The End of Normal

The first chapter of Davis’ book is available online here. Davis asserts that in the neoliberal world of “cultural-identity eschaton“, the notion of normality has been replaced by that of diversity.

He points out that historically, the inception of the concept of normality was inextricably tied to the rise of the social sciences, which used instruments, measurements and statistics to define and make claims regarding “the human body, race, gender, class, intelligence, strength, fitness and
morality“. The work of Quetelet and Galton served as “…both scientific and a [sic] cultural imperatives socializing people to find their comfort zone under the reassuring yet disturbing concept of normality. Extremes would be considered abnormal and therefore undesirable.” (p 1) While Galton’s eugenic genius lay in the fact that he decided to turn the extreme right quintiles into traits which were deemed very desirable (height, intelligence, strength, etc), and this enhanced normality Davis calls ‘hyper-normality’. At first glance, it would appear that Galton’s work was democratic and utilitarian – promoting betterment of the human race by encouraging those with the more desirable traits to bring forth offspring in their likeness – but Davis informs us that what Galton in fact sought was “a bigger, smarter, stronger, more dominant human being that corresponded with the putative traits of the dominant social and political classes in a racialized and sexist society” as such, “the norm actually acted as a rationale for rule by elites.” (p 2) Under the guise of maintaining democratic ideals, in fact this concept promoted inequality for over 150 years. By working to consolidate the power of certain (white supremacist?) nations, cultures and bodies over other weaker ones, this “mythos of the normal body has created the conditions for the emergence and subjection of the disabled body, the raced body, the gendered body, the classed body, the geriatric body – and so on.” By asserting the idea of normal, monocultural societies could marginalise those who fell outside the realms of the standard physical type, the ‘foreigner’ or the ‘cripple’, and this was upheld by “eugenically oriented biometric tests and measures.”

Davis calls for an abandonment of the concept of one universal, regnant or ideal body or culture, and recognise the fact that all bodies and cultures are interdependent. Diversity, which by definition includes a much broader range of the global population, is a more democratic concept than normality. Diversity would also seem to fit in with the ideas of neoliberalism, which can be understood as a celebration of diversity of lifestyle, where one’s lifestyle choices become the essence of one’s identity (by consuming a particular product, you become part of a diverse group, rather than choosing a particular product from considerations of quality or affordability). To my mind, this is pure marketing piffle, a neat way to increase brand awareness and loyalty since a consumer product by itself cannot confer the dramatic lifestyle changes promised in the advertising campaign; it is a form of pretence or identity construction, in much the same way as gender is according to Butler. “So while normality was enforced to make people conform to some white, Eurocentric, ableist, developed-world, heterosexual, male notion of normality, diversity imagines a world without a ruling gold standard of embodiment” (p 3). Positing instead that as consumers we are all essentially the same, despite certain superficial differences that include race, gender or class. This position does not deny that there are differences, but is based on the premise that such differences are of minimal importance and should not be seen as obstacles to establishing a single global market where goods, products and services are traded freely.

In attempting to fit people with disabilities into this paradigm, Davis claims that even advertising that attempts to embrace diversity does so within certain limitations, “cherry-picking the aspects of diversity that appeal to a regnant paradigm.” So the Benetton children with Down syndrome are photogenic, the Walmart women are diverse within certain parameters – to show out and out disability, obesity, anorexia is not done since these groups are seen as abject or ‘hypermarginalized’. Here he employs terminology attributed to Giorgio Agamben, zoē and bios, but which are terms used by the ancient Greek philosophers to define the simple fact of living, and the way of living proper to an individual or group (Agamben, p 9). The idea is that bios is life within the political state, and everything outside that is zoē (which at that time would necessarily have included women, as Agamben points out when he speaks of reproduction and domesticity). Modern, industrial life is built on the exclusion of zoē, the relegation of simple bare life to an external position, outside of politics. “If anything characterizes modern democracy as opposed to classical democracy, then, it is that modern democracy presents itself from the beginning as a vindication and liberation of zoē, and that it is constantly trying to transform its own bare life into a way of life and to find, so to speak, the bios of zoē.” (Agamben, p 13) But diversity’s attempt to reclaim zoē is an impossible exercise, since as Davis points out, these hypermarginalised groups are not and most probably never will be consumers in the universal sense.

Davis feels that although moving away from the paradigm of enforced normalcy is a step in the right direction both politically and socially, diversity has not been able to resolve the issue of the disabled body (here he cites ‘technologies of life’, what Foucault sees as the “truth games” of “so-called science” which are employed by humans in trying to understand themselves – Foucault et al 1988, p 18). “It would be difficult to imagine that “diversity” is so different a concept that it could avoid the larger project of modernity – the creation of docile, compliant bodies. One could argue that there is as much social conditioning, care of and for the body, and subjection of the body involved in this version of imagining the diverse human than in the previous regime.” (p 5) In the sense that the individual body is constructed as a result of the lifestyle and cultural choices, this donning or creation of the diverse body necessitates a lot more thought and attention to process and detail, as well as cause and effect (perception). The shackles of abnormality stigma have been cast off, only to be replaced by those of the desire to assert one’s singular diversity. This for me is the hypocrisy and the non-progressive essence of diversity.

