In her essay “‘We, The People’: Thoughts on Freedom of Assembly”, Judith Butler, author of Notes Toward A Performative Theory of Assembly, strikes an interesting discussion on how to interpret the iconic phrase “we, the people.” She determines that this phrase, when vocalized in time and space, is first a performative act that self-constitutes those who claim they are “the people” of a specific moment or movement and secondly ignites “a declaration of wants and desires, or intended acts, and political claims” (52). In this respect, Butler identifies that “we, the people” in no way represents all people; it is only representative of those who demand support to make their lives “liveable”. Butler explores this idea of livability, specifically when she writes, “[w]e survive precisely in order to live, and life, as much as it requires survival, must be more than survival in order to be livable” (61). Essentially, when a body of people exercise their freedom of assembly as “the people” it is because they are separated from the conditions of support that constitute a bodily life. They demand change, and this demand “is already in the assembly, signified by plural bodies coming together, before anyone has to speak” (63).
In retrospect, Butler prefaces this idea by paying critical attention to the body. She identifies how, as a speech act, “we, the people” cannot be separated from the body and nor can the body be separated from the “infrastructural support for our continuing existence, and for living a life that matters” (63). Thus, “we, the people” is “spatially and temporally extended phenomenon” dependent on the coming together of bodies whose enunciation as “the people” is a form of political exposure (53). By exposing the body, the demand for livability is immediately made because “bodies assemble precisely to show that they are bodies, and let it be known politically what it means to persist as a body in this world” (63). Apply this theory to the movement on immigration law: an immigrant takes to the street to voice how their standard of living is threatened, and by exposing their vulnerability as a body, the demand is made evident. This is what Butler ascertains is the power behind “we, the people.”
Featured Image – Shepard Fairey