Add to Cart About Enforcing Normalcy In this highly original study of the cultural assumptions governing our conception of people with disabilities, Lennard J. Linking such notions to the concurrent emergence of discourses about the nation, Davis shows how the modern nation-state constructed its identity on the backs not only of colonized subjects, but of its physically disabled minority. In a fascinating chapter on contemporary cultural theory, Davis explores the pitfalls of privileging the figure of sight in conceptualizing the nature of textuality. And in a treatment of nudes and fragmented bodies in Western art, he shows how the ideal of physical wholeness is both demanded and denied in the classical aesthetics of representation.
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Each of us endeavors to be normal or else deliberately tries to avoid that state. We consider what the average person does, thinks, earns, or consumes. We rank our intelligence, our cholesterol level, our weight, height, sex drive, bodily dimensions along some conceptual line from subnormal to above-average. We consume a minimum daily balance of vitamins and nutrients based on what an average human should consume.
Our children are ranked in school and tested to determine where they fit into a normal curve of learning, of intelligence. Doctors measure and weigh them to see if they are above or below average on the height and weight curves.
There is probably no area of contemporary life in which some idea of a norm, mean, or average has not been calculated. To understand the disabled body, one must return to the concept of the norm, the normal body. So much of writing about disability has focused on the disabled person as the object of study, just as the study of race has focused on the person of color. But as with recent scholarship on race, which has turned its attention to whiteness, I would like to focus not so much on the construction of disability as on the construction of normalcy.
I do this because the "problem" is not the person with disabilities; the problem is the way that normalcy is constructed to create the "problem" of the disabled person. A common assumption would be that some concept of the norm must have always existed. After all, people seem to have an inherent desire to compare themselves to others.
But the idea of a norm is less a condition of human nature than it is a feature of a certain kind of society. Recent work on the ancient Greeks, on preindustrial Europe, and on tribal peoples, for example, shows that disability was once regarded very differently from the way it is now.
As we will see, the social process of disabling arrived with industrialization and with the set of practices and discourses that are linked to late eighteenth- and nineteenth-century notions of nationality, race, gender, criminality, sexual orienta- tion, and so on. The word "normal" as "constituting, conforming to, not deviating or different from, the common type or standard, regular, usual" only enters the English language around Likewise, the word "norm," in the modern sense, has only been in use since around , and "normality" and "normalcy" appeared in and , respectively.
If the lexicographical information is relevant, it is possible to date the coming into consciousness in English of an idea of "the norm" over the period Davis If we rethink our assumptions about the universality of the concept of the norm, what we might arrive at is the concept that preceded it: that of the "ideal," a word we find dating from the seventeenth century.
Without making too simplistic a division in the historical chronotope, one can nevertheless try to imagine a world in which the hegemony of normalcy does not exist.
Rather, what we have is the ideal body, as exemplified in the tradition of nude Venuses, for example. This divine body, then, this ideal body, is not attainable by a human. The notion of an ideal implies that, in this case, the human body as visualized in art or imagination must be composed from the ideal parts of living models. These models individually can never embody the ideal since an ideal, by definition, can never be found in this world.
When ideal human bodies occur, they do so in mythology. So Venus or Helen of Troy, for example, would be the embodiment of female physical beauty. The painting by Francois-Andre Vincent Zeuxis Choosing as Models the Most Beautiful Girls of the Town ofCrotona , Museum de Louvre, Paris shows the Greek artist, as we are told by Pliny, lining up all the beautiful women of Crotona in order to select in each her ideal feature or body part and combine these into the ideal figure of Aphrodite, herself an ideal of beauty.
One young woman provides a face and another her breasts. Classical painting and sculpture tend to idealize the body, evening out any particularity. The central point here is that in a culture with an ideal form of the body, all members of the population are below the ideal. No one young lady of Crotona can be the ideal. By definition, one can never have an ideal body. There is in such societies no demand that populations have bodies that conform to the ideal.
By contrast, the grotesque as a visual form was inversely related to the concept of the ideal and its corollary that all bodies are in some sense disabled.
In that mode, the grotesque is a signifier of the people, of common life. As Bakhtin, Stallybrass and White, and others have shown, the use of the grotesque had a life-affirming transgressive quality in its inversion of the political hierarchy. However, the grotesque was not equivalent to the disabled, since, for example, it is impossible to think of people with disabilities now being used as architectural decorations as the grotesque were on the facades of cathedrals throughout Europe.
The grotesque permeated culture and signified common humanity, whereas the disabled body, a later concept, was formulated as by definition excluded from culture, society, the norm. If the concept of the norm or average enters European culture, or at least the European languages, only in the nineteenth century, one has to ask what is the cause of this conceptualization? One of the logical places to turn in trying to understand concepts like "norm" and "average" is that branch of knowledge known as statistics.
Statistics begins in the early modern period as "political arithme- tic"—a use of data for "promotion of sound, well-informed state policy" Porter , The word statistik wcLS first used in by Gottfried Achen-wall, in the context of compiling information about the state.
The concept migrated somewhat from the state to the body when Bisset Hawkins defined medical statistics in as "the application of numbers to illustrate the natural history of health and disease" cited in Porter, , In France, statistics were mainly used in the area of public health in the early nineteenth century. The connection between the body and industry is tellingly revealed in the fact that the leading members of the first British statistical societies formed in the s and s were industrialists or had close ties to industry ibid.
It was the French statistician Adolphe Quetelet who contributed the most to a general- ized notion of the normal as an imperative. He noticed that the "law of error," used by astronomers to locate a star by plotting all the sightings and then averaging the errors, could be equally applied to the distribution of human features such as height and weight.