Davis notes that “…it would be naive to assume that any contemporary form of social organization does not carry with it elements of control and categorization no matter how progressive it might seem to us at the time” – why doesn’t he just stop there? Instead of trying to find fault with the concept of diversity – how it fails to include the disabled body in its essence or its discourse – why doesn’t he admit that there is in fact no system of social organisation (based on production) that could encompass or embrace disability. It is all too easy to find fault with systems or structures without proposing concrete alternatives. As far as I can tell, by including Foucault into the argument, the only way out of this conundrum for Davis would be to return to a pre-industrial era before the advent of modernism’s docile body, when the body was not tied to quotas of capital and production.

Basically, the concept of diversity is based on the postmodern notion of the individual subject being in a state of constant flux, mutable and able to be formed according to free will and choice. The disabled body, on the other hand, is still seen as fixed, immutable, and defined by medical diagnosis and relegated to a position of abjection. Once again, it seems pointless for Davis to continue his line of reasoning, since he has already admitted that the promise of diversity is a false one as it cannot embrace those portions of society that are viewed as marginal (or in his term, hypermarginal) because they are not considered active consumers or producers. He states: “postmodern identities are less bound to an embodied, fixed, assigned self and more to a socially constructed, technologically intervened body, which… one can choose to have.” (p 6) as he points out, this gives some relief to those portions of society who felt hard done by under the previous regnant ideology, which by emphasising the dichotomy between normal and abnormal, was confirming assumed hierarchies; diversity appears be democratic in that identity is chosen and constructed. As such, race becomes a complicated mix of “genetic ancestry“, with no population seen as genetically superior or essentially ‘normal’, while gender and sexual identity does not need to be rooted in or tied to specific body type.

All would appear to be well (at least the civil rights and gender rights movements are appeased) but what about the disabled body? Davis introduces his idea of the ‘biocultural’ body – where bodies are “the sum of their biology; the signifying systems in the culture; the historical, social, political surround; the scientific defining points; the symptom pool; the technological add-ons all combined and yet differentiated.” (p 7) continuing the postmodernist rationale, which begins with Deleuze & Guattari’s body without organs – a machine that produces effects; but doesn’t this modernist approach deny the body its fluid functions?

If the diverse identity is socially constructed, what then of the disabled body, which is not generally considered as being constructed socially, but as a medically determined, fixed condition (identity)? Even under the democratic auspices of diversity, disability is seen as abnormal. This, according to Davis, is because “disability is largely perceived as a medical problem and not a way of life involving choice.” (p 7) If you are disabled, you cannot choose to be rid of your impairment, and conversely, who would choose to be disabled? (Actually, here Davis mentions ‘wannabes’ or transability, which is also known as Body Integrity Identity Disorder or Amputee Identity Disorder – a psychological condition where the person typically feels that a limb or part of the body does not belong to them; they experience envy at amputees, sexual arousal at their own image as an amputee, and can deliberately try to injure themselves to require amputation. Davis calls this a lifestyle choice that fits neatly into the neoliberal paradigm (notes, p 138)). This is a condition that has been explored in some depth by Carl Elliott (2000), who says that BIID is a form of perceptual discrepancy between a person’s body and their body image, generally termed asomatognosias. A BBC documentary called Complete Obsession looks at case studies of BIID sufferers.

Apparently, as far as diversity goes the pitfall is that we want to achieve it in every part of life apart from where the medicalised body is concerned; measurables such as cholesterol, blood sugar, blood pressure and bodily function still adhere to the paradigm of ‘normal’. Conditions that require medical intervention to ‘normalise’ patients include not only physical disability, and cognitive and affective disorders, but also lifestyle illnesses: “Sadness, shyness, obsession, sexual desire, anger, adolescent rebellion, and the like now fall under a bell curve whose extremes become pathologies.” (p 8) Davis also advances under-height children being given growth hormones or crooked teeth being straightened as examples of medical deviation requiring normalising intervention as opposed to being sites of celebration of diversity. (Here he mentions the exceptions of the Icarus project that celebrates bipolar depression, and autism referred to as ‘neurodiversity’ in certain circles).

Because disability is tied to this medical paradigm, it is seen as a form of the abnormal, or what I might call the “undiverse.” I say undiverse because diversity implies celebration and choice. To be disabled, you don’t get to choose. You have to be diagnosed, and in many cases you will have an ongoing and very defining relationship with the medical profession. In such a context, disability will not be seen as a lifestyle or an identity, but as a fixed category.” As such, diversity fails to include any person dependent upon medicalisation. If we include all the categories Davis listed above as those requiring medical intervention to normalise them (which in this discussion means to return them to the point where they are able to make lifestyle choices for themselves), then we have quite a large sector of society that would appear to fall under the category of zoē! I can understand Davis’ point, but I’m not sure how far we can stretch it – or is it that I fail to see how diversity can be an acceptable system of social organisation. “Disability, seen as a state of abjection or a condition in need of medical repair or cure, is the resistant point in the diversity paradigm.” (p 9) Davis points out here the paradox that the idea of celebrating difference must be founded on an ideology of the norm that defines difference in the first place – a standard that sets apart what is different from what is not. This he claims is the suppressed idea of the norm, and that “disability is the state of exception that undergirds our very idea of diversity” since normality persists regarding disability, in exception to the rest of neoliberal society’s subjects.

