[thanks to DRF member Jenny Slater for this conference report]
Theorizing Normalcy and the Mundane: 2nd International conference
(14th-15th September 2011) by Jenny Slater
A memory: It is the night before Theorizing Normalcy and the Mundane 2010. I am in my third year of my undergraduate degree. Tomorrow, I’m going to a proper academic conference, with proper grown-up academics. “What the hell do people wear to conferences?” I ask my friend. “I dunno”, she answers, “maybe a suit or summit?” “you reckon? I don’t have anything like that!” I bumble something together, and hope nobody will notice the hole in the elbow of my ‘smart’ jumper. To my relief/surprise/delight, I didn’t have to worry as my first taste of a keynote speaker at an academic conference was someone whipping off his shirt to make a point about the diversity of bodies; nobody was looking at my holey jumper. Come forward 16 months, I’m now a PhD Student at MMU and fond memories of the 2010 conference meant my hopes for Theorizing Normalcy and the Mundane 2011 were high. It didn’t disappoint.
The conference kicked off with the DRF’s very own Rebecca Mallett warning us of the dangers of ‘buying new normals’ – a sentiment echoed later in the day by Alison Wilde in her paper, ‘Almost Normal?’. Rebecca issued us with a call to arms: we should be troubling normativity, rather than buying into new axes of normativity – a fitting start. The only downside to such a rich programme of speakers is the difficult decisions between parallel sessions. Getting my chairing and speaking duties out of the way early, however, my first choice was made for me and I attended the Child, Youth and Family session. Harriet Cooper was the first to take up Rebecca’s gauntlet, giving a fascinating paper detailing the late nineteenth century’s construction of the ‘normal child’ and using the example of Channel 4’s Born to be Different documentary series to argue the continuing prevalence of normativity in relation to childhood. James Rice followed. James’ paper detailed online message board responses to an interview with a pregnant disabled woman in Iceland and highlighted the normative assumptions that continue to surround conceptions of ‘the family’, stimulating much debate. I rounded the session up, taking inspiration from the recent exploration into commodification by Rebecca Mallett and Katherine Runswick-Cole, considering how the commodification of youth sits alongside socio-cultural constructions of disability. The last word of the session, however, went to John Rees as his call for uniting in struggle against the British Condemn Government (furthered in his brilliantly passionate paper the following day) seemed a fitting end to a thought provoking hour and a half.
Donna Reeve was next in the exciting line-up of all female keynote speakers. The numerous citations of Donna’s work in presentations throughout the conference, as well as in mid- and post-conference chat (especially by doctoral students and those newer to the world of Disability Studies) demonstrated to me the importance of Donna’s work on psycho-emotional disablism and internalized oppression (not that I needed convincing). As usual, Donna failed to disappoint. At the crux of Donna’s argument was that the perception that the impaired body is outside the realms of normativity forces it to centre stage: therefore, we need to halt any impairment/disability dualities and instead include bodies in any theorisation of disability and impairment. A personal highlight for me came in the next session when Cassie Ogden was certainly successful in including ‘bodies’ in her musings. Declaring her love for all things messy (poo was number one, sex number two, but snot and menstrual blood also valid contenders), Cassie exposed the non-leaky body as a farce, highlighting how an expectation to control and hide everyday leakiness means those who do not/cannot/ refuse to mask their leakiness are deemed in possession of a failing body. Donna’s work is important here: Cassie highlighted that normalising, ‘civilising’ processes, such as denying leakiness, bring any (impaired) bodies not meeting this pseudo-norm sharply into focus – with likely consequences of psycho-emotional disablism and internalized oppression.
Rounding off day one was another brilliant keynote, MMU’s Anat Greenstein. Using disability as a lens to build her vision (and fulfil her dream) of opening a democratic school, Anat talked about how disability and the experiences of disabled pupils have built her ideas of democratic pedagogy. Anat gave us a captivating insight into her playful methodology with pupils in a ‘special unit’ of a secondary school to teach us about ‘An Ideal World of Freaks and Unusual Women’. A fitting end to the day.
Day 2 began with fourth and final keynote, Fiona Kumari-Campbell. Fiona’s work on ableism and her call to theorise the ‘able body’ has been particularly influential to my own research (Kumari Campbell, 2009) and Fiona delivered a kick-in-the-balls to all that is ‘reasonable’ by questioning the role of reasonableness and normativity within law. Tying in nicely with the notion of ‘reasonableness’ was Katherine Runswick-Cole’s dismodernist critique of The Big Society later in the day – both alluding to the ableism inherent to the Neoliberal, ‘competent’, ‘capable’ and ‘independent’ citizen. Both papers (along with others) highlighted the timely urgency of questioning what appears as implicit and normal, and therefore acted out in everyday, mundane interactions (with oppressive and potentially fatal consequences) in an increasingly rightist and Neoliberal Britain. Furthermore, the transdiciplinary nature of the conference showed the importance of considering a medley of intersectional identities alongside disability in such debate.
The transdisciplinary feel meant ideas were brought in from wide ranging fields. Andrea Dermondy, for example, speaking from within thanatology spoke of broadening the concept of loss within Disability Studies. On this note, despite a long and packed two days, the last session I attended was possibly one of the most stimulating and enjoyable. Ryan Parrey seemed to effortlessly entwine personal anecdote with dense theory to praise the possibility of rethinking with disabilities emergence. This was followed by Jonathon Harvey arguing the importance of critically including personal narrative in analysis of disability; Liz Ellis introducing Rural Studies and tourism; and Hannah Morgan highlighting the missing disability perspective within Mobility Studies. ‘Mobility’ was the theme of a paper I was particularly sad to miss: disability activist Steve Graby’s ‘Wandering Minds: autism, psychogeography, public space and the ICD’. Having since read Steve’s paper, I now see why it was receiving so much praise: highlighting the pathologisation of behaviour carried out by disabled people that is otherwise considered ‘normal’ in non-disabled people, Steve asks us to consider the psychogeography of disability in order to “seek new and unexplored directions in disability research”. Theorising Normalcy and the Mundane 2011 certainly opened my eyes to numerous new and unexplored directions that will go on to impact upon my own disability research.
Disability, argues Rod Michalko (2010), offers “time for normalcy, to develop self-understanding […] and this is f*****g cool”. Theorising Normalcy and the Mundane 2011 gave us, an international, transdiciplinary, disruptive bunch of delegates, a time to together explore, critique, wander through and wonder about normalcy and the mundane; to understand the oppressive and exclusionary characteristics of normativity and their manifestation in everyday, mundane actions and ways of being. I don’t think I’d be alone in saying that this conference was pretty f*****g cool. See you all in Chester for Theorising Normalcy and the Mundane 2012 (details to be announced soon).
- Kumari Campbell, F. (2009). Contours of Ableism: The Production of Disability and Abledness. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
- Michalko, R. (2010). What’s Cool About Blindness? Disability Studies Quarterly, 30(3/4), http://www.dsq-sds.org/article/view/1296/1332.