Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Michael Warner--The Trouble with Normal: Sex, Politics, and the Ethics of Queer Life (1999)

Warner’s book is particularly notable to read from the vantage point of 2012, after DOMA has been repealed, marriage equality has been achieved in some states, and the President has expressed his own support for marriage equality.  In his larger analysis of the push for marriage equality for same-sex couples, Warner argues that “this strategy is a mistake and that it represents a widespread loss of vision in the movement” (vii).  His primary focus is on the lack of sexual autonomy allowed in America: “because sex is an occasion for losing control, for merging one’s consciousness with the lower orders of animal desire and sensation, for raw confrontations of power and demand, it fills people with aversion and shame” (2).
Warner describes those who do not fit into accepted paradigms of sexual norms as being “rendered inarticulate” (3), and that the “politics of shame” leads to the “unthinkability of…desire” (7), an observation which echoes Butler’s discussion of those with unintelligible identities.  Warner is quite critical of movements in support of gay marriage, which Warner sees as not only selling out the queer community, but undermining its own position by ignoring its history and trying to assimilate into the straight community: “Instead of broadening its campaign against sexual stigma beyond sexual orientation, as I think it should, it has increasingly narrowed its scope to those issues of sexual orientation that have least to do with sex” (25).  Throughout this work, Warner evokes that of Erving Goffman’s work on stigma (which I plan to read soon), drawing parallels between the difference between shame and stigma and that between sin and identity—stigma being a physical mark, while sin is more ephemeral (perverse acts versus perversion) (28-29).
Warner gives extended consideration to the very idea of marriage, how it elevates certain relationships above others, bestowing privileges upon some and not others.  It also provides regulation over sex, as many who have argued for gay marriage (Andrew Sullivan draws quite  a bit of Warner’s ire) have made the case that legalizing gay marriage will lead to more monogamy among gay people, taming the gay community.  Warner does not villainize those who support gay marriage, however, noting that the “tendency to reproduce the hierarchy of shame, I believe, results from the structuring conditions of gay and lesbian politics, and not from the bad intentions of the people who devote their lives to activism within the movement” (49).  For my own project, I’m really starting to think about not only the idea of intelligibility in general (which I think is an important concept), but the question (and stakes) of the marriage economy, and who is eligible for it.  Ugly women are marked—stigmatized—as uneligible for marriage (Lily Daw first comes to mind).  In the same way that Warner argues the queer community should question the very foundations of marriage itself, rather than try to assimilate into it—such as those who pursue marriage for health benefits, childcare, and other current marks of privilege—and perhaps continue to pose a threat to the system, rather than try to assimilate into it.  Warner also echoes Joyce Carol Oates’s them to me in his discussion of marriage and the benefits of privilege, especially as he quotes Claudia Card: “Yet if marrying became an option that would legitimate behavior otherwise illegitimate and make available to us social securities that will not doubt become even more important to us as we age, we and many others like us might be pushed into marriage.  Marrying under such conditions is not a totally free choice” (107)[1] .  I think I’d like think more about ugliness as being a mark of unintelligibility—perhaps appearance as articulation?  Beauty as a necessary component of interpellation?

[1] Quoting “Claudia Card, “Against Marriage and Motherhood,” Hypatia 11.3 (Summer 1996): 1-23, p. 7.


  1. Hi, I just found your blog when googling about Elizabeth Grosz. I am currently studying for my PhD exams in Literature and we have a lot of similar texts. I'm really enjoying reading through your notes! I've kept a weird tumblr collection of ideas and quotes at

    Good luck & happy reading!

  2. Thanks! I like your tumblr quite a bit. I get my exam questions August 13-soon! Good luck with your work!

  3. Hello! I appreciate your in-depth analysis of Warner very much - I find he is a complex text! I look forward to reading more of your posts.