Like the studies of gender, sexuality, race and ethnicity disability studies has become prominent in recent decades, disability studies focuses on identity, the way that identity relates to the body, and the social constructions of marginality and normality. A pioneer of disability studies, Lennard Davis broke theoretical ground in 1995 with this book, calling attention to an aspect of identity that until then had “been relegated to a sideshow, a freak-show at that, far away from the academic midway of progressive ideas and concerns.”
The body is a social construction rather than an universal concept, Davis’ disability studies starts with a critique of “normalcy”, which functions to stigmatize as abnormal those with difference or limited abilities. In Enforcing Normalcy, he traces the background history of the idea of the normal that we get to acquire through the society, which permitting that people fit in the limits of a ‘normal curve’. Beforehand, Davis argues, the “ideal” is the primary model in western culture. Some disability theorists trace the emphasis on the normal body as abnormal, relegating it to marginal status. Especially in the context of South Asia, we have seen the rise of the “normal ideal”, especially in terms of generalizing gender relations, for example, in Bollywood movies, which depict the ideal bodies as normal as and less than ideal bodies as abnormal in the real and regular life.
Then, what is ‘wholeness’? If wholeness exists then fragments as well, then who are fragments? Any defense of normalcy by definition it always enforces an opposition to; it celebrates binary and enforces different layers of power in terms of social and cultural hierarchy. What is even the concept of the ‘abnormal’. Who are abnormal?
According to Michel Foucault, who examined the disciplining and medicalization of the body as a form of social control, the body has emerged as one of the central theoretical categories in recent years. (The History of Sexuality,1990) The assertion of normalcy creates it a static standard in the society and therefore it becomes a false conception of human. We have unmoving motionless personhood conception, we have done away with the fluidity and horrors and demands of actual life. According to the society if we want to depict the word ‘wholeness’, it is clear that it recognizes a complete-self which is nothing but a mirror-phase, as mirror is our only recognition where we can see ourselves ‘completely’. It always depends on the eyes of the observer and mirror otherwise everyone is fragmented and misrecognized. This mirror and self becomes the eyes of the socio-political construction. So, the opposite of whole is incomplete which is nothing just the opposite. Whole/incomplete, abled/disabled, normal/abnormal, functional/dysfunctional, all these notions came into our minds once we get ourselves into the mirror which is the eyes of the society. ‘Women are incomplete without men and men are incomplete without women’, thus all these is nothing but a cultural construction, whereas the important question is, what is ‘incompleteness’? What actually society requires from us? Industrialized capitalism and commercialization put the binaries so deeply in to our minds that even we often get confused about ourselves that whether we are whole or not. In reality, the concept of ideal body shifts to the concept of normal body; which is nothing but a myth of normal body. The society wants to enforce that if you are functional industrially and commercially, then you are not disabled. The question is what is the standard of ‘ability’, apart than analyzing economics and sciences?
Turning to psychoanalysis, Davis draws on Lacan’s notion of the primordial fragmented body to understand the constant formation of disabled bodies. The abnormal body suggests that one’s coherent identity is actually an unreal structure that merely conceals the fundamentally fragmentary nature of identity. Basically disability reminds person about fragmentation. So as Davis puts it, “wholeness is in fact a hallucination.” (1995)
“Visualizing the Disabled Body” questions the representation of disability and normalcy in art, literature and film. Confronting with the striking comparison between famous Greek statue, the Venus de Milo, and a contemporary woman with disabilities, Davis queries our aesthetics and social prejudices that led us to think that armless and disfigured statue as ‘the Ideal of Western Beauty and Eroticism” and a living woman without arms is ugly, deformed, unaccepted and de-eroticized. He looked at the ideal body in the classical art form of the nude and considers the interplay between the ideal Venus and the monstrous Medusa in Greek mythology. (1995)
After deconstructing this dichotomy, he investigated the images of disability prevalent in a range of works of arts and literature, indicating Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the photography of Diane Arbus and even films like Frankenstein and Born on the Fourth of July. Davis believes that the visual arts have done a magnificent job of centralizing normalcy and of marginalizing different bodies and hence excel at their socially performative role of ‘enforcing’ normalcy.
Davis considers Frankenstein in terms of the fragmented, bizarre body. In an innovative reading he sees that the Scientists creation as representing a person with disabilities. The creature is horrible because he is a composite made from separate body parts, thereby literalizing the notion we hold from early infancy of the primordial, fragmented body.
Defending normalcy, we treat responses and conditions as mere deviations on the theme of human life. Ron Kovic, the disabled war veteran in Born on the Fourth of July, who is portrayed as “non-sexual or incapable of a worthwhile relationship”. These representations are not appropriate reflections of the actual experience of disabled people. These kinds of stereotypes influence negative attitudes towards disabled people, and make a sense of disturbance about the nature of disability. In other words, the disability itself is often used as a hook by writers and film-makers to draw audiences into the story. This should aid us in recognizing something being ‘out-there’, ‘peculiar’, and even ‘outrageous and offensive’, is no reason to consider it wrong. Yes, it is not ‘normal’ in the sense of common. It is not.
Davis, J. Lennard (1995).Visualizing the Disabled Body: The Classical Nude and the Fragmented Torso. Enforcing Normalcy (pp. 126-157).Verso. London: Routledge.
Foucault, Michel (1990) The History of Sexuality Volume 1: An Introduction, trans. Robert Hurley, London: Penguin.