Blogs > Cliopatria > Heteronormativity in Action

Aug 13, 2004 2:39 pm

Heteronormativity in Action

Even some of my most theory-minded students roll their eyes a little at that word, heteronormativity . It isn’t an elegant term, I’d agree. But the concept is an important and legitimately useful one, I think. It is essentially a specific form of what Antonio Gramsci thought of as ideologically-interested “common sense”, a perspectival unconscious that influences everything we think and say but that we’re scarcely aware of. I would depart from Gramsci in that I think much of this common sense is made or manipulated not so much to consciously serve the interests of any social group but is instead like the accumulation of geological layers at the bottom of an ocean bed. It’s what history becomes as it decomposes. It’s the way the past resides in our minds, as a hodgepodge and contradictory set of assumptions about what is normal.

Scholars who study race have made note of the way that whiteness gradually became the unreferenced, invisible norm from which blackness or Asianness or any other racialized identity was imagined as different. A similar history applies with sexuality and gender—and it is that to which the term heternormativity refers.

It’s hard to deny that something like that exists in the United States in the wake of New Jersey governor’s James McGreevy’s resignation yesterday. It’s a phenomenon that stands outside of whether one approves of homosexuality or not: it has to do with how we instantly frame and understand particular events.

The story as it played out last night was that the governor had come out of the closet, and was resigning because of it. Even his opponents were shocked, stunned, confused, and in some cases, respecting his “courage”. This has a bit to do with how McGreevy himself framed his resignation in his speech, but I think it’s the reaction most people probably had in some measure on hearing the news, a kind of shocked double-take mixed with some sympathy for him.

Now imagine this instead: a governor already under fire for dubious political practices and hints of corruption resigning because it was revealed that he had an extramarital affair with a woman and had placed that woman—without qualifications—in a high-paying job within his administration. We’d all yawn, more or less. Sure, there would be coverage, and sure, there would be political fallout. But as a story, it would also have something of a dog bites man character to it. We expect it, we’ve seen it before in American politics.

And yet, that’s McGreevy’s story, too. His sexual orientation is beside the point: it’s not why he had to resign. He had to resign because he was already skirting the edge of unethical patronage practices and with the placement of his lover in a job in his administration had gone right off the edge. But it takes effort, even for those who follow New Jersey politics closely, to move their minds onto that track, to recognize the actual banality of the story in its details. That’s the subtle difference that accumulated histories of identity make: they lead us to misrecognize something that’s as plain as day.

Would it be progress if we got to the point where a gay man doing something unethical was just another humdrum case of corruption in politics? Yeah, at least from where I’m sitting, it would be.

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Ralph E. Luker - 8/14/2004

Grant, You don't _know_ that Gramscian terms can't help us get at the truth because you don't know anything about Gramsci and there's not much chance that you will because you know _a priori_ that any writer who works in a Marxian tradition must by reason of that "fact" be wrong. So, instead of dealing with what Burke actually says here, you dismiss it as obviously wrong and defer us from a disciple of Marx to a disciple of Rand! There's not much chance of an intelligent conversation here if you've already apprehended the TRUTH in some alternative Randian universe.

Grant W Jones - 8/14/2004

Anyone interested in Prof. George Reisman's essay on the topic of race and culture can go to the website:

then click "essays" for the one tited "Education and the Racist Road to Barbarism."

Grant W Jones - 8/14/2004

Whatever the truth about human sexual norms, it will not be discovered by the use of Marxist jargon.

As to loathsome racial "identity politics" it has been answered by scholars much abler than myself:

A few months back Burke claimed that the the United States, circa 2004, had become the Weimar Republic. With regard to Identity Politics in the academy he may have me. Doctors of philosophy who write of "whiteness, "blackness" and "Asianness" and who apparently view culture as a "superstructure" of race, are reminiscent of a another culture dominated by the likes of H.S. Chamberlain and Count Gobineau.

Timothy James Burke - 8/13/2004

Oh, I think we have no choice but to "name the beast", as it were, and admit that yes, our first reactions to this story were "Wow, he's gay". I think in that respect that "normativities" aren't a thing we choose to do. That's one of the problems with conventional political correctness, that they imply that we choose and should be judged by our choice. It's in our heads to think differently about a politician who is corrupt AND gay and a politician who is just corrupt, to think differently about a man who has an affair with a woman and puts her in a patronage job and a man who has an affair with a man.

No sin on our part that we think such, just the aftereffect of a complex history. But whatever it takes in the subtle machinations of everyday life to change the history that produces that double vision, I think are worth doing. Because it seems to me that standing aside from my own first reaction, the only real story here that *ought* to matter is "corrupt politician doing a corrupt thing".

Ralph E. Luker - 8/13/2004

I _think_ that I agree with what you've said here and I _know_ that I'm more at ease in agreement with Tim Burke than in disagreement, but I still have questions: does naming the beast itself delegitimize it? and, if you do so successfully, does it suggest that all normativities are illegitimate? or do you put us on a "slippery slope"? should some normativities be preserved? are there some normativities which serve purposes other than undergirding the power of privileged elites? how do you distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate normativities?