The transparent trouble of arguing heteronormativity in spacing*

From a seminar discussion on Berlant and Warner in Will Straw’s “COMS675: Media & Urban Life”, fall 2010

From a Blackboard graduate seminar discussion on: Berlant, Lauren and Michael Warner. 1998. Sex in public. Critical Inquiry, 24(2), winter: 547–66.


Berlant and Warner present an ambitious argument linking parameters of public space — particularly in the urban spacing context — with the heteronormativity inherent to North American (and particularly American) social systems.

This is, the authors conjecture, to say that omnipresent artefacts of social institutions, urban geographies, body geographies, economic geographies, and political geographies, inter alia, are shaped by a universal, structuralist precept that those conventions reify the “legitimacy” of a heterosexual socio-cultural structure in which we have all been indoctrinated from pre-memory (that is, in our Westernized civilization). Berlant and Warner (the latter responsible for originally introducing this concept of “heteronormativity”) ascribe the administrative act by then-mayor of New York, Rudolph Giuliani, to “zon[ing] out” of proscribed activities such as the public expression of sexuality as a heteronormative attack on queer culture (which, in this paradigm, is relegated to the “Other” — the stigmatized, the perverse, and thus the object of criminality and social deviance).

While administrative and political instruments certainly engineer society in the social mould of its creators — and this must certainly not be dismissed — the problem with the authors’ contextualization of a heteronormative oppression on other transitive activities which they contend are public (such as public sex) is that it is spoken from a particular, privileged placement of cisnormativity (that is, the paradigm in which there are people who have cissexual bodies and there are people who have transsexual bodies — all precluding division and productions of sexuality and articulations of performative behaviour ascribed to sex). This argument of a heteronormative oppression upon any social (including socio-geographic) systems specifically excluded by that paradigm is fatally flawed by ignoring an even more fundamental aspect of self, of social systems, and of political structures: that social orders of sex preclude even that of sexuality.

To stop only at heteronormativity is to dismiss or even ignore the self-policing within queer spaces wherein the normalized order is predicated on inherent power relations of certain “flavours” of queer sexualities over the marginalized populations in which their failure of adherence to a cisnormative structure of compliance relegates them to a kind of “no space” — thus rendering them as “actively invisible” (active, because it actively ignores that which is known, but is considered “out of mind, out of sight”). The authors directed considerable attention toward the impact of Giuliani’s “red light district” zoning policy and its negative impact on gay (typically male) sexuality in Greenwich Village and Christopher Street to the benefit of heteronormative society, but they entirely overlook (or just conveniently ignore) the margins policed by a homonormative/cisnormative hegemony — wherein the privileged sex is male (and cissexual); privileged activities favour a behavioural articulation of masculinity (and masculine interpretations of other gendered behaviour); and the rest are simply pushed out to the docks on the Lower West End and Meat Packing districts where, in 1998, cisgender populations chose to avoid wholesale, or only appear there at the peril of their own normative public placement within the cisnormative social fabric to which they are privileged a place of belonging.

In other words, I would love to write a paper someday which draws critical scrutiny upon the gaping holes in the authors’ key argument of a heteronormative hegemony without their even stopping to consider an even wider normativity which implicated and unified both heterosexuality and homosexuality under the shared reification of cisnormativity — that is, a normative cissexuality. They exhibit blindness to their own normativity and the privileges ascribed thereto, and this is something I found problematic enough back in 2008 to write a paper on it — unpublished as it was. [No, I’m not about to explain “cisnormativity” beyond noting that it concerns the essentialist notion and legitimization of an innate, external physical sex that can in no way be informed by one’s internal sex or the social articulation of gender as a language. In other words, transsexuality vs. cissexuality. It’s the kind of discourse in which one might expect further exploration from Susan Stryker or Viviane Namaste at Concordia University.]


* somewhere in all of that butchering of a title, due credit goes to Bruce Cockburn.

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