Michael Warner and Communication Studies
Summary and Keywords
Michael Warner is the Seymour H. Knox Professor of English and American Studies at Yale University, and his career has followed an interesting trajectory, beginning with the study of print and its importance to the emerging American nation and extending into queer theory and contemporary politics. There is an important line of thought that connects three of Michael Warner’s books: The Letters of the Republic (1990), Publics and Counterpublics (2002), and The Trouble with Normal (1999). In The Letters of the Republic, Warner begins to outline the way in which publics emerge and are discursively produced. In Publics and Counterpublics, he more thoroughly engages both the production of normative publics and the resistant communities of counterpublics, the latter of which he often illustrates with examples drawn from queer communities. Finally, in The Trouble with Normal, Warner challenges the efforts of gay and lesbian rights advocates to accommodate and assimilate to heteronormative standards in an effort to join the public constituted by the dominant heterosexual society. As he notes, these efforts effectively undermine the transformative qualities that queerness can bring to a society in refiguring the way sex and relationships are regarded. In effect, The Trouble with Normal seems to be a queer, counterpublic polemic, one that mirrors (in purpose, if not in content) the emerging revolutionary discourse in 18th-century America. In addition, Warner provides some valuable perspectives on the development of public discourse in American, and makes several observations that pre-date, yet bring into sharp relief, some of the issues and concerns that have been raised about social media.
Michael Warner has served on the faculty at Yale University since 2007. Prior to joining the Yale faculty, Warner served on the faculty at Rutgers University and Northwestern University. He received his doctorate from Johns Hopkins University in 1986, and he holds master’s degrees from Johns Hopkins University and the University of Wisconsin–Madison. He completed his undergraduate work at Oral Roberts University, where he received a bachelor’s degree. Anyone familiar with Warner’s work might be a bit surprised to learn of his undergraduate institution, given its religious affiliation with the controversial televangelist for whom the institution is named.
Equally surprising is a scholar whose oeuvre extends from colonial American public discourse to contemporary queer theory. There is, however, a heuristic line that connects these two seemingly disparate subjects, and our intention here is to draw that line through three of Warner’s most prominent works. We begin with The Letters of the Republic, in which Warner (1990) traces the link between the development of print technology and the development of an 18th-century political consciousness. We then move to Publics and Counterpublics (Warner, 2002) in which Warner develops the concept of counterpublics both as a broad theoretical concept and as a narrower concept that relates to the formation of identity within queer communities.1 Finally, we consider The Trouble with Normal, in which Warner (1999) critically examines what he sees as an underlying motive beneath the movement toward gay marriage an attempt to desexualize queer identities in a way that appeases heteronormative society and accommodates the economic exigencies of the mass media industries.
The Letters of the Republic
In his first book Warner locates the rise of political consciousness in colonial America with the expansion and deployment of print technology. Warner treats the rise of print not just as an important technological development but also as an important political and politicizing force. Warner outlines a variety of changes that were facilitated by the emergence of the print medium, many having to do with the development of the then-revolutionary idea that leaders in power could and should be held accountable. Warner outlines the different trajectories of print’s development, with a particular focus on geography. He examines the early development of the print industry in the colonies to highlight the development of a public sphere.
Warner begins by noting that print was developing as a new technology at around the same time as the American colonies began contemplating some kind of independence from England. As such, Warner sees print not as a technological development separated from rhetoric, subjectivity, and culture (which, as he notes, tends to be the way scholars approach print) but as an important force in shaping political ideas in America. The tensions between colonists and the crown, combined with early conceptions of democratization of media, positioned print in colonial America as a technology that could hold political leaders accountable and increase political consciousness among the public.
Warner begins by discussing a series of anonymous essays concerning the political and legal history of the West. These essays, published in 1765 and ultimately attributed to John Adams, argue that the history of America is bound up in the historical development of letters, words, and literature. The essays outlined feudal society’s fear of knowledge and learning (termed the hegemony of letters by Warner), the spread of knowledge in Europe, and the importance of letters and learning for the Puritan settlers. As such, the goal of Adams’ particular conception of early American history, at least in Warner’s view, becomes independence from perceived tyranny. Adams’ essays illustrated how letters allowed for the development of a liberated American public that corrects the repressed feudal conception of the public, hence Warner’s observation about the importance of their publication to the emergence of American Republicanism.
