Friday, July 12, 2013

normal, abnormal, and problems

From the standpoint of persons who regard themselves as normally sexed, their environment has a perceivedly normal sex composition. This composition is rigorously dichotomized into the ‘natural,’ i.e., moral, entities of male and female. 
For such members perceived environments of sexed persons are populated with natural males, natural females, and persons who stand in moral contrast with them, i.e., incompetent, criminal, sick, and sinful. 
The members of the normal population, for him the bona fide members of that population, are essentially, originally, in the first place, always have been, and always will be, once and for all, in the final analysis, either 'male’ or ‘female.’

      -- Harold Garfinkel, "Passing," in The Transgender Studies Reader, pp. 59, 62, 62

This illustrates starkly why normality matters. I assume that, 53 years after Garfinkel published “Passing,” a sizable minority of the population of the US understands that the characteristics of sexed bodies range along spectra of both genotypic and phenotypic traits, as well as that sexual behavior is wide-ranging. This seems pertinent to a slight shift in attitudes toward sexual variation and what I am sorry to have to call tolerance toward abnormalities. (Easy, I suppose, for the polymorphously perverse to say.) The assumption of sex binarism remains powerfully normative.

So when Husserl analyzes the “normality” of the prevailing surrounding world, as the background horizon of all our everyday activity, it’s hard to avoid reading that word in the same sense as Garfinkel’s usage—which I think is basically also Foucault’s, and Sara Ahmed’s. Foucault’s work on power/knowledge, particularly The History of Sexuality, is usually interpreted as a critique of institutional normalization as a process of the production of regimented bodies. Ahmed, in Queer Phenomenology, develops a quasi-phenomenological critique of the phenomenology of orientation and normality. Looking back from this standpoint on Husserl’s presumably phenomenological account of normality, I see a very strange equivocation, or possibly an ambiguity.

Normality can be analyzed on three levels, to start. In my language for these, purely subjective normality is the level of my own perceptual/embodied being in the world. It would entail all that is unique to my own perspective, being six feet tall, of very acute hearing in the left and some deafness in the right ear, of very myopic but focused vision in the right and less myopic but poorly focused vision in the left eye, etc. For me, my aural, visual, etc. perception is normal as per these peculiarities. What is abnormal for me is distortion in the perceptual field, for instance when I first put on new glasses, or when there’s water in my ears from swimming. As I adjust to the new glasses, the anomalous motivates a reconstitution of the normal, that is, a new normal, which then prevails, becomes sedimented as “just how it is for me,” and disappears into the horizon.
Intersubjective normality pertains to the everyday world shared with others. For Husserl (in contrast, I think, ultimately, with Heidegger), the intersubjectively normal surrounding world involves actively as well as passively shared meanings, events, constructions, etc. Communication and community are whereby there comes to be a real world, an objective world for us, and it is in reference to this real world that intersubjective normality has its crucial significance. This is one level at which the idea becomes important that the real world is corrective.

Were I to exist solus ipse, my purely subjective normal perceptual life would obtain, always and everywhere—given the caveat that distortions, error, etc., serve as self-correctives, in reference only to purely subjective further intendings. But, obviously, others’ perceptual lives and their actions matter to me and are part of my own experience. Intersubjective normality is there for me because others are. Were I to perceive and act as if trees were murderous, or as if human beings should wiggle on the ground to get around rather than ambulate, it would matter for others that I did so, and it would matter for me that others did not. My abnormal perception and action would appear as abnormal for me and for others. How?

If we stop right here, we have the problem of normality and abnormality: for us, intersubjectively, the presence of abnormality produces a mini-crisis of meaning and the presumptive unity of the world. We are motivated by the real-world assumption to wonder and problematize the abnormal, and to seek some correction, as Husserl says. Now, Husserl resolves this problem, in all I’ve read on the matter, too quickly, in turning to what I consider a third level of normality. To me, the problem of normality and abnormality is most acutely present at this intersubjective level. A person directly in front of you, terrified that the tree is going to kill him, or you, matters right now for you and for that person. You are motivated to correct and to restore the presumptive unity of the real world, because it matters whether this person is right about the trees, and because it matters that this person in front of you has this belief, because this person’s conduct takes place in the same world. (Isn’t that how it is that “crazy people” are terrifying? They induce crises, that we must resolve, by some alteration of our concept of the world, or at the very least in our own conduct—avoiding them, helping them, realizing they are right, etc. For those moments, the real world, the horizonal context of all our everyday activities, is shaken, if only just a little.)

One way to resolve the problem of normality and abnormality is in reference to a standing tradition, or culture, and this is what Husserl does. l want to call this sedimented normality to refer to its being in the ground of so much of the real world as such, and also to allude to the use of the term sedimented in phenomenology as the institution of passively accrued meaning, via actively lived experience. This also helps articulate why I think Husserl jumps the gun: if the intersubjective problem of normality is active, present, here and now, his resolution by reference to sedimented normality reverts to a passively accrued “there is.” Adjudicating the problem of normality through sedimented normality really just ignores the problem. Maybe Husserl is right about this, when he says about understanding the foreign, that because he is raised European, German, and as a small-city resident, the foreign person’s lifeworld will only be understandable in analogy to his own. That is to say, the sedimented normality of the presumptively real European, German, small-city world obtains, because it is there.

In some ways, and to some extent, Husserl does have to be right about this. I can not undo my being raised as I was. But it does not help explain how that way of life, and that tradition, became. The sedimentation of tradition is going on, incrementally, in those minute intersubjective dealings, it seems to me.

And, obviously, traditions are revised with each generation. Normality shifts, slowly, or there is a more significant crisis, and tradition loses its traditional status as it becomes an object of deliberation, critique, understanding, revision. There is a moment in Husserl’s analysis for this critique, and he acknowledges this even though he does nothing much with it. That’s when the equivocation or ambiguity of normality matters. In that intersubjective, problematic moment, we are confronted by the fact that normality is constituted, and re-constituted, and open-ended.

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