Tuesday, June 12, 2012

normal, abnormal, queer theory, and phenomenology

I figured out what I want to write this summer. Last year I did a ton of stuff on the phenomenological concept of normal, in part responding to Sara Ahmed. I'm going to try to turn that into some kind of reasonable essay, but more excitingly, I'm going to work on contrasting it with other ways of looking at normal.

So, here's a start. I hope some of this is intelligible. It's just notes on the fly.


I’m going to use the term “queer theory” to name a broad category of perspectives on numerous academic and scientific disciplines that are generally linked by a common interest in critiquing and undermining the cultural and political status quo, in which LGBTQ folks are, in the main, excluded. That’s pretty rough, but I don’t care.

Queer theorists often deploy the term heteronormativity to call out and problematize what they regard as the exclusionary and oppressive status quo with regard to sexual orientations, identities, practices, social and political expectations, etc. Implicit in the use of the term is a concept of normal, which is a central target of queer theory critique. To me, this requires a careful determination not only of a definition of normal, but also of to what ontological domain we assign a particular definition of normal. That is, what is normal in a cultural sense could be defined in terms of limits of social acceptability of traits, behaviors, etc. On this level, heteronormativity is losing a lot of ground in many areas of US culture and society: even to raise the question of same-sex marriage and have it seriously considered and debated shows this. This sense of normal is grounded in institutions that are at least somewhat dynamic.

What Sara Ahmed seems to do in Queer Phenomenology, in part, is to let this concept of normal into the domain of phenomenology of experience. Does it belong there? What is the phenomenological concept of normal? I believe it will turn out that there are several layers to it, and that there will be no causal relation, and at times only a resemblance, between the phenomenological and cultural concepts. Drawing from Husserl, I would say that the most basic phenomenological encounter with normality is perceptual, and that further investigation of perceptual experience will discover a pre-perceptual level of normality that, at least Husserl says, cannot really be investigated further.

One chief difference: heteronormativity has to be defended as a political and cultural practice, and is being defended today with vehemence and violence, because it is increasingly clear that it’s only based on an accrual of practices. Normal cultural interpretation of the practices in question has shifted rapidly, such that it is harder and harder to define what normal sexual orientation or identity is. Phenomenologically, I believe, we would have to say that it is normal that in our perception of the world we become attuned more toward some objects than others. In short, I don’t believe the so-called normal experience of sexual attraction could ever mean “heterosexual attraction” from the phenomenological standpoint. It would simply suggest that the normal experience of sexual attraction is to perceive certain others and objects as appealing to a person as a sexual subject.

The cultural concept of normal relates to a social and political determination of something or other as within bounds, of being included or accepted. The phenomenological concept of normal relates to an attempt to understand how it is that we experience anything at all as being something of a certain “kind” or having a certain meaning or value.

The two have something to do with one another. Merleau-Ponty discusses the history of human visual perception obliquely as he discusses art history, for instance: cultural norms make a difference in how we perceive. But that’s consistent with the phenomenological idea of perception as being a transcendence into the world. Our perception is of the world in two senses: it is a perception that takes in the world, and is a perception that is founded upon and needs the world to support its transcendence.

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