Autistic Disturbances: Theorizing Autism, Poetics from the DSM to Robinson Crusoe 978-0-472-07394-8

270 25 16MB

English Pages 250 Year 2018

Report DMCA / Copyright


Polecaj historie

Autistic Disturbances: Theorizing Autism, Poetics from the DSM to Robinson Crusoe

Citation preview

CoRpoRealities: Discourses of Disability Series editors:

David T. Mitchell and Sharon L. Snyder

Recent Titles

Autistic Disturbances: Theorizing Autism Poetics from the DSM to Robinson Crusoe

by Julia Miele Rodas Foucault and Feminist Philosophy o f Disability

by Shelley L. Tremain Academic Ableism: Disability and Higher Education

by Jay Timothy Dolmage Negotiating Disability: Disclosure and Higher Education

by Stephanie L. Kerschbaum, Laura T. Eisenman, and James M. Jones, editors Portraits of Violence: War and the Aesthetics o f Disfigurement

by Suzannah BiernofF Bodies o f Modernism: Physical Disability in Transatlantic Modernist Literature

by Maren Tova Linett War on Autism: On the Cultural Logic o f Normative Violence

by Anne McGuire The Biopolitics o f Disability: Neoliberalism, Ablenationalism, and Peripheral Embodiment

by David T. Mitchell with Sharon L. Snyder Foucault and the Government o f Disability, Enlarged and Revised Edition

by Shelley Tremain, editor The Measure o f Manliness: Disability and Masculinity in the Mid-Victorian Novel

by Karen Bourrier American Lobotomy: A Rhetorical History

by Jenell Johnson Shakiri All Over: Popular Music and Disability

by George McKay The Metanarrative o f Blindness: A Re-reading o f Twentieth-Century Anglophone Writing

by David Bolt Disabled Veterans in History

by David A. Gerber, editor Mad at School: Rhetorics o f Mental Disability and Academic Life

by Margaret Price Disability Aesthetics

by Tobin Siebers Stumbling Blocks Before the Blind: Medieval Constructions o f a Disability

by Edward Wheatley Signifying Bodies: Disability in Contemporary Life Writing

by G. Thomas Couser Concerto for the Left Hand: Disability and the Defamiliar Body

by Michael Davidson The Songs o f Blind Folk: African American Musicians and the Cultures o f Blindness

by Terry Rowden A com plete list o f titles in the series can be found at

Autistic Disturbances -------------

Theorizing Autism, Poetics from the

DSM to Robinson Crusoe



University o f Michigan Press A n n Arbor

Universita degli studi di Bergamo Biblioteca umanistica inventario n.: 095858

Copyright © 2018 by Julia Miele Rodas All rights reserved This book may not be reproduced, in whole or in part, including illustrations, in any form (beyond that copying permitted by Sections 107 and 108 of the U.S. Copyright Law and except by reviewers for the public press), without written permission from the publisher. Published in the United States of America by the University of Michigan Press Manufactured in the United States of America Printed on acid-free paper First published July 2018 A CIP catalog record for this book is available from the British Library. ISBN 978-0-472-07394-8 (hardcover : alk. paper) ISBN 978-0-472-12410-7 (ebook) Cover description for accessibility: In the center of the cover is a photo taken in an artisanal button shop in Barcelona. A multitude of individual buttons of various shapes, colors, sizes, and materials are sorted, organized, and stacked in individual tubes on a custom shelf, the cover of each topped with its particular button, facing the viewer. Of the approximately seventy-five unique buttons depicted, there are hearts, a star, a piece of candy, a spiral, a flower, an ice cream cone, and a cupcake, among others. The image is cropped to include partial buttons and containers on all sides, indicating that this diversity, and the ordering of these artifacts, continues in a pattern of excess beyond the frame. Above the photograph, the book title appears in an angular serif face, followed by the subtitle in a sans serif face; below, the author and foreword writer are listed in the same sans serif type.

for Jack H all , mentor, colleague, friend and for my husband, Estuardo Rodas

without whom this book would not exist











Articulating Autism Poetics



O n the Surprising Elasticity o f Taxonomical Rhetoric



Nothingness Himself



(Why “Bartleby” Doesn’t Live Here)



Neuroqueer Narration in Charlotte Bronte’s Villette




The Absence o f the Object: Autistic Voice and Literary Architecture in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein



Autism and Narrative Invention in Daniel D efoe’s Robinson Crusoe


UnConclusion— Because the Butterfly: Autistic Infinitudes









19 7







Foreword by Melanie Yergeau

What does it mean, Julia Miele Rodas asks, to open a text to the “possi­ bilities o f autism”? If autism is a potential toward which one might aspire, how might clinical-textual readings o f autism shift— crumble— strive? It is hard for a foreword to do justice to a book as profound as this one. Autistic Disturbances is at once capacious and nuanced: It demarcates the whatness o f autistic language— an impressive and formidable project— while refusing to confine its substance to pathological categories. Autis­ tic Disturbances unfurls autistic language not as a category attached to a diagnosis, but rather as a series o f rhetorical and aesthetic strategies that share deep affinities with autistic cultures. Autistic language, per Rodas, is uniquely embodied and habitual. These body-habits, as it were, exceed the domain o f the contemporarily- and culturally-autistic and are locatable across literary texts from the past three centuries. With keen wit and a penetrating gaze (eye contact pun !), Rodas shows us how textual habits historically devalued as autistic are habits traditionally valued in literary texts. Indeed, if one were to spend six hours with Silva Rhetoricae’s trope index, one would find many an autistic-cum-literary pattern. For what are rhetorical schemes if not autistic, and vice versa? In pursuing these questions, Rodas describes autistic language as “terminological clouds” (which is a much cooler metaphor than Kenneth Burke’s terministic screens), taxonomies that resonate as much as they create friction. Autis­ tic language, she notes, is not confinable to tidy or monolithic catego­ ries; like literary motifs, it rains and patterns.

x • Foreword

Readers familiar with autism studies will understand the complexity (and guaranteed controversy) surrounding any claim about autism and language. Language is, after all, what the autistic are time and again claimed to lack. Indeed, even when autistic communication bears pass­ ing normative resemblance, clinicians without fail locate fault. We have at our disposal nearly infinite clinical tropes that frame autistic languaging effectually as non-languaging: Absence o f speech. Presence of augmentative and assistive communication. Failure to point or gesture. Pointing or gesturing too much, and with too much enjoyment, and with too much o f the too much too much. Excessive repetition. Inexcessive repetition. Oversharing. Undersharing. Inability to answer “How are you?” Propensity to answer “How are you?” with train trivia or decontextualized lines from Die Hard. Et cetera x 47. Rodas’s book is a welcoming middle finger, if one can imagine the beckoning playfulness o f such a discordant gesture. W here a clinician finds paucity, Rodas finds semiotic silence. Where a clinician finds TMI, Rodas finds apostrophe or ejaculation. In reading Autistic Disturbances, I am reminded o f Neil Marcus’s claim that disability “is an art . . . an ingenious way to live.” Rodas masterfully makes the case that autism is an art, one that publics are beholden to recognize and value. More than this, however, she refuses those claims that would suggest autism and autistics have no language. In so doing, Rodas rejects ableist reper­ toires o f what language is and can mean, notably the understanding that language necessitates understanding or intelligibility. In venerating the idiosyncratic and the echolalic, Rodas conducts analyses o f literary texts notable for their autistic form by means of an autistic form. In other words, when discussing interruptive prose, Rodas interrupts her own prose— beautifully, rigidly, and impassionedly. In this way, readers are viscerally confronted with autism’s many possibilities, are given neurodivergent mechanisms through which to re-see Villette, Frankenstein, Robinson Cru­ soe, and more. Autism’s possibilities exceed the texts Rodas autistically scrutinizes. What Autistic Disturbances offers is at once a m ethod and a style for appre­ hending aesthetic autism, across genre and mode. This is an incompara­ ble book, one brimming with ideas for how to reclaim autistic echoes in a morass o f literary expression. Lather, rinse, repeat is an amazing thing.

Preface Involuntarity and Intentionality

Autistic Disturbances is about autism poetics, about the particular ways in which autism is expressed in language. The book brings together liter­ ary, linguistic, political, and clinical discussion to explore the presence o f autistic voice in familiar texts and to question the com plex matrices o f power and aesthetics that influence how formal autistic expression is valued or devalued. The argument and theoretical framework o f Autistic Disturbances are unfolded at length in its opening chapters; the shorter chapters that make up the rest o f the book apply this interpretive experi­ ment to a series o f well-known texts. What follows in this preface is a brief discussion o f possible questions surrounding the larger project.

Regarding Language and Intentionality In the beginning, there is a question o f intention: Is it ever truly possible to say entirely what we mean or to mean entire­ ly what we say? Does language, used by anyone in any form, exist as a fully intentional medium, transparently communicative, a direct expressive conduit of some true inner self? By presenting the question in these extreme terms, with these abundant flourishes— ever; truly, entirely, fully, transparently— the question itself is under­

xii • Preface

mined, not really a question at all. This is what’s called in the business a “rhetorical” question, a deliberate spoiler, the answer already obvious. And the obvious answer? O f course language is difficult, contingent, and experimental; o f course, there is only ever the illusion o f clear, uni­ dimensional meaning. Language is always approximate, always loaded, always a little unpredictable. Despite this concession, when considering autistic language, there remains nevertheless a tendency to perseverate on questions o f inten­ tionality; there is a recurring critique, a zombie-like rising up again o f that which might have been considered securely settled, obvious. Intentions are always, at best, obscure and illusory. And yet, as Mela­ nie Yergeau observes, “involuntarity dominates much o f the discourse on autism, underlying clinical understandings o f affect, intention, and socially appropriate response” just as “popular autism narratives repre­ sent autistics as involuntary” (Authoring Autism, 7, 9). Thus, the inevita­ ble ambiguities o f neurotypical language users are passed over, invisible; there may be misspeaking, confusion, the muddiness o f figuring out, of thinking-out-loud— all this is to be expected. But with ordinary language use, there is all the while an unspoken, unconscious expectation o f teleol­ ogy, a social generosity that infers destination; the language that is valued is language that is thought to be getting somewhere. Meanwhile, autistic speakers and writers are subject to a different kind o f verbal scrutiny, an expectation o f “solipsism” (Nadesan, “Constructing Autism,” 87), o f “echolalia” (Hinerman, Teaching Autistic Children, 25), o f “nonsense” (Kanner, “Autistic Disturbances,” 243). Autistic language is “attenuated” and “circular” (Glastonbury, “T il Teach You Differences,”’ 60; Olsen, “Diagnosing Fantastic Autism,” 41); it is, as Marion Glastonbury poeti­ cally sums up, “the empty institutional whelk-shell without the hermit crab” (60). Autistic language is always suspect because autistic people are always suspected. Indeed, the question o f intentionality is informed by another question, deeper and darker than the first: When it comes to autism, perhaps, there is no there, there? Yergeau is careful to unpack this latency: “Involuntarity,” she notes, “is a project o f dehumanization” (Authoring Autism, 10). It is imperative that this caution be foregrounded, that discussion o f autism and language never lose sight o f an implicit “project o f dehu­ manization.” And yet there is also something to be gained from under­ taking discovery at this boundary, from experimental probing at the site o f absence. To this end, this preface puts forward a brief analysis o f a text that genuinely isn’t there, teasing out the threads o f autism poetics

Preface • xiii

and recurring questions o f intentionality in a manuscript that is literally nonexistent— the fictional “Memorial” authored by Mr. Dick in Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield (1850). First: about Mr. Dick. H e’s a provoking figure for thinking about autism, partly because, as a character, he is balanced ambiguously at the threshold o f legitimate personhood. He is regarded by the clear-sighted and heroic Betsey Trotwood as a font o f wisdom and common sense, trea­ sured by the novel’s protagonist as a generous and tenderhearted friend, and understood by scholars as a doppelganger for Dickens himself. (Mr. Dick, get it?) At the same time, audiences understand from their first encounter with the character that he is socially, emotionally, and intel­ lectually atypical. He lives upstairs in Aunt Betsey’s house, having been preserved by her from institutionalization by his own brother. Though Mr. Dick is fully capable o f managing his physical needs independently, he is nevertheless subject to Aunt Betsey’s authority, seemingly unable to take care o f himself, a borderline case, marked as intellectually or cognitively disabled, a legitimate subject for incarceration, inhabiting the fringe o f the human family. Though he is articulate, an able and productive writer, his words likewise are regarded as failing in some way; “there was something wrong” (Dickens, David Copperfield, 243; chap. 15). In keeping with clinical descriptions o f autism, the strangenesses of Mr. Dick’s language are almost imperceptible; it is “hard to find anything formally wrong, rather the reader is left with an overall impression o f oddness” (Happe, “Autobiographical Writings,” 229). Mr. Dick’s potential identity as a neurocognitively disabled charac­ ter is important, o f course, in considering questions o f intentionality, but it is his role as an arguably neuroqueer writer, his production of apparently autistic text, which is the focus here. It is Mr. D ick’s manu­ script, endlessly attenuated, both inaccessible and inescapable, redolent o f autistic rhetoric, that captures the imagination. The writing that Mr. Dick works at diligently every day is explicitly called a “Memorial,” but Dickens remains rather vague as to its content. In fact, the defining fea­ ture o f the Memorial is that it must perpetually be stopped and restart­ ed because, somehow, the decapitated head o f King Charles the First continually reappears in the manuscript as an unbidden inteijection, a scripted interruption or ejaculation, impermissible. (Another intrusion here o f Dickensian writerly identity— King Charles, get it?— signals the import o f what might otherwise be considered an expletive.) This Sisyphean task, this ceaseless circular writing— echoing, rico­ cheting, evoking Glastonbury’s “empty institutional whelk-shell”— is also

xiv • Preface

punctuated by Mr. Dick’s crafting his infinite pages o f waste manuscript into enormous kites, which he flies with the idea o f “disseminating” his words into the wind (244; chap. 15). Mr. Dick’s is a life o f false starts and his escape from institutional life is ambiguous at best, since he is rescued from the asylum only to suffer a kind o f writer’s incarceration, chained to the incomprehensible treadmill o f the Memorial. His writ­ ing life appears to be one o f constant reiteration, senseless interruption, meaningless proliferation, and pointless dissemination, an attempt at meaning-making punctuated at intervals by symbolic but indecipherable decapitation. Language without meaning, suggestive o f Lance O lsen’s comment that autism-inflected texts are “fraught with . . . a deep feel­ ing o f failure [and] invariably begin the entropic drift toward autistic silence. The game is futile, the center is absent, linguistic zero is present” (41). Mr. Dick’s writing operates at the margins o f intentionality, a point brought home by the fact that he later transitions from the Memorial into work as a law copyist, anticipating, or becoming an uncanny fore­ bear o f Melville’s famed Bartleby, the scrivener. Work on the text o f the Memorial, an outpouring o f creative interiority, merges explicitly into writing work that is the mere copying o f dry legal documents. Ostensibly, Mr. D ick’s Memorial, then, is a text about nothing and m eaning nothing, void, contentless, o f purely formal or superficial val­ ue, a pointless activity to give occupation to the most marginal o f fig­ ures: “it d o n ’t signify,” comments A unt Betsey; “it keeps him em ployed” (232; chap. 14). Like the legal copying to come, the Memorial may be regarded as a mechanical, a mechanistic perform ance, without interi­ ority or intentionality. Dovetailing with clinical assessments o f autism in the 20th century, it is the “m echanical repetition” noted in the DSM III-R, K anner’s “m onotonous repetitiousness” (“Autistic Disturbances,” 246). And yet the M em orial’s profusion and its expansive echoes within and beyond the novel belie its apparent insignificance. Mr. D ick’s writ­ ing, despite appearances, is not meaningless or nonsensical. His kite flying is not intended to get rid o f the words and ideas that constrain him, a means o f relieving him self o f a kind o f semiotic waste, but is rather founded on his “b elief in its disseminating the statements pasted on [the kite]” (244; chap. 15). “I d o n ’t know where they may come down,” he remarks. “It’s according to circumstances, and the wind, and. so forth; but I take my chance o f that” (229; chap. 14). W hile others question his cognitive com petence and set restrictions on the content and m anner o f his writing, Mr. D ick’s kite-flying activity is undertaken to spread the statements o f the Memorial far and wide; it is his version

Preface • xv

o f publication, o f broadcast, an expansive sharing o f dense, difficult, and forbidden language. And while the text itself is absent, it is not completely unknowable. What it intends, whether it has legitimate intentionality, to what extent its meaning and intention are communicable, are not quite accessible. And yet, nonexistent though it is, it is still possible to look at this vacan­ cy, to regard its absent impressions— its footprints and fingerprints and other evidence o f its nonexistent existence — $.nd to ask as part o f the present investigation whether intention is really the right question after all. “Closely and laboriously written,” Mr. Dick’s hand is an outward sign o f the dense interiority o f the writing; like David’s writing, and like Dick­ ens’s, Mr. Dick’s text is “a Memorial about his own history” (232; chap. 14), a storytelling so distinct and particular that its expression challenges the parameters o f convention, flirting with incomprehensibility. Lament­ ing the unprocessible but relentless presence o f King Charles the First’s head in his understanding and articulation o f his own life, Mr. Dick won­ ders aloud, “how could the people about him have made that mistake o f putting some o f the trouble out o f his head, after it was taken off, into mine?” (228; chap. 14). He recognizes that this peculiar sign will not clearly communicate its meaning to a prospective reader, that this idiosyncratic form o f expression, this distinctive inventive articulation is a kind o f communicative failure, and he is troubled that he “never can get that quite right” and “never can make that perfectly clear” (229; chap. 14). But Mr. Dick seems equally certain that this symbol is central to his own written life and he finds it impossible to avoid the reference. David tells us that “Mr. Dick had been for upwards o f ten years endeav­ oring to keep King Charles the First out o f the Memorial; but he had been constantly getting into it, and was there now” (232; chap. 14). The Memorial is deeply, intensely, inescapably subjective, reliant on forms o f verbal invention that are meaningful without being transparently com­ municative or transactional. Finally, the persistence o f King Charles the First’s head in Mr. Dick’s life writing is suggestive o f the dangerous volatility o f his language. Despite Aunt Betsey’s firm insistence that “there shan’t be a word about it in his Memorial” (231; chap. 14), the head constantly rears its head. Mr. Dick cannot or will not be constrained from this form o f ejacula­ tion, from writing what is forbidden, inappropriate, impolite, politically and socially explosive. Aunt Betsey recognizes the validity o f Mr. Dick’s expressive choice— “That’s his allegorical way o f expressing it. He con­ nects his illness with great disturbance and agitation, naturally, and that’s

xvi • Preface

the figure, or the simile, or whatever it’s called, which he chooses to use. And why shouldn’t he, if he thinks proper!” (231; chap. 14)— but she sees at the same time the unspeakability o f Mr. Dick’s experience and moves to censor his language as she has successfully silenced herself on the unspeakable subject o f her estranged husband’s brutality. “‘It’s not a business-like way o f speaking,’ said my aunt, ‘nor a worldly way. I am aware o f that; and that’s the reason why I insist upon it, that there shan’t be a word about it in his M emorial’” (231; chap. 14). Like other autistic expression, the Memorial is dangerously outspoken; and like other neu­ roqueer text, it is continually censored and silenced, finding a voice only in seemingly obscure and privative forms o f sharing— dissemination, for instance, by kite. The ejaculations and tics and decapitated heads that may find their way into autistic expression may not be a business-like way o f speaking, nor even reliably intentional symbolic devices, but like the intermittent squawks and dahlias and cheeses visited in the chapters ahead, they are expressive verbalizations worth encountering. “An autistic may not fully intend to wave her arms or repeat license plate numbers,” Yergeau points out, “and yet an embodied intentionality inheres in those moments, cre­ ating meaning and harnessing energy out o f a not-entirely-meant per­ form ance” (Authoring Autism, 65). The Memorial, even in its absence, offers a solid interpretive lesson, its authorial echoes— Charles Dickens, Charles the First, Mr. Dick— and its circularity and its interrupted qual­ ity, all serving to remind that valuable expressive resonances may erupt unbidden. This is not to argue that the author and the character and the decapitated head are all the same; or that Donald T., reciting “Dahlia, dahlia, dahlia,” is the same as Gertrude Stein writing “guided guided away, guided and guided away” (Kanner, “Autistic Disturbances,” 219; Stein, Gertrude Stein, 133). Instead, it is an argument for respectful, open listening and reading, an argument against the defensive armor implicit in questions o f intentionality, and an argument for leaning into “solipsism,” “echolalia,” and “nonsense,” even if it’s not a business-like way o f speaking.

A Note on Terminology As Autistic Disturbances plays at these margins, exploring potential autistic resonances and sampling autistic potentialities in a variety o f texts, it employs terms meant to privilege an aesthetics o f fluidity and ambiguity.

Preface • xvii

Am ong these terms, “neuroqueer” figures prominently. Adopted from an established community o f autistic writers and thinkers, including Ibby Grace and Melanie Yergeau, neuroqueer gestures toward a cultural history shared by neurodivergent and queer peoples and speaks to overlaps of identity and experiences o f (resistance to) forced compliance. Readers interested in a more expansive exploration o f this history and use o f this term are urged to read Yergeau’s outstanding Authoring Autism: On Rheto­ ric and Neurological Queerness (2017). Use o f “queer” and “neuroqueer” in the present text are embraced not only as an act o f intellectual soli­ darity and in recognition o f the autistic writers who have influenced my own thinking, but also because o f the ways this terminology underscores political, social, and aesthetic aspects o f autistic identity. Just as queer reclaims epithet, neuroqueer redefines and reclaims identity from clinical and popular arenas that demean, dismiss, malign, and infantilize. Neu­ roqueer is decidedly a cultural site, not a diagnosis. This book also favors use o f the word “autist” in speaking o f autistic individuals, though it uses some variety to indicate flexibility and diver­ sity around nominal preferences. Informed by Jim Sinclair’s widely dis­ seminated argument, Autistic Disturbances deliberately avoids use o f the “person with autism” construction (“Why I Dislike ‘Person First’ Lan­ guage”). As with other marginalized identities, however, active efforts at politically conscious language are directed toward a moving target. As long as the people named continue to struggle for power and agency within the dominant culture, terminology will necessarily continue to shift as part o f this process. I apologize to future readers if the politically conscious terms adopted here come to be regarded as blighted ableist language. I am sorry, likewise, if I have mistakenly misgendered any o f the sources referenced in this book; in its use o f pronouns, Autistic Disturbances works on some level to disturb conventional expectations around autism and masculinity and it makes a conscious effort to respect preferred pronouns when they are known, but it is otherwise grounded primarily in traditional gendered pronoun use.

Autism Histories and Privileging Autistic Voice The work o f Autistic Disturbances is to explore in depth the particularities and possibilities o f autistic language. To that end, it draws on literary criticism and clinical theory, but, mindful o f the extent to which autistic voices have been silenced, the book seeks to foreground autistic speak­

xviii • Preface

ing, sometimes in ways that readers may find unexpected or challenging. O ne formal feature that may require explanation is the way words and phrases autistically picked from various contexts have been used to punc­ tuate the writing, a practical application o f poetic, aesthetic, and analyti­ cal technique, an acting out the ways in which echo, echoes, echolalia can productively ricochet. These repetitions are autistically interruptive, ejaculatory, distracting, perseverative, a kind o f verbal embroidery that persistently challenges typical verbal intentionality; but this repetitive accrual o f autistic ejaculation is also a performance o f the irregular and unexpected ways in which language may make meaning. This formal gesture seeds the entire volume with authentic autistic speaking, but it is also a playful demonstration o f the autistic tenor this book seeks to celebrate. Close readers o f the book as a whole are likely to recognize these repetitions, since each is first quoted and documented within the body o f the text; repeated words and phrases are not documented as they recur in later iterations, but each is collected and referenced in “An Accounting: Autistic Ejaculations” at the end o f the book. Privileging autistic voice and aesthetic also means that Autistic Distur­ bances focuses on autistic language and ideas about autistic language in particular, sometimes passing over important clinical or social history with the scantiest gloss. For those who want to learn more about the history o f autism or autism’s culture wars, about the em ergence o f and contested discourse around prominent figures like Leo Kanner, Hans Asperger, Bruno Bettelheim, Ivar Lovaas, and Uta Frith, or the frictions surrounding Autism Speaks, there is a wealth o f excellent material. I would recomm end as a first resource online sites like the one managed by ASAN (the Autistic Self Advocacy Network) and blogs by autistic activ­ ists; among these, I suggest Lydia X. Z. Brown’s Autistic Hoya, Dani Alexis Ryskamp’s Autistic Academic, Bev H arp’s Square 8, and Melanie Yergeau’s Autistry. In addition to Yergeau’s Authoring Autism, recom m ended books include Stuart Murray’s highly accessible Autism (2012), Anne M cGuire’s award-winning War on Autism (2016), and Adam Feinstein’s meticulous A History of Autism: Conversations with the Pioneers (2010).


Introduction -------------

The words o f Elaine C., collected and transcribed by Leo Kanner and published in the 1943 landmark study that first introduced autism as a modern clinical category, are among the earliest published expressions o f a professionally recognized autist: “Dinosaurs don’t cry”; “Crayfish, sharks, fish, and rocks”; “Crayfish and forks live in children’s tummies”; “Butterflies live in children’s stomachs, and in their panties, too”; “Fish have sharp teeth and bite little children”; “There is war in the sky”; “Rocks and crags, I will kill” . . . ; “Gargoyles bite children and drink oil”; “I will crush old angle worm, he bites children” . . . ; “Gargoyles have milk bags”; “Needle head. Pink wee-wee. Has a yellow leg. Cutting the dead deer. Poison deer. Poor Elaine. No tadpoles in the house. Men broke deer’s leg” . . . ; “Tigers and cats”; “Seals and salamanders”; “Bears and fox­ es.” (“Autistic Disturbances,” 241) Running counter to the popular notion that autism is nonverbal, Elaine C .’s prolific expressive language challenges ordinary communicative expectations; it repeats and ricochets, suggesting a potential listener beyond the clinical recorder; her words are striking and forceful and beautifully, queerly concentrated, incontinent, a profound achievement o f repetition, order, and chaos, a provocation to disparate audiences: parents and teachers, clinicians, and a great trailing host o f poets and



activists and critics and cultural theorists following in the wake o f the invention o f autism. Poor Elaine. No tadpoles in the house. This is a book about autistic language, not from a clinical or a bio­ graphical perspective, but from a literary, semiotic, and cultural stand­ point. Beginning with Elaine C .’s words is an intentional gesture o f respect for an autistic person and for her autistic voice. It establishes certain foundations: the writing that follows is consciously and delib­ erately autism positive. Nevertheless, this book is text-focused rather than person-focused. It is not about autistic people per se, but, like Ann McGuire, treats “autism as an object o f interpretive analysis” (21) and points to autism as “a profoundly rhetorical phenom enon” (Heilker and Yergeau, “Autism and Rhetoric,” 4.86)*} Autistic Disturbances is about autistic voice, words and speaking, autistic text, autistic writing; struc­ ture, tone, inflection, and echoes; it is about iteration and pattern, invention and constructions o f silence; it is about language that is unex­ pected, outspoken, rich, florid, nondialogic. Q ueer language. Both unruly and prescriptive. It is the language o f the everyday, but it is not ordinary language. In particular, this book recognizes echoes, tones, patterns, and con­ fluences between autistic language, which is typically pathologized and devalued, and language used in culturally valued literary text^ Gertrude Stein’s “If I Told Him, a Complete Portrait o f Picasso” offers a cue for the kinds o f possible resonances: Exact resemblance to exact resemblance the exact resemblance as exact resemblance, exactly as resembling, exactly resembling, exact­ ly in resemblance exactly and resemblance. For this is so. Because.

(19 0 ) Here, the cascading repetitions tease and question, like Elaine C .’s words, disrupting ordinary cadences and rhetoric, thwarting intuitive commu­ nication, ordinary expectations o f transparent and transactional lan­ guage. Exactly resembling, exactly in resemblance exactly and resemblance. The fragmentary nature o f the language, the prismatic repetitions, phrases angled with slight differences create dense concentrations o f sound and potential meaning. Though Stein’s work is infamously subject to paro­ dy and satire, its cultural stature nevertheless amplifies its potentiality for multiple audiences. Because o f the way Stein’s poetry is presented, then— published, distributed, collected, framed by introductions and serious critical analyses— audiences are poised to defer immediate ju d g ­

Introduction • 3

ment, to doubt their own resistances, to seek value in unexpected, dis­ ruptive, and digressive language. For this is so. The work o f Autistic Disturbances is to pursue these resonances between explicitly identified autistic speaking and conventionally approved liter­ ary text and to explore the tensions o f language and culture that lead to the classification o f some verbal expression as disordered while other, similar expression enjoys prized status as literature.

Autistic Language In Far from the Tree, Andrew Solomon maintains that “there is no formal language o f autism to be recognized by linguists” (284). But, despite Solom on’s claim, it turns out that autism might have a formal language. At the very least, autism has a particular language, one that has been extensively recognized, researched, and described by clinical theorists, literary scholars, and autism (self) advocates. Indeed, Paul Heilker and Melanie Yergeau contend “that autism itself is a rhetoric, a way o f being in the world through language,” and have proposed that “autistics are minority rhetors” (“Autism and Rhetoric,” 487). This book argues that the language stylistics widely recognized as being attached to autism in fact occupy an expansive position in broader literary culture as well and that the threads o f literary autism are visible in a variety o f highly valued texts— popular, technical, and canonical. 1* The title, Autistic Disturbances, is partly in ironic reference to Kanner’s work, but it is also as an acknowledgment o f the power o f autistic lan­ guage to disturb, disrupt, and undo. In Melanie Yergeau’s terms, autistic rhetoricity presents opportunities for a queering o f communication, for »| language expressed “as a kind o f dis- or unorientation.’ For Yergeau, “to author autistically is to author queerly and contrarily” (Authoring Autism, 182, 6). Even the orderlinesses o f autistic language— its insistent precisions, its listmaking, cataloguing, and system preferences— are con­ ventionally described as troubling, improper, invasive: “rigid.” Perhaps the most distinctively autistic aspect o f autistic language is this unset­ tling quality, its deceptively contained instabilities. It is thus that Anthony Easton embraces within “the pragmatics o f autistic language . . . new forms . . . that refuse the linearity o f neo-liberal prescriptivism— forms that encourage the list, the jarring transition, the info dump, the non­ verbal, the stutter, and the stim” (“It Feels Like”). Drawing on the work o f Easton, Yergeau, and others, it becomes evi­



dent that autists, autism families, cultural observers, and clinicians share surprisingly similar ideas regarding the distinctive qualities o f autistic language. Mining a substantial autism-centered literature from the last seven decades— work by clinicians and therapists, autism bloggers, liter­ ary scholars, biographers and memoirists, parents, activists, and cultural scholars, some identifying as autistic, others not— the following terms emerge, often repeatedly, as descriptors o f autistic expressive practice. abrupt • absence o f “I” • absent • abstruse • ad nauseam • adept • aphorisms • arbitrary • astounding vocabulary • barrenness • circular • circularity • creativity • despair • dictatorial • eccentric • echolalia • ejaculatory • empty space • erratic • evasive • exclamations • frag­ mented • futility • hermetic • hermeticism • hiding • idiosyncratic • inflexible • irrelevant • labyrinth • labyrinthine • large vocabulary • like a professor • like an adult • linguistic zero • listing • literalness • local coherence • logorrhea • mechanical • metaphorical • mimicry • modernist • monologism • mutism • narrational gaps • neologism • no inferential communication • noncommunicative • nonconversational • nondialogic • nonreciprocal • nonsensical • nonsocial • obsessive • oddness • parroting • pedantic • perseveration • polysyl­ labic • private • pronominal reversal • puns • repetition • returning to the same topic • rigid • robotic • self-sufficient • semantically valueless • silly • solipsistic • staccato • stereotyped • stereotypy • switches abruptly • systemizing • telegraphic • translating coded com­ munication • unintelligible • unnatural • valueless • voluble • without context • without intention • wittiness The signifiers adopted by writers about autistic expression may be seen to operate in loose clusters o f linguistic interrelativity with diverse options for aggregation. A twofold problem arises, however, in discovering or inventing shared language to talk about these features, one a problem o f inclusive language, the other o f accuracy. That is, the semantic practices o f the present text need first to demonstrate a correlation between clini­ cal observation and neuroqueer self-scrutiny and, second, to develop theoretical language that adequately and respectfully describes an autis­ tic manner o f speaking. It’s a difficult, indeed, in some ways, an imposT sible task. Although between the findings o f clinicians, literary theorists, and deliberately autism-positive critics, there is far more confluence about autistic expression than might be supposed, such agreem ent does not settle neatly into clear-cut categories, into distinctively outlined and

Introduction • 5

partitioned arenas o f notice. Description, definition, delineation require clarity; the data, however, are not lucid. As it constructs categories to describe autism poetics, then, this book is admittedly an imagining, a pondering o f the existing terminological clouds describing autistic lan­ guage and a hazarding o f what pictures might be found there and where reflections o f like forms may exist in more familiar texts. * ** Moreover, collecting words about an autistic m anner o f speaking might be innocuous enough, but ordering that organic collation into a taxonomy o f autism-speak is a dangerous game; pointing and nam­ ing evokes a clinical approach that has all-too-often pathologized ordi­ nary autistic ways o f bein^! But the fact that patterns may be (self) identified in autistic expression does not mean that all autists speak the same way, or that autistic people are necessarily limited to autis­ tically inflected expressive modes. In fact, autistic language, like all language, is infinitely com plex and pliable, infinitely customizable. As Heilker and Yergeau note, “autistics, . . . as a group, are about as amor­ phous and diverse as neurotypicals” (“Autism and Rhetoric,” 496), and as Yergeau posits independently, “autistic people . . . have their own unique mental states, beliefs, and desires” (“Clinically Significant Dis­ turbance”). Pointing to the existence o f an autistic expressive finger­ print or favored ways o f autistic speaking must not to be construed as constraint, a roping o ff o f autistic expressive idiosyncrasies into some restricted ward or ghetto. Rather, the reduction o f language into sets o f rules and patterns for the purposes o f analysis and critical discussion is recognized here as a kind o f falsification, and any rigid insistence on particulars would necessarily be a betrayal o f autistic creativity, diver­ sity, and plasticity. Nevertheless, the delineation and ordering o f this autism-language lexicon categorically, discovering in it or inventing from it a set o f abstract or theoretical patterns, has real productive purpose. “Conceiving o f autism as a rhetoric, as a way o f being in the world through language, allows us to reconstrue what we have historically seen as language defi­ cits” (Heilker and Yergeau, “Autism and Rhetoric,” 496). For the present project, finding categories in the diverse cloud o f autism-language char­ acteristics has a specific critical objective: to explore similar language markers in more familiar texts, to discover and analyze autistic literary DNA in unexpected sites, and to question why texts bearing recognizable signs o f autistic expression are often so highly valued in literature while the expressive gestures o f actual autistic people are typically demeaned and dismissed.



' ** In addition to discussing the construction o f autistic silence (the sin­ gle most remarked upon characteristic o f autistic expression), this book identifies five groupings around which discourse about autistic language tends to focus1.' In the naming o f these categories, the present text both adopts and invents terminology intended to worry the easy, invisible authority o f omniscient clinical language: ricochet— includes the iterative ranges o f autistic expression, what clinical literature reads as “echolalia,” “parroting,” and “stereotypy,” but which forms o f repetition other writers associate with mantra, with poetry, and with literary modernism. Inseparable from what is identified below as “discretion,” the autistic system impulse, ricochet suggests force and accident, chaos and nothingness, even while it embodies expressive habits o f order and design. Infinitude. (abrupt, arbitrary, circular, despair, echolalia, ejaculatory, empty space, erratic exclamations, fragmented, futility, hermetic, irrel­ evant, labyrinth, labyrinthine, linguistic zero, local coherence, mechanical, mimicry, modernist, no inferential communication, noncommunicative, nonconversational, nondialogic, nonrecipro­ cal, nonsensical, nonsocial, obsessive, parroting, perseveration, repetition, returning to the same topic, rigid, robotic, semantically valueless, silly, solipsistic, staccato, stereotyped, stereotypy, telegraph­ ic, unintelligible, unnatural, valueless, voluble, without context, without intention) apostrophe— embraces habits o f autistic volubility, the powerful current o f expressive verbal language that is clinically understood as “pedantic” or “dictatorial,” what the Diagnostic and Statistical M anual of Mental Dis­ orders characterizes as “indulging in lengthy m onologues,” but which is also associated with maturity (“like an adult”) and with academic intelli­ gence (“like a professor”), and which is a prized form o f literary fluency, especially in poetry and drama. As with ricochet, the challenge to dia­ logic conventions presented by autistic apostrophe informs an interpre­ tive matrix prone to read apostrophe as overbearing, demanding, even violent. As intimately bound to its apparent opposite, autistic silence, as to autistic ejaculation, described below, apostrophe may be likened to broadcast and to prophecy, expressive modes that frame a rhetoric of simultaneous intimacy and aloneness.

