It is widely presumed in queer theory today that the political value of the field lies in its antinormative commitments. A historically framed attentiveness to the context in which antinormativity came to define the queer theoretical project, however, raises the possibility that queer theory’s conventional commitments to antinormativity need to be reconsidered. As part of that project, this essay traces the elaboration of the norm in Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble, reading it against what is often taken as its inspiration, Michel Foucault’s understanding of normalization in The History of Sexuality, volume 1. Butler’s description of how norms work and, more particularly, how norms might be subverted is radically inconsistent with Foucault’s account of the processes of normalization that characterize modern power. This inconsistency allows us to see that, despite its apparent singularity, antinormativity is not a homogenous thing except in its field-founding force for queer theory.
It seems everyone knows—or no one much cares—what queer means these days. If, across the last twenty-five years, queer has acquired an appearance of semantic transparency such that its contemporary academic use routinely presumes a self-evident meaningfulness to the term, it wasn’t always so.1 In the early years of the 1990s, queer’s extraordinary discursive emergence was almost always in the register of the definitional, its rapid ascendency as a critical term—its coming to meaning—largely secured through iterative and often manifesto-like statements about what queer meant. These days it almost goes without saying that queer is conventionally understood to mean “antinormative,” as can be seen in thumbnail definitions that manage to insist, despite being whittled down to epistemological minimalism, on the primacy of queer’s opposition to normativity. Thus David L. Eng highlights as key to the queer project “the critique of the normative, which we might describe as queer studies’ most important epistemic as well as political promise” (193).2 As Eng’s definition makes clear, to rethink the conditions of the political for queer theory today necessitates a re-evaluation of the presumed centrality of antinormativity to the queer theoretic project.
Across the years between now and its explosive early 1990s advent, if queer theory has resisted being precisely pinned down in epistemological terms, it has nevertheless been widely realized through a diverse range of critical practices that instantiates a queer theoretic outside any specifically definitional project. Listing some of these operationally specifi-able attributes efficiently indicates the primary character of queer theory’s subversive or resistant relation to the field of the normative.3 Queer theory’s antinormativity, we can say, is evident in its anti-assimilationist, anticommunitarian or antisocial, anti-identitarian, antiseparatist, and antiteleological impulses. While each of these terms indexes lively archives of sharp and sometimes unresolved discussion rather than points of critical consensus, what is notable is the extent to which the legitimacy and foundational rightness of different—sometimes even oppositional—positions are clinched via claims to antinormativity, a value that is thus universally acknowledged as the unimpeachable criterion for determining the queerness of any political stance or strategy.
Queer theory’s signature critique of the normative has often gone hand in hand with its celebration of the antinormative. As it has taken shape across the last decades, queer theoretical work has tended to take antinormative subjects or practices as potent figures for some alternate horizon of political possibility. The queer conviction that it is the antinormativity of certain practices or self-stylings that make them recognizable as political means that antinormativity stands, mostly unchallenged, as queer theory’s privileged figure for the political. The tautological character of the short loop that binds antinormativity to the political, however, invites us to think about the political usefulness of a queer theory untethered from its antinormative tendencies; that is, a queer theory that, for all the productive critical leverage the concept of antinormativity has given us, might not be antinormative at its definitional heart.
While there can be no simple origin story for queer theory, there is a convenience to be had in Teresa de Lauretis’s 1991 coining of the phrase as a title for a special issue of differences, which brought together work previously presented at a conference at the University of California, Santa Cruz, in early 1990. For the conference, as for the subsequent special issue, queer theory was the term under which de Lauretis hoped it would be possible “to recast or reinvent the terms of our sexualities, to construct another discursive horizon, another way of thinking the sexual” (“Queer” iv). As de Lauretis explains, she had picked up the term queer from an earlier conference in which she had participated the previous year, the How Do I Look? Queer Film and Video conference organized by the Bad Object-Choices collective at Anthology Film Archives in New York in late 1989 (xviin2).4 In the introduction to the published proceedings from the How Do I Look? conference, however, queer does not modify, as it does for de Lauretis, a newly constituted and singular theory but is used, without explanation, as a synonym for “lesbian and gay,” as the alternating use of “queer film and video” and “lesbian and gay films and videos” evidences (Bad Object-Choices 11).
More explicitly than Bad Object-Choices, de Lauretis promoted queer as definitionally distinct from lesbian and gay studies, as holding open a space attentive to “the respective and/or common grounding of current discourses and practices of homo-sexualities in relation to gender and to race, with their attendant differences of class or ethnic culture, generational, geographical, and socio-political location” (“Queer” iii–iv).5 In holding the titular “queer” in counterweighted tension with the “lesbian and gay sexualities” of the special issue’s subtitle, de Lauretis meant “to mark a certain critical distance from the latter, by now established and often convenient, formula” (iv). In particular, she coined “queer theory” to mark the salient differences elided in the homogenization of lesbian and gay studies as a field, intending it to take a distance from two different orders of conceptual complacency that she associated with commonplace uses of “lesbian and gay,” a phrase she diagnosed as routinely presuming whiteness and masculinity as its indexical center: “In a sense, the term ‘Queer Theory’ was arrived at in the effort to avoid all of these fine distinctions in our discursive protocols, not to adhere to any one of the given terms, not to assume their ideological liabilities, but instead to both transgress and transcend them—or at the very least problematize them” (v). That is, with her coining of queer theory, de Lauretis sought to acknowledge the differences glossed over by the apparent pan-descriptiveness of “lesbian and gay,” specifically the differences between lesbians and gay men and their respective histories, both experiential and analytic, and the differences internal to homosexuality, most notably racial differences.
