Notes from Michael Warner, ‘On Normativity’, May 15 2013

Posted on | June 5, 2013 | No Comments

[All errors entirely mine. One of the smartest people I have ever heard talk. I could not keep up]

Queer theory without normativity: part of a wider project with Robyn Wiegman and Elizabeth Wilson. Trying to provide a genealogy for grad students to show how normativity became the (limited) focus for queer theory. Quite a lot of literature is relevant when talking about norms/normativity: science as much as genres of critique

Queer people find themselves annulled by norms agreed upon, e.g.

    – Pre-reflexivity as a means of coping with the knowledge that the body is always already structured by power; obligations to gender are in train prior to the space of reason
    – Pre-structuring means no elective validation; subjectivity is seen as a movement inaccessible to consciousness

Through disciplinary techniques – prohibition and pathology – Religion & Science aligned to give normative sexuality the appearance of unchangeable rightness. Prior to queer theory, homosexuality was expressed only in 3rd person discourse or as abject subjectivity

But now, queer theory is defined by resistance to normativity per se, leading to the present argument/ impasse in the field: i.e. you can occupy an anti-normative stance normatively

Queer theory either romanticizes failure (Halberstam) or holds people to queer standards. BUT if all one’s identities are always already resistant – if pure marginality is the norm – this still reproduces a liberal subject; the practical effects of either position are normative

How to reflect ordinary struggles or how to cope with experiences rendered invisible by queer normativity?

Suggestions (never fully developed in the paper, due to a long digression on Canguilhem):

    Goffman – the idea of ‘facework’ – we are not subjects in a whole, global sense but actively engaging in the social, moment by moment. Allows us to acknowledge what is nimble about enacting subjectivity; also how we employ strategies of repair in intersubjective encounters

    Bourdieu: Habitus – comes from ‘pre-modern’ anthropology; not exactly applicable to complex modernity, but suggestive of other ways of understanding structure & personhood.

Queer theory’s norm endowing project of self-relation: Self-positing = freedom; Normativity = constraint

Foucault didn’t do this. He analyses problems at the level of discursive situations rather than subjects/ subjectivity

The influence of Canguilhem on Foucault:

Despite all of Foucault’s references and relation to him, and his major work, The Normal and the Pathological, Canguilhem is not widely known. But the book raises so much that Foucault responds to. Canguilhem’s thought about normativity has no place in our vocabulary – time to revisit.

Almost all of the big French names studied under/around Canguilhem – Bourdieu, Althusser, Lacan, and the generations after.

Medical thought -> focuses on organs outside of bodies rather than a real time encounter with body

Ideas of care/resistance … resilience – drawing on Comte, ideas of maturity/pathology

Normal and normative not the same. Might lead to health in some but not other cases.

Normal ≠ fully adapted to environment

Foucault’s introduction to The Normal and Pathological somewhat obscures the language of Canguilhem himself

AIDS crisis the opening political context for queer theory. Gender theory influenced by Foucault pressed politics to quite different purposes. e.g. the subject and power – the normativity of gender itself seemed like domination.

Butler revisits Foucault in at least 3 books. But her analysis helped make the Canguilhem emphasis fall away. Gender is the postulate that consolidates the core of subjectivity, primordially. Normativity analysis begins there. Threat of punishment led to emphasis on escaping traditional gender rather than more creative acts (resilience, in Canguilhem language)

Butler’s ‘parables of thought’ describe recognition in dyadic moments of encounter. Ventriloquizes Foucault but does so talking about ‘the’ subject: that’s the problem. Leads to the current impasse in queer theory whereby subjectivity is mentioned as precipitate, as structure – but subjectivity should not mean, is not the same as, shorthand for a person.

Subjectivity creates a gap in our thinking about whole people that other models (Bourdieu, Goffman) can avoid.


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