Warner is also sensitive to differences in geography and class as factors that complicate understanding print’s role in structuring republicanism. For example, in the northern New England areas, printers and readers were more numerous than in the South, and so books were seen as more unique and exotic in this region. If Northerners used printed material to exchange information more freely, the South saw print material as expensive products limited to the wealthy. As such, printing begins with distinct ideas about the value of letters drawn along various social lines, with geography being the most stark. To acknowledge differences based in geography proves that the nature of print itself is insufficient to account for the medium’s development and influence; rather, cultural, social, and political factors implicate its distribution and reception.
Warner then moves on to outline the development of a public sphere in the burgeoning American republic. He notes that, for early colonists, expressly political publications were scarce two decades into the 18th century. In 1725, however, the Maryland assembly decided to print its proceedings. This early circulation of political discourse among the public ushered in a new relationship between printing and the public. The publisher of the proceedings, William Parks, also played a more direct role in the formation of a print public sphere when he published a pamphlet titled “A Letter From a Freeholder,” which discussed various elements surrounding printed public discourse and which developed the argument that every man (we choose our words carefully here) should publish. As such, the pamphlet links publishing with being a good citizen, legitimizes print within the public sphere, and frames print and publication as a new format by which opinions can be exchanged.
Warner also outlines how “A Letter From a Freeholder” sets up a distinction between public discourse and private correspondence, an important move in distinguishing publication from more personal forms of written communication (such as letters). Chief among those distinctions is that an exchange between two people is encountered not as a private matter but as a public one. The public can mediate the discourse and that public can encompass an unknowable number of members.
The pamphlet also develops two important concepts that Warner terms the principle of supervision and the principle of negativity. Through print, the public can supervise and, if necessary, discipline public officials by learning what public officials are doing, critiquing them, and even promoting their removal from office. The principle of supervision introduces the concept of authority that is held accountable. But legislators can also use print to legitimate their work as representative of the public, so print becomes a location of public debate and conflict. Nevertheless, out of this published discourse emerges a public, and as Warner notes, this public is conceptualized as a virtue—with an amorphous group that prioritizes the greater good over individual interests. While this view of the public may seem naïve and quaint, it was not long ago that online communications was regarded with similar virtue (Lévy, 1997). In the age of Reddit and Twitter, the virtues of an open online public discourse seem about as remote as the practices of printing in colonial America.
Warner also deals with another form of virtue through his conception of the principle of negativity. In many ways, the principle of negativity is conceived of by Warner as a more refined rhetoric of depersonalization where the author seeks abstraction and self-negation. He cites the use of third person by an author as an acute example of the strategy. But whatever particular form negation may take, Warner notes that such negation in the public sphere can be an effective discursive articulation of virtue, particularly as it relates to equating disinterest or detachment with a concern for the public good over personal gain.
With these images of the public sphere in mind, Warner then discusses some important moments in the development of the public sphere. For example, he identifies the use of pamphlets in the Boston Currency Crisis as an important moment at which printed discourses were deployed to challenge imperial policies. Another important moment in the transition from speech to print as a mode of public discourse is the emergence of libel as a legal concept. Warner discusses the case of John Peter Zenger, a printer whose trial revolved around his paper’s criticisms of an imperial governor. The Zenger case established concepts related to a “free press” as virtuous and made truth a factor in libel law.
With various norms of publicity being established and developed, Warner notes that legislators began to present themselves as agents of the public, rather than as elite governing individuals. This led to a redefinition of what legitimizes a political leader in the public sphere, and the idea of a community began to be supplemented by the understanding that the technology of print constituted an imaginary, rhetorically constructed community. Warner essentially argues that the ideology of the republic was also the ideology of print. This new form of discourse and the changes it brought about were not unchallenged, though, and Warner notes how the Stamp Act (with its impact on the cost of disseminating printed materials) was an attempt by the British government to curtail political printed discourse. By then, though, print had become a sufficiently civic endeavor and challenges to it were therefore seen as challenges to civil liberties.
