The Great Normaliser
A crazy hypothesis: is my father the Docile Body par excellence?
Lars van der Miesen
Disclaimer: the characters in this story are partly autobiographical yet extremely exaggerated and therefore fictitious. This podcast builds on the previous one called On Reason and Unreason.
Be sure to listen to that one first.
On Christmas evening, the 24th of 2020, I was cycling home from a Christmas dinner at my Italian grandparents’ house. I had had a bit too much Grappa – a typically Italian alcoholic drink - which my grandfather had poured so generously while I – in turn – had poured my heart out a bit too generously about the recent events that had lead up to my latest depression and the radical overturning of some of my most fundamental life convictions. It was an overturning that was undoubtedly for the better and so rightfully answered with excessive praise by my Nonno and Nonna. After an evening full of laughter, even more appraisal, and a feeling of Christmas joy that is not much unlike the one sold to you in the Coca Cola commercials, it was time to head home.
I stepped outside that night, feeling exhilarated and filled to the brink with delicious Italian food, a bit too much of that traditional drink, and the most life-affirming force I had felt since my recent collapse. By that time, I was quite drunk, and obviously, this had a significant, though undoubtedly beneficial effect on my mood. I put on my headphones and selected that one favorite album that never failed me. My body’s alcoholically impaired ability to efficiently ride a bike, combined with its equally strong knack for headbanging to the music as if the head is the only body part that matters when it comes to dancing, resulted in a bike ride that might as well have been an exorcism, only with the demon ending up in the garage rather than sent back into the hell hole that it came from.
So as I was expending energy, violently shaking my head and whatever limbs were allowed not to engage with the controlling of my bike, I located in the heat of this moment an active absence of a barrier which now functioned as the powerful catalyst of my ecstasy, and which was most plausibly the reason for a strong desire to do just a few more rounds of epileptic, dance-like bike riding before I went home. What was this catalyst? After some concentrated though chaotic probing into my befuddled mind, I started to suspect that it was the absence of the feeling of being watched. And not just by any person, but by my father specifically, who was waiting for me at home. Then - at the same time of my becoming conscious of the absence of this barrier, a highly conspiratorial, unreasonable suspicion occurred to me:
What if the discourse of reason commanded by the demand for productivity that dominates all successful societies have been so far internalized into my father’s identity that he has become - sub-consciously - nothing more than a vehicle of its reproduction? What if he is the Docile Body par excellence, the Great Normaliser that casts its surveilling, normalizing eye onto any that may step into his view?
Could that explain how I feel whenever I go back home every once in a while to do the mandatory family rounds? This feeling of being watched, of my every move being measured against the ideal that is most conducive to production and reproduction? I will present some fragments of evidence for this hypothesis as to be found in the daily communications of my father and family consisting of himself, wife, daughter, and me. Of most significant interest will be those moments that still stand out so vividly in my memory of him trying to ‘’show’’ me the way into the comfortable world of docility via subtle yet immensely unsubtle gestures, which have an eerie resemblance to the behaviors that we may see employed by fervent readers of Neil Strauss.
Let’s start with an impression of what is generally discussed between the four walls of the family residence. Most of the speech acts of the family can be reduced to a few basic judgements and contents, barring those that do not have as their primary purpose the making of conversation. Surely, these are often reorganised and reinvented into a plethora of combinations and shapes. Nonetheless, one must not fall into the trap of confusing them with something that is actually new. It seems only in order to disguise the fact that this family has little to offer when it comes to the ‘’new’’, the ‘’active’’, or the ‘’creative’’ taken in a literal sense within the domains of conversation, interest, and life in general. Probably because docile bodies do not feel at home on such rugged terrain. Those speech acts particularly relevant to our current inquiry may consist in:
1. The appraisal of some popular artistic expression, often one found in either established pop and rock music, or famous TV figures universally embraced in the collective memory of Dutch television. This heavily contrasted to strong expressions of condemnation for any artistic expression that that is a little more contemporary and less universally embraced, if one may put it lightly. Take note of the formulations that are used to condemn these alternative arts. They come down to phrases like ‘’nonsense’’, ‘’bullshit’’, ‘’why would you do something like that’’, and more shocked and prerogative terms.
