Friday Philosophy: The Normativity Prison

Earlier this week, Caractacus ventured into the world of Michel Foucault.  It’s a world which with, although I am not a philosopher, I have become quite familiar.

We people of the trans variety have often had to deal with the concept of normativity, a concept which Foucault wrote about rather extensively.

If you have not read any Foucault, you probably should, though I should warn you that there will be heavy lifting.  After all, in 2007, Foucault was classified as the most cited intellectual in the humanities.

First off, let’s try to get a grip on the word “normativity”.  

In philosophy, normative statements affirm how things ought to be, how to value them, which things are good or bad, which actions are right or wrong.  Normative is usually contrasted with positive…  Positive statements are factual statements that attempt to describe reality.

When I’m all alone it’s

the best way to be.

When I’m by myself

nobody else can say goodbye.

One of the main features in power relations is the assumption that those in power define how things ought to be…how life ought to be lived and so forth.  In essence, those in power (the ever present THEY), construct the rules which everyone else has to adopt in order to live comfortably within the society.  If you have never conceived of normativity, it is quite likely because you have never come face-to-the-wall with the boundaries placed on how to live in the normality prison.  If you need a bit more to open your eyes, what we are talking about here includes the promotion of exactly what kind of behavior is socially valued and how that acts in order to keep people in line.  Two popular examples:  “family values” and “common sense”.

The question is whether there is a conceptually plausible alternative. Does normative discourse ever have a leg to stand on? Or is it inevitably the will to power donning apparently benign legislative garb in order to disguise its true face?

This may sound like an abstract philosophical question to which the answer makes as little difference in everyday life as do those to many other such questions. But at the individual level, there is nothing abstract about it.

When I see something that makes me cringe, and that is attributable to the behavior of human beings, there comes into play an almost irresistible inclination on my part to shift into legislative mode. I instinctively reach for normative discourse: people should not, ought not, do this; their doing it is redolent of a defective sensibility, of impaired moral health, of vice posturing as virtue, and so on. If pressed, I have at my disposal a large arsenal of concepts, as well as fair amount of skill in weaving them together and bringing them to bear, so as to defend my reaction and make my point of view prevail. To all that equipment, one might add vigorous emotional resources like anger, self-righteous indignation, and hatred, in case they are needed.

–A. Serge Kappler, Common Ground

There’s a monster

living under my bed,

whispering in my ear.

Kappler describes well what people like myself are battling against…the desire to legislate against that which people do not understand.

But controlling what people do is only one feature of power.

A distinctive feature of modern power (disciplinary control) is its concern with what people have not done (nonobservence), with, that is, a person’s failure to reach required standards. This concern illustrates the primary function of modern disciplinary systems: to correct deviant behavior. The goal is not revenge (as in the case of the tortures of premodern punishment) but reform, where, of course, reform means coming to live by society’s standards or norms. Discipline through imposing precise norms (“normalization”) is quite different from the older system of judicial punishment, which merely judges each action as allowed by the law or not allowed by the law and does not say that those judged are “normal” or “abnormal”. This idea of normalization is pervasive in our society: e.g., national standards for educational programs, for medical practice, for industrial processes and products.

Normalization is all about the elimination of deviance.  Now if you ask 100 people on the street if deviance is good or bad, the vast majority of them are going to say it is bad.  But deviance is not inherently bad.  Deviant only means violating “cultural norms”, which include crimes and social norms:

All my life’s a circle

But I can’t tell you why

Season’s spinning round again

The years keep rollin’ by

the rules that a group uses for appropriate and inappropriate values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors.  These rules may be explicit or implicit. Failure to follow the rules can result in severe punishments, including exclusion from the group.

In philosophy, norms are rather often thought of as reasons to act, feel, or believe.  Logically, norms are sentences with action-oriented importance:  commands, permissions, and prohibitions.

And here is where my identity comes into play.  I am deviant.  I revel in my deviance.  Give me a norm and I will look for a loophole.  I’ve been looking for those loopholes all my life.

People should be free to live their lives the way they think appropriate…not by your rules or my rules, but as long as they aren’t harming others, by the rules they think work best for themselves.

I have always thought that and I always will.

Redefine the norms.  Set my people free.

Ouside the Box

Outside the Lines

We seek lives of color

in a world bent

on casting us

into the dark recesses

of human existence

Our voices are

too often silenced

by depriving us

of the essence

of equal lives

Meaningful employment

a place to live

a community to engage

and help mold

into a better place

I wish only

to be able to retire

before I die

as a free and equal citizen

Is that too much to ask?

–Robyn Elaine Serven

–February 12, 2010


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    • Robyn on May 22, 2010 at 00:01

    …trying to fight against the ball and chain of being “normal”.  I’ve won that battle for myself, I think…but I will still fight it for others.

    The poem above is not that old, but I paired it with a new graphic.

  1. …. you were not created outside the standard of the mean deviation without a reason unless one concedes that the Creator was imperfect.

    I just had to throw that in there for the head explosion properties, as I can read this as you meant it because I had some of the math/science training, but I can think in religious terms, which makes the political fundigelicals a little bit crayzee.

    Or, as I said to the religious guy who believes in one of those uber hierarchal family units, which claims that the bonds of the family are eternal, said topic about Arizona law and the ICE deportations targeting Latino/Hispanic Catholic families, that blend that with ancient New World paganism,

    How are those “family values” working out for you, lately ?

    • Robyn on May 22, 2010 at 00:58

    …available in Orange.

    • Edger on May 22, 2010 at 01:04

    is pretty sick and twisted and needs treatment or prosecution.

    Deviance is a good way to remain sane, I think, no?

  2. number of possibilities born out of a cosmic/earthly stew.

    When I was in grammar school in the 50’s, I remember day dreaming and trying my hardest to imagine that nothing existed. It was an extraordinary feeling much more than a thought process. And when I was, and am, brought back to our earthly reality, there is the sensation of being in “two” (for the lack of a better concept) universes (being and not being).

    In talking about normative behaviour, I think of group accepted rituals and how they “seem” essential to the community but irrelevant to the individual in isolated meditation. I see it as a behavioural game: One game is for ourselves and the other for the group. Personally, I sense a need to orient myself to the “group” and posture myself in an artificial manner with each social context requiring a slightly different mask.

    I would love to see the barriers between the I and the We melt away. Yet our society seems to be yet still hooked to another order of dichotomy, that of the barbarous We and They. Normative behaviour expects the I and We to be very compatible, sort of on the same team in order to confront the They, the Other, the Strange, the Alien etc.  

    Wittgensein notes: How could human behaviour be described?

    Surely only by sketching the actions of a variety of humans, as they are all mixed up together. What determines our judgment, our concepts and reactions, is not what one man is doing now, an individual action, but the whole hurly-burly of human actions, the background against which we see any action.

    I believe our judgment can be refined to reflect greater understanding if we (and as individuals of course) can appreciate the incredible variety of human behaviour, the diverse background of the human tapestry. I think communication, as well as how we live our lives, are forms of art. But I prefer the art of inspiration and compassion over the art of fear and hatred. Perhaps man’s survival depends on the choices he makes, how he wants to express himself.  

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