De Lauretis’s sharp attention to the coordinates of what is now called intersectionality in her inaugural framing of queer theory is notable. In emphasizing the political benefit of queer theory over lesbian and gay studies, de Lauretis returns—in a formulation that repeats her earlier one nearly word for word—to the importance of paying critical attention “to race and its attendant differences of class or ethnic culture, generational, geographical, and socio-political location” (viii). In her repetitive phrasing and against the tendency of later historical accounts that read first-generation queer theory as foundationally invested in categories of privilege and therefore bound to analytic models overdetermined by masculinity, middle-classness, and whiteness, de Lauretis insists that queer theory, unlike lesbian and gay studies, is a critical enterprise foundationally interested in race and, through the master term of race, in all the taxonomic classes by which social subjectivity is differentiated.
Often cited as the inaugural use of “queer theory,” de Lauretis’s coining of that term is interesting on a number of counts, given the eventual consolidations and compactions of its subsequent career.6 Floating queer theory as an enabling intersectional rubric that might potentially correct the majoritarian perspectives by which she perceived lesbian and gay studies to have been primarily constructed, de Lauretis does not represent queer as moving away from or even widening the definition of lesbian and gay studies’ traditional scholarly object—that is, lesbians and gay men. Where queer came to be understood as a placeholder for a potentially infinite coalition of political subjects and specifically not reducible to a lesbian/gay demographic, de Lauretis proposed queer theory as a way of recommitting to a foundational identity object, described plainly as “homosexuality” or more elaborately as “male and female homosexualities” and most expansively as “North American lesbians and gay men, of color and white” (x–xi).
Notably, while she represents queer as countering dominant discursive formations and advocates queer theory as the mechanism by which “lesbian and gay sexualities may be understood and imaged as forms of resistance to cultural homogenization, counteracting dominant discourses with other constructions of the subject in culture,” de Lauretis does not characterize this queer opposition in relation to the explicitly normative (iii). As she explains in her opening paragraph,
The project of the conference was based on the speculative premise that homosexuality is no longer to be seen simply as marginal with regard to a dominant, stable form of sexuality (heterosexuality) against which it would be defined either by opposition or homology. In other words, it is no longer to be seen either as merely transgressive or deviant vis-à-vis a proper, natural sexuality (i.e., institutionalized reproductive sexuality), according to the older, pathological model, or as just another, optional “life-style,” according to the model of contemporary North American pluralism. (iii)
Nor does de Lauretis explicitly explain why, when she describes the lesbian and gay field with which it most closely engages in terms of “studies,” queer enters the academy as a theory. De Lauretis’s characterization of queer in the register of theory, however, does not lay claim to a theory in terms of a coherent and systematized body of thought or even a set of principles. Rather, she tends to consider theorizing as a form of agential action that takes theory as its desired but future outcome. So, for example, when de Lauretis laments that lesbian scholarship and gay scholarship have not held themselves accountable to each other, she identifies as symptomatic of this circumstance the fact that most gay critics, like most lesbian critics, do not incorporate their counterparts’ “insights into a common theoretical frame” (viii). She writes: “The fact of the matter is, most of us, lesbians and gay men, do not know much about one another’s sexual history, experience, fantasies, desire, or modes of theorizing. And we do not know enough about ourselves, as well, when it comes to differences between and within lesbians, and between and within gay men, in relation to race and its attendant differences of class or ethnic culture, generational, geographical, and socio-political location. We do not know enough to theorize those differences” (viii). In de Lauretis’s usage, therefore, queer theory is the name for a theory to come. It does not describe a substantive or even specifiable analytic schema, but is invocational, gesturing toward the possibility of its own future emergence. When she asks, “[C]an our queerness act as an agency of social change, and our theory construct another discursive horizon, another way of living the racial and the sexual?” (x–xi), queer theory is perceptible as a homosexual wish-formation, shaped by the sharp realization of what lesbian and gay studies has not yet brought into existence.
Despite the fact that de Lauretis does not precisely define queer theory at the moment of its inauguration, the speculative project she champions in its name, “to rethink the sexual in new ways, elsewhere and other-wise,” is recognizable in terms of queer theory’s subsequent consolidations insofar as it is resistant to dominant knowledge formations, driven by intersectional concerns, and invested in its futural forms (xvi). Even de Lauretis’s much noted distancing of herself from queer theory in the pages of the same journal only three years later as something that had “quickly become a conceptually vacuous creature of the publishing industry” might be seen less as a literal denunciation of queer theory’s earlier promise than consistent with the affective atmosphere in which queer weirdly emerged as a critical term across the 1990s, a frenzy of simultaneous definition and decathection in which specifying the precise nature of queerness was frequently punctuated by the announcement of its waning or even demise (“Habit Changes” 297).