3. The topic of work. This, when discussed, comes down to either the judgment that colleagues or management are lacking, or the remark that one is tired from too high a workload.
2. The condemnation of some person within the family’s social circles on the basis of their abnormal appearance, their lack of adherence to accepted behaviour, or their inability to take up a successful position within the productive order. Note that what is deemed successful here is again very much subject to the laws of that very productive order which delimits what may reasonably be seen as successful in the first place. Being a lawyer for example will probably be regarded as occupying a successful position on the social ladder but being a philosopher will not, as I have experienced first-hand.
4. The topic of work in the political context. Almost always ending up in the sentiment that there are too many free-riders in society, and that so few people work as hard and productively as them.
Already, we can draw some conclusions as to the opinions and effects that come with these speech acts and their implied judgments. First and foremost, the normal is praised while the abnormal is condemned, and normality plays an immensely important role in the conversations of the family, to exactly the point of suspicion that we are investigating here. Artistic expressions are deemed bad not for failing to adhere to some standards of quality, but rather merely because they do not comply with what people are used to regarding as art that belongs on television. In other words, the abnormal never goes unmentioned and becomes an intrinsic standard of evaluation. Second, people and the careers they pursue are not evaluated on the basis of them being happy or feeling fulfilled. Instead, whenever people veer off from the normal or the productive, they will – inevitably – be called out by any member of the family that is close to them. Personal unproductive pursuit is not appreciated. The topic of work plays an equally important role in the conversation. Now surely, I wouldn’t want to judge my family for talking about this topic so much. After all, work takes up the majority of time for many people and so it is only natural to talk about it daily. Still, the amount of time my family spends on this topic would leave many suspicious, especially because the matter is also regularly used to bring up others who are not working as hard, not as well, or not at all.
Imagine what this means for anyone in this family’s company who may have a taste or occupation on the less conventional or productive side of things. I never tell my family about philosophy. I often feel ashamed to watch programs I like when any of them are also in the room. I prefer to keep my opinions to myself whenever we watch television or enjoy coffee together. After so many ‘’nonsenses’’, ‘’bullshits’’, and ‘’what the hell is that even’s?’’ one automatically starts to feel uncomfortable whenever digressing from the norms indirectly upheld and enforced through their conversations. Due to what they’re about and just as much due to what they are not about. Knowing that condemnation might lie around any corner, our hypothesis already starts to become probable. In a setting such as our family residence, its eyes and ears are quickly internalized to anticipate and prevent the judgments that so regularly follow their apprehensions, even when not present.
The Great Normaliser
Let us now focus more specifically on my father - who has the highest disposition towards the behaviors mentioned above - in order to see how he can create an even stronger knack for norm internalization and the feeling of being watched. If I were to label any of these behaviors, the terms micro-aggression, nudging, and guilt-tripping quickly pop up in my mind. Not because I’m an uptight social justice warrior of some sort that cares a bit too much about feelings, but more because drunk, wildly speculative me may have had a point after all. This is all the more interesting considering that we usually don’t think that drunkenness is a good state to be in when one wants to think reasonably.
