Essay

I'm Just Normal

by Jean-Thomas Tremblay

I’m Just Normal[1]

 

 

Brooke, played by Greta Gerwig, is the eccentric half of a double act in Noah Baumbach’s 2015 national-millennial fable, Mistress America. More than her physical comedy, Brooke’s rhetorical acrobatics dazzle. The thirty-something gives profuse accounts of herself: “I know I’m funny. There’s nothing I don’t know about myself. That’s why I can’t do therapy;” or, “I just am in love with everything, but can’t figure out how to make myself work in the world.” To evoke, if promiscuously, the trajectory of moral reasoning outlined by Judith Butler, Brooke never satisfyingly answers the questions, “What have I done?” and “What ought I to do?” because she is too busy coming up with new, creative responses to a more fundamental query: “Who is this ‘I’?”[2] In the eyes of her soon-to-be stepsister Tracy, a first-year college student played by Lola Kirke, Brooke is what Eve Kosofksy Sedgwick would call a “tutelage figure.”[3] Brooke, whose desire is unbound (she “just [is] in love with everything”), takes Tracy under her wing, acting at once as her sister, mother, lover, teacher, and best friend. Tracy revels in Brooke’s cosmopolitan savvy, curated Times Square apartment, and artistic flair. But Brooke is no less fascinated by Tracy. “Sometimes I don’t know if you’re a Zen master or a sociopath,” Brooke ponders. “I’m just normal,” Tracy retorts.

 

In the 1993 Tendencies, Sedgwick writes that “there are important senses in which ‘queer’ can signify only when attached to the first person.”[4] Perhaps there are also important senses in which “normal” can signify only when attached to the first person. Tracy’s “I’m just normal” insinuates a silent supplement: “I’m just normal, but you’re not, and I desire your difference.” The referent of Tracy’s statement is less an articulated norm than Brooke’s difference, a je ne sais quoi that throughout the film Tracy aims to capture. Located in the middle of the spectrum of human behavior that Brooke reduces to its extremities (“a Zen master or a sociopath”), Tracy’s “I’m just normal” delineates a position from which she negotiates her investment in Brooke’s difference. In other settings, the subtext of “I’m just normal” might be, “I ought to be normal,” or “You, too, ought to be normal.” In Mistress America, however, “I’m just normal” bespeaks dissatisfaction. It’s an identity that Tracy claims in an effort to project her way out of it.

 

Tracy’s graduation from “just normal” is sudden and painful. In an effort to join her campus’ coveted creative writing club, Tracy writes a short story whose protagonist is heavily inspired by Brooke. When Brooke finds this out, she accuses Tracy of impinging on her privacy—or, in contemporary parlance, of being obsessed with her. The accusation casts Tracy as stalky, perverse, deviant. It’s as if Brooke just wanted to be a normal soon-to-be stepsister, and Tracy made things weird. In Mistress America, normal can be odd; normal is muddled; normal shifts around. And the referent of normal isn’t always a clear norm. Even in this conventional film, the normal is coded as queer. In Brooke’s tutelary relation to Tracy, the normal is mediated through eccentricity; it’s defined by way of difference or deviance. The normal alternately shows up as a longing for difference (in Tracy’s case), and as a recessive position adopted once difference has attracted the wrong kind of attention (in Brooke’s).

 

Mistress America’s lesson that the normal is not antithetical to queerness—the word “lesson” feels appropriate for a film about tutelage—resonates with the May 2015 special issue of the journal differences, titled “Queer Theory without Antinormativity.” The issue proposes that the normal, norms, and normativity are complex, and that their outright opposition might obscure this complexity. In their introduction to the issue, Robyn Wiegman and Elizabeth A. Wilson affirm that normativity has become “queer theory’s axiomatic foe.”[5] They criticize what they identify as a dominating tendency in queer theory (and queer studies, defined as the field-forming synthesis of the queer theoretical archive) to “immobilize the activity of norms.”[6] It would be unfair to reduce the project of “Queer Theory without Antinormativity,” a collection of essays that considers an array of standpoints, to a film with such a narrow worldview and sense of the social as Mistress America. But the film, I think, dramatizes an idea at the core of Wiegman and Wilson’s project: the idea that the normal is thick. The normal can be filled with contradictions; it can be written and rewritten, like something you would find on a palimpsest.

