Normalization Julia Moritz

When Jeremy Bentham thought up the meticulous subtitle:


for his treatise on the Panopticon, he must have been aspiring for the actual realization of his detailed proposal of a disciplinary institution for the upcoming 19th century.1 He might as well have anticipated the rising call for justice following Jack the Ripper’s upcoming onslaught of civic safety in pauperizing Spitalfields where young Bentham went to Latin school at the age of three. And he might have wanted to convey that the Bethlem Royal Hospital—which had moved out of its East London edifice by then and was to be relocated to the newly designed building that currently has a slightly shifted focus of sheltering the Imperial War Museum—might be in need of a somewhat more totalizing layout in order to deal with its increasingly diverse madmen such as the portrait painter Lemuel Francis Abbott, Charlie Chaplin’s mother Hannah, and Edward Oxford, the would-be assassin of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. What he was not hoping for, however, was the revival of his pen pal colloquy by the cofounder of Groupe d’Information sur les Prisons, Michel Foucault. It is through his book—comparably simply titled Surveiller et Punir 2that the Panopticon finally bespeaks the micropowers governing post-1968 Nanterre as today’s gentrified Spitalfields of the Whitechapel Art Gallery: the mentalities, rationalities, and techniques of normalization. To come to terms with normalization is to look into the complex tissue of the subcutaneous operations of ideology. From that perspective normalization can be loosely defined as gradual process of alignment of social reality to a set of ideal values serving hegemonic governance (rationalities). This implies a certain set of practices (techniques) as much as specific retroactive temporality (mentalities) that I will attempt to outline on the following pages.


Normalization’s foundational concept is of course that of a norm—the norm as a cogwheel; the highly effective moment of the valuable, the ordinary, and the appropriate. ANY SORT OF ESTABLISHMENT IN WHICH PERSONS OF ANY DESCRIPTION ARE TO BE KEPT UNDER INSPECTION. Its imperative is integration; homogenization is its cultural consequence. The norm observes, ranks, and generalizes. A superstructural clockwork conducting the common, controlling the reasonable, constructing the majorities with a minimal expenditure of force. Hence normalization is a truly secular concept. A PLAN OF MANAGEMENT ADAPTED TO THE PRINCIPLE. It authorizes, adheres, and administers what belief had abandoned a long time ago. It accomplishes what nature’s discriminating truth has recently overlooked. Moralism paves its way to a totalizing rule; the invisible hand of pragmatism is its deputy director. Normalization is the guiding light of our disenchanted world. Gleichschaltung lurks in the dark3. Ethnic cleansing is uncannily spelled between its lines. Normalization is not an open assault on diversity; it is the undermining of communal conviction by subtle seduction. An ingenious gratification system rating quotidian obedience, just like the bonus miles adding up to your credit only if you join the army of credit card payers.

Normalization performs on a vertical stage: it allows for a variety of matters as long as they are minutely distinct from each other. On the horizontal level, however, it is fiercely restrictive: there is a plurality of military grades (to stay with Foucault’s terms) but there is no room for any individual interpretation of the function, habitus, or working schedule, let alone the dress code of a single sergeant. What keeps him like a moral corset within his profession is his faith in the social necessity that was formed by early childhood experiences, passed on by the institution of the family, accompanied by an elaborate educational apparatus and imprinted in the emphatic memory by the magic of peer pressure. Thus normalization is a mirror, positioning equivalence, recognition, and identification; the urge of reconciling the self with others in an empowering act of the creation of the very subject, a PERSON OF ANY DESCRIPTION and its infinite reproduction by repetition.

In the unlikely case that we fail to learn to want what is possible for us, and aspire to what is not available, normalization punishes. Though less coercive than PENITENTIARY HOUSES, PRISONS, MAD HOUSES, today’s sanctions are equally unpleasant: the regulation of access to employment, education, and prosperity, determining the standards of modern life, and creating attitudes and tastes accordingly. Pierre Bourdieu coined this “class cohesion.”4 But the SERIES OF LETTERS FROM CRECHEFF IN WHITE RUSSIA TO A FRIEND IN ENGLAND does not only signal the strong ties between members of one class but also the asymmetrical relations among the different classes: it used to be and still continues to be the bourgeois cosmopolitans who define the spaces of production, the HOUSES OF INDUSTRY, WORKHOUSES, MANUFACTORIES spanning our globe. And—as it is the will of every hegemonic formation—they control in order to maintain. Thus the temporality of normalization is a conservative one, a vicious cycle of self-referentiality: commanding the day according to yesterday’s glory to make tomorrow an even better yesterday for the day after tomorrow. Normalization remolds the features of today back to its “original” shape for which it claims copyright. At the heart of that consolidation-by-restoration lies the norm’s very mental power: the anxiety of tomorrow’s lack of something that was conceived as present in the past. This dialectic projection holds true for the individual’s mourning of the past as well as for the empire’s hubris of history thus grounding normalization’s mutuality, its semblance of consensus. Upheaval?


