The End of Normal: Identity in a Biocultural Era

The End of Normal: Identity in a Biocultural Era

by Lennard Davis


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The End of Normal: Identity in a Biocultural Era by Lennard Davis

In an era when human lives are increasingly measured and weighed in relation to the medical and scientific, notions of what is “normal” have changed drastically. While it is no longer useful to think of a person’s particular race, gender, sexual orientation, or choice as “normal,” the concept continues to haunt us in other ways. In The End of Normal, Lennard J. Davis explores changing perceptions of body and mind in social, cultural, and political life as the twenty-first century unfolds. The book’s provocative essays mine the worlds of advertising, film, literature, and the visual arts as they consider issues of disability, depression, physician-assisted suicide, medical diagnosis, transgender, and other identities.

Using contemporary discussions of biopower and biopolitics, Davis focuses on social and cultural production—particularly on issues around the different body and mind. The End of Normal seeks an analysis that works comfortably in the intersection between science, medicine, technology, and culture, and will appeal to those interested in cultural studies, bodily practices, disability, science and medical studies, feminist materialism, psychiatry, and psychology.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780472052028
Publisher: University of Michigan Press
Publication date: 12/31/2013
Pages: 168
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Lennard J. Davis is Distinguished Professor of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago in the departments of English, Disability and Human Development, and Medical Education.

Read an Excerpt

The End of Normal

Identity in a Biocultural Era

By Lennard J. Davis

The University of Michigan Press

Copyright © 2013 Lennard J. Davis
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-472-07202-6


The End of Normal

I begin with not only a counterintuitive claim but also one, for those familiar with my work, that will seem a form of self-heresy. If we are now living in an identity-culture eschaton in which people are asking whether we are "beyond identity," then could this development be related in some significant way to the demise of the concept of "normality"? Is it possible that normal, in its largest sense, which has done such heavy lifting in the area of eugenics, scientific racism, ableism, gender bias, homophobia, and so on, is playing itself out and losing its utility as a driving force in culture in general and academic culture in particular? And if normal is being decommissioned as a discursive organizer, what replaces it? I will argue that in its place the term diverse serves as the new normalizing term. Another way of putting this point, somewhat tautologically, is that diversity is the new normality.

Before I explain what I mean, I am obliged to lay out for those not familiar with my work what I have asserted in the past. In Enforcing Normalcy: Disability, Deafness, and the Body I argued that normalcy was a category that had been and is enforced in our culture. I argued that the rise of the concept of normality was tied to the rise of eugenics, statistics, and certain kinds of scientific claims about the human body, race, gender, class, intelligence, strength, fitness, and morality. I pointed out that the development in the nineteenth century of the concept of the normal person (l'homme moyen) by Adolphe Quetelet and of the bell curve by Sir Francis Galton acted as both scientific and a 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. Galton's genius was to change the bell curve to an ogive in which the extreme right side would flip upward and cease being the area of the abnormal. Rather the fourth or fifth quintile would become the location of very desirable traits — in his case, height, strength, intelligence, and even beauty.

Galton devised the ogive or the notion of quintiles because in actuality he was not promoting normality in the sense of being average — since that could also be another name for mediocrity. Rather, he was promoting eugenic betterment of the human race by encouraging the mating of people who had a kind of enhanced normality — which I have called "hyper-normality."

Galton used the concept of the normal curve and normality to camouflage what he actually wanted, which 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. Seeming to be an ideology of democracy and utilitarianism, the norm actually acted as a rationale for rule by elites. Doing that double work of appearing to maintain democratic ideals while promoting a new kind inequality, the concept of normality held powerful sway for more than 150 years. It has worked very nicely to consolidate the power of nations, institutions, bodies, and cultures over weaker entities, institutions, bodies, and cultures. The 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.

And the idea of normal was an effective rationale for a monocultural society that could define itself as the norm and standard. Immigrants, indigenous peoples, people of color, and foreigners were always going to be abnormal and were "proven" to be so using eugenically oriented biometric tests and measures.

I am not saying all that is over. The replacement of diverse for normal is a process of uneven development. Nor am I saying this is a bad thing. The idea of diversity has many things to recommend it over the concept of normal. On the surface we are better off abandoning some universal standard for bodies and cultures and acknowledging that there isn't one regnant or ideal body or culture — that all are in play concerning each other and should be equally valued. Diversity is in fact a much more democratic concept than normality since diversity applies to the broad range of the population unlike normality, which of course eschews the abnormal.