First example: I have been a vegetarian for a few years now. Though widely accepted in my own circles, vegetarians are still a minority in the Netherlands. Unsurprisingly, this dietary choice of mine was met with raised eyebrows by my father and has invoked discussion and confusion ever since. One moment I remember most vividly was when I had decided to make a curry for dinner to alleviate my parents of the burden of coming up with something to cook without meat. A gesture met with gratitude, although my father couldn’t help mentioning that whenever they made curry, it was always ‘’with a good piece of chicken in it.''. Sure, this might mean nothing, and sure, you could accuse me of being whiny and overinterpreting such a comment. Still, my intention here is not to deliver a pubescent, melodramatic commentary of my oh-so conservative, not understanding parents. What I am trying to get at is the seemingly necessary urge of my father to mention this. To measure my irregular food choice against his accepted one and present that comparison to me in a gesture made with a certain feigned nonchalance. Why did he think it so necessary to make this comment? Why did it have to be made so quickly, intuitively, with an innocent smile yet a vague forcefulness, and then just as suddenly dropped as if nothing had happened? Almost like a subtext in a commercial. Almost as if a subconscious command had forced itself into my father’s mind, out of his mouth, and into my ears, saying: 'you are out of line, you are not complying with the rules of the uncritical productive body.' We eat meat, and we like it. No questions asked.
A second piece of evidence that could confirm our hypothesis can be found in my father’s unrelenting effort to avoid discussion and put into question its importance and benefits whenever I say anything that might create a difference of opinion and demand for argumentation. This is probably because criticism is the natural enemy of the productive regime. My dad avoids discussion like the plague, and ironically enough, may go into long-winded rants using arguments to convince me of the fact that discussion never leads to anything but hurt feelings and permanently unresolved differences of opinion. These rants include every time the radically subjectivist, relativist claims that:
everyone has their own opinion
all opinions are equally valid
the best way for all to get along is to simply never question one another’s opinion
Now I cannot stress enough how often these rants occur. Sometimes triggered by my mere hint towards discussion, sometimes out of nowhere, invoked by nothing but the sonic space provided by an awkward silence, which is, of course, an excellent moment for the regime of docility to emerge from my father’s subconscious and reaffirm its hegemony amongst the bodies it commands.
Add to all of this my dad’s most cherished and used quote, ‘’Doe maar normaal dan doe je al gek genoeg’’, which roughly translates to: ‘’If you just act normally, you’re already being crazy enough’’. Why can he not help saying this so regularly? How strong is the hold that the productive ideology has gotten on him? Is he onto me and my potential for rebellion? This fourth and final fact may confirm our fears to the point of absolute certainty. That is: his peculiar response to the intentions and goals I mention to him in casual conversation. That could be about my weekend plans, study progress, or whatever. Responses one might expect when casually discussing new plans or ideas between father and son could be, ‘’what a great idea for you to go X’’, or ‘’what a horrible idea’’, or ‘’good luck with that’’ or even ‘’have fun with that’’ but no, one of the responses I get all too often and many more times than the very reasonable responses I just posed is ‘’nothing wrong with that’’. I repeat, ‘’nothing wrong with that’’. A highly interesting response when held up against our hypothesis. In a compulsive, habitual expression, the first thing deemed important for the evaluation of my ideas and plans is not whether they might further my goals, or make me happy but whether they might be seen as ‘’wrong’’ in the eyes of an undefined, hypothetical audience. The audience being here, to my own estimate and increasing concern, the abstracted, internalised, productive Normal with a capital N. At this point it seems undeniable that my father is indeed The Great Normaliser, the docile body perfected in its subconscious internalisation, and so my wild drunk speculations were indeed true. How crazy!
