The Trouble with Normal- A Review

the trouble with normal

As a child, flying on a plane is a terrifying endeavor. On my first trip to Orlando, Florida to see the attractions, there was a toddler, probably around the same age as my brother (two years old). I remember my brother smiling as he slept, the toddler in the other row screaming at the top of his lungs. My earplugs could not fit in my ears so I listened to him wail instead, culminating in the harsh whisper of his mother, “Why can’t you just act normal”. In this case, ‘normal’ seems to be fairly cut and dry; the mother wanted her son to be normal, which to her meant quient, well-behaved. Such ideas of normalcy are ingrained in us from an even earlier age as this, wehre non-normal means different, means troublesome. Michael Warner’s book, The Trouble with Normal: Sex, Politics, and the Ethics of Queer Life, he examines this idea of “normalcy” by focusing it with a lens of queer theory, and as he proceeds through his work he continues to narrow that lens, focusing it down on a narrative and demographic similar to his own. He begins by addressing sexual stigma in broad terms, each subsequent chapter moving from the idea of ‘normality’ in general to a narrowed focus on gay, lesbian, and queer individuals.

Part of the brilliance and also the complexity of Warner’s argument is that there is no one such argument. Throughout The Trouble with Normal, we see complete shifts not only from topic to topic, but also from argument to argument. However, I take Warner’s argument to be one of politics, or the application of normalcy which he brings up strongly as a theme in every one of his chapters. In his chapter “What’s Wrong with Normal?” I believe Warner’s clearest argument presents itself, “the politics I advocate” Warner says, “—a frank embrace of queer sex in all its apparent indignity, together with a frank challenge to the damaging hierarchies of respectability—” (Warner, 74). Warner’s ‘solution’ of sorts does not mess with the concept of integration, but rather the ‘embrace’ he mentions is one of understanding and a moral acceptance, rather than a physical acceptance into currently policy, structures, and politics. This semi-utopic ideal that he presents also comes with a more confrontational aspect, a ‘challenge’ to the way that respectability is perceived and its exclusion of queers and queer culture. For the purposes of this review, I will use the term ‘queer’ as Warner himself uniquely defines it, saying, “the term “queer” is used in a deliberately capacious way in this book, as it is much in queer theory, in order to suggest how many people can find themselves at odds with straight culture,” (38). Warner is using the word queer as a defining term to separate, in a way, those that have been eclipsed by straight culture in social and political matters. He then goes on to suggest that using the phrase ‘homophobia’ and ‘gays and lesbians’ are not sufficient, as it “blinds itself both to the subtlety of the oppressive culture and to the breadth of possible resistances,” (39). It is clear that Warner’s definition of the world queer hints to the subject of his main argument, the differentiation and potential intersection of two groups: straight culture, and queer culture.         Currently a professor of English at Yale university, Warner has published several seminal works in queer studies, particularly the essay “Sex in Public,” co-authored with Lauren Berlant, and Fear of a Queer Planet. The Trouble with Normal was among many of Warner’s foundational works in queer theory. His social criticisms are heard through many periodicals in addition to his monographs. on Yale’s English department page, Warner lists his many interests, but then unifies them, saying, “One common thread across these fields is the way different social worlds are built up out of different circulating media and ways of reading or hearing” (English.yale.edu). His comment upon differing social worlds is particularly interesting, as Warner is an outspoken voice against marriage equality being the forefront of the ‘queer agenda’, believing it has negative implications, and that these moves towards normalcy “are bad not just for gays but for everyone,” instead calling for “a vision of true sexual autonomy”.