The transformation of the public from a kind of collection of individuals to an imagined, constituted body necessitates a shift in how such concepts as rationality, objectivity, and the subject are articulated and managed in printed discourse. Warner uses the writings of Benjamin Franklin as a case study from which to examine these and other themes relevant to the formation of a public sphere through print. In Franklin, Warner finds a printer and author who treats print and life in equivalent terms. Franklin embodies the idea that to live is to be published. As such, Franklin emerges as something of a proto-postmodernist figure in this regard, through whom self-objectification, authorial design, exposure, and permanence all become relevant aspects of print culture.
For various reasons, some legal and some due to Franklin’s personality, ghostwriting became central to Franklin’s work. This move separates the person and the words written by the person. Two of Franklin’s pseudonymous personas, Poor Richard (of Poor Richard’s Almanac) and Silence Dogood, are discussed as examples of the rhetorical power of personas. Both provided Franklin with opportunities to develop arguments related to print culture and civic liberties within the burgeoning public sphere. In Poor Richard’s Almanac, Franklin discussed the connections between texts and ways of thinking, and the Richard character allows Franklin to discuss textuality as both a communicative form and a mechanical process. Silence Dogood, a female character, allows Franklin to deal more specifically with issues of gender within the context of print culture, as well as the flaws in elitist models of education, the role of reason in discourse, and the limits of religion as a source of political power.
In Franklin’s eyes, hiding his own identity prevented Dogood’s ideas from being tainted with any biases against Benjamin Franklin the person. As such, there is a tension between self-validation and self-repudiation at play in Franklin’s use of pseudonyms. Warner notes that the Dogood letters in particular became a source of a good deal of public conversation, with many suspecting some kind of authorial ruse. Franklin’s work, then, is an exercise in understanding how representation became an important aspect of the subject in print culture and how objectivity could be manipulated in various ways. For Warner, representation (and, of course, the accompanying politics) develops as a central tenet of print aesthetics and ideology through Franklin’s work.
Warner then turns his attention to one of the most prominent political documents in the history of America: the United Sates Constitution. Warner is interested in the cultural and social significance of the “writtenness” and “printedness” of the Constitution because he see these otherwise obvious and taken for granted characteristics of the Constitution as important elements in the development of the culture of printing. For Warner, the problem of the Constitution is not a legal or political one. Rather, he is interested in how the authority required for the paradoxical notion of “we the people” can be transmitted via a printed document. Without such an invocation, as Warner notes, the “people” do not exist. Conventions, such as the Constitutional Convention, were not sufficient, after all. This forum was seen as a subversion of law. As such, the written word provided a way to give original existence to its author. In Warner’s (1990) words, “the signature (on the document) invents the signatory” (p. 105). The writtenness of the Constitution, then, is conceived of by Warner as a kind of rhetorical retrocausality.
To print and distribute the Constitution, then, becomes first a way to reproduce it for both literal and symbolic approval. This printedness also provides the capacity for everyone who is a part of the symbolic articulation of “the people” to carry with them the “proof” of their symbolic existence. As Warner frames it, the printedness of the Constitution becomes something like a birth certificate, or, more dramatically, a kind of metaphoric pulse of a heartbeat for “the people.” Warner then moves on to a discussion of some particulars of the rhetorical construction of the Constitution. To sign off on the Constitution (literally or symbolically) is to consent to be governed, an act that Warner frames as comparable to the relationship between readership and authorship. Further, he points out that a written document has two hazards: legitimizing a government is left to only the literate (a very small class of people in the time period of the Constitution) and, through the permanence of writtenness, silence becomes legitimizing. Warner notes that the writers of the Constitution were quite concerned with the capacity for future generations to be burdened by, if not governed by, a document they had no hand in crafting. Had the Constitution been crafted and transmitted orally, it likely would have been altered through time in a “telephone game” style. But its printedness constructs a relationship between the reader and the text that is itself mediating and legitimizing.
At this point, it should be noted how the concerns about the permanence of the written Constitution have come to light in current political debate, particularly regarding lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) rights. Often the debate about these rights, as it exists in the United States, is between those who imagine that the Constitution is a living document (one that should be interpreted in contemporary contexts) and those who believe the Constitution should be read literally (Post & Siegel, 2006). Of course, those who seek a pure reading of the Constitution are often those that object to LGBT rights, or rights that are extended to other disadvantaged groups. Furthermore, the degree to which the document speaks for a “people” it identifies a public, so those who would deny rights based on strict reading of the Constitution are in effect limiting who belongs among that public. Although Warner does not elaborate this connection in this book, it becomes both implicit and explicit in his latter books.