Let’s not go all too quickly here, though. There are some facts that may counter our hypothesis. And considering that I’m using a highly exaggerated figure of my father to defend a quite bold - one might even say - elitist statement it would only seem fair that we present some points to his defence. The most obvious defence one could give is by mentioning my father’s critical, and individualist disposition. Counter to all the evidence we just presented of my father’s looming knack to eliminate and neutralise any attempt at discussion and criticism he is still pretty good at being critical himself. Which I know sounds pretty contradictory, but it’s just hard for human beings to be consistent all of the time. Even more surprisingly the criticisms often concern societal and political phenomena. My dad can deliver extremely destructive and sharp critiques of politicians, societal collectives, laws and more. In other words, those phenomena that influence and shape the very regime which we are connecting him to here. Also, he is reluctant to let his decisions be influenced by the interests of strangers or the nation as a whole. The only responsibility he feels is towards his own small circle, and his political vote is only to be informed by his own interests. Never does he take the broader, invisible collective as normative or something that he should take responsibility for. In other words, he does not seem to act for the benefit of the productive regime. However, to what extent does this defend him from our accusations? One might reasonably ask to what extent his critical abilities and individualist nature pose a threat to the productive regime, and whether they may really disqualify him from being a docile body. It is becoming clear that our age is one of collective action problems, whereby many effects are always of collective scale, never shaped by individual decision. Hasn’t Jean Baudrillard long told us that power is dead? Hasn’t Shoshana Zuboff made us painfully aware of the fact that the most complicit citizen is the one which does not know that he complies, but instead delights in a careless feeling of happiness or even of rebellion against the very system that he unsuspectingly complies to? Internalisation of the productive ideology will be all the more effective and opaque when the internaliser in question is given the illusion of control and a critical autonomous point of view contra that very doctrine. Whether he consciously chooses in favour of the collective or not. Take-away: my father’s mindful decisions do not matter, have no power in an age of collective action problems and unappointable responsibility, even though on a surface level my father might often seem like the rebellious type. In exactly the subterranean, automatic behaviours that we identified in the previous sections, the docile body is most effective. His critical disposition, therefore, poses no problem to our hypothesis. Nor does his individualist one. Simply because he is not critical and individualist enough?
One might stop here. The crazy idea that came to me in a moment of high, drunk clarity turned out to be not so crazy at all, case closed. However, there might be an additional lesson to be extracted from the experiences that lead me to the idea of my father as The Great Normaliser, and that is the highly contradictory nature of the reason that he abides by. Reason keeps the productive regime in power and working, reason being here reason as utility, the indispensable cognitive endeavor that guarantees the reproduction of society’s necessary means of production. This is the specific form of reasonability that commands my father’s way of thinking. It is that of the productive, conceived of as the normal. Simply put, what is normal is reasonable, and what is reasonable is productive. Any thing, thought, or act that does not produce, that does not have some direct or indirect utility is unreasonable and abnormal and will unavoidably elicit an array of ‘’bullshit’s’’, ‘’nonsense’s’’ and other reproaching exclamations by my father or another docile body to neutralize it quickly. Unfortunately for them, or rather for the recipients of their exclamations, there are two obvious problems for reason conceived of as the productive, which eventually lead to the highly contradictory conclusions presented later.
The first is that the causal chain from any thing, thought, or act to the directly productive may be long-winded, under threat of a near-infinite amount of variables, and simply quite hard to predict and oversee for the average docile body. What is clear is that bottom-line, there are only a few productive things, and these are the means to health and sustenance such as sleep, food, and shelter, plus the ability to keep the species going, in other words, baby-making. Far removed from such directly productive means are the more difficult to judge ones. How high does one put playing video games on the productive ladder? How about wearing trousers rather than jeans? Is it reasonable, aka normal, aka productive, to study exotic languages that three communities in the whole world speak, and would a docile body approve of it?
Second problem: how important is abidance to the reason of the product taking into account that the human species has long freed so much of its activity from the urgencies of survival, and how does it influence the delimitation of what is normal?
The solution that the productive regime provides to both problems can be found in a phenomenon that I shall dub rational dumbfounding, based on Jonathan Haidt’s very similar concept of moral dumbfounding. It can explain how a rationality founded on the principles of productivity could generate conclusions that actually contradict it, or are at least very counter-intuitive to it. This can in turn provide an explanation for why my father would think I’m unreasonable, crazy, or weird for watching the Avatar cartoon, since that cartoon is ‘’nonsense’’. The phenomenon of rational dumbfounding works by automating responses and creating a preference for the safe side of things. This can be explained by Haidt’s own case study since rational- and moral dumbfounding actually overlap here (one might even argue that the two are practically the same, but we do not have the time to go into that). In Haidt’s case-study, candidates are presented with different cases of incest and examined on their moral evaluations of them. The finding was that people also morally object to cases of incest for which there seem to be no actual good reasons to object. In these cases the incestuous sex is safe and consensual, has no psychologically damaging implications, and makes the two parties involved happier. Even after presenting the candidates with these facts, and showing them that there are no clear reasons to be found for condemning such cases of incest, candidates continued to believe that the incest was wrong, simply because incest is always wrong every time. Why would they judge all cases of incest to be morally impermissible universally?
