The Disability Studies Reader
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The Disability Studies Reader

Lennard J. Davis, Lennard J. Davis

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The Disability Studies Reader

Lennard J. Davis, Lennard J. Davis

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The fifth edition of The Disability Studies Reader addresses the post-identity theoretical landscape by emphasizing questions of interdependency and independence, the human-animal relationship, and issues around the construction or materiality of gender, the body, and sexuality. Selections explore the underlying biases of medical and scientific experiments and explode the binary of the sound and the diseased mind. The collection addresses physical disabilities, but as always investigates issues around pain, mental disability, and invisible disabilities as well. Featuring a new generation of scholars who are dealing with the most current issues, the fifth edition continues the Reader 's tradition of remaining timely, urgent, and critical.

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Introduction: Disability, Normality, and Power

Lennard J. Davis


In this introduction to the Disability Studies Reader, Lennard J. Davis tells us that “we live in a world of norms” that influences every part of contemporary life. Understanding how and why we think of something as normal is an important part of understanding the disabled body. Davis tells us that the “problem” of disability does not lie with the person with disabilities but rather in the way that normalcy is constructed.
Davis makes the point that despite appearing to be universal, norms haven’t always existed. The concept of a norm is constructed, historically speaking, as a reaction to the concept of the ideal human body, and it “implies that the majority of the population must or should be somehow part of the norm.” Instead of accepting that all bodies are not ideal, the power of the norm makes it so that people are described as deviant if their bodies don’t match the norm.
By deviating from the norm, people become defined and identified by these irrepressible physical qualities. Davis shows how eugenics and statistics developed in tandem to criminalize and dehumanize people with these qualities while the idea of progressive human perfectibility created a dominant idea of what the body should be. Believing that norms were scientifically true led to the idea that those norms were desirable, and this association permeated everything from political ideology to psychoanalytic practice and literature. This is a legacy that people with disabilities are still having trouble living down. Davis introduces the critical approach to this Reader by pointing out that a disabilities-studies consciousness can open new possibilities for the way we read novels, analyze cultural forces, and think about the history of normality.
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. We consume a minimum daily balance of vitamins and nutrients based on what 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 in which 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 so much 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 the way 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 a mytho-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 living models. These models individually can never embody the ideal since an ideal, by definition, can never be found in this world. Pliny tells us that the Greek 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 norm or 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 average man, 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: “deviations more or less great from the mean 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 norm comes the concept of deviations or extremes. When we think of bodies, in a society where the concept of the norm is operative, then people with disabilities will be thought of as deviants. This, as we have seen, is in contrast to societies with the concept of an ideal, in which all people have a non-ideal status.1
In England, there was a burst of interest in statistics during the 1830s. A statistical office was set up at the Board of Trade in 1832, and the General Register Office was created in 1837 to collect vital statistics. The use of statistics began an important movement, and there is a telling connection for the purposes of this essay between the founders of statistics and their larger intentions. The rather amazing fact is that almost all the early statisticians had one thing in common: they were eugenicists. The same is true of key figures in the eugenics movement: Sir Francis Galton, Karl Pearson, and R. A. Fisher.2 While this coincidence seems almost too striking to be true, we must remember that 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. An important consequence of the idea of the norm is that it divides the total population into standard and nonstandard subpopulations. The next step in conceiving of the population as norm and non-norm is for the state to attempt to norm the nonstandard—the aim of eugenics. Of course such an activity is profoundly paradoxical since the inviolable rule of statistics is that all phenomena will always conform to a bell curve. So norming the non-normal is an activity as problematic as untying the Gordian knot.
MacKenzie asserts that it is not so much that Galton’s statistics made possible eugenics but rather that “the needs of eugenics in large part determined the content of Galton’s statistical theory” (1981, 52). In any case, a symbiotic relationship exists between statistical science and eugenic concerns. Both bring into society the concept of a norm, particularly a normal body, and thus in effect create the concept of the disabled body.
It is also worth noting the interesting triangulation of eugenicist interests. On the one hand Sir Francis Galton was cousin to Charles Darwin, whose notion of the evolutionary advantage of the fittest lays the foundation for eugenics and also for the idea of a perfectible body undergoing progressive improvement. As one scholar has put it, “Eugenics was in reality applied biology based on the central biological theory of the day, namely the Darwinian theory of evolution” (Farrall 1985, 55). Darwin’s ideas serve to place disabled people along the wayside as evolutionary defectives to be surpassed by natural selection. So, eugenics became obsessed with the elimination of “defectives,” a category which included the “feebleminded,” the deaf, the blind, the physically defective, and so on.
In a related discourse, Galton created the modern system of fingerprinting for personal identification. Galton’s interest came out of a desire to show that certain physical traits could be inherited. As he wrote:
one of the inducements to making these inquiries into personal identification has been to discover independent features suitable for hereditary investigation. …it is not improbable, and worth taking pains to inquire whether each person may not carry visibly about his body undeniable evidence of his parentage and near kinships.
(cited in MacKenzie 1981, 65)
Fingerprinting was seen as a physical mark of parentage, a kind of serial number written on the body. But further, one can say that the notion of fingerprinting pushes forward the idea that the human body is standardized and contains a serial number, as it were, embedded in its corporeality. Thus the body has an identity that coincides with its essence and cannot be altered by moral, artistic, or human will. This indelibility of corporeal identity only furthers the mark placed on the body by other physical qualities—intelligence, height, reaction time. By this logic, the person enters into an identical relationship with the body, the body forms the identity, and the identity is unchangeable and indelible as one’s place on the normal curve. For our purposes, then, this fingerprinting of the body means that the marks of physical difference become synonymous with the identity of the person.
Finally, Galton can be linked to that other major figure connected with the discourse of disability in the nineteenth century—Alexander Graham Bell. In 1883, the same year that Galton coined the term “eugenics,” Bell delivered his eugenicist speech Memoir upon the Formation of a Deaf Variety of the Human Race, warning of the “tendency among deaf-mutes to select deaf-mutes as their partners in marriage” (1969, 19) with the dire consequence that a race of deaf people might be created. This echoing of Dr. Frankenstein’s fear that his monster might mate and produce a race of monsters emphasizes the terror with which the “normal” beholds the differently abled.3 Noting how the various interests come together in Galton, we can see evolution, fingerprinting, and the attempt to control the reproductive rights of the deaf as all pointing to a conception of the body as perfectible but only when subject to the necessary control of the eugenicists. The identity of people becomes defined by irrepressible identificatory physical qualities that can be measured. Deviance from the norm can be identified and indeed criminalized, particularly in the sense that fingerprints came to be associated with identifying deviants who wished to hide their identities.
Galton made significant changes in statistical theory that created the concept of the norm. He took what had been called “error theory,” a technique by which astronomers attempted to show that one could locate a star by taking into account the variety of sightings. The sightings, all of which could not be correct, if plotted would fall into a bell curve, with most sightings falling into the center, that is to say, the correct location of the star. The errors would fall to the sides of the bell curve. Galton’s contribution to statistics was to change the name of the curve from “the law of frequency of error” or “error curve,” the term used by Quetelet, to the “normal distribution” curve.
The significance of these changes relates directly to Galton’s eugenicist interests. In an “error curve” the extremes of the curve are the most mistaken in accuracy. But if one is looking at human traits, then the extremes, particularly what Galton saw as positive extremes—tallness, high intelligence, ambitiousness, strength, fertility—would have to ...

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