Constructing normalcy

Regarding the stereotype of the ‘normal’ American, Goffman (1963) wrote:

“in an important sense there is only one complete unblushing male in America : a young, married, white, urban, northern, heterosexual Prostestant father of college education, fully employed, of good complexion, weight and height and a recent record in sports. Every American male tends to look out upon the world from this perspective… Any male who fails to qualify in any of these ways is likely to view himself – during moments at least – as un-worthy, incomplete and inferior” (1963, p 153)

Foucault has also attempted to show through his extensive body of work on the institutions of psychiatry and criminology how in Western society “we have indirectly constituted ourselves through the exclusion of some others: criminals, mad people, and so on” (Foucault 1988, p 146). In his view, the creation of the modern governed state requires the government to have access to accurately measured knowledge of the state’s strength and the respective strengths of other states, and this ‘political arithmetic’ was provided in the form of statistics. He also described the relationship between the state and the individual thus:

From the state’s point of view, the individual exists insofar as what he does is able to introduce even a minimal change in the strength of the state, either in a positive or in a negative direction. It is only insofar as an individual is able to introduce this change that the state has to do with him. And sometimes what he has to do for the state is to live, to work, to produce, to consume; and sometimes what he has to do is to die” (1988, p 152).

The less you are able to contribute to the strength of the state, the less visible you are; which explains why disabled people remain pretty much invisible to the state, while women gained suffrage only after they had demonstrated their worth by contributing to the war effort. As Foucault saw it, technologies have 3 major stages in their development – first as utopian idea, then as institutional practice, and finally as academic discipline (ibid, p 154), which is basically what happened with the pseudo sciences of ethnology, phrenology and criminology. One wonders what sciences in future will be exposed as myths or falsehoods!

In his article Constructing Normalcy: The Bell Curve, the Novel, and the Invention of the Disabled Body in the Nineteenth Century, (Disability Studies Reader 2nd edition, Routledge 2006 pp 3-16) Lennard Davis explores the idea of normalcy – his central point being that without the invention of the concept of normal or average, there can be no such thing as disability. His personal experience of disability is having grown up in a deaf family (both his parents were deaf) and speaking sign language.

We live in a world of norms. 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… There is probably no area of contemporary life in which some idea of a norm, mean, or average has not been calculated.” (Davis 1995b, p 3)

Once we understand that the idea that there are norms is a construction, we are free from oppression. Unfortunately, as Davis points out, practically every area of our lives is measured against its own particular yardstick of what comprises ‘normality’. By reversing the magnifying glass, rather than studying the subject of disability, Davis tries to get to the bottom of what exactly the concept of normal consists of: “…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” (ibid, p 3).

Contrary to accepted knowledge, Davis posits that the idea of normality did not always exist, but was rather the result of Victorian era progress: “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 orientation, and so on” (p 3). So in a similar way to the anthropometric measuring of ethnic groups to prove the supremacy of the white colonists, somehow science was responsible for the concepts of normalcy and disability. Interestingly, the word ‘normal’, meaning standard, has only been used as such since around the middle of the 19th century! Prior to that, since there were no standardised comparative data archives or census collection methods (as Sekula (1986) pointed out), the idea of an average or normal person just did not exist!

Davis analyses the difference between the ideal and the normal; the ideal is something that is something divine, not attainable by a human. As such, in antiquity the ideal forms of the divinities were generally made up from different parts of different models, as portrayed in the painting by François-André Vincent, Zeuxis Choosing as Models the Most Beautiful Girls of the Town of Crotona; since no one woman could be the embodiment of female physical beauty, each model was chosen for the particular part of her body which was considered ideal, and these parts were combined to create the whole:

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” (Davis 1995b, p4).

In much the same way as contemporary photo editors airbrush and stylise models to give them ideal complexions, figures and proportions, so the artists of antiquity tended to idealise and even out the discrepancies. The problem is that contemporary audiences strive for the ideal!