If the queer project was not always defined explicitly in terms of antinormativity, it did from the outset, as in de Lauretis’s work, carry a strong sense of resistance to social forces characterized as dominant or hegemonic. Lisa Duggan, for instance, describing “a new stance of opposition, which many theorists now call ‘queer’ ” and emphasized “its dissent from the hegemonic, structured relations and meanings of sexuality and gender” (23), and Alexander Doty took up the term “to mark a space for the expression of all aspects of non- (anti-, contra-) straight cultural production and reception” (2). Increasingly, however, the dominant or hegemonic force that queer resisted came to be specifically identified as normativity, and queer in turn came to be characterized as non- or antinormative. Thus, in an important essay that suggests the rise of queer theory might necessitate a major revision of canonic social theory via the recognition of sexuality as a key analytic category, Michael Warner argues that “the preference for ‘queer’ represents, among other things, an aggressive impulse of generalization [that] rejects a minoritizing logic of toleration or simple political interest-representation in favor of a more thorough resistance to regimes of the normal” (Introduction xxvi). David M. Halperin similarly considers that what is “uniquely useful and worth cherishing” about the term is “the ability of ‘queer’ to define (homo)sexual identity oppositionally and relationally but not necessarily substantively, not as a positivity but as a positionality, not as a thing, but as a resistance to the norm” (Saint Foucault 66). These descriptions are typical of the many definitional sketches of queer that proliferated in the early to mid-1990s where identity is recognized as an artifact of the normalizing force of modern power, and queerness is therefore characterizable not in terms of any positive substance but in oppositional relation to normativity.
Despite remaining strategically underdefined and without consolidating around any privileged scholarly object or preferred methodological approach, queerness—whether conceptualized as a theory, a politics, a practice, an institutional formation, or an exercise in world-building—increasingly situated itself in explicit relation to normativity. Reviewing queer theoretical publications across the 1990s, it is difficult to trace quite why this occurred. Was the increasing semantic allegiance to antinormativity a collective, superstructural consolidation of queer theory’s critical foundations? Or, more plausibly, did antinormativity come to prevail as a kind of meme, an easily transmissible conceptual signature the persistence of which is more easily traced to nonepistemological impulses? To understand how antinormativity became enshrined as the signature value of a newly emergent activist and academic movement, it is useful to think about the work antinormativity was presumed to do in terms of what it secured or legitimated for queer theory.
Although clearly the historical and critical coordinates of queer theory’s emergence are complex, a major motivating condition of possibility was the maintenance of the grounds for analyzing and intervening in conditions of social inequity beyond the identity-politics frameworks that prominently structured post-1960s political movements and their academic instantiations but that were by the 1980s increasingly subject to critique on the basis of their monocultural focus on a single axis of identity—such as gender, sexuality, class, race, or nation—as the grounds for their representational projects and the inevitable, even if unintended, exclusions that followed. Queer theory was informed by an acute sense of the necessary violence of identity politics; or perhaps it is more accurate to say that queer theory was alert to the thoroughgoing critique of identity politics’ disqualification and delegitimation of multiple perspectives or life-worlds that are not recognizable in terms of normative identity categories. Strongly informed by poststructural critiques of the humanist self in general and galvanized more specifically by Michel Foucault’s articulation of sexuality as an effect of new techniques of a biopolitical power that regulates mass populations via their distribution in relation to a norm, queer theory’s broad commitment to antinormativity enabled it to organize itself without reference to the foundational categories traditional to identity politics. To put it simply, via its claim to antinormativity, queer theory afforded a sustainable platform for a critical and activist attention to sex that was not bound to the logics of identity politics.
Describing it as “a largely intuitive and half-articulate theory,” Warner suggested in 1992 that “the appeal of ‘queer theory’ has outstripped anyone’s sense of what exactly it means” (“From” 19). This apparent contradiction—that something not fully defined or described could nevertheless function as a point of massive attraction for many—was not simply a temporary characteristic of a new critical paradigm in start-up mode but key to queer theory’s interventionist potential. The attractiveness of queer theory, the appeal of its foundational promise, was to a large extent dependent on its refusal to define itself in relation to any stable category bar the normative and its insistence that its own future evolutions could not be securely known or anticipated. After all, a major part of queer theory’s appeal was that it cleared a space for progressive and contestatory thinking about sex (most publicly, in the sense of sex/sexuality, but in a persistent, under-the-radar way also in the sense of sex/gender) beyond the normative and universalizing models of identity traditionally operational in feminist and lesbian/gay social movements, the strenuous and sustained critique of which was a major coordinate for queer theory’s emergence as a viable alternative.
