Authoring Autism: On Rhetoric and Neurological Queerness

Authoring Autism: On Rhetoric and Neurological Queerness

by Melanie Yergeau


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Authoring Autism: On Rhetoric and Neurological Queerness by Melanie Yergeau

In Authoring Autism Melanie Yergeau defines neurodivergence as an identity—neuroqueerness—rather than an impairment. Using a queer theory framework, Yergeau notes the stereotypes that deny autistic people their humanity and the chance to define themselves while also challenging cognitive studies scholarship and its reification of the neurological passivity of autistics. She also critiques early intensive behavioral interventions—which have much in common with gay conversion therapy—and questions the ableist privileging of intentionality and diplomacy in rhetorical traditions. Using storying as her method, she presents an alternative view of autistic rhetoricity by foregrounding the cunning rhetorical abilities of autistics and by framing autism as a narrative condition wherein autistics are the best-equipped people to define their experience. Contending that autism represents a queer way of being that simultaneously embraces and rejects the rhetorical, Yergeau shows how autistic people queer the lines of rhetoric, humanity, and agency. In so doing, she demonstrates how an autistic rhetoric requires the reconceptualization of rhetoric’s very essence.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822370116
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 01/05/2018
Series: Thought in the Act Series
Pages: 312
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x (d)

About the Author

Melanie Yergeau is Assistant Professor of English Language and Literature at the University of Michigan.

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[Autistic children] are in continuous motion, never still.

O. Ivar Lovaas, The Autistic Child

Where does rhetoric lie?

This question has many meanings, many potential interpretations. When I ask where rhetoric lies, I want to know both where it resides and where it deceives. Where does rhetoric live? What does rhetoric obscure? Whom does rhetoric fool? Where, what, and whom does rhetoric betray?

I am interested in looking at where rhetoric lies because such questions inform what we think of as symbolic or socially shared: In what ways is symbolism central to rhetorical action? Where does the symbolic map itself onto rhetorical terrains? Is symbolism ever true?

These are important questions for rhetoric, and they are likewise important questions for autism. Rhetoric has its own traditional quarters, but it redisposes itself when autistic bodies make themselves known. Autism's earliest meanings were psychodynamic in scope, referring to specific pathology as well as categorical self-absorption. Autism, Zizek once claimed, is the "destruction of the symbolic universe." (In Zizek's defense, it was the 1980s, and he modified the word autism with radical.) Frances Tustin, one of the predominant autism psychoanalysts of the twentieth century, figured autism as a traumatic refusal to differentiate self from other, in which the autistic child develops a "somatic allergy" for the "not-me." As a means of self-soothing, autistics partialize and self-absorb the human, remaking others' organs — such as others' breasts or hands — into autistic objects. Importantly, autism in these constructions is figured as a defusion of drives, as impulses that unfold rather than intend.

If autism results in the death of symbolism and the refusal to engage human others, then autism surely kills (at) parties. When I enter a social space, the electricity of the other, intervening bodies recedes in my presence. Dynamics have shifted, not to accommodate my presence, but to redirect the electricity elsewhere, toward the not-me. There is a certain awkwardness that inheres in rhetorical situations touched by the autistic. A clinical paradigm might locate that awkwardness in my autistic body, identifying the rigidity of my joints, my wayward gaze or monotonic speech, my lumbering body parts that paw their way through public spaces, as if my feet were unaware that objects existed beyond them. Under this framework, my body disrupts rhetorical situations because my body is rhetorically degraded.

