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Lennard J. Davis, Enforcing Normalcy: Disability, Deafness and the Body

London: Verso, 1995.

Reviewed by Deborah Marks

Accompanying my review copy of Enforcing Normalcy I received a publicity flyer with the usual eulogies about the text. Included within this was an appraisal by Oliver Sacks stating that the book offers, 'a unique perspective which should fascinate not only Deaf people and those concerned with them, but also a much wider audience... a very good mixture of objectivity and empathy'. Having read Enforcing Normalcy, I am now left wondering whether Sacks is talking out his own book on Deafness - Seeing Voices - rather than Davis' text. 'Objectivity' suggests detachment. 'Empathy' emerges when one imagines oneself in a similar situation as that of an 'other'. Both terms are used when assessing the appraisal of the life of someone else's life. However, Enforcing Normalcy is expressly not about the anthropological Others addressed by Sacks in his objective and empathic writing. Rather, Davis attempts a more challenging offering. He presents a theorisation of the cultural construction and maintenance of the boundary between the hearing and the deaf, disabled and abled, normal and abnormal. He also expresses commitment (albeit at a rather abstract level) to a liberatory politics which challenges an oppressive disablist society. His book is thus not about 'the Deaf', but rather, about social relationships and the constitution of differences within specific cultural contexts.

Enforcing Normalcy begins by noting that whilst fashionable discourse theory has devoted a great deal of attention to unruly, transgressive bodies as the site of jouissance, excess and pleasure, there is a strange silence and even a repression of the 'disabled' body. In the academy attempts to include disability within the curriculum are met with expressions of concern that such courses will 'water down' scholarship. I wondered whether Davis was overstating his case somewhat in his suggestion that opposition to the inclusion of disability frequently comes from people traditionally working in critical areas such as feminism, anti-racism and class theory. However, I would agree with him about the reason for the marginalisation of Disability Studies. Disability continues to be perceived as being about disabled people. As such, disability is seen as being concerned with issues such as 'self-esteem', relevant only to disabled people and their 'carers'. As Davis aptly comments, 'the concept of disability has been relegated to a side-show, a freak show at that, far away from the academic midway of progressive ideas and concerns' (p. l58).

As a colleague of Davis noted, 'people don't come to sessions on Disability'. This comment represents the central problematic for Enforcing Normalcy. Davis charges the critical left academy, alongside mainstream disablist culture, with the repression of the 'deformed, maimed, mutilated, broken and diseased' body.

The first two chapters offer a succinct, if somewhat well worn, review of the historical constitution of disability. (Many of Davis' examples are drawn from a growing 'cannon' of work frequently quoted within Disability Studies such as Bogdan, 1988; Gartner and Joe, 1987; Groce, 1985 and Oliver, 1990). Davis identifies the social context in which impairments become disabling in Western society. He identifies regulatory practices associated with the factory system and eugenic policies, both of which required uniformly disciplined and statistically 'normal' (ideal) bodies. Such a review demonstrates the cultural contingency with which certain bodily differences become disabilities.

The author demonstrates a central paradox in contemporary culture. Impairment is a normal part of the human condition, yet is marginalised and invisible within mainstream culture. The impaired body represents the repressed underside of the category of the 'normal' body. Just a cursory look at official statistics indicates there are about six million disabled people in the UK and forty million disabled people in the USA. Disability is not a side issue but rather a central and pervasive theme in Hollywood movies, as has been demonstrated by Nordon (1994). Yet mainstream culture remains oblivious to the pervasive presence of disability. Disability is everywhere, but able bodied people cannot bear to think about disability, since it challenges their own fantasies of wholeness.

Drawing upon Lacan, Davis suggests that disability represents the repressed Real. The imaginary work required to create a unified sense of wholeness is threatened when the 'able' person confronts the body which is symbolically constituted as fragmented, disordered and incomplete. This is why the disabled body creates a sense of the uncanny. It reminds us of an earlier, now repressed stage of early experience, prior to the establishment of a unitary sense of self.

Enforcing Normalcy becomes particularly interesting, in Chapter Three. Here, Davis documents the constitution of Deaf people within modern culture. (I am following the convention with Deaf studies to use a capitol D when referring to the cultural group of sign language users, and d when referring to people with impaired hearing.) Prior to the 1600's, deaf people existed primarily as isolated individuals with 'hearing impairments'. Davis identifies a marked rise in the centrality of the category of deafness, in the Enlightenment. From 1600 to 1800, alongside the development of print technologies, there was a marked growth in literacy. Reading required 'muteness and attention to non-verbal signs'. As such, reading makes the hearing person temporarily 'deaf'. Under such circumstances, 'the deaf person became the totemic representation of the new [temporarily deafened] reading public... The fascination with conversation in the eighteenth century can be seen as a kind of cultural nostalgia for a form that was in the process of becoming an anachronism...' (p62). In other words, deaf people came to represent a loss in the importance of oral communication. By representing such a loss, Davis suggests that 'as with any good totem, the deaf person was both universalised and marginalised' (pp.62-3).