Intrinsic to its claim to the antinormative as the broad field of its operation, early 1990s accounts of queer theory routinely emphasized its fundamental indefinability in the present and the unknowability of its future forms. “ ‘Queer’ […] does not designate a class of already objectified pathologies or perversions,” writes Halperin, “rather, it describes a horizon of possibility whose precise extent and heterogeneous scope cannot in principle be delimited in advance” (Saint Foucault 62). Judith Butler goes further, entertaining the possibility that—as part of its nonproprietorial flexibility, its nonattachment to specific objects—queer might even be succeeded in some unforeseeable future by other more politically efficacious terms:
If the term “queer” is to be a site of collective contestation, the point of departure for a set of historical reflections and futural imaginings, it will have to remain that which is, in the present, never fully owned, but always and only redeployed, twisted, queered from a prior usage and in the direction of urgent and expanding political purposes, and perhaps also yielded in favor of terms that do that political work more effectively. Such a yielding may well become necessary in order to accommodate—without domesticating—democratizing contestations that have and will redraw the contours of the movement in ways that can never be fully anticipated. (“Critically” 19–20)
As in these representative instances, queer is strategically defined in relation to a provisionally specified field of antinormative identities, practices, values, and aspirations that are always circumstantial or relational and therefore cannot be anticipated or foretold. So the refusal to delimit in advance the future range of its operation and its claim to antinormativity are indissolubly linked to one another as queer theory’s field-inaugurating gestures in the context of specific pragmatic and ideological impasses that arise from the critical histories of particular identity-politics movements.
When understood in significant part as a reaction-formation intended to distinguish itself from the problems attendant on the foundationalist identity logics of previous progressive social movements, queer theory’s commitment to antinormativity as its signature gesture is legible in part as a strategy for avoiding the fate of those earlier political projects, for revitalizing and making viable a platform for political action and intervention that does not set in motion a series of unintentional exclusions of subjects who might properly expect to find representative recognition in the foundational category—in short, to authorize itself via a series of apparently self-effacing, nonterritorial gestures that are always open to the future and hence not vulnerable to being ruled redundant in turn. But the way in which, in the historically embedded instance of queer theory, this fantasy of disciplinary future-proofing fastens on antinormativity strongly suggests that antinormativity should not be thought simply in terms of foundational value but also in terms of product differentiation (a way of holding queer theory clear of the problems that beset earlier identity-based social movements), durational strategy (a way of securing a future for queer theory by emphasizing its non-self-identicalness), and aspirational horizon (a way of reconnecting to scenes of political engagement). A historically attentive understanding of the context in which antinormativity came to define the queer theoretical project raises the possibility that queer’s conventional commitments to antinormativity need to be reconsidered.
My thinking about the trouble with antinormativity for queer theorizing began with orgasm, the figure for my most recent scholarly labors. The problem of taking orgasm as my scholarly object, as I encountered it, was twofold. It is not only that orgasm is deemed insufficiently queer by dint of being “across a wide range of queer—and, more generally, leftist—critical projects […] figured in the register of normativity” (Orgasmology 8) but also that, in most queer theoretical contexts, the antinormative is credited with interventionary power: “Despite the demise of the repressive hypothesis, the hope survives that queer sexual practices—most especially marginalized, pathologized, and culturally devalued sexual practices—have a capacity to intervene in dominant social values and organizational principles and their reproduction of normative life” (179). In order to think in more detail about how queer theory might proceed without an allegiance to antinormativity, however, I want to rewind some twenty-five years to revisit a different scene of scholarly labor, the scene of my becoming academic via a modestly scaled critical archive of two books, both published in 1990, that—for all their infrequent reference to “queer”—are often fingered as the ur-texts of queer theory. I refer, of course, to Butler’s Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s Epistemology of the Closet.7
Fortuitously paired by the date of their publication, these two works enable an approach to the issue of queer antinormativity via a feminist perspective, which, insofar as the strongest articulations of the normative effects of identity politics arose in the context of women-of-color critiques of majoritarian feminism, was one of the flashpoints for queer theory’s inauguration as a critical discourse. This is important because, as I have elsewhere argued, too often queer theory’s “tangled, productive and ongoing relations with feminist theory” go unacknowledged (“Feminism’s” 159). As someone who was in the second-to-last year of writing her doctoral dissertation in 1990, I experienced the arrival of these two works as both sustaining and wounding, their modest appearance within months of each other on the sparse New Books shelves of my New Zealand university library a momentously unheralded event. It is sometimes hard to remember—even harder to convey to my students, for many of whom 1990 is more likely these days to resonate as a birth year—the massive renovation and revitalization given to a then barely stabilized lesbian and gay studies by these two very different works and what a prequeer moment freighted with queer imminence they differently augured.
If I had to pick of the pair which work might be the best canonic resource for thinking queer theory beyond the dyadic energies of antinormativity, my first thoughts would go to Epistemology and the efflorescence of its novelistic textures rather than Gender Trouble and the abstract but economical nip and tuck of its philosophical logics. This is largely consistent with the critical reception of each book, which, although differently complex, allows us more than twenty years later to confirm that Gender Trouble has tended to be read as bound to the dual logics of its Hegelian dialecticism while Epistemology, with its Jamesian attention to cross-hatched detail, has come to represent a commitment to taxonomic proliferation and the rich haze of variation. After all, despite Sedgwick’s stunning schematization of the field of modern sexuality, despite her introductory setting out of seven allegedly axiomatic statements about antihomophobic knowledge whose propositional truthfulness was crystallized via her framing of them, and despite her two diagrammatic materializations of the cultural workings of gender and sexuality, her attention to the systemizations of sexual knowledge tends to give most weight to the flexible—even the random, incoherent, and unpredictable—character of that system, getting a feel for normativity’s “secret reserves of elasticity” (135) and “the infinite availability of hidden bolt-holes for the coverture of meaning, intention, regard” (239) in its complex management of the sexual field.