Publics and Counterpublics
Although the old canard warns us against judging books by their covers, for Publics and Counterpublics, Warner invites us to do just that. The cover is a photograph of what appears to be women in various poses, holding cameras and taking pictures of each other. Within the first few pages of the book, Warner reveals that the cover photo is of a group of New Jersey drag queens who formed in the 1950s and 1960s. The photo was taken in a private home, and, as Warner observes, drag queens during this period stood in sharp contrast to public mores; they were, indeed, a counterpublic. Yet the act of taking a picture of drag queens taking pictures of each other reveals a tension: as Warner (2002) puts it “The private setting protects them from an environment of stigma, but clearly their aspiration is to a different kind of publicness” (p. 13).
Indeed, Warner makes no apologies for putting gender and sexuality at the center of his discussion of publics and counterpublics. For example, he begins the book with an anecdote about the Greek philosopher Diogenes and his proclivity for public masturbation as an act that challenged the division between the public and the private. In addition, he notes how ideas about public and private lives have historically been articulated in terms of gendered roles for men and women. And to the degree that accepted gender roles are often tied to accepted sexual acts, he observes how some public expressions of sexuality are more accepted than others. Generally speaking, Warner notes that same-sex expressions of sexuality are not as accepted in public as expressions of heterosexual sexuality, thus establishing sexuality as a particularly fruitful site for understanding the tensions between the public and the private.
Warner also lays the theoretical groundwork for the book by drawing on Habermas’ discussion of the public sphere, Kant’s distinction between public reason and private reason, and both feminist and queer theory. Further, Warner argues that the liberal tradition, with its focus on private liberty at the expense of state power, has often worked against the rights of women and queers. For Warner, the outcome of this socially organizing principle seems to be the entrenchment of public and private as distinct binaries. Contradictory, or contrary, relations between gender, politics, publicity, and privacy creates a situation whereby some publics can be defined by their tension with a larger public. Warner terms such a public as a counterpublic. Warner argues that this kind of public is aware of its alternative nature and of its discursive differences. A counterpublic, in Warner’s view, is fully aware of its subordinate status. The LGBT community serves as an example of a counterpublic for Warner, as it is a community that can mediate very private, intimate ideas about gender and sexuality. In other words, a counterpublic can make the private public or take the private into the public sphere. Warner notes that, rather than consciously reacting against dominant discourse and ideology, counterpublics are formed by a conflict with a prevailing cultural environment.
Warner then moves on to a more targeted exposition of what constitutes a public, noting both the obscurely taken for granted nature of the word and that distinctions are not always made between “the” public and “a” public. The relationship between “the” public and “a” public leads Warner to formulate a third kind of “public”—the kind of public that exists purely in relation to texts and their circulation.
Taking these defining elements and examples into account, Warner describes several characteristics of a public. First, a public is self-organized. A public exists as an end for which some discourse is created (such as books, websites, television shows, etc.). It functions somewhat like an audience in this regard except it is called into existence by being addressed. A speaker would not speak if it were not for a public. But how does the public exist before being addressed? In this regard, the reflexive nature of a public is highlighted. Next, Warner notes that a public is a relation among strangers, and discourse is produced for strangers in the case of publics. This is distinct from other types of discourse (such as a letter, perhaps) that are addressed to someone previously known by the author or writer. Warner notes that such inflections of strangerhood are essential to many common ways of being. An imaginary socialness leads to a different kind of stranger sociability. Another important element of a public involves the nature of public speech. Warner notes that public speech is both personal and impersonal. It is addressed to each of “us” individually but more specifically to the “us” that was a stranger prior to the address. To clarify some elements of how being personal and impersonal impacts a public, Warner compares public address to other genres that, as he sees it, do not highlight audience reflexivity of circulation.