Davis expresses hope that in the future, through a combination of education and activism, people may begin to understand that “disability is an identity, a way of life, not simply a violation of a medical norm” but that for diversity to embrace disability, a paradigm shift is called for. Since the idea of choice is central to the notion of neoliberal identity, and that choice is expressed through consumer lifestyle choices, a shift from the promotion of the healthy and whole identity is necessary as disability does not fit the current conception of lifestyle choice. (the fact that these lifestyle choices are merely gimmicks invented by clever marketing agents Davis expresses as such: “…paradoxically we choose iPhones, iPads, Xboxes, fair-trade products, and the like to show off “individuality” within a niche lifestyle market. I say “paradoxically” because of course these are mass-produced items that large groups of people can purchase… Choice is a central mytheme in the neoliberal ideology of freedom and the expression of selfhood through globalized market choices.” (p 10)

Davis then trudges through the difficult territory of changing identity – religion, nationality, sex. Then he states it is “less obvious” to be born a black and become white, but it is “patently not possible” to be born with Down syndrome and become a person without Down syndrome. Why this discrepancy? Short of cosmetic surgery (which can be employed to visually perform both transitions) these should both be patent impossibilities! Then Davis comes to the crunch: “If we see diversity and identity politics as advocating acceptance of all identities, why is it that disability is often the identity that is left out – not choosable?” does this question really need to be raised? I can see Davis’ point, that choosing to identify with stigmatised group is a lifestyle choice, but here we have the obvious undesirable day to day obstacles that one would have to deal with as a disabled person – and that is without even considering the social constructionist point of view, purely from practical considerations. It will never be considered ‘cool’ to be in a wheelchair the same as it is maybe cool to belong to another minority group (although I do remember when I was in the first form and a fifth former came to school on crutches after having broken his leg in a car accident – the amount of female care and attention he thus acquired was something to be admired, and I felt somehow jealous!).

Davis mentions the WHO’s ICF (International Classification of Functioning) manual as an example of trying to break free from the binary normal/abnormal paradigm. According to this new scale, people are classified according to activity, functionality and participation, which will shift disability from the hegemony of normalcy into the paradigm of diversity as it will no longer be considered as the exception. Davis then takes issue with diversity as a concept, since it denies individuality and dissects society into convenient groups – the sense that one must belong to a certain group is its underlying principle. “The problem with diversity is that it really needs two things to survive as a concept. It needs to imagine a utopia in which difference will disappear, while living in a present that is obsessed with difference.” (p 13) Davis points out that neoliberalism conveniently overlooks (or suppresses) forms of inequality such as power and wealth, and this is necessary for its survival as a concept. The level of difference has to be intimated for the group to be permitted entrance into the scope of diversity: “…”we are all the same because we aren’t that kind of different.” “That kind of different” would refer to that which cannot be chosen- the intractable, stubborn, resistant, and yet constitutive parts of neoliberal capitalism – zoē, bare life, the ethnic other, the abject, the disabled – that which cannot be transmuted into the neoliberal subject of postmodernity.” (p 14)

Disability resists change, it is not (generally) chosen as a lifestyle choice and as such remains outside the realms of neoliberal diversity. Davis claims that it provides the negative essence upon which to base notions of diversity, since without it there would be no significant difference: as such it can be seen as the “ultimate modifier of identity.” (p 14)

Later on in this same book, Davis writes down some ideas that I think are fundamental to understanding his position and the disability debate within postmodernist discourse as a whole:

Disability studies is fundamentally based, among other things, on the idea that people with disabilities should have autonomy over their own lives. The independent living movement and much disability legislation stress that barriers to active participation and self-determination should be removed. It is better to live at home with personal assistants, work without discrimination, navigate the streets without barriers, communicate by all means, use media and technology, than to be taken care of in facilities, confined to a home, limited by ableist technologies, and so on. While that appeal to autonomous identity may be tempered by a recognition that we are all interdependent, that the model of the free and autonomous individual is a bit of a myth, and that appeals to normality are hegemonic, autonomy over one’s body is still a valuable idea.” (p 99)

This says it all to me – Davis has included the ideas of reclaiming autonomy over the body, self-sufficiency and work (active participation), as well as the notion that I have heard put forward by Judith Butler, that the idea of independent individual is just a myth. Halberstam & Livingston suggest that as interdependent bodies we are connected to each other through multiple umbilical cords and navels, and hypothesise that it would be possible to “kill a significant portion of a country’s inhabitants by disabling the country’s “infrastructures” more economically than by shooting people” (1995, p 17).


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