The blistering demon of normality 

Normality is the distinction between normal and deviant (Luhmann, Risk: A Sociological Theory). This distinction serves as an instrument for observing society. This is, among other things, an evolutionary deviation from the old good/evil distinction.

Rationality or the notion of the rational is the distinction between rational and emotional (or passionate). It doesn’t help to call it a distinction between rational and irrational (or non-rational) because that makes irrational or non-rational just an absence of the rational.

The word normal signifies a particular kind of difference; it doesn’t name anything real in itself. The same goes for the signifier rational. So if we speak of “the normal” or “the rational” we are referring to differences, not any kind of essence.

The OED gives this definition of rational:

 a. Having the faculty of reasoning; endowed with reason. Esp. in rational beingrational creaturerational soul, etc.

The first entry for rational in the OED is from 1398

J. Trevisa tr. Bartholomaeus Anglicus De Proprietatibus Rerum (BL Add.) f. 330   Þe cercle tokeneþ þe soule racional.

Classical ontology would call normal and rational qualities or properties, rather than substances. But these adjectives were later nominalized as normality and rationality, with rationality being a thing that mankind possesses, a trait.

The first use of rationality comes from mathematics.

1.Math. The property of a number or quantity of being rational (rational adj. 7a).

The first entry is a from an English translation of Euclid’s Elements of Geometry:

1570   H. Billingsley in tr. Euclid Elements Geom. x. f. 246v   These wordes in length and in power are neuer referred to rationalitie or irrationalitie.
Here are the first two English uses of normal.

1598   [implied in: A. M. tr. J. Guillemeau Frenche Chirurg. 50/2   Thervnto are many thinges reqvired, which I heere normallye and rightlye will prosecute. 

1706   Eng. Scholar Compl. 90/2   Normal, exact, according to Rule.

Under normality we find,

a. The character or state of being normal.

1839   Morning Chron. 30 May   The blistering demon of normality is evoked from the hell of French infidelity to become the patron saint of high-Church educators.

But getting back to Luhmann and risk, if the future cannot known, all we have are expectations, and these expectations can be fulfilled or disappointed. The normal is the expected, and the deviant is the unexpected or surprising event. To deal with undesirable surprises, modern society has invented things like risk mitigation, risk reduction, risk management, risk analysis. These tools are ways to rationalize systems, like the economy, or make a system less random. Part of risk management is the invention of contingency planning: If X unfortunately occurs, we do Y. Ideally, not much thinking or uncertainty is necessary when X happens; you simply carry out the contingency plan (Y). So when we have something that is apparently “nonrational,” like earthquakes, that at some point might happen, we enhance the sense of rationality, stability, or regularity. Rituals serve the same purpose (stabilizing or rationalizing the future): If someone dies, we have the body taken away and start making funeral arrangements. No real decision is required, which reduces the probability of making a bad decision.

If we can rationalize one system through contingency planning, then we can minimize possible disturbance to other systems. The greater the number of decisions that have to me made, the greater to probability of bad outcomes.

Julien Freund defines rationalization as “the organization of life through a division and coordination of activities on the basis of exact study of men’s relations with each other, with their tools and their environment, for the purpose of achieving greater efficiency and productivity.” (Freund, Julien, 1968. The Sociology of Max Weber)

This way of thinking lies behind all kinds of tyranny.

2 Comments

  1. “If we can rationalize one system through contingency planning, then we can minimize possible disturbance to other systems. The greater the number of decisions that have to me made, the greater to probability of bad outcomes.”

    The practical challenge here is to find an optimum between constraining the number of decisions and still being able to cope with disturbances we were not able to plan for. In my PhD thesis (on Luhmann and HCI) I observed this in lab situations, but since a few years I observe this in my everyday work, where possible decisions of certain systems (technical support staff in a big company) get constrained by strict guidelines (which are _meant_ to cover almost all possibilities) but with the result that many disturbances (support cases) can’t be processed properly because there are no plans for these cases. The guidelines therefore are constantly updated, to cover new cases or changed processes. However, the result is that the guidelines are seen more as a disturbance by the systems (the support staff) than a tool to cope with uncertainty.

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    1. That’s a great point. Does your research deal with organizational decision making? What find interesting about that Risk book is that he’s not concerned with an individual’s decision or psychic systems but rather the decision of social systems. I’d like to hear more about your research.

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