Introduction • 7

(abrupt, absence o f “I”, absent, abstruse, ad nauseam, aphorisms, arbitrary, barrenness, dictatorial, eccentric, ejaculatory, empty space, exclamations, fragmented, idiosyncratic, inflexible, labyrinthine, large vocabulary, like a professor, like an adult, logorrhea, meta­ phorical, monologism, mutism, narrational gaps, no inferential communication, noncommunicative, nonconversational, nondialogic, nonreciprocal, nonsensical, nonsocial, obsessive, oddness, pedantic, perseveration, polysyllabic, private, returning to the same topic, rigid, robotic, self-sufficient, semantically valueless, switches abruptly, unintelligible, unnatural, valueless, voluble) ejaculation— describes the tendency o f autism to speak in bursts, eruptively, a verbal practice abounding in possibility— indiscrete, ironic, abra­ sive, without boundaries, apostrophic. Associated with the “exclamatory” and the “erratic,” autistic ejaculation is understood by literary scholars and rhetoricians as related to the “jarring transition,” narrative “gaps,” and verbal fragmentation and disconnection.11 The term is borrowed from Kanner’s “Autistic Disturbances,” and is especially significant for its implicit sexualization o f autistic expressive urgency, creating an influ­ ential interpretive code for reading autistic language as inappropriate, undisciplined, and potentially threatening.1 In a pleasing irony, however, the term also helps recover the reality o f autistic verbal creativity and fecundity and, by grounding autistic expression in the organic, pushes back against widespread notions o f autism as mechanical or robotic. Conceptually elastic, autistic ejaculation intersects actively with the other four categories listed here, readily relating to practices o f repetition, flu­ ency, verbal partitioning, and creativity. (abrupt, arbitrary, creativity, dictatorial, eccentric, ejaculatory, empty space, erratic, exclamations, fragmented, irrelevant, local coher­ ence, mechanical, monologism, narrational gaps, nonconversation­ al, nondialogic, nonreciprocal, nonsensical, nonsocial, obsessive, perseveration, repetition, rigid, robotic, self-sufficient, semantically valueless, silly, solipsistic, staccato, stereotyped, stereotypy, switches abruptly, systemizing, telegraphic, unnatural, voluble, without con­ text, without intention) discretion— is the verbal expression o f autistic system impulse. It com­ prises verbal collecting, ordering, and aligning; listmaking, cataloguing,



and taxonomy. Abstraction and the testing o f linear and radial relation­ ships. Associated in clinical writing with “fragmented,” “m echanical,” and “rigid” communication, with obsessive collecting and “local coherence,” verbal systemizing tends to be devalued from a medical perspective as a form o f nonthinking and dismissed from a literary perspective as a form o f nonwriting, both groups regarding this mode as representing autistic absence— automated, noncreative, soulless. The present work challenges this prevalent view by complicating anxious and unself-critical responses to system expression, and by looking at listmaking and related formal writing in the context o f discovery and abundance, undertaking a cel­ ebration o f particulation, encapsulation, and digression. Distinct from but intimately entangled with ricochet and autistic verbal ejaculation. (abrupt, absence o f “I,” absent, ad nauseam, aphorisms, arbitrary, astounding vocabulary, barrenness, circular, circularity, echolalia, ejaculatory, empty space, erratic, exclamations, fragmented, inflex­ ible, irrelevant, listing, literalness, local coherence, mechanical, monologism, narrational gaps, noncommunicative, nonconversational, nondialogic, nonreciprocal, nonsocial, obsessive, oddness, perseveration, returning to the same topic, rigid, robotic, selfsufficient, semantically valueless, staccato, stereotyped, stereotypy, switches abruptly, systemizing, telegraphic, unnatural, valueless, voluble, without context, without intention) invention— describes autistic language hacking, the joyful breaking down and retooling o f conventional language in ways that defamiliarize and implicitly critique seemingly seamless and intuitive communicative practice. Appreciatively recognized by Hans Asperger in the autistic pen­ chant for punning and as a “special creative attitude towards language” (“‘Autistic Psychopathy,’” 70), autistic verbal invention runs contrary to dominant readings o f autistic language as repetitive, vacant, overbear­ ing, and mechanical, evident in the categories above. While sometimes celebrated, however, as in Ralph Savarese’s arguing for the inherent poetic value o f autism’s “idiosyncratic vocabulary” (“Lobes o f Autobiog­ raphy,” 76), even this delight-filled and definitely creative autistic prac­ tice is more typically regarded in a pathological light, an attribute o f the ambiguous “oddness” o f autistic language, its proclivity for developing new words (“neologisms”) readily articulated into the clinical construct o f autistic incomprehensibility.

Introduction • 9

(abstruse, adept, aphorisms, astounding vocabulary, creativity, eccentric, erratic, evasive, idiosyncratic, irrelevant, large vocabulary, like a professor, like an adult, logorrhea, metaphorical, monologism, neologism, noncommunicative, nonconversational, nondialogic, nonreciprocal, nonsensical, nonsocial, oddness, polysyllabic, private, puns, self-sufficient, semantically valueless, silly, solipsistic, trans­ lating coded communication, unintelligible, unnatural, valueless, voluble, without context, wittiness)

Defining Autism Pinning down a definition o f autism itself is at least as great a headache as categorizing autism’s distinguishing language practices. Though a generalist source like the Oxford English Dictionary is willing to com­ mit to a succinct and confident definition— “A condition which has its onset in childhood and is marked by severely limited responsiveness to other persons, restricted behaviour patterns, difficulty with abstract concepts, and usually abnormal speech development” (“autism, n.”)— more expert texts hedge, complicate, and proliferate. Clinical authority, as enshrined in the Diagnostic and Statistical M anual of Mental Disorders (hereafter, DSM) and the International Classification o f Diseases (here­ after, ICD), has been compelled to reassess and redefine what the DSM-5 (2013) labels “Autism Spectrum Disorder” with each new edition, and has frequently coincided in a quick-serve menu approach to diagnos­ tic definition, establishing groupings o f significant autism features and asking mental health practitioners to choose a set number from each category— one from column A, two from column B. (For example, “idio­ syncratic language” + “preoccupation with one or more stereotyped and restricted patterns o f interest that is abnormal either in intensity or focus” [“Autistic Disorder,” DSM-IV and DSM-IV-R] ). These diagnos­ tic references reflect the practice o f many other autism writers who are inclined to narrate, describe, or present examples o f autism without reducing their observations to compact definition (Feinstein, History o f Autism, 3-4; Frith, Autism: Explaining, 1-7; Grace, ‘Your Mama,” 18 19) .l Autism is thus defined in fragments or components, a do-it-yourself definition packet. And autistic writers, like their presumably nonautistic clinical counterparts, are equally inclined to describe autism by applica­ tion, as a conglomeration o f feelings, experiences, and practices. In this



respect, then, autism is what it feels, does, experiences, and says. The ear­ liest writing about autism as a distinct clinical category— Kanner’s “Autis­ tic Disturbances” and Hans Asperger’s “‘Autistic Psychopathy’ in Child­ hood” (1944)— bears out this approach, orbiting the space o f definition through detailed description o f multiple “cases.” As Adam Feinstein’s History of Autism (2010) evidences, autism’s multitudinous shiftings and regroupings, its redefinitions and relocations— from psychoanalyst Bru­ no Bettelheim ’s discredited notion o f autism induced by “refrigerator mothers” to the shocking physical punishments meted out in condition­ ing programs directed by U C LA ’s Ivar Lovaas to the multiple reworkings o f autism in the DSM to the recent surge o f autism memoirs— rely on a perpetual revisiting o f the particular autistic subject. The conduct and expression o f individual autists are perennially abstracted for the pur­ pose o f an ever-changing experim ent in definition. At the center o f autism definitions, then, is the autistic person, and autism is only and always expressed through the particularity o f autis­ tic individuals. “The syndrome encompasses a highly variable group of symptoms and behaviors, and . . . we have no way to measure it but by its external manifestations” (Solomon, Far from the Tree, 221). This applied method o f definition is, in part, a consequence o f autism’s number-one “disturbance,” its queer, elliptical, trickster refusal to be pinned down as definite and definable, remaining “nebulous” (Osteen, Autism and Representation, 9). Increasingly, advanced autism scholar­ ship resists strict definition altogether, acknowledging the truth o f Ian Hacking’s ideas about identity categories as “moving targets”: “Our investigations interact with the targets themselves, and change them. And since they are changed, they are not quite the same kind o f people as before. The target has moved. That is the looping effect” (“Kinds of People,” 2). For Yergeau, autism is defined by this very movement; it is “a mode o f becoming, is continuous motion that defies the clinical” (Authoring Autism, 43). Conceding that “efforts to define the precise essence o f autism escape the best representational practices o f scientists and medical practitioners,” Majia Holmer Nadesan argues that “even at the dawn o f the twenty-first century, we do not know what autism is” (Constructing Autism, 9). Autists/autism scholars, while committed to existential autism identity, nevertheless refuse simplistic and reductive definitions and are ever more inclined to recognize that very little is actually known about autism (Murray, Autism, 1; Davidson and Orsini, Worlds o f Autism, 24). It is likely that autism is physically located in the body— its neurol­

Introduction •


ogy, its genetic code, its chemical signature. Certainly, autism is located in particular physical bodies; it belongs to and is entwined with indi­ vidual autistic identities. Because there is no specific genetic marker, no blood test, no brain scan, no physical test o f any kind, the autistic body is inseparable from autistic voice. It is therefore crucial to recognize that (here is no way to identify or define autism except through analysis o f text: autistic use o f verbal language, autistic social conduct, autistic physi­ cal expressions. Anthony Easton points to “an autistic grammar o f the body”: “Shallow breathing, the sounds that emerge from language with­ out being language, the ‘Stimming,’” insisting that “these have grammars of their own” (“Autism,” 100). Melanie Yergeau notes that her autistic “limbs and eyes . . . have their own (invalidated) discourse conventions” (“Aut(hored)ism ”). As Jay Dolmage puts it, “Disability and rhetoricity [are] consubstantial” (Disability Rhetoric, 125): Rhetoric is always embodied. The body has traditionally been rhe­ torical equipment and a rhetorical instrument, but it has also always been a rhetorical engine. The body is rhetorical— it communicates and thinks. (289) As long as autism may only be known by the productions o f the autis­ tic self— its stims, its gestures, its reactions, its behaviors, its language— rather than in some objectively knowable measure, autism remains an ambiguous, and sometimes unwilling, expressive text, infinitely suscep­ tible to interpretive performance.

Aesthetic Entanglement The reliance o f autism definitions on the textual expression o f autis­ tic persons thus engenders an environment in which virtually all autism studies work— including clinical work— is text-centered, interpretive, and aesthetically informed. And the profound, and often unconscious, entanglement o f clinical and cultural autism studies has fostered inter­ dependent interpretive practices that have both positive and negative consequences for autistic people and culture. O f particular interest is the expansive game o f diagnostic specula­ tion. Reaching back into autism prehistory, it has been proposed that the “changelings” o f folk tales, the “Holy Fools” o f Eastern Christianity, and the so-called Wild Boys (Peter, d. 1785; Victor o f Aveyron, 1785-1828;



Kaspar Hauser, 1812-33) were all likely to have been autistic (Challis and Dewey, “Blessed Fools”; Bettelheim, “Feral Children”). Likewise tar­ geted have been scientists and mathematicians like Alan Turing, Albert Einstein, and Isaac Newton. As far back as 1952, Hans Asperger is said to have “jokingly suggest[ed] that the inventors [of the spaceship] might have been autistic” (Frith, Autism and Asperger Syndrome, 72, note 54). Writers, artists, and performers have made similarly attractive autism fodder; even characters from literature and popular culture have induced surprising diagnostic fervor, with scholars, clinicians, and lay audiences almost equally eager to play pin-the-diagnosis-on-the-fictionalsubject. Well before the advent o f the deliberately autism-inflected Sherlock played by Benedict Cumberbatch on the popular BBC series (2010-), clinical researcher Uta Frith was ready to see autism as a fea­ ture o f Arthur Conan Doyle’s original Sherlock Holmes as well as in the eponymous character o f the W ho’s Tommy (Autism: Explaining, 1989, 43-45). The protagonist o f Herman Melville’s classic story, “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” has been palpated as a possible autistic subject numerous times (Pinchevski, “Bartleby’s Autism”; Murray, Representing Autism, 51; Garland-Thomson, “Cultural Logic o f Euthanasia,” 783; Meltzer, Explorations in Autism; Sullivan, “Bartleby and Infantile Autism”; Kestenbaum, “Autism, Asperger’s and O ther Oddities”; Koegel, “Evidence Suggesting”; Fitzgerald, Genesis o f Artistic Creativity).2 Indeed, clinical theorist Michael Fitzgerald has made almost a career out o f the practice o f retrospective diagnosis. Despite the burgeoning pace o f retrospective and speculative diagno­ sis, however, critical disability scholarship has grown increasingly suspect o f such gestures, since the “recovering” o f an autistic subject from the assumption o f neurotypical identity is as likely to be a violent seizure as an act o f cultural liberation. As Sonya Freeman Loftis sums up, “such read­ ings frequently present autism as ‘abnormal’ in relation to an imaginary neurotypical norm.” Moreover, she adds, there is the grave danger of potential interpretative looping that can result when the psychiatric community itself identifies a literary character as having a specific cognitive disability. . . . Such arguments demonstrate how a fictional character can be labeled based on stereotypes and then used as an exemplar for actual autistic people. Suddenly, it is not autistic people who are the interpretative template for the literary character— the public perception of the literary character may reshape and inform how autism is defined as a social construct. (24-25)

Introduction •


Ian Hacking, Mark Osteen, and Majia Nadesan also all remark on the powerful influence o f existing autism constructs and stereotypes on the production o f new versions o f autism. “Discovering” autistic figures in the web o f everyday text— the social text o f the composition classroom (Jurecic, “Neurodiversity”), the historical text o f the Wild Boy tales (Bettelheim, “Feral Children”; Grinker, Unstrange Minds), the popular text o f the Academy Award-winning The Imitation Game (2014)— is an appeal­ ing and seemingly innocuous activity, like finding the image in a Magic Eye graphic, but its potential for damage is greater than many imagine. Although advocacy-informed logic offers excellent reasons not to play this particular game, it is crucial to understand that its allure is bound up with the real liminality o f autism diagnosis and definition. And the ubiquity o f the gesture among writers o f all stripes points to the intimate entanglement o f the clinical and the aesthetic. If the measure o f autism is always in the product o f the autistic self, that is, in autism as text, all forms o f autism studies inevitably adopt a textual focus. Clinicians “read” autistic performance, and literary scholars and cultural theorists are quick to jo in in such a delightfully familiar activity. The surprising inclination o f supposedly objective clinical researchers and writers to make judgm ents about the value o f autistic cognition and the surpris­ ingly unself-critical conduct o f academically trained literary and culture scholars in “diagnosing” unwitting students or fictional figures are thus queer reflections o f one another. That which makes autism identifica­ tion, definition, delineation possible at all is autism’s cultural product, its text. And the widespread allure o f the speculative autism diagnosis game is em bedded in the inseparability o f autistic text from autistic iden­ tity; the clinical and the aesthetic are fully interwoven practices, mutu­ ally inform ed dimensions o f autism discourse, a circumstance that con­ tributes to understanding the com plex web o f critical responses to the expansive set o f literatures that suggest an autistic aesthetic. To understand more fully the extent to which aesthetic and clinical practice are enmeshed around the locus o f autism, it is useful to look to the way both expert clinical and literary readers approach autistic discre­ tion, or, system expression— listmaking, cataloguing, linguistic collect­ ing and organizing— from a strangely similar position o f judgm ent, both dismissing and disparaging abstract and symbolic ordering activities as being essentially without value and suggesting likewise that such a pro­ clivity itself is symptomatic o f disease. O n the clinical side, the inclination toward verbal ordering and list­ ing is associated with what is typically identified as systemizing or, within



the traditional pathologizing framework, as “hyper-systemizing,” and is akin to a more familiar autism trope, the arranging o f material objects. As one clinical text observes, the “special interests” o f most autistic spec­ trum people “will have a repetitive, list-making, classifying or collecting elem ent” (Tantam, “Asperger’s Disorder,” 35). From its clinical incep­ tion, autism has been defined in large part by its intense relationship with order and structure: Kanner’s landmark 1943 study, for instance, notes that “O nce blocks, beads, sticks have been put together in a certain way, they are always regrouped in exactly the same way” (“Autistic Dis­ turbances,” 245); and Asperger’s earliest work on autism likewise com­ ments on the powerful desire o f autistic children to collect (“‘Autistic Psychopathy,”’ 82). While many other diagnostic markers have fallen by the wayside, diagnostic tools stressing “restricted repetitive and ste­ reotyped patterns o f behavior, interests and activities” have been only minimally revised from one revision o f the DSM to the next (DSM-IV, “Autistic Disorder”) . The lining up or systematic ordering o f objects is a cornerstone of countless medical descriptions. Tagged as “stereotypies,” clinical descrip­ tions o f autistic ordering and organizing have also set the tone for a broader cultural dismissal, casting autism’s recursive idiosyncratic activi­ ties, interests, and gestures in negative terms. So, the clinical literature speaks o f “repetition, rigidity, and invariance”; perseverative vocalizations “inappropriate in nature” (Cunningham and Schreibman, “Stereotypy in Autism,” 470); and “inflexible adherence to specific, nonfunctional routines or rituals” (DSM-IV, “Autistic Disorder”). Such rhetorical prac­ tice finds its roots in foundational autism writing, the earliest and most influential clinical theorists actively weaving the categorical impulse firmly into their rendering o f the pathologized autistic subject. Asperg­ er, for instance, notes that the “collections favored by autistic children appear like soulless possessions. The children accumulate things merely in order to possess them ” (“‘Autistic Psychopathy,”’ 82). Indeed, to an observer like Asperger who does not share the collector’s or the taxonom er’s aesthetic, the scheme and purpose o f the ordering task is inscru­ table, and thus appears purposeless, “soulless.” This interpretive tradition is borne out in contemporary clini­ cal writing that sees “ordering” interactions like lining up, nesting, or arranging toys as signaling a “deficit,” a failure o f creative intelligence (Baron-Cohen, “Autism and Symbolic Play,” 140, 142; Hill and Frith, “Understanding Autism,” 12). Some even go so far as to propose that such delineation aesthetics suggest an explicit absence o f “S elf’ (Frith,

Introduction •


Autism: A V ery Short Introduction, 86-87) >a response explored at some length in chapter 4, “Nothingness Himself.” Although the recent surge o f clinical autism research has resulted in a somewhat greater diversity o f medical discourses about autistic habits and ways o f being, includ­ ing many more autism-positive interpretations, the pervasive, enduring influence o f these negative renderings is undeniable. The impact o f clinical associations between autistic systemizing as pathology and autistic systemizing as aesthetic failure is pervasive in its effects. In the autism parent-memoir perhaps most vilified by autis­ tic self-advocates, for instance, celebrity Jenny McCarthy describes how her son Evan is labeled autistic “after only a few minutes” with the diag­ nosing physician. Key to this moment is the boy’s play in the doctor’s office. Evan “had taken those ear cones the doctors use to look inside your ears and had made the most perfect row lined up across the room ” (Louder Than Words, 66). For the clinician, this lining up appears to lead effortlessly to diagnosis, a proclivity for systemizing, even in early childhood, being regarded as a tell-tale sign. When the doctor reveals to her that such behavior is characteristic o f autism, McCarthy, her “heart shattered,” observes, “Everything I had thought was cute was a sign of autism” (66). Bringing in Jenny McCarthy as any kind o f authority within an autismpositive book is a pretty risky move. After all, McCarthy uses her notori­ ous memoir, Louder Than Words (2007), to identify autism explicitly as a “plate o f shit” (65). Because o f McCarthy’s high profile and unfortunate influence in popular autism discourse, however, it is nevertheless worth­ while to consider her interpretation o f the diagnostic moment, this par­ adigmatic intersection o f clinical diagnosis and lining-things-up. Her representation o f the collection and alignment o f objects as a “warning sign” o f autism, her sudden reinterpretation o f her son’s activity— from “cute” to heart-shatteringly pathological— effectively demonstrates the profound impact o f the interpretive maneuver in reading autistic perfor­ mance. The systemizing impulse, manifest here in the lining up of ear cones, is text, at one m oment cute, but rendered tragic by sudden diag­ nostic sleight o f hand. Through the lens o f diagnostic interpretation, the parent’s understanding is transformed, an experience then trans­ lated and disseminated to a broad public audience. Autism cute becom­ ing autism pathological. Men broke deer’s leg. The transformative moment described by McCarthy is grounded in science; for the diagnostician, lin­ ing up is a formal datum, an essential feature enabling clinical recogni­ tion. Like Evan, the doctor looks for pattern and when Evan-the-patient



acts out his own pattern-construction instincts, the physician-observer is content with such a neat fit. It is his work to recognize autistic cognitive behaviors as “symptoms.” At the same time the doctor locates his patient, however, the moth­ er loses her child. W ithout doubt, this perceptual gap is at least partly rhetorically constructed. Activist scholars have repeatedly expressed concern that talking about autism “risk” has “negative, harmful conno­ tations that send inappropriate messages about autism and unnecessar­ ily incite fear” (Sarrett, “Alternative to ‘Risk’”). Use o f the word “risk” nestles sympathetically with the identification o f “warning” signs and of “tell-tale” signs— it is a language o f inexplicable mystical dread, o f omens and portents, quite literally o f monstrosity. (The Latin, monstrum, finds its origins in religious language and is “a divine omen indicating misfor­ tune, an evil omen, portent” [“monstrum”].) Rhetorically speaking, such language evokes the experience o f supernatural authority. The doctor sees the lining up and immediately recognizes the child as fitting into a clinical category, but the mother registers the physician’s performance— the clinical naming o f what had once been “cute”— and reperceives the child according to prefabricated and supernaturally inflected notions o f what autism is. For McCarthy, the doctor’s pronouncem ent resounds with a liturgical echo; as the sacerdotal prayer o f transubstantiation— “ hie est corpus’— marks the moment o f eucharistic conversion, so does the doctor’s diagnosis effect a change in the young patient. The magi­ cal quality o f this transformative speech act is affirmed by McCarthy’s explicit rejection o f the doctor’s comment that Evan “is still the same boy you came in here with.” McCarthy writes: “No, in my eyes he wasn’t” (Louder Than Words, 66). Lining-up serves as the principal signifier: from the doctor’s perspective, the lining-up act is content-rich, a cue, an indicator, a sign o f identity, no matter how dem eaned or disparaged; but from McCarthy’s perspective, the lining-up is a sign o f vacancy. If the only thing that lining-up points to is autism, it signifies nothingness: “The things I’d thought were personality traits were in fact autism char­ acteristics, and that was all I had. W here was my son, and how the hell did I get him out?” (66). For McCarthy, as for many others, the collecting and ordering o f abstract content— verbal or material— is neither expres­ sive nor communicative, nor creative, but is rather part and parcel o f autism’s antihuman identity, “symbolic absence,” “ wooden, robot-like, and mechanistic” (Yergeau, Authoring Autism, 73; Schuler, “Aspects o f Com ­ munication,” 105, emphasis added). While clinical experts have invented a powerfully influential discourse

Introduction •


that pathologizes concrete forms o f autistic ordering— the lining up of ear cones or toy cars— fiction writers, literary critics, and theorists have adopted surprisingly similar disparaging language to describe forms of verbal ordering and systemizing, text forms that echo and unfold the material and symbolic patterning discussed above. Just as the lining up of cars, or ear cones, or crayons is denuded o f possible significance beyond the diagnostic realm, so, too, the making o f lists, catalogues, inventories, bibliographies, and concordances is regarded as mechanistic labor, non­ productive, futile, essentialist, vacant o f authentic scholarly or literary creativity. Thus, responding to the “relentless seriations” o f W hitman’s Leaves of Grass (Belknap, The List, 93), Ralph Waldo Emerson offers this brutal critique o f the poet’s lyric voice: “I expected him to make the songs o f the nation, but he seems content to make the inventories” (quoted in Daiches, “Walt Whitman,” 112). Perhaps the most eloquent example o f the way such work is valued lies in George Eliot’s render­ ing o f MiddlemarcK s Mr. Casaubon, an aging pedant, almost universally disliked in the world o f Eliot’s novel, whose “intellectual ambition . . . seemed to others to have absorbed and dried him” and whose blood, it is said, runs “all semicolons and parentheses” (455; chap. 42). Childless as well as intellectually barren, Casaubon’s defining project is a work-inprogress he calls The Key to A ll Mythologies, but even his adoring young wife quickly realizes that the work is pointless and futile, a dry collection o f dead scholarship without possibility o f fruition: She pictured to herself the days, and months, and years which she must spend in sorting what might be called shattered mummies, and fragments of a tradition which was itself a mosaic wrought from crushed ruins— sorting them as food for a theory which was already withered in the birth like an elfin child. (519, chap. 48) With his endless reams o f excerpts and quotations, his neatly ordered notebooks, scrupulously organized and indexed, Casaubon is the emblematic listmaker, the petty, vacuous, myopic intellectual tyrant who exists as a popular stand-in figure for other listmakers. Casaubon’s work is ultimately meaningless and unfinishable, a “repetition o f ‘empty’ rote learning” (Bettelheim, Empty Fortress, 67), the verbal equivalent o f “lin­ ing blocks up in identical rows repetitively” (Cunningham and Schreibman, “Stereotypy in Autism,” 470). The presumably second-rate nature o f literary lining-up is closely entwined with critical discourse about obsession, mechanical produc­



tion, and human vacancy, language that meshes neatly with diagnostic figuring o f autistic stereotypy. Not only are text theorists and critics prone, like clinicians, to dismiss the potential value o f lining up and putting sign in order, but they are also, importantly, likely to describe lists, catalogues, and taxonomies with language that suggests these are diseased forms o f writing or forms produced by diseased minds. Recounting the life o f famed thesaurus author Peter Roget, for instance, biographer Joshua Kendall attributes Roget’s inclination for verbal ordering entirely to “his anxiety” and his unhealthy need “to feel a sense o f mastery, no matter how illusory” (Man Who Made Lists, 40). Such a perspective has in turn influenced other recent accounts o f Roget that construct his listmaking as “obsessive-compulsive behaviour that helped him fend off . . . demons” (Spiegelman, “Thesaurus Cre­ ator”), and that portray the man as “humorless and judgm ental, beset with a ‘paranoid streak’” (Mallon, “Obsessed”). Such an assessment runs strangely counter to the way in which the ubiquitous Thesaurus seems actually to be valued in literary culture: J. M. Barrie, for instance, remarks o f the villainous Captain Hook, “The man is not wholly evil. He has a Thesaurus in his cabin” (Peter Pan, act IV, 73); and Sylvia Plath famously referred to herself as “Roget’s strumpet” (Journals, 112). No matter how much the Thesaurus is treasured, though, or how indebted writers are to the process from which it emerges, talk about Roget’s massive intellec­ tual labor is persistently reduced to pathological reflex. The dismissal o f listmakers and listmaking as somehow mentally dis­ ordered is a pervasive meme threading through clinical, literary, and popular culture, and is evident in widely consumed popular literature. In Arnold L obel’s Frog and Toad Together (19 71), for instance, the story “A List” portrays listmaking as anxiously perseverative, and listmakers as imprisoned by symbolic verbal habits that are ultimately meaningless. In the story, Toad’s list is composed o f routine tasks and as he moves through the day, he crosses out items like “Wake up” and “Eat Break­ fast,” but when a gust o f wind seizes his list, Toad is seized with a fit o f despair, unable to function. The lesson seems clear: a list cannot and should not direct human lives; it is a mere wisp o f paper, easily blown away. As a life-guide, Toad’s list is worse than useless— it is banal, and, in its banality, it becomes a rhetorical prison that defines life as procedural, a mere going through the motions. Toad’s list thus becomes a paradigm o f other lists, a vacant, meaningless scratching. But L obel’s story also points to a signal link in the cultural construction o f autism, developing a connection between listmaking as obsessive (i.e., sick) and listmaking

Introduction • 19

as banal (e.g., boring or pointless). Harking back to Asperger’s ideas about collecting “merely in order to possess” or Kanner’s suggestion that autistic language is characterized by “obsessive repetitiousness” (“Autis­ tic Disturbances,” 246, 249), L obel’s depiction o f Toad’s listmaking as both a mental and an aesthetic problem perfectly demonstrates the mar­ riage o f clinical, theoretical, and popular values around perseverative autistic ordering, especially as it applies to verbal text. The inclusion o f “stereotyped and repetitive use o f language” as an autism diagnostic feature in the DSM-IV 3 remains true to early diagnostic theory regard­ ing autists as collectors: as Kanner notes in his initial study, “Almost all the parents reported . . . that the children had learned at an early age to repeat an inordinate number o f nursery rhymes, prayers, lists o f ani­ mals, the roster o f presidents, the alphabet forward and backward, even foreign-language (French) lullabies” (“Autistic Disturbances,” 243). And Kanner’s response to such verbal collecting is a tantalizing admix­ ture o f clinical and aesthetic judgm ent: “all o f these words, numbers, and poems . . . could hardly have more meaning than sets o f nonsense syllables” (243). Like Eliot’s withering portrait o f Casaubon, Kendall’s disparaging interpretation o f Roget’s listmaking, Asperger’s rejection o f autistic collecting, and L obel’s tongue-in-cheek representation o f Toad’s anxious listmaking, Kanner’s dismissal o f autistic gathering and order­ ing o f language, while intended as a clinical judgm ent, is nevertheless aesthetically charged; for Kanner, such a language style is “semantically and conversationally valueless” (“Autistic Disturbances,” 243). Crayfish, sharks, fish, and rocks.

Further Entanglements and a Little More Rationale

The opening o f this chapter offers an introductory look at the project o f this book, including a brief explanation o f the research methods and rationale behind the loose categories proposed for exploration and anal­ ysis o f autistic language: ricochet, apostrophe, ejaculation, discretion, invention. Given the extraordinary contests o f agency and representa­ tion regarding the subject o f autistic language, however, some greater elaboration is required to more fully situate the work o f this book. The following pages therefore offer more detail about what materials have been included or excluded and why, including a discussion specifically about the role o f autism autobiography, and an explanation o f my own identity in relation to autism poetics.



While Autistic Disturbances calls on a wide variety o f sources, including a broad mining o f clinical literature and popular sources, the research here is always consciously and deliberately inclusive o f what autistic writ­ ers have to say about autistic verbal expression. Drawing both on obser­ vations about autistic language made in autistic memoir and on the specialist observations o f autistic scholars like Dani Ryskamp, Melanie Yergeau, Elizabeth J. (Ibby) Grace, Anthony Easton, and others, the book triangulates these observations with those made by others with signifi­ cant and credible experience o f autism: clinical autism experts, autism bloggers, autism family memoirists, and nonautistic disability studies and literary autism studies scholars like Chris Foss, Kristina Chew, Patrick McDonagh, Ralph Savarese, Stuart Murray, and others. The m ethodol­ ogy is fairly straightforward: where experts o f varying stripes agree on a particular characteristic o f autistic language— for instance, a tendency to repetition or to verbal ordering— then that characteristic is located within the present study as an authentic aspect o f autism poetics. W here there is little or no correspondence between the observations o f diverse authorities— as with pronominal transposition or language particulars associated with the controversial “theory o f m ind” model o f autism— this book does not identify such features as distinctive aspects o f autistic voice. This inclusive review o f the literature informs the theoretical con­ text o f the book that is elaborated in the second chapter and applied in the literary readings that follow. Despite the active and deliberate reliance on autistic sources, how­ ever, the present text makes only this limited use o f autism life writing to theorize autism poetics and does not include any explicitly autisticauthored work am ong those studied in the chapters devoted to textual analysis, a decision with which some readers are likely to take issue. Cer­ tainly, such concerns have had an important place in my own thinking about and structuring o f this project.4 As it happens, however, using autistic life writing to develop a theory o f literary autism is not as easy or obvious as it m ight seem. The most immediate issue from a theoretical perspective is that so much autism memoir presents a strangely nonau­ tistic vibe. Geared as the genre is to audiences that are overwhelmingly neurotypical and vetted by publishers with an interest in commercial sales, autistic autobiography typically adopts surprisingly comm onplace rhetoric and language, effectively translating autistic experience and identity into largely conventional terms, a point emphasized by Ian Hacking, who refers repeatedly to the “ordinary language” employed by autistic life writing (“Autistic Autobiography,” 204-5). This use o f

Introduction • 21

“ordinary language” is no doubt due in part to powerful cultural trends dem anding adherence to language conventions. Yergeau sees such rhe­ torical colonization at work upon her own writing: “As I am immersed in neurotypical discourses . . . I find myself being authored toward nor­ malcy, steered toward passing, driven away from my label. I am a passive recipient o f discourse conventions, the ultimate student being shaped by several almighty mentors” (“Aut(hored)ism ”). In addition to often unspoken and unconscious cultural forces, though, the conventional use o f language in this writing may also be explained more directly by “the requirements o f publishing,” which “might seem to stress the need for disclosure and the overcoming narrative— such stories are those that sell” (Murray, Representing Autism, 33). As Thomas Couser puts it, “Disabled people may be granted access to the literary marketplace on the condition that their stories conform to preferred paradigms” (“Empire,” 307-8). Grounded in the heroic tradition o f the bildungsroman or the traditional overcoming narrative, confession, or apologia, autistic writers are thus unlikely to embrace autistic tone and expres­ sion in writing their own lives. Even while autists write themselves into the cultural narrative, asserting their own stories and experience, the expressive language used to relay autistic lives is sanitized, regular­ ized, and normalized; it is translated, unqueered, rendered at some level nonautistic. In Yergeau’s terms, it is made “com pliant” (Author­ ing Autism, 100). As important as it has been for autistic people like Temple Grandin, Donna Williams, Aaron Likens, John Robison, Dawn Prince-Hughes, Edgar Schneider, Tim Page, and others to write and share their respective experiences o f autism, these stories are informed by market demands and, aside from the content they relate, are mostly indistinguishable from nonautistic memoir. Quite apart from the question o f whether autism memoir authenti­ cally reflects an autistic manner o f speaking, however, is the ethical ques­ tion o f whether autistic memoir ought to be dissected in this way. If autists are writing their own lives, it is presumably for the sake o f being seen and heard, o f asserting agency and identity in a culture where autistic expe­ rience is often marginalized. Within this context, reading autistic life writing for its autistic signature is an egregious form o f misreading. Like Yergeau’s astute complaint about a world that dismisses what she has to say because “that’s just your autism talking” (“Clinically Significant Dis­ turbance”) , reading autism life writing for the express purpose o f uncov­ ering clinically distinctive features is worse than a dismissal— it’s a form o f autopsy. Such conduct resonates strangely with Bruno Bettelheim ’s



drawing on his experiences as a survivor o f the Dachau and Buchenwald concentration camps to interpret autistic expression. Finding a powerful metaphorical and (he supposed) experiential correlation between autis­ tic identity and psychoses prevalent in German concentration camps, Bettelheim remarks, “many o f these children, when they come to us, seem totally passive, inert, almost death-like” (Empty Fortress, 59). Seeing the despairing affectlessness o f the concentration camp inmate in the form o f the autistic child, Bettelheim revisits the horror o f the camps, impos­ ing his own trauma onto the text o f the autistic subject, perform ing a distorted form o f witness. A similar distortion is at play when audiences predisposed to look for sick or broken language mine autistic text not for what it has to say, but for its ostensible pathologies. Thus, Francesca H appe’s dissection o f Temple Grandin’s writing— “keep[s] returning to the same topic”; “tendency to perseverate and the use o f what would appear to be parroted material . . . [including] repetitive openings”; “a tendency to repetition” (“Autobiographical Writings,” 212, 215, 220)— is downright creepy, a gruesome butchering o f a deliberate whole to get at fetishized autistic particulars, what, in another context, Emily Michael aptly calls “rigorous defect-spotting” (“Voices in Error”). It’s a clinicalizing process that reinforces cultural notions o f autism as “a living death” (Yergeau, Authoring Autism, 73). For these reasons, while I have sifted avidly through autism memoir to find autistic observations about autistic language, I have been unwilling to pick apart living autism life writing to use its cadaverous bits as models for understanding and defining vibrant autistic voice. Moreover, even reading more traditional “literary” texts with a diag­ nostic lens is a fraught endeavor. Pawing through Grandin’s Emergence (1986) in order to observe the presence o f “parroted material” is pretty awful, but it seems just as bad to read Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) for the sake o f finding the literary autism in that book evidenced by “imagination . . . o f an immature kind” (Fitzgerald, Autism and Creativity, 205). Even Julie Brown’s Writers on the Spectrum (2009), which sets out to explore the distinctive literary tone o f autis­ tic writing, ultimately discounts the beauty and value o f the texts she analyzes to discover defect or pathology. Thus, o f the brilliant work o f 19th-century American poet Emily Dickinson, Brown notes: “Many o f her poems make obscure references or have gaps in meaning. They leap­ frog from one idea to another with a transition that might be clear in Dickinson’s mind but does not make it to the page” (99). In contrast, the present work pursues Ralph Savarese’s idea that autistic language

Introduction • 23

should be valued for its “poetic proclivity” (“Lobes,” 72), Kristina Chew’s argument that autistic language ought not to be dismissed as meaning­ less simply because it can be difficult to understand (“Autism and the Task o f the Translator,” 309), and Patrick M cDonagh’s observation that proclivities o f autistic articulation are amply reflected in highly valued literary writing, like the work o f James Joyce, “both florid and precise, but pass[ing] dramatically beyond simple comm unication” (“Autism and Modernism,” 109). Rather than pathologizing valued text, Autistic Disturbances is devoted to the idea o f complex and living autistic voice. This book is written within intensely contested space, ground in which autistic voices are dismissed, suppressed, and even violently translated. And because autistic people must have the dominant role in exploring and defining autistic voice and autistic identity, the autism status o f the author bears crucial political significance as well as playing a role in the credibility o f the project. I do not want to be the subject o f this book, but I am just sharp enough to know that we are always writing about our­ selves, let the “I” be ever-so-deliberately excised. It is true that I identify with autism and that my initial jaunts into autism research resonated profoundly with the unhappy social experiences o f my school days and that extend, to a lesser degree, into my adult life. I am far more confident reading text than reading people, feel easier on my own than with others, am devoted to a variety o f verbal idiosyncrasy, am a lover o f neologism, o f metaphorical language, o f verbal partitioning, lists and listmaking, of texture and pattern. I know the deep, deep delight o f repetition, allitera­ tion. Love the sound o f that word: llaves, perspicacious, unremitting. My own speech, my writing is apostrophic, ejaculatory, interruptive. Autism initially looked to me like a familiar tribe; autistic language a familiar tribal tongue. Seeing myself in that model was epiphanic. S till. .. though I have written about the experience o f living at this threshold, I do not have a diagnosis, nor do I have a child, or, to my certain knowledge, any other family member diagnosed with autism (Rodas, “Diagnosable”). I have never sought autism-related services, explicitly identified myself as autistic, or participated in any movement or organization that would require me to make a public statement regarding my own neurocognitive identity. I am a capable social performer, able to negotiate work, friendships, and family relationships without any significant appearance o f disability. Years ago, in the earliest days o f this research, I longed to think o f myself as autistic, but I have since come to recognize the damage pursuant to such claims, the predatory nature o f cultural appropriation. Autism ought to be for autistic people and speculative self-diagnosis can



be as exploitative a performance as any other form o f identity occupa­ tion. Exact resemblance to exact resemblance the exact resemblance as exact resem­ blance, exactly as resembling. I’m not interested in “passing” one way or the other, but as with the texts examined in the following pages, I see my own indebtedness to autism, locating myself in the context o f emerging neuroqueer culture or within the matrix o f broader autism phenotype. This is how I think o f myself. The narrow, recursive, autistic focus o f the present project is inspired in part by a powerful attachment to my own verbalizing practices. Certainly, I relate to the experience and identity o f autism, especially insofar as symbolic self-expression is concerned, regardless o f my diagnostic status, and it is from this ambiguous position that I write, suggesting that a broader and more inclusive understanding o f autism might serve us all.


