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  • The Ongoing Trouble with Normal
  • Samuel A. Chambers (bio)
Normality: A Critical Genealogy
Peter Cryle and Elizabeth Stephens
Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017. 440 pp.

If "queer is by definition whatever is at odds with the normal" (Halperin 1995: 62), then the normal necessarily becomes a central object of inquiry for queer studies. Such inquiry has largely taken the form of critique, whereby the definitional opposition (at odds with the normal) ironically becomes a normative opposition (against the normal). Contemporary debates over "antinormativity" constitute part of the context for Peter Cryle and Elizabeth Stephens, historians by training, to offer a genealogy of the normal (2). In a long part 1 (6 chapters, 240 pages), they track "the normal" as it appears in nineteenth-century (mostly French) scientific debates—anatomy, physiology, medicine, statistics, and anthropology. In a shorter part 2 (3 chapters, 90 pages), they document the dissemination of the term in popular discourses in mid-twentieth-century America—starting with psychoanalysis and sexology, and moving through the exhibition of composite statues to the famous publications of Alfred Kinsey.

These richly detailed chapters traverse a variety of contexts to offer the reader a clear sense of the stakes of such debates. While each chapter remains almost exclusively descriptive and historical, Cryle and Stephens add them together to argue for several significant theses. First, the normal has always been contested: at each moment that one writer or group of scientists implemented, advocated, or celebrated the normal, they were resisted by those who saw the concept as limiting or dangerous. And the fact that the normal always proves "elusive and precarious" means that it can never be "undone by criticism" (9). Second, two central ideas of the normal appear and reappear in the nineteenth century: the normal as a (medical or physiological) type and the normal as a (statistical) distribution; however, the convergence of these two notions does not happen until much later than others have suggested. "The concept of the normal as we know it today dates from no earlier than the mid-twentieth century" (3; cf. 351). Third, since [End Page 200] the normal does not emerge in full until after Kinsey, normalization only properly applies to "twentieth-century consumer culture" and not, pace Michel Foucault, to "nineteenth-century prisons and other disciplinary institutions" (15; cf. 7–9, 232, 290, 324).

Cryle and Stephens consistently make the case for the first thesis. Here the amassed historical evidence proves overwhelming, making it futile to contest their claim that the normal has always been contested. There has been no historical moment of unanimity or consensus about the normal and its usage; quite the contrary, resistance and critique of the normal has been with us from the start. Indeed, Kinsey's texts are responsible for the final emergence of the normal into popular and everyday discourse, yet Kinsey himself was at pains to challenge and resist the notion of the normal (345). The reception of his work made the term hegemonic, despite Kinsey's own criticism of the concept. Cryle and Stephens themselves highlight the second thesis as the primary claim of their book, and as long as we take it in its weaker, nominalist variant, it too seems hard to dispute: despite the increasing centrality of the normal to certain scientific debates, the word never crossed over into broader discourse prior to Kinsey.

As to the third thesis, Cryle and Stephens never directly announce or explicitly defend this subtle critique of Foucault. Nevertheless, tacit though it may be, the book repeatedly and insistently recurs to the idea that normalization does not and cannot apply to pre-twentieth-century institutions. The case for this thesis relies on two assertions made by Cryle and Stephens, both sourced to the previous work of Caroline Warman (2010: 200, 202). First, a concept cannot exist prior to the appearance of the word (52; cf. 24–25). Second, "the word 'normal' did not appear in the Oxford English Dictionary until 1848" (4). All that is left is to complete the syllogism: normalization cannot exist prior to the nineteenth century and, as it turns out, does not exist until the mid-twentieth.

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-9375
Print ISSN
1064-2684
Pages
pp. 200-202
Launched on MUSE
2020-01-12
Open Access
No
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