A public is also constituted through mere attention. This is a particularly useful element of a public in contemporary discourse because, in an era of message overload, we give cues to which messages we are a “public” for (perhaps rather than simply an audience for) by those we stop and give attention to. A public is also the social space created by the reflexive circulation of discourse. Drawing on some examples from his earlier work on the Republic and the era of print, Warner notes that circulation among strangers forms a social process that, in turn, forms a public and forms expectations of timeliness, rhythm, and routine to the circulation of discourse. A public also acts historically according to the temporality of their circulation.2 This process allows a public to be not only social but also active and, in some cases, to take action. So, through the temporal nature of discourse, a public can be imbued with particular energies. Finally, a public is poetic world-making, according to Warner. This idea extends the social nature of particular publics and their active potential in a way that frames a public as a particular kind of social entity with particular values.
For example, he discusses the nature of intellectual publics, and more particularly those with a specific focus on the relationship between social theory and popular criticism. For Warner, writing that is not readily geared toward a popular sense of an audience can be seen as potentially transformative, in that it has the capacity to call its audience into being. He discusses the claim that academic writing is too difficult, too specialized, or too opaque to be of any usefulness to a more general audience. Warner attacks what he see as a variety of hypocrisies, inconsistencies, and taken for granted assumptions tied up in such critiques of academic writing, particularly academic writing that has a left-leaning agenda. For Warner, the idea of “common sense” is a means of stacking the deck against newer, potentially more radical approaches to social theory. He discusses a variety of scholars and cultural critics who have either been criticized for dense, inaccessible writing or who have leveled such criticisms. Miller, Butler, Adorno, and Thoreau are among the examples Warner uses to highlight the difficulty in constructing an intellectual public.
Warner sees value in the defamiliarizing potential of academic language, though he also wonders if that very process of using language for defamiliarization has itself become too familiar a trope for scholars. Still, style is about membership and, to that end, academic style can be useful for constructing an intellectual public. Circulation is also an important part of constructing a public, and Warner notes how academic presses have a relatively limited reach and how the circulation of academic discourse within intellectual publics is also relatively limited. For Warner, all these issues are linked by their role in constituting an intellectual public among the academic left.
In contrast to these more limited publics are the mass public and the mass subject. Noting that there has always been somewhat of a mediation between public and persons (at least since the dawn of print and the Republic), Warner examines contemporary trends in mass publicity as the latest step in an evolution. Historically, publicity has been viewed suspiciously for its potential to distort or alienate individuals and to chip away at self-unity as a prized value. In addition, the contemporary role of the body in constructing mass subjects is more distinct since visual media put the body on display in ways traditional, older print media did not. So the concept of the public sphere is tied up in numerous forms of publicity and offers an ever-increasing array of images of the body and of persons. And these bodies are displayed for a variety of purposes, some mundane and others potentially problematic. Indeed, the public sphere within a culture so reliant on visual media becomes focused intensely on seeing, publicizing, and speculating upon bodies.
Consumption is also an important part of mass publics and mass subjects. Indeed, the logic of consumption has run rampant, with so many public images, as well as so many ideas about ideology and identity, coded through the language of advertising, branding, or other components of consumption. For Warner, these and other characteristics of contemporary mass culture demonstrate how deeply publicity informs subjectivity. But consumption is not necessarily just a corrupting influence on the public sphere for Warner, but rather consumption can sustain a counterpublicity and highlight its differences from more general kinds of publicity.
Warner also discusses the ways sex is mediated by publics in a chapter co-authored with Lauren Berlant. The chapter seeks to highlight potential new conceptions of identity, publics, and culture that can exist if heterosexuality is dislodged as a privileged form of sexual culture. They outline the concept of heteronormativity and demonstrate various fallacies in legal, social, or mass-mediated efforts to uphold or protect heterosexual culture in the name of supposed decency or protecting children from sexual predators or sexualized content. From zoning laws that impact the gay community, to a magazine cover that casts diversity as an outcome of changes in procreation models, to media pundits who seek to defend heterosexuality, Warner and Berlant demonstrate how social life and social values function as agents of heterosexuality. The result, according to the authors, is a sometimes explicit, and other times implicit, marginalization of queer culture. This process, the authors argue, leads to isolation and diminished expectations for queer life and less capacity for queer communities or publics.