A Catalogue of Sorts “Articulating Autism Poetics,” the second chapter, unfolds the theoreti­ cal scaffolding o f the project, walking through each category o f autism poetics identified here— silence, ricochet, apostrophe, ejaculation, dis­ cretion, and invention— explaining antecedents in the pertinent litera­ ture, and playing with resonances and influences to shape a complex and textured web for framing literary autism. The literary chapters that follow represent only a tiny fragment o f the possible texts that might have been addressed. Autism poetics is evident in countless texts as diverse as ancient Hebrew scripture (the prophets as autistic speakers), videogame narrative (platform games and autistic partitioning), and contemporary film (Wes Anderson’s twee aesthetic as indistinguishable from autistic precision). Along the way, as I talked this project through with colleagues and acquaintances, others became enthusiastic about the idea o f familiar literary texts that might have an autistic tenor— Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987), Ambrose Bierce’s The DeviVsDictionary (1906)— and many additions were suggested. Frankly, it pains me to be able to do no more than gesture toward the many, many texts that might have been included. The chapters here are restricted to a 300-year period, are almost exclusively White and A nglophone (the single French text is interpreted in English translation), and are domi­ nated by English fiction o f the 18th and 19th centuries. As a Victorianist and a disability studies scholar, I necessarily draw on the range o f works familiar from my own scholarly life, but I do so with a consciousness o f

Introduction • 25

how narrow is even this broad scope. Beyond this, a tantalizing range o f literary expression is excluded, especially African-American texts and world literatures. Undoubtedly, another scholar would light upon a dif­ ferent array; indeed, I hope my own readings will spark recognition o f autistic voice in other familiar texts and cultural artifacts and that other scholars will correct and expand the limits o f my individual vision. Nev­ ertheless, the readings developed here are intended to introduce a com­ plex model o f literary autism and to explore the com plex aesthetic range o f autism poetics. Rather than forcing each reading into a thematically governed cap­ sule, devoting separate chapters, for instance, to a demonstration o f autis­ tic invention, or autistic ejaculation, each textual analysis elaborates a diverse set o f autistic particularities. The readings that follow do not sim­ ply argue, for instance, that narrators Andy Warhol and Robinson Crusoe are prolific listmakers, though they are. Instead, W arhol’s The Philosophy of Andy Warhol becomes a vehicle for exploring the relationship between autistic silence, repetition, and listmaking, between affronts to audience and deliberate performance o f self; the study o f Robinson Crusoe looks to the ways the structures o f Crusoe’s island activity are echoed in the narrative architecture o f his story. The literary autism o f each text is con­ ceived as multiple, nonstandard, and elusive, the autistic quality o f each sometimes eminently present, sometimes retreating into something like literary convention. As with autistic people, there is no easy “diagnostic” fit, indeed, no desire for such easiness. Taken together, these texts, and this variable approach to the recognition and exposure o f autistic voice and autism poetics, are configured as a theoretical experiment. Open to the range o f autism possibilities in each text, these literary studies offer descriptive analyses intended to encourage readers to rethink what they know, both about these texts and about autism speaking. What is offered here is a proof, not in mathematical or scientific terms, but rather in the literary, or, perhaps, in the baking sense. The literary analyses presented are test sheets, ready for approval or correction, or, dough left to rise, an act o f faith rather than a gesture o f authority. The textual readings begin with chapter 3, “O n the Surprising Elas­ ticity o f Taxonomical Rhetoric,” which offers an analysis o f the modular writing and authoritative voice in the DSM as well as a readings o f cata­ logue poems by Raymond Carver and David An tin and Georges Perec’s antitotalizing list-poem “Attempt at an Inventory o f the Liquid and the Solid Foodstuffs Ingurgitated by Me in the Course o f the Year Nineteen H undred and Seventy-Four.” Building on the discussion in this introduc­



tion o f listmaking as a maligned form, the section on the DSM addresses the traditional aesthetic reception o f listmaking and cataloguing rhetori­ cal practices as hegem onic and authoritarian. This opens into a discus­ sion o f how discretion, partitioning, and abstract apportionment are dismissed as exercises o f bureaucratic control, undermining the potent creativity and fluid flexibility o f the list form. While the DSM is often read by disability scholars and by the psychiatric survivor movement as a “rig­ id” text (echoing conventional complaints about autistic language and conduct), its employment o f formal system writing ultimately enables its definitions to perform in surprisingly fluid ways, potentially eclipsing the Foucauldian hegem ony and authoritarianism it seems to enact. The DSM becomes literary evidence for the relationship between creativity and listmaking, invention and discretion. Similarly, Perec’s “Attempt at an Inventory,” focusing on themes o f repetition, ordering, and collection, points to the startling creativity inherent in the list form and its potential to upend or destabilize the categories it purportedly inscribes. Likewise, this brief reading challenges notions o f autistic discretion as inorganic, robotic, or computer-like, proposing that discrete or modular rhetorical forms bear relation to autistic ejaculation; thus, autistic “telegraphese,” in addition to being short and clipped, may also be read as a kind o f organic spurting or bursting out o f language. Perec’s poem integrates the experience o f the organic with the idea o f autistic encapsulation, suggesting that the performance o f symbolic abstract partitioning— the “attempt” to organize what is eaten and drunk— is at the same time a performance o f body as membrane. The contiguity o f verbal discretion with the implicit reference to the body as failed container serves as a potent reminder that autistic verbal practices, despite being character­ ized as mechanistic or “stereotyped,” are inevitably organic as well as symbolic qualities. The discussion o f repetition, order, and collection as autistic expres­ sive rhetorics is revisited in the fourth chapter, “Nothingness Himself,” a study o f The Philosophy of Andy Warhol: From A t o B and Back Again. As with the analysis o f listmaking in this introduction and in the third chapter, chapter 4 again looks not only at the creativity and fluidity o f autistic poetics and at the surprising popularity o f autistic rhetorical techniques, but also at the hostility and antagonism with which such texts are some­ times met, lingering at this intersection o f diverse resistances. Focus­ ing on W arhol’s aesthetic o f repetition, order, and deviation, chapter 4 proposes that Warhol employs similar rhetorical strategies both in his visual and his verbal work, favoring verbal expression steeped in ricochet

Introduction • 27

(echolalia), apostrophe (autistic m onologue), and discretion (autistic verbal collation). These distinctive techniques compel an unusual inter­ action with surface and reflection, as does W arhol’s play with machine identity, an idea that is integral both to W arhol’s aesthetic and to the construction o f autism, but which also becomes a trope for faulty clinical and popular notions o f autism as absence. The usual order o f things is here interrupted by a parenthetical microchapter, “ (Why ‘Bartleby’ Doesn’t Live H ere).” This ejaculatory interjection offers an explication for the noninclusion o f Herman Mel­ ville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener” (1853) among the other literary studies presented here. Given its unusual status as the literary text more fre­ quently associated with autism than perhaps any other, “Bartleby” seems to demand a place in this volume; the text is ultimately excluded, how­ ever, because the seeming autism o f Melville’s story is cued by its title character rather than the poetics o f the text itself. Chapter 4.V2 explains why “Bartleby” does not reflect an autistic aesthetic, while simultaneous­ ly entering into a kind o f autistic play, opening up questions about the significance o f absence and vacancy, and offering an implicit comment on the surprising meaning and texture discoverable even in text that is excluded, dismissed, silenced, suppressed, cut off, or otherwise ren­ dered inarticulate. Picking up on the discussion o f autistic resonances inherent in War­ h o l’s strategic use o f “nothingness,” the fifth chapter, “Neuroqueer Nar­ ration in Charlotte Bronte’s V ille tte explores the construction o f autistic “silence” and the importance o f deviant rhetorical tactics in neuroqueer narration. Investigating the difficult intersection o f autistic voice and critical hostility, chapter 5 traces the ways in which Villette echoes an autistic register: the narrative erupting digressively, cohering into apostrophic particles, and attending microscopically to obscure or invented language. And, exploring these patterns, the chapter notes that this col­ lation o f queer or autistically “peculiar” rhetoric has spurred an array o f antagonistic critical responses, which read the narrative as hidden or withdrawn, echoing clinical interpretations o f autistic “silence” as a deliberate strategy for “hiding” (Bettelheim, Empty Fortress, 429). Work­ ing from well-regarded critical readings that note the “queerness” o f the narrator whose “narrative feints . . . destabilize the reader’s straight read­ ing practices” (Weinstone, “Queerness o f Lucy Snowe,” 368), or which argue that “the apparent intimacy o f first person narration [is] never borne out” (Beer, “‘Coming W onders,”’ 182), chapter 5 looks at Villette's nonstandard narrative conventions, the extent to which these conven­



tions have inspired critical grievance, and the emergence o f a counter­ discourse celebrating the fecund possibilities o f “quietude.” The next readings, o f Frankenstein (1818) and Robinson Crusoe (1719 ), open up the fragmented particularities o f autism poetics explored in earlier chapters to discover autistic patterns reflected in the greater nar­ rative architecture o f each novel. Chapter 6, “The Absence o f the Object: Autistic Voice and Literary Architecture in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein,” explores the language o f the novel in relation to autistic apostrophe, ejaculation, and discretion, focusing on the ways the rhetorical and nar­ rative interstices, the visible sutures o f Shelley’s novel, suggest an autis­ tic manner o f speaking. In particular, the chapter observes how autistic poetic practices at the microlevel— the intensely punctuated quality of the text— play against the interruptive or ejaculatory voice o f the text’s verbal narration. These practices ultimately reflect an intense discursive relationship between reticence and autistic apostrophe, a chord simi­ larly at work in Villette. The rapport in Frankenstein between the unspoken or interrupted and the determinedly apostrophic frame a pattern pro­ foundly suggestive o f autistic voice, rhetoric, and poetics. Finally, tracing the thread o f autistically charged writing back to what Ian Watt identifies as the earliest English novel, chapter 7 studies a diversity o f autistic expression in Daniel D efoe’s classic Robinson Cru­ soe: silence, ricochet, ejaculation, and discretion. Reconsidering familiar homo economicus arguments, “Autism and Narrative Invention in Daniel D efoe’s Robinson Crusoe” focuses particularly on the novel’s predisposi­ tion to lists, manifests, and other forms o f partitioned writing, exploring the reiterative quality o f the text and the relation o f these rhetorical fea­ tures to what Watt calls the “functional silence, . . . the golden music of Crusoe’s ile joyeuse” (Rise o f the Novel, 69). Replete with autistic verbal dynamic— relentlessly accounting, repeating, erupting— Crusoe stands not only as a particularly rich exemplar o f literary autism but, because of its unassailable canonical stature, it also serves as a kind o f index for the historical presence o f autistic expression in treasured artifacts o f West­ ern literary culture, even those penned long before the clinical existence o f autism was recognized. The theoretical articulation o f autism poetics here and in the next chapter and the various textual studies that follow all work to support this central supposition— that autism not only speaks but speaks in a voice both familiar and highly valued. Frequently effaced by stereotypes that insist on autistic silence, autism verbal has often struggled to achieve escape velocity, speaking without being heard, writing without being rec­

Introduction • 29

ognized, being dismissed as nonautistic because o f verbal capacity. In Ryskamp’s words, “when autistics do ‘speak out,’ they are either ignored, derided as insufficiently autistic, or told that they are not speaking at all” (“Deconstructing ‘Speak,’” 5). Though all people who care about autism need to maintain a lively care for a broad range o f autistic expression, verbal and nonverbal, the present text specifically seeks to redress the place o f verbal autistic language, to argue for the value and complexity o f autistic ways o f speaking, and to invite recognition o f an obscured tradition o f literary autism at the very center o f Anglo-American text culture. Some o f the writers considered, like Andy Warhol and Jonathan Swift, have been proposed elsewhere as candidates for retrospective diagno­ sis (Paradiz, Elijah’s Cup; Elder and Thomas, Different Like Me; Seidel,; Fitzgerald, Genesis; James, Asperger’s Syndrome, 45-52). But the point here is not to treat the expressive language o f these authors as symptom or evidence o f autism, as some others have done, but rather to point to the autistic value present in the text, regard­ less o f the writer’s clinical status. While intention, expression, and iden­ tity relate in important ways to one another, a recognizable aesthetic or resonance may nevertheless exist without explicit correlation between these categories. Autism, I suggest, may be understood as an aesthetic, a way o f seeing and interpreting, a vantage, a mode, a set o f expressive practices. My project asks not about autistic authorship, but about autis­ tic text, and it imagines autistic voice as a widespread and influential aesthetic, with distinctive patterns o f expression— narrative, rhetorical, and discursive— running through an array o f texts, sometimes broadly visible and in other instances as a fine thread. The question becomes not whether Georges Perec or Charlotte Bronte might have been autis­ tic, but whether text produced by these people resonates with autism. The suggestion here, that writing by autistic people might not always be expressive o f autistic voice while writing by nonautistic people might exhibit laudable autistic qualities, may be troubling for some. There is war in the sky. But such a framework is not intended to effect an erasure o f autistic identity or autistic personhood. Rather, the idea is to com­ pel a revaluation o f autistic language by noting the centrality o f autis­ tic formalism in familiar and highly regarded texts. Autistic Disturbances taps into what might be considered a deep autistic tradition, inclusive o f many culturally familiar texts. Rather than defining autism and autistic rhetoric as marginal or fringe categories, part o f the work o f the present volume is to demonstrate the degree to which mainstream culture relies



on autistic expression as an elemental aspect o f human voice and experi­ ence. This is not to say that all humanity is autistic or that there is no dif­ ference between autistic and nonautistic identity, but rather to point to the contributions o f autism voice, rhetoric, aesthetic, and perspective, to demonstrate that these ways o f seeing and speaking are necessary to the larger experience and condition o f humanity. In this respect, I pursue Stuart Murray’s suggestion that autism might “be central to the ways in which we conceive o f our fundamental sense o f self’ and intimately con­ nected “to the core experience o f humanity” (Autism, 101, 103). The literary studies that follow are intended to demonstrate a pro­ found debt to autistic expression, an autistic manner o f speaking, and an autism aesthetic that are elsewhere broadly disparaged as being noncommunicative, without substance or value. By identifying autistic expres­ sive characteristics in these texts and exploring the challenges and pos­ sibilities belonging to these modes within this context, perhaps readers will begin to see autistic expression as a ubiquitous presence in a broad range o f cultural artifacts. In other words, by recognizing autistic pres­ ence in Robinson Crusoe, or Villette, or the DSM, the reader may grow bet­ ter attuned to the value o f autistic expression in autistic people, and will, I hope, be drawn to critical reengagem ent with everyday autistic expression.


Articulating Autism Poetics -------------

Rather than being open to autistic voices, autistic self-expression, what Stuart Murray calls autistic “presence,” neurotypical listening tends instead to privilege the receptive position (Representing Autism, 5). Eccentric, idiosyncratic, irregular, and challenging language arouses anxiety, imbalance, a desire to understand and respond. There is a sense that meaning must be unlocked, a need— clearly visible in autism inter­ preters from Bruno Bettelheim to Autism Speaks— to believe in a trans­ parent language and associated identity existing beyond the seemingly inscrutable autistic self. Indeed, Bettelheim ’s take— “they pose us riddles to solve” (Empty Fortress, 430)— is perfectly expressive o f the interpre­ tive tension at work in the literature that speaks to autists speaking. Autis­ tic language provokes a desire to rework, reword, translate, to forward dialogism, reciprocity. Similar to the implicit imbalances o f power and responsibility in conversations between foreign language and native speakers (Lippi-Green, English with an A ccent), or, between stutterers and nonstutterers (St. Pierre, “Construction o f the Disabled Speaker”), in conventional audiences, there is a resistance to hearing and an insis­ tence on prefigured forms and expressions that function to further disempower already marginalized subjects. STOP.



Enfolded, encased in Kanner’s earliest study o f autism, autistic speaking: Donald T., who says, “Chrysanthemum”; “Dahlia, dahlia, dahlia”; “Business”; “Trumpet vine”; “The right one is on, the left one is o ff’; “Through the dark clouds shining.” (“Autistic Disturbances,” 219) Alfred L., A balloon “is made out of lined rubber and has air in it and some have gas and sometimes they go up in the air and sometimes they can hold up and when they got a hole in it they’ll bust up; if people squeeze they’ll bust. Isn’t it right?” A tiger “is a thing, animal, striped, like a cat, can scratch, eats people up, wild, lives in the jungle sometimes and in the forests, mostly in the jungle. Isn’t it right?” (235) Asperger (“‘Autistic ‘Psychopathy’”) reports the words o f an unnamed “six-to seven-year-old autistic boy who defined the difference between stairs and ladders [by saying] ‘The ladder goes up pointedly and the stairs go up snakedly’” (71), and “an eleven-year-old autistic boy” who commented, “My sleep today was long but thin,” “To an art-eye, these pictures might be nice, but I don’t like them,” and, “I don’t like the blinding sun, nor the dark, but best I like the mottled shadow.” (71) Before the figuring, before translation, before the privileged space o f interpretation, there is the unmediated language o f Elaine C., Donald T., Alfred L., and their anonymous autistic colleagues. As a number o f autistic theorists have observed, in relation to autistic expression, the receptive process o f the audience is too often prioritized (Easton, “Autism,” 99; Ryskamp, “Deconstructing ‘Speak’”; Yergeau, “Clinically Significant Disturbance”), and listening is thereby obscured by the expectation o f incomprehensibility and the static of analytic figur­ ing: What does it mean? What does it meari?\ Indeed, even when expres­ sive intention is evident to the interlocutor, simple meaning is resisted

Articulating Autism Poetics • 33

and interpretive scrutiny persists beyond the communicative pale. Hans Asperger, for example, quotes an anonymous autistic subject saying “I can’t do this orally, only headily,” but in the immediate translation o f this statement into regularized language— “ (He wanted to say he had under­ stood something but could not express it verbally)”— the writer dem­ onstrates simultaneously the pathological misprision o f the autist’s lan­ guage as well as its communicative efficacy (71). Asperger knows exactly what his interlocutor is saying, but he needs to point out that the eccen­ tricity o f the statement bears clinical significance, that it needs to be figured out even when it’s already perfectly comprehensible. Even when functional meaning is clear, then, the analyst is hard at work, parsing and figuring: “W hat’s wrong with this language?” Yergeau’s Authoring Autism (2017) points out that such gestures render autists as demi-rhetorical, occupying an in-between expressive space, intentionality and expressive value perennially suspect. Always, the interpretive engine grinds for­ ward, listening derogated to explanatory impulse. I f people squeeze they’ll bust The ladder goes up pointedly and the stairs go up snakedly.

Rather than treating such language as a puzzle to be solved, semanti­ cally, socially, or clinically, rather than picking apart these voices and putting them together again like skeletal articulators, corpsifying the living words, rather than using autistic language as a stepping stone toward some goal, some point o f origin, some reason or hidden mean­ ing, Autistic Disturbances asks readers instead to recall that transparent communication is not always the exclusive business o f language. As Vic­ tor Shklovsky (“Art as Technique”) notes, the purpose o f art is “to make objects ‘unfamiliar,’ to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length o f perception because the process o f perception is an aes­ thetic end in itself and must be prolonged” (778). The present work thus takes a cue from writers who bear an unusual respect for unusual language, analysts alert to the pitfalls o f analysis. Dani Ryskamp advises that autism “opens language in a different direction, suggesting possibili­ ties in meaning, placement, and play that do not always make themselves recognizable in a more conventional context” (“Neurodiversity’s Lingua Franca?,” 27). Valerie Paradiz discovers in autistic echolalia a “mantra [of] forgetting and transformation” (Elijah’s Cup, 102); Ralph Savarese questions why autism’s “more precise and sophisticated, even strange, vocabulary— [must] be conceived o f pejoratively” (“Lobes” 76). In fact, autistic expression very often resonates with delight. Even Kanner reports that Donald T. “seemed to have much pleasure in ejaculating words or phrases, such as ‘Chrysanthemum’; ‘Dahlia, dahlia, dahlia’; ‘Business’;




‘Trumpet vine’; ‘The right one is on, the left one o f f ; ‘Through the dark clouds shining’” (“Autistic Disturbances,” 219). As this book pushes off into the deeper shoals o f autism poetics, collecting and responding to existing discourse, readers are urged to remember this bit o f ground, inhabited by autistic voices, alive with autistic presence, and filled with the joy o f unmediated autistic language. Dahlia , dahlia, dahlia.

A Cultural History of Autistic Language From the beginning, it has been widely agreed that autistic people use language in unusual ways. From mutism to metaphor, from abstraction to repetition, syntax, word choice, logorrhea, monologuing, echolalia, inversion, precision, neologism, and formulaic use o f words, autistic language is startling, inventive, challenging, irregular. “Autistic people,” writes Yergeau, “queer the lines o f rhetoric” (Authoring Autism, 26). Though autism is typically associated with math, engineering, music, and science rather than with more evidently verbal disciplines, from the invention o f autism as marked by the publication o f Leo Kanner’s “Autis­ tic Disturbances” in 1943 and Hans Asperger’s “‘Autistic Psychopathy’ in Children” in 1944, noticers o f autism have been reflecting on autistically typical ways o f using language. Diagnostic forces, it seems, even in the performance of diagnosis, may open up unintended aesthetic avenues. Part o f the work o f this chapter is to document the widespread agree­ ment among clinicians, educators, text theorists, and autism communities that autistic language is its own thing, that there are particularities that belong to autism speaking. In the following pages, these particularities are unfolded as a set o f patterns or categories, reflective o f autistic voice and language aesthetic: silence, ricochet, apostrophe, ejaculation, dis­ cretion, and invention. Nevertheless, the rhetorical and poetic patterns observed here are not neat and precise and self-contained; unmannerly, they overflow, erupt into and echo one another, porous and fluid. So, for instance, it is nearly impossible to detangle the discourse around autistic silence and what has been regarded as autistic nonsense language. “Rico­ chet,” likewise, plays with the relationship between verbal repetition and silence, as well as between repetition and verbal abundance. Certainly, repetition is connected to autistic discretionary language: verbal accu­ mulation, collecting, listmaking, and ordering, all autistically inflected practices. The boundless eruption o f these theoretical containers into

Articulating Autism Poetics • 35

one another— in fact, the failure o f containment— has to be acknowl­ edged. Naming there must be, but spills are inevitable.

Silence Anchoring commentary about autistic speaking is autistic nonspeak­ ing. Mutism and the related notions o f autistic incomprehensibility and inscrutability are central threads running through all types o f literature about autism, from Kanner’s seminal essay to contemporary literary interpretations. Kanner notes three instances o f nonspeaking children among the 11 he first defined as autistic, but he later goes on to situ' ate “mutism” as one o f the characteristic “peculiarities o f [autistic] lan­ guage” (“Irrelevant and Metaphorical Language,” 242). Bettelheim ’s infamous Empty Fortress argued that autistic mutism was a strategy for “hiding” (429). Both the /CD and the DSM have persistently recognized mutism an important autism indicator since these guides began includ­ ing autism as a category, a diagnostic feature clinicians have continued to regard as a key feature o f autistic language (Tager-Flusberg, Paul, and Lord, “Language and Comm unication,” 336). This international clinical focus dovetails with representations o f autistic silence in popular culture with characters like the nonspeak­ ing Tommy Westphall from the American television series St. Elsewhere (1982-88), Simon Lynch in Mercury Rising (1998), and Jake Bohm o f the TV drama Touch (20 12-13). Almost from the beginning, theoretical writing about autism (and autistic language in particular) demonstrates a powerful readiness to interweave medical, historical, social, cultural, and literary concerns. Thus, clinical authorities like Uta Frith and lit­ erary scholars like Marion Glastonbury show themselves equally ready to frolic in the clinical playground. Lance O lsen’s pioneering “Diagnos­ ing Fantastic Autism,” for instance, proposes a theoretical relationship between modernist writing and autism, characterized by “the entropic drift toward autistic silence” (41). An oft-cited article by Glastonbury draws a connection between modernist text, autism, and silence (“‘I’ll Teach You Differences’” 62), a theme revisited by Ato Quayson and oth­ ers. Indeed, while contemporary disability studies informed readings o f autism, like those o f Quayson, Ralph Savarese, Mark Osteen, and Mel Baggs, rightly demand attention for and a sensitive valuing o f those autists most likely to be dismissed as vacant or worthless— the nonspeak­



ing, the so-called low-functioning— such work is nevertheless consistent with a broader cultural and clinical thread that persists in stressing the tie between autism and silence. - Clinicians, autists and autism families, institutions and organizations, representations o f autism in popular culture, and nonclinical academic theorists have all contributed to this com plex and deeply interwoven dis­ course about autistic silence, its origins, and its possible meaning. And, in practical terms, there is a good reason for such discourse; at the root is a concern for what autistic people think, feel, and want, an urgent desire for communication with persons often seen as locked away, withdrawn, or otherwise shut off from expressive contact with the rest o f the world. What may begin as an act o f care, however, grows and extends uncontrol­ lably, gathering volume and force as it accrues into a massive and nearly unabating construction o f silence as the single most distinctively autistic feature. In its volume and power, the discourse around autistic silence thus threatens in real terms to overwhelm the articulations o f the more than 80 percent o f autistic people who do speak (Lord, Risi, and Pick­ les, “Trajectory o f Language Development”), as well as challenging the voices o f many other nonspeaking autistics who write, sign, or express themselves nonverbally. The enduring cultural association between autism and silence is probably borne out most troublingly in the naming o f the world’s largest and most influential autism charitable society, Autism Speaks, a group with “virtual . . . domination o f popular autism rhetoric in the United States” and a powerful influence on “rhetoric [about] autism around the globe” (Broderick, “Autism as Rhetoric”). While language and rheto­ ric are the focus o f discussion here, it is important to note that Autism Speaks has been vehemently critiqued for its high administrative over­ head, for its failure to include autists in organizational leadership, and for its expenditures on medical research instead o f family support— this in addition to its persistent use o f profoundly damaging public rheto­ ric. According to ASAN (the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network), Autism Speaks’s “fundraising tactics . . . rely on fear, stereotypes and devaluing the lives o f people on the autism spectrum” (“Before You Donate”). The name o f the organization presents multiple and complex interpretive possibilities— defiance, promise, advocacy— but among the possibilities, certainly, is an implication o f autistic muteness and a suggestion that the organization speaks for those presumed to be without words or lan­ guage. Unfortunately, such an idea is borne out in the history o f the group, which has continually resisted including autistic partners in its

Articulating Autism Poetics • 37

leadership, despite exhortations from high-profile autistic individuals and groups (ASAN et al., “2 0 14 Joint Letter”). Conducting a rhetorical analysis o f Autism Speaks promotional text, Ryskamp observes, “Autistic individuals are perpetually ‘they,’ others who stand in relationship to Autism Speaks but are never included within the ambit o f its voice. They remain perpetually spoken about, never spoken with” (“Deconstructing ‘Speak,’” 13). Ultimately, the message becomes clear: it’s not only that autistics d o n ’t speak, but also that maybe they shouldn’t. So powerful is the idea o f autism as nonverbal that when autistics publish their writing, these texts are often received as unique, miracu­ lous windows into an otherwise opaque autistic interiority. Typical are comments calling Temple Grandin’s Emergence “unthinkable” and “a rev­ elation” (Sacks, foreword to Thinking in Pictures, xiii); or a publicity statement on the Simon & Schuster website that lauds Daniel Tammet (Born on a Blue Day) as “virtually unique among people who have severe autistic disorders in that he is . . . able to explain what is happening inside his head”; or remarks on Aaron Likens’s Finding Kansas (2012) that the writer has “bravely exposed us to his inner world” (Cameron, foreword to Finding Kansas, xiv). The implicit expectation is that autists can’t speak, and often, that they may not have anything to say, a perspec­ tive fiercely protested by countless autistic self-advocates who recognize this attitude as a form o f erasure and an active form o f complicity in the cultural conspiracy not to listen to autistic people. Thus autistic self­ advocate D. J. Savarese writes o f nonautistics who “treat my people, very smart people who type to communicate, as mindless” (Savarese, Reason­ able People, 4 17). Yergeau, a rhetorician, autist, and autism scholar, offers this ironic take on the ways in which her expert ideas about autism and autistic language are dismissed: Regardless of what I said, it was my autism saying it. My body became site for ventriloquist rhetoric, words that never were. . . . I do not know what they wrote in their charts. In my depressive moments, I tend to imagine that they mapped the ebbs and flows of my echo­ lalia, in echolalia. “That’s just her autism talking,” the clipboard repeats, like a running toilet. “That’s just her autism talking, talk­ ing, talking. That’sjust her— autism talking.” (“Clinically Significant Disturbance”) W hen considering the cultural history o f autism and language, then, even without addressing the intricate expressive potential o f silence, it



behooves us to consider the profound theoretical tension between an existential reality o f autistic silence and an associated discursive con­ struction, the silencing o f autism. As it happens, autism is and always has been remarkable in its articu­ lations. Even before major shifts in formal diagnostic parameters in the 1990s allowed for more inclusive definitions of autism, establishing a more diverse picture o f autism and a broader autism community, those who wrote about autism professionally never described it as categorically mute or silent. Even Kanner’s earliest writing, the essay that first defines what comes to be known as “Classic autism,” “early infantile autism,” or “Kanner’s autism”— the supposedly hard cases, the so-called lowfunctioning group— includes a majority o f young autistic people who are verbal, even prolific in spoken language. Indeed, Kanner has been especially lauded for his “genius” in identifying autism as a diagnostic category despite the challenge presented by “phenom enology as diverse as muteness in one child and verbal precocity in another” (Rutter, “Com ­ mentary on Kanner,” 51). While written work about autism focuses much o f its attention on autistic silence, it turns out that, from the start, autistic people have had quite a bit to say. In parsing out the speaking about autistic speaking, though, it hap­ pens that there is often little difference between the assessment o f autism silent and autism verbal, especially in terms o f clinical scrutiny on the subject. As Kanner puts it, “As far as the communicative functions of speech are concerned, there is no fundamental difference between the eight speaking and the three mute children” (“Autistic Disturbances,” 243). With greater or lesser degrees o f brutality, this message is repeated in clinical literature on autism and language well into the 1980s: charac­ teristically autistic “polysyllabic discourse” is considered “incom prehen­ sible to most” (Whitehorn and Zipf, “Schizophrenic Language,” 844); autistic “language feels unnatural” and “provokes ridicule” (Asperger, ‘“ Autistic Psychopathy,”’ 70); autistic language is defined by its “odd­ ness” and “inscrutability” (Bosch, Infantile Autism, 61); it is “nonsensi­ cal” (Bettelheim, Empty Fortress, 429), “inaccessible” (Brown and Herrnstein, Psychology, quoted in de Villiers and de Villiers, “Commentary on Language and Autism,” 697), and “peculiar” (DSM-III). The trouble then is not that autism does not speak, but rather that autism does not typically speak in an approved manner, in ways that are seamlessly and intuitively absorbed. The problem is not so much that autistic people don ’t speak, but that autistic speaking seems not to be worth listening to,

Articulating Autism Poetics • 39

shades o f Ryskamp’s “not heard,” Yergeau’s “That’s just her autism talk­ ing, talking, talking. That’s just her— autism talking.” P In terms o f the cultural construction o f autism, then, the idea is first and most overwhelmingly that autism is silent, but even when autism is recognized as verbal, the consensus is that the speaking is “peculiar,” “incomprehensible,” “incoherent,” “nonsensical,” or, again in Kanner’s words, “semantically and conversationally valueless” (“Autistic Distur­ bances,” 243). The interpretive gesture identifies autistic language and autistic experience as unfigurable. Bettelheim again: “they pose us riddles to solve” (Empty Fortress, 430). The representation o f autistic “inscruta­ bility” has been widely disseminated in popular culture with the help o f Autism Speaks. Indeed, according to Alicia Broderick, “it is difficult to overstate the significance o f the impact that Autism Speaks has had upon autism rhetoric” (“Autism as Rhetoric”). With the support o f associated organizations, Autism Speaks has fostered a strong public association between autism and a symbolic puzzle piece. The puzzle-piece icon is widely used to promote autism awareness and autism-related social and charitable causes and may be as broadly recognized as the iconic pink ribbon associated with breast cancer. Understandably, the adoption o f a puzzle-piece symbol to represent autism has been a matter o f concern for many in the autism community, and such symbolism has frequent­ ly prompted protest. Just as popular media promote a construction o f Black-men-as-dangerous, which contributes to the culture o f mass incar­ ceration in the United States, attitudes o f “puzzlement” around autism objectify living autistic subjects, contributing to an environment in which autistic people become acceptable targets o f violence, a point brought home by autism blogger and autistic self-advocate Bev Harp: When the puzzle piece becomes the recognized symbol for autism, the message comes over and over that there is something unfin­ ished about the person. Something mysterious that the general pub­ lic cannot be expected to understand. Now when someone hears “autism,” . . . puzzlement reverberates. This one is not like the oth­ ers. This one is out of our range of understanding and compassion. (“BADD”) Moreover, the idea o f the enigmatic autist finds a suggestive parallel in the “familiar stereotype o f the inscrutable Chinese,” in which “the failure o f . . . outsiders to com prehend Chinese (facial) expressions . . .



is projected retroactively onto the other as the other’s essential quality, inscrutability” (Chow, “How (the) Inscrutable Chinese,” 71). In each o f these constructs— the dangerous Black man, the enigmatic autist, and the inscrutable Chinese— there is an all-too-familiar gesture at work, an experim ent in which a seemingly familiar, dominant, or “invisible” iden­ tity (i.e., White, neurotypical, Western) tests itself against the seeming boundary o f the “other,” distancing and mystifying the nondom inant identity as a means o f securing the apparent normalcy and reasonable­ ness o f the dominant. The familiar difficulty, o f course, is that such test­ ing and self-discovery augments and calcifies objectification o f the other in the assertion o f difference. The understanding o f autistic language as obscure helps to reinforce the false belief that dominant manners of speaking are transparent. Such an accounting, however, is a little one-sided, a slightly exagger­ ated account, itself a construct designed to make a point. For even while many interpreters have helped to support a view o f autistic language as thoroughly opaque— deficient, impoverished, even “valueless”— often the same writers, or their colleagues, demonstrate remarkable insight into and sometimes appreciation for the unusual nuances and patterns o f autistic speaking. So far from being inscrutable, autistic language has been persistently and productively scrutinized for generations. Even while Kanner calls autistic language “semantically and conversationally valueless,” he notices, records, publishes, and disseminates the words and phrases o f his objectified subjects. No tadpoles in the house. And, to his credit, Kanner kept thinking and writing about what he didn’t understand, he and other autism scrutinizers conducting a thoughtful and thought-provoking exploration o f the diverse range o f autistic ver­ bal expression, even in the midst o f their dem eaning rhetoric. Partly through this clinical work and partly through the work o f disability stud­ ies and autism-positive scholarship that followed, there is now a substan­ tial body o f work, which considered altogether offers a valuable sense o f the particulars o f autistic language, the ways in which it “author[s] queerly and contrarily” (Yergeau, Authoring Autism, 6).

Ricochet Next to silence, verbal repetition is without doubt the most noticed and most comrrtented upon feature o f autistic language, and contemporary autism scholars agree that this form of repetition is “a persistent feature of language

Articulating Autism Poetics • 41

differences among autistic people” (Ryskamp, “Deconstructing ‘Speak’”). The clinical literature calls this kind of verbalism “echolalia” or “stereotypy,” the former specifically naming words that are repeated from another source (so-called parroting) and the latter referring to repeated words or phrases that have become a fixture o f an individual autist’s expressive lexicon, the two kinds often being interchangeable. Dahlia , dahlia, dahlia. The term echolalia is used almost universally by those studying and writing about autism and language (Kanner, “Autistic Disturbances” and “Irrelevant and Metaphorical Language”; Challis and Dewey, “Blessed Fools”; Victor, Riddle o f Autism; Hinerman, Teaching Autistic Children; de Villiers and de Villiers, “Commentary on Language and Autism”; Frith, Autism: Explaining ; Tager-Flusberg, Paul, and Lord, “Language and Comm unication”; Bogdashina, Communication Issues in Autism, and so forth). Kanner is the first to propose echolalia and “ejaculated stereotyped phrases, such as ‘Dinosaurs don ’t cry’” as elemental aspects o f autistic pathology, but the point holds pretty consistently (“Autis­ tic Disturbances,” 241). W ithout explicitly using the term echolalia, Asperger identifies verbal repetition as characteristically autistic, noting for instance nonrational autistic responses like “Because the butterfly is snowed, snowed with snow” (“‘Autistic Psychopathy,”’ 45). Bettelheim reads these repetitions as private metaphor (Empty Fortress, 242), and many others note autistic “parroting” (Kanner, “Autistic Disturbances”; Challis and Dewey, “Blessed Fools”; Frith, Autism: Explaining; Happe, “Autobiographical Writings”; Suskind, Life, Animated). From 1980, when autism is first identified in the DSM, and through all subsequent textual revisions and updates, including the 2013 DSM-5, echolalia or verbal stereotypy, or both, have been specified as diagnostically signifi­ cant markers for autism, the 1987 DSM III-R in particular noting verbal repetition as an example o f autistic comfort seeking: “for example, says ‘cheese, cheese, cheese’ whenever hurt.” From the outset, the observa­ tion o f these repetitions is deeply invested in the paradigm o f pathology and most early explorations o f the subject are em bedded in a clinical/ therapeutic context that sees autistic language as devastated, inscrutable, and valueless. Autism researchers call autistic language “mechanistic” and “extremely repetitive” (Schuler, “Aspects o f Communication,” 105, 106), talk about “mimicry” (Victor, Riddle o f Autism, 210), and note “stereotypic expressions” (Hinerman, Teaching Autistic Children, 25). Ron Suskind notes that the doctors and teachers o f his autistic son Owen “formally define it as ‘perseverative behavior,”’ which they want to “con­ trol . . . and reduce” (Life, Animated, 42). Cheese, cheese, cheese.



