chapter  1
14 Pages

Introduction: Disability, Normality, and Power

We live in a world of norms. Each of us endeavors to be normal or else deliberately tries to avoid that state.We considerwhat 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 onwhat 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 inwhich 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 and intersectionality, I would like to focus not somuch 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 theway 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 orientation, and so on. I begin with the rather remarkable fact that the constellation of words describing this

concept ‘‘normal,’’ ‘‘normalcy,’’ ‘‘normality,’’ ‘‘norm,’’ ‘‘average,’’ ‘‘abnormal’’—all entered the European languages rather late in human history. 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 1840. (Previously, the word had meant ‘‘perpendicular’’; the carpenter’s square, called a ‘‘norm,’’ provided the root meaning.) Likewise, the word ‘‘norm,’’ in the modern sense, has only been in use since around 1855, and ‘‘normality’’ and ‘‘normalcy’’ appeared in 1849 and 1857, 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 1840-1860. 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 history, one can nevertheless try to imagine a world in which the concept of normality does not exist. Rather, what we have is the ideal body, as exemplified in the tradition of nude Venuses, for example. This idea presents amytho-poetic body that is linked to that of the gods (in traditions in which the god’s body is visualized). 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 livingmodels. Thesemodels individually can never embody the ideal since an ideal, by definition, cannever be found in thisworld. Pliny tells us that theGreek artist Zeuxis tried to paint Aphrodite, the goddess of love, by using as his models 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 the goddess. One young woman provides a face and another her breasts. 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. And there is no social pressure, we would imagine, that populations have bodies that conform to the ideal. If the concept of the normor 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. It was the French statistician Adolphe Quetelet (1796-1847) who contributed the most to a generalized 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. He then took a further step of formulating the concept of ‘‘l’homme moyen’’ or the average man. Quetelet maintained that this abstract human was the average of all human attributes in a given country. Quetelet’s average man was a combination of l’homme moyen physique and l’homme moyen morale, both a physically average and a morally average construct. With such thinking, the average then becomes paradoxically a kind of ideal, a position

devoutly to be wished. As Quetelet wrote, ‘‘an individual who epitomized in himself, at a given time, all the qualities of the averageman,would represent at once all the greatness, beauty and goodness of that being’’ (cited in Porter 1986, 102). 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: ‘‘deviationsmore or less great from themean have constituted [for artists] ugliness in body as well as vice in morals and a state of sickness with regard to the constitution’’ (ibid., 103). Here Zeuxis’s notion of physical beauty as an exceptional ideal becomes transformed into beauty as the average. 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. Marx actually cites Quetelet’s notion of the average man in a discussion of the labor theory of value. 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 astronomer’s ‘‘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 normcomes the concept of deviations or extremes. When we think of bodies, in a society where the concept of the norm is operative, then peoplewith disabilitieswill be thought of as deviants. This, aswehave seen, is in contrast to societies with the concept of an ideal, in which all people have a non-ideal status.1