The potential corrective, in Warner and Berlant’s view, is the formation of queer counterpublics. The authors note how queer culture often revolves around a sexual culture that is not steeped in privacy, domesticity, or a reproductive agenda, three key components of heterosexual culture. A queer counterpublic, then, is perhaps “counter” in the more literal sense of the terms as it specifically forms around different organizing assumptions and goals. A queer counterpublic is framed as one that is public and transformative. Indeed, a queer counterpublic relies heavily on counterintimacies within a public context. The queer agenda is cast as a project that supports a public (rather than private) approach to sex, the body, and the person that is sustained through collective activity. And while the chapter focuses on very contemporary examples and themes, it further illuminates the tensions between the public and the private and what happens when either is prioritized in the construction of publics, tensions that began to emerge at least as far back as the dawn of the print medium.
Warner expands the analysis of queer culture and queer counterpublics with a discussion of the broader relationship between queerness and American culture. Warner argues that queer politics can be seen as distinct from gay and lesbian politics or ideologies. For Warner, queer politics eschew some important discursive styles that otherwise dominate the public sphere and public discourse such as patient, polite, or rational modes of communication. As such, Warner is concerned not only with the relationship of queer counterpublics to broader culture but also with its relationship to gay and lesbian publics.
Indeed, Warner’s general thesis that counterpublics form in contrast to other publics is given a more targeted and focused articulation with the observation that queer counterpublics differ significantly from gay and lesbian counterpublics. Warner argues that gay and lesbian discourse is more concerned with assimilation than queer discourse. The relationship both groups have with the state is also relevant here for Warner. Certainly, the relationship between national identity, politics, and ideology and all forms of nonheterosexual discourse is not historically a smooth one. But, for Warner, queer counterculture is more indicative of the spirit of countercultures in its starker contrast to traditional publics and forms of public discourse. And its existence alongside other modes of publics, texts, and circulations provides unique inflections on familiar social issues.
The Trouble With Normal
Warner brings the tension between gay and lesbian counterpublics and queer counterpublics into sharp relief in this book. Consequently we have decided to discuss The Trouble with Normal last; although it was published between The Letters of the Republic and Publics and Counterpublics. In significant ways, the heuristic line that we mentioned at the beginning of the entry finds it terminus in this book. The Trouble with Normal is more of polemic, albeit a well-reasoned and researched one, than an academic analysis. Therefore, the book finds its ancestry in some of the 18th-century political discourse that Warner has examined, but it is informed by the exigencies of the counterpublics. In other words, The Trouble with Normal functions as a defense of the queer counterpublics, and Warner takes exception with the political efforts of the gay and lesbian rights movement as it was manifest in the late 20th century.
Warner begins with an examination of the way “normal” expressions of sexuality are defined and explains how these definition function to impose control over the sex lives of others. He discusses the ways in which society frames some sexual practices as examples of “good sex” while vilifying other sexual practices as “bad sex.” Recalling some themes discussed in Publics and Counterpublics (or rather, predicting), Warner notes that “good” sex tends to be defined as heterosexual, monogamous, married, focused on procreation, and so on. “Bad” sex, meanwhile, is a label applied to sexual practices that do not have the attributes of good sex. As such, homosexuality is discursively lumped in with “bad” sex (as are a variety of other sexual practices). The marginalization of sexual expressions not captured under the banner of “good” sex” is expanded through the use of cultural sexual hierarchies and hierarchies of shame. Here, “good” sex is linked with being natural or innate. Sexuality that is different is defined as “unnatural.” Of course, Warner is keenly aware that all of this is simply a series of cultural and rhetorical constructions that serve particular interests. And he notes that some types of sex that are considered bad, unnatural, or deviant in contemporary times were in fact culturally accepted in other eras (and some forms of supposedly “good” sex have not always been as valued).
The book is very much of its time. For example, Warner discusses the discourse surrounding Bill Clinton’s sex scandal (which then seemed relevant, but by the early 21st century seemed distant) and argues that while opponents of Clinton could have chosen to focus on what laws the president might have broken, they chose instead to focus on Clinton’s sexual activities. For Warner, this actually serves as evidence that the United States is not necessarily repressed when it comes to sexuality. Indeed, he sees the Clinton case as evidence that talk about sex is actually quite popular in American culture. Still, much of the talk about sex does have a shaming component in Warner’s view. And he notes that even practices of shaming will be different for heterosexuals than for homosexuals.