As with the construction and figuring o f autistic silence, however, there is a powerful intertwining o f and mutual dependence between clinical and aesthetic critique o f this aspect o f autistic language. Thus, from the clinical side, there is a multitude o f quasi-literary valuations o f these repetitions: Kanner’s idea that they are “m etaphorical”; the assurance that “endless repetition has deep meaning” (Bettelheim, Empty Fortress, 430); the comparison o f autistic repetition to “a song or a television commercial” (Schuler, “Aspects o f Comm unication,” 10 6 ); the recognition that “echolalia . . . reflects a . . . conversational style” (Tager-Flusberg, Paul, and Lord, “Language and Communica­ tion,” 3 4 7 ). Humanities scholarship that hinges on the idea of autistic language likewise reaches beyond its usual disciplinary boundaries to blend clinical and literary concerns and literary scrutiny o f verbal repeti­ tion that borrows eagerly from clinical language and perspective. Julie Brown, for instance, grounds her analysis o f literary autism in the work o f William Butler Yeats in biographical-diagnostic observations regard­ ing the poet’s apparent autistic behaviors: “When Willie discovered a word he liked, he would walk in circles around the house repeating the word over and over, eyes closed, flapping his arms” (Writers on the Spec­ trum, 3 2). Meanwhile, Brown’s shrinking o f the Nobel laureate’s full name to “Willie” (like her referring familiarly to Dickinson as “Emily”) echoes the rhetorical diminution o f the clinical autistic subject, typically a child. Lance O lsen’s “Diagnosing Fantastic Autism” reads the “circular and repetitive” rhetorical patterns in writing by Franz Kafka, Jorge Luis Borges, and Alain Robbe-Grillet as suggestive o f what he understands to be autistic despair and futility. In O lsen’s terms, this autistic repetition is a form o f linguistic maze or labyrinth, a prison, a trap, inescapable (4 1 ), a conceit promoted in clinical literature as well, which sometimes reads echolalia as a kind o f cage, within which, it is imagined, an extra-autistic self is confined (Grossi et al., “On the Differential Nature,” 903). W heth­ er a speech-language pathologist is diagnosing Mr. Bennett o f Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (Ferguson Bottomer, So O dd a Mixture), or a literary critic is diagnosing Yeats, the literary and the clinical are deeply indebted to and embroiled with one another; when it comes to autism and lan­ guage, clinical and literary theorists are evidently in the same game, even though they are not often playing together. Despite its many problems, the extent o f this disciplinary borrowing and cross-pollination ultimately contributes to a richer and more com­ plex picture o f autistic language than either arena would produce inde­ pendently. The butterfly is snowed, snowed with snow. Part o f this complex

Articulating Autism Poetics • 43

picture is that verbal repetition is well established as both a vital feature o f autism speaking and a vital feature o f literary and scholarly writing, worthy o f repeated, even perseverative analytical attention. Heilker and Yergeau see autistic “echolalia” as attaching to a nonpathologized rhetor­ ical tradition: the “words, phrases, sentences, and even entire dialogues and passages” collected in medieval and early Renaissance commonplace books, as well as the “similar, though not identical, echolalia in academic settings, when doing research and citing sources” (“Autism and Rheto­ ric,” 491). Delighted and fascinated by the echoing and reverberation o f language, by verbal pattern and repetition, literary scholars mine what Marion Glastonbury calls the “wordhoard” o f autistic language (“Incom­ municado,” 123), and often play like autists with echoes o f sound and meaning, expressing ourselves in a language so ridden with stereotypy, so metaphorical, and so idiosyncratically and internally referential that professional speaking might well be considered indistinguishable from other forms o f autistic language. It is this appreciation of, this jo y in the rich potential o f repetition that has stimulated some o f the most striking theoretical perspectives: Valerie Paradiz compares autistic echolalia with Buddhist mantra and sees in Gertrude Stein’s repetitions, the fixated echolalic quality o f her “language patterns,” a purposeful form o f stimming, distinctively autistic (Elijah’s Cup, 104); likewise, the understanding o f verbal rep­ etition as part o f a system consciousness is exhibited in Ato Quayson’s “Autism, Narrative, and Emotions” and in Simon Baron-Cohen et al.’s “Talent in Autism,” likewise informing Ralph Savarese’s observation that “ [p]attern . . . is what attracts classical autistics to poetry” (Savarese and Zunshine, “Critic as Neurocosm opolite,” 36). Says Yergeau, “There is queer pleasure in echoing” (Authoring Autism, 199). Signaling a move away from a pathologized understanding o f autistic verbal repetition as necessarily “solipsistic” (Bettelheim, Empty Fortress, 436), such work is revelatory, reinventing the inherent possibilities o f autistic language and, by association, o f autistic people. Although mazes and labyrinths remain constitutive elements o f the autism construct, literary scholars think­ ing about autism and clinical autism scholars thinking about language have helped slowly to chip away at iconically militarized constructions o f autism like Bettelheim ’s “empty fortress” and Clara Park’s “siege.” Autistic repetition offers all the joyous potential o f LEGO blocks: why build detention centers when, given autism’s “poetic proclivity” (Sava­ rese, “Lobes” 72), people could use repeating forms and components to compose villanelles?




The echolalic autist, spouter o f unmeaning stereotypies— snowed, snowed with snow— is bound by a strange logical tension. In one respect, her repetition is regarded as a sign o f absence or vacancy. Interpretive actors descend upon her. “The desire to read what is conceived o f as the empty space o f autism, the invitation it appears to offer to fill in the blanks, is a constant throughout cultural representation” (Murray, Representing Autism, 79). Just as the idea o f autistic silence suggests emptiness, so, too, repetitive language invites similar interpretive ges­ tures. Thus echolalia and verbal stereotypy are referred to as “parroting” (an animal language, unconscious, unknowing, without significance) and the autist and her language are described as rigid, robotic, and mechanical— automatic and nonhuman. The autist echoes because she is hollow, nothing inside; she has no self, no point o f origin. Since the words are all form and no substance, their expressive value is effaced. For interlocutors intent on transparent communication, the autistic language o f verbal stereotypy and echolalia is thus often represented as essentially silent. In another and opposite respect, however, autistic repetition also posits an imposing, even a threatening abundance. Its volubility is unstoppable, tidal in its force. Complainants again and again bemoan the purported silence o f autism, its seeming inability to say its piece, to “speak,” but when autism does speak— as has already been not­ ed, in more than 80 percent o f those diagnosed— the first thing to be observed, and the primary note o f dissatisfaction with the autistic lan­ guage that emerges, is that it is nonreciprocal, or, more to the point, that it is nonreceptive. Autistic repetition is at once an indication o f vacancy and a torrent, an overpowering, intimidating eruption o f language. It is with this threatening surfeit o f language in mind that this book proposes a theoretically motivated replacement o f the clinical term “echolalia” with “ricochet,” a word that enters the English language through French in 1769 and comes into broad use in the m id-igth cen­ tury. Used colloquially, ricochet names the seemingly erratic behavior o f munitions rebounding, an unexpected and dangerous excess. But, the word as used in English originally referred to “the skipping o f a shot, or o f a flat stone on the water,” or a “method o f firing by which the projec­ tile is made to glance or skip along a surface with a rebound or series o f rebounds” (“ricochet”). As with echolalia, popular ideas about ricochet weigh heavily on the idea o f the random, the meaningless, and the unin­ tentional. And both terms refer to forms o f repeating brought about by interaction with surface. Behind the commonly understood idea o f ricochet, however, there is another meaning, a “m ethod” that makes

Articulating Autism Poetics • 45

deliberate use o f surface, skipping, and repetition, a t e c h n i q u e anchor­ ing seemingly random repetition. The French word ricochet, referring to “the sport o f skimming a thin stone on the water,” derives from the term chanson du ricochet, which Randle Cotgrave defined in his 1611 Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues as “an idle or endless tale, or song; a subject w hereof one part contradicts, mars, or over-throws, another.” Chanson du ricochet, or, in its earlier incarnation, fable du ricochet, is also described as an “endless exchange o f question and answer” (Onions, Friedrichsen, and Burchfield, “ricochet,” 766). The threatening nature o f ricochet, as it is typically understood, thus bears within itself a surpris­ ing poetic origin; the projectile that bounces back violently, that maims or even kills, all without deliberate direction or meaning, begins as a verbal exchange, an endless song. There is just such a surprising tension to be encountered in theoretical responses to autistic echolalia and ver­ bal stereotypy, on the one hand an ominous vacancy and on the other a delight in language and repetition, the sport o f skimming a thin stone on the water. Killing two birds with one stone: ricochet is a reminder o f potentially complex relationships between the purposeful and the acci­ dental, between the “method o f firing a projectile” and the playful skip­ ping o f stones on water.

Apostrophe Following this thread, the threatening excess o f autistic repetition, this section on autistic apostrophe looks at a related feature o f autistic lan­ guage overflow, what the DSMIII-R identifies as autism’s tendency toward “lengthy monologues on one subject regardless o f inteijections from others.” Existing in seeming opposition to what is supposed to be char­ acteristic autistic silence is autism’s extraordinary surfeit o f language. It is evident in Kanner’s writing about the “astounding vocabulary” o f some o f his “cases” and how many “had learned at an early age to repeat an inordinate number o f nursery rhymes, prayers, lists o f animals, the roster o f presidents,” and so on (“Autistic Disturbances,” 247, 243). Bet­ telheim compares the “often remarked-upon ‘empty’ repetition o f rote language” in autistic children to the pathological mumblings o f concen­ tration camp inmates who have lost their sense o f self; both identities, he argues, use repetition as an unconscious protective strategy, language becom ing a shield against a traumatic reality (Empty Fortress, 67-68). Asperger, likewise, speaks to the unusual volubility o f autistic language,



noting not only its richness but also its unusual precocity, an observation reiterated frequently in later clinical literature, which describes autistic children as being prone to a “way o f talking . . . very fast and formal, ‘like a professor’” (Gillberg, “Clinical and Neurobiological Aspects,” 138). Indeed, this quality o f autistic speech has been noted so often that “little professor syndrome” has em erged into common parlance as a term des­ ignating some forms o f autism. When autism does speak, then, even when autistic language is regard­ ed as abundant and “precocious” (Asperger; Tager-Flusberg, Paul, and Lord, “Aspects o f Comm unication”), such ability is nevertheless ren­ dered as deficit. Clinical literature identifies bountiful autistic speaking as “pedantic” (Wing, “Asperger’s Syndrome”; Glastonbury, “Incommu­ nicado”; Ghaziuddin and Gerstein, “Pedantic Speaking Style”; Bogdashina, Communication Issues; Villiers et al., “Brief Report”), refers to “autistic children [who] tend to talk ad nauseum about something that is o f interest only to them ” (Schuler, “Aspects o f Communication,” 106), and pathologizes those with advanced language skills as “cases o f hyperlexia where language seems far in advance o f communication” (Happe, “Autobiographical Writings” 229). Asperger says that one subject “talked incessantly” and that another “threatened to go on forever,” the descrip­ tive language carrying with it a suggestion o f autistic forcefulness, even hostility (“‘Autistic Psychopathy,”’ 60, 53). Observing that “autistics often want to tell you everything,” Easton goads, “what happens if everything known pours out? What if the act o f being concise is no longer a virtue?” Identifying such talk as “infodump formalism,” Easton points, ironically, to the conventional absence o f dialogic reciprocity on the nonautistic side: “it depends on the listener to care, to not be bored, to be able to delineate” (“Autism,” 99). Autistic verbal space, then, might be pro­ ductively reimagined: rather than a silent prison, echoing and vacant, it might be useful instead to consider the idea o f sanctuary, replete with the delicious savor o f words, flowing abundantly. There are lots o f different words for copious speaking: garrulousness, loquacity, effusiveness, volubility, chattiness. But the invention o f medi­ cal terminology to fix this conduct as pathological is telling. The word “logorrhea” makes its first identifiable appearance in the Dictionary of Philosophy and Psychology in 1902 and the term clearly evokes its scatologi­ cal derivation. Its originator, J. M. Baldwin, cleverly combines the Greek logos with the more familiar “diarrhea” to fabricate a neutral-seeming and quasi-medical term for “the excessive flow o f words, a common symptom in cases o f mania” (quoted in “logorrhea”), thereby creating an effective

Articulating Autism Poetics • 47

association between human waste and language used by those presumed to be mentally ill. The term quite literally converts words to shit. Again, the clinical and the aesthetic operate in tandem, the demure Latinate naming o f someone else’s verbal outpouring creating the appearance o f scientific objectivity even while the author o f this indignity makes a covert value judgm ent: words poured forth abundantly are worthless . . . and autistic fluency is thereby turned to crap. The consensus is that such language is o f dubious value because it is nonreciprocal— all outflow and no ingress, expression without recep­ tion. Asperger tells us that “autistic language is not directed to the addressee but is spoken as if into empty space” (“‘Autistic Psychopathy,’” 70), W hitehorn and Zipf that the “abnormality o f the autistic person lies in ignoring the other fellow” (“Schizophrenic Language,” 848), Gerhard Bosch that the autist’s “demands and his wishes were delivered . . . with­ out being addressed to anyone in particular” (Infantile Autism, 9), Bettel­ heim that “an autistic child” will address “empty space as it were” (Empty Fortress, 438). The complaint itself is repeated “ ad nauseam!’ (e.g., Brown and Herrnstein, Psychology; de Villiers and de Villiers, “Commentary on Language”), again the apparent objectivity o f clinical tone serving to mask an affectively charged judgm ent, in this instance displeasure at the would-be interlocutor’s inability to intrude into autistic language space. A balloon is made out of lined rubber and has air in it and some have gas and sometimes they go up in the air and sometimes they can hold up and when they got a hole in it they’ll bust up; i f people squeeze they’ll bust. Isn ’t it right? Like rico­ chet, the abundant outflow o f autistic language is perceived as threat, as though autistic fluency effects symbolic erasure o f other speakers. Disgust is apparent in Baldwin’s association o f “excessive” language and diarrhea and implicit in Schuler’s “ ad n a u s e a m closely associated with her comment that the autistic speaker leaves “no room ” for the input o f another (“Aspects o f Comm unication,” 106). Likewise, the words Oliver Sacks uses to describe the language o f Temple Grandin— “unstoppable,” “barrage,” “relentless”— suggest that he is in some way victimized in their encounter (“Anthropologist on Mars,” 257). And this particular form o f outspokenness is described, ironically, as “lack” (ICD-10) and “failure” (Happe, “Autobiographical Writings”; DSM-5), autistic abundance ren­ dered once again in familiar terms as autistic deficiency. I f people squeeze they’ll bust. Isn ’t it rightf In other words, in order to be valid, in order to be heard, both critics and clinicians would seem to agree that language must be reciprocal, conversational, communicative, receptive. In fact, the oft-noted one-sidedness o f tjiis discursive idiosyncrasy, this



ready and voluminous flow o f words, is depicted as a kind o f bullying. £ “Relentless,” “incessant,” demanding, dominating, the “barrage” o f autis­

tic language is portrayed as exhausting and overpowering, and autistic speaking is thus constructed as a form o f assault. The trope is so invisibly familiar that even autism-positive writers unwittingly adopt this stance; Julie Brown, for instance, points to the likely autism o f American novelist Sherwood Anderson in part by noting that “ [i] n group conversations he often dominated the discussion” (Writers on the Spectrum, 16 1). Simi­ larly, Glastonbury remarks “friends o f the late Glenn Gould ruefully dis­ cussed his troublesome habit o f telephoning in the small hours and solil­ oquizing until dawn” (“Natural Wonders,” 80). The critique is always, at heart, about there being no apparent place for the interlocutor. The pathology o f autistic monologism, then, is that it’s pushy, overbearing, intrusive, refuses to admit reciprocity. Made thus explicit, the construct o f autist as oppressor is manifestly ridiculous. O f course, research indicates, abundantly, that autists are more likely than most to be on the receiving end when bullying does occur. Indeed, autism advocacy groups have stressed the extraordinary vulnerability o f autistic people not only to bullying but also to being killed, including, all too often, being m urdered by their own parents (ASAN, “A Horrifying Trend”; Autism Memorial; Yergeau, Authoring Autism, 79). Part o f the peculiarity o f this social reversal— the construct o f neu­ rotypical persons being overwhelmed or trapped by unwanted autistic speaking— is, o f course, that such audiences are bound not by the per­ son speaking, but by unspoken and often irrational rules o f politeness; the self-constructed victims o f autistic verbal abundance are governed by self-induced discursive paralysis, their own anxiety about changing, end­ ing, or intruding on the autist’s discourse being the true underlying fac­ tor causing distress. Is the phone call badly timed? Perhaps the unhappy recipient could do something other than passively listen: “Sorry, Glenn, this isn’t a great time for me.” The final irony, though, is the apparent unconsciousness o f those pathologizing autism’s ready flow o f language. For the depiction o f autistic monologism as a kind o f verbal assault is actually a projection o f the would-be interlocutor’s evident desire to be heard by the speaker. Distress derives not from a failure o f reciprocity per se, but from the perceived inability o f the hearer to push words back into the autist’s verbal space. Ryskamp urges exactly this point in her analysis o f Autism Speaks rhetoric: “It is the corporation, run by neurotypicals, that intends to do the speaking; the charge to ‘listen’ is written in the imperative, with a distinct sense o f impatience with the inattentive

Articulating Autism Poetics • 49

‘other’ implied in its structure. Yet as its treatment o f Robison, Bryce, and countless other autistic voices has demonstrated, the organization— and the dominant non-autistic discourse it represents— does not intend to follow its own orders” (“Deconstructing ‘Speak,’” 15 -16 ). Desperate as many autism writers seem to be to “communicate” with autistic subjects, such communicative efforts are often surprisingly uni­ directional. In fact, the nominally nonautistic subject is actually eager to tell, to send a message, to be heard. Representations o f autistic conduct in early childhood belabor the appearance o f deafness or the fact that young autists seem not to be paying attention to a would-be interlocutor. Thus, Jim Sinclair sums up a commonplace autism parent’s perspective, ‘You try to relate to your autistic child, and the child doesn’t respond . . . there's no getting through” (“D on’t M ourn,” 2; emphasis added). Despite the cultural and clinical emphasis on autistic silence, the purported shield, barrier, or fortress in autism communication is, once again, not a problem o f autism not speaking; rather, it’s the perception o f autism not listening. $ What is especially strange is that figures o f speech robustly rooted in literary and rhetorical tradition — monologue and soliloquy— are borrowed by clinical discourse and twisted into tools that pathologize otherwise highly valued poetic language. This repurposing o f poetics in the ser­ vice o f pathology has been so powerfully influential that even literary readers have unconsciously taken their cue from diagnosticians in this respect, moving away from typical disciplinary practice as they uncriti­ cally accept the clinical measure o f m onologue and soliloquy as failed forms o f expression. Brown refers to Anderson having “dominated . . . discussion” (Writers on the Spectrum, 161); Glastonbury sees G ould’s “soliloquizing” as a diagnostic feature; and in another instance, Lydia Bennett o f Pride and Prejudice is interpreted as being on the autistic spec­ trum because o f her problematic “tendency to dominate a conversation with an excited m onologue” (Ferguson Bottomer, So Odd a Mixture, 56). There is no eager insight here into the richness and complexity o f vir­ tuoso speaking, no valuing o f poetic or intellectual flights, no admission o f sophistication in the unusual density o f language encapsulated in this form. In each instance, the writer credulously absorbs and reperforms the traditional clinical aesthetic, reading as pathology rather than talent the presumed autist’s singular outflow o f language. In distinct contrast to such interpretative strategies is Valerie Paradiz’s experimental memoir, E lijah’s Cup (2002), which seems to relish what the writer calls the “yak-yak-yakking” o f autism and to take delight in what



she describes as audsm’s “zealous speaking about a singular subject that to the uninitiated seems narrow-minded, obsessive, and bizarrely out o f context” (167). W here others mourn a failure, Paradiz demonstrates a subtle, fully literate appreciation for the rhythms and repetitions o f autis­ tic voice, the capacious echoing profusion o f its “special creative attitude towards language” (Asperger, “‘Autistic Psychopathy,’” 70). Mindful o f overlaps between her father’s “yakking,” her autistic son’s echolalia, the repetitive verbal abundances o f Andy Warhol and Gertrude Stein, and her own preferences for verbal collection, Paradiz introduces a ver­ sion o f literary autism considerably more developed than earlier writing about autism and language. Exact resemblance to exact resemblance the exact resemblance as exact resemblance, exactly as resembling, exactly resembling; exactly in resemblance exactly and resemblance. There is a similar appreciation evi­ dent in Easton’s suggestion that “autistic form ” is found in “the database, the taxonomic list, or the info dum p” (“Autism,” 102), an analogue o f Paradiz’s autistic yakking. Easton notes the particular value o f such rhet­ oric, how “exchanging facts, exchanging the taxonomic list, becomes an act o f solidarity and intimacy” (103). Paradiz, Easton, and others put forward this deceptively simple proposition: that autism might not only be saying something worth hearing, but also that autistic verbal abun­ dances might have authentic aesthetic and interpersonal value. Such views invite a fundamental reconsideration o f the hijacking o f mono­ logue and soliloquy as clinical terms and begin to establish a foundation for rethinking the relationship between autistic and literary language. Intervention: What if the implicit poetics o f autism’s “incessant” talk­ ing is thus forcibly reclaimed, pushing back against the clinical appro­ priation o f poetic terms like m onologue and soliloquy? What if the excesses and abundances o f autistic voice, its talking past, its nondialogic singularity, were reclaimed as poetic apostrophe, that “figure o f speech, by which a speaker or writer suddenly stops in his discourse, and turns to address pointedly some person or thing, either present or absent” (“apostrophe, n . i ”). Surprised by joy— impatient as the Wind I turned to share the transport— Oh! with whom But Thee, long buried in the silent Tomb (Wordsworth, “Surprised by Joy,” lines 1- 3 ) Poetic outpouring o f this kind, like autistic soliloquizing, necessar­ ily effects a rhetorical transformation o f the overhearer into passive

Articulating Autism Poetics • 51

subject. And yet, with traditional poetic apostrophe, it is understood that it is a privilege to overhear such rhapsodies. Canonical poetry occupies a sacred space and the reader is therefore induced to try on ideas about discursive reciprocity m ore com plex than those ordinarily brought to ordinary conversation. Apostrophe stretches the capacities o f the listener. Prophetic exhortation, likewise, might be understood as part o f the same rhetorical continuum. Bound to serve as a conduit for G od’s mes­ sage, someone like Jeremiah, for instance, is charged to speak out, not to engage in verbal exchange; rhetorically speaking, it is the role o f the prophet to pour forth and o f those exhorted (like the overhearer o f poetic apostrophe) to listen or not. The genre is not intended to privi­ lege receptive function. Christian scripture observes that prophets were unpopular speakers, likely to be “m ocked,” “despised,” and “misused” (2 Chronicles 36:15-16, King James Version), but the reframing o f proph­ ecy by institutional religious authority shifts the way such words have come to be valued. Speaking that once excited public ridicule is thus legitimized as valued text, and the contemporary reader o f prophecy has an acknowledged responsibility to be receptive o f a difficult message. In these models, the pouring forth o f language is regarded as extraordi­ nary, perhaps even heroic. The words o f poets and prophets participate in a celebrated aesthetic, one in which discursive reciprocity is far from playing a central role. Perhaps, then, instead o f pointing a finger at the “excess” o f autistic language and its apparent “failure” o f reciprocity, theorizers o f autistic verbal abundance could instead take a page from Quintilian, who notes that rhetorical practices like apostrophe, unidi­ rectional and interruptive, “derive something o f the pleasure which they give from their resemblance to faults, as a little acidity is sometimes grateful in cookery” (book 9, chap. 3, section 27).

Ejaculation Intimately bound up with autistic apostrophe is the broadly noted autis­ tic tradition o f verbal ejaculation, the tendency to blurt out, to speak in ways seen as uncontrolled, disconnected, inappropriate, fragmen­ tary, indiscrete, and abrasive. The idea that disconnected and burst-style expression is characteristically autistic is evident in writing about autistic language from a variety o f perspectives and over a significant period, from Kanner’s earliest observations to Glastonbury’s reading o f autis­



tic language through a literary lens to work by contemporary literary theorists. Indeed, autists writing from a variety o f positions, academic and otherwise, widely recognize and embrace eruptive and ejaculatory verbalizations as an integral aspect o f autistic expression. According to Easton, for instance, to “shift radically” in a way that might “leave people behind” is “a native autistic form ” (“Autism,” 101); and Ryskamp, too, notes the sometimes “explosive” quality o f autistic language (“Decon­ structing ‘Speak,’” 9). Semicolon! Despite widespread agreement regarding this particular property of autistic language, aesthetic perceptions diverge widely, with advocates like Bev Harp and Kristina Chew framing ejaculatory language as a m eaningful expressive technique and detractors frequently talking about eruptive rhetoric as a failure o f discipline or a problem o f impoliteness. In many respects, these antagonistic discourses echo the same kind of critical contentiousness seen at play in the categories o f autism poetics discussed above. Nevertheless it is important to interrogate some o f the discursive history behind this particular element o f autistic voice, not only to promote a cultural repositioning o f autistic expression but also to help understand the definitive impact o f early clinical language on contemporary cultural representations o f autists and autistic expression. As the first to publish on the subject, Kanner has had a crucial influ­ ence on the way others take up and write about autism, and his ample use o f the suggestively erotic “ejaculation,” especially in relation to his unequivocally juvenile subjects (five-to-seven-year-olds), is curious: Don­ ald T. “seemed to have much pleasure in ejaculating words or phrases” and is said to have gone on “writing letters with his fingers in the air, ejaculating words” like “Semicolon,” “Capital,” and “Twelve, twelve” (“Autistic Disturbances,” 219, 221); Frederick W. was observed “ejaculat­ ing unintelligible sounds” (224); Paul G. “ejaculated” phrases like “The people in the hotel,” “Did you hurt your leg?,” and “Candy is all gone, candy is empty” (227); and Elaine C. “frequently ejaculated stereotyped phrases, such as ‘Dinosaurs don’t cry’” (241). Dinosaurs don’t cry. Kan­ n er’s initial and repeated use o f the term “ejaculation” introduces an erotic cast to the language o f the autistic children he studied, generat­ ing a historic frame o f reference for thinking about the suddenness o f autistic speaking as a kind o f obscenity. His rhetoric establishes a model in which the abruptness o f audstic speaking, its seemingly uncontrolled spurting, creates discomfort* embarrassment, and an underlying associa­ tion with erotic and forbidden language, a tone picked up extensively in clinical, theoretical, and popular literature (e.g., Frith, “Autism: Explain­

Articulating Autism Poetics • 53

ing,” 119; Happe, “Autobiographical Writings,” 220; Ruttenberg and Wolf, “Evaluating the Comm unication,”). Moreover, as Yergeau’s Author­ ing Autism explores extensively, the historical policing o f queer/noncon­ form ing autistic language is intimately connected with the policing o f queer/nonconform ing performances o f erotic identity. Early clinical interventions were pertinaciously, obsessively concerned with the queer conduct o f neuroqueer subjects and perseverated on themes o f proso­ cial compliance. Despite the cast o f Kanner’s terminology, “ejaculation” is nonethe­ less employed here as a deliberate reappropriation o f offensive clinical language. Why? Not only to spell out the unseen mechanisms that help construct the cultural reception o f autistic language as nonviable, but also to build upon the idea that autistic language, far from existing as gross expenditure— excess— may be read as seminal, profoundly creative and generative. Dahlia , dahlia, dahlia. It’s just possible that something may grow from all that ejaculating. Harp, for instance, writes about her “Squawk!” as a conscious, “semi­ voluntary” autistic language practice, intervallic squawks amid her other words signaling part o f a com plex means o f autistic expression and asser­ tion o f autistic presence: I can either say nothing, say something that has nothing to do with what I really mean, and which might make the situation worse, or I can squawk. At other times, I have different choices, and when the choice to say what I really mean presents itself, that is what I do. But the fact that I can do that at times is taken as evidence that the other times, the silent times, the squawking times, are representative of my “choice” not to communicate properly. I can argue about that, or I can accept that I am seen as a rather silly-acting person. Since I’d rather be seen as silly than incompetent or uncaring, I have accepted that view for a long time. It has, to a large extent, become part of how I see myself, so much so that I don’t usually know for sure if I’m joking or not. Or I both am and am not joking at the same time. (“A Conversation”) H arp’s squawk is an interesting model to illuminate the fragmented discourse around autistic language fragmentation. While the squawk is decidedly ejaculatory, even to some degree beyond her control, Harp nevertheless frames her language, emphatically including the ejaculato­ ry squawk, as thoughtful and deliberately communicative. She theorizes




the squawk as a placeholder, perhaps a way to signal waiting; regardless, it is a means o f demonstrating care— “I’d rather be seen as silly than incompetent or uncaring.” Certainly, she rejects the possibility that this ejaculation is “random flitting,” mere “verbal ritual” (Happe, “Autobio­ graphical Writings,” 215; Kanner, “Autistic Disturbances,” 219), instead considering the verbal outburst as com plex and double. The speaker is both joking and not-joking, sharply attentive to conversational expecta­ tions, killing two birds with one stone. The trouble is that foundational clinical rhetoric on the topic informs an ongoing critical continuum that fails to recognize the verbal outburst as cognitive and expressive. Instead, clinical literature comments that autistic language “exhibit[s] pragmatic violations including bizarre or inappropriate utterances” (Tager-Flusberg, Paul, and Lord, “Aspects o f Comm unication,” 354), or that “autistic subjects violated . . . [rules] o f acceptability and politeness” (Baron-Cohen, “Social and Pragmatic Deficits,” 385), effectively tethering abrupt or partitionist autistic ver­ bal practice with cultural notions o f rudeness. Such observations readily contaminate literary theory, where a critic might refer to “Darcy’s initial ‘autistic’ insult o f Elizabeth” in Pride and Prejudice (Dekel, “Austen and Autism”). The particular, the staccato, the inteijecting, the eruptive, the abrupt, the telegraphic— all these nonfluid rhetorics— are measured, like autistic apostrophe, in terms o f standard “healthy” conversational practices that insist on an easy and intuitive ebb and flow o f communica­ tion between equal partners. Verbal styles that deviate from this model are implicitly understood as deficit. The notion migrates as well from aca­ demic to popular culture: one New Zealand newspaper columnist voiced widespread popular beliefs in writing that “Asperger syndrome . . . [is] a fancy name to describe people who are rude and can’t be bothered to change their ways” (Little, “Send Jobless to Oz?”); in another instance, an online hum or column proposed that “a large number o f the teenag­ ers claiming Asperger’s are, in fact, merely dicks” (Kimak, “6 New Per­ sonality Disorders”) . As Yergeau puts it, with deeply intoned irony, “we’re really just looking for behavioral excuses. . . . W e’re the welfare moms o f the disability food chain” (“Aut(hored)ism ”). Candy is all gone, candy is empty.

Within this interpretive matrix, the idea o f autistic language as ejac­ ulatory is powerfully provocative, insensibly suggesting a relationship between the spurts o f sometimes clipped and fragmented autistic lan­

Articulating Autism Poetics • 55

guage and the potentially uncontrolled spurting o f the autist’s organic self. In this respect, the autistic manner o f speaking is once again con­ structed as threat and challenge, ejaculation, obscenity, rudeness— all one. In breaching implicit discursive regulation, unexpected, interject­ ing, and fragmentary forms o f speech become indecent. Full nakedness! Angels of rain and lightning. Ah, happy, happy boughsl

What if, as H arp’s thinking suggests, there is an aesthetic informing and infusing autistic ejaculation; rather than indecency and rudeness, there is instead the possibility o f poetry. Am ong those who focus on the aesthetic value o f characteristic autistic language is Kristina Chew, who draws an explicit connection between poetic and autistic expression, and who sees the abrupt, ejaculatory nature o f autistic language as bearing an essential likeness to the poetic mode. According to Chew, I^The sud­ den disruptions o f topic and meaning in prose poetry are similar to an autistic person’s abrupt introduction o f unrelated concepts and associa­ tion o f entities and ideas^ (“Fractioned Idiom,” 13 6 ). Even in her use o f typically clinical terminology— “telegraphic”— to describe the quality o f her son Charlie’s communications, Chew’s theoretical approach invites aesthetic respect. The writer looks to the particularity o f this manner o f speaking both with questions about the interpreter’s role and with a keen eye for linguistic rather than pathological features. She notes that her son employs “a minimum o f words . . . with minimal adornment (definite articles, conjunctions for transitions, conjugations to note verb tense, and so o n )” (“Autism and the Task o f the Translator,” 309 ), thus offering an idea o f this language not as deficient, but as being marked by unusual partitioning, encapsulated rather than fluid expression. This is a theme also taken up by Straus, who argues that “ [a]utistic people often . . . [engage] idiosyncratic combinations o f elements and imag­ es . . . using language as much for its sonic value as for its communicative power” (“Autism and Postwar Serialism,” 686). It is Harp, however, who most fully develops and owns the idea o f such linguistic encapsulation, Seeing in the partitioning o f language with parentheses and semicolons an aspect o f autistic expression at once playful and logical, a manner o f speaking that simultaneously contains and connects. Playfully conscious o f her own writing as a model for her autism language observations, H arp’s brief blog “On the (Autistic) Use o f Parentheses” proposes that her own penchant for parentheses is entangled with the cognitive and expressive framework o f her autism,



and suggests “ (if one is allowed to do so) that parentheses (as well as the semi-colon) are a natural form o f presentation for autistic (as opposed to NT [neurotypical]) thought.” Drawing on a common knowledge o f sen­ tence diagramming and formal instruction in abstract logic, Harp draws an explicit connection between language “trees” and autistic writing: Having read countless writings by autistic individuals and spoken with many, I am willing to ifhere it comes, duck!^ go out on a limb and say that this is a fairly common thought pattern among us. According to Harp, the formal partitioning and reconnecting o f words, phrases, and thought-units is part o f detail-oriented (some might say “locally coherent”) autistic cognition. The abundance o f ideas and lan­ guage (discussed above as effusive apostrophic flow) is managed by par­ titioning and framing, by the organization o f words into what Harp sees as logic or grammar “trees.” Indeed, for Harp, such an expressive form loops back also into the silent or monosyllabic; before reaching maturity, her own self-expression, she notes, “was all root and no branch. The thought paths were as numerous and even more twisting. Little broke the surface. Underground, the parentheses multiplied, but what oth­ ers heard from me was curt or even monosyllabic.” Clearly, there is an association between the “curt,” abrupt, ejaculatory blurting o f language seemingly without boundaries and language that is all defined by bound­ ary, units o f word and phrase formally encapsulated, partitioned, and connected. It is the paring away o f seemingly extraneous branches, sug­ gests Harp, which normalizes language, which makes sequence obvious and conventional, which shakes autistic language down into neurotypi­ cal language. Ejaculatory autism thus brings into relation seemingly contradictory forms o f speaking, Chew’s language o f “minimal adornm ent” and the language o f extraordinary elaboration and digression, both often inter­ preted as abrupt, stilted, staccato, or disjointed, but in their connect­ edness to one another pointing in the direction o f formal poetry and many types o f system writing. Ricochet: skipping a stone back across the surface here, these sequential ejaculations touch again (echo, reverber­ ate) on the proposed categories o f autism language already described. The ejaculatory mode suggests the surprise o f apostrophe, the seemingly unidirectional, seemingly unstoppable torrent o f language. Instead o f a mass o f words, the language is short, discrete in its indiscretion, heavily punctuated, but still it shoots out, potentially threatening, ejaculatory

Articulating Autism Poetics • 57

“telegraphic” or “robotic” language suggestive o f machines for shooting repeatedly. Ricochet, echolalia. And back into silence: the formal parti­ tioning o f word units; the stop-and-start; the stilted; the use o f partition and encapsulation— em-dashes, units o f silence— as expressive particles. The “rigidity” or “economy” o f autistic language, its “erratic” nature, may thus be seen, from H arp’s perspective, as a bounty under the soil, with infrequent “curt” or “monosyllabic” words breaking the surface, suggesting a wealth o f language and symbolic thinking beneath. With experience comes greater skill at articulation, composing the fragments into recognizable form. But the visible sutures, the punctuation, the dis­ crete concentrations are also bound to an autistic expressive aesthetic. Matthew Belmonte confirms such an idea when he writes that autistic verbalization is characterized by an “extraordinarily effortful, unusual­ ly intense, and atypically deliberate process o f narrative organization,” which can “produce unusually deep insights” (“Human, but More So,” 173). From silence to words that flow unstoppably to language presented in fragmentary form, its punctuation audible, autistic verbal expression, autistic ejaculation is rife with logical and creative potentiality.