 

The essays assembled by Wiegman and Wilson don’t all share the idiom elaborated in the issue’s introduction. For instance, Erica R. Edwards’ “Sex after the Black Normal” investigates a contemporary discursive formation wherein black women’s sexuality labeled as “non-normative” and “other” serves as a lubricant for neoliberal governmentality.[7] This essay displays a kinship with a queer tradition interested in articulating the relationship between sexuality and nation—a tradition that encompasses, notably, Lauren Berlant’s The Queen of America Goes to Washington City: Essays on Sex and Citizenship (1997) and Jasbir K. Puar’s Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times (2007).[8] In a contrasting register, Madhavi Menon’s “Universalism and Partition: A Queer Theory” is a polemic that advocates for an “indifference to difference,” or a universalism of particulars that do not cohere into identity.[9] Menon’s project is less a descriptive attention to the thickness of norms than an explicitly normative argument that promotes a good universalism, defined as the valuing of particulars, over a bad regime of difference, condensed as identity politics. This taxonomic intervention renders Menon’s essay as a self-fulfilling prophecy: by enforcing her own definitions of universalism and difference—definitions that isolate these concepts from some of their genealogies, including feminist philosophy and the life sciences—Menon gives herself the tools to portray universalism as desirable and difference as undesirable.

 

While it’s impossible to ascribe a single thesis, or even a coherent set of allegiances, to the ensemble of essays contained in “Queer Theory without Anti-Normativity,” I want to flesh out what I understand to be a problem of framing in this special issue of differences. I gather from Wiegman and Wilson’s assertion that queer theory “immobilizes the activity of norms” that the editors long for a mode of theorizing that moves with, or protects the integrity of, its objects. One of the names for such a mode of theorizing in the “post-critical” moment, a focus of the “We/Reading/Now” colloquium, is “weak theory.” Drawing from Silvan Tomkins, Sedgwick categorizes theory as weak when it has a limited topology, and when it doesn’t aspire to universality.[10] (Needless to say, Menon is one contributor to “Queer Theory without Antinormativity” who doesn’t operate within the idiom of weak theory.) Anthropologist Kathleen Stewart, for her part, defines weak theory as a cultural poesis of forms of living.[11] The problem of framing that typifies “Queer Theory without Antinormativity” has to do with the authors’ pursuit of weak theory by strong means. Specifically, their suggestion that we turn to modes of theorizing that enable norms to move and shift comes at a steep cost: the immobilization of a multifaceted corpus labeled as “antinormative queer theory.” The introduction of “Queer Theory without Antinormativity” thus fuses two senses of the term “framing.” Here, the exposition of a project (rhetorical framing) happens together with the accumulation of contestable evidence against an antagonist (forensic framing). By formulating the complex study of norms as anti-antinormativity, Wiegman and Wilson reproduce the logic of simplification via opposition that they accuse queer theorists of perpetrating.

 

The rhetorical and forensic framing of “Queer Theory without Antinormativity” appears especially reductive when we contrast two takes on Sedgwick’s work, one found in Wiegman and Wilson’s introduction, and the other in Wiegman’s solo essay, “Eve’s Triangles, or Queer Studies beside Itself.” In the introduction, Sedgwick appears alongside Leo Bersani, Butler, Michel Foucault, Gayle Rubin, and Michael Warner. These “foundational figures” of queer theory are, in Wiegman and Wilson’s view, the faces of a shared commitment to antinormativity.[12] In “Eve’s triangles, ”Wiegman, shifts gears: Sedgwick becomes the emblem of a mode of theory, critique, and activism that dwells on contradictions and incommensurables instead of resolving them through opposition.[13] On its own, Wiegman’s essay is a careful study of Sedgwick’s attention to incoherence as well as a formal engagement with queer theory. Wiegman performs the high-wire act of blending theory and criticism with biographical anecdotes, thereby acknowledging one of queer theory’s most distinct aesthetic conventions. But what are we supposed to gather from reencountering Sedgwick after her antagonization in the introduction? That the enigmatic and coalitional aspects of Sedgwick’s corpus are worth attending to, whereas its antinormative aspects aren’t? Such a conclusion doesn’t amount to anything beyond, well, a normative statement. I would argue that Wiegman and Wilson’s framing in the introduction casts a shadow on the richness, both argumentative and aesthetic, of Wiegman’s solo essay.

