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23 CHAPTER ONE Disability, Narrative Normativity, and the StigmatizedVernacular of Communicative (in)Competence —Amy Shuman For every society, the relation between normal and special modes of behavior is one of complementarity. That is obvious in the case of shamanism and spirit possession; but it would be no less true of modes of behavior which our own society refuses to group and legitimize as vocations. For there are individuals who, for social, historical, or physiological reasons (it does not much matter which), are sensitive to the contradictions and gaps in the social structure; and our society hands over to those individuals the task of realizing a statistical equivalent (by constituting that compliment,“abnormality,” which alone can supply a definition of “the normal”). —claude levi-strauss (1987 [1950]:19) As Claude Levi-Strauss argues, the normal and the “special” are not discrete categories but instead are mutually dependent, formed within particular cultures , as part of the social structures. Norms are always relative and produce exclusions and stigmatizing practices. Folklorists and anthropologists have identified the multiple normativities of disenfranchised groups. However, within the academic discourses of folklore and anthropology, normativity itself remains relatively unchallenged. In undertaking research with disenfranchised groups, folklorists often promote the positive value of disenfranchised groups, a move that I have described as the effort to recuperate our subjects of study,often as a matter of appreciation (Shuman 2007).1 This practice is perhaps most familiar in folklore studies’ legacy of romantic advocacy, Amy Shuman 24 a legacy that has sometimes resulted in a celebratory stance that can reinforce the marginalizing status of exotic others (Abrahams 1993; Ritchie 1993). For the most part, this cost has not been considered detrimental, especially when the outcome has been greater visibility and sometimes access to resources for otherwise disenfranchised groups, though our efforts to assert the value of the groups we study does not necessarily change their status (Ritchie 1993). From the perspective of disability studies, the efforts toward recuperation look like nothing more than paternalism, and the celebratory turns out to be restigmatizing,reaffirming the disenfranchising systemic inequities .2 Disability studies begins with a critique of sympathetic approaches to people with embodied experiences marked as different (Rousso 2013). As Lennard Davis writes:“Disability studies,for the most part,shuns this unequal power transaction in favor of advocacy, investigation, inquiry, archeology, genealogy, dialectic, and deconstruction. The model of a sovereign subject revealing or reveling in that subjectivity is put into question”(2006: xvii). The disciplinary imperatives to see others as they see themselves (folklore) and to critique the sympathetic and the celebratory (disability studies) are not necessarily contradictory, and this essay is one effort to explore that conversation, in particular through the lens of normativity and the intersections among narrative, folklore, the ethnography of communication, and disability studies. As a starting point for this conversation, I argue that implicit and uncritical assumptions about normativity can underlie the folklorist’s efforts to see people as they see themselves and that letting people speak for themselves as an alternative to the celebratory is not as simple as it seems.Concepts of communicative competence are central to both issues. Research on folklore and the ethnography of speaking often explicitly argues for multiple normalcies, at least insofar as each group has its own parameters for what counts as normal and narrative. Countering ethnocentrism , ethnographers generally have argued for multiple normalcies but have nonetheless maintained the implicit ideas of norms and normality, a perspective critiqued by disability studies. Narrative studies similarly depend on both what might be described as normative modes of telling a coherent story (Linde 1993) and on opportunities for counternarratives and alternative assessments of what is tellable; who can tell; and as a consequence, how normalcy is negotiated. As a methodology, the ethnography of communication defends the idea of multiple normalcies, lending itself to a situated, localized, vernacular approach to normalcy.In our essay for the special issue of the Journal of Folklore Research on “The Stigmatized Vernacular,” Diane Goldstein and I suggested that folklore research can make an important contribution to the study StigmatizedVernacular of Communicative (in)Competence 25 of stigma by attending not to the categories of what is stigmatized,but instead by observing this process of “managing” how value is assigned, claimed, and denied in social interactions. We deliberately chose the term vernacular to describe popular or folk performances because it is a term that conveys value. Although “vernacular” has been reconfigured...


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