Yet despite the manifest attractions, for a queer project that does not want to be overdetermined by antinormativity, of Sedgwick’s boundless attention to strange relationalities and her insistent specification of what she calls the “reasonably rich, unsystematic resources of nonce taxonom[ies]” for bringing to visibility the plural registers of difference that slip the forensic attention of normative categories of social classification, here I return to Gender Trouble, first, to consider its use of Foucault’s History of Sexuality, volume 1, and, in particular, his specification of normalization as a new and characteristic mode of modern power that “enables us to understand the importance assumed by sex as a political issue” (145) in the modern era and, second, to read between its lines some alternate constellations of queer, normativity, and the political.
While not the only—or even the most sustained—work of Foucault’s to address normativity and normalization, The History of Sexuality, volume 1, is an important text for thinking about queer engagements with antinormativity. Sticking with it closely in what follows, therefore, acknowledges that, more than, say, Abnormal: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1974–1975 or Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, The History of Sexuality, volume 1, was a singularly key text for emergent queer understandings of the operation of modern power in the field of sexuality, the work Halperin only slightly mischievously describes as “the text of Foucault’s that has positioned him, if only in retrospect, as the intellectual architect of what is arguably the most significant recent development in progressive politics in the United States (and perhaps elsewhere)—the text that, everyone now says, you can’t even begin to practice queer politics without reading” (Saint Foucault 26).
As is well known, The History of Sexuality, volume 1, proposed a radically new understanding of modern power in which power is not only or indexically prohibitive but positive and generative, “a power bent on generating forces, making them grow, and ordering them, rather than one dedicated to impeding them, making them submit, or destroying them” (136). Foucault, of course, does not deny the existence of sexual repression. Rather, he disputes the primacy it is given in most accounts of the relations between sex and power and draws counterattention to the discursive intensification that has constituted sexuality as a targeted object of knowledge in the modern period. Refuting what he describes as the repressive hypothesis—the belief that sexuality is forcibly curbed by legal and social sanctions with only certain forms of sexual behavior being tolerated—Foucault emphasizes instead the discursive constitution of sex, which is not a form of descriptive attentiveness to some preexisting phenomenon, but “the very production of sexuality” itself (105).
Contrasting it with sovereign power, which operates through the display of spectacular force and has the “right of death” as its horizon, Foucault argues for the emergence of biopower, a new form of power that operates continuously through practices of normalization and takes life itself, at the level of both the individual and the species, as its object of knowledge: “A power whose task is to take charge of life needs continuous regulatory and corrective mechanisms. […] Such a power has to qualify, measure, appraise, and hierarchize, rather than display itself in its murderous splendor; it does not have to draw the line that separates the enemies of the sovereign from his obedient subjects; it effects distributions around the norm” (144). Foucault identifies two primary modes of biopower: an anatomo-politics of the human body and a biopolitics of the population (139). The former is evidenced in the strategies geared toward disciplining the body that Foucault associates with educational, manufacturing, and military institutions, the latter in the administration of life at the demographic level. Newly in the normalizing social ether of the biopolitical moment, sex becomes politically salient: “At the juncture of the ‘body’ and the ‘population,’ sex became a crucial target of a power organized around the management of life rather than the menace of death” (147). In Foucault’s antiliberationist account, sex is central to modernity’s technologies of normalization. It becomes biopower’s efficient because simultaneous and continuous point of purchase on both individual bodies, which are disciplined through the installation of sexual desire as the innermost recess of selfhood, and demographic populations, which are regulated in relation to institutional forces such as national economies, political ideologies, legal codes, and social policies.
No wonder that an incipient queer theory fell so hard for The History of Sexuality, volume 1. It framed sexuality as one of the most significant modern technologies of power and hence deserving of sharp critical attention; it took the homosexual as one of its central case studies; it offered a persuasive but counterintuitive description of the continuities between sexual liberationist discourses and widespread processes of social normalization; and, while nevertheless insisting on the imaginary and fictitious nature of sex, it demonstrated the political salience of erotic practice for thinking about power’s operational strategies across wider forms of social organization.8
Although Butler notes in her preface that “every text has more sources than it can reconstruct within its own terms” and although her own conceptual coordinates are drawn eclectically from an equally eclectic range of thinkers, the influence of Foucault and The History of Sexuality, volume 1, especially is strongly felt in her preliminary framing and overall execution of Gender Trouble’s project (viii). “To expose the foundational categories of sex, gender, and desire as effects of a specific formation of power,” she writes in her preface, “requires a form of critical inquiry that Foucault, reformulating Nietzsche, designates as ‘genealogy.’ A genealogical critique refuses to search for the origins of gender, the inner truth of female desire, a genuine or authentic sexual identity that repression has kept from view; rather, genealogy investigates the political stakes in designating as an origin and cause those identity categories that are in fact the effects of institutions, practices, discourses with multiple and diffuse points of origin” (viii–ix). The broad stroke of Butler’s indebtedness to Foucault here is clear. After all, in The History of Sexuality, volume 1, Foucault develops a genealogical account of sexuality that eschews the repressive hypothesis, that critiques the discursive constitution of sex as the wellspring of truth, and that approaches sexuality not as a prior reality to be revealed or explained, but as the result of those very discourses that lay claim to it as an object of knowledge. It is not too much of an exaggeration to say that Butler takes what Foucault did for sexuality as a model for not only “the task of a feminist genealogy of the category of women” but, more broadly, her performative theory of gender (5).