 

The reductiveness of Wiegman and Wilson’s anti-antinormativity is at the heart of vehement reviews of “Queer Theory without Antinormativity” by queer critics Lisa Duggan and Jack Halberstam. In a blog post published in September 2015 on Bully Bloggers, Duggan argues that just as “queer” implies identitarian, practical, and political meanings that deserve to be taxonomized, queer theory points to genealogies—queer of color critique chief among them—that transcend the pre-2000 history that the introduction of “Queer Theory without Antinormativity” quickly draws.[14] In another post that appeared a few days earlier on the same website, Halberstam takes issue with Wiegman and Wilson’s conflation of decades of queer scholarship with a “straw man” they name “antinormativity.” [15] For Halberstam, a theory that isn’t committed to a critique of norms is doomed to “straight thinking,” a rhetorical mode that supports the common sense of the moment. I agree with both Duggan and Halberstam that Wiegman and Wilson’s one-size-fits-all approach to queer theory erases many of the genealogies that fit under the rubric of queer theory. “Queer Inhumanisms,” “The Athletic Issue,” “Black/Queer/Diaspora,” and “Queer Studies and the Crises of Capitalism,” all of which are titles of recent special issues of GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, insinuate some of these genealogies. However, Halberstam’s dichotomy between queer and straight thinking ultimately replicates the us-vs.-them logic that anchors Wiegman and Wilson’s introduction. Halberstam’s stance (anti-anti-antinormativity?) has the effect of rendering queer theory as oppositionality all the way down. This model does not supply obvious tools for apprehending a statement like Tracy’s “I’m just normal” in Mistress America. Is it even possible to oppose Tracy’s “normal”—or, to unpack the rhetorical Matryoshka dolls at hand: is it even possible to oppose someone else’s refusal to oppose Tracy’s “normal”—if the referent of the normal in question is less a clear norm than an aspirational difference?

 

The work of French philosopher and physician Georges Canguilhem carves out a space in which it is possible to speculate on an alliance between, on the one hand, Wiegman and Wilson’s argument that we cannot completely abstract ourselves from norms, and on the other hand, Halberstam’s call for a politics that refuses common sense or the status quo. While Canguilhem supplies much of the architecture of the normal, the norm, and normativity in the introduction of “Queer Theory without Antinormativity,” the authors’ engagement with this figure remains superficial. Canguilhem’s name appears in three key parenthetical citations, but he makes his way into the body of the introduction only toward its very end, as the authors present the essays included in the issue. (Canguilhem is an important interlocutor in pieces by Vicky Kirby and Elizabeth A. Povinelli.[16]) In Canguilhem’s theory (particularly in The Normal and the Pathological), the paradigmatic norm (the norm that serves as a model for all other norms) is a kind of average or middle that provides a measure of, but never immobilizes, the dynamic polarity of life. The dynamic polarity of life is a propulsive movement between physiological constants.[17] “Normal” and “abnormal” are normative elements, in so far as they exist in relation to this dynamic polarity. In a sense, the notion of antinormativity is at odds with Canguilhem’s scheme, considering that, for him, whoever or whatever is alive is in a normative relation to the dynamic polarity of life. This is the allure of Canguilhem’s theory in the context of “Queer Theory with Antinormativity:” the idea that being in life entails being bound to norms. At the same time, Canguilhem’s theory lends itself to a theory of counter-norms that remains overlooked by Wiegman and Wilson. Canguilhem explains that anomalies or pathologies, such as syndromes or diseases, do not mark the absence of norms. Instead, pathologies are propelled by “inferior norms,” meaning norms that tolerate no deviation from the conditions in which they are valid.[18] That is to say, from a negative standpoint, that pathologies restrict the modes of being, or the range of behaviors, actions, and feelings, normally enabled by the dynamic polarity of life. Reformulated affirmatively, pathologies function as kinds of counter-norms which, though they remain in a relation of normativity, subject the dynamic polarity of life to their own, non-negotiable conditions. It would be clumsy to derive a politics of the counter-norm from Canguilhem’s writings; the application of a language of “inferiority” to diseases, syndromes, and viruses feels especially frustrating in light of the ostracization of persons living with HIV/AIDS—an ostracization central to the emergence of queer theory. Yet, by paying close attention to Canguilhem (as Kirby and Povinelli do in their respective essays), we realize that normativity, for him, has its alternatives. We realize, in brief, that normativity doesn’t foreclose objection, resistance, or noncompliance.