Unfortunately, Warner believes that a sense of shame significantly informs some specific discursive practices of the gay community. He argues that there is an attempt to purify the gay community by marginalizing those who may engage in practices deemed deviant by dominant (read: heterosexual) cultural standards (such as using pornography or having multiple partners). For example, Warner mentions an attempt to create a magazine aimed at gays and lesbians that tried to avoid representations and discussions of sex, and he sees this editorial decision reflecting a trend in the 1990s: the attempt by gays and lesbians to promote more mainstream sexual identities and practices in an effort to be seen as more “normal” by heterosexual society. This focus on integration into dominant society is problematic for Warner because it fails to challenge the culture that marginalizes queers. Queers do not generally have the same depth of historical resources and institutions for passing along knowledge and memory. This, of course, leaves a space for institutions of the dominant culture to be seen as logical alternatives. Warner even notes that, during the AIDS crisis, some members of the gay community promoted abstinence (an approach to sexuality that derives from heterosexual institutions). For Warner, this only served to control and marginalize gay sexual identity, rather than attempting to change government policy or challenging the social neglect of the crisis. For Warner, then, the desire for gay and lesbians to be seen as “normal” causes a variety of problems that are related to identity, politics, and public policy.
Warner argues that the whole concept of “normal” is really just an outgrowth of glorifying what statisticians might call “average.” Indeed, Warner notes that a prominent line of argument used by gay activists involves the assertion that gays and lesbians are “normal” and thus should have the same rights as everyone else. While the motivation may be benevolent, Warner is concerned that a focus so steeped in respectability rhetoric can in fact serve to shame people who do not fit within the range of supposedly normal activities and practices. Warner sees this as a dehumanizing outcome. For Warner, rights should be linked to humanity as opposed to just average or normal expressions of humanity. Mainstream gay politics, then, has an agenda that is at odds with what Warner sees as a better expression of queer politics and identity. For Warner, “normal” is bound to fail, and, indeed, defining respectability in relation to expressions of normalcy only serves to further isolate and divide the gay and lesbian community from other queer communities.
For Warner, one issue that clearly illustrates the problems of aspirational normalcy is gay marriage. Given that the debate about gay marriage was rendered moot with the Obergefell v. Hodges Supreme Court decision in 2015, Warner’s extended discussion of this issue reads as a bit dated. Some of his fundamental arguments, however, reveal why the legalization of gay marriage has yet to yield the wave of acceptance that its proponents offered and why its opponents have hardly faded from the political scene; after all, Mike Pence is, as of the time of this writing, the vice president of the United States.
Warner uses the example of the debate surrounding the Defense of Marriage Act as a way to discuss the ways in which marriage as an institution is specifically framed as serious and, by contrast, other types of unions are rendered less serious or less deserving of any status or respect. For Warner, the argument used by antigay marriage advocates that allowing gays to marry would denigrate straight marriage is an example of how marriage is imbued with this higher status—a status which gay marriage advocates aspire to. But this status and seriousness also makes marriage into a type of relationship supposedly deserving of regulation. In reality, then, to aspire to marriage is to aspire to give up freedom and control within a relationship and to accept some level of governmental regulation within that relationship.
Warner also notes the various privileges and benefits attached to marriage (many of them economic in nature). The push for gay marriage could be seen as an attempt by gays and lesbians to access these otherwise denied benefits. However, that line of reasoning does not work for Warner. Rather, he argues that the various benefits attached to marriage should be made available to people more generally and not specifically given to just married people. Warner seems to see the desire for gay marriage as a kind of hegemonic force because it further grants marriage additional status as a gatekeeper to various benefits in society. Rather, Warner seems to prefer dismantling the sacred cow status of marriage in general. Further, he argues that gay marriage would just reaffirm distinctions between “good” and “bad” gays by marginalizing those who do not marry (just as heterosexuals who do not marry can also be seen as existing outside a norm of behavior). Warner is concerned, then, that attaining gay marriage would reinforce stigma and marginalization rather than do anything substantial to alter social norms or reshape ideas about what types of romantic/sexual unions should be considered legitimate.
