Thinking Critically with the Normal

Having spent most of the last eight years or so working together on a critical genealogy of normality, we are only too aware of what still remains to be done. Our history begins around 1820 and follows the decades-long process whereby “normal” emerged as a term in medical and anthropological usage, taking a mathematically defined place in statistics only around 1880. Throughout the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth, “normal” remained a specialised scientific term. It was not until 1945 that it began to appear widely in everyday talk conflating the average, the typical, and the ideal.

Here are some questions that we have not yet addressed to our own satisfaction:

  • What is to be said about “normal schools” and their success as an educational model in Napoleonic France and elsewhere?
  • What does the work of nineteenth-century teratologists such as Isidore Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, with its rejection of the abnormal as a scientific category, have to offer modern disability studies?
  • Can it be said that the concept of the abnormal first took shape in clinical psychiatry after about 1910, as Elizabeth Lunbeck’s work might suggest?
  • How was talk of normality able to function affirmatively in the construction of knowledge about women (as in the work of Marie Stopes examined by Laura Doan)?    
  • In what circumstances was “normativity” coined as a term in the second half of the twentieth century?
  • How much does the modern concept of vital normativity owe to nineteenth-century medical thinking of the kind analysed by Canguilhem?     
  • What happens to our understanding and usage of critical terms such as “heteronormativity” when we historicise their emergence and their usage? What is, to ask Annamarie Jagose’s question, “the trouble with antinormativity” for queer studies?
  • What is there to be said about a range of normativities that emerged in the last decades of the twentieth century and the first decades of the twenty-first: not just heteronormativity, but homonormativity, chrononormativity and neuronormativity among others?

Peter Cryle
Elizabeth Stephens

Please note: Papers for this conference are being presented by invitation and the program is now full. Colleagues who are interested in attending are welcome to contact Peter Cryle or Elizabeth Stephens.

A revised program for the conference can be downloaded here.