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Journal of the History of Sexuality 10.2 (2001) 173-179

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The Normal, the Queer, and the Middle Ages

Amy Hollywood
Dartmouth College

Carolyn Dinshaw's Getting Medieval: Sexualities and Communities, Pre- and Postmodern is a book of such complexity and richness that it is only after two readings (and numerous runs through sections of particular interest to me in the context of my own current research) that I'm beginning to glimpse how it all, quite wonderfully, comes together. For me, perhaps the most striking and exciting aspect of the book is its articulation of a queer desire "for partial, affective connection, for community, for even a touch across time." 1 In her assessment of the queer historian's task, Dinshaw argues persuasively that the choices "are not limited simply to mimetic identification with the past or blanket alteritism, the two mutually exclusive positions that have come to be associated with [John] Boswell and [Michel] Foucault." 2 Rather, following Jacques Derrida and Judith Butler, Dinshaw argues that there is always an "alterity within mimesis itself," a "never-perfect aspect of identification" that engenders both historical difference (and at times pleasure in that difference) and "partial connections, queer relations between" these "incommensurate lives and phenomena" (another source of possible pleasure). 3 With "the new pieces of history" that she explores in Getting Medieval, Dinshaw "shows that queers can make new relations, new identifications, new communities with past figures who elude resemblance to us but with whom we can be connected partially by virtue of shared marginality, queer positionality." 4

What is specifically queer about these partial connections? Dinshaw argues that queerness is itself contingent and historical; queerness "is not a hard and fast quality that I know in advance, but is a relation to a norm, and both the norm and the particular queer lack of fit will vary according to specific instances." 5 She goes on to argue that "a queer history will be about [End Page 173] the body because it is about sex," thereby specifying the norms in relationship to which queerness is articulated as one's dealing with sex/sexuality. 6 Her move from the language of gayness, homosexuality, and/or same-sex desire to that of queerness depends on this conception of the queer as that which defies the norm and the normative, although the relationship between the two sets of terms is not fully articulated. (Are gayness, homosexuality, and same-sex desires subsets of the queer? And if this is so, are they in danger, as Leo Bersani argues, of disappearing within the larger category?) 7 At least one reason for this shift is historical: it seemingly enables Dinshaw to bypass the vexed issue of whether there were in fact "homosexuals" or "lesbians" before the nineteenth century and the concomitantly presumed distinction between acts and identity on which this Foucaultian argument rests. 8 At the same time, it allows her to include within the category of the "queer" a woman like Margery Kempe whose sexual imagery remained resolutely heterosexual, even as her actions often worked against the "norm."

Yet, is "queerness," understood as a deviation from the norm, itself susceptible to the kind of transhistorical analysis--the enabling and uncovering of partial connections across time--in which Dinshaw engages in Getting Medieval? The concepts of the norm, normalcy, normality, abnormality, and normativity as we now understand them first appeared in the nineteenth century and were tied to concrete developments in statistical analysis and its application to the social sciences. Statistical modes of analysis emerged in the early-modern period as a form of "political arithmetic" for the "promotion of sound, well-informed state policy" 9 and were transferred in the early nineteenth century to the field of medicine. "The application of numbers," an early medical statistician argues, can "illustrate the natural history of health and disease." 10 As Lennard Davis argues in his important book, Enforcing Normalcy: Disability, Deafness, and the Body, the French statistician Adolphe Quetelet (1796-1847) most [End Page 174] clearly delineated a conception of the statistical norm...


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