Normalization and the Canon of Foucault

Consider the amount of people in today’s society who wear glasses or who carry a cell phone. Consider the fact that if we meet somebody who has no cell phone how we consider them “odd.” What makes this person odd? Simple, the idea that cell phones are now a “normal” part of society stems from the concept of normalization. Our society has decided that it is only normal to carry a cell phone in this day and age just as they decided in the past that a certain vision was normal and subjugated the “others” who did not have normal vision to wear glasses. The idea of normalization is at the center of all of Foucault’s works: without normalization, the manipulation of people by the power structure would be minimized, doctors would need a new means of determining what is “insane,”and the system of rehabilitation in the prisons would have to be completely overhauled. For Foucault, control of the society’s power emerges from the ability to manipulate people into the norm of society, but this normalization can only be established by the dominant aspects of society. The concept of normalization is what distinguishes the bulk of society from the criminals, the insane, and the non-proletarianized which makes it the crux of a large body of Foucault’s work.

As a broad idea, normalization is what society uses to control those on the periphery of their community. For example, in his Discussion with the Maoists Foucault examines the French society after the French Revolution and explains how the proletarianized citizens dealt with members of the non-proletarian society. Since they saw in these commoners who rejected the idea of the proletarian class, the proletarians came up with three methods for distancing these people: the army, colonization, and prison (Power Knowledge 17). In short, what was done with the non-proletarians was to remove them from the society in any means they could find. Their justification for doing this lay in the fact”they thought they could identify, in the non-proletarianized people, in those common people who rejected the status of the proletarians, or in those who were excluded from it, the spearhead of popular rebellion” (Power Knowledge 16). Since these people were rejecting what was considered “normal” within the society, they had to be removed from the population so that they could not rebel and alter society’s idea of normal. While Foucault only speaks of one specific aspect of the outsiders being removed from the population, his example is representative of all societies.

Take for example the idea of the “insane.” Psychiatrists deem people psychotic, bipolar, or schizophrenic based on the fact that their brain does not work in the same way the majority of society’s does. In a similar manner, a specific action is deemed a crime when society decides that the action is not “normal” behavior. Those who do not act in the “normal” manner of society are locked up, shipped off, or placed into mental institutions. In these institutions and prisons, those outside the norm of society are under the care of doctors and wardens whose sole job it is to normalize these people. The warden (or doctor) “supervises every instant in the disciplinary institution, compares, differentiates, hierarchizes, homogenizes, excludes. In short, it normalizes” (Reader 195). Through the institution, studies are carried out, treatments provided, counseling and schooling become part of one’s daily routine. This is all in hopes that one day the prisoner or patient will become an asset to society, an action that can only become possible when the individual “subscribe[s] to the great ethical pact of the human existence” (Madness 59-60).

But defining normalization is only half of understanding Foucault’s philosophy on the subject. For Foucault, normalization is the key to manipulating the members of society. Once the power structure in a society understands the thinking of those citizens on the periphery, they have learned how to manipulate those people. In order to manipulate the periphery citizens, the power structure in the society has to define what is normal. In defining normality, the power structure must examine the trends in society and define those as the normal trends in order to subjugate the minority. Then, the power structure has the ability to use these dominant traits to suppress the minority and remove Therefore, until a group of periphery citizens rebels against the power and subsequently create laws and policies that allow them to further distance the normal members of society from those on the periphery (who in many ways are considered tainted).

The actions taken by the proletarian society in France after the revolution do not represent a minority approach to dealing with the “undesirables” in society. Instead, what Foucault examines in that one instance is something prominent in all societies. Though not all societies choose to send their undesirables to a colony, there are other means of distancing them from the majority of the population. All it takes, as Foucault says, is power and the knowledge to manipulate the undesirables who live on the periphery into either becoming part of the norm or accepting a new life in a place that will, hopefully, return them to a mindset that returns them to the normal society.

About smartykatt

I am an Assistant Professor in the Department of English and Modern Languages at Lamar University where I specialize in rhetoric, composition, digital literacy, and information literacy. My research focuses on the intersections of student engagement with digital and information literacy and their relation to student research and writing. I am an ACES Fellow at Lamar and, with Janice Walker (Georgia Southern), I am a Principal Investigator on the LILAC Project.

Posted on March 12, 2007, in Historical Rhetoric and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. I appreciate your dumbing down of Foucault’s work very much.:)

  1. Pingback: Fuck You, Oppositional Defiant Disorder | The Black Gnat

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