The suggestion implied (although not explicity stated) seems to be that, in the era of literacy (and a highly visual culture), deaf people's historical 'moment' has arrived. A similar argument might be made for people who are paralysed, but are able to navigate their way around cyberspace with as much agility as the most 'normal' of able bodies. If this is the point that Davis is trying to make (and I have quite possibly misunderstood his argument), I would have appreciated further clarification of its implications. In any event, this, as with several other interesting observations in the book is left undeveloped.

Davis goes on (in Chapter Five) to look at the specific psychological resonance's which silence has for hearing people in modern culture. He writes, 'silence equals death, absence, meaninglessness. . . ' (p. lO9). 'Silence.. . is local, it is particular, not systematic or totalising. ' (p. l12). As such, the deaf person violates modernist rules of narrativity. However, silence is also a necessary condition for speech. It accounts for meaning and frames articulation. As such, the consideration of deafness goes to the very heart of issues about representation, communication [and] language' (p. 124). What Davis seems to be arguing is that the concepts of deafness and muteness are both necessary and subversive for hearing culture. Ultimately, sign language seems to operate as a reminder of the arbitrary nature of speech, as a communicative form.

This point struck a chord with me. As an occasional hearing voyeur of sign language users, I have marvelled at the inaccessibility yet apparent transparency with which signers communicated. This experience, however, felt similar to the one of watching and failing to comprehend people speaking Spanish. I was left wondering about the cultural significance of Davis' argument about a visual language and how much further he takes us beyond the argument Deaf people should be seen as a cultural or national group.

The case for Deaf nationhood is addressed in Chapter Four. Deaf people have their own distinct language. This language has been subject to various attempts at suppression, through oralist teaching (until recently, deaf children had their hands tied to prevent signing). Davis documents interesting historical connections between Deaf, working-class and racialised groups.

Enforcing Normalcy ends on a somewhat weaker note. The last chapter offers a rather eclectic selection of concluding comments. The author suggests, among other things, that the topic of disability should be taught across the curriculum. He also points out that disabled people's lives are less valued. This is demonstrated by the continuing support for eugenics and euthanasia for impaired foetuses and people. Finally, in criminal trails, deaf people who do not know sign language are of often denied civil rights and placed in mental institutions. Whilst such observations are clearly valuable exemplars in a critique of the oppression which disabled people continue to suffer, I would have expected more from a chapter entitled 'Uneasy Positions Disability and Multiculturalism' Specifically, I hoped that Davis would offer a more coherent analysis of ways of disrupting enforced normalcy. How, for example, can the Disabled People's Movement actively resist disablism? Whilst Davis refers to the photography of Mary Duffy and Jo Spence, he makes little reference to the wider burgeoning Disability Arts Movement.

Such a criticism extends, in greater or lesser extent, to the whole book, which tends to offer a somewhat schematic historical and cultural analysis, much of which is relatively commonplace for writers within Disability Studies. I regret that Davis does not offer a more detailed review of the social theories he discusses. For example, he refers to the concept of splitting, but fails to go much beyond Fielder (1978) and Bogdan (1988) in analysing the 'pathology' of disablism. Maybe I just regret the fact that Enforcing Normalcy is not a bigger book. Despite the quibbles I have expressed here, it does make a number of interesting connections necessary for able-bodied readers, immersed as they are, in ablist 'critical' theory. It offers a timely contribution to the growing theorisation of Disability. It should be a core text for readers of cultural studies.



Bogdan, R. (1988) Freak Show: Presenting Human Oddities for Amusement and Profit, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Nordon, M. F. (1994) Cinema of Isolation: A History of Physical Disability in the Movies, New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.

Gartner, A. and Joe, T. (eds) (1987) Images of the Disabled: Disabling Images, New York, Praeger.

Groce, N. E. (1985) Everyone Here Spoke Sign Language: Hereditary Deafness on Martha's Vineyard, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University

Oliver, M. (1990) The Politics of Disablement: A Sociological Approach, London: Macmillan.

Copyright: The Author and Publisher

Address for correspondence: Centre for Psychotherapeutic Studies Sheffield University, 16 Claremont Crescent, Sheffield S10 2TA

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Ian Pitchford and Robert M. Young - Last updated: 28 May, 2005 02:29 PM

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