The idea of the norm, in contrast, comes only with the advent of statistics, Davis claims. Quetelet was the first statistician to formulate the average man according to the law of errors used to define the location of stars – or what we call the Gaussian or bell curve. Davis observes that Marx also had ideas that converged with this spread of values – constructing the average wage for the average worker by plotting all the worker’s wages; according to Marx, the ‘errors’ would cancel each other out and ‘vanish, whenever a certain minimum number of workmen are employed together’. As such, Marxist thought tends to condition us into thinking in terms of norms, since deviations (extremes of wealth or poverty in this case) should be minimized. This implies that the majority of society must conform to and be part of the norm, which is where it differs from the ideal. As such, in a society that holds up the values of normalcy, disabled persons will be classed as deviant, whereas in a society with the concept of an ideal everyone is by definition below the status of that ideal.

Davis then goes on to observe how all those early statisticians, Galton among them, were part of the eugenics movement – that group of people who were trying to improve society by removing all the ‘undesirable aspects’: “there is a real connection between figuring the statistical measure of humans and then hoping to improve humans so that deviations from the norm diminish… Statistics is bound up with eugenics because the central insight of statistics is the idea that a population can be normed” (ibid, p6). Unfortunately, there is an inviolable rule that all phenomena will always conform to a bell curve, so the process of normalising the non-standard elements will become an absurd, Sisyphean task. The other problem is that with values such as height or intelligence, above average scores were more preferable than mediocre ones! Galton thus divided the bell curve into quartiles to establish a ranking system – this work led directly to IQ and school testing systems!

This statistical ideal is unlike the classical ideal which contains no imperative to be the ideal. The new ideal of ranked order is powered by the imperative of the norm, and then is supplemented by the notion of progress, human perfectibility, and the elimination of deviance, to create a dominating, hegemonic vision of what the human body should be (ibid, p 8)

As such, the body forms the identity – which is unchangeable and indelible. Thus the eugenics movement was vindicated in its mission to eliminate defectives or deviants – a loose category that included, as the anarchist Emma Goldman wrote “paupers, syphilitics, epileptics, dipsomaniacs, cripples, criminals, and degenerates” (cited from Kevles 1985, p 90) who were unable to be normalised and whose increase would be legally encouraged if the state failed to effect birth control among such undesirables. Here Davis makes mention of Alexander Graham Bell, whose Memoir upon the Formation of a Deaf Variety of the Human Race contains the following sentences:

there is a tendency among deaf-mutes to select deaf-mutes as their partners in marriage” (Bell 1884, p 19)

…sexual selection is at work among the deaf and dumb, tending to produce a deaf variety of the human race.” (ibid, p 41)

The most promising method of lessening the evil appears to lie in the adoption of preventive measures. In our search for such measures we should be guided by the following principle: (1) Determine the causes that promote intermarriages among the deaf and dumb; and (2) remove them.” (ibid, p 46)

Nearly one-third of the teachers of the deaf and dumb in America are themselves deaf, and this must be considered as another element favorable to the formation of a deaf race—to be therefore avoided.” (ibid, p 48)

I find it quite surprising that a man as formidably intelligent as Bell should harbour such chauvinistic beliefs. This idea of not allowing disabled people to reproduce for fear of creating a nation of similarly disabled goes back to Shelley’s Dr. Frankenstein and his fear that the monster he had created would have the ability to reproduce and create an entire race of monsters!

The overarching idea of the time was that the nation was somehow diseased, and this was manifested in all manner of form, for example: “the habitual criminal, the professional tramp, the tuberculous, the insane, the mentally defective, the alcoholic, the diseased from birth or from excess” according to Karl Pearson of the eugenics movement, who crudely lumped together all form of human variation. The result was an association between disability, criminal activity, licentiousness and other depravities which is still prevalent – the bad guys in popular novels and movies are often deformed or disfigured, which merely compounds the stereotype. The conflation of disability with depravity expressed itself in the formulation “defective class.”; indeed, even the status of “pauperism” was equated with the idea of “feeble-mindedness” since low income was considered to be the result of “relative inefficiency”. Interestingly enough, as Davis points out, when we read these ideas they seem to us some form of Nazi supremacist ideology, but in fact “...what Hitler did in developing a hideous policy of eugenics was just to implement the theories of the British and American eugenicists.”

