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  • Colten White

Proust, Queer Theory, and Alternormativity

“Most of our faculties lie dormant because they can rely upon Habit, which knows what there is to be done and has no need of their services.” (Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time)

For Marcel Proust, habit is the force that conditions bodies to certain modes of life and prevents people from accessing meaningful existence. Proust’s novel In Search of Lost Time is a literary attempt to save life from the decay of habit. Whether through enjoying a moment of madeleines and tea or exploring queer desire, Proust’s endeavor is seemingly to find “nonnormative” ways of life (Sauvagnargues). In recent years Proust’s supposed project of nonnormativity has been taken up by many feminists and queer theorists, such as Lee Edelman, Jack Halberstram, and Eve Sedgwick. Many theoretical and political projects attempt to negate or entirely escape normativity. However, the argument posited by Lauren Berlant and Judith Butler that norms are synonymous with habits leads to the conclusion that norms are impossible to escape. Just as the rhetorical shift of using the prefix “alter,” such as “altermodernity” and “alterglobalization” used by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri in their Empire trilogy to reflect the impossibility of escaping modernity and globalization, the term “alternormativity” is necessary to avoid the problematic implications of terms such as nonnormativity. Given the centrality of normativity to queer theory, it is crucial to interrogate the conceptual underpinnings of contemporary theorizations of norms.

Queer theory’s nearly determinative position on normativity is one that negates what is deemed to be the norm. As pointed out by Robyn Wiegman and Elizabeth A. Wilson in their introduction to the differences journal issue on antinormativity, much of contemporary queer theory attempts to theorize modes of life that are nonnormative, antinormative, or counternormative. Wiegman and Wilson understand norms as systemic, which moves away from a conceptualization of normativity that codifies bodies as either normal or deviant according to a central characteristic or essence of a norm, such as the centrality of heterosexuality to heteronormativity. Theorizations of nonnormativity, antinormativity, and counternormativity attempt to find a way out of normativity by deviating from what is understood as the dominant “rule” that is enforced by an adherence to a norm. However, Wiegman and Wilson warn against this attempt as they write, “Norms generate not sovereignties, but overdetermined relationalities. So, to stand against one part of a normative system would be to stand, comically, against oneself” (17). From Wiegman and Wilson’s perspective, an oppositional position to norms merely reinforces the relationship between a norm and a deviation from that norm. On the implications of such a reinforcement they write:

It is this rich field of dependencies, differentiations, clashes, and engenderings that queer antinormative arguments misunderstand. And this misunderstanding has distinct consequences: it asphyxiates the relationality that is at the heart of normativity. Antinormativity is antinormative, then, in a way that it presumably does not intend: it turns systemic play (differentiations, comparisons, valuations, attenuations, skirmishes) into unforgiving rules and regulations and so converts the complexity of moving athwart into the much more anodyne notion of moving against. In ways the field has yet to address, queer antinormativity generates and protects the very propriety it claims to despise. (18)

Nonnormativity, antinormativity, and counternormativity therefore reinforce the systems of normativity theorists wish to disrupt. Wiegman and Wilson call for new theorizations of normativity that are not co-opted into an antagonism that perpetuates the material harm of norms, and does not seek to find an outside to normativity. However, there is currently no lexicon for a theory of normativity that adequately addresses these complaints.

A rhetorical shift from nonnormativity, antinormativity, and counternomativity to a lexicon of alternormativity avoids the problems encountered by theoretical and political projects that rely on an attempt to escape normativity. Alternormativity was coined in the 2009 article “Caring for Sex and the Power of Attentive Action” by Davina Cooper. However, Cooper’s usage of the term is centered in a plea to create diagonal lines that do not fall into counterhegemonic attitudes. In defining this term, she writes, “I want to consider care as a modality of power that builds, sustains, and, on occasion, challenges 'alternormativities'—a term I use for organized social practices that neither replicate nor straightforwardly reverse hegemonic relations” (105). Cooper’s argument does not necessarily reject terms such as nonnormativity, and so fails to fully overcome the problems outlined by Wiegman and Wilson. By rhetorically shifting to alternormativity and rejecting terms such as nonnormativity, one can begin to construct frameworks and produce political projects that do not fail due to an attempt to escape norms.