Discretion The connection with systemizing is among the most developed themes in autism research, and the idea that autists are inclined to system enter­ prises like lining-up, computer coding, engineering, and math is so ubiq­ uitous as to have become positively cliche: everyone knows Rain Man can count cards. This is the gesture Anthony Easton describes as autism’s “don ’t let the peas touch the carrots” delineation-aesthetic (“Autism,” 99) and which clinical autism researcher Simon Baron-Cohen and colleagues see within a continuum o f autistic perseverations like “tap­ ping surfaces or letting sand run through on e’s fingers” and autistic savant system performance like rapid solving o f a Rubik’s Cube (“Tal­ ent in Autism,” 1379). While studies and representations o f autism are especially likely to recognize concrete forms o f autistic lining-up, or to acknowledge autistic system cognition in masculinized disciplinary are­ nas like math and the sciences, however, there is also long-standing and widespread agreement that autism lends itself to verbal systemizing, discrete and disciplined uses o f language, the catalogic and taxonomic. Bibliography, encyclopedia, lexicon, manifest, inventory. Animal, striped, like a cat, can scratch, eats people up, wild. As Easton indicates, the autis­



tic proclivity “to delineate clearly . . . carries over into language (make language clear, and precise, make sure that it doesn’t cross categories)” (“Autism,” 99), an observation that resonates with H arp’s work on the autistic use o f parentheses and which is likewise borne out in numerous literary and clinical writings (Glastonbury, “‘I’ll Teach You Differences,’” 61; Tantam, “Asperger’s Disorder ( i i ) 35; Quayson, “Autism, Narrative, and Emotions,” 844). On the clinical side, texts are likely to represent autistic systemizing as a symptom o f pathology, but audstic writers more usually suggest that collecting and organizing might be better understood in positive terms, as central to autistic cognition, aesthetic, and culture, and as key to autis­ tic communicative practice. In Nobody Nowhere, for instance, Donna Wil­ liams describes an early jo b working as a clerk in a department store as “paradise.” For Williams, “It seemed almost unbelievable that I would be expected to do the thing I loved most: put things in order. There were numbers to be counted and ordered, there were colors and sizes and types o f article to be grouped; every department was kept separate from every other department and called by a different name” (82-83). This sense o f satisfaction is echoed repeatedly in other accounts. When Para­ diz begins to recognize and claim her autism, it is partly her penchant for and jo y in ordered systems that brings this new understanding. She describes herself as “a syntax and grammar nerd [who] enjoyed noth­ ing more than comparing and analyzing the sentence structure o f Rus­ sian with that o f French, or copying out declensions in German, over and over again, just for the fun o f it” (“Cultural Commentary”). Rather than understanding the system impulse as an ominous sign o f deficit, even vacancy, this insider’s perspective goes beyond mere tolerance to an appreciation o f the jo y and beauty o f collecting and lining things up. Indeed, economist Tyler Cowen, himself on the spectrum, regards the ability to collect and organize, form ing microbits o f information into flexible ordered wholes, as a distinctive advantage o f autistic cognitive style. “O ne strong feature o f autism,” he writes, “is the tendency o f autis­ tics to impose additional structure on information by the acts o f arrang­ ing, organizing, classifying, collecting, memorizing, categorizing, and listing. Autistics are information lovers to an extreme degree and they are the people who engage with information most passionately” (Create Your Own Economy, 11). Drawing on a wide range o f examples, his­ torical, popular, and academic, Cowen suggests that increasing access to information and the increasingly customizable nature o f this wealth o f information make autistic cognitive style more visible, more advanta­

Articulating Autism Poetics • 59

geous, and more popular. W hen the world is awash in countless bits of data, the argument goes, there is great benefit to being able to home in on specific detail and compose meaningful customized collections. Call­ ing autists “true infovores” (11), Cowen argues that autistic habits o f col­ lection and organizing actually serve as an ideal model for nonautistics f in the present economy. Finding significant detail, collecting, catalog­ ing, and arranging, turn out to be skills that enable people to explore and interact with the world effectively. Moreover, the collation o f com­ ponent parts into customized microworlds (like social networks) echoes other long-standing, arguably autistic world-making practices, like the writing o f literary utopias, or the construction o f entertainment habitats like those portrayed in Martha Stewart Living. Recent focus on the value o f autistic local coherence, too, suggests a similarly complex and positive interpretation o f autistic delineation. Understood in earlier clinical literature as a failure o f executive func­ tioning, evidence o f the fundamental “absence” o f autistic personhood, “local coherence,” autistic focus on the minute and particular is com­ ing to be seen as a strength, the ability to look long and deep being redefined as an asset rather than signaling deficit at a supposedly higher cognitive level. Thus, Kamran Nazeer notes that autistic values dem on­ strate a “preference . . . for a limited, though immediate form o f order” (Send in the Idiots, 4); Straus writes o f autists as being “richly attentive to minute details” (“Autism as Culture,” 467); Yergeau writes that autists “quickly pick up on patterns and are also keen to notice small, detailed differences” (“Aut(hored)ism ”). Such recognition helps recontextualize the apparently volatile practice o f putting things in order, heralding an em erging appreciation o f autistic system rhetoric and its intellectual and creative possibilities. Despite these em erging theories o f autistic language and cognition, the clinical legacy continues in many respects to define and undermine autistic ways o f being and autistic expressive forms. Interrogating and challenging these constructs is essential to the reconsideration of autism from the standpoint o f rhetoric and poetics; appreciations o f autistic dis­ cretion aesthetic must be understood against contexts that persistently challenge its legitimacy. In other words, everyone may know that Rainman counts cards, but few seem to notice his notebook or to think that it matters. Instead, gestures o f verbal collecting, ordering, listmaking, and delineating— generating formal order from verbal sign—-have historical­ ly been interpreted in accordance with two common and dehumanizing tropes: autist-as-robot or autist-as-intellectual-acrobat.



Regarding the latter, the savant cliche is so firmly em bedded in autism representation that every autistic performance is implicitly understood to be out o f reach— amazing, incredible, inexplicable. Here is Rainman again, counting matches, counting cards, unconscious o f his own exceptionalism. Yergeau, ironically inverting the savant expectation, writes, “I do not know the product o f 5,601 and 42,896.1 forget how to subtract. I do not know what day o f the week Mozart was born, how many children Thomas Edison had, or the cost-effectiveness o f deep-fat fryers. I do not know the words to every Walt Whitman poem. I cannot predict the future” (“Aut(hored)ism ”). Like magicians, autists are commonly read as enact­ ing a kind o f trick, but the wonderful feat after all is likewise understood as a shallow performance, a kind o f autistic sleight-of-hand; the concerts o f Blind Tom Wiggins, the extraordinary insights o f Sherlock Holmes, the autistic codebreaking depicted in films like Mercury Rising — all help construct the banal superficiality o f the autistic person. He (and it is almost always he) is a kind o f conduit, channeling the humanly impos­ sible, and autistic figuring is thus “reduced . .. almost to nothing” (Sacks, “Twins,” 185). Mutually informed and mutually influential clinical and cultural aesthetic frames likewise interpret system performances like col­ lecting and ordering as meaningless or wondrous, or, sometimes, as both at once: autistic children memorize an “inordinate number o f nursery rhymes” or repeat “clusters o f words” (Kanner, “Autistic Disturbances,” 247; Bettelheim, Empty Fortress, 430). George Victor notes that “autistic children achieve remarkable feats in infancy . . . [reproducing] songs, prayers, and various lists— scores o f words without m eaning” (Riddle o f Autism, 210). Asperger’s notion that the “collections favored by autistic children appear like soulless possessions” dovetails with aesthetically and culturally inflected responses to verbal collation: Peter Roget’s verbal col­ lecting and ordering is rendered as pathetic defense mechanism; the col­ lections o f autistic children are “soulless possessions” (Asperger, “Autis­ tic Psychopathy,” 82); and popular culture repurposes the word “litany” (which is complexly patterned liturgical poetry) as a common expres­ sion o f tedium. Thus, for both clinical and cultural observers, exquisite expressions o f verbal order are met with a dual form o f nonengagement; the autistic collation and organization o f language is extraordinary, but it is also “nonsense,” “without m eaning,” banal, nonexpressive, deficient in creativity and intelligence. It is not terribly surprising, then, that upon opening Rainman’s notebook, both clinicians and literary scholars are inclined not to value what they find— perhaps a simple record o f Judge W apner’s judgm ents, an inert compendium, a “wordhoard” reminiscent

Articulating Autism Poetics • 61

o f Mr. Dick’s Memorial (Glastonbury, “Incom municado,” 123). Crayfish, sharks, fish, and rocks.

Similarly, autistic discretion is the language cue mostly likely to inspire the classification o f autists with robots and machines: telegraph­ ic. Autistic discretion tempts the unwary into inferences o f affectlessness, absence, inhumanity. Happe sees autistic writers focusing on the con­ crete and the cognitive, rather than “affective or emotional” experience (“Autobiographical Writings,” 2 11); Schuler comments that autistic lan­ guage is “wooden, robot-like, and mechanistic” (“Aspects o f Communi­ cation,” 105); even John Robison, adopting a familiar clinical outlook, regards his own most autistic writing as “flat and devoid o f inflection or em otion” (Look Me in the Eye, 209). So, when Julie Brown comments that the composite-style text (“assemblage”) o f writers like Lewis Car­ roll, William Butler Yeats, and James Joyce is characteristically autistic (Writers on the Spectrum, 16), her observation resonates with Bosch’s view that the autistic “talker is constantly changing standpoints or has no standpoint at aW (Infantile Autism, 64; emphasis added). Brown argues that the celebrated writing o f Carroll, Yeats, and Joyce evidences a lack o f connected narrative deriving from autistic “lack o f central coherence or executive function” and remarks, It’s as though the autistic individual is looking through a shoe box filled with random handfuls of pictures and cannot organize them into a photograph album that tells a story. (21) Brown’s focus on what she sees as the randomness or purposelessness o f autistic writing, its “lack” o f “executive function” resonates with the affective flatness noted by others and stokes the myth o f autistic absence. Her “shoe box filled with random handfuls” evokes Asperger’s remarks about the “autistic individual” who “just stacks boxes full o f useless ju n k ” (“‘Autistic Psychopathy,”’ 82), Kanner’s “hardly . . . more meaning than sets o f nonsense syllables.” Within this theoretical matrix, there is no real person doing the writing or speaking. No tadpoles in the house. And the idea that autistic language might as well be machine language is rein­ forced by researchers like Happe, who argue that autistic people wind up incapable o f anything richer than “coded comm unication,” an approach whereby autists are thought to encode, transmit, receive, and decode language like “Morse code operators,” but without understanding or properly using inference and other supracoded communication (“Auto­ biographical Writings,” 230-31). Even sensitive, alert literary critics like



Glastonbury fortify the notion o f autistic language as machinelike, not­ ing “a formal pedantic mode o f speech which resembles the rehearsal of a written form ula” (“Incom municado,” 123), and pointing to autistically suggestive writing that substitutes “closed circuits for the momentum o f effective agency and intersubjective consciousness” (“T i l Teach You Differences,’” 6 1). There is little doubt that autistic language is prone to what is here identified as “discretion,” but the uncritical interpretive gesture commonly associated with this linguistic technique— the reading o f autistic language as “rigid” and mechanistic— is itself fearsomely auto­ matic. Even critically astute autists like Robison and C. S. Wyatt absorb and relay the dehumanizing trope— autist as affectless, autist as absent, autist as machine. In fact, what looks to the pathologizing eye and the outstretched clinical finger like a marker o f disease is often a powerfully creative way o f thinking and a productive vehicle for intellectual engagem ent and expression. Rereading supposedly rigid and fragmented autistic lan­ guage in the creative mode, recent autism scholarship is beginning to figure and claim the myriad productive possibilities o f autistic systemlanguage. Belmonte, for instance, while arguing that autistic expression is fundamentally nonlinear, believes that autism’s nonintuitive rela­ tionship with narrative results in distinctly measured forms o f text, an “extraordinarily effortful, unusually intense, and atypically deliberate process o f narrative organization,” producing “unusually deep insights” (“Human, but More So,” 173). Chew, a classicist, linguist, and transla­ tor, sees the terse and abstract verbal style o f her autistic son as rich in symbolic content, even if it requires interpretation (“Autism and the Task o f the Translator,” 309). Wyatt points to the creative possibilities o f computer language, reasoning in such a context that originality arises out o f “linguistically rigid” structures. Pulitzer Prize-winning music critic Tim Page observes that “a cluster o f facts can be both luminous and lyric” and sees his own “profound” response to “starkly reiterative, rig­ idly patterned” m odern minimalist music as connected to his Aspergian cognitive aesthetic (Parallel Play, 6, 168). Easton writes that “database” and “taxonomic list” are elemental autistic forms and that “the gather­ ing o f data becomes the primary act o f formation.” Easton suggests that the autistic author enters into implicit collaboration with the audience, “presenting a large amount o f data” and allowing readers to “sort it, and find narratives, or gaps, or notions, or useful bits.” According to such an approach, Easton’s “infodum p” is not a hostile or insensitive gesture, but an act o f generosity, an offering o f choice, options. “I have been to

Articulating Autism Poetics • 63

museums and galleries with other autistics,” he writes, “which becomes an act o f endless exchanging facts— where exchanging facts, exchanging the taxonomic list, becomes an act o f solidarity and intimacy” (“Autism,” 102-3). Valerie Paradiz, looking at echolalia (or autistic ricochet), finds richly suggestive autistic patterning in the verbal repetitions o f both Ger­ trude Stein and Andy Warhol. Ralph Savarese points to the peculiarly autistic quality o f poetic ordering, arguing that “ [p]attern . . . is what attracts classical autistics to poetry,” and recalling the observation o f a poetry student, an autist, who claimed the villanelle as a manifestly autis­ tic form: “its perseverative, m orphing refrains,” she wrote, “were ‘like the patterns o f light on her front lawn’” (Savarese and Zunshine, “Critic as Neurocosmopolite,” 36). Often leaning on visual and kinesthetic cognition and expression, autistic orderers are builders and inventors, discovering and giving expression to the infinitude o f implicit arrangements and organic orders em bedded in what might otherwise appear to be a chaotic existence. Liners-up are imaginers, alert to what-might-be, building structures and places, arranging facts, composing information, arranging visual and ver­ bal phrases into orders that signal and express these possibilities. Edu­ cation professor and critical autism studies scholar Elizabeth J. (Ibby) Grace speaks to such possibilities in her “Autistethnography,” writing about how, as a schoolchild, she loved helping an adult friend “orga­ nize . . . books in Dewey Decimal,” but describing how this organizing activity served as a gateway for other, more com plex and creative forms o f collecting and arranging; cataloging merges into “expeditions to find poetry about things I loved, which I could then make my own anthology books of, and illustrate, even including my own attempts at poetry.” For Grace, her “favorite p a rt. . . was the finding,” what she describes as “trea­ sure hunting for poems and stories and facts” (91). The activity extends well beyond the parameters o f self-soothing or therapeutic mechanics, and Grace see these early forays into research and writing not only as a pleasure unto themselves but also as foundational to her present iden­ tity as a scholar and teacher. Yergeau (who ironically entitles her schol­ arly bibliography “rituals”) also points to the dynamic between her own youthful autistic system aesthetic and the theoretical productivity o f her adult career, playing enticingly with the creative and intellectual possi­ bilities o f autistic discretion: I arranged my dolls in lines on the floor, alphabetized by first name, and imagined they were in a database, only database wasn’t the word



I used at first— but by age fifteen my dolls were fields and the invisible lines on the tan carpet were table dividers, and I imagined Microsoft Access in the flesh, theory incarnated. (“Aut(hored)ism”) In this territory, perceptual cognition, intellect, aesthetic, object align­ ment, and sign are all evident coparticipants in autistic frolic. Collecting and lining-up is neither absent nor aggressive, neither mechanistic nor pathetic. Teeming with autistic presence, intellectual and creative verve, Yergeau’s arranging is “theory incarnated,” a radical sign anticipating the mature scholarly work that would follow. Far from being vacuous or signaling vacancy, lining things up turns out to be expressive, creative, and constructive. Autistic discretionary practice— lists and system writing— privileges the tangential, the sug­ gestive, the unexpressed, enfolding the silent, the marginal, and the interstitial. Though lists are frequently understood as mechanical pro­ ductions, thoroughly predictable, they are also capable o f drawing in unexpected content, thereby form ing startling associations, a tenden­ cy toward what Umberto Eco calls “infinitude,” an endless capacity for addition and accumulation that gestures toward the endlessly inclusive. So, too, Robert Belknap urges that lists may be understood as “plastic, flexible structures,” which “suggest the idea o f inclusivity and expansive accretion” (The List, 2, 31). Rather than evoking the sterile and pedan­ tic Casaubon, the persecuting totalitarian bureaucrat, an anxious and fragile Peter Roget, the practice o f symbolic collection and ordering, the perception and expression o f language discrete and particulate, may instead be understood as an intelligent and creative process, contingent and experimental, not rigid, but infinitely malleable. A cluster of facts can be both luminous and lyric.

Invention That autistic discretion is frequently understood as rigid and mechanical when it is arguably profoundly elastic and creative points to the central problem o f the present work— that autism interpreters typically fail to register the creative valence o f autistic language: the fecundity o f autistic ejaculation, the poetic pleasure o f autistic apostrophe, the playful pur­ pose o f autistic ricochet. Nowhere is this interpretive tension greater than in the arena o f autistic invention, the elaboration and repurposing, the hacking and m odding o f ready-made language to transform it into star­

Articulating Autism Poetics • 65

tling new expressive patterns. Snakedly. Schlangenringelich. My sleep today was long but thin. Kanner, for instance, reports that Donald T. encoded his individual watercolors with the names o f the Dionne quintuplets, resulting in observations like “Annette and Cecile make purple,” but the clinician regards this substitution not as a productive form o f play, but as failure, a sign o f the autistic subject’s inflexibility (“Autistic Distur­ bances,” 219-20); Asperger notes that autistic “expressions tend towards neologisms and are often more abstruse than delightful” (“‘Autistic Psy­ chopathy,”’ 62); well before that watershed moment in autism history, the 1967 publication o f Bettelheim ’s The Empty Fortress, Bosch observes that the “oddness . . . and ‘apparent inscrutability’ o f autistic children’s language has been described many times before” (Infantile Autism, 61); and Bettelheim appears to concur, noting that “ [a]utistic children . . . turn each word into a symbol o f their private preoccupations. All words in fact have private meanings to them that tally only in part and by chance with the meanings we attach to them” (Empty Fortress, 162-63). By 1970, Rutter would note that the “ [a]bnormal use o f words and phrases has been described in autism for many years” (Tager-Flusberg, Paul, and Lord, “Aspects o f Communication,” 344). Autists, then, are tradition­ ally widely recognized as inventors o f language. Julie Brown notes that the autism spectrum person is “the supreme inventor o f idiom ” (Writers on the Spectrum, 34), and some autists even argue that language may be an “autistic superpower” (Froehlich, “My Autistic Superpower”). But such powers ordinarily garner scant appreciation. Bettelheim ’s blithe adoption o f “we” / “them” pronominal rhetoric illuminates the interpre­ tive matrix: the problem with invented language lies with who does the inventing. In fact, Autistic Disturbances itself, as is often the case with academic writing, makes use o f obscure metaphor— a title intended to evoke a remote scholarly article from the 1940s— and is also replete with neolo­ gism, invented language. Orderlinesses, reconstrue, noncommunicative, particulation, corpsifying. Such veering from the straight and narrow becomes possible because scholars and technical writers get a pass, presumably occupying Bettelheim ’s “we” territory; authority establishes linguistic privilege, and obscurity is thus more likely to be credited with intelli­ gence. Social mechanisms operate to privilege credentialed language, in these circumstances locating perceived communicative failure within the audience rather than the speaker or writer. Even given such privi­ lege, however, this seizure o f language, customizing what is presumed to be a shared and therefore standardized resource, is a loaded activ­



ity, detractors lamenting specialized vocabularies, the incomprehensible exclusive “jargo n ” o f professionals. Indeed, there is significant cultural leakage between academic and autistic language categories. References to the professorial quality o f autistic language, of course, are ubiquitous, but allusions to the incomprehensibility o f professorial language are almost as common. Unlike the ambiguous reception accorded academic language, for those categorized as autistic, linguistic invention is almost universally censured and there is a presumption that the tweaking o f language for private or limited purposes is a passive aggressive performance, evi­ dence o f a careless or selfish personality. Kanner’s intolerance o f the “m etaphorical” quality o f autistic language and Asperger’s dismissive “abstruse” bookend the observations o f W hitehorn and Zipf, who write about the “autistic” nature o f schizophrenic language. In . . . fabricating a new language, the autistic person is not neces­ sarily confusing the word with reality any more than is the person who coined the words “lockjaw,” “can opener” or “fireplace.” Never­ theless, to be arbitrary and individualistic in selecting what is to be named in all of experience, and how it is to be named and how it is to be compared generically with other named things, is ineffective if one wants the advantages that accrue to social life. The distortion of meanings represents an economy of mind, but it is an autistic econo­ my that remains radically different from that of normal social speech. (“Schizophrenic Language,” 849) According to the foundational thinking of these early clinical theorists, the autistic use o f invented language evinces rigidity, social failure, and narcissistic disregard for others. Bettelheim writes o f one young autist’s “neologisms” as a manner “that obstructed his and our ability to relate to each other” (“Joey,” 126). According to Yergeau’s more forceful con­ struction, “neuroqueer subjects fuck with rhetoric” (Authoring Autism, 60). Clinical interpreters persistently frame the independence o f autis­ tic linguistic gesture as a kind o f thoughtlessness or selfishness, creative verve and experimental language reduced to mere egotism. In making this case, however, many interpreters play an interest­ ing aesthetic trick, constructing an illusion o f incomprehensibility, even when m eaning is quite clear. So, for instance, Asperger chooses to translate unusual autistic phraseology that is already apparent: “I can’t do this orally, only headily.” Likewise, Kanner notes the “meta­

Articulating Autism Poetics • 67

phorical” language o f Donald T., who, “W hen asked to subtract 4 from 10, . . . answered: ‘I’ll draw a hexagon’” (“Autistic Disturbances,” 222). There is no actual communicative failure here— Kanner understands Donald T.’s hexagon, a six-sided figure, as both responsive and correct— but the privatization o f public language is nevertheless put forward as an antagonistic departure from authentic communication. Tager-Flusberg, Paul, and Lord, similarly, speak o f autistic language invention as com­ prising “modifications o f ordinary word roots or phrases that produced slightly odd sounding, but comprehensible, terms such as ‘commendm ent’ for praise or ‘cuts and bluesers’ for cuts and bruises” (“Aspects o f Com m unication,” 344). In a similar vein, Yergeau writes o f the way “clinicians . . . sensationalize their autistic clients’ literalisms” (Author­ ing Autism, 59). The problem, then, is not that readers or listeners are actually unable to understand the plentiful inventive flourish o f autistic language, but rather that audiences are encouraged to reject their own understanding because o f “an overall impression o f oddness” (Happe, “Autobiographical Writings,” 229). Chew reminds readers that “the communications o f . . . autistic peo­ ple . . . are routinely perceived as so difficult to decode that they verge on the . . . unknowable” and warns against the tendency o f audiences to “displace autistic voices” (“Autism and the Task o f the Translator,” 305), but underlying structures o f bias are both so imposing and so implic­ it that even astute autism-positive literary scholars fall unwittingly into the practice. For Brown, autistic language invention is a sign that “the writer . . . dismisses the audience” (Writers on the Spectrum, 18), an interpretive schema unfortunately evident in her interpretations o f ven­ erated American writers: “Some o f Emily Dickinson’s poems are indeci­ pherable,” Brown writes, and “ [l]ong stretches o f Moby Dick do not seem to be designed with the reader in m ind” (18). The writing o f these liter­ ary greats is not elevated or complicated by such observations; instead, once stained by the diagnostic brush, the work o f Dickinson and Melville is degraded to mere autistic gibberish. Even a literary critic with a delib­ erate proautism stance is drawn reflexively into the pathologizing vortex. Indeed, as discussed earlier, clinical and aesthetic judgm ent are often so inextricably interlaced that nonstandard uses o f language may be fused with pathology in the cultural imagination. Criminal psychologist Robert Hare, for example, interprets the “use o f neologisms” as a typi­ cal form o f psychopathic rhetoric, since neologism combines “the basic components o f language . . . in ways that seem logical to them but inap­ propriate to others” (Without Conscience, 137). Directly associating



psychopathic violence with the supposedly antisocial quality inherent in invented words, Hare reframes neologism as implicitly malevolent. Scientistically, dissensus. Even the thorough and meticulous invention o f whole language systems— a skill sometimes associated with autism and one valued by linguists, speculative fiction writers, and, increasingly, by detail-oriented film producers— draws ableist derision from an online commenter: “How densely autistic must someone be for this nonsense to fire their imagination? . . . If I met two people speaking Esperanto to one another, I would be sorely tempted to crack their self-righteous euro-centric heads together” (APenNam eAndThatA). Though the mod­ erated censure o f clinical observation begins to look like a comparatively appealing prospect, there is a well-established thoroughfare from the clinical authority that regards autistic language as “more abstruse than delightful” to a clinical definition o f autism as “the egocentric tendency to disregard the convenience o f others” (Whitehorn and Zipf, “Schizo­ phrenic Language,” 844), to the online commenter who fancies crack­ ing autistic heads together. Hope is the thing with feathers. This is a deliberately recursive journey, this strange spiraling path that discovers-recovers junctures between rhetoric, violence, and the poetic mode. The logic is counterintuitive: autistic invention spurs (sometimes violent) antagonism; neologism and metaphorical language are regarded as antisocial, even as potential evi­ dence o f violent personality. Autpocalypse. H ere’s the really weird thing: as with “m onologu e” and “soliloquy,” “m etaphor,” o f course, starts out not as a m edical word, but as part o f the vocabulary o f poetics. W hen Kanner writes o f “m etaphorical or otherwise p eculiar” language (“Autistic Disturbances,” 222), h e ’s adopting term inology from literary studies, where a unique approach to language is part o f what defines greatness and the ability to gener­ ate startling and evocative language associations is a pow erful con­ tributor to literary stature. Shakespeare is celebrated for his “lexical creativity” (Dobson and Wells, O xford Com panion to Shakespeare, 129). Lackbeard, patchbreech, tallowface, fen-sucked, russet-pated. Indeed, Shakespeare’s literary maturity is said to be especially m arked by the “dramatic energy” o f his neologistic “verbs . . . where one part o f speech is used as another, e.g. noun as verb” (129). Unsphere. Disedge. So far from disparaging invented language, linguist Mikhail Epstein has argued that “a neologism should be recognized as a self-sufficient text” (Predictionary, 17). A nd Epstein sees “word-com position” or “w ord-form ation” (what he calls lexicopoeia) as “a literary genre

Articulating Autism Poetics • 69

o f its own, the poetry o f a single w ord” (17 ). Even decidedly con­ servative language authorities acknowledge the necessity o f n eolo­ gism; in The King s English (1906), Fowler and Fowler observe, “if no new words were to appear, it would be a sign that the language was m oribund” (28). The creating o f new words and the developm ent o f strange and inventive word associations— m etaphor— is not an illness or deficit. These are tim e-honored practices, adm ired by a range o f literary authorities. Through the dark clouds shining. A consciousness o f this ambivalence— extraordinary verbal invention spurring both admiration and hostility— is crucial in exploring the rela­ tionship between autism and punning. Asperger recognizes punning as a particularized autistic ability, the “witty” amusement o f pun language standing in contrast to what he otherwise sees as the deficiency o f autistic hum or (Asperger, “‘Autistic Psychopathy,’” 82). This is crucial: the pun is a play on words, an expression not to be taken seriously, a form o f sil­ liness. To paraphrase Yergeau, it is a way o f fucking with rhetoric that resonates powerfully with neuroqueer practice. From the perspective o f the greater social context that insists on autistic deficiency and incom­ prehensibility, the pun may thus be seen as yet another insignificant and unsignifying autistic “splinter” skill, like a talent for jigsaw puzzles. Rather than being understood as potentially content-rich rhetoric, the pun is seen instead as serving purely nonfunctional purposes. And, like other forms o f autistic expression, it thus exists as a kind o f verbal waste, quirky, amusing even, but easily dismissed. The laughs and groans that are the typical responses to puns fall into the category o f mere utterance, evidence o f the pun’s strange status as an antidialogic verbal form. The audience may laugh, groan, or shrug, but as with apostrophe, there is no talking back, no discourse, only recognition or perplexity. Erika Hammerschmidt, creator o f the autistic webcomic Abby and Norma (a series densely infused with all kinds o f wordplay), shares a story around one o f her own puns: Extraterrestrials abducted this guy and took him up to their space­ ship to do experiments on him. Soon he noticed a strange medi­ cal device they were using, and asked what it was. “It’s sort of the opposite of an endoscope,” they replied. “An endoscope is for looking inside you, and its name comes from the Latin ‘endo’ meaning ‘inside,’ as opposed to ‘exo’ meaning ‘out­ side,’ or ‘epi’ meaning ‘on the surface.’ This device is for looking at the surface of your skin, and it is called an episcope.”



“But then,” said the guy, “what are you doing using Latin? You’re not Catholics. You’re Episcope Aliens!” It was a failure. Neither my husband nor his friend understood that “Episcope Aliens” was a pun on “Episcopalians.” And not only that, but instead of asking me to explain the joke, they simply assumed that the joke made no sense, and ridiculed me about it for hours. I sup­ pose this is what I get for being the queen of absurdity in our family. (Hammerschmidt, “887”) The profound elaboration o f the jo ke suggests other aspects o f autis­ tic expression: the surfeit o f language that characterizes apostrophic rhetoric; and the somewhat esoteric linguistic choices— endoscope, Episcopalian— that Fowler and Fowler see within the context o f neolo­ gism. Most importantly, however, Hammerschmidt’s experience articu­ lates the unsettling relationship between this kind o f carefully crafted and intensely creative rhetoric and its apparent functionality. For it is noteworthy both that such remarkable effort goes into the creation o f a jo k e— disposable text— and that the construction is ultimately deemed “a failure.” Even Hammerschmidt, an outspoken autistic self-advocate and a self-described “pun geek” (“Wordplay”), dismisses her creation as “failure.” As may be seen from this example, puns are thus simultane­ ously serious (in that they are necessarily formal and creative) and nonserious (that is, both silly and disposable); they thus contain an internal conflict, a doubleness evocative o f other autistic language invention and o f autistic poetics more generally. The whole point o f the pun, the thing that makes it funny, is that it cannot be taken at face value. There are always two messages; there is always bonus content inside a single word or phrase. Though it plays as silly— Episcope Aliens— this form o f encoded language nevertheless speaks to the deep abstract intelligence o f puns and related wordplay. Even if it appears to be mere linguistic juggling— a party trick, keeping multiple meanings in the air at the same time— punning, like neologism and metaphorical language, creates the opportunity to explore unusual abstract relationships, connections and contrasts. In writing o f the plea­ sure his autistic son Eli takes in punning, Paul Heilker recognizes exactly this “double-ness,” noting that the functional architecture for such word gaming also serves as a powerful mechanism for other abstract analysis (Heilker and Yergeau, “Autism and Rhetoric,” 490). As with the elas­ tic and creative aspect o f autistic discretion, autistic language invention

Articulating Autism Poetics • 71

generates conceptual opportunities, unfamiliar juxtapositions that reso­ nate both aesthetically and critically. Indeed, satiric literary utopias, like Jonathan Swift’s Land o f the Houyhnhnms or Samuel Butler’s Erewhon (1872), rely similarly on com­ plex and elaborate forms o f linguistic doubleness, harvesting the familiar and renaming it so that it appears, uncannily, in some half-recognized shape. Episcope Aliens. I ’ll draw a hexagon. By partitioning social existence into abstract institutional units and imposing invented language— Yahoo— atop an otherwise familiar social matrix, Swift enacts a form o f extended punning that evokes both the language o f autistic discretion and the language o f autistic invention. Perhaps, then, despite the groans, puns are not disposable language after all. As Heilker indicates, the autistic punster may “see connections between disparate events or items, connections that other people typically cannot or do not see” (Heilker and Yergeau 490). Such is certainly the case with a Swift, or a Butler, or a Voltaire, whose scathing social commentaries are deftly set in seemingly comic form; sometimes there’s more to a joke than meets the eye. That puns and other forms o f rhetorical doubleness might be doing serious work while masquerading as fun speaks to the heart o f the mat­ ter. For while formal satire is prized for its insight and originality, it is also abhorred, like the pun, for its trickster language, the concealment o f its critical dagger. O ne oft-cited article by sociologist Joan Emerson discusses the use o f hum or to negotiate serious social business and to broach otherwise taboo subjects, noting that cabaret performers during the early Nazi regime “were arrested for their wisecracks and mimicry o f Hitler and his regime,” a consequence that defined their seeming humor as “political crim e” (“Negotiating,” 17 1). (It is essential to note here that the Berlin cabarets o f the 1930s existed as com plex sites o f resistance to normate conduct and identity— queering politics, queering sexuality, and queering language— “including us all,” as Christopher Isherwood writes, “in the conspiracy” [Goodbye to Berlin, 14]). The coded critique effected by satire and the doubleness o f the pun destabilize, suspend­ ing audiences in a condition o f interpretive irresolution, promulgating cognitive dissonance, engendering resistance and anxiety. The ensuing critical backlash can be extreme. The Earl o f Orrery, for instance, writes that Swift presents a “representation . . . o f human nature [which] must terrify, and even debase the mind o f the reader who views it” (183). Both satire and punning— indeed, most forms o f wordplay— are prone to ambivalent reception, regarded as inherently duplicitous. Occupying the center o f this site o f tension is the autist, articulating



and articulated. While Asperger and others argue that autistic people “do not ‘understand jokes’” (“‘Autistic Psychopathy,”’ 82), a powerful counterdiscourse suggests that autists are actually more likely than nonautists to enjoy an especially rich and elaborate sense o f humor, especial­ ly in reference to language and abstract sign. In fact, the autistic blogosphere is richly populated with satires o f the endless ableist discourses around autism (see Yergeau, Authoring Autism, 170-72, for more; Main, Allism; Ryskamp, “Field Notes”; AngryAutie, “Institute for the Study”). Just because the audience doesn’t get it, as with Hammerschmidt’s pun, that doesn’t mean there’s no joke or that “autistic people . . . have no sense o f hum or” (Hendriks, Autistic Company, 10). In fact, the starkly contrasting beliefs around autistic comprehensibility and autistic com­ prehension articulate two separate and overlapping messages. Under­ stood in this way, autistic invention is itself rendered as a site o f double­ ness, both nonsensical and meaningful, and the autist becomes a kind o f pun incarnate, the embodiment o f contained conflict. Such a reading may illuminate the ambivalent reception not only to punning but also to autistic language invention more generally. The “professorial” quality o f autistic voice, the use o f challenging language— metaphor, customized language, archaic and obscure words, puns and other types o f linguistic “double-ness”— are a provocation to more con­ ventional language users, those who have expectations o f seamless and intuitive communication. Not only is the typical audience resistant to language that might require an “effort to de-code” (Brown, Writers on the Spectrum, 34), but more typical users may also be spooked by the limitless extratextual potentiality o f autistic language invention. As with Swift’s Yahoo, metaphoric and invented language and other forms o f wordplay may include explosive content, veiled in seemingly innocu­ ous form. In fact, this is a recipe for terror— danger masquerading as innocence— and it elicits extraordinary defensive response: Swift’s work has been subject to vitriolic critique; cabaret performers in early Nazi Germany were arrested. For Hammerschmidt, who describes language as her “main autistic fascination” and whose wordplay has extended to writing “a limerick for every element on the Periodic Table, an epic story using no vowels except ‘i,’ and a 200+ word rhyming poem that reads the same right-side-up and upside-down,” things might not seem so dire (“Wordplay”). If her husband and his friend don’t get her puns, it’s of little consequence. But the threat o f head-cracking is always an essential factor in the resistance to autistic language invention, as it is with other

Articulating Autism Poetics • 73

queerings. (Isherwood, again: “He stood before me a moment, panting, thrusting out his jaw, uncertain it seemed, whether he ought to hit me in the face” [Goodbye to Berlin, 193]). The dismissal o f autistic punning as nonsensical dovetails with other forms o f resistance to autistic invention: from Kanner’s initial reading o f autistic metaphor as meaningless to the pathologization o f autistic neologism to the dismissal o f autistic humor as mere silliness, even that aspect o f autistic language that most clearly demonstrates intention and invention is framed by interpretive schema that detract from its power, intelligence, and originality.


