“Normalize” is a word of the moment. But it, along with the idea of normalization, goes back to the 1800s. The earliest uses documented in the Oxford English Dictionary are related to biological processes, but one is a clear predecessor to today’s uses. A New York Times article from 1864 discusses how “. . . attempts to normalize despotism display the impotency as well as the malignity of the Executive.” The normalization of despotism is exactly what so many fear today.
Biological functions, despotism, you name it: Just about anything can be normalized. You can normalize orthography by making it more uniform or normalize your breathing after heavy exercise. There are types of normalization specific to math, metallurgy, and computing. Data normalization reduces redundancies, creating data that are more uniform and therefore easy to analyze. One meaning from psychology seems particularly relevant to recent events. According to the OED, normalization can mean “The subconscious process whereby the mental image of a shape, pattern, etc., is changed to resemble something more familiar.” In political terms, that can mean a nonpolitician elected to the presidency becomes just another guy in the White House.
How do you make a better world? And what will it cost?
Nisi Shawl’s historical fantasy Everfair (2016) starts with a simple but bold image: that of a Frenchwoman passionately in love with her bicycle. Lisette Toutournier spins through the Gallic countryside atop the vehicle, facing her future, enchanted by the freeing and somewhat illicit possibilities of this technology. Her life will be fueled by a perpetual curiosity to know how machines work — by a fierce wonder at science’s stimulating gifts — and this curiosity will rocket her across the globe to Africa, Europe, and the United States as one the founders of a new Central African nation called Everfair at the turn of the 20th century. Together, her colleagues plan a nation where such things as slavery, class exploitation, gender oppression, and colonialism will vanish.
None of the co-founders of Everfair, however, are quite prepared for the way collaboration and the challenges of building and sustaining a community will alter the trajectories of their dreams. The members of this eager coalition, the ruling Grand Mote of the new country, purchase land from the so-called Congo Free State, determined to make a better world. However, they carry with them their own prejudices and passions, and they frequently stumble over their own limitations and wrestle with the eccentricities of their fellows. They all struggle to learn what it takes for an ideal to survive politics, illness, compromise, and war. In this portrayal, Shawl invites readers to explore the challenges of world-building, both in the speculative sense of creating an alternate history and in the political sense of organizing a diverse and functioning society.
How strange to return to Kafka. It takes just a few pages for all our preconceptions about literature to become unmoored. The old tools — character, plot, style — are useless to us; those solemn tomes of theory might as well be returned to their exile on the lower shelves; the recourse to undergraduate Freudianism had better be checked. None of it will guide us here. Erich Heller once wrote of the “pathetic plight of critics in the face of Kafka’s novels.” How one sympathizes! Kafka’s entire oeuvre is an assault on interpretation, on meaning; it is the most formidable rebuttal in the history of literature to the undying but misguided question: “What does this text mean?”
And yet, ironically, few authors are so burdened with the cargo of meaning as Kafka. In the century or so since his work was first introduced to a reading public, he has been hustled in under a plethora of interpretive awnings: Judaism, Christianity, Psychoanalysis, the Holocaust, Communism, Symbolism, Existentialism — you name it. He is the prophet of 20th-century atrocity; a slapstick vaudevillian in the Buster Keaton mold; the grim reaper of post-religious modernity. He either founded a new genre or dissolved all of them. Kafka himself seemed to intuit this: “I am the end or the beginning,” he wrote.