Warner also addresses the link between marriage unions and the kinds of spaces supported by married people. Of course, married people often purchase private property, and that takes resources away from public spaces. Beyond that, though, there could be a difference in the kind of public areas supported by straight married couples and gay married couples, owing at least somewhat to the links between those institutions and marriage. Schools and churches, for example, can gain various support from married couples. But those institutions are linked to marriage, so the financial support seems natural. But queer public spaces do not have that same link to the institution of marriage.
As Warner notes, gay bars, bathhouses, adult book stores, and other cruising venues have been undercut in the form of laws and regulations (such as zoning laws). Further, some such spaces have stigmas attached to them, because they also signify sexual practices that are outside of monogamous relationships. But the more divided the gay and lesbian community is about what is and is not “normal,” the less of a complete, unified community exists to develop and maintain such spaces. It is also important for Warner that gays and lesbian have robust, thriving public spaces. Public spaces provide an opportunity for strangers with the same broad identities to meet, connect, establish relationships, and even perhaps mobilize social or political movements. A key problem with gay marriage, in Warner’s view, is that it privatizes and domesticates space. So the issue of gay marriage is not just an explicitly political one; it is also one related to what types of spaces are best suited for queer politics.
It is Warner’s defense of these queer spaces that reads as most dated because it is based on an understanding of space that did not anticipate the rise of cyberspace and mobile technologies. Online dating websites and mobile applications like Grindr have enjoyed great popularity, and their use has not been diminished by the legalization of gay marriage. In fact, it could be argued that given the way that dating apps provide specific locations with GPS services, contemporary technologies have rendered all public spaces potentially queer. Yet it was recently discovered that Grindr was revealing users’ HIV status to third parties, so these technologies have not changed some of the fundamental issues that still face queer counterpublics (Singer, 2018).
The HIV crisis still stands as an important historical event in gay culture. As Warner notes, however, throughout the 1990s, AIDS seemed to be more linked to the African American community than the gay community, and, as such, it could be seen as no longer a gay issue. But, for Warner, as long as AIDS is linked to sexual shame or deviancy it is important for queer culture to address it. In addition, HIV has become criminalized in many states and countries by laws making it illegal not to disclose HIV-positive status to a potential partner. For Warner, this places the blame on sex itself and not the disease in question. Further, panic around sexually transmitted diseases has led to a rise in rhetoric that argues that sex in general is dangerous (such as abstinence programs). For Warner, such approaches do nothing to teach safe sex practices, nor do they really prevent HIV or other disease. Rather, they just reinforce the idea that sex is shameful and should be regulated. Warner is also concerned that discourse that stigmatizes AIDS or places the blame for it on careless sex simply further marginalizes those at risk.
It is on this point that Warner’s work has remained relevant. Indeed, the recent controversy involving Grindr shows how the social and political threats experienced by people with HIV have not abated, even as medical advancements have rendered infection a treatable and manageable condition. Indeed, those advancements mirror other advancements that seem to have bettered the conditions of LGBT people, but, as Warner argues, if those advancements do not address the way sex and shame are used to marginalize queers, then no real advancement has been made. In other words, the real threat to a counterpublic is its absorption into the dominant public in a way that leaves that public unchanged. Or, more to the point, revolution fails when it does not change the conscious of the public or refigure the way that a public thinks about themselves, their lives, and their ways.
From this perspective, it is easy to see how the emerging American nation succeeded in its revolution, because it produced a public discourse that allowed its citizens to think of themselves as something other than subjects of the British Empire. In The Trouble with Normal, Warner is making the case for queers to think of themselves, and value themselves, apart from a social and political system of heterosexual, monogamous marriage, a system that defined its own value in contrast to queers. While the decision on gay marriage is in, the jury is still out on the rest of the attendant social and political issues that might make up a queer revolution.
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(1.) We use the term “queer” purposefully, rather than the different iterations of the LGBT acronym. Our purpose is to reflect Warner’s own distinction between what he sees as the more politically accommodating agenda of gay and lesbian rights, and the more confrontational and sexually disruptive aspects of queer culture.
(2.) Although he was writing from the perspective of a print culture, it is important to note how the concepts of attention, social interaction among strangers and temporal circulation resonate in the age of networked communication and social media.