Quetelet maintained that this abstract human was the average of all human attributes in a given country. For the average man, Quetelet wrote in , "all things will occur in conformity with the mean results obtained for a society. If one seeks to establish, in some way, the basis of a social physics, it is he whom one should consider Constructing Normalcy 5 The social implications of this idea are central.
With bourgeois hegemony comes scientific justification for moderation and middle-class ideology. The average man, the body of the man in the middle, becomes the exemplar of the middle way of life. Quetelet was apparently influenced by the philosopher Victor Cousin in developing an analogy between the notion of an average man and the juste milieu.
In England too, the middle class as the middle way or mean had been searching for a scientific justification. Defoe , 6 Statements of ideology of this kind saw the bourgeoisie as rationally placed in the mean position in the great order of things. This ideology can be seen as developing the kind of science that would then justify the notion of a norm.
As Quetelet wrote, "an individual who epitomized in himself, at a given time, all the qualities of the average man, would represent at once all the greatness, beauty and goodness of that being" cited in Porter , Such an average person might indeed be a literary character like Robinson Crusoe. Furthermore, one must observe that Quetelet meant this hegemony of the middle to apply not only to moral qualities but to the body as well.
He wrote: "deviations more or less great from the mean have constituted [for artists] ugliness in body as well as vice in morals and a state of sickness with regard to the constitution" ibid. Quetelet foresaw a kind of Utopia of the norm associated with progress, just as Marx foresaw a Utopia of the norm in so far as wealth and production is concerned. The more that enlightenment is propagated, the more will deviations from the mean diminish The perfectibility of the human species is derived as a necessary consequence of all our investigations.
Defects and monstrosities disappear more and more from the body, ibid. We can see in retrospect that one of the most powerful ideas of Marx—the notion of labor value or average wages—in many ways is based on the idea of the worker constructed as an average worker. As Marx writes: Any average magnitude, however, is merely the average of a number of separate magnitudes all of one kind, but differing as to quantity.
In every industry, each individual labourer, be he Peter or Paul, differs from the average labourer. These individual differences, or "errors" as they are called in mathematics, compensate one another and vanish, whenever a certain minimum number of workmen are employed together.
Marx , 6 Lennard J. Davis So for Marx one can divide the collective work day of a large number of workers and come up with "one day of average social labor" ibid. As Quetelet had come up with an average man, so Marx postulates an average worker, and from that draws conclusions about the relationship between an average and the extremes of wealth and poverty that are found in society.
Thus Marx develops his crucial concept of "abstract labor. In this sense, Marx is very much in step with the movement of normalizing the body and the individual.
In addition, Marxist thought encourages us toward an enforcing of normalcy in the sense that the deviations in society, in terms of the distribution of wealth for example, must be minimized. The concept of a norm, unlike that of an ideal, implies that the majority of the population must or should somehow be part of the norm.
The norm pins down that majority of the population that falls under the arch of the standard bell-shaped curve. This curve, the graph of an exponential function, that was known variously as the astronomers "error law," the "normal distribution," the "Gaussian density function," or simply "the bell curve," became in its own way a symbol of the tyranny of the norm. Any bell curve will always have at its extremities those characteristics that deviate from the norm. So, with the concept of the norm comes the concept of deviations or extremes.
When we think of bodies, in a society where the concept of the norm is operative, then people with disabilities will be thought of as deviants.
This, as we have seen, is in contrast to societies with the concept of an ideal, in which all people have a non-ideal status. A statistical office was set up at the Board of Trade in , and the General Register Office was created in to collect vital statistics. All of this interest in numbers concerning the state was a consequence of the Reform Act of , the Factory Act of , and the Poor Law of The country was be- ing monitored and the poor were being surveiled.
Private groups followed, and in a statistical section of the British Association for the Advancement of Science was formed in which Quetelet as well as Malthus participated. The Royal London Statistical Society was founded in The use of statistics began an important movement, and there is a telling connection for the pur- poses of this book between the founders of statistics and their larger intentions.
The rather amazing fact is that almost all the early statisticians had one thing in common: they were eugenicists. Statistics is bound up with eugenics because the central insight of statistics is the idea that a population can be normed.
An important consequence of the idea of the norm is that it divides the total population into stan- dard and nonstandard subpopulations. The next step in conceiving of the population as norm and non-norm is for the state to attempt to norm the nonstandard—the aim of eugenics. Of course such an activity is profoundly paradoxical since the inviolable rule of statistics is that all phenomena will always conform to a bell curve. So norming the non-normal is an activity as problematic as untying the Gordian knot.
MacKenzie asserts that it is not so much that Gallons statistics made possible eugenics but rather that "the needs of eugenics in large part determined the content of Galtons statistical theory" , In any case, a symbiotic relationship exists between statistical science and eugenic concerns.
Both bring into society the concept of a norm, particularly a normal body, and thus in effect create the concept of the disabled body. It is also worth noting the interesting triangulation of eugenicist interests.
The disabled population is a minority in any country or nation, yet the irony is that, anyone can become disabled at any time, and those who are fortunate enough to live to old age, will eventually become disabled themselves. The definition of disability is a fuzzy one, but in Enforcing Normalcy Davis construes of disability as bodies which differ from the norm. The specific form of bodily discrimination Davis is concerned with is ableism, which sees differences in bodies as negative. For this reason, he refrains from discussions on mental disabilities, because his focus is primarily physical. Within the social model, one would argue that if ramps or lifts were in place, if Braille and hearing loops are available, the disabled individual would not be disabled. Rather, the insistence on seeing disability as a process that is social shifts the focus on the individual, who is or is not disabled, onto the society, which is responsible for including the individual, regardless of abilities.
Lennard Davis – Enforcing Normalcy: Disability, Deafness and the Body
Lennard J. Davis