Butler’s account of gender performativity proved the most portable of Gender Trouble’s ideas, swiftly commodified as a critical concept on the high-rotation playlist of scholarly citation.9 Although much debate following the book’s publication, gender performativity is commonly taken, by both its advocates and its detractors, to describe the production of gendered identity as the iterative effect of bodily styles and behaviors governed by regulatory sex/gender norms. “Consider,” writes Butler, “that a sedimentation of gender norms produces the peculiar phenomenon of a ‘natural sex’ or a ‘real woman’ or any number of prevalent and compelling social fictions, and that this is a sedimentation that over time has produced a set of corporeal styles which, in reified form, appear as the natural configuration of bodies into sexes existing in a binary relation to one another” (140). Subscribing to a Foucaultian model that emphasizes both the ubiquity of power and its at-once prohibitive and productive nature, Butler argues that these very norms, by enabling nonidentical forms of repetition, structure alternate “possibilities for proliferating gender configurations outside the restricting frames of masculinist domination and compulsory heterosexuality,” possibilities that do not replicate the ontological logics of heteronormativity (141).10 Indeed, she goes further. In her understanding, norms do not only open up the possibility of subversive repetitions with a difference. Crucially, norms are themselves idealizing or aspirational such that they can never be realized in any individual instantiation: “Gender is also a norm that can never be fully internalized; ‘the internal’ is a surface signification, and gender norms are finally phantasmatic, impossible to embody” (141). In Butler’s account, norms—or at least gender norms—are unattainable; for all their much-bruited regulatory force, they turn out never to be arrived at but only approached asymptotically.
For Butler, it is not simply that gender norms negatively describe a space of inevitable potentiality where they go unmet or are exceeded. Rather, by dint of being unmeetable, gender norms can be shown to be not true in ways that Butler represents as politically significant. Given how different this understanding is in relation to Foucault’s discussion of norms and the processes of normalization in the sexual field, it is worth considering in some detail how Butler understands the norm to operate in relation to a field of power. In the context of a broader discussion of gender identities that are intelligible within a system of compulsory heterosexuality, Butler notes that the
disciplinary production of gender effects a false stabilization of gender in the interests of the heterosexual construction and regulation of sexuality within the reproductive domain. The construction of coherence conceals the gender discontinuities that run rampant within heterosexual, bisexual, and gay and lesbian contexts in which gender does not necessarily follow from sex, and desire, or sexuality generally, does not seem to follow from gender—indeed, where none of these dimensions of significant corporeality express or reflect one another. When the disorganization and disaggregation of the field of bodies disrupt the regulatory fiction of heterosexual coherence, it seems that the expressive model loses its descriptive force. That regulatory ideal is then exposed as a norm and a fiction that disguises itself as a developmental law regulating the sexual field that it purports to describe. (135–36)
This model is a long way removed from Foucault’s articulation of sexual normalization, not least because—with its manifold, dissident genderings flying beneath the radar of heteronormativity—it covertly buys back into the repressive hypothesis so roundly debunked in The History of Sexuality, volume 1.11 To the extent that his understanding of normalization is not strongly bound to truth-values, Foucault does not make a sharp distinction between descriptive and prescriptive, between accuracy and falsity in his account of the norm. The normalizing society that Foucault describes in The History of Sexuality, volume 1, is not primarily one in which power stabilizes dominant structures by refusing to render alternative arrangements intelligible. Rather, as he makes clear in his delineation of sovereign power and biopower, “[A] normalizing society is the historical outcome of a technology of power centered on life” (144).
To be sure, in Foucault’s account normalization is associated with both the management and control of individual bodies and their energies and the surveillance and administration of populations. And yet, as we have seen earlier, Foucault makes clear that modern power operates by “effect[ing] distributions around the norm” (144). The norm, therefore, is not most significantly the effect of “normative injunctions,” which determine “the prescriptive requirements whereby sexed or gendered bodies come into cultural intelligibility,” as it is in Butler’s account (148). Rather, the norm is a technique of power that enables continuous comparison across a statistically distributed scale and is in the service of a new form of modern “power whose task is to take charge of life” (Foucault, History 144). Whereas “within Butler’s account of the normative constitution of the subject […] norms themselves are inherently violent,” norms in the Foucaultian sense are less enforced as an external violence than taken up as the necessary and immanent coordinates of modern subjecthood (Mills 134). This is not the norm as Butler has it, a norm that can be undone or at least mitigated against by being exposed as “a regulatory fiction” (Gender 141).