An evolutionary account of morality (one that would probably make Nietzsche proud) can make good sense of this. Because incest way before the time of condoms had a high chance of producing unhealthy babies, it was very unwise to commit such acts. The most effective way for a community to make the production of unhealthy babies unlikely was to put strong social consequences on committing incestuous acts. Enter morality. If an act is not just unwise, but deemed morally impermissible, surely committing it will become extremely unattractive and costly for any transgressor, since the moral always exerts a very strong sense of authority. Furthermore, to reduce cognitive load so that even the simplest docile body might get it right, better to automate this rule and make it into an easy to follow principle. And so the rule becomes ‘’never commit acts of incest’’ full stop. People forget or never knew why it became a rule in the first place, which as is clear, has a firm basis in the rationality of production. Nobody wants babies with chronic defects because those will be more unlikely to survive, less productive and more of a burden on the community at large. The success of a community is greatly enhanced from having such unconditional, automatable rules against it. They are easy to understand, quickly to execute and they improve productivity. The fact that some a-okay cases of incest are filtered out in the process is a small price to pay, since the interest of the collective always trumps individual interest.
This evolutionary account provides us with a very probable explanation for why people are so committed to the normal, which is - if we follow along the narrative provided here – a direct descendant of the rationality of the productive. The normal is safe, the normal is a guaranteed method of success, and one has to expend very little cognitive energy to reap its benefits. The normal might sometimes lose connection to its base, and in this loss condemn a few acts for which there was actually no good reason to condemn, but that is a price readily paid. And it is in this way that the normal, through the loss of its connection to productivity, can create conclusions that actually run counter to it, and create very abnormal situations.
This brings me back to my dad calling the Avatar cartoon ‘’nonsense’’. It seems to be again an intuitive response triggered by an automated feeling for the normal as the phenomenon of rational dumbfounding would demand. The sight of cartoon characters throwing around rocks and fire is highly unrealistic and abnormal in relation to what my father is used to seeing. It results in the condemnation of the cartoon and my preference for it, and in the conclusion that Avatar and its fans are thus irrational, or crazy. But if you look closely, that is not the case at all. Avatar is an entertainment programme not much unlike the movies my father watches. The only difference being that those movies apply a little less fantasy and look a bit more realistic. Watching Avatar is quite neutral vis-à-vis productivity as long as it doesn’t take up so much of my time as to crowd out important tasks that I may have to fulfil. It may even have strong productive benefits by making me happier and thereby more mentally equipped to do important work. So just as in the case of incest, the show is condemned here on the basis of a normality that has long lost the connections to its actual principles. Thereby producing contradictions that make for awkward father-son interactions, and nagging feelings of being surveilled on the son side of things. This is only one of many examples that I can recall and you might recall yourself from your own life. It shows how an automated logic can take flight only to end up opposing the reasons that legitimised its very creation.
That is also what seems to be happening whenever I feel nudged for being a vegetarian, not wearing jeans, or liking certain types of music. Never do these things actually run counter to the productive, but is it normal? Not according to the standards of my family. One might doubt the one-on-one definition I give of the normal as productive, but does it seem probable? Certainly. One might also call me crazy for thinking my father is some sort of assimilated docile body, but does it sound reasonable? I would think so.
Text by: Lars van der Miesen
Visuals by: Leanne Stoeffe
Edited by: Jacco Borggreve