June 13 2024

Singlehood and the "Regimes of the Normal" in the Academy

by Susan Abraham, Loyola Marymount University

Hua Mulan in "Gathering Gems of Beauty," album leaf, ink and colors on silk. Painter identified as He Dazi. Qing dynasty. Mulan depicted in a field with her back to the viewer, holding a spear

Remarks edited from the panel "Work/Life Balance? Relationships and Academic Life," hosted by the AAR's Status of Women in the Profession Committee at the 2014 Annual Meeting in Baltimore (A22-204).

My brief today is to address the challenges of being single in a couple-normative guild. I have three parts to my remarks.

I. The first is the obvious one—the structural issues that lead to what Michael Warner called “regimes of the normal” in his Fear of a Queer Planet.1 “The Normal” of course, bespeaks the not-normal, and I personally speak from the standpoint of a single, queer, Catholic, liberationist, Marxist, feminist, postcolonial, poststructuralist, immigrant Indian female. When the invitation was first broached to me of this panel, I had a flashback to my very first interview with the US consulate in Bombay in 1990, as the official who looked over my papers said, “We have never given a student visa to a single young woman from India, especially to study theology.” My sense of learned shame and helplessness then has of course been repeated many times in the American academy. I did not necessarily set out to be single, though of course, growing up in India, I would swear up and down that I would not marry, even to the point of sabotaging behind my mother’s back her desperate attempts to “marry me off.” What I meant then was that I did not want to be married in the traditional way. Marriage itself, as a concept and category, was and is something I remain thoroughly suspicious of for a number of reasons. But choosing to be single, that was not really part of the plan. Singlehood was conferred on me. And I have had to think about it. The words of Eve Sedgwick in her Epistemology of the Closet ring true: “Many people have their richest mental/emotional involvement with sexual acts that they don’t do, or even want to do.”2

II. Learning to be single: I did not set out to be single. In some ways I am not yet single, and my personal journey of intimacy has been complicated by a former partner’s ongoing mental health issues. While I have made a distinction between abandoning the relationship and abandoning her, the strain of being in contact while attempting to distance myself from the relationship expresses itself in the strain I experience in other contexts. For example, in my professional context, as a Catholic theologian who was coupled with a woman for many years, it remains traumatic to be marginalized because of that history. Or, in other academic professional contexts, losing friendships because former friends cannot “take” my ongoing story of traumatic emotionality anymore: Why do you stay? You deserve so much more, etc...Here, I begin to reflect on Leslie Jamison’s wonderful words: “Empathy means realizing no trauma has discrete edges. Trauma bleeds. Out of wounds and across boundaries. Sadness becomes a seizure. Empathy demands another kind of porousness in response.”3 The academy encourages rigid boundaries. Paradoxically.

One of the more difficult issues in this regard, both intellectually and emotionally, has to do with the idea that the category “single” stand in opposition to “coupled.” Here, I have found much queer theory to be singularly obsessed with couple-dom. That is, structures of normalcy in the academy (which I think sees itself as some kind of vanguard of progressive politics) demand that even queer politics track their theoretical emphases from within regimes of normalcy. As Gundala Ludwig charts in her “From the ‘Heterosexual Matrix’ to a ‘Heteronormative Hegemony’: Initiating a Dialogue between Judith Butler and Antonio Gramsci about Queer Theory and Politics,” Judith Butler’s influential Gender Trouble has already established that heterosexuality, which would be an example of a “regime of normalcy,” presented itself as a force that constitutes bodies and subjects instead of merely as an intimate practice. The heterosexual matrix effects gendered, sexed bodies and subjectivities. Women and men, gays and lesbians are therefore effects of a heterosexual power formation.4

Butler’s insight therefore gave rise to what is called queer theory. Since the 90s, however, the emphasis on heterosexuality in queer studies has given way to another term coined by Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner: heteronormativity. As Ludwig and a number of theorists in the volume point out, the term “heteronormativity,” now hypostasized, remains underexplored. She suggests that further thought about heteronormativity requires thinking with Antonio Gramsci’s notion of hegemony. In other words, the political cachet of “heteronormativity” cannot stand by itself—it must be evaluated through a term that primarily investigates class. Thus, heteronormative hegemony is critical to understanding the complex subject formations arising out of heteronormative power effects.

The main point that I wish to highlight here is that an analysis of singlehood or couple-dom as it exists through the framework of heteronormative hegemony will not permit the kind of queer politics that sexuality or power theory aspires to. Heteronormative hegemony is a nonjurdicial formation of power and invites us to look beyond the celebratory moments of marriage equality or domestic partnerships. “Hegemony” reflects not just state power, but state power operating through everyday forms of conduct. Thus, citizenship, immigrant status, or in our case, academic success are articulated through everyday practices defining male and female on the one hand, and a co-optation of queer politics on the other.