Before concluding that normativity cannot be escaped, an understanding of the structural foundation of normativity needs to be established. Normativity is based in habit insofar as it is produced through a body’s repetition of action. Lauren Berlant describes this in Cruel Optimism:

The ordinary is, after all, a porous zone that absorbs lots of incoherence and contradiction, and people make their ways through it at once tipped over awkwardly, half-conscious, and confident about common sense. Laws, norms, and events shape imaginaries, but in the middle of the reproduction of life people make up modes of being and responding to the world that altogether constitute what gets called “visceral response” and intuitive intelligence. (53)

The reproduction of life necessarily entails the reproduction of the acts that constitute such a life. The fabric of the everyday is where the foundation for normativity takes hold. Actions become habitual and ordinary through their repetition, and this ultimately culminates in the normative life that is difficult to deviate from. Berlant goes on to reference Althusser’s conceptualization of interpellation as it applies to normativity. While the officer’s “Hey you!” is not materially incorporated into the normative reproduction of life, it accurately portrays the attachments to norms. The repetition of actions that constitute habit and conventional life interpellate those whose bodies form attachments and fall into line with norms during everyday life. People are called forth into the dominant norm. As Berlant puts it, “To belong to the normal world is to misrecognize only certain modes of intelligibility as expressing one’s true self” (125). Dominant norms interpellate one into the habits that constitute modes of life deemed to be the acceptable repetitions of action, and in doing so it homogenizes modes of life.

Repetition plays into the process of normalization through the acquisition of an orientation. Sara Ahmed comments on orientation as she writes, “Our body takes the shape of this repetition; we get stuck in certain alignments as an effect of this work. […] The work of repetition is not neutral work; it orients the body in some ways rather than others” (Ahmed “Queer Phenomenology” 57). She describes the lines of normativity on which one’s body is directed as an orientation. On the normative implications of orientation, she writes, “Lines are both created by being followed and are followed by being created. The lines that direct us, as lines of thought as well as lines of motion, are in this way performative: they depend on the repetition of norms and conventions, of routes and paths taken, but they are also created as an effect of this repetition” (Ahmed “Queer Phenomenology” 16). This cycle of orientation towards the normative is what makes deviant lines often difficult to produce. Other orientations are possible, but the dominant modes of life marginalize their existence. Following other orientations is deviancy, which is understood by Ahmed to be synonymous with queerness. These queer orientations are lines of flight that produce alternative modes of life (Deleuze and Guattari 3). Queer entities stand out, as Ahmed puts it, “The queer subject within straight culture hence deviates and is made socially present as a deviant” (Ahmed “Queer Phenomenology” 21). Ahmed’s work also points to how queerness as deviancy places deviant entities outside the possibility of the “good life.” Normativity is tied with happiness, and queerness is inextricably linked with unhappiness, despite the fact that some queer life may manage to locate an alternative method of achieving some kind of “happy” life. She explores this when writing, “To be happily queer can also recognize that unhappiness; indeed to be happily queer can be to recognize the unhappiness that is concealed by the promotion of happy normativity” (Ahmed “The Promise of Happiness” 117). Normativity operates through interpellation toward an ideal orientation, and deviancy from that orientation is codified as queerness.

After theorizing normativity as habit, it becomes important to conceptualize how exactly deviancy can function. There are more nuanced ways of explaining the notion of deviancy than simply asserting it as an alternative orientation without any guidance. Deviancy is established through regimes of intelligibility that map identity onto bodies. One can think of regimes of intelligibility as a grid that creates a field surrounding the system of normativity. On this grid is the topography of identitarianism. As theorist Jasbir Puar writes, “We can think of (sexual) identity, and our attachments to identity, as a process involving an intensification of habituation. That is to say, identity is the intensification of bodily habit, a ‘returning forward’ of the body’s quotidian affective sensorial rhythms and vibrations to a disciplinary model of the subject […]” (Puar “Homonationalism as Assemblage" 41). Bodies fall somewhere on this grid according to their intelligible identities. If a body is codified as queer, whether through sexuality, gender, race, or any other category of identification, they are rendered deviant. As Jasbir Puar writes in her book Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times:

In either case, the particulars of human materiality that is otherwise accorded as a right intrinsic to human intelligibility are disallowed. Identity is foundational to the control of population through state racism and the division of bodies; simultaneously, identity markers are stripped as the particulars—Afghani, Pakistani, Iraqi, Sunni, Shi’ite, Arab, Palestinian, African, and so on—are subsumed in the designation “terrorist detainees.” (158-59)

Regimes of intelligibility are not disinterested, but rather exist through power relations that materialize through the map that identity provides for the body. Puar takes a firm stance against the notion of identity due to its role in constructing regimes of intelligibility that allow bodies to be codified as queer in the first place. On the rejection of notions of identity, she writes, “We can debate the pros and cons of instrumentalisation of sexual identity by human rights frames, but we cannot elide what I would argue is the crux of the problem: the insistence of or default to the notion of identity itself” (Puar “Homonationalism as Assemblage” 25). Utilizing regimes of intelligibility to map identities onto bodies provides a useful conceptualization of how exactly deviancy from normativity takes shape.