But it would be naive to see diversity as without ideological content. Diversity is well suited to the core beliefs of neoliberalism. Neoliberalism is premised on a deregulated global economy that replaces governments with markets and reconfigures the citizen into the consumer. The essence of this transformation of citizen into consumer is that identity is seen as a correlate of markets, and culture becomes lifestyle. One's lifestyle is activated by consumer choice — and this kind of choice becomes the essence of one's identity. If neoliberalism is premised on a culture in which lifestyle and choice predominate, then, as Will Kymlicka writes, "liberals extol the virtue of having a diversity of lifestyles within a culture, so presumably they also endorse the additional diversity which comes from having two or more cultures in the same country." As Manfred B. Steger and Ravi K. Roy note, global power elites, media giants, celebrities, and the like serve as "the advocates of neoliberalism" by saturating "the public discourse with idealized images of a consumerist free-market world."

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. Indeed, the citizen-consumer under neoliberalism is part of a diverse world that is, however, universally the same as far as consumption is concerned. As Steger and Roy point out, "The underlying assumption here is that markets and consumerist principles are universally applicable because they appeal to all (self-interested) human beings. Not even stark cultural differences should be seen as obstacles in the establishment of a single global free market in goods, services, and capital." Diversity may well be seen as the ideology that opens up consumerist free markets by arguing that we are all the same despite superficial differences like race, class, or gender.

How then, given the ideal of openness concerning diversity — where all are welcomed under the big tent of a diverse nationhood — do disabled bodies fit into this paradigm?

To begin answering this question, let's look to popular culture for some signposts. Walmart and Dove joined forces in an ad campaign called "Campaign for Real Beauty."

The advertisement shows us a diversity of women of color and national origins, a lesbian couple, a somewhat transsexual-looking woman playing basketball, and an older woman, as well as the usual white mother and daughter. All the women are full of life, engaging, but not beautiful by runway standards. They sing these lyrics:

Do your eyes sit wide?
Does your nose go to the side?
Does your elbow have a crinkle?
Do your knees sort of wrinkle?
Does your chest tend to freckle?
Do you have a crooked smile?
Do your eyes sit wide?
Do your ears sort of wiggle?
Does your hair make you giggle?
Does your neck grow long?
Do your hips sing a song?
Do your ears hang low?

A visual on the screen says

Let your beauty sing

The message being promulgated is that there is no normal when it comes to a woman's appearance. Diversity is all. And we can say that the key to the neoliberal subject is that when we visualize such bodies we see them ipso facto as diverse — but within certain constraints, as I will show.

This advertisement, along with many others, including the famous diversity series done by Benetton, reflects a trend to embrace the diversity of the human body within certain kinds of limits set by television and Hollywood, cherry-picking the aspects of diversity that appeal to a regnant paradigm. But while celebrating diverse bodies, the ads nowhere show us women with disabilities, obese, anorectic, depressed, cognitively or affectively disabled.

The concept of diversity currently is rendered operative largely by excluding groups that might be thought of as abject or hypermarginalized. It is difficult to imagine a commercial like the one I've described that would include homeless people, impoverished people, end-stage cancer patients, the comatose, heroin, crack, or methamphetamine addicts. These groups fall into the category of what might be called "bare life," or zoe in Georgio Agamben's terminology. Agamben distinguishes between bios, or life in the polis or political state, and zoe, bare life, which can be killed without sanction but cannot be sacrificed. Zoe is a life defined as not worthy of life, not worth living. For Agamben, though, the project of modernity and postmodernity is an attempt to reclaim zoe to bios, to create a biopolitics that involves technologies of life that recuperate zoe to some kind of political moment. But does diversity do the work of reclaiming zoe? In some serious sense we have to say it does not and cannot. It cannot because its vision of a universal consumer-citizen cannot include these groups, who are at base not consumers and most likely never will be.

This is not to say that there haven't been attempts to include disability in the kind of advertising we are discussing. But when such attempts are made, they generally are unsuccessful — most often using disability as a token diverse category and always making it the kind of disability that is photogenic — usually the looks-forward wheelchair athlete. In a rare case of focusing on a particular disability, Benetton created a campaign using models from the St. Valentine Institute in Ruhpolding, Germany. Most of the images are of children with Down syndrome who are likened to sunflowers. As the publicity for the campaign notes, sunflowers with "their stubborn joy and ... the docility with which they follow the sun" remind us of the smiles of the children of the Ruhpolding institute. This may be an attempt to include disability, but it is based on "normal" people's benevolent fantasies and not on the terms of disability lived by those children and others like them.

I want to make clear that I do believe it is a good thing that we are moving toward promoting diversity and away from enforcing normalcy. And there is both political and social progress in thinking of humans as diverse rather than normal or abnormal. But, in accepting this change, we should by no means feel that the new model avoids the pitfalls of what Foucault calls "technologies of life." 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. Indeed, 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.

