Sunday, July 29, 2012

what is normal?

Lately, I feel like I've been led ineluctably to this question, all of my life. Most recently, I've been led there by the confluence of what I've been reading about what is normal, abnormal, or otherwise than either, in our perception, our desires, and our ways of being -- in queer theory, transgender studies, phenomenology, and post-structuralism. But I've been thinking about it today, and I realize that the normal/abnormal/pathological issue has been fundamental to my life, just about all my life.

Given who tends to read these posts, I'm probably preaching to the choir on this point. That's as may be.

I have never felt myself to be normal -- socially, physically, psychologically, or in almost any other way. (Including syntactically! The first version of that sentence read: "I have never felt myself -- socially, physically, psychologically, or in almost any other way -- to be normal

In the astoundingly brilliant -- and, I would argue, thoroughly readable for non-experts (see, I've done it again!) -- The Normal and the Pathological, Georges Canguilhem critiques several medical concepts of normal and pathological as defined by physiologists, medical doctors, biologists, and so forth, over time. Canguilhem divides the kinds of definitions into two basic, fairly rough categories, that I consider to be "statistical normal" and "normal as equilibrium."

I won't go into depth. I want to give you the provocations, and let you fume.

Statistically, if you're outside the range of data points of 68.26%* of the population for some characteristic, it's time to ask questions, because you could be abnormal. Fun upshot of this: It's possible that you have a normal non-fevery temperature of 100 degrees, but there's only a 14% likelihood that you do, absent fighting an infection.

Think of the implications of this for such phenomena as: (1) your likelihood of weeping during a performance of Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2, (2) how much you might potentially enjoy having sex in public, (3) whether you're left-handed, (4) your likelihood of having seen The Sound of Music more than four times. I know! This is a main reason I love philosophy.

Equilibrium-wise, consider someone who grew up in the east, especially the northeast, where there are frigid winters, a lot of rain, humidity up the [omitted -- Ed.], and you move to a hot dry place (in, I dunno, central California). A normal body will come to feel that this is in some way normal for the climate, and, upon returning to that northeastern clime, have much less tolerance for it.

So, is the body attuned to dry hot central California normal? Is the person with a daily temperature of 97.6 degrees normal? Is the person who used to prefer extremely vanilla sex who is now building a dungeon normal?


* 68.26% is the number Canguilhem takes from Gauss to describe the average of a population, in contrast to the more familiar mathematical average.

1 comment:

Bobo the Wandering Pallbearer said...

Honestly, I have to stop you at "I have never felt myself." Remember, I went to college with you, bub!