A survey o f literature on autistic language— including writing by clini­ cians, by literary scholars, and by autists, sometimes in overlapping roles— does indicate, contrary to popular notions, that autism may be said to have its own language, its own distinctive forms of verbal expres­ sion. The literature refers to a broad array o f autistic linguistic features including tendencies toward echolalia, polysyllabic phrasing, abrupt lan­ guage, aphorisms, m onologue, telegraphic expression, and dozens of other descriptive criteria. This section has visited many o f the significant characteristics o f autistic language identified in the literature, and has proposed five categories— ricochet, apostrophe, ejaculation, discretion, and invention (in addition to autistic silence)— that embrace a variety of characteristics identified as autistic, characteristics that might be under­ stood to constitute a kind o f fingerprint o f verbal autism. The foregoing exploration o f these categories is focused on the multiple potentialities o f these expressive forms and continually questions dominant interpre­ tive strategies prone to read idiosyncratic autistic language in a negative light, as rigid, as meaningless, and as hostile or offensive. Ultimately, the trouble is that what autistic people say and the way autistic people say things often doesn’t mesh nicely with conventional ideas about language and (typically implicit) agreements about language as functional, social, and communicative. Beginning with that most expansively reproduced aspect o f autistic expression-^-silence^-dominant constructions o f autism poetics have favored interpretations o f autistic verbalization that render autistic expression impotent: autistic silence signals vacancy and its “metaphori­ cal language” is considered equivalent to that same vacant silence; autis­



tic ricochet is interpreted as mere mechanical repeating and as evidence o f personal absence; autistic apostrophe, likewise, is supposed to be machinelike language, its talking “into empty space” retailed as an era­ sure o f audience and a demonstration o f aggressive social disconnection; autistic ejaculatioh, similarly, is portrayed as a rejection o f social connec­ tion, its intetruptive blurting evoking the language o f obscenity; autis­ tic discretion' ostensibly demonstrates inflexibility, the organization o f abstract verbal content supposedly showing the rigid limitations o f autis­ tic expression; and even autistic inventiori— the creative repurposing o f conventional language in fresh and original forms— is repackaged as dis­ tinctive autistic deficit, a linguistic dysfunction understood variously as incomprehensibility, silliness, or egotism. In each o f these instances, the intelligence and the expressive and creative power o f distinctively autis­ tic language are suppressed in favor o f interpretive schemes that read these rhetorics as nonhuman (e.g., absent, vacant, or mechanical) or as implicitly antisocial (e.g., rude, aggressive, disconnected). As is especial­ ly evident from the response to autistic language invention, dominant clinical and cultural interpretations have typically proved resistant to the complexities and ambiguities o f both autistic text and autistic people. Confronted by the experience o f cognitive dissonance and threatened by queerings o f language, meaning, and identity, mainstream clinical and cultural responses to autism are characterized by a host o f authori­ tarian practices: the dismissing o f autistic expression as pathological, as meaningless, as silly, as egocentric, as impoverished or ineffectual, or as robotic. O f one autistic child, Joey, the “Mechanical Boy,” Bettelheim quite openly confesses that the boy’s performance as machine “again and again [ . . . ] froze our own ability to respond as human beings” (“Joey,” 117). Given their hegem onic authority, these interpretive matrices have a profound impact on customary responses to autistic text, including the text o f the autistic body. An expectation o f nonsense, o f vacancy, of inhumanity creates a framework o f nonlistening; expectations o f selfish and aggressive verbal conduct help justify violent responses to autism; and deeply entrenched and complexly developed discourses o f autistic linguistic pathology empower a vast engine o f coercive intervention, the “correcting” and training o f autistic voice to fit conventional parameters o f communicative language. Moreover, there is an immeasurable passive impact o f these discourses on autistic identity, em bedded cultural mes­ sages that implicitly inform idiosyncratic language users that experim en­

Articulating Autism Poetics • 75

tal language is worthless, that the sole purpose o f language is commu­ nication, and that wordplay, aesthetics, and expressive verbalization are mere waste. Internalizing these messages, countless autistic people sup­ press intuitive forms o f expression and, stressed and exhausted by the performance, consciously operate according to dominant language pat­ terns; many others are trapped in agonizing instructional relationships, where autistic language is understood as a “broken” medium rather than an alternative and potentially valuable expressive mode; many, certainly, have opted, perhaps unconsciously, for a nonverbal or minimally verbal life. In the face o f such tidal resistance, it must seem to some that verbal self-expression just isn’t worth the trouble. It is not the purpose o f this text to address the possible deficiencies of autistic language, if such deficiencies there be. Language is an amazingly im perfect tool, betraying its users at every turn, inexact, unpredictable, fluid. It recedes when it is most wanted, comes rushing crudely forward when silence would be the better part. Sign is never quite an adequate substitute for signified; Plato was alive to such a problem, o f course, as was Ferdinand de Saussure. Language is full o f strange expressions and cliches— a pig in a poke, walls have ears, the four corners o f the Earth, LO LZ— that operate best when users don’t think too much about them. Indeed, humanity comes from all corners o f the Earth, speaking to and at one another in a surprising chaos o f syntaxes and vocabularies and conflicting social norms that defy the very idea o f normal language, that make the possibility o f communication seem almost impossible. It is a makeshift business at best and autists among this larger human tribe share many o f the same language woes. Sometimes, the words just don ’t come out as one would wish. But others have already amply investigated the problems with autistic language; even as these words are written, clin­ ical researchers and speech-language pathologists and special education scholars are hard at work breaking down the details o f the failures o f autistic language and figuring techniques to fix the problems. Recogniz­ ing that all language— including autistic language— is, to some extent, failed language, this book instead looks to the possibilities and potenti­ alities o f autistic rhetoric, exploring the ways in which its characteristic features might comprise a distinctive autism poetics. As a means o f testing these possibilities, this chapter is followed by a series o f literary case studies that investigate the presence o f autistic rhetorical or poetic features in familiar and classic texts not ordinarily understood within the context o f autism. Beginning with the expecta­



tion o f familiarity, o f pleasure, o f normalcy, or o f treasured text (rather than with the starting point o f pathology), each reading unfolds autistic presence and autistic voice, contemplating what autistic poetics offers when readers are able to step away from expectations o f deficit and fail­ ure. It is the hope o f the writer that these explorations will offer new insight into familiar texts and will help cue fresh expectations o f and responses to the verbal expression o f autistic people.


On the Surprising Elasticity of Taxonomical Rhetoric -------------

Speaking o f autopsies, here is an interesting case: it turns out that the Diagnostic and Statistical M anual of Mental Disorders, the text used to deter­

mine who has autism and who doesn’t, the ultimate objective clinical authority on autism as pathology, actually looks pretty autistic when measured by its own diagnostic criteria for “autism spectrum disorder.” Moan, eyeroll: “clinicians and their autistic objects” (Yergeau, Authoring Autism, 208). It may be rather a crude joke, irrelevant perhaps, even disingenuous, but the DSM, in a beautiful, recursive irony, may be read as the index document o f literary autism. The body o f the text is laid out on the dissecting table; the work o f scrutiny and dissection may proceed. First: to look at the text as a whole, its order and pattern, its extreme visual regularity. This is an encounter with autistic discretion, text delib­ erately composed o f ordered fragments, a collage reimagining the living untidiness o f mental disorder within a framework o f verbal symmetry. Like other manuals and guidebooks, like dictionaries and encyclope­ dias and etiquette books and grammar texts, like the bibliographies and taxonomies, which are its brothers and cousins, the DSM manifests an extraordinary regularity. This is not like narrative, especially not like nar­ rative fiction, that messy, clotting, almost organic mass o f text, shaped by affect, plot, desire. Instead, the DSM is pristine and orderly, its content 77



fitted into regularly recurring headings and subheadings, robotic, uni­ form in its composition, a disciplined body. Prevalence Development and Course Risk and Prognostic Factors Comorbidity Each numbered entry designates a discrete syndrome, condition, or disorder, definitions and diagnostic criteria systematically mapped with strong textual markers partitioning verbal content into particularized units o f clinical concern. Thus, the 2013 edition o f the text, the DSM-5, true to formatting patterns o f its predecessors, delineates “Autism Spec­ trum Disorder” as follows: ( A. Persistent deficits in social communication and social interaction

across multiple contexts, as manifested by the following, currently or by history (examples are illustrative, not exhaustive; see text): 1. Deficits in social-emotional reciprocity, ranging, for example, from abnormal social approach and failure of normal backand-forth conversation; to reduced sharing of interests, emo­ tions, or affect; to failure to initiate or respond to social inter­ actions. 2. Deficits in nonverbal communicative behaviors used for so­ cial interaction, ranging, for example, from poorly integrated verbal and nonverbal communication; to abnormalities in eye contact and body language or deficits in understanding and use of gestures; to a total lack of facial expressions and non­ verbal communication. 3. Deficits in developing, maintaining, and understanding rela­ tionships, ranging, for example, from difficulties adjusting be­ havior to suit various social contexts; to difficulties in sharing imaginative play or in making friends; to absence of interest in peers. Specify current severity:

Severity is based on social communication impairments and restrict­ ed, repetitive patterns o f behavior (see Table 2).

On the Surprising Elasticity o f Taxonomical Rhetoric • 79

B.' Restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities as manifested by at least two of the following, currently or by history (examples are illustrative, not exhaustive): 1. Stereotyped, or repetitive motor movements, use of objects, or speech (e.g. simple motor stereotypes, lining up toys or flip­ ping objects, echolalia, idiosyncratic phrases). 2. Insistence on sameness, inflexible adherence to routines, or ritualized patterns of verbal or nonverbal behavior (e.g. ex­ treme distress at small changes, difficulties with transitions, rigid thinking patterns, greeting rituals, need to take same route or eat same food every day). 3. Highly restricted, fixated interests that are abnormal in inten­ sity or focus (e.g. strong attachment to or preoccupation with unusual objects, excessively circumscribed or perseverative in­ terests) . 4. Hyper- or hyporeactivity to sensory input or unusual interest in sensory aspects of the environment (e.g. apparent indifference to pain/temperature, adverse response to specific sounds or textures, excessive smelling or touching of objects, visual fasci­ nation with lights or movement). Specify current severity:

Severity is based on social communication impairments and restrict­ ed, repetitive patterns o f behavior (see Table 2). C. Symptoms must be present in the early developmental period (but may not become fully manifest until social demands exceed lim­ ited capabilities, or may be masked by learned strategies in later life). D. Symptoms cause clinically significant impairment in social, occu­ pational, or other important areas of current functioning. E. These disturbances are not better explained by intellectual dis­ ability (intellectual developmental disorder) or global develop­ mental delay. Intellectual disability and autism spectrum disorder frequently co-occur; to make comorbid diagnoses of autism spec­ trum disorder and intellectual disability, social communication should be below that expected for general developmental level. (50-5 1 )




In contradistinction to the increasing acknowledgement o f the dif­ ficulties defining autism (Nadesan, Constructing Autism, 9; Murray, Autism, 1; Davidson and Orsini, Worlds o f Autism, 24), the DSM cre­ ates definition through the particulars o f hierarchy and subordination, a self-contained outline, numbered and lettered, that effects decisive verbal order. After the systematically stipulated diagnostic criteria quot­ ed above, this entry, like others in the text, is followed by a portion o f narrative, divided discretely by subheadings— Prevalence, Development and Course, Risk and Prognostic Factors, Comorbidity— that are essen­ tially uniform throughout the book. Each entry is presented in the same format, fragments or modules o f text aligning to the same visual and symbolic verbal abstract scaffolding. Each molecule distinct. Uniform, efficient, evoking the “abrupt” language and logic o f autistic speakers like Temple Grandin or the otherwise-unidentified “Ruth” (Happe, “Autobiographical Writings,” 210; Frith, Autism: Explaining, 118-20); or o f other would-be autistic rhetoricians: Sherlock Holmes, Mr. Spock. It evokes literary critiques that read autistic language as “rigid, simple, and categorical” (Dekel, “Austen and Autism”); or that associate liter­ ary autism with “ [c]losed structures, locked doors, small stuffy rooms, mirrors, labyrinths, and narrow streets” (Olsen, “Diagnosing Fantastic Autism,” 36). In the DSM, each entry looks the same and reads the same, content swapped into and out o f each category like interchangeable parts on a diagnostic assembly line. Dahlia, dahlia, dahlia. Is such an assessment artificial? O f course. In practical terms, the manual is designed as an index, an easy-to-navigate tool for busy clini­ cians and medical billers who need to flip pages quickly, skim through content-rich print, and transfer capsules o f approved language into the com plex regularized and regulated bureaucracy o f insurance claims and medical forms. The book is shaped altogether by practical requirements, designed to dovetail with the daily concerns o f the business o f medicine, but the text is there nevertheless, a fair subject for structural, narrative, rhetorical dissection. Regardless o f practical intentions, the DSM is keyed to a system aesthetic, a language o f discretion widely recognized by clini­ cal authorities as autistic. Simon Baron-Cohen, for instance, argues that “a common characteristic” o f autism “is that the individual becomes an expert in recognizing repeating patterns in stimuli” and that such “sys­ temizing” may be “defined as the drive to analyse or construct systems” (Baron-Cohen et al., “Talent in Autism,” 1377). Oliver Sacks unfolds this idea in an episode o f the popular documentary series The M ind Traveller, entitled “Rage for Order,” which explores the repetitive and cyclical foci

On the Surprising Elasticity o f Taxonomical Rhetoric • 81

o f Jessie Parks. Another clinical text notes that the “special interests” o f most Asperger people “will have a repetitive, list-making, classifying or collecting element” (Tantam, “Asperger’s Disorder (ii),” 35), an observa­ tion in keeping with those made by families o f autistic people as well as with many self-identified autists; the blog “Stuff Asperger People Like,” an ongoing numbered report, lists its number-one “like” as “Making Lists.” In fact, autism-world is populated by inveterate listmakers, coders, framers, categorizers, collectors, and organizers. The content ordering and rhetorical patterning o f the DSM may thus be understood as distinc­ tively autistic features and its participation in the aesthetic o f autistic discretion is a reasonable feature o f the autopsy report. There is some fun involved here, obviously, some satisfaction that derives from bending back the pointing clinical finger upon itself, a play­ ful autistic desire to “cunningly queer the clinical” (Yergeau, Authoring Autism, 53). And, as it happens, others have already visited this particu­ lar playground. Lennard Davis, in Obsession: A History (2008), observes the “taxonomic and categorical” quality o f the D SM and proposes that “one could argue that the physician who uses the [manual] is himself or herself using an obsessive text” (10). Steve Silberman, similarly, calls DSM-III architect Robert Spitzer “Spock-like,” and observes that “while Spitzer’s eccentricities may have fallen short o f meeting the criteria for A sperger’s syndrome, the DSM-III (1980) was the product o f a mind that exhibited many classic qualities o f autistic intelligence” (Neurotribes, 386). In some respects, however, this is not fun at all, but rather a bleak and grinding reinscription o f the pathologizing text. It is another case o f Casaubon, o f Toad, o f Peter Roget, an implicit denigration o f systemtext and, by extension, o f autism poetics. The making o f a list or the ordering or categorizing o f any content is almost universally tainted as a mechanistic exercise, without real intellectual value or creativity; such rhetoric is seen, rather, as an automated production, a reinscription o f the already known. Autopsying the DSM may be an amusing way to push back against overbearing medical authority, but using the same tools, the same points o f reference, lends weight to the idea that expressions o f autistic discretion are symptomatic o f psychosocial dis-ease, evidence o f a restricted and restrictive consciousness, a failure o f normal organic development. Indeed, there is a robust cultural association between system aesthet­ ics and totalitarian thinking, and it is likely that critical attitudes toward autistic verbal discretion, including hostilities directed toward the DSM, are at least partly motivated by an unconscious association o f delineation



aesthetics with totalitarian impulse. Saturated in Foucauldian interpreta­ tions o f state bureaucracies and deeply informed by the violent sorting and organizing mechanisms o f the Nazi state and South African apart­ heid authorities, progressive thinkers o f modern Western cultures are quick to reject all sorts o f symbolic abstract accounting as an invasive tool o f power and control (Jimerson, “Archives for A ll”; Bowker and Starr, Sorting Things Out). “To be governed,” writes Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, is to be at every operation, at every transaction, noted, registered, enrolled, taxed, stamped, measured, numbered. .. [and] at the slight­ est resistance, the first word of complaint, to be . . . tracked, abused, clubbed, disarmed, choked, imprisoned, judged, condemned, shot. (General Idea, 294) In the Western cultural imagination, the use o f language to describe, delineate, discipline, order is a tradition associated with violence. Impor­ tantly, then, the staccato pitch o f autistic verbal-unit expression— the “small units” and “point-blank” language o f autistic speakers (Frith, Autism: Explaining 120)— is read within a context that understands such expression as a relentless, even as an aggressive, shutting down o f other speaking, an anonymous authoritarian rejection o f dissent. As Frith con­ ceives it, “each answer was minimal and final. In this way, each answer stopped the flow o f conversation” (120). Autistic speaking thus serves as a veiled metaphor for the impersonal bureaucratic violence o f the state machine, faceless and inhuman. As Hannah Arendt argues, there is a profound philosophical connection between banality and evil. The message has become so self-evident, it may remain unspoken: the indi­ vidual actor speaking with the voice o f the bureaucratic machine is the modernist demon. When Wing observes, then, that Aspergian “thought processes are confined to a narrow, pedantic, literal, but logical, chain o f reasoning . . . while comprehension o f the underlying meaning is poor” (“Asperger’s Syndrome,” 118), this seemingly neutral clinical observa­ tion suggests a powerful alignment between autistic discretion rhetoric and the overbearing mechanistic pitch o f uninhabited bureaucratic lan­ guage. Autistic discretionary text is thus presented as rigid, closed, nar­ row, restrictive; it crowds and imprisons, a rhetoric o f control, violence, subjection. Understood within this framework, the DSM may be seen as mani­ festing a kind o f deterministic authoritarianism; the establishing “of psychiatric categories and the act o f diagnosis seen as tools to exercise

O n the Surprising Elasticity o f Taxonomical Rhetoric • 83

an unjustifiable power. In the words o f Carrie Snow, authoritarian texts like the DSM serve to fortify the “logic o f science and technology” that “manifest[s] in the push to diagnose, label, and track” (“Beyond Visions o f Repair,” 172). And Jonathan Metzl’s The Protest Psychosis (2009) is yet more explicit about the damage imposed by false ordering, arguing that “the DSM created racial differences in psychopathology rather than reflecting them; and race-based differences in symptoms represented not the premorbid cultural patterns o f African American patients, but the premorbid professional assumptions o f their doctors” (156). Within this context, the rhetorical templates o f the DSM and o f system-text more generally, read as frames for imposition o f increased bureaucratic con­ trol and efficiency, are what sociologist Max W eber describes as an “iron cage” and what Michel Foucault has thoroughly explicated as the influ­ ence o f bureaucratization in the engineering o f “docile bodies” (Disci­ pline and Punish). The DSM, sorting each docile human subject into its proper pathological category, into an apparently rigid, genericized tax­ onomy, evokes the racist bureaucracies o f South African apartheid sys­ tems, in which “the lives o f individuals are broken, twisted, and torqued by their encounters with classification systems” (Bowker and Star, Sort­ ing Things Out, 26). Or, the rhetoric o f diagnostic systemizing might also arouse associations with the stark efficiencies o f Nazi “selection,” or “the widely recognized proficiency o f Nazi recordkeeping” (Jimerson, “Archives for All,” 254). There is a fraught and sometimes nefarious his­ tory behind the collecting and organizing o f text used to interpret and define aspects o f human identity. Underlying much o f the resistance to autistic discretion, autistic sys­ tem aesthetic— Lennard Davis’s easy dismissal o f the DSM as an “obses­ sive text,” or even the present explication o f the text as a kind o f rigid corpse— is the quite obvious concern that catalogic and taxonomic writ­ ing are mechanisms for totalitarian control. Speaking to just such a con­ cern, Foucault observes that rhetoric o f this kind serves as an instrument that reduces the organic “to a system o f variables all o f whose values can be designated . . . by a perfectly clear and always finite description” (Order o f Things, 136). In fact, the DSM, as the standard document ordering mental disorder, suggests by its very existence that humanity’s natural and benign social, sexual, affective, and cognitive variation must be scrutinized, policed, disciplined, restricted, and sorted into a prede­ termined rubric o f disease and failure, a monologic structure of power so obviously controlling and repressive that the observation need scarce­ ly be made. In order to diagnose “Autistic Disorder,” the DSM-TV-TR



proposes diagnostic criteria that begin, “A total o f six (or more) items from (1), (2), and (3), with at least two from (1), and one each from (2) and (3)” (75). Proudhon is right. Weber is right. Foucault is right. Bureaucratic language is a machine o f power and the larger infrastruc­ tures o f system-text— the organizing o f peoples into categories, classes, and castes— often function as tools for what may fairly be described as totalitarian domination. I f people squeeze they’ll bust. Here is the irony, or, if one prefers, the logic puzzle: if to undermine the text that reads autism as pathological, one points to the underlying autism o f the offending text, the idea o f autism as pathology is rein­ forced. “For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” (Lorde, “Master’s Tools,” 112). If a certain kind of voice— discrete, logi­ cal, systemizing— is perceived as threatening human liberty and individ­ uality, then interrogating that voice becomes a necessary act o f critical violence. And silencing that voice— by critique, by therapeutic interven­ tion, by acts o f nonlistening— is perceived as a liberatory response, a solution to nonhuman, to roboticized autistic expression. Once again, the body on the table is rendered more than passive; construed as a dis­ eased site, it necessarily invites a solution, an interpretation; fair game for the pathologist. Dangerous ground: authoritarian elements know what they are about. Some o f the most commonly valued cultural texts— Leviticus, Wikipedia— rely on this kind o f generic patterning; mass desire for and consumption o f list-texts abounds even as the cognition and aesthetic practice out o f which they are generated is dismissed. Lists and system writing are undeniably useful and attractive, driving not only forces o f racist segregation, but also a multibillion-dollar industry o f media clickbait. 10 Bizarre Facts That Will Make You Lose Faith in the Modern World. 19 Things That Will Make British People Laugh For Once in Their Lives. 5 Reasons Listicles Are Here to Stay, and Why That’s OK. Balance for a moment at this edge: the abundant proliferation o f system rhetoric and the wide­ spread acknowledgment o f its use as a tool o f totalizing power. It is not only that totalitarian rhetorical strategies are ominous, but also that they are broadly and invitingly populist. Technology writer Maria Konnikova points to the love-hate relationship with lists, a necessarily shallow level o f content married to astonishing cognitive efficiency. Lists and other forms o f discretionary rhetoric offer distinct advantages for attention, for memory, and for comprehension. Lists “appeal to our general ten­ dency to categorize things,” she writes, “since they chunk information into short, distinct components” (“List o f Reasons”). Thus, their produc­

On the Surprising Elasticity o f Taxonomical Rhetoric • 85

tive and destructive efficiencies— as with the DSM — are deeply entwined in textual history. System language is a widely used and enormously popular rhetorical style, complexly interconnected with autistic cognition and neuroqueer aesthetic, and at the same time fairly critiqued as both superficial and authoritarian, a language that is at once 1. recognizably autistic in its rhetoric, aesthetic, and cognitive pref­ erences 2. extensively used, much beloved, and profoundly human 3. dismissed as superficial and opposed as rigidly authoritarian That system language and autistic speaking are thus entangled with social aesthetics o f authority, resistance, and submission is a crucial site o f critical inquiry. System-text is almost universally inviting, yet, with its implicit authoritarian rhetoric, it also challenges intuitive social harmo­ nies em bedded in dialogue and narrative. Such language disrupts trans­ parent dialogic programming that plays to common expectations o f communicative language, the I-and-thou o f ordinary interactive speech. O n some level, then, the cultural resistance to the text-list genre emerges out o f its explicit assertion o f priorities and its autistic devotion to “bare information” regardless o f “the language o f politeness” (Frith, Autism: Explaining, 119). Even com plex lists, even lists devoted exclusively to human content, are experienced as a kind o f social affront, quite liter­ ally acts o f subordination, quietly using rhetoric to construct hierarchy, relationship, and content position. W hether the DSM fragments “Autis­ tic Disorder” into subordinated diagnostic categories like “Rett’s Disor­ der,” “Childhood Disintegrative Disorder,” “Asperger’s Disorder,” and “Pervasive Developmental Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (Including Atypical Autism)” (DSM-IV-TR, 70-84), or, whether these subordinated diagnoses are absorbed into the larger autism category (DSM-5), pub­ lic dissatisfaction abounds. W hen system writing appears in the form o f a BuzzFeed article, there is perhaps some eye-rolling, or, perhaps, some clicking, or, perhaps, both. But when such discretionary text arises in the form o f a slave-ship manifest, or a list o f commandments, or a set o f ethnic quotas, or in the living form o f a so-called pedantic speaker, there is an experience o f ethical and aesthetic cross-contamination, a sense that system rhetoric itself is compromised language, fundam en­ tally inhumane. The rejection o f system-text, when such rejection occurs, contains



both resistance to content— an insistence on human individuality and self-determination— and resistance to form. Pushing back against orga­ nized and hierarchical text is thus literally in-subordinate (or, perhaps anti-subordinate), an active rejection o f rules and dictates, unruly and undisciplined. It is significant, though, that whether discretionary rheto­ ric is associated with autism, in which case it is likely to be pathologized as “obsessive,” noncommunicative, or “stereotyped” (Kanner, “Autistic Disturbances,” 248, 227, 241), or whether it is seen as the product o f a nonautistic person, texts falling into this category— from strings of asso­ ciated or semiassociated words to encyclopedias, dictionaries, indices, catalogues, manifests— are frequently dismissed and devalued. The dis­ ease with authoritarian ordering taints the rhetorical framework, and system-text as a whole comes to be understood as both untrustworthy and inhumane. Within this context— the implicit aesthetic contamination o f system rhetoric— the rejection o f delineated discretionary expression becomes a heroic act, and, by extension, the refusal to listen to the clipped “robotic language pattern . . . characteristic o f [autistic] oral language style” may be seen as a proactive gesture adopted to forward healthy and organic human subjecthood (Fine and Myers, “Understanding Students,” 12). Not aesthetically biased, but positively therapeutic. The suspicions o f the audience aroused, autistic speakers (including many who are undiag­ nosed or liminally autistic, or both) are met with diverse forms o f non­ engagement. The autistic aptitude for discrete abstract framings and reframings o f content is dismissed as problematic, a failure o f language and communication, an unhealthy and antisocial logic; the creation and manipulation o f transportation timetables, to-do lists, The Key to A ll Mythologies, the Beatitudes, Linnaeus’s Systema Naturae— even, perhaps, a book o f diagnostic criteria for mental disorders— share a generic cell with the rhetoric o f racial categorizing and the textual bureaucracies o f Nazi political philosophy. Autistic system expression, autistic discretion, autistic content ordering become part o f a lapsed generic mode, always already perceived as incomprehensible or as implicitly hostile. And there is this: the DSM relies on autistic expressive modes not only in its larger structures o f rhetorical systemizing but also by its implicit m onologic omniscience, its apostrophic and ejaculatory tone. Speaking to someone, to no one in particular, the address o f the DSM is imper­ sonal, imposing, relentless. It commands, instructs, pronounces from the inviolable position o f the nonhuman. “Individuals with Autistic Dis­ order have restricted, repetitive, and stereotyped patterns o f behavior,

O n the Surprising Elasticity o f Taxonomical Rhetoric • 87

interests, and activities” (DSM-IV-TR, 71). The DSM does not merely set humans into diagnostic folds like so many sheep; godlike, it does so with­ out any personal agenda, without any explicit identity of its own. No pronoun to own or, to reverse, personless. Fitting the modern standard for scientific rhetoric, “stylized and terse” (Traweek, “Unity, Dyads, Tri­ ads,” 143), the passive voice that characterizes the text— “An individual must meet criteria A, B, C and D”; “A total o f six (or more) items from (1), (2), and (3), with at least two from (1), and one each from (2) and (3)”— allows no recourse, no dialogic, no place for the self beyond sub­ mission. It is as though when the new psychiatrist adopts the posture of modest witness, like the scientist he emulates and imitates, he may claim: “I have noth­ ing to do with the form this knowledge has taken. Nature made me organize it this way.” In reward for accepting a “passive” position with respect to nature, the psychiatric researcher fully expects to inherit the power and authority of science. (Lewis, Moving beyond Prozac, 10) The DSM is a know-it-all, dishing out its diagnoses from the most perfect rhetorical position o f Teflon-coated passivity. In fact, the DSM speaks like the autistic child described in the clinical literature, prone to a “way of talking . . . very fast and formal, ‘like a professor’” (Gillberg, “Clinical and Neurobiological Aspects,” 138). The DSM is Asperger’s “Little Pro­ fessor” writ large, its voraciously observant m onologic script apparently unresponsive to dialogic potential and without any effectual capacity “for conceiving of other people as creatures who think and feeF (139; italics in original). The urge to order and the urge to inform authoritatively thus coincide and may be encountered as attempts to dominate. Fish have sharp teeth and bite little children. In this respect, the DSM looks like a bully, but so, too, do many other kinds o f autistic expression that lean toward rhetorically objective coded order— the villanelle, the syllabus, the Thesaurus— insisting implicitly on audience compliance with the order o f the prescribed text. There is plenty to criticize in the DSM, but critique o f its system rheto­ ric, its apparent rigidity, its perseverative categorization o f the organical­ ly human, its autistic aesthetic practice, is a fraught endeavor. Part o f the desire to read the pathologizing text as itself pathological has to do with a cultural discontent, a resistance to the effort to abstract and discipline uncontainable content, a disgust with the practice o f order. Recall that



Kendall attributes Peter Roget’s focused and diligent work on the Thesau­ rus to “anxiety” and “obsession” (Man Who Made Lists, 40), reducing the writer’s purposeful scholarly project to pathological reflex. Critique o f discretionary expressive tactics, o f structure, and o f modal rhetoric more generally bespeak a cultural impatience with indexers and cataloguers, writers who distribute and align content rather than Romantically “cre­ ating” or “inventing” some new idea. It is the same aesthetic bias that pathologizes children who play “improperly” with their toys, lining them up instead o f having their toys coparticipate in recognizable imaginative discourse, developing their play in functionally communicative terms. In fact, while the autistic penchant for taxonomy and ordered authoritative speaking in the DSM m ight be regarded as an instrument o f authoritarian control or monologic domination, there are other and more interesting interpretive possibilities: one of these is that categori­ cal and taxonomic writing might actually be a fluid and multiple way o f knowing, com plex and creative. A cluster of facts can be both luminous and lyric. Rather than being considered a mechanism o f formal confine­ ment (“rigidly autistic”) , list writing and system expression might instead be seen as a means o f testing boundaries and definitions. A poetics o f inclusion and possibility. An anchor for hypertext. Experimental. In this respect then, the language o f order does not necessarily lay out the-wayit-is, but serves instead to investigate content relationships. Indeed, the persistent shifting and redefining o f autism in the vari­ ous editions o f the DSM, including the merging o f “Autistic Disorder” and “Asperger’s Disorder” into “Autism Spectrum Disorder” in the DSM-5, demonstrate how the intellectual work o f diagnostic classifi­ cation is more flexible than might be expected. As Yergeau observes, “queer rhetorics defy the dichotomous” (Authoring Autism, 84). In the DSM-III published in 1980, autism was identified as “Infantile Autism” and Asperger syndrome did not exist as a diagnostic category; with the publication o f the DSM-III-R (1987), the autism category was renamed “Autistic Disorder”; the advent o f the DSM-IV (1994) saw the creation o f a new diagnostic category, “Asperger’s Disorder” (understood as sepa­ rate from “Autistic Disorder” although inhabiting the same spectrum); and the publication o f the DSM-5 folds the autism spectrum back into a single diagnostic category inclusive o f the disorder-formerly-knownas-Asperger’s and other much-criticized and inconvenient diagnostic appendages like PDD-NOS (Pervasive Developmental Disorder— Not Otherwise Specified) that, like homosexuality, will now fall into diagnos­ tic extinction. Despite the fact that autism is encoded in the pages o f the

O n the Surprising Elasticity o f Taxonomical Rhetoric • 89

DSM as a form o f mental disorder, its position is evidently unstable, refus­

ing definite classification, emerging, fragmented, in various formal cat­ egories. This instability, though, while it may reflect cultural or medical questions about the definition o f autism, also demonstrates the surpris­ ing elasticity o f taxonomical rhetoric. In this respect, autism emerges as implicit coauthor o f the document by which it is simultaneously located and defined as pathology, occupying the very rhetorical structure o f the guide, inhabiting the logic and language that parse mental disorder into discrete categories to begin with. In fact, the taxonomic zeal at work in the DSM is a watermark o f autistic cognition, autistic writing, and autistic aesthetic values. Such an analysis enables an understanding o f autism’s devotion to taxonomy as interpretive, curatorial. Thus, while bureaucratic system writing may have an oppressive and authoritarian history, such rhetoric also plays another and more subversive role, underm ining authoritarian­ ism and potentially acting as an agent o f change. The suggestion here is that sorting isn’t at all about clear boundar­ ies and predetermined decisions, the orderly and efficient assignment of diverse content into neatly fitting categories, but that autistic discretion­ ary language can serve as a queering agent, a dynamic practice o f test­ ing and questioning, devoted to intricate acts o f figuring. The making of lists, the ordering of content, is not necessarily a rigid and unimaginative performance, but an act o f creative engagement, a practical deployment o f analytical imagination upon a world seething with data. Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (i860), for instance, speaking to the integration o f self and experience, the extent to which identity is indebted to the realities o f the material world, has recourse to prolific seriation, another incarnation of system-text, an approach that clearly demonstrates rhetorical discretion: The early lilacs became part of this child, And grass, and white and red morning-glories, and white and red clover, and the song of the phoebe-bird, And the Third Month lambs, and the sow’s pink-faint litter, and the mare’s foal, and the cow’s calf, And the noisy brood of the barn-yard, or by the mire of the pondside, And the fish suspending themselves so curiously below there— and the beautiful curious liquid, And the water-plants with their graceful flat heads— all became part of him. (“There Was a Child Went Forth,” lines 4- 9 )



Despite Emerson’s complaint— “I expected him to make the songs of the nation, but he seems content to make the inventories” (quoted in Belknap, The List, 73)— W hitman’s collations are certainly more com­ plex than mere “inventories,” the accumulation o f natural experience layering into a bountiful, organic, and intimately connected idea o f emerging self. Song and inventory turn out not to be mutually exclu­ sive forms o f expression. There is a vivid and creative logic “underneath the seemingly random metonymic strings join in g the particles o f the child’s sensations,” an expression o f “the m ind’s most elementary cat­ egorizing faculties tentatively learning to exercise themselves” (Doherty, “W hitman’s ‘Poem o f the M ind,”’ 351). W hitman’s catalogic writing thus troubles the notion o f such rhetoric as clinical, technical, robotic, bereft o f human or affective content or expression, demonstrating the intense creative potential inherent in module or component-based text. And grass, and white and red morning-glories, and white and red clover, and the song of the phoebe-bird.

In fact, there are echoes o f the D S M s autistic discretionary rhetoric and echoes o f the aesthetic tensions around lists and listmaking not only in W hitman’s work, but in the work o f many poets, including Raymond Carver, David Antin, and Georges Perec, all o f whom also turn to lists as a rich and productive form o f expression. Using both list and repetition— dahlia, dahlia, dahlia— to “create form ” and to infuse crisis with a feeling o f humor, Carver’s “Fear” (1985) makes sophisticated use o f seemingly simple rhetoric to generate complex countereffects: Fear of the telephone that rings in the dead of night. Fear of electrical storms. Fear of the cleaning woman who has a spot on her cheek! Fear of dogs I’ve been told won’t bite. Fear of anxiety! Fear of having to identify the body of a dead friend. Fear of running out of money. Fear of having too much, though people will not believe this. Fear of psychological profiles, (lines 6- 14) Evoking ricochet, ejaculation (!), and invention as well as autistic discre­ tion, “Fear” demonstrates the overlapping and interlinking o f autistic rhetoric at work in these poetic categories. Carver’s repetitions— “Fear of,” “Fear of,” “Fear o f ’— create an echo, a kind o f underbeat, that aug­ ments the visceral experience o f fear, while it simultaneously creates a

O n the Surprising Elasticity o f Taxonomical Rhetoric • 91

discrete visual field that anchors and regularizes the reader’s experi­ ence. This ironic doubleness (autistic invention) is likewise inherent in the poem ’s echolalic abundance; like some o f Carver’s other catalogue poems, the com pounding o f the fears, the perseverative revisiting o f ver­ bal and experiential minutia, suggest a humorous digression from the content o f the poem. “By offering a list, the poem sounds like a litany o f troubles. Individually, o f course, each problem is stressful, difficult, trou­ blesome . . . and yet listed collectively, the sheer mass becomes absurdly comical in effect” (Miltner, “In a Mature Light,” 57). The poem is a com­ ic exaggeration, but this comic affect coexists in ironic interplay with its literal content; the poem laughs, but it also takes on fear, indulges fear, embraces fear, “turning damaged goods into creative work” (57). Fear of psychological profiles.

