bringing it into being. While it may, then, be utopian or impossible for the entirety of ‘the people’ to ever gather in one place at one time and speak with one voice, crowds of protestors and groups of activists regularly claim to be speaking for the people as a whole. However – and in this point Butler may well be critiquing the cliché that Occupy wasn’t specific enough in its demands – the performativity of the crowd does not only operate at the level of language. Simply to assemble as a group of people in public space is already to express a demand without uttering any words: “Showing up, standing, breathing, moving, standing still, speech, and silence are all aspects of a sudden assembly, an unforeseen form of political performativity that puts liveable life at the forefront of politics.”[11]

It is when Butler explicitly connects her theory of performativity here with her thesis about precariousness that the full force of her new book is evident. While at times she seems to be defending her consistency against those detractors who feel that by moving her emphasis from performativity in Gender Trouble (1990) and Bodies that Matter (1993) to precarity in Precarious Life (2004) and Frames of War (2009) she has lost her focus as a gender theorist,[12] it is also at these moments of interconnection where the strength of Butler’s vision are undeniable. Defining precarity as “that politically induced condition in which certain populations suffer from failing social and economic networks of support more than others”[13] – or, in her more well-known formula, the condition that makes some lives less liveable, grieveable, and intelligible than others – she uses precarity to argue for a coalitional politics that “brings together women, queers, trans-gender people, the poor, the differently abled, and the stateless.”[14] Precarity here is not an identity, however, but a condition that implicates some identities more than others through an unjust distribution of vulnerability to injury, violence, and death.

When combined with the notion of assemblies that gather to performatively enact ‘we the people’, Butler characters many contemporary social movements as ‘anti-precarity’ alliances. Her point here is deepened by her conviction that precarity is also an ontological condition – namely, that as bodies in the world we cannot help but be vulnerable and precarious before others. These movements are thus united by their opposition to a sort of neoliberal logic that “replaces the sustaining institutions of social democracy with an entrepreneurial ethic that exhorts even the most powerless to take responsibility for their own lives without depending on anyone or anything else.”[15] In contrast, the politics of the precarious is not merely fighting against the conditions of vulnerability into which some lives are less liveable, but also fighting for the liberating recognition of the fact we must, by definition, be dependent on each other and live in a shared world in which bodies are open and vulnerable. Once this recognition has been won, the question becomes how to fairly and justly distribute vulnerability.

The final reflection with which Butler leaves her readers arises from her reading of Adorno’s Minima Moralia: “how does one lead a good life in a bad life?”[16] or, to rephrase it, how can we live well in a world of so many manifest injustices? Her answer, in short, is that we have a moral obligation to be activists; that “there must be resistance to the bad life in order to pursue the good life.”[17] And, as her reflections on civil disobedience show, this can be an active struggle with a corporeal form. In finishing her reflections on non-violence she notes that: “how the nonviolent resistance to violence is possible” is “an inquiry I will take up more fully in another context.”[18] It is, then, with great anticipation that activists, democratic theorists, political philosophers, and those struggling for a fairer distribution of vulnerability, can await her future insights. 


Louis Klee is an editor and co-founder of Demos Journal.


[1] Judith Butler, Notes Towards a Performative Theory of Assembly, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015) 25.

[2] Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence, (London and New York: Verso, 2004) 151; Judith Butler and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Who Sings in the Nation-State? Language, Politics, Belonging, (Calcutta: Seagull Books, 2007) 62.

[3] Butler, Notes Towards a Performative Theory of Assembly, 66.

[4] Ibid., 2.

[5] Ibid., 161 – 162.

[6] Ibid., 171.

[7] Ibid., 7.

[8] Ibid., 7.

[9] Ibid., 124

[10] Ibid., 28.

[11] Ibid., 18.

[12] Ibid., 69.

[13] Ibid., 33.

[14] Ibid., 58.

[15] Ibid., 67.

[16] Ibid., 193.

[17] Ibid., 215.

[18] Ibid., 187.

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