From the Eugenics Record Office: “The only way to keep a nation strong mentally and physically is to see that each new generation is derived chiefly from the fitter members of the generation before” (cited from Kevles 1985, In the Name of Eugenics: Genetics and the Uses of Human Heredity, pp 39-40)

From Mein Kampf: “the struggle for the daily livelihood [between species] leaves behind, in the ruck, everything that is weak or diseased or wavering… In this matter, the State must assert itself as the trustee of a millennial future. . . . It must proclaim as unfit for procreation all those who are afflicted with some visible hereditary disease or are the carriers of it; and practical measures must be adopted to have such people rendered sterile” (cited from Blacker 1952, Eugenics: Galton and after, pp 143-144)

Even Nature magazine, as late as 1933, approved the Nazi’s proposal of a bill for “the avoidance of inherited diseases in posterity” by sterilizing the disabled. The list of disabilities for which sterilization would be appropriate were “congenital feeblemindedness, manic depressive insanity, schizophrenia, hereditary epilepsy, hereditary St Vitus’s dance, hereditary blindness and deafness, hereditary bodily malformation and habitual alcoholism” (cited from MacKenzie 1981, Statistics in Britain, 1865–1930, p 44)

Davis goes on to assert that Freud, in his work on psychoanalysis, was actually creating a eugenics of the mind: “creating the concepts of normal sexuality, normal function, and then contrasting them with the perverse, abnormal, pathological, and even criminal” (Davis 1995b, p 10). Although this is an interesting idea, and one that warrants consideration, it is not really relevant to my work.

Davis also looks at how disability is represented in literature – not simply that novels reiterate societal prejudices towards those with disabilities, but the very nature of the novel is to create normalcy:

…ideologically emphasizing the universal quality of the central character whose normativity encourages us to identify with him or her… Thus the middleness of life, the middleness of the material world, the middleness of the normal body, the middleness of a sexually gendered, ethnically middle world is created in symbolic form and then reproduced symbolically” (ibid, p 11)

This normativity, which the reader can identify with and locate the signs in his or her daily life, will by definition create the abnormal Other (the disabled, the native, etc), the result of what Davis terms the “hegemony of normalcy”. On the use of disability in the novel to emphasise the desired state of normalcy, Davis observes: “Normality has to protect itself by looking into the maw of disability and then recovering from that glance” (p 15). In other words, each novel has of necessity to contain some disabled character for us to appreciate the value of the normality which is being constructed and advocated. That normalcy is part of the notion of progress and industrialisation means that it is a consolidation of bourgeois power structures, but permeates all areas of contemporary life and has even penetrated to the heart of cultural production (in this case the novel). As such, any attempt to address issues of disability needs primarily to overturn this hegemony of normalcy before establishing alternative approaches to the abnormal.

This is an interesting notion, but I am not sure exactly how it can be addressed or incorporated in my project work. If Davis is right, all post-industrial thought and production has been infused or informed by this premise of normalcy. As such, to challenge those accepted notions would require an entirely new narrative approach – how can one avoid the pitfalls of positive discrimination or be viewed as another attempt to normalise the abnormal?! That Davis does not offer any solution merely adds to the dilemma. Perhaps I should just consider that work such as mine, by showing the relatively normal aspects of disabled people’s lives is challenging accepted notions of ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’, which is in fact a step on the way to reversing the hegemony of normalcy.

In his work on exploring the structures of power introduced in the latter half of the 19th century, Foucault assures us that there is a direct link between medical science and the control and discipline of the body – the notion that what is beneficial to the individual’s biological self can be extended to the health of society as a whole; thus the medical creation of a ‘normal’ state of health is a way of dealing with perceived threats to both: “The norm is something that can be applied to both a body one wishes to discipline and a population one wishes to regularize” (2003, 253). In this way, criminality became equivalent to insanity and an area for medical science to address, and sexual deviance an issue subject to psychiatric discourse (Foucault 1972).


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