At the heart o f both W hitman’s “There Was a Child Went Forth” and Carver’s “Fear” is a counterintuitive rhetorical approach. For many, the discretionary, the partitioning or particulating gesture suggests the absent and mechanical, “abrupt” and “robotic” language, a “persevera­ tive” discourse that runs counter to the very notion of intellectual and poetic creativity. At the same time, analysis o f system-texts demonstrates the ways in which particulation and recomposition, expressions o f autis­ tic discretion, use patterning and recursive rhetorical techniques to test and question, to contemplate affective concerns, and to engage in intri­ cate acts o f figuring. Fear of Fear of Fear of. Crayfish, sharks, fish , and rocks. Another catalogue poem, David An tin’s “A List o f the Delusions of the Insane: What They Are Afraid o f ’ (1968), likewise bears out this idea that lists, while profoundly formal texts, are not static, but rather exist as fluid and creative rhetorics. Antin’s poem, like Carver’s, engages in the complex and organic ironies present when particularized fears are expressed in abundance: that they will be murdered that they will be murdered when they sleep that they will be murdered when they wake that murders are going on all around them that they will see the murderer that they will not (lines 19- 24 ) As with “Fear,” “A List o f the Delusions” expresses intense and recursive anxieties, containing a distinct and repetitive rhythm, a kind o f beat, that serves to reinforce the poem ’s affective content, especially its variable



incantation “m urdered,” “murdered,” “murders,” “murderer,” and final­ ly the chilling absence o f the word “m urder” in any form, a m etaphor for invisible presence. Countering this ominous tone, however, the particu­ larized incarnations o f murderous delusion also generate a humorous edge; the replicative and perseverative quality o f the text, its abundance and logical conflict lending a sense o f absurdity. The poem works both to create and disrupt pattern, by juxtaposing opposing delusions, that they will be murdered when they sleep that they will be murdered when they wake and by establishing and then breaking with patterns o f formal visual and oral repetition: that they will be . . . that they will be . . . that murders . . . that they will see . . . Such deviation shows how the list, by containing variations, creates a sense o f order, even delight. Dahlia , dahlia, dahlia. And how, at the same time, by embracing digressions from form, by encapsulating opposites, the catalogue poem serves as a poetics o f questioning and figuring, chal­ lenging all formalisms, all expectations, containing and disrupting at the same time. Through the dark clouds shining. Indeed, An tin speaks directly to this aspect o f his work, talking about “bringing not-understanding as a set o f questions to puzzling commonplaces and cliches— linguistic and cultural acceptances o f every kind.” The effort, he says, is to try “to find out what it was that everybody else understood without giving up my stubborn and hard won lack o f understanding” (Antin and Bernstein, Conversation with David Antin, 17). The purpose o f this kind o f figur­ ing, then, the play with order and disruption, with abstract verbal frag­ mentation and recomposition, is not to know a definite answer or to communicate some vital fact, but, to venture into a matrix o f wondering and possibility, where “lack o f understanding [keeps] expanding” (17). Here is a strange insight that comes partly from cataloging and accu­ mulating system-text: the DSM might be cousin to W hitman’s “belch’d words” (Song o f Myself, section 2, line 12), to avant-garde poetry, and to modernist “constrained writing,” related in large part through shared autistic rhetorics— discretion, ricochet, apostrophe, invention; repeat­

On the Surprising Elasticity o f Taxonomical Rhetoric • 93

ing and recursive language, abstract verbal patterning, unexpected dis­ ruption and digression, wordplay. The manual, a persuasively authorless book, evoking an “absent” and “mechanical” version o f the autism privileged by clinical discourse, is reborn as poetic text, its extraordinary formalism in interplay with its own creative instability. And here is another relation: Georges Perec’s “Attempt at an Inven­ tory o f the Liquid and Solid Foodstuffs Ingurgitated by Me in the Course o f the Year Nineteen Hundred and Seventy-Four” (1974). A member o f the Oulipo group, Perec is particularly drawn to difficult experiments in formal constraint— massive palindromes, pantograms, lipograms— in which the writer is bound by a definite self-imposed formal rule. For instance, Perec’s 300-page novel, La disparition (1969; translated by Gil­ bert Adair as A Void, 1994), does not include the letter “e.” Straddling an indistinguishable boundary between the absurd and the consciously critical, the “Attempt at an Inventory” is o f a piece with his other experi­ mental writing, which, some have argued, “exemplifies numerous autis­ tic preoccupations” (Glastonbury, “‘I’ll Teach You Differences,”’ 6 1). But while there is some agreem ent on the autistic quality o f Perec’s writing, with at least one other critic noting the writer’s “obsession with autistic, self-propagating literary forms” (Ford, “Pretzel”), these observations also participate in familiar critical tensions around the valuing o f system-text and the valuing o f autistic voice. So, for Marion Glastonbury, Perec’s autistic tone resonates as a clinical rather than a creative or literary fea­ ture and she associates the writer’s autism aesthetic with the “solipsistic,” with “meditation on the perceptual minutiae o f angry solitude and inert depression,” and with the autistic “preservation o f sameness” (61). In contrast, Mark Ford sees this work within a cultural and aesthetic frame, arguing that Perec’s extraordinary devotion to form, “which implicitly reject [s] all preconceptions o f depth and significance, is wholly compat­ ible with Post-Modernism’s ideal o f literature as a self-reflexive surface, a field o f clues that reveal nothing beyond their internal chance coher­ ences.” As with approaches to the DSM , one interpretation reinforces the notion o f autistic discretion as static and mechanical; the other sees the elevation o f the formal and the privileging o f surface as culturally revolutionary gestures. Occupying five pages, Perec’s “Attempt at an Inventory” is composed o f 19 parts, each subdivided into paragraphs or individual sentence­ like lines designed to contain and describe the writer’s eating and drinking during the course o f a single year. The piece masquerades as a kind o f manifest, with robust visual boundaries— sections marked by



dramatic drop caps, paragraphs within each section, abundant use of serial commas— all suggestive o f purely materialist or econom ic con­ cerns, demonstrating strict boundaries, promoting a sense o f order. At a glance, likewise the content seems to fall into a natural abstract logic, with consumed items roughly grouped into like categories, cheeses, for instance, or pies and tarts. There are all the noodles in submissive com­ panionship: “Four pasta, three noodles, one fettucine with cream, one macaroni cheese, one macaroni, fifteen fresh noodles, three rigatoni, two ravioli, four spaghetti, one tortellini, five tagliatelle verde (90). The veal and the rabbit, likewise, each occupy their own discrete fraternal spaces. But anything beyond the most superficial encounter with the text brings the reader into a state o f confusion and conflict. Amid this neat docility, categorical disturbances abound. By what reasoning do “cold cuts, two couscous, three ‘Chinese’,” keep company with “pizza,” “ tajine,” and “one ham sandwich” (89)? Part o f the duplicity o f the list as genre, as arbiter o f place, emerges again here within this painfully enforced structure. Perhaps the list is not the passive and pacifying construct we meet in Frog and Toad Together. It might instead be that intrusive order is instigation, replete with self-subverting challenges. In “An Attempt at an Inventory,” certainly, organization undermines itself. For what reason are “O ne blini, one empanada, one dried beef. Three snails” brought together in their own modest little paragraph (87)? In what way are they supposed to relate to one another? And why have they been dis­ articulated from the rest o f the text? Even the punctuation incites, the “Three snails” segregated by a full stop from the companions with whom they share a line. Needle head. Pink wee-wee. Has a yellow leg. The reader is brought into active (if perhaps unconscious) engagem ent with structure and content, like a desperate lockbreaker, trying an assortment o f tools to find a key that fits. Non sequituris defined as “ [a]n inference or a conclusion not logically following from the premisses; a response, remark, etc., that does not logically follow from what has gone before” (“non sequitur, n.”) . Autistic ejaculation— squawk— is indiscrete because it is out o f order, impolite, or, in one o f non sequitur’s obscure meanings, “not in harmony,” but the putting forward o f nonsequential abstract language also enables such fragmentation to be defined as, quite literally, discrete. The disas­ sembling o f regular structure means that language elements are made available piece by piece, each fragment its own unit. Like puzzle pieces. And the aesthetic that treats words and phrases as discrete modules, that plays with junctions and conjunctions, that elevates the interstices

O n the Surprising Elasticity o f Taxonomical Rhetoric • 95

of language— silences and punctuation— becomes remarkable not only for the ways in which it disharmoniously discomposes, pulling language apart at the seams, putting things in where they seem not to belong, but also for the ways in which it opens language for new and imaginative recomposition, arranging, ordering, and developing pieces in fresh and original logical and aesthetic patterns. It is thus that Perec’s “fragmen­ tary writing” is “able to capture the ‘infra-ordinary,’ dis-membering and re-membering spaces, scenes, objects, faces o f the ‘real’ world” (Popa, “Exploring the Infra-Ordinary,” 76). As Bev H arp’s work on the autis­ tic use o f parentheses demonstrates, autistic use o f language partitions enables both logical and creative composition and there is often pro­ found (nonobvious) verbal order and aesthetic complexity in expression that might appear rudimentary or even nonsensical. Startling juxtaposi­ tion is at the heart o f ironic and satiric rhetoric, is inherent in list form and system-text. One blini, one empanada, one dried beef. Three snails. The apparent performance o f structured control implicit in Perec’s list is ultimately underm ined by its own promiscuity, by the way that inventoried items leak out o f designated spaces, confounding expec­ tations that like will align with like. What might seem at first to be a noncreative compendium, a model o f mindless and superficial material­ ism, ultimately urges questions about the impossibility o f order and the elusive quality o f both logic and matter, despite the seeming stolidity o f both. Indeed, by this (failed) attempt to inscribe and thus delimit his organic consumption, Perec’s inventory reinforces the notion that the act o f listmaking— symbolically naming and organizing— ultimately works against its apparently concretizing mission. The text is at once incomplete and capacious, inspiring both amusement and disgust; it wallows in the organic, foregrounds the machinery o f consumption and digestion, force-feeds the inescapable fact that our bodies are not dis­ tinct and independent, discrete fortresses, uncontaminatable. Though our eating and drinking may be described, such description does not bring our chaotic appetites and our organic bodies into regulation; rath­ er, it draws attention to the fact that human bodies are not independent entities, but passageways for the consumption and elimination o f other living things. The decontextualization o f “foodstuffs”— the arrangement o f comes­ tibles in some semblance o f symbolic structural order, the naming and separating out o f what we eat into exclusive units— defamiliarizes the ordinary, “intuitive” relationship with food as whole, as biological and affective. There is no appetizing plate set before the reader, appeal­



ing to the senses. Rather, the act o f verbal ordering, the performance o f discipline, brings us into a critical confrontation with interrelation­ ship, the inseparability o f ourselves from what we consume. Systemizing, then, autistic discretion, the endless, insistent, perseverative intellectual demands o f verbal list logic are not unfeeling, mechanical, disengaged. Instead, this practice functions as means o f testing relatedness, calling critical attention to the way items in any list or catalogue are both divid­ ed and connected, not only among themselves, but also in respect to content beyond the list, up to and including the listmaker. Despite its formal constraints, its deliberately modular composition, “An Attempt at an Inventory” troubles categories and resists stasis, acting out Perec’s version o f a jigsaw puzzle, where, as he observes, “the ulti­ mate truth” is that “despite appearances, puzzling is not a solitary game” devoted to the restitution o f imagined wholeness (Life, xviii). Instead, he writes, the “art o f jigsaw puzzling” includes a “maker” who activates a dynamic relationship, using “cunning, trickery, and subterfuge” to involve the “puzzler” in a game o f figuring and questioning (xvii, xviii). every piece the puzzler picks up, and picks up again, and studies and strokes, every combination he tries, and tries a second time, every blunder and every insight, each hope and each discouragement have all been designed, calculated . . . (xviii) For Perec, recursive figuring rather than solution is the defining aspect o f the puzzle. The puzzler is the “puzzler,” an agent, an active force in this game o f fragments. These meditations run counter to those o f Uta Frith, who seems to misread Perec’s remarks about puzzling to support her own thoughts about autistic cognitive limitations. “As a met­ aphor,” she writes, “the jig-saw puzzle persisting as fragments, even when put together, symbolizes the effect o f autistic detachment” (Autism: Explaining, 112). For Frith, a relationship with the fragment, the frag­ mented, the fragmentary is a diminished experience, inadequate. But such a view ignores the lively cognitive activity o f the puzzler who “picks up, and picks up again,” who “studies and strokes.” The nature o f the list, o f system-text, o f the catalogue poem, o f the DSM , is that o f Perec’s vibrant puzzle, where the performance o f fracturing and the perfor­ mance o f recomposition imply a thoughtful engagem ent with ideas o f identity, relationship, and potential meaning. This exploration is intended as a form o f play, a re-creation o f list and system-text as creative and imaginative forms, but it is also a delib­

O n the Surprising Elasticity o f Taxonomical Rhetoric • 97

erate response to a powerful critical force resistant to the formal and discrete language aesthetics often favored in autistic expression, think­ ers prone to regard m odular forms o f writing as vacant and m echani­ cal. That such a poetics may be justified by its surprising complexity and elasticity is crucial, but it also behooves us to ask, what about plea­ sure? Indeed, there is a real and consequential value to the pleasure o f the puzzler who “studies and strokes,” o f Donald T., who “seemed to have much pleasure in ejaculating words or phrases” (Kanner, “Autis­ tic Disturbances,” 219), o f the critic who finds “especially attractive” Perec’s “accumulations o f words . . . within the constraints o f formal structures” (Davidson, Breeding, 9), o f Donna Williams who describes her work as a stock clerk as “paradise” (Nobody Nowhere, 82). Accord­ ing to Maria Konnikova, lists “often hit our attentional sweet spot” (“List o f Reasons”), and some, writes Shaun Usher, “are simply a jo y to read” (Lists o f Note, xiv). Regarding the pleasure value o f words and language, Perec is explicit: “He suggests that all literature is essentially recreational, that people read to play, and that there is no need for lit­ erature to aspire to any other goal” (Motte, Poetics o f Experiment, 2223). W hile we wonder “that . . . P erec’s [work] should be so redolent o f m eaning” (Davidson, 9), appreciate that the D SM m ight be more flexible than it appears, catch the irony implicit in Carver’s “Fear” and A ntin’s “List o f the Delusions o f the Insane,” it is also important that this kind o f autistic aesthetic not be devalued for its own sake. Inten­ tionality and communicative efficacy aside, pleasure, even expression alone, may be a worthy use o f language. Dahlia, dahlia, dahlia. The ordering o f sign does not necessarily imply an insistence on the existence o f correctness, completeness, or the absolute. In fact, order is bound to disorder, to entropy, and to failure; the creation o f a logi­ cal frame, rather than diminishing or glossing over that which does not fit, instead elevates and makes visible the unique, the unfitting, and the nonstandard. As Foucault expresses it, there is an “uneasiness” gener­ ated by the discovery that we may “never succeed in defining a stable relation o f contained to container” (Order o f Things, xviii). Obsessive naming and renaming, the recursive abstract revisiting o f what is typi­ cally deem ed experiential, the repetition o f sameness— “two eggs in aspic, two scrambled eggs, four omelettes, one sort-of omelette, one bean-sprout om elette” (Perec, “An Attempt at an Inventory,” 88)— as a means o f testing and discovering pattern, is fundamental to scientific, literary, and autistic practice. Indeed, the accumulation o f data/content and the playing with potential pattern necessarily supports all potentials:



logical, absurd, and anomalous. As Umberto Eco has observed, lists are always suggestive o f “immensity,” their multitudinousness serving a capa­ cious inclusivity, or, alternatively, pointing to a limitless excess beyond the frame (Infinity o f Lists, 81, 38-39). What looks from the outside like silent mechanistic determinism turns out to have a surprisingly complex interiority, reasoned, dynamic, and sensitive to external stimuli.


Nothingness Himself -------------

Ricochet: if Autistic Disturbances might be imagined in these metaphori­ cal terms— the skipping o f stones, partly moving forward, partly a physics o f repetition, partly a strategy o f playing with surface— this is another divot on the flat plane of the water. From the DSM , an inventory o f men­ tal disorders, to Perec’s “Attempt at an Inventory o f the Liquid and Solid Foodstuffs Ingurgitated by Me in the Course o f the Year Nineteen Hun­ dred and Seventy-Four,” we skip tqf Andy W arhol’^ inventory o f self. In the opening pages o f The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (1975), a memoir o f sorts, Warhol offers the following detailed description, a meticulous verbal self-portrait: So now the pimple’s covered. But am I covered? I have to look in the mirror for some more clues. Nothing is missing. It’s all there. The affectless gaze. The diffracted grace . . . “What?” “The bored languor, the wasted pallor . . . ” “The what?” “The chic freakiness, the basically passive astonishment, the en­ thralling secret knowledge . . . ” “WHAT??” “The chintzyjoy, the revelatory tropisms, the chalky, puckish mask, the slightly Slavic look . . . ” “Slightly. . .” \




“The childlike, gum-chewing naivete, the glamour rooted in de­ spair, the self-admiring carelessness, the perfected otherness, the wispiness, the shadowy, voyeuristic, vaguely sinister aura, the pale, soft-spoken magical presence, the skin and bones . . . ” “Hold it, wait a minute. I have to take a pee!!” “The albino-chalk skin. Parchmentlike. Reptilian. Almost blue . . . ” “Stop it! I have to pee!!” “The knobby knees. The roadmap of scars. The long bony arms, so white they look bleached. The arresting hands. The pinhead eyes. The banana ears . . . ” “The banana ears? Oh, A!!!” “The graying lips. The shaggy silver-white hair, soft and metallic. The cords of the neck standing out around the big Adam’s apple. It’s all there, B. Nothing is missing.” (10) It is a queer and provocative accounting from a num ber o f interpre­ tive perspectives, most conspicuously in its bounteous superficiality, the vast extent o f its focus on surface, mask, and inscrutable affect. The language Warhol uses to draw the self-portrait echoes the abstract aes­ thetic o f his visual art, the inescapably boring films, the iconic, delib­ erately mechanistic repetitions o f Marilyn M onroe and Cam pbell’s soup cans. The genius o f W arhol’s visual art is its ability to arrest at the surface, to draw the audience into relation with what Roland Barthes calls “a philosophical quality o f things,” or a “facticity.” A ccording to Barthes, “the factitiously the character o f what exists as facts and appears stripped o f any justification: not only are the objects represented by Pop Art factitious, but they incarnate themselves, they begin to signify again: they signify that they signify nothing” (Barthes, Responsibility o f Forms, 202). Squawk. It is this nothingness quality that is cultivated in W arhol’s self-description: affectless, diffracted, bored, wasted, chintzy, chalky, shadowy, reptilian. The verbal construction o f self focuses on the writer’s bland exteriority. But even the described externals are vapid, “affectless,” suggestive o f an interior blankness, a vast expanse o f superficiality. The artist writes him self as Pop Art object, “cut off from its source and its surroundings” (202). The intersection o f autism in relation to such an aesthetic position— the production o f “nothing,” the failure o f interiority— is fraught indeed. After decades o f progressive autism advocacy— including a welcome surge o f self-advocacy combating the outdated representation o f autism as an “empty fortress,” the long-standing, widely prevalent, and poi­

Nothingness Him self •


sonous notion that autistic people are somehow vacant or not there— reconnecting the idea o f emptiness with the idea o f autism might well seem counterproductive. It is Jenny McCarthy again: “Everything I had thought was cute was a sign o f autism” (Louder Than Words, 66); or Uta Frith, who proposes the “rather risky idea” that the unusual cognitive processing o f autistic people demonstrates an absolute void, an explic­ it absence o f a “S e lf’ (Autism: A Very Short Introduction, 94, 102- 3). Autism history and critical autism studies teach us, however, that autism demands a critical public conversation about being, representation, and the appearance o f emptiness. As Stuart Murray has observed, “The desire to read what is conceived o f as the empty space o f autism, the invitation it appears to offer to fill in the blanks, is a constant throughout cultural representation” (Representing Autism, 79 ). Indeed, as Anne McGuire reports, tremendous cultural traction remains for the notion that autism is a “terrifying . . . cultural figure,” robbing families o f their children and leaving autistic people essentially without identity (War on Autism, 185). From Leo Kanner’s initial dismissal o f autistic language as “seman­ tically and conversationally valueless” (“Autistic Disturbances,” 243), to Bettelheim ’s comment that autistic conduct serves to “remind us that the human body can operate without a human spirit, that body can exist without soul” (“Joey,” 1 1 7 ), to Frith’s widely disseminated clinical theory o f “absent se lf’ (put forward in the revised second edition o f Autism: Explaining the Enigma [2003]), to ubiquitous popular representations of autism as simply oblivious, conventional responses to autism have persis­ tently questioned whether autistic people have feelings, whether autis­ tic people have content, even whether autistic people are fully human. (Shades o f Warhol’s “reptilian.”) As ABA (applied behavior analysis) pioneer Ivar Lovaas summed it up, ‘You have a person in the physical sense— they have hair, a nose and a mouth— but they are not people in the psychological sense” (Chance, “Interview with Ivar Lovaas,” 76). Tigers and cats. Seals and salamanders. Bears and foxes. The very qualities that define autism— its unusual sociality, its affective irregularity, its non­ standard forms o f expression, its sensitivity to thingness— are also those which have repeatedly prompted many outsiders to question the full humanity o f autistic subjects. Autistic writing and other forms o f autistic self-expression, like painting and digital arts, push back against the false perception o f autism as empty. Mel Baggs’s video, “In My Language” (2007), for instance, challenges typical assumptions about the meaning­ lessness o f autistic stimming by “translating” into articulate conventional language the significance o f Baggs’s own autistic (nonverbal) sensory



relationships and practices. These assertions, however, these gestures o f autistic interiority, come into being in many respects as counterargu­ ment to a pervasive underlying discourse predicated on autistic vacancy. The idea o f emptiness is paramount. As Heilker and Yergeau note, “an autistic’s silence is construed as both a heartbreaking tragedy and the cancellation o f personhood” (“Autism and Rhetoric,” 492). Avoiding Warhol’s staunchly vacant self-representation would thus only serve to obscure an essential cultural paradigm o f autism, the autist character­ ized as nonhuman: “alien,” “mechanical,” or “robotic.” In any event, it would be impossible to set aside the “nothing” of Warhol as incidental; the confrontation with blank superficiality is cen­ tral to Warholian identity, productivity, and performance, a defining feature o f his aesthetic sublime. He notes with relish the “poignantly vacant” condition o f a young woman he describes within the chapter titled “Love (Prime),” observing that she was “a reflection o f everybody’s private fantasies. . . . She was a wonderful, beautiful blank” (Philosophy, 33). Indeed, a world o f media critics, art historians, and theorists have engaged deeply with this appearance o f blase emptiness, discovering a rich mine o f potential meaning and affect, including the possibility that by a “preemptive embrace” o f modernity’s compulsive productionconsumption cycle, Warhol the artist exposes its “automatism, even its autism” through his own “excessive exam ple” (Foster, “Death in Ameri­ ca,” 4 1). “Nothing” is a central theme and autism is explicitly recognized as participating in this theme. Barthes employs Warhol as the model when he writes that the Pop artist has “no depth: he is merely the surface o f his pictures, no signified, no intention, anywhere” (Responsibility of Forms, 202); Thomas Crow notes that readings o f Warhol focus on his “impersonality,” “his passivity in the face o f a media saturated reality, [and] the suspension in his work o f any clear authorial voice” (“Satur­ day Disasters,” 3 11); and Hal Foster, figuring through these articulations o f emptiness, points to W arhol’s personal performance: “He posed as a blank screen” (“Death in America,” 39). “The fascination o f Warhol,” Foster adds, “is that one is never certain about this subject ‘behind’: is anybody home, inside the automaton?” (41). Most famous, perhaps, is Jonas Mekas’s critical analysis o f Warhol as “almost the symbol o f the noncommittal, o f laissez-faire, o f coolness, o f passivity, o f tabula rasa— almost Nothingness H im self’ (Mekas, “Notes,” 140). This last epithet, Warhol repeats with some (noncommittal) satisfac­ tion in The Philosophy of Andy Warhol, noting “ [s]ome critic called me Nothingness H im self’ (7). The manufacture o f Warhol as “Nothingness

Nothingness Him self •


Himself,” then, is far from being exclusively an external critical construct, but is wrought together with W arhol’s conscious, deliberate, recursive, perseverative, and proactive performance o f self. As with his repetition o f Mekas’s assessment (and his simultaneous erasure o f Mekas as “some critic,” although the fellow filmmaker was an intimate who worked with him on Empire [1964] and other projects), Warhol amplifies the pres­ ence o f his own nothingness at every turn, embellishing absence in ways that compel interrogation o f his ostensible vacancy. W arhol’s aphoris­ tic statements recur continually to the theme o f his own lack o f agency and subjectivity: “the more you look at the same exact thing, the more the meaning goes away, and the better and emptier you feel” (Warhol and Hackett, POPism, 64); “I want to be a m achine” (Warhol, “Interview with Gene Swenson,” 748); “If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface o f my paintings and films and me, and there I am. T h ere’s nothing behind it” (Berg, “Andy Warhol,” 90); and “ [t]he acquisition o f my tape recorder really finished whatever emotional life I might have had, but I was glad to see it go” (Warhol, Philosophy, 26). It is a position the artist reiterates with constancy, what Lars Svendsen identifies as W arhol’s “uncompromising insistence on meaninglessness” (Philosophy o f Boredom, 5). It is also a recurring theme and rhetorical practice in The Philosophy of Andy Warhol, a focus on “nothing,” meaninglessness, and disposabil­ ity that in many ways anchors the text. He transcribes an argument, for instance, in which two companions are working to veer him from his devotion to “nothing.” During the course o f this dialogue, Warhol begins by asserting that he has grown wiser during the past year because he learned “nothing,” that he is still living “For nothing,” and that “Ideas are nothing” (182). As his interlocutors press on, one “kept thinking, trying to come up with a way to make me say that something was some­ thing,” but Warhol persists: “I repeated, ‘Everything is nothing’” (183). Each tries to elicit some concession from Warhol— one companion is trying to manipulate Warhol into giving him money, the other is des­ perate for some admission o f “something”— but both are foiled in their attempt, not only by W arhol’s unswerving devotion to “nothing,” his ada­ mant contradiction, but also by his sophisticated ideological maneuver­ ing, rhetoric adopted to baffle and confuse. “You have to treat nothing as if it were something,” he tells them. And “ [i] t doesn’t mean if you don ’t believe in nothing that it’s nothing” (183). This move is a demonstration o f W arhol’s commitment to his own autistic affective aesthetic; this asser­ tive positioning o f his own values, h^s own performance,Tils own self, this



d is t u r b a n c e s

frustrating, abrasive insistence on “nothing” as irreducible, indefatiga­ ble, suggests Murray’ idea o f autistic “presence” (Representing Autism, 5), or Yergeau’s assertion that “autism abides” (Authoring Autism, 43). Such a move also draws attention to a crucial intersection in the dis­ cussion o f W arhol’s text as a model o f autistic rhetoric. For the socially challenging affect wrought into W arhol’s words, the deliberately and intensely flattened verbal representation o f self, is here at play with another equally characteristic, but seemingly opposite, autistic gesture, the frictive insistence o f autism on having its own say in its own way— T il draw a hexagon— both affectless and assertive. W arhol’s “Nothingness,” not only his explicitly articulated theoreti­ cal insistence on nothing but also the verbal and visual style that Work to build the “nothing” tone (in W arhol’s lexicon, “bored” or “passive”), echo a favored autistic social and cognitive aesthetic, the pursuit or fore­ grounding o f practices and expressions that elevate surface and form. While clinical literature often pathologizes these values, reading them as “indifferent,” “isolated,” or “deficient in empathy,” a focus on struc­ ture or apparent externals, often interpreted by outsiders as emptiness, may otherwise be regarded as a set o f creative practices rich in cognitive, aesthetic, and emotional delight. Daniel Tammet, for instance, writes about memorizing and reciting more than 22,500 digits o f n as a kind o f tribute to an “extremely beautiful and utterly unique thing” (Born on a Blue Day, 185). Aaron Likens speaks about the “freeing and exhilarat­ ing” space o f rule-bound games like Monopoly, how “there’s no better feeling than the unpredictability o f a game set with predictable rules,” noting, “I get shaky just thinking about the pleasure I experience while within a gam e” (Finding Kansas, 32). And Valerie Paradiz points to ways in which this idiosyncratic affective gesture plays out in language, look­ ing to the echolalia o f her son, Elijah, to Warhol, and to the ecstatic repetitions o f Gertrude Stein’s “singular poetics” (Elijah’s Cup, 104), as Paradiz finds echoes and repetitions in her own life and language. Stein’s wordplay, like the constrained writing o f Georges Perec and like Warhol’s language games, draws the audience into a consciousness o f word-as-thing, using semantic satiation and “verbal cubism” as calculated aesthetic maneuvers (Longworth, “Avant-Garde in the Village,” 469): “A blue coat is guided guided away, guided and guided away” (Stein, Gertrude Stein, 133). For Christopher Knight, this autistic ricochet, this foregrounding o f semantic thing-ness, o f “language as language,” o f lan­ guage that calls “attention to itself as sign” (Patient Particulars, 114 ), is a property o f postmodernist poetics. The “delight” o f Stein’s work “follows

Nothingness Him self •


not upon the mirroring o f the ‘real world’ but rather upon the creating o f a new, self-reflexive and self-existent mini-world” (113 ). This surface play, the “lapidary quality” Stein and Warhol are seen as sharing (Francis, “No There There,” 64), is also deeply rooted in autistic perspective and expression. Stein’s writing has been often laughed off, just as W arhol’s work has been dismissed as superficial, and countless other instances o f idiosyncratic autistic expression have been relegated to the wasteland o f pathology. Enumerating, replicating, ordering, collecting, and memoriz­ ing are rhetorical practices that generate a theoretical challenge precise­ ly because they prioritize form and surface. While more conventional interpreters may read this impulse toward “nothing” as vapid, as fakery, or as a defensive gesture, a means o f creating security through the manu­ facture o f unsignifying boundaries, walls, and fortresses, these pejorative readings are by no means the only interpretive possibilities. In fact, this kind o f tension, this holding fast in the arena o f form, is an exercise o f outstanding rigor. I don’t like the blinding sun, nor the dark, but best I like the mottled shadow. Artist Keith Haring, in writing o f the creative interplay between Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat, observes, “Each had a fasci­ nation with the other’s impenetrable shell” (“Painting the Third Mind,” first page, unnumbered). H olding a position, methodically focusing on reiteration, sameness, and surface, may be as or more demanding than the intellectual flight driving more traditionally valued narrative or argu­ mentative proceedings. There is a discipline, and a beauty, that goes into and emerges out o f stasis and repetition. Warhol is right: “You have to treat nothing as if it were something.” The surface tension implicit in the artist’s tenacious Nothingness is its own deliberate aesthetic, written, performed, produced, fully present in its autistic audacity. For most, consideration o f this Nothingness for any length o f time is profoundly distressing. In fact, it is arguably this discomfort with the purportedly “empty space o f autism” that energizes most autism inter­ vention; fundraising, clinical research, and applied therapies are guided by what is typically seen as autism’s massive, imposing incomprehensi­ bility. Certainly, autistic people sometimes hurt themselves, and those connected with autistic lives will often explain the need for interven­ tion within the context o f self-harm, but it is the larger rhetoric around mutism and social and conversational disconnectedness that drives most clinical autism discourse, an infinite well o f figuring and explaining, resisting the existential aspect o f autistic presence and expression and generating metaphors o f fortresses, battles, kidnapping, and puzzles. The most widely disseminated responses to autism are not about pre­



serving autistic integrity and safety; they are about aggressive, even bel­ ligerent, intervention— what Anne McGuire recognizes as the “war on autism”— directed toward the defeat o f autism’s silence, stimming, and repetitive and perseverative expressions. Conventional autism discourse thus talks about “breaking through,” a metaphor clearly evidencing discomfort with the idea o f surface, a failure to recognize surface as a potential space o f autistic being and expression. So, while affectlessness and assertion are described above as seem­ ingly opposite autistic gestures, these are actually deeply intertwined and mutually constructed categories. W arhol’s “bored languor” and his “insistence on meaninglessness” are not only a form o f autistic “with­ drawing,” a performance o f passive vacancy, but also a provocative asser­ tion o f nothing as something, a bold challenge to the culture o f capital, clinic, and conventional conversation. In fact, the frustrated conversa­ tion, and the foregrounding o f frustrated language, frustrated narrative, frustrated text, frustrated meaning, open a critical aperture for autism poetics. Returning to W arhol’s reported conversation about “nothing,” it becomes useful to read dialogic frustration, the forestalling, the stop­ ping short, the resistance, the circling back o f potential dialogue as criti­ cal features o f autistic discourse. Regardless o f the so-called functional level o f the autistic “speaker,” autistic language is characteristically recursive and idiosyncratic, in Kris­ tina Chew’s terminology, “idiolectic,” like the chanson du ricochet, repeat­ ing and weaving back into itself. The antagonists in the exchange with Warhol are attempting to move forward in keeping with presumed con­ versational conventions; even when the conversation is inconsequential (e.g., “W hat’s up?”; “How are you doing?”; ‘You want to do something?”) , formal tropes support expectations that dialogue is teleologically deter­ mined, that it has some end or purpose. It is not supposed to loop into itself and to fold back endlessly without closure, or recur pertinaciously to a single word, idea, theme, subject, or interest. (Warhol’s “Nothing.”) The frustration felt— a hallmark response to Warhol and his work— is a reality o f the fundamentally nondialogic quality o f the exchange, a reaction to autism’s apostrophic urge, its apparent failure to acknowl­ edge textual partners: audience, reader, interlocutor. One may either retreat or acquiesce, but W arhol’s rhetoric, like the vapid, “nothing” quality o f his self-constructed aesthetic, resists critical engagem ent and negotiation and refuses a sense o f purchase. Attempts at participatory conversation are thwarted and W arhol’s interlocutors are not agents in a dialogue; they are characters in his script, a point brought home

Nothingness Him self •


throughout The Philosophy of Andy Warholby the writer’s persistently effac­ ing the particularity o f other speakers in the book, recording the identity o f these apparently interchangeable anonymous interlocutors simply as “B.” The subtitle o f the book, From A to B and Back Again , reinforces both the recursive quality o f the text and the idea o f “A ” as a point o f depar­ ture and return for all discursive activity. The “B” o f the subtitle exists not as person, an individual, but as a generic category: “B is anybody who helps me kill time” (5); “I only like to be with Bs who work for m e” (181); “I spend most o f my morning talking on the phone to one B or another” (199). “B” is a dialogic foil, a manikin, scaffolding for articulation, a vehi­ cle for monologue. Rhetorically speaking, the encounter with Warhol, the “blank screen,” “Nothingness Himself,” is an encounter with autism unapologetic, unmediated, untranslated, uninterpreted, uninterrupted, a determined idiosyncratic voice: recursive, monologic. Crayfish, sharks, fish, and rocks. Instead o f the clinician, the parent, the editor acting upon autistic text, dismissing it or rendering it legible, Warhol requires reader, viewer, audience to meet on his ground. Com pelled “to treat nothing as if it were something,” the discursive rules o f the encounter are unfamil­ iar, placing an uneasy communicative burden on the audience. In return, the response to Warhol, to his work, to autism— not univer­ sally, but often enough— is resistance, frustration, rage. Mekas observes such a dynamic in the response to W arhol’s films. At a screening o f Eat (1964), for instance, Mekas watches the audience grow unsettled, then angry, at the realization that the 45-minute black-and-white silent film has no apparent dynamic, that it is simply a recording o f a man eat­ ing. There is no crisis, no conflict, no “action,” no story in conventional terms. At first, the audience begins to shout and whistle, however, . . . no amount of noise or cracks seems to do any harm to the film! Its nonchalant, obstinate and don’t-give-a-damn imperturb­ ability on the screen seems to reject or absorb anything you can throw at it. It almost grows stronger with every whistle. So the students begin to leave the auditorium. After ten minutes or so the impatient ones leave or give up, others resign, and the rest of the show proceeds qui­ etly. (“Notes after Reseeing the Movies,” 4) Building on Mekas’s observations, Julian Jason Haladyn sees the response to Eat and to W arhol’s other deliberately “boring” films as applying to Warhol himself: “as a filmmaker W arhol’s ‘nonchalant, obstinate and don’t-give-a-damn imperturbability . . . seems to reject or



absorb anything you can throw at him ,’” generating a “difficulty” that “is an extension o f the repetitious activities that constitute his artistic pro­ cess in general.” For Anthony Easton, W arhol’s “boring” films align with autism aesthetics; “Sometimes,” Easton writes, “autistic language, with its obsessive nature, and its infodump formalism, bores other people. Sometimes,” he adds, “this boredom is an aesthetic choice” (“Autism,” 98-99). W arhol’s film may thus be seen as autistic text, exemplifying Murray’s idea o f autistic “presence,” but as an articulate autistic text, also bearing its own expressive rhetoric (Representing Autism, 5) . It appears both to recede and to dominate, its “imperturbability” representing both “emptiness” and immovability. Mekas’s observation that the film “almost grows stronger with every whistle” echoes Warhol’s command: ‘You have to treat nothing as if it were something.” It is through the cultivation and construction o f nothing as a thing, through the perseverative circularity o f Warhol’s rhetoric, both verbal and visual, that the underlying “noth­ ing” is elevated, developed into a point o f friction with convention and expectation, a speaking out and talking back that rubs against the grain o f social and dialogic niceties. Both W arhol’s Eat and the “nothing” conversation reported in The Philosophy employ textual strategies that similarly choke dialogic expec­ tations and restrict the anticipated role o f audience or interlocutor, respectively, to a prosthetic position, inciting frustration, discomfort, outrage. In Eat, as in Empire, this reframing o f audience expectations is effected by the boringness o f the film, its repetitive re-presentation o f ordinary sameness to the point o f oppressive verisimilitude. Warhol employs a similar approach in segments throughout The Philosophy, but most notably in a chapter entitled “The Tingle,” a verbatim account o f his phone call with “one B” who exhaustively relates every obsessive detailed step in the cleaning o f her apartment: “I take each cassette and I dust and wipe each one with a tiny bit o f W index which is good for their plastic coverings” (204); “I go in the bathroom and get out my Gorham Silver Polish, and I put oh my lined yellow rubber gloves. Lined so they don ’t stick to my fingers” (207); “I go back and forth in a vertical motion, very quickly with the little tiny attachment” (2 11); and so on. This de facto m onologue spans 25 pages, with rare paragraph breaks and densely packed descriptive detail about various eccentric organiz­ ing methods, favored cleansers, battery charging, and techniques for waste disposal (e.g., incineration, flushing, disposal in public garbage cans). Unlike a number o f other reported exchanges, this one casts “A ” predominantly in the role o f listener, his widely spaced interjections pri­

