Redefinitions and the Politics of Normality

Cultural normality is an elusive phenomenon but a powerful force.

One meaning of this statement, the meaning I intend, hinges on the word normality.  And one meaning of this word is: anything common or regular.  But I infer a latent or perhaps more essential meaning from the standard definition.  I create a redefinition:

Normality—that which goes generally unnoticed.

Redefinitions book cover: a patch of moss in a tiled floor.

Based on this interpretation, cultural normality eludes culture at large.  Therein lies its power; we cannot question the particulars of environment or behavior when those variables escape our attention.  Once a set of cultural values becomes normal, people with vested interests in those values can exercise power, structure society, and maintain the consent that brings order.

Sovereignty, however, does not ensure relevance.  Order may be necessary for human survival, but it can also induce cultural demise if not understood and periodically updated.  To understand requires investigation; to update involves change.  If people in power cannot recognize the provisional nature of their rule, social progress stagnates despite advances in technology.  Thus human history unfolds, shaping the world but frequently deferring self-knowledge.

A culture engaged in a healthy normality fosters individuals who actively participate in that normality by periodically considering it abnormal.  The architecture, hierarchies, customs, and routines that define daily life are appreciated as variables of human will, not perceived as ultimate truths.  The ingrained legacies of culture can then be deciphered within everyday assumption.  The economic cost of developing the necessary detachment and empathy is offset by the creative solutions that fresh perspectives often provide.

Normative culture in the United States consists of contradictory meme-moralities inherited from Christianity and the Enlightenment, tossed into the melting pot of media-driven consumerism.  Alongside ideals of diversity and democracy exists evidence of widespread conformity in the service of plutocratic agendas.  This sweeping account is not meant as a dismissal but as a catalyst for dialogue.  All cultures contain contradictions (arguably their primary function).  Is a conversation even possible, however, among citizens unwilling to momentarily set aside their economic self-interests?  Despite churning out more and more college graduates, the United States sinks further into the sludge of cultural decline.  The normative message remains: learn, but not so much that you question the mores behind your education.

Just as the language of normality shelters individuals from chaos but can also constrict and delude their consciousness, language itself can impede understanding when its symbolic construction goes undetected.  Multiple interpretations exist; meaning is dynamic; thoughts are not reality.  Redefinitions, a list of 100 words in need of a tune-up, illustrates this scenario and celebrates language as invention.  Although philosophical in tone, the slender volume aims to promote discussion rather than establish proof.  A redefinition of the word desire illustrates the spirit of the work:

Desire—a treasure map that leads to another treasure map.

For readers who find this thought depressing rather than humorous or even liberating, I offer another redefinition, perhaps more redemptive:

Satisfaction—having suffered well.

For more Redefinitions, visit:

Redefinitions book cover: a patch of moss in a tiled floor.
Redefinitions: A List of 100 Words in Need of a Tune-Up

Author: Todd Garlington

Urban spectator, Inner space cadet

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