(Don't) Norm Me, Baby: A Hard Balancing Act

(for my teeny group of semiregular readers, this post and others over the course of the summer are in response to and reflection on readings in a Cyborgs, Prosthetics, and Rhetorics course. I’m trying (and sometimes too hard) to meld it with my own interests in writing technologies, and so the results are intellectually rewarding to me if not theoretically satisfying to you.)

Among the (many) critical insights from Canguilhem’s The Normal and the Pathological, in his “Critical Examination of Certain Concepts” was this following passage, about the meaning that the word “normal” assumes in medicine: “It is life itself and not medical judgment which makes the biological normal a concept of value and not a concept of statistical reality.” Throughout these readings, I was continually pulled back to the question (as were they) of the origin of norms. Whence come the norms? How do they form? How do we assess them?

For Canguilhem, biological normal is determined by the sick man–it is a concept that is relative and individual. But relative and individual to what? Thomson’s discussion of Goffman, Douglas, and Foucault complicates this question. In chapter two of Extraordinary Bodies, Thomson arrives at the point that “the physically disabled figure [is] a culturally and historically specific social construction. So Canguilhem (unless I’m misreading) argues that norms come from life, from individuals; Thomson claims in a variety of ways that norms are culturally or socially constructed. Are these opposites? Does one subordinate to the other? The sick man knows he’s sick for two possible reasons: comparison to his own normal capacities for activity, or stigma from his community. Is the first option a construction? For Thomson, in her discussion of modern society and liberal individualism, it would seem that the value of work, capacity, or discipline is indeed a construction of Foucaultian proportions. Yet this construction is–as Foucault reminds us–historically situated. I wonder the process of construction was for Aristotle’s philosophical conception of the generic type… Do social norms construct individual understandings of life? Or do individual understandings of life construct social norms? No doubt this is a highly recursive relationship, and perhaps it’s a chicken/egg question, but it’s a question that’s been picking at me, regardless. Life is normative, and society is normative, but what’s the distinction?

I’m not sure where this is going. Regardless, the back-and-forth is indicative of the larger balancing act I’ve been seeing in this set of readings. That is, there is a teasing out of binaries going on, one that criticizes and upholds these binaries at the same time–a philosophical and methodological balancing act that shows a great deal of sophistication, but that can be dangerous. Some of the binaries I’ve been thinking about thus far include the following: facts/values; anomaly/abnormality; real difference/oppressive categorization; claiming of difference/casting difference as lack; essentialism/constructionism; fixist abnormality/transformist abnormality; claiming/interrogating useful fictions.

What’s the real buy-in for me of all of this exploration, of “where do norms come from?” (I can imagine a pink and blue book cover with a stork prominently placed to the bottom right.) That is, how can I bring this back to writing technologies and my own theoretical assessment of ‘naturalness’?

Here’s the question that Canguilhem & his discussion of abnormality helped me to frame: Do students come to us (writing teachers, especially in college) because they aren’t in a “normal” state in the same way as a patient comes to the medic? (And is there an ethical problem with binding this up in a medical metaphor?) Or, do they come to our classroom because we’ve told them they’re not normal (whether in voice, style, technology, etcetera)? I think the answer is obvious, as we include composition in general education and required service courses across the board. The more interesting question is, is there an ethical problem worth solving here? Or is it just a question for the sake of asking a question?

This set of questions is far from new; that they lurk unanswered makes them all the more important to ask. (At the risk of lengthy polemic, I’ll stop here.)


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