Friday, April 17, 2009

Criticism by Armchair Diagnosis

In the past month or so, I've come across two very similar instances of literary criticism in which the critic invokes "autism" to characterize strains of alienation and misanthropy in an author's body of work.

The first such usage I encountered was in a recent article in Raritan by Cambridge professor Andy Martin, titled "Autism, Empathy and Existentialism," which posited that French existentialists Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus represented opposite extremes of alienation and empathy:

One way of understanding the difference between the two thinkers is to see them as occupying different ends of a spectrum with autism at one end and empathy at the other.
Camus manages to find much to identify with in Sartre, a sense of common ground: "Even in the most well-constructed lives, there always arrives a moment in which all the facades collapse. ... This feeling is common to us. ... As a result of going against the tide, a sense of loathing, a feeling of revolt, takes possession of our entire being, and the revolt of the body is what we call nausea." What they have in common is, paradoxically, the same thing that divides them from each other and even from themselves --- a sense of the unbearable lightness of being, pitting the individual against an interpretive community in a standoff that Camus would eventually evoke with the word "absurdity." It is characteristic of Camus that he derives some glimmer of empathy out of what can be understood as an extreme form of "social autism."

... [I]t is characteristic of Sartre that he takes Camus to pieces to see how his text works. In particular, he homes in on the use of the "passé-composé" --- what we tend to call the "perfect" --- tense. ... [T]he fact that the "composed past," consisting of an auxiliary (either être or avoir) plus a past participle can, in effect, be decomposed, seen as a bundle of disconnected pieces, appears to Sartre as the key to understanding the book: the world is just like that --- a miscellaneous collection of things that don't really fit together to make anything meaningful. It is not a plenitude but a series of gaps and voids, which we have tenuously stitched together. Camus, reading Sartre, asks himself: what does Sartre have in mind, and, by extension, what do we all have in mind, "at the limits of conscious thought"? Sartre, on the other hand, asks himself: what tense is he using?

The second instance (though it was written well before the first; I just encountered them in this order) of this literary use of autism-as-metaphor was a paraphrase of Simone de Beauvoir's "Must We Burn Sade?" in Andrea Dworkin's Pornography: Men Possessing Women.

In her essay on the Marquis de Sade, Simone de Beauvoir describes Sade's sexuality as autistic. Her use of the word is figurative, since an autistic child does not require an object of violence outside himself (most autistic children are male). Male power expressed in pornography is autistic as de Beauvoir uses the word in reference to Sade: it is violent and self-obsessed; no perception of another being ever modifies its behavior or persuades it to abandon violence as a form of self-pleasuring.
Both writers, de Beauvoir and Martin (and, to some extent, Dworkin too), are using "autism" and "autistic" to describe a worldview in which everything one encounters is either self or object.

Martin, in particular, is making explicit use of Simon Baron-Cohen's earlier "mindblindness" model of autism (which he has now incorporated into a larger theory involving sex differences in the brain):

Autism, from this point of view, is a form of mindblindness, an inability to form hypotheses about others, or even to acknowledge that there is such a thing as intentionality. Whereas solipsism is a refusal to believe in the existence of others, autism allows that other people exist out there --- I can see them, I can hear them, I can smell them, and so on --- but, at the same time, I cannot recognize them as conscious beings. I can't make sense of them.
(I should point out that, throughout his essay, Martin cannot seem to decide whether Sartre is truly "mindblind," in that he is unwilling or unable to think of other people as entities, with wills, desires and thoughts of their own, or whether he is simply alienated and antagonistic, seeing other minds as inevitably hostile to his own. These are not points of view that can be held simultaneously).

I said earlier that these writers have been using "autism" to describe a worldview. That's true, although Martin and de Beauvoir/Dworkin seem to be talking about different kinds of worldviews --- the former speaks of autism almost like a philosophical school or ideology, while the latter two treat it more like a psychological or character profile. The "autism" de Beauvoir attributes to Sade is, while less precise in what it implies about Sade's beliefs or modes of thought, is just as strong a determinant of his actions as the interpersonal agnosia and alienation Martin ascribes to Sartre.

There are a number of reasons why this use of "autism" annoys me. First, there's the perpetuation of ugly, tired stereotypes about autistics --- that we are unfeeling; that we're incapable of empathy and therefore incapable of kindness, consideration, friendship or love; that we lack understanding; that we are utterly disconnected from everything around us, etc., ad nauseam.

The second reason is that this particular lens doesn't seem to have generated any fresh insights into either Sartre or Sade. Without the oh-so-trendy use of the autism label, what would these articles have said about their subjects? That Sartre liked to take things --- texts, relationships, mental states --- to pieces until nothing recognizable was left of them? That Sade's sexuality was predatory? Neither of those would be much of a newsflash to anyone with a passing familiarity with either man's writing.


Anonymous said...

In the last paragraph you write the second reason you are annoyed is that the autism label is "oh-so-trendy" and without mentioning the authors say nothing unique or much worth noting. The book by De Beauvoir was written almost a half century ago and Dworkin's, where she comments on that book, was a quarter century ago. Putting this literature in that context removes it from your critique of "oh-so-trendy" use. If you mentioned when these books were written I have missed it. If you didn't, by not mentioning that fact doesn't it sort of put your critique in the realm of opportunistic misrepresentation and unfair selective usage instead?

Virginia S. Wood, PsyD said...

What's worse, to me, is that the characteristics your literary critics describe are more indicative of sociopathy than autism.

Ignore Anonymous. I do.

Catana said...

It's true that the period in which these were written means that the use of "autism" is very dicey. But more important, they take a part as representing the whole, just as is done today. Any time that one trait is used to represent the whole, the analysis becomes hopelessly flawed. Using autism contributes nothing to an understanding of either Camus or Sartre.

Dr.Rutledge said...

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I'm a physician and former faculty member at Harvard and Stanford Medical Schools. I discovered your blog while looking for the best health writers on the web. I reviewed your posts, and think your writing would be a great addition to the Autism & Autism Spectrum Community on Wellsphere, a top 5 health website that has nearly 5 million visitors monthly. If you would like to learn more about how you can join our Health Blogger Network, republish your blog posts and be featured on the Wellsphere platform, just drop me an email at


Gonzo said...

What a strange invitation is that?
I've been a member of Wellsphere for a while. Everyone can join, without having their blog reviewed, so it's full of self-proclaimed autism experts pushing every kind of quackery.
I left after realizing, that undermining this anti-science cesspool is futile.

Anyways, knowing you like the Shakesville blog, I'm wondering what you think of this:
Grey Gardens Open Thread.
They're discussing a movie (which seems rather fantastic judging by its trailer) about two eccentric outsider women whom Jessica Lange (who plays one of them) describes as "Autistic".
I'm a bit torn on the issue, on one side it's great that someone finally uses the word Autistic to describe eminently lovable people, (or the situation they're in, to be more precise) on the other side, it's kind of wrong to use it as a label to slap on at random, encouraging that kind of harmful armchair diagnosing you talk about.

Gonzo said...

...and now, I made a bit of a fool of myself, because after watching the trailer for a second time, I wondered, if I actually heard right, so I asked. It's "artistic", not Autistic. Duh!
(It's also Drew Barrymore and not Jessica Lange who says this, but by now, my sensory deception already derailed so far, it doesn't really matter anymore.)
Apologies for venturing so deeply into off-topic land!