Of course, I don't for a moment believe that autistic people are rhetorically degraded, nor do I believe us to be symbolically autpocalyptic. Rather, I believe that rhetoric's arrangements forcibly absent the autistic. That is, rhetoric builds spaces that occlude the autistic because the autistic supposedly represents the asocial edges of rhetoric. My modus operandi in this chapter is partial, partial in the sense that I break down rhetoric not into a definitional, or a matter of what rhetoric is, but rather what rhetoric privileges or obscures in its designs, what rhetoric refuses to traverse. Because rhetoric's topoi are many, my approach is associational at times, (de)constructing one cherished topos and bridging over to the next. Rhetoric's topographies shore up that which autistics are time and again claimed to lack: intentionality, symbolic capacity, sociality, and audience awareness, among other rhetorical means. In this way, claiming that autistics are arhetorical or pseudo-rhetorical seems a matter of principle or fact — on the level of a philosophical or natural law. If a given rhetorical tradition structures its theoretical body around intentionality, and if autistic people are said to lack intentionality, then autistic non-rhetoricity remains a logical condition of the syllogism. And, if autistic people have difficulty inferring or communicating an intention, does a nonautistic we really need to listen? Depending upon the rhetorical tradition from which we draw, we might replace intentionality with any number of darlings — pathos, reason, context, speech. For as many topoi as rhetoric proclaims to be central, there are as many deficits and symptoms that render the autistic as rhetorical antonym. In this way, the rhetorical degradation that attends autism is planar, multiple. Whatever the rhetoric of the week is, we are claimed not to have it.

Take, for instance, what we think we know about sociality. In many respects, sociality is the glue of this chapter, and, more broadly, this book. As Judy Holiday contends, rhetoric is firmly situated in the "realm of the social." Rhetoric is social, and neuroqueer people are purported to be sociality's nemesis. In calling upon the social, I am invoking Holiday's claim that "rhetoric both invents and is invented by humans, individually and collectively." Engagement, reciprocity, empathy — these things, and more, are configured as that which rhetoric requires in order to effect change. And, more importantly, each of these items is deeply connected to intentionality, which is itself multivariate. In linguistics, intention is typically configured around the social dimensions (or, pragmatics) of language, and is understood as invoking multiple cognitive phenomena. Intention, then, calls upon not only shared goal direction but also mobilizes complex relationships to time, place, and bodyminds (both one's own and others'). Bruno Bara and his coauthors assert that intentionality and sociality are implicated in one another. In order to be considered "communicative," they claim, an intention needs to "communicate a meaning to someone else, plus the intention that the former intention should be recognized by the addressee." In other words, intentionality only becomes rhetorical when it is social, when its effects are mutually recognizable. Intention requires a theory of one's own as well as other minds.

If we were to define intentionality rather simply, we might cast it as that toward which we turn as well as the action of turning-toward unto itself. Intentionality encompasses both the process of inference and the physical action of communicating or making that inference known. It is determined by both cause and effect, the latter of which is made recognizable on the body — through speech, through gesture, through gaze, through paralinguistic cues such as throat clearing, or feet shuffling, or kiss blowing. In this regard, intention can be strikingly normative. When intent is offered in conjunction with the neuroqueer, it becomes illegible: we only know what intent is when that intent is read via prosocial measures.

Autism, in its queerly contrastive ways, harbors different stories, stories of nonintention at worst and failed intention at best. Autism is less of a motive and more of a force. Mikhail Kissine notes that autistics behold their addressees less as humans and more "as a tool to attaining a certain goal." Kissine's approach, while reminiscent of psychodynamic fixations on autistic objects, is distinctly concerned with theory of mind (ToM) and the pragmatics or social functions of language. Ours is a sociality of things; ours is an intentionality of motricity and instrumentality. A pointed finger isn't necessarily about goal direction or sharing attention with others; instead, a pointed finger might hold infinite autistic meanings or potential meanings or even nonmeanings. What of an autistic instrumentality of the arm, of the raised finger? What of the stim, the tic, the involuntary or even the misunderstood gesture? Following Kissine, autistic movements are not intentions or intentioned but are rather their own drives. Or, as I suggest momentarily, these autistic propensities might be better recognized as entelechies, as queerly asocial potentials that are realized through the beingness of being autistic.