 

The thickness of norms leads us to tensions and contradictions that anti-antinormativity and anti-anti-antinormativity run the risk of concealing or resolving too quickly. A queer theory with tensions and contradictions is a queer theory without “withouts.”

 

 

[1] I wish to express my gratitude to Tyler Bradway, Julie Orlemanski, and Rebekah Sheldon for their diligent comments on an earlier version of this essay. All shortcomings are my own.

[2] Judith Butler, Giving an Account of Oneself (Bronx: Fordham University Press, 2005), 3-4, 10.

[3] Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Tendencies (Durham: Duke University Press, 1993), 95, emphasis in the original.

[4] Ibid., 9.

[5] Robyn Wiegman and Elizabeth A. Wilson, “Introduction: Antinormativity’s Queer Conventions,” differences 26, no. 1 (2015): 1-2.

[6] Ibid., 14.

[7] Erica R. Edwards, “Sex after the Black Normal,” differences 26, no. 1 (2015): 142, 148-149.

[8] Lauren Berlant, The Queen of America Goes to Washington City: Essays on Sex and Citizenship (Durham: Duke University Press, 1997); Jasbir K. Puar, Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007).

[9] Madhavi Menon, “Universalism and Partition: A Queer Theory,” differences 26, no. 1 (2015): 134.

[10] Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003) 134

[11] Kathleen Stewart, “Weak Theory in an Unfinished World,” Journal of Folklore Research 45, no. 1 (2008): 71.

[12] Wiegman and Wilson, 3.

[13] Robyn Wiegman, “Eve’s Triangles, or Queer Studies beside Itself,” differences 26, no. 1 (2015): 66.

[14] Jack Halberstam, “Straight Eye for the Queer Theorist—A Review of ‘Queer Theory without Antinormativity,’” Bully Bloggers, 12 September 2015, https://bullybloggers.wordpress.com/2015/09/12/straight-eye-for-the-queer-theorist-a-review-of-queer-theory-without-antinormativity-by-jack-halberstam/. Accessed 5 November 2015.

[15] Lisa Duggan, “Queer Complacency without Empire,” Bully Bloggers, 22 September 2015, https://bullybloggers.wordpress.com/2015/09/22/queer-complacency-without-empire/. Accessed 5 November 2015.

[16] Vicky Kirby, “Transgression: Normativity’s Self-Inversion,” differences 26, no. 1 (2015): 96-116; Elizabeth A. Povinelli, “Transgender Creeks and the Three Figures of Power in Late Liberalism,” differences 26, no. 1 (2015): 168-187.

[17] Georges Canguilhem. The Normal and the Pathological, trans. Carolyn R. Fawcett (New York: Zone Books, 1991), 123.

[18] Ibid., 183.

Jean-Thomas Tremblay is a SSHRC fellow and a Ph.D. student in English Language and Literature at the University of Chicago. He holds a graduate certificate in the Study of Gender and Sexuality. He is at work on a dissertation on breathing as a problem of form in contemporary literature. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Criticism, Women & Performance, Public Books, Review 31, the Oxonian Review, and Make Magazine.

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