The main method employed by Warner in his analysis and progress of thought is engaging with other voices from queer theory, as well as publicized media events such as the Clinton impeachment. The diversity of resources he draws from not only extends the understanding of a mere layperson, but also brings back his theories to concrete social events that the reader knows about and might have experienced. As I stated earlier, Warner’s book is written in an editorial style a constantly evolving persuasion of his audience. He moves from one topic to the next without lingering long in one area. Structurally, it is divided into five main parts: “The Ethics of Sexual Shame”, “What’s Wrong with Normal?”, “Beyond Gay Marriage”, “Zoning Out Sex”, and “The Politics of Shame and HIV Prevention”. Material wise, he begins in a broad stroke with sexual shame, the politics of moral panic, hierarchies of shame, and he finally settles on the the ethics of queer life in preparing for the focusing of part two, discussing the idea of what “normal” is, gay and lesbian movement involvement and the ambivalence of identity, and the “normalized movement”. Focusing even deeper, his third chapter narrows to just gay marriage, explaining his reasons against it, and delving into the idea of “marriage without cost”. Chapter four narrows further into zoning out sex, the private and the public aspects of sexual acts as well as who becomes political targets. The conclusion of his work ends with the most focused aspect and demographic of all, those infected with HIV.

Warner’s writing can be dense, giving him the space to hit all of these issues, but as an overarching theme it is clear that the narrowing of his scope brings his topic from the general public, down to people of his own demographic, with similar narratives. Rather than describing and unwrapping all of Warner’s thoughts, I intend to focus on what I believe to be his greatest strength, as well as his main point (as indicated by his title)—normalcy.

Fittingly, the part of Warner’s monograph that I found the most persuasive was his second chapter, “What’s Wrong with Normal?”. Essentially, Warner associates humans’ obsession with the idea of what is ‘normal’ with the rise of statistics in the 19th century. Until this point, nobody had been concerned with what was normal, only with their normative ideas about right and wrong. In assessing the validity of a lust for normalcy, Warner cites Mary Poovey, who leads him to wonder “why anyone would want to be normal”, alter saying “It is not normal to be a genius, die a virgin, or be well endowed. That [normalcy], again, tells us nothing about what one should want,” (54). Such a statement has the power to throw any reader back into their memories, searching for moments they disproved or accepted the idea that normal was, indeed better; it’s strength lies in its universal application. Focusing this down to the linguistic element, Warner continues, tracing the word normal back to the true English meaning: “meeting a set of normative standards,” (56). He asserts that in a language such a French, the world normal has retained more of its original connotation, “refer[ring] to the whole process of training, testing, and authorizing people as full members of society,” (56). Here, we see Warner backing up his claims about normalcy by taking things back; normal wasn’t even intended to mean what we think it means!

Warner offers us a clear definition of the term “queer”, that he uses, attempting to use it in a particularly “capacious way”—all encompassing and inclusive. That being said, I found that Warner’s argument tended to fall into the trap of writing and speaking into the gay and lesbian categories that he made it his goal to undermine. He originally speaks from this perspective of an upheaval and destabilizing of the societal norms we have put into practice. Even towards the beginning, though, it is clear that Warner doesn’t always focus on the queer movement as a whole, but attempts to encapsulate it all by referring to homosexuality. Page 72 shows us a clear example of this, “pragmatism in gay politics requires some sense of principle, and some accountability to gays and lesbians.” What is interesting about this is his isolation of gay and lesbian terminology, continuing on to state that an issue with the hugeness of the marriage equality movement is it’s blindsiding certain groups (trans* people, gender non-conforming, etc.) Other areas of the book include brief mention of these groups, but the lack of consistency on Warner’s part seems to undermine his argument against gay marriage.

Warner’s book, The Trouble with Normal, does an amazing job of covering a variety of topics from the ubiquity of sexual stigma to the prevalence and more focused stigma of having HIV/AIDS. Warner is able to successfully balance a variety of academic sources and their research with contemporary examples that everyone is familiar with, giving him the ability to speak topic-wise to a larger audience. However, due to the level of nuance and complex theories discussed by Warner, I would say that the ideal audience consists of those aware of the marriage equality movement, with some familiarity with the idea of stigma and how it pertains to queer theory. While he introduces his topics well enough for most anyone to read and understand, I believe the most understanding will come from a place of prior knowledge of the subject.

 

 

 

Warner, Michael. Michael Warner: Seymour H. Knox Professor of English, Professor of American Studies. Yale U. Web. 23 Feb 2016.

 

Warner, Michael. The Trouble with Normal. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998. Print.