“The growing importance assumed by the action of the norm” that Foucault associates with the emergence of biopower is not therefore separable from the emergence of sexuality nor, consequently, from the modern sexual subjectivities that our historical circumstances require of us (History 144). Nor should it be presumed that individual subjects could or would want to hold themselves clear of the processes of normalization associated with the deployment of sexuality. After all, when normalization is understood as a strategy in the service of “a technology of power centered on life,” a complex set of mechanisms bent on optimizing life at the individual and population level, it is clear that norms are less something either to be proprietarily laid hold of or rejected than enabling switchpoints for a modern sexuality that routes itself through bodies, both individual and en masse.
It is worth noting that Butler’s understanding of how norms work and, more particularly, how norms might be subverted is radically inconsistent with Foucault’s account of those processes of normalization that characterize modern power and lift sex to a new level of significance because her model of subversion, tacitly or explicitly, underwrites an important tendency in queer theorizing around the antinormative. As Biddy Martin notes: “Queer theory and politics necessarily celebrate transgression in the form of visible difference from norms that are then exposed to be norms, not natures or inevitabilities. Gender and sexual identities are arranged, in much of this work, around demonstrably defiant deviations and configurations” (74).
A partial explanation of the immediate attractiveness for Butler’s readers of this model of gender performativity is the way in which it was widely perceived to identify antinormative subcultural practices—such as “the cultural practices of drag, cross-dressing, and the sexual stylization of butch/femme identities” that Butler takes as her examples (137)—with the capacity for subversion, subversion being the word Butler uses most prominently in her book’s subtitle and elsewhere to describe the political leverage afforded by this understanding of gender as performative. That is to say, a significant part of the explanation for gender performativity’s rapid critical take-up is its neat alignment with a critical ideal already firmly entrenched in leftist progressive thought—namely, the political force of the antinormative.12
As earlier identified, there are plenty of passages in Butler’s work that support a reading of Gender Trouble as promoting the subversive potential of the antinormative. After all, Butler concludes her short book by calling for feminists “to locate strategies of subversive repetition enabled by [normative constructions of gender] […] and, therefore, present the immanent possibility of contesting them” (147). Nevertheless, this reinforcement of the political force of the antinormative that many readers took from Gender Trouble—which presumes not only that subversion must be antinormative but also that norms are always negatively in the service of power—had to ignore aspects of Butler’s wide-ranging and eclectic contextualization or recuperate them for the very paradigm of the political that Gender Trouble foundationally contests. Such readings of Gender Trouble that overemphasize performativity and presume its advocacy of the political efficacy of antinormativity are inevitably partial readings that must ignore aspects of the book that remain valuable for the project of thinking against the grain of queer theory’s antinormative presumptiveness.
Although it is fair to say that, in any page-by-page quantification, Gender Trouble stays on message, pushing the idea that the goal of a subversive feminism is “the loss of gender norms” (146) and insisting, as Butler puts it, that “the task is […] to repeat and, through a radical proliferation of gender, to displace the very gender norms that enable the repetition itself” (148), the book is also importantly sustained by a deep commitment to its sense of the possibility of political transformation without either foundational identity or autonomous agency.
Taking feminist critiques of the category of women as her starting point, Butler argues that, since power brings into being the subjects it only claims to govern and regulate, the category women is not the grounds of feminism’s project of political representation but its discursive effect. Although obviously informed by a Foucaultian understanding of subjection, the specificity of Butler’s intervention is given point by contemporary feminist debates about the putative inclusiveness of the category women. Describing as instructive the failure of feminist intersectionality, Butler writes, “The theories of feminist identity that elaborate predicates of color, sexuality, ethnicity, class, and able-bodiedness invariably close with an embarrassed ‘etc.’ at the end of the list. Through this horizontal trajectory of adjectives, these positions strive to encompass a situated subject, but invariably fail to be complete. This failure, however, is instructive: what political impetus is to be derived from the exasperated ‘etc.’ that so often occurs at the end of such lines?” (143).
In most accounts, Butler’s antifoundationalist approach is treated as little more than a run-up to the real business of her book, a vestigial hangover from a 1980s feminism much exercised by increasingly outmoded questions of gender essentialism. The critical tendency to corral feminism’s sustained inquiries into the grounds of its own political and intellectual projects of the past by representing them in terms of the 1980s essentialism debates often works as a strategy to typecast feminist theory itself as old-fashioned and passé, temporally quarantined from new-school queer theory, which, with its refusal of identity, deftly sidesteps this epistemological morass. Careful consideration of the antifoundationalist impulse in feminist theory, however, suggests not only the partiality of this succession narrative but also raises the possibility that, despite its much flaunted anti-identitarianism, queer theory’s definitional commitment to the antinormative risks reifying antinormativity as a proto-identity or identity-effect.