Sociality, then, is but one means among many of rhetorically degrading the autistic. But this degradation is not always negativistic or selfdefeating. While up until this point I have foregrounded the violence that attends rhetorical denials, it is worthwhile asking whether or not autistics should even desire rhetorical recognition. In positing that rhetoric degrades the autistic into non-rhetoricity, I draw upon José Estaban Muñoz's ephemeral hermeneutics. Muñoz figures ephemera as a queer kind of evidence, as that which is left behind by, or in the wake of, fact. In this telling, fact doesn't represent that which is Absolutely True so much as that which is visible, normative, and hegemonic. Writes Muñoz, "Ephemera are the remains that are often embedded in queer acts, in both stories we tell one another and communicative physical gestures such as the cool look of a street cruise, a lingering handshake between recent acquaintances, or the mannish strut of a particularly confident woman." Importantly, ephemera comprise the temporary, the discardable, the gestural, the residual, and at times the imperceptible. There is a certain collecting impulse that attends the ephemeral, and it is from this impulse that I trace autism's residuality, autism's entelechies. Autism's ephemera might be called perseverative, or that which builds toward climax by means of repetition, obsession, stiltedness, and echo. For in determining the ways in which rhetoric denies the autistic, I am likewise motioning toward the whatness of an autistic rhetoricity. What is an autistic rhetoric? What is an autistic non-rhetoric? How to capture the many (non)rhetorical forces that might culminate to shape and be shaped by autistic lives, in all of their diversity?

In piecing together rhetoric's project, and its rampant exclusions of autistic people from that very project, I am likewise tracing what might be termed autistic cultural practices. These practices are at times codified and rhetorically positioned in the life writing of autistic people, and at times these practices are unnarratable, are so embodied and temporal and uncontainable that they remain extant from rhetoric's symbolic bounds. Autistic activist Lydia Brown impassionedly maintains that autistic people "are more than the discursive and rhetorical constructs of autism and ability and disability. ... Our history is not taught or acknowledged. Our leaders, pioneers, and innovators exist on the margins of mainstream society, politics, and history. We are so commonly erased that many disabled people only learn that our communities are vibrant and widespread after they've already become adults." As Brown observes, rhetoric has so dehumanized the autistic that even autistic people have difficulty in thinking of themselves as part of community, culture, or rhetorical practice — often not being exposed to such notions until adulthood. What's more, autistic people's most visible accounts of autistic being have typically taken shape as best-selling memoirs, notably by individuals who have been lauded for achieving financial or personal success, "despite" their disabilities. Yet even in these widely circulated texts, autism resides — autistic life writers are still thought to be autistic, and thereby not wholly rhetorical or trustworthy. While a number of autistic people have published memoiristic accounts with autism trade presses, autistic writing is often self-published, disseminated online or by means of vanity presses or zines. There is, then, a certain ephemerality to many of these artifacts, an ineffability greater than that which discourse can contain. There have been some notable attempts to archive such texts, many of which, due to small distribution or lapses in online hosting, encounter difficulty in surviving. However, there are just as many contemporary archives that have proved longevity and sustainability. All the Weight of Our Dreams: On Living Racialized Autism,, the Ed Wiley Lending Library, and the Loud Hands Project are among such autistic-led archival efforts.

But, more importantly, many autistic activists do not write and/or speak, and it is here that their rhetoricity is further halved, further degraded, further absented from archives. Tics, screeching, body twirling, shit smearing, repeating the words and motions of nonautistic others, or repeating the words and motions of the gecko on a Geico commercial from 2005 — these of-the-moment movements, in which persuadability inheres, in which motions and commotions send awkward electricity via spinal waves, felt across every interlocutor in a given room — often, these are unrecorded moments, rhetorical situations that are dismissed as arhetorical, as the involuntary blips of autistic brains sending autistic signals, all to the effect of allistic disgust, allistic pity, allistic fear. What is so remarkable about allism is its assumption that allos and autos are binaristic poles, blips on a continuum that speak toward the autistic's lack of sociality and thereby moral degradation. But what is an other-centeredness if that centeredness cannot center the autistic Other?

