Lennard J. Davis, Enforcing Normalcy

Lennard J. Davis’s work has been formative for the corpus of disability studies. His concept of the norm was one of the first keywords I came across when I began learning about the field, and it is a concept I have spent some time writing against for the past few years. In Enforcing Normalcy, Davis argues that disability is not an individual problem but a social, cultural, and political category created by the concept of the norm, or as he puts it, “disability is not an object but a social process” (2). (In his examination of disability at the societal and not the individual level, he concurs with Kafer.) Disability tends to be left out of universalizing categories, the big three of which include race, class, and gender. Since disability is seen as an individual problem and not a political category (or a concern for what he calls the “temporarily able-bodied”), it is not included in wider categories of oppression. While he argues for its inclusion, he also argues that disability is constructed in part by the gaze of the non-disabled toward the disabled: it controls the disabled person and the abled response (revulsion, pity, etc.) becomes seen as the “normal” response to disability rather than a socially constructed phenomenon.

This brings us back to the concept of the norm. Davis argues that normalcy creates the “problem” of the disabled person; without the norm, disability is not conceived of as a problem in the same way. The concept of disability as a social factor and the concept of the normal emerge around the same time, in the 1800s. This emergence is contemporaneous with the field of statistics, which Davis points out has its roots in eugenics. The word normal, Davis argues, is emblematic of and allows a shift from idealizing particular bodies in an aesthetic sense, to actively wanting to (or being pushed to) become them.

Premodern societies, coming before the invention of the word normal, instead have the “ideal”, which categorizes the divine, and “grotesque”, which is for the earthly and human. By definition, humans cannot reach the ideal; when society transitions to the norm, there is immense pressure to reach the “average” and exceed it. The ability to maximize the human body, sometimes through eugenics, is pushed by “ranked order” approaches into a normalizing force that pushes disability out of the space of the average at best, and works to eradicate it at worst. This reminds me of Alison Kafer’s concept of curative time– a form of futurism that cannot imagine happy disabled futures. The crux of this part of Davis’s argument, and my main issue with it, is that since disability as a social construct is brought into being by the normal and statistics, there can be no social idea of disability in the premodern period, or even before the nineteenth century.

I had the privilege of reviewing Elizabeth Bearden’s book Monstrous Kinds: Body, Space and Narrative in Renaissance Representations of Disability. In that book, she pushes back against the norm’s relationship to early modern and medieval bodies: namely, the idea that just because the word “norm” did not exist, that there was no norming influence at play. If it’s not clear, I agree with Bearden. The absence of statistics and the word “normal” doesn’t negate the fact that influences like the law, religious discourse, and even popular opinion distinguish between natural or healthy bodies and unnatural or unhealthy ones. It’s true that it was sometimes seen as impossible for humans to be unnatural, because humans are part of nature by default; I would argue however that stories of monstrous births and other early explanations for disability do cast the disabled person as outside humanity and/or nature. In either case, it is clear that although the normal is a useful category for defining the emergence of eugenics and its normalizing drive with respect to disability, it is less useful for dividing up the existence of disability in the early modern period and before.

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