But is it really?


If the opening of Bentham’s manuscript is comprehensive, the last line of Foucault’s Discipline and Punish is just as vague:

“At this point I end a book that must serve as a historical background to various studies of the power of normalization and the formation of knowledge in modern society.”5

And so, a couple of miles north of Spitalfields and many years after old Bentham’s remains—preserved and put on display in a wooden cabinet, as requested in his will—have been listed as “present but not voting” in the records of the 100th meeting of University College London’s Council,6 “16 international artists become ‘inmates’ in The Impossible Prison, an exhibition in an abandoned police station inspired by Michel Foucault’s thoughts on power, control and surveillance.”7

Coincidentally (but what is really?) the inspiring moment for the project’s larger debates titled “Histories of the Present,” a series of exhibitions and events in historical sites, is the relocation of the art institution called Nottingham Contemporary into a new building. Temporarily occupying parts of the crime museum Galleries of Justice (the part of a police station that had closed down due to the queries when the Miner’s actually left the WORKHOUSES for their 1984 strike), the team around the curator Alex Farquharson took Foucault’s call upon itself by publicly furthering the discourse on normalizing forces.8

This example resists normalization on a structural level: it compromises the normative power of art institutional trajectories itself. Vis-à-vis the retreat from public political concern of art market pleasures, museum passivity, and alternative escapism, it quests contemporary agency by exposing normalizing practices as historically crafted modes of integration and thus proposing an encouraging way of applying Foucaultian archeology as a critical tool for contemporary cultural production.

Yet the relation between critical institutional projects and dominant culture is an ambiguous one. While aiming at unmasking normalization’s ideological leveling out of differences by constructing stereotypical patterns of opposition and hence reinvesting its vanguard resources in the overall normative scheme of interpretation and valorization of the factual, art institutional strategies remain embedded in the neoliberal system of “repressive tolerance.” It is this broader framework of educational policies, mass media opinion making, philanthropic social organizations, and event businesses that the art institution is complicitly linked to by making a virtue of the prevailing necessities of cultural politics, corporate sponsoring, and private memorialization—the goals of neoliberalism are finally conformed.

While repressive psychiatry has been replaced by discrete policing, the strike against the normal is still joined by Hannah Chaplin, Abbott the portrait painter, and the would-be assassin of Victoria and Albert. It is their musealized presence that is our spark of hope in the struggle against normalization. Without deconstructing the very moment according to its historical specificity we cannot resist the comfort of giving in to the integrative promise of being just another subculture of opposition that is all too easily being institutionalized into the next “interesting” project of nonconforming obedience. Atomization by ahistoricity arrests the contemporary individual in a frosty embrace. Our resource of resistance lies in listening to the gaps and cracks of normalization’s symbolic order. Collectively acting out their disruptive potential paves the way to unpredictability. Ideology loses its grip on the rediscursivized textures of critical cultural practice—normalization’s fiercest enemy.


1 / Jeremy Bentham, “The Panopticon”; or, “The Inspection House (1787),” The Panopticon Writings, ed. Miran Bozovic, Verso, London 1995.

2 / Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, Vintage, New York 1995.

3 / Gleichschaltung: the coordination of the complete life of Germany on the Nazi pattern.

4 / Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste, University Press, Cambridge 1984.

5 / Foucault, Discipline and Punish, p. 308.

6 / UCL Chemistry, “History—Chemical History of UCL,” (accessed January 28, 2009).

7 / Nottingham Contemporary, “The Impossible Prison,” (accessed January 28, 2009).

8 / The Impossible Prison: A Foucault Reader, Nottingham Contemporary, 2008.