Autistics are multiply bound to non-rhetoricity. In many respects, the idea of an autistic culture is often rendered as the cute or pathological machinations of autistic people who lack insight into the horrors of their arhetorical circuitry. But, as Brown notes, "Autistic culture is more than a passing, perfunctory phrase wrapped in a convenient package." Autistic culture — and its flirtatious bristling against rhetorical norms — is a queering of rhetoric's conditions. And, as Muñoz contends of the queer, the autistic rhetorical is in many ways a not-yet-here and a not-yet-known. Autism is, as Byron Hawk writes of entelechy, a striving unto itself that "generates multiple lines of divergence as a residual effect." If autism defies ideas about symbolism, intention, and social meaning, then what are we tracing? What might be advantageous in claiming a residual rhetoricity, or tracing an asocial symbolic, for autistic people? What of my ticcing fingers, this skin and bones?

And so, I am interested in discerning how autistic rhetors are denied rhetoricity. But I am more interested in how this denial is rhetorically accomplished, as well as how autistic people expertly respond to such denials. As I argued in the introduction, I believe rhetorical denials are often effected by means of arguments regarding partiality or remnants. That is, neuroqueer subjects might have some residual capacity for rhetorical action and practice (especially when a clinician intervenes or rehabilitates what little might be there), but they are never fully there, fully whole, or fully capable. In other words, traces of rhetoric are not enough to amount to rhetoric, for even a minute presence of The Autism™ radically destroys symbolic universes, a la Zizek.

While this chapter primarily assays the ways in which autistics are degraded from rhetoricity, I likewise begin the project of building toward an autistic rhetoricity that queers what we've come to understand as rhetoric. Queer rhetorics are anti-rhetorics, are rhetorics cunning enough to claim and embody the arhetorical. Although I devote more attention to autistic queering in chapters 3 and 4, my immediate focus here is to claim the exigency and necessity of queering while concurrently examining those discourses that would render the neuroqueer residual, lesser, and inhuman. That is, I suggest we construct autistic rhetoricity by tracing autistic people's queer gesturing, toward that which both embraces and fucks with rhetoric — toward involution. Autistic people embody the both/and of symbolism and nonsymbolism.

In the pages that follow, I leverage discourse on rhetorical remnants against clinical constructions of gradation: spectra, functioning, and severity, which operate like a series of bell curves nested within bell curves, infinitely halving neuroqueer subjects' rhetorical capacities. These clinical logics work to deny neuroqueer rhetoricity, in part, by predetermining what rhetoric can mean, effect, or contain. But these rhetorical residues are also animated in how we frame the thereness of rhetoric: where and in whom it is presumed to live (brains, bodies, humans, nonhumans, objects, spaces, temporalities), whether rhetoricity is ever innate (often taking shape in debates about art versus science/skill), how and in whom the rhetorical is identified (aesthetically, pedagogically, clinically), and so on. I am repeatedly struck by Lennard Davis's description of disability culture, when he asks, "Is there a there?" I am interested in asking the same of rhetoric.


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Copyright © 2018 Duke University Press.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments  vii
Introduction. Involution  1
1. Intention  35
2. Intervention  89
3. Invitation  135
4. Invention  175
Epilogue. Indexicality  207
Notes  215
Bibliography  261
Index  289

What People are Saying About This

NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity - Steve Silberman

"With incandescent wit and defiant exuberance, Melanie Yergeau employs her rhetorical scalpel to dismantle the clinical assumptions and cultural stereotypes that have been used to deny, dismiss, and obscure the basic humanity of autistic people for generations. This is not just a landmark book; it's a book that opens up a whole terrain of discourse informed by the insights of queer theory and the disability rights movement."

The Minor Gesture - Erin Manning

"With philosophical and rhetorical acuity and a large dose of humor, Melanie Yergeau interweaves autism research into other areas of thought, providing new ways of thinking about rhetoric, queerness, and neurology. This is without doubt the most thoroughgoing, rigorous, and creative work on authoring autism I have read. As a reader I have been changed, my attention drawn to the necessity to attend not only to the style, and to writing, but to the terms according to which some of us are given access to these voices we too often take for granted."

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