The notion of hegemony lets us see how civil and everyday microexpressions of power are nonjuridical, only to eventually become state power. In other words, those microexpressions of power are co-opted and lose their political edge. Normalcy is maintained. In such a context, violence against homosexuals or raced and gendered bodies goes unnoticed, even as they are regarded as deviant in hierarchical conceptions of subjectivities. Using the concept of hegemony also counters the idea that power only works top down, and the potential for queer politics to become normalized is highlighted. Hegemony, therefore, operates on the level of worldviews. In our current context, gay identity politics have challenged heteronormativity, but once those politics are mainstreamed or “accepted,” they may simply become complicit in hegemonic neoliberal class formations that the contemporary nation-state and its handmaiden, the academy, depend on.

Gay or straight, the hegemony of “couple” undergirds even queer analyses of identity formation, challenge, and resistance. In many ways, all manner of “couple” is also construed as intelligibly female or male. While transpolitics troubles this hegemony somewhat, eventually, as Ludwig and other theorists in the volume argue, as these non-normative challenges present themselves to state and academic apparatuses, they simply mainstream without providing an acute political challenge to hegemonic structures.

III. What I am after in my interrogation of heteronormative hegemony is the assumption that we are our desires or that urges and instincts define us and define our life worlds. That strange man Richard Dawkins, arguing from an evolutionary perspective, says of human beings that “we love life love sex and love children” because we come from “an unbroken line” of ancestors who were able to survive and reproduce.5 This form of neo-Darwinianism makes of life feeding, fighting, and mating. Should we all reproduce or be coupled? An alternative, often touted in religious contexts is “celibacy.” Right away we note that neoliberal secular contexts may not be able to co-opt this form of living because it is closely associated with “repressive” religious structures. Thus the fear of co-optation by repressive religion surpasses the fear of co-optation by (less?) repressive secular neoliberal frameworks.

Another excellent volume providing a number of provocative theoretical investigations into countering heteronormative hegemonies is Benjamin Kahan’s Celibacies: American Modernism and Sexual Life.6 Drawing on Lauren Berlant’s The Queen of America, Kahan argues that celibacy seems to be firmly ensconced in the political right. The way it succeeds in doing this is to present celibacy as a Christian alternative to homosexuality or abstinence to shore up traditional heterosexual marriage. We need another way to think the sociality of celibacy.

What would such a sociality of celibacy look like in the academic context—a context riven with paradoxical claims, particularly on women and queer women? On the one hand, the ideal of the male scholar whose home and hearth are comfortably supervised by an accommodating female partner at home is infinitely complicated by the professional presence of women, including some partners of those male scholars, in the academy. On the other hand, success in the academy is still presented in terms most amenable to these male scholars, including for women. Many women strive to outdo men in order to access the systems of recognition and compensation that continue to reject them. A celibate woman, queered in more ways than just sexuality, struggles to find a foothold. Another issue of course, for a Catholic woman, is how the Church continues to advocate celibacy solely in relation to its institutional identity. My attempt to struggle to find my words for teaching and writing; to find life to breathe through loss, pain, and betrayal; to be healthy in mind and spirit; to be available to my students, colleagues, and family are shot through with a simple plea to see complexity not just in our disciplines, but also in the human selves that we are.


1 Michael Warner, ed., Fear of a Queer Plant: Queer Politic and Social Theory (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1993).

2 Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Epistemology of the Closet (Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 1990), 25.

3 Leslie Jamison, The Empathy Exams (Minneapolis, MN: Graywolf Press, 2014), 5.

4 Gundala Ludwig, “From the ‘Heterosexual Matrix’ to a ‘Heteronormative Hegemony’: Initiating a Dialogue between Judith Butler and Antonio Gramsci about Queer theory and Politics,” in Hegemony and Heteronormativity: Revisiting ‘The Political’ in Queer Politics, ed. Maria do Mar Castro Varela, Nikita Dhawan, and Antke Engel (Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2011) 43–61.

5 Richard Dawkins, River out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life (New York, NY: Basic Books, 1995), 3.

6 Benjamin Kahan, Celibacies: American Modernism and Sexual Life (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2013).

Susan Abraham is an assistant professor of theological studies at Loyola Marymount University.

Image: Hua Mulan in "Gathering Gems of Beauty," album leaf, ink and colors on silk. Painter identified as He Dazi. Qing dynasty.