In part because it is directly connected to her larger performativity thesis, in part because it challenges standard understandings of political intervention and transformation, Butler’s line on agency has attracted more sustained attention. Often italicized or enclosed in quotation marks to indicate its deviation from customary usages, “agency” is a key critical term for Gender Trouble’s brief conclusion. For Butler, agency is not the sovereign subject’s voluntarist assertion of political will against normative power; it is, rather, the name she gives to the constrained and adamantly nonsubjective space opened up by the historical and cultural processes whereby subjects are interpellated through the modern regime of sexuality. Butlerian agency is not voluntarist, subjective, or expressive; rather, it marks the ambivalent and messy field of operation sexuality opens to us by requiring us to take the strategies and effects of sexual discipline as the sites and signs of our most private and cherished sexual selves. This bears reiteration, since even more than twenty years later, the idea that the political could survive being detached from a notion of the agential subject is not at all a critical truism in most queer contexts.
As one of queer theory’s founding texts, what Gender Trouble requires of us—and it requires something of us still—is less the celebration of the heroic subject who subverts the forces of normativity through per-formative repetition than an understanding of the political as something more than—or at least something different from—the as-if inevitable clash of the normative and the antinormative. In posing the question of the political as a field inadequately defined by the intertwined operations of identity and agency, Butler identifies as a key task for any political movement the articulation of what she calls “a critical genealogy of its own legitimating practices” (5). Queer theory might yet benefit from a critical genealogy of antinormativity. As my reading of Gender Trouble against The History of Sexuality, volume 1, indicates, an important part of that genealogy is to demonstrate the various and, at times, incongruous ways that norms and thus normativity have been understood even across texts commonly understood to be bound together by relations of critical influence. Given this, it makes more sense to say that, despite its apparent singularity, antinormativity is not a homogenous thing except in its field-founding force for queer theory.
In an exception to this tendency, Mel Y. Chen tracks the brief history of queer’s contested academic and activist mobilizations, including the “renormalization of the category queer itself” (78), by thinking sustainedly about its lexicalizations as a term, using “cognitive linguistics to provide an analysis of the uneven status—reclaimed or not—of queer, an analysis of its different grammatical uses—functions and their divergent paths” (71).
In citing Eng in this connection, I do not mean to critique him specifically. I have recently ventured a definition of queer theory that similarly casts it in relation to a critique of the normative, describing it in terms of “those posthumanist and anti-identitarian critical approaches that are energized by thinking against the practices, temporalities, and modes of being through which sexuality has been normatively thought” (Orgasmology 1).
My reference here to both subversion and resistance is intended to acknowledge that quite different queer approaches converge around the gold standard of antinormativity. “Subversion” resonates with Judith Butler’s work in Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity while “resistance” picks up on Michael Warner’s definition of queerness as “resistance to regimes of the normal” (Introduction xxvi).
Conference proceedings, however, do not always accurately capture the complete business of the conferences they commemorate. From his own participation at this conference, David M. Halperin recollects that de Lauretis had noted encountering the word “being tossed about in a gay-affirmative sense by activists, street kids, and members of the art world in New York during the late 1980s” (“Normalization” 339).
The project of Bad Object-Choices was also explicitly marked by concerns with “a gender divide at work within gay and lesbian media theory, a divide, that is, between gay theory and lesbian theory” (21) as well as with “relations between gay and lesbian sexuality and ethnic or racial difference” but did not attach these explicitly to the rubric of queer (24).
In second editions of their books, both Butler and Sedgwick express some pleased surprise at this aspect of the critical reception of their respective works. In her preface to the 2008 edition of Epistemology of the Closet, Sedgwick wonders about this retrospective identification of her work as queer: “Widely considered a founding text in queer theory, Epistemology doesn’t use the word ‘queer.’ So what is queer about it?” (iv). In her preface to the 1999 edition of Gender Trouble, Butler describes the moment when she submitted her manuscript to her publisher: “I did not know that the text would have as wide an audience as it has had, nor did I know that it would constitute a provocative ‘intervention’ in feminist theory or be cited as one of the founding texts of queer theory” (vii).
For a further account of some of the “factors that may explain the overdetermined appeal for gay activists of Foucault in general and The History of Sexuality, volume 1, in particular,” see Halperin, Saint Foucault 27–33.
The concept of gender performativity casts such a long shadow over Gender Trouble’s reception history that, in her critical introduction to the work of Butler, Sara Salih begins her chapter on the keyword “gender” by acknowledging that “readers for whom ‘Judith Butler’ is synonymous with ‘performativity’ may well be tempted to skip straight to the relevant sections in both this chapter and Gender Trouble itself” (44).
While Butler’s early work on norms took a distinctly Foucaultian cast, her later work took distance from this model. For a good account of Butler’s developmental thinking about norms from Gender Trouble to Giving an Account of Oneself, see Mills.
Of course, Butler herself in Gender Trouble finds Foucault capable of slipping back into positions he powerfully critiques. Noting that “Foucault understands sexuality as saturated with power and offers a critical view of theories that lay claim to a sexuality before or after the law,” Butler also contends that “it is clear that his own theory maintains an unacknowledged emancipatory ideal that proves increasingly difficult to maintain, even within the strictures of his own critical apparatus” (94).
“Anyone who was at the 1991 Rutgers conference on Gay and Lesbian Studies, and heard Gender Trouble appealed to in paper after paper, couldn’t help being awed by the productive impact this dense and even imposing work has had on the recent development of queer theory and reading” (Sedgwick, Tendencies 1).