Judith Butler suggests projects that attempt to escape norms cannot be actualized because the force of normativity acts on subjects before any action is produced. Describing a norm she writes, “A norm may be said to precede us, to circulate in the world before it touches upon us” (Butler 5). The grid that comprises regimes of intelligibility is imposed on the social fabric before individuation occurs. Whether an action follows a line of orientation through a system of normativity or attempts to resist is not of consequence, because it acts while within the coercive reach of normativity. Butler draws on Foucault to highlight the coercive nature of power inherent to normativity when she writes, “In a theoretical vein, we can, following a general Foucaultian line, simply state that the subject is produced through norms or by discourse more generally” (Butler 5). Interconnected and stratified lines of identification produce affective relations as one orientation affects another. Butler’s reading of Foucault applied to normativity allows for a framework that describes the production of dominant modes of life. This leads to the crux of the argument: even when actions resist dominant norms, the body of a subject cannot escape normativity. Butler makes this explicit when she writes, “Of course, it is possible to break with certain norms as they exercise the power to craft us, but that can happen only to be the intervention of countervailing norms” (Butler 9). The inevitability of norms has clear implications for the terminology used to describe normativity and resistance to it. Nonnormativity, antinormativity, and counternormativity become nonsensical while using Butler’s theorization of normativity. One cannot be nonnormative since the repetition of actions that are considered “nonnormative” still produce a norm. New terminology must be utilized to account for this understanding of normativity and the regimes of intelligibility that enforce it.

Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri establish a political lexicon in their Empire trilogy that has the potential to be adjusted for a new terminology of normativity. Their diagnosis of problems concerning the use of antimodernity is applicable to normativity when they write, “In affect, just as modernity can never extricate itself from the relationship with antimodernity, so too antimodernity is finally bound up with modernity. This is also a general limitation of the concept and practices of resistance: they risk getting stuck in an oppositional stance” (Commonwealth 102). Hardt and Negri appropriated this terminology from protestors of globalization who were codified as “antiglobalization,” but termed “alterglobalization” as a term to more accurately reflect their political viewpoint. On the effectiveness of this terminology Hardt and Negri write, “The terminological shift suggests a diagonal line that escapes the confining play of opposites—globalization and antiglobalization—and shifts the emphasis from resistance to alternatives” (Commonwealth 102). The concepts that are signified by such a shift are a decisive break with the prevailing power relations. In reference to normativity this would mean that alternormativity does not merely seek to produce another interpellating ideal. Rather, alternormativity is a break from the concept of habits creating an ideal at all, and moves past notions of opposition that are central to terms such as nonnormativity, antinormativity, and counternormativity. Hardt and Negri expand on their theorization of the nature of an “alternative” in their book Declaration, “An alternative is not an action, a proposition, or a discourse that is simply opposed to the program of power, but rather it is a new dispositif that is based in a radically asymmetrical standpoint. This standpoint is elsewhere even when it shares the same space” (Declaration 54). Alternormativity creates a new line of flight that does not fall into the same trap of opposition as other terms in the commonly used lexicon of normativity.

Returning to Proust, to find lost time is not to break from habit, but rather to produce an alternative habit, and therefore a new mode of life. Proustian moments are alternormative insofar as they break from dominant norms, and in doing so produce lines of flight that are not interpellated to any systemic ideal. Contemporary queer theory will hopefully break from the norm of seeking to escape normativity, and therefore produce an alternormative queer theory that does not lead to failed political projects by attempting to escape normativity.

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Works Cited

Ahmed, Sara. Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others. Durham: Duke UP, 2006.


---. The Promise of Happiness. Durham: Duke UP, 2010. Print.

Berlant, Lauren. Cruel Optimism. Durham: Duke UP, 2011. Print.

Butler, Judith. Senses of the Subject. New York, NY: Fordham U, 2015. Print.

Cooper, Davina. "Caring for Sex and the Power of Attentive Action: Governance, Drama, and

Conflict in Building a Queer Feminist Bathhouse." Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 35.1 (2009): 105-130. Web.

Deleuze, Gilles, and Félix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia.

Minneapolis: U of Minnesota, 1987. Print.

Hardt, Michael, and Antonio Negri. Commonwealth. Cambridge, MA: Belknap of Harvard UP,

2009. Print.

---. Declaration. New York: Argo Navis Author Services, 2012.


Puar, Jasbir K. "Homonationalism As Assemblage: Viral Travels, Affective Sexualities." Jindal

Global Law Review 4.2 (2013): 23-43. Web.

---. Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer times. Durham: Duke UP,

2007. Print.

Sauvagnargues, Anne. Deleuze and Art. Trans. Samantha Bankston. New York: Bloomsbury,

2013. Print.

Wiegman, Robyn, and Elizabeth A. Wilson. "Introduction: Antinormativity’s Queer

Conventions." Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 26.1 (2015): 1-25. Web.

#coltenwhite #queer #heteronormativity

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