Abstract

This section includes eighty-six short original essays commissioned for the inaugural issue of TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly. Written by emerging academics, community-based writers, and senior scholars, each essay in this special issue, “Postposttranssexual: Key Concepts for a Twenty-First-Century Transgender Studies,” revolves around a particular keyword or concept. Some contributions focus on a concept central to transgender studies; others describe a term of art from another discipline or interdisciplinary area and show how it might relate to transgender studies. While far from providing a complete picture of the field, these keywords begin to elucidate a conceptual vocabulary for transgender studies. Some of the submissions offer a deep and resilient resistance to the entire project of mapping the field terminologically; some reveal yet-unrealized critical potentials for the field; some take existing terms from canonical thinkers and develop the significance for transgender studies; some offer overviews of well-known methodologies and demonstrate their applicability within transgender studies; some suggest how transgender issues play out in various fields; and some map the productive tensions between trans studies and other interdisciplines.

Unlike other key terms in transgender studies, there is no comprehensive critical genealogy of the concept of “normal” or “normality.” Recently, a number of studies have examined particular episodes in this history: Creadick (2010) and Adams (1997) have looked at the postwar years, while Warner (1999) has examined the late twentieth century. Despite the lack of a long history of normality, however, critiques of normality occupy a central position in many areas of critical theory, which have examined the way the “regime of the normal” (Warner 1999) has come to shape the lives of those whose sexualities, genders, and/or bodies do not conform to normative assumptions about them. Beginning with Michael Warner's landmark identification of queer as that which opposes “not just the normal behavior of the social but the idea of normal behavior” (1993: xxvii), critiques of the normal and of normativity have occupied a central position in queer studies (e.g., Halperin 1997; Halberstam 2005), critical disability studies (e.g., Garland Thomson 1996; Davis 1995), studies of bodily difference (e.g., Dreger 2004), gender variance (e.g., Halberstam 2012), transgender studies (e.g., Spade 2011), and postcolonialism (e.g., Carter 2007). The ongoing proliferation of such critiques is a reflection of how privileged the idea of normality remains. For Warner, the desire for normality is one of the definitive characteristics of the late twentieth century: “Everyone, it seems, wants to be normal. … What immortality was to the Greeks, what virtù was to Machiavelli's prince, what faith was to the martyrs, what honor was to the slave owners, what glamor is to drag queens, normalcy is to the contemporary American” (1999: 53).

Given its cultural ubiquity and its centrality to contemporary studies of embodiment, it is curious that the term normal and the history of which it is a part have been subject to so little critical interrogation. What has been overlooked, in consequence, is that the history of the normal is much more recent, and its meaning much more unstable, than generally recognized. The word normal first appears in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1848. However, at the end of the century its meaning is still so unfamiliar that it is described in the Grand Larousse du XIXe siécle as “new in the language,” and requiring “from the person who hears it for the first time a certain effort of attention” (quoted in Warman 2010: 203). Etymological antecedents of the nineteenth-century normal can be dated to the mid-eighteenth century, when the word first appeared in two highly specialized and apparently distinct discursive locations: geometry, in which it was used as a less common synonym for a perpendicular line; and, second, anatomy, in which it was paired with, and used in opposition to, the “pathological.” What these instances have in common is an association of the normal with the regular: it is “that which conforms to the rule (norma)” (Canguilhem 1991: 125), and that which is seen to be morally as well as geometrically upright (Warman 2010: 206–7).

For Georges Canguilhem: “To set a norm (normer), to normalise, is to impose a requirement on an existence” (1991: 239), and it is this the understanding of the normal that informs Michel Foucault's influential theory of normalization in Discipline and Punish. Foucault describes normalization as a practice of standardization and identifies it as “one of the great instruments of power at the end of the classical age” (1991: 184). Like all forms of power, Foucault argues, normalization is both repressive and productive: while it “imposes homogeneity” (184), it is also that which constitutes the modern subject as an “individual” (170). Normalization does this not simply by moving subjects toward a norm — by making them more normal — but by measuring the gaps and differences by which they deviate from that norm. The purpose of the norm is thus to serve as an ideal that can never be embodied but around which minutely differentiated distances can be charted: “When one wishes to individualise the healthy, normal and law-abiding adult, it is always by asking him how much of the child he has in him, what secret madness lies within him, what fundamental crime he has dreamt of committing” (Foucault 1991: 193).

Although Foucault dates the end of the eighteenth century as the period in which “the power of the Norm becomes the new law of modern society” (1991: 184), it should be remembered that the word normal is still so unfamiliar a century later that it is identified as linguistically new and conceptually difficult, and the concept of “a norm” itself did not yet exist. The term norm dates only from the very end of the nineteenth century, emerging subsequent to the theory of “normal distribution” in statistics, which is usually attributed to Francis Galton (Kevles 1985; Porter 1986). Normal distribution describes the mathematical law in which the greater the variance from a given mean, the lower the frequency with which it will occur (Galton 1869). Galton's statistical research was undertaken in conjunction with his work on eugenics: biological evolution, he argued, was like numerical variation in that it “follows certain statistical laws, of which the best known is the Normal Law of Frequency” (Galton 1909: 3). For Galton, the normal is what is both statistically most common and socially preferable; it is the average and also an ideal.

This is the double meaning of the normal that Canguilhem examines in The Normal and the Pathological, which focuses on the conceptual incoherence of this term. In biology, Canguilhem notes: “the normal state designates” both “the habitual state” of the body and its “ideal” (1991: 152). Canguilhem's great contribution to a critical genealogy of normality — one that is of great potential application to transgender studies — is to see the normal as a dynamic relation rather than a static quality: “The living being and its environment are not normal,” he argues; “it is their relationship that makes them such” (143). In consequence: “There is no fact which is normal or pathological in itself. An anomaly or a mutation is not in itself pathological. These two express other possible norms of life” (144).

We might bear this in mind when considering the context in which the concept “normal subject” first emerges: in and through the work of the biologist and sexologist Alfred Kinsey (Igo 2007). A few short decades later, the idea of “normal” sexuality and gender occupy such a privileged role in John Money's writing on gender roles and reassignment that it constitutes a form of paraphilia itself, Lisa Downing argues, which we might term “normophilia” (Downing 2010). This instability in the concept of the normal — in which it is both the average and the ideal, a habitual state and the object of excess or obsession — underpins its ambiguous role in contemporary studies of sexuality and gender, in which it continues to mark an important fault line between queer and transgender studies (Stryker 2004). For this reason, we might productively return to the apparently obsolete original meaning of the normal in geometry: a perpendicular line. Here, as in Canguilhem's critique of theories of biological normativity, the “normal” is ontologically relational, describing not a fixed thing but an orientation of one thing in relation to another.

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