Amanda Anderson Judith Butler Richard Rorty Seyla Benhabib

Norms, Norms, Norms

(Crossposted at Arcade.)

I’ve been rereading Amanda Anderson’s fascinating and cogent collection of essays, The Way We Argue Now. Reading through her opening account of the debate between Seyla Benhabib and Judith Butler, a version of the Habermas-Foucault debate in the domain of feminist theory, we find this cogent summary by Anderson of the differences between each thinker’s definition of the term "norm":

Paralleling these divergent understandings of autonomy are fundamentally different conceptions of “norms.” For Benhabib, a norm is a rule or principle that provides criteria for evaluating the rightness or wrongness of an action or practice. One might specify such norms as evaluative norms. While Benhabib believes the norms of reciprocity and respect are embedded in communicative practices and reproduced through socialization, she follows Habermas in calling for our selfreflexive justification and extension of such norms. For Butler, by contrast, norms are mechanisms of social reproduction and identity formation internal to hegemonic social structures. One might specify these norms as functional or normalizing norms. Whereas Benhabib would certainly distinguish between these two senses of norm and fully admit the existence of the latter, it is not at all clear that Butler admits a distinction in kind between them. Indeed it would seem for her that all normativity ultimately reduces to normalization. Even more: Butler feels that evaluative norms are insidious precisely insofar as they attempt to mask their normalizing power. (30)

I find this to be a very succinct description of the two senses in which humanities scholars use the term "norm." We either celebrate the aspiration toward a universal system of ethical principles, on the theory that such a system promises human liberation, or we decry the secretly normalizing impact of allegedly universal claims, focusing on who gets necessarily excluded by the project of articulating universalist ethical principles.

I am interested in what seems to me to be a signifiant omission here: a sense of norm I would term "functional norms," a sense quite important to parliamentary procedures, traffic management, etiquette, and narratology. When we drive down a road and keep (in the U.S.) to the right side of the road — to give the most banal but clearest example — are we not performing and possibly internalizing norms just as much as when we (as Benhabib would emphasize) condemn a neoNazi from a universalist stance or when we (as Butler would emphasize) accept a pernicious heteronormativity?

Is not most or all literature built around the arguably "functional" norms of typography, bibliographic convention, and tacit understandings of intelligibility (I specifically omit linguistic and syntactic regularities and patterns, because I believe these are less norms in my sense than cognitive capacities)? Does literary theory have adequate terms, tools, and categories to deal with functional norms? Is the idea of a functional norm itself a sort of pernicious obfuscation? Or, as someone like Richard Rorty might argue, are evaluative and normalizing norms really all secretly reducible to functional norms, that is norms are just conventions we let each other get away with?