If there are elements of social control in the idea of diversity, I would argue we can best see them by looking at how disability fits into or does not fit into the category of diversity. To begin to do this, I want to point to a dichotomy between the kind of subjectivity implied by diversity compared to the subjectivity given to disability. My point here is that the idea of diversity is linked to a postmodern concept of subjectivity as being malleable, mobile, and capable of being placed on a continuum, complex, socially constructed, and with a strong element of free play and choice. In contrast to this mutability, disability is seen as fixed — sharply defined by medical diagnosis and sometimes assigned to an abject position as "a life not worth living" or zoe. I will elaborate on this point for the remainder of this chapter, but I want to signal now the end run of this argument, which is that while diversity is the regnant ideology, the older concept of normal still holds sway, but only when it comes to disability, particularly when disabled subjectivity is constructed through medical models. Therefore, the ultimate question I raise is whether diversity can ever encompass disability, which is another way of asking whether diversity can ever encompass abnormality or whether bios under neoliberalism can ever encompass zoe.

To start discussing this general topic, I want to focus on the way that diverse subjectivity is broadly constructed. As I have noted, in postmodernity we can say about identities within diversity that they are always situated as complex, intersectional, and socially constructed — not as fixed or rigid. In this sense it would seem that the older reign of the "normal" with its simple and rigid notion of a norm could never apply to postmodern identitarian subjectivity.

There are of course identities that concern nationality, religion, and even party affiliation. But the pressing identities in the United States, at least, concern some aspect of embodiment — race/ethnicity, gender, and sexuality. In these areas postmodern thought has therefore eschewed thinking of such bodily categories as tied to an essential self. In the case of race, we use the word racialized to account for groups formerly thought of as a belonging to a "race." We now say definitively, based on genetic findings, that "there is no such thing as biological race, but of course there is still racism." Under these conditions, in some sense, we are thinking of race as something complexly social. Yet there is a return to genetics concerning race — which we now call "populations" with specific "genetic ancestry" — as geneticists attempt to construct notions of lines of descent through assemblages of HapMaps and SNPs. Yet no one would dare to say that one population was normal and another was not. Even popular television shows highlighting the DNA tracing of ancestry confound the old ideas of race by showing that Oprah, Skip Gates, and Sally Hemings's children are complexly made up of diverse genetic provenances.

It seems clear that postmodern identities are less bound to an embodied, fixed, assigned self and more to a socially constructed, technologically intervened body, which, as scholars like Victoria Pitts-Taylor have pointed out, one can choose to have. In other words, an older model of identity, and one tied to the ideology of "normal," might be considered essentialist and hierarchical, whereas the newer notion of identity appears to be chosen, constructed, and in that sense democratic.

Gender and sexual identities are clearly embodied but now are also seen as equally complex as race. We understand through thinkers like Judith Butler that gender is a performative category. Writers like Judith Halberstam and Leslie Feinberg teach us that gender is on a continuum and that sexual identities need not be tied to a specific kind of body. Queer and transgender studies have shown us that a single notion of normality is a procrustean bed in which no one really sleeps and from which everyone kicks off the covers. Genetics shows us that there are a variety of chromosomal identities that don't fit so easily into the gender binary created under the reign of normality.

By and large, diversity is dependent on the notion of what I have called the "biocultural." By a biocultural body, I want to indicate the complexity of embodied identity. Bodies can be 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. As Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari point out, the body is perhaps best thought of as a body without organs, a machine that produces effects. And more recently, Jasbir Puar has asked us to think of the queer body as a series of assemblages.

In contrast to this roving, complex, and shifting nature of identity that is part of the notion of the diverse, we run into a very different notion of disability. Disabled bodies are, in the current imaginary, constructed as fixed identities. Outside of the hothouse of disability studies and science studies, impairments are commonly seen as abnormal, medically determined, and certainly not socially constructed. This may be because disability is not seen as an identity in the same way as many see race, gender, and other embodied identities. And the reason for that is that disability is largely perceived as a medical problem and not a way of life involving choice.


Excerpted from The End of Normal by Lennard J. Davis. Copyright © 2013 Lennard J. Davis. Excerpted by permission of The University of Michigan Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Preface: Biocultural Identities vii

1 The End of Normal 1

2 Dismodernism Reconsidered 15

3 Disability in the Media; or, Why Don't Disabled Actors Play Disabled Roles? 31

4 Depression and Disability 43

5 Stumped by Genes: DNA, Disability, and Prosthesis 68

6 Diagnosis: A Biocultural Critique of Certainty 82

7 A Disability Studies Case for Physician-Assisted Suicide 95

8 Transgendered Freud 108

9 The Biocultures Manifesto (cowritten with David Morris) 121

10 Biocultural Knowledge 129

Notes 137

Index 149

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