Nothingness Him self •


marily reassurances that he is still listening. The depiction o f W arhol’s endurance as a listener becomes a point o f wonder or implicit reproach to A ’s colistener, the bored and restless reader oppressed by the seeming­ ly endless description, the insignificance o f the content being related, and the circularity o f the text. From reporting techniques for vacuum­ ing the inside o f a paper shopping bag to vacuuming her checkbooks to a two-page litany o f items she flushes down the toilet, B ’s description is a relentless m onologue o f waste, an inescapable articulation o f the circu­ lar m echanics o f everyday life, the rhetorical approach itself a m etaphor for the endless repetitive interaction between m eaning and waste. One blini, one empanada, one dried beef. Three snails. As with E co’s concept o f the graphic list, the existing text implies a limitless extension o f itself “that continues beyond the boundaries o f the canvas” (39). With each new cleaning task described by B, there is an echo o f the act that imme­ diately precedes it and an anticipation o f countless future cleaning per­ formances stretching into infinitude. For, o f course, cleaning is never actually finished. At one point in the m onologue, B talks about putting a single item in the empty waste basket, then immediately having to “get dressed to take the basket out because it has something in it” (218), an acting out o f W arhol’s previously expressed desire “to throw things out the window as they’re handed to m e,” as a means o f preserving a living space that’s “clean and empty” (145, 144). Cleaning is repeated endlessly just as the description o f the cleaning also suggests an endless loop. And Warhol not only imposes this suggestion o f textual infinitude on the reader, but also locates him self within the context o f this verbal wasteland, an empty listener, his only lapses— stepping away to urinate or to get a ja r o f jam or apple butter to eat while listening— pointing, mise en abime-like— to an infinitely repeating cycle o f contentless con­ sumption and elimination powerfully evocative o f Perec’s “Attempt at an Inventory.” One blini, one empanada, one dried beef. Three snails. Waste becomes the sole vanishing point. Respecting the “nothing” dialogue, Warhol employs a different strat­ egy to the same end, preventing his interlocutors from gaining any pur­ chase in the exchange by cutting off their dialogic approaches, his own insistent repetitions and solipsisms preventing dialogic movement. Cru­ cially, however, in both models, the expectation o f exchange is thwarted, effecting a kind o f erasure o f audience-interlocutor, a gesture likewise present in Warhol’s verbal self-portrait quoted at the opening o f this chapter. While this initial analysis o f W arhol’s self-description focuses on the presence o f list rhetoric, that same bit o f text is equally intriguing for



the way the writer produces a conversational imbalance reinforcing the aesthetic o f emptiness; not only does the narrator choose language that conceptually foregrounds his own emptiness, but he also simultaneously refuses the urgent interjections o f the anonymous “B” who serves as a rhetorical foil in the exchange. The seemingly dialogic quality o f the script is illusory, a backdrop for the assertion o f Warhol’s apostrophic gesture. As he proceeds with his self-description, the visual inventory is persistently, but ineffectually punctuated by B: “What?” “The what?” “WHAT??” “Slightly . . .” “Hold it, wait a minute. I have to take a pee!!” “Stop it! I have to pee!!” “The banana ears? Oh, A!!!” The semantic value o f B ’s part in the dialogue is irrefutable. Marked by question marks and exclamation points, the language is expressly reactive, interrogative, interactive, conversational. The “B” invites dia­ logue, seeks response, his or her lines are increasingly demanding, the number o f exclamation points, the size o f the type inflating with each failed attempt to achieve a footing in the would-be conversation. A, for his part, assumes the role o f monologist, his verbal observations rolling out over B ’s words, relentlessly, tyrannically, talking over and through B ’s attempts at dialogue. This is not an argument, however, for W arhol’s autism, a diagno­ sis grounded in his apparent failure at social recognition and verbal exchange. In fact, W arhol’s diagnostic status is rather beside the point, although, as Easton points out, “Andy Warhol is sometimes thought to be autistic, and his one-liner, ‘I want to be a m achine,’ . . . could be con­ sidered an autistic slogan” (“Autism,” 98-99). It is not W arhol’s role as a speaker in this abortive dialogue that matters so much as his agency as writer o f that reported exchange. He is not occupying the mere role o f autistic subject, an actor in the drama, but is rather the originator o f the larger text, the artist-writer-creator-narrator, broadcaster o f the failed dialogue. As speaker in the book, as actor in this particular bit o f text as well as in the “nothing” exchange, “A ” acts out one paradigm o f autistic speaking— resisting, talking past, focused on content, m ono­ logue, expression rather than exchange. As author, however, he gener-

Nothingness Him self •


ates a larger design, privileging a way o f speaking, curating a book-length text that inscribes his rhetorical strategy— autistic apostrophe— into the writer-reader relation. What really matters here is W arhol’s unapologetic adoption and dissémination o f an autistic expressive code, regardless o f his diagnostic status. It is Mr. Dick’s kites ail over again; let Aunt Betsey’s censorship be what it may, her insistence on social compliance exerting a powerful field o f influence over the writer’s manuscript, Mr. Dick still flies his massive manuscript-kites, disseminating an unexpurgated ver­ sion o f the Memorial. Both Warhol and Mr. Dick take an end run around the policing o f their own language, evading charges o f linguistic failure by inventing new ways to reframe and distribute their own rhetoric. Warhol’s rhetorical approach, his aggressive violation o f the usual I-and-thou rhetorical contract, his effacement o f audience/interlocutor, his articulate shrieks, his queering the implicit dialogic status quo, position him as a kind o f icon o f autistic expressive aesthetic, a voice crying out in the wilderness, short-circuiting business-as-usual language conventions. W arhol’s Philosophy is repie te with rhetorically distinctive and autisti­ cally relevant features— its perseverative apostrophic voice, its élévation o f surface, its affectless/nothing tone, its autistic ricochet. But bound up with many o f these features are also habits o f autistic discrétion, the listmaking, cataloging, and taxonomical rhetoric evident in the DSM and in the writings o f Whitman, Antin, and Perec discussed in chapter 3. W arhol’s Philosophy, and indeed, his larger opus, speak to the interweaving and overlapping textures o f autistic semantic architectures; his work embraces the apostrophic (Easton’s “infodump formalism”), uses echolalic skipping and repeating (ricochet), performs the interruptive and ejaculatory (Stop it! I have to pee!!), but it also recurs, persistently, to listmaking and taxonomie gestures. From the initial verbal self-portrait in list form to the 25-page clean­ ing m onologue (reported as dialogue, but composed essentially o f a long verbal tally o f sequenced cleaning tasks), The Philosophy is repie te with lists, often presented, counterintuitively, as narrative or dialogue. The book is punctuated prolifically with manifests o f ail kinds, including comma-separated litanies: Airports and airplanes have my favorite kind of food, my favorite kind of bathroom, my favorite kind of nonservile services, my favorite peppermint Life Savers, my favorite kinds of entertainment, my favor­ ite kind of lack of responsibility for your own direction, my favorite shops, my favorite graphies— my favorite everything. (166)



Aphoristic, poem-like statement lists— antithetical echoes o f Carver’s “Fear” and Antin’s “List o f the Delusions o f the Insane”— like this cata­ logue o f beautiful things: A A A A

new idea. new look. new sex. new pair of underwear.

The most beautiful thing in Tokyo is McDonald’s. The most beautiful thing in Stockholm is McDonald’s. The most beautiful thing in Florence is McDonald’s. Peking and Moscow don’t have anything beautiful yet. (70- 71) Lists o f “basic worries”: Are the lights on or off? Is the water off? Are the cigarettes out? Is the back door closed? Is the elevator working? Is there anyone in the lobby? Who’s that sitting in my lap? ( 156) Even lists o f candy: I walked past the Raspberry-Cherry Mix-Max, the Licorice AllKinds, the Jelly Beans, the Rock Candy, the Chocolaté Pretzels, the TV Munch, the Petit Fours, the Mon Cherry, the Lollipops, the Nonpareils, I even walked past the Whitman Samplers. (232) Warhol creates lists o f perfumes and smells for a proposed “smell musé­ um ” (15 1-5 3 ), lists o f “everything you need” to survive (155), lists o f husbands and wives (45), lists o f problems o f talk-show guests (80). Lists are a central rhetorical feature o f the book, arguably autistic in their own right, but also undergirding autistic tone and discursive practice as it is otherwise evident in the text. So, the apostrophic quality o f list rhetoric is manifest in the analysis o f Warhol’s verbal self-portrait, B ’s voice ineffectual, purposeless against the tide o f A ’s list o f descriptive characteristics. The list voice is inexorable in its accounting, creating a

Nothingness Him self •


singular chain o f semiotic connectivité unbreakable, despite its intrinsically fragmentary aesthetic. A total of six (or more) items from (1), (2), and (3), with at least two from (1), and one each from (2) and (3). At every opéra­ tion, at every transaction, noted, registered, enrolled, taxed, stamped, measured, numbered. Rhetorically, the list does not and cannot allow a break for

conversation, for dialogic interchange, for reciprocity. It is authoritative, authoritarian, monolithic, “not directed to the addressee but is spoken as if into empty space” (Asperger, “‘Autistic Psychopathy,’” 70). Iturned to share the transport— Oh! with whom / But Thee, long buried in the silent Tomb. Likewise, bearing out Barthes’s idea o f Pop Art “facticity,” the “charac­ ter o f what exists as facts and appears stripped o f any justification,” these verbal lists contribute to the surface quality and apparent affectlessness o f W arhol’s text. Like the provocation o f the existential autistic subject, a disturber, a queerer o f expressive expectations, W arhol’s lists assert prés­ ence without immediate admission o f émotion or interiority. Like the DSM, these lists cast the sense o f authorship into limbo, speaking authoritatively and yet without acknowledged rhetorical subjectivity: “The most beautiful thing in Tokyo is M cDonald’s. / The most beautiful thing in Stockholm is M cDonald’s. / The most beautiful thing in Florence is M cDonald’s.” According to critical convention, this is valueless writing, without personality, without dimension, direction, or trajectory— ail sur­ face, no depth. And W arhol’s favoring o f list rhetoric thus underscores the studied autistic vacancy o f his verbal performance. W arhol’s listmaking is also a performance o f autistic répétition and perseveration, a démonstration o f the inseparability o f autistic discre­ tionary poetics and autistic ricochet. The patterned verbal ordering o f the candy list or the airports-airplanes favorite list echoes the patterned répétitions o f Warhol’s visual art and the list rhetoric implicit in his curatorial practice, for which the 1969 Rice University Raid the Icebox exhi­ bition stands as one abundantly bewildering model. Founding director and form er chief curator o f the Warhol Muséum, Mark Francis, recounts how Warhol was invited to curate objects from the RISD storage vaults to create his own show, explaining that Warhol’s selection was entirely arbitrary, accepting without demur every taxonomie distinction but oblivious to qualitative ranking. In so doing, he violated ail curatorial conventions. . . . He brought out from disgrâce or neglect ail sorts of forgotten objects, often taking whole cabinets, racks, or shelves of things without regard for their condition, value, or provenance. . . . a large wooden cabinet filled




with hundreds of shoes, a group of decorated hat boxes . . . , a blanket chest filled with American Indian blankets, over 50 umbrellas . . . (Francis, “No There There,” 70) Raising an objection to W arhol’s inclusion o f the en tire shoe collec­ tion, the curator o f the costume collection observed that there would be “some duplication,” at which Warhol is reported to have “raised his eyebrows and blinked,” conspicuously mute (70). Far from disparaging W arhol’s approach, however, Francis regards this seemingly reckless inclusiveness as generating insight into the interconnectedness of commercial and cultural enterprises ordinarily partitioned into discrète disciplinary catégories. Francis notes that W arhol’s installations “reconnected the muséum with its repressed or forgotten siblings,” including “the department store” and “the supermarket” (65). W arhol’s semantic and curatorial collations are coparticipants in the same rhetorical game as the verbal list, playing simultaneously at order and disorder, challenging and confounding expectations. In this respect, the artist acts out the ways in which the list becomes a tool for rejecting prescribed boundaries and initiating or restoring unexpected and unapproved relationships. Is the elevator working? / Is there anyone in the lobbyf / Who’s that sitting in my lapf W arhol’s mutely raised eyebrows and his apparently indiscriminate curatorial selection are suggestive: ‘You have to treat nothing as if it were something.” Maybe nothing is something after ail. It isjust this difficult point that Asperger seems to miss when he notes that the “collections favored by autistic children appear like soulless possessions. The children accumulate things merely in order to possess them.”

Thus, a six-year-old boy had the ambition to collect 1,000 matchboxes, a goal which he pursued with fanatical energy. The mother, however, never saw him play trains with them as other children do. Another boy collected cotton threads; a third “everything” that he found on the Street, but not like the Street urchin, who has everything in his trouser pocket that he might need for his pranks. The autistic individual just stacks boxes full of useless junk. He constantly orders things and watches over them like a miser. (“‘Autistic Psychopathy,’” 82) As with the curator o f the RISD costume collection, Asperger has difficulty imagining the value o f the ordinary, the beauty o f the collection in its order or in its pure accumulation. He doesn’t know how to value autis-

Nothingness Him self •


tic curatorial stratégies. Physical collections assume the appearance o f “useless ju n k ” because the disapproving interpreter regards the material objects collected as having a predetermined meaning or purpose that does not necessarily align with the collector’s vision. For Asperger, the items collected should be used for “play” or for “pranks,” and because the organization o f the objects does not fit with his sense o f meaning, their alternative use can be understood only as pathology. W arhol’s rhetorical and visual méthodologies, in contrast, open the range o f autistic possibilities, amplifying autistic aesthetic, rhetori­ cal, and curatorial gestures typically marginalized in critical and clini­ cal discourse. Vital here is W arhol’s deliberate assertion o f autistic aes­ thetic practices in the face o f more conventional counterdiscourses: the demurring curator o f the costume collection, the Bs who insist that nothing must be something, the shouts and whistles o f hostile audiences at Eat, the B who tries to interweave her own dialogue into W arhol’s self-description. The artist’s abundant articulation persists in his deliberately verbal productions: “I walked past the Raspberry-Cherry Mix-Max, the Licorice All-Kinds, the Jelly Beans, the Rock Candy, the Chocolaté Pretzels, the TV Munch . . .” It is there in his visual répétitions. And it is there in his raised eyebrows, even when he remains silent. As with Perec’s practice, purpose may not be obvious. Indeed, purpose and meaning may be beside the point. Rather, this set o f practices— accumulation and répétition, ricochet, apostrophe, and autistic discrétion— is an élévation, a fetishization o f “Nothing,” an unmediated encounter with the invis­ ible, the quotidian, o f what Perec identifies as the “ infra-ordinaire” : What’s really going on, what we’re experiencing, the rest, ail the rest, where is it? How should we take account of, question, describe what happens every day and recurs everyday: the banal, the quotidian, the obvious, the common, the ordinary, the infra-ordinary, the background noise, the habituai? . . . What we need to question is bricks, concrete, glass, our table manners, our utensils, our tools, the way we spend our time, our rhythms. To question that which seems to have ceased forever to astonish us. We live, true, we breathe, true; we walk, we go downstairs, we sit at a table in order to eat, we lie down on a bed on order to sleep. How? Where? When? Why? (“The Infra-Ordinary”) Far from “soulless,” unmediated encounters with the “infra-ordinary” evoke Murray’s idea o f the absolute “presence” o f autism (Represent-



ing Autism, 5). Enforced méditations on “Nothing,” on surface and the superficial, on the banal become a means of fighting against everyday boredom and predictable exis­ tence, a paradoxical method to escape routine by assuming and deepening what is only apparently repetitive, ordinary, dull, boring. In the end, it ail depends on the capacity of the viewer. (Popa, “Exploring the Infra-Ordinary,” 76-77) It may not be a polite language; it may talk too loudly and too much; it may be boring, repetitive, supercilious, confusing, nonreciprocal. But W arhol’s rhetorical practices, and the greater realm o f autism poetics evident in such practices, suggest that autistic language is textured, com­ plex, and aesthetically significant, a powerful counterdiscourse to the critical and clinical représentation o f such speaking as “semantically and conversationally valueless” (Kanner, “Autistic Disturbances,” 243).


(Why “Bartleby” Doesn’t Live Here) -------------

Bartleby, the scrivener, the titular character o f Herman Melville’s “Bartle­ by, the Scrivener: A Story o f Wall Street” (1853), has garnered considér­ able attention as an iconic autist, a literary représentative who anticipâtes the clinical identification o f autism by almost a century. His seemingly echolalic “I would prefer not to” juxtaposed against his primarily nonspeaking mode, his résistance to change, and his preference for sameness and routine have made him a tremendously tempting target for fictional diagnosis. Indeed, Bartleby’s conduct is so thoroughly suggestive o f autism that literary scholars keep returning to the subject, perseveratively, répétition inviting répétition (e.g., McCall, Silence o f Bartleby; Murray, Representing Autism; Pinchevski, “Bartleby’s Autism”; Sullivan, “Bartleby and Infantile Autism”) . In a book about autism poetics, it thus becomes impossible not to talk about Melville’s story, but, at the same time, it is important to recognize that “Bartleby, ” the sto rd is not autis­ tic, no matter what Bartleby, the character, may £>e. In this parenthetical chapter, itself an aside, a digression, a discrète and perhaps unfitting fragment, “Bartleby” becomes a lacuna, a gap in the text, a missing piece. It stands here as a kind o f metaphor o f Perec’s puzzle piece, which “the puzzler picks up, and picks up again, and studies and strokes,” active aesthetic and intellectual value present in “every combination he tries, and tries a second time, every blunder and every insight” (Life, xviii). The nonfitting becomes a means o f discovering autism poetics through an act o f interpretive résistance. \




Now widely anthologized, “Bartleby” was not terribly popular when it was originally published. Told by the principal o f a small but thriving Wall Street law firm, it describes the narrator’s experience with an unusual employee, Bartleby, hired primarily to help copy and proofread contracts, obscenely tedious labor. Initially, Bartleby is remarkable for his diligence, especially when compared to his two fellow copyists, whose disgruntlement is expressed in obscure and elaborate ways, aggressively microadjusting the office furniture, for instance, or incompetently copying-while-intoxicated. After a short time, however, Bartleby begins to refuse certain forms o f work, ultimately declining to do any work at ail, responding politely to ail inquiries, “I would prefer not to,” this phrase becom ing a refrain that echoes insistently throughout the nar­ rative. Bartleby’s passive résistance accrues abstractly: he first refuses to work, then refuses to leave the office premises, then refuses to speak, then refuses to eat, finally dying placidly in the infamous New York City jail known as The Tombs. Traditional critical interprétations regard Bartleby variously as a Christ figure, an active expression o f anticapitalist résistance (Ralph Savarese calls him “the ultimate disillusioned egalitarian” [“Nervous Wrecks,” 21 ] ), or a symbol o f thwarted human creativity in the industrial âge. But Bartleby has also been a significant focus o f disability scholarship and has often been identified or suggested as an autistic figure. Probably the first literary critic to make a claim for Bartleby’s autism was William Sullivan in 1976, who argued that “Bartleby in every way fits the pattern o f a reasonably successful, coping, autistic adult, whose tragedy is that he almost succeeded in finding the structured environ­ ment and understanding personal supervisor he needed. In short, the ‘Bartleby com plex’ is infantile autism” (“Bartleby and Infantile Autism,” 44). Rosemarie Garland-Thomson notes that “Melville never explains Bartleby’s choices, his functional capabilities, or his consciousness,” but adds that “Bartleby may be autistic” (“Cultural Logic o f Euthanasia,” 783). Another writer, psychoanalyst Donald Meltzer, sees Bartleby’s attitude o f résistance as clinically significant, an autistically character­ istic inability to understand “the possibility that the world might have requirements o f him which he should struggle to meet” (Explorations in Autism, 33). In Representing Autism, Stuart Murray writes that “ [t]he nar­ rator’s descriptions o f Bartleby time and again eçho the,.,description of impairments— o f communication, imagination and socialization— that would come to be central to twentieth-century outlines o f autism” (51), adding that “Bartleby undoubtedly perforais what we today can recog-

(Why “Bartleby” D oesn’t Live Here)


nize as an autistic presence” (52). In ail these interpretive gestures, how­ ever, it is typically the character centered in the analytical matrix, bursting from his narrative context with a perceived realness that acts out a rather innocent form o f reading. Bartleby, the character, stands out in relief against “Bartleby,” the story, inviting diagnostic claims and interventions. Clarice Kestenbaum, for instance, uses the character as evidence that “ [i]ndividuals with [autism] symptoms have been among us throughout human history and probably before” (“Autism, Asperger’s,” 280); and, Ashley Koegel claims that “ [o]ne o f Bartleby’s most distinct characteris­ tics is his use o f stereotyped and repetitive language or idiosyncratic lan­ guage” and that his “fre q u e n t. . . use . . . [of] the phrase, ‘I would prefer not to,’ even when it is inappropriate to the situation . . . seems to be a form o f echolalia” (“Evidence Suggesting,” 271). Researchers and writ­ ers are so intent on the diagnostic adventure that Melville’s finely crafted story becomes a kind o f shell, a neutral habitat or setting to display this spectacular central figure. Men broke deer s leg. As entertaining as such trainspotting might be, the diagnosis o f Bar­ tleby présents at least two troubles. The first o f these, the problem o f fictional diagnosis, is discussed in the introduction as the issue o f diag­ nostic “looping.” This is the problem that arises when “a literary charac­ ter” is identified “as having a specific cognitive disability,” often “labeled based on stéréotypés,” and the character is “then used as an exemplar for actual autistic people,” leading to a scénario in which “the public per­ ception o f the literary character may reshape and inform how autism is defined as a social construct” (Loftis, “Autistic Detective”). Ultimately, as has already been noted, the “recovering” o f an autistic subject, fictional or otherwise, from the assumption o f neurotypical identity is as likely to be a violent seizure as an act o f cultural libération. Men broke deer’s leg. In addition, and in keeping with the immediate concerns of this proj­ ect, there is this problem: by focusing on character rather than voice, autistic rhetoric is both falsely represented and falsely confined. T h ere’s quite a bit o f fun to be had putting Bartleby in the same room with Mr. Spock and Christopher Boone (who narrates The Curions Incident of the Dog in the Night-time), with Sheldon Cooper (from the TV sitcom The Big Bang Theory) and Sherlock Holmes, but such play reinforces a tendency to think o f autism in culturally finite terms, bound to the limited subjecthood o f particular characters. Sherlock Holmes might be cool; Bartleby, certainly, is awesome; but, they are mere représentations, relegated to acting out their identifies in narratives voiced by others. Gertainly, the critical interprétations put forward by disability theorists like Murray and



Garland-Thomson offer nuance and sophistication, but the setting apart o f character from narrative nevertheless encourages readers to consider autism as a purely clinical classification, a diagnostic label keyed to particular human individuals. Such a move obscures the potential for reading autism as an aesthetic, cultural, literary, linguistic, or rhetorical category, a form o f being and expression that might emerge not only in personhood but also in art and fashion, in music and architecture, in circuit design or literary poetics. The focus on Bartleby as an autistic figure effectively marginalizes autistic voice to a kind o f performance, a caricature, an amplified mimicking o f clinically identified discursive features. It is the stereotyping o f autistic stereotypies. This dismissal o f the potential aesthetic reach o f autism is especial­ ly evident in the most reductive and péjorative clinical readings o f the story. For instance, K oegel’s insistence that Bartleby’s social difficulties as an autist are the motivating factor in his “avoiding [activities] that involve . . . some sort o f social interaction, such as traveling to the post office on errands or helping review documents with colleagues” (“Evi­ dence Suggesting,” 271), or Kestenbaum’s focus on Bartleby’s “avoid­ ing ail human contact” (“Autism, Asperger’s,” 281). In adopting such a stance, these readings, rather than generating more com plex and dynamic clinical views o f autism, instead eviscerate Melville’s narrative, simultaneously reducing the interest and complexity o f clinical autism and flattening the brilliance o f Melville’s writing. Even autism writers who think beyond the Bartleby character, how­ ever, are prone to a similar kind o f misstep, like Michael Fitzgerald or Julie Brown, both o f whom argue that Melville himself must have been autistic. Dahlia, dahlia, dahlia. Again, however, rather than contributihg depth and insight to the text, this diagnostic insight effaces the value o f Melville’s writing. The idea o f Bartleby’s passive “I would prefer not to” as a powerful form o f social and political résistance, embraced by a variety o f cri tics and theorists, is degraded, in Brown’s reading, to a random exhibition o f meaningless echolalia, a form o f repeating that signifies nothing at ail. One substitute for the traditional plot that can be found in works by writers with autism is répétition. Répétition, like routine, is a tool that individuals with autism can use for coping with the uncertainty of life. . . . One of the most interesting examples of this verbal répéti­ tion must surely be Melville’s short story “Bartleby,” in which the main

(Why “Bartleby” D oesn’t Live Here)


character repeats the expression ‘I would prefer not to’ more than a dozen times. (Brown, Writers on the Spectrum, 23) As with Joshua Kendall’s implicit dismissal o f Peter Roget’s work as shaped by the writer’s “anxiety” (Man Who Made Lists, 40), or, signaling the worthlessness o f the Key to AU Mythologies project by noting that Casaubon’s blood runs “ail semicolons and parentheses” (Eliot, Middlemarch, 455; chap. 42), Brown demonstrates how aesthetic concerns are entangled with, even flow from, diagnostic considérations. In Brown’s reading, Melville is denied intention, denied authorship, his deliberate crafting o f Bartleby’s minimalist “I would prefer not to” interpreted, preposterously, as a “substitute for . . . traditional plot.” That’s just her autism talking; talking, talking. That’s just her— autism talking. This is the contaminating, the poisonous effect o f clinical autism discourse on literary reading, the promotion o f an attitude o f nonlistening. This is a perfect execution o f autism autopsy, a form o f forensic scrutiny that mutilâtes as it lays bare the inert pathology o f the textual body. For those interested in autistic rhetoricity or autism poetics— the potentialities o f silence; the power o f verbal ricochet (as opposed to the implicit vacancy o f clinical echolalia) ; the assertion o f non sequitur and autistic verbal éjaculation (“I would prefer not to!”) as complications or queerings o f conventional reciprocal discourse— the language o f Bartle­ by, the character, présents rich ground for considération. Some o f this work has already been taken up by Amit Pinchevski, who has argued that Bartleby’s centrality in the story and the centrality o f his language, specifically, is the driving force o f the narrative. “Bartleby,” Pinchevski points out, “is the hollow nexus around whom the plot revolves, whose taciturnity makes the lawyer reach out to him again and again . . . [I]ndeed, it is what ultimately makes him narrate the story” (“Bartleby’s Autism,” 38). Bartleby’s silences and répétitions, then, are not evidence o f defi­ ciency, but a well o f possibility, a gesture toward Georges Perec’s ques­ tion: “How should we take account of, question, describe what happens every day and recurs everyday: the banal, the quotidian, the obvious, the common, the ordinary, the infra-ordinary, the background noise, the habituai?” (“The Infra-Ordinary”). In Pinchevski’s view, “It takes a Bar­ tleby to show that rather than négation or déviation, incommunicability is in fact an underlying indeterminacy ripe with Creative possibilities” (48). Likewise, playing along these lines, recent work in Internet stud­ ies opens other avenues for exploring the inherent autistic possibility o f



Bartlebian expression. Explaining the stratégies and philosophy around digital “obfuscation,” Finn Brunton and Helen Nissenbaum argue for a small-scale, grassroots révolution on the part o f individual users in the networked system. By inserting “chaff,” operating solo, interjecting unexpected, nonpattern information, it becomes possible for “people without access to other modes o f recourse” to resist being accounted, analyzed, and dominated in the large-scale conventional flow o f public data (Obfuscation, 3). According to Brunton and Nissenbaum, this form o f résistance is “especially suited for use by the small players, the humble, the stuck, those not in a position to décliné or opt out or exert control” ( 1 ). In other words, expressive language that ranges beyond convention­ al reciprocal modes— what clinicians have persistently and determinedly identified as pathological forms o f expression aligning with autism— may have real, practical, and révolutionary purpose. Insistence on clini­ cal readings o f “Bartleby, the Scrivener” have largely robbed the text o f power and significance, the “aha!” moment o f autistic récognition being simultaneously a m oment o f violation, a dismissal o f Bartleby’s autism as an expression o f power, meaning, and revolutionary vitality. “I would prefer not to” is stripped o f its radical edge and rendered inert, interpreted as mere echolalia, a form o f vacant copying, an autistic “coping mechanism.” Rather than reclaiming “Bartleby” as a revolutionary document, how­ ever, promoting an empowered autistic reading, the present work seeks to create another kind o f vacancy, to refuse interpretive engagement. For as persistently as readers have recognized Bartleby as an autistic; charac­ ter, and, even with a nod to those who believe that Herman Melville was on the spectrum, the narrative does not speak in autistic term^, offering an unmediated rhetorical and poetic expression o f autism; it does not occupy an autistic aesthetic. The question o f Bartleby’s, or Melville’s, possible autism aside, a représentation o f autistic character, concerns, or expression is decidedly not the same thing as autistic speaking. Instead, Melville’s story is related by the thoroughly conventional narrator: “Ail who know me,” he says, “consider me an eminently safe man” (14). He is defined by his mundane work, “in the cool tranquility o f a snug retreat, do[ing] a snug business among rich m en’s bonds and mortgages and title-deeds” (14). The story he tells, while concentrating on Bartleby, nevertheless considers the copyist throughout as an enigma, a human puzzle, possibly without solution. He notes from the beginning that “Bartleby . . . was a scrivener o f the strangest I ever saw or heard of,” and the story, holding true to the predictable, conformist soul o f its nar-

(Why “Bartleby” D oesn’t Live Here)


rator, interrogates Bartleby’s actions and inactions, uncomprehending, and grasping at explanations at every turn: Is he lazy? Is he insolent? Is he visually impaired? Was he spiritually damaged from years o f work at the Dead Letter Office? The narrator occupies a thoroughly ableist position, prepared to act charitably upon the passive body o f Bartleby, but unwilling to allow that he remain unresolved, simply present. The narrator speaks o f “revolving,” turning over in his mind ail he knows about his scrivener, but his telling, while representing his own uneasiness at Bartleby’s being “ always there” fails at interiority. Rather than giving expression to an autistic speaker, it expresses conventional anxiety about a queer figure, a person who does not respond in expected ways. In fact, by ending with the ultimate form o f silencing— Bartleby’s death— the narrative performs the most conventional possible act o f closure for an unruly or disabled figure. In the words o f David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder, “Disability inaugurates narrative, but narrative inevitably punishes its own prurient interests by overseeing the extermination o f the object o f its fascination” (Narrative Prosthesis, 229). Paul Longmore notes that “we can ‘sympathize’” and still “escape the dilemma o f . . . social accommodation and intégration” (Why I Burned My Book, 13 5 36). “Bartleby, the Scrivener” displays no particularly playful invention or language hacking, no luminescent verbal patterning, no narrative éruption or fragmentation, no expression o f concealment, silence, or the apocryphal; rather, the story scrutinizes its central figure, it puzzles over him, it attempts to reconcile his déviation, and, in the end it kills him, isolated and enfreaked, despite the sympathetic tone. No tadpoles in the house.


Neuroqueer Narration in Charlotte Brontë’s Villette -------------

Having already entertained two varieties o f interpretive résistance— the glassy surface o f Andy W arhol’s “Nothing” and the refusai to read Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener” as an autistic text — Autistic Disturban­ ces now considers both the sense o f résistance and the autistic possibili­ ties at work in another narrative arena, Charlotte Brontë’s Villette ( 1853). B ron teV oovel Is^cEnowIedged as an infliu.ç,ntial fem text and has come to be widely adm ired for .its nuance and sophistication (e.g., Jacobus, Reading Woman; Kreilkamp, Voice and the Victorian Storyteller; Lawrence, “Cypher”; Moi, Sexual/Textual Politics), but Villette is equally well-known for its challenging narrative style. Embracing discursive strat» egies critics find “elusive,” “enigmatic,” or “inscrutable and unreve’â litig” (Grass, Self in the Cell, 179; Fraser, Charlotte Bronte, 426; Cohn, Still Life, 26), qualities that may be explored within the complex context o f autistic “silence,” the novel resonates with techniques o f autism poetics like those found in the work o f Warhol or Perec, language that digresses or “évadés” (Kim, “Corpse Hoarding,” 4 11; Davis, “‘I Seemed to H old,”’ * 199). Villette is, in fact, infamous for frustrating its readers by its reliance on language perceived as inaccessible, resisted by readers even while it is^nHërstood as Seing itself résistant to reading. In the words o f one recenl appréciation, “there has seldom been a first-person narrative that withheld so much from its readers, and yet communicated such terrible \




or such intimate ém otion” (Hughes-Hallett, “Charlotte Brontë”). There is war in the sky. Moreover, intertwined with its seemingly antirevelatory posture, Villette is also prone to speak in monologic bursts— apostrophic, eruptive, ejaculatory— that puncture its own «gi^sœncE‘'T lïïsp aïîem of resërve ànd surginglanguage is a subüe butfre.quenljyo c c u m n g feature o f autism poetics. Not entirely unlike the “don’t-give-a-damn imperturbability” o f Andy W arhol’s work (Mekas, “Notes,” 4), the novel’s frequent­ ly cited reticences and its unpredictable flows o f language contribute to its anti-intuitive aesthetic, an assertion o f neuroqueer aesthetic voice and identity that echoes powerfully both with experimental modernist writ­ ing and with autism poetics. Villette is written in the first person, a fictional memoir purportedly composed by an older woman about her youth (in the early nineteenth century) as a plain English gentïewoman, thrown upon her own resources. In her early twenties, having lost her family, without education or experience beyond that o f ordinary gentility, with only a few pounds to her name, and without any knowledge o f French, this narra­ tor describes her décision to travel alone across the Channel in search. of employment. Set largely in a fictional French-speaking city called Villett^ in the Kingdom o f Labassecour, the story tells how this vulnérable young stranger fmds employment in Madame Beçjk’s^Pensionnat ^Demoiselles, first as a nursemaid and later as an English teacher. The plot tracks the narrator’s increasing professional abilities and stature, sees her through a noteworthy illness, and describes her conduct as she falls quietly in love with two men, the first aff^ r unreg^iited and....the.^ecnnd leariing to an engagem ent with fellow teacher, M. Paul Emanuel, after certain requisite narrative conflicts and uncertainties. The narrator is finallv established by her fiancé in her own independent school before he sets o ff for three years by himself to earn additional capital. During this time, which the narrator describes as the “h ap p iest. . . o f my Hfe” (593; chap. 42), she seems to enjoy her quiet solitude, the letters from her lover, and the growing success o f her business in about equal measure. The novel ends, however, in the aftermath o f a violent storm, in which the narrator suggests her returning fiancé meets nis 3 ëàtK. • Despite the apparent activity— storms, independent Channel crossings, dangerous illness, theater fires, and a variety o f other Gothic frisson— it is often remarked that Villette has “a seemingly wandering, cir­ c u la i and actionless plot,” grounded prim aply in the narratpr’s solitude, reticence, and cagey interiority (Braun, “Great Break,” 197). In fact, it is thé ëxtœmeTïs^ation o f the narrator— due partly to her status as a

N euroqueer Narration in Charlotte Brontë’s Villette •


strangéi?ïnVillette, partly to henignorancejpf French, partly to her^bting testant /in a Catholic culturëy airf^pSrtly to her own Jdiosyncrasies, ..... .............. .........■ ■ ■ •................1 ...................................................... ^ borir motâl and personal— that defines the affective texture o f thë nar­ rative.^Things do happen, but tHë inexplicable convolutions and indeterminate echoings o f the narrative are ultimately more foundational elements o f the story than the story itself. Though the rudiments o f plot may thus be laid bare, the uncanny and haunting lassitude o f the text, its digressions and circumlocutions, the hollow plotlessness o f most o f the narrative description, in fact make up the great bulk o f the novel. Probably the most çronounced example o f this indirect quality is Vil­ lette9 s end, the devastating storm at sëa that might, or might not, extinguish the narrator’s fiancé. “That storm roared frenzied for seven days,” she reports, and “did not cease till the Atlantic was strewn with wrecks,” until “when the sun returned, his light was night to some!” (596; chap. 42). In other words, conventional narrative closure (e.g., the loving mar­ ri âge o f the heroine) is thwarted by rhetorical delivery o f a (probably) dead fiancé, a move that rubs a lot o f readers the wrong; way. Indeed, expectations are even further destabilized (and audiences further antagonized) by the narrator’s dispassionate reassurance that if readers don’t like this ending, they are free to imagine quite a différent one, to “picture union and a happy succeeding life.” Such a gesture o f “aggressive prévarication” (O ’Dea, “Narrator and Reader,” 52)— not only leaving the ending open but also noncommittally leaving the choice o f ending up to the reader— stresses affective distance at what would typicaily be an emotional apex, a move seen in the greater stylistic pattern o f Vil­ lette s characteristic “passiye-^ggressiyç (Polhemus, Erotic Faith, 119). In fact, the ending is a powerful tonal example o f what many read­ ers have observed o f the whole: repressed, reserved, reticent, opaque, withholding, even duplicitous. The narrator is “locked into hersëlf’ and “remains taciturn and Withdrawn” (Gilbert and Gübar, Madwoman in the Àttic, 400, 403). To some, these observations will no doubt be elementary; but this familiar spot may nevertheless yield a new interpretive aperture: a lens for contemplating the extraordinary silences— and what often registers as the latent hostility— o f the novel as a form of autistic disturbance, a model for Yergeau’s observation that “neuroqueer subjects fuck with rhetoric” (Authoring Autism, 60). - The difficult silences o f Villette are, o f course, pretty much a trademark o f the te x t,à ïeâtïïrëlvffiï story o f the narrator’s own apparently traum aticcHildhoodis displaced, for instance, by a description o f young Paulïria’ a secondai^ éftaràcter;



the death o f the narrator’s entire imn^g,diate family, while she is still a dépendent youth, is effaced by a metaphor o f shipwreck: “the ship was îost, the crëw pèrîsnëa (94; chap. 4). Even more distressing for some audiences, when s^e firstarriyes k^YiJlettç^alpne we!s^^ilences,-..-répétitions, and obfuscations” (Braun, “Great Break,” 190), but concerns about the disjuncf i î ë o f language ultimately give way to a critical acknowledgment that such autistic disturbances nurture important affective, aesthetic, and

N euroqueer Narration in Charlotte B rontë’s Villeiie •

i rii^^|3|]3eritir *

intercommunication. You have to treat nothing as i f it were something. Likewise, Victor Frankenstein’s. silences and verbal éjaculations reflect those o f his création. Observe the persistent and seemingly per­ verse silence o f Frankenstein as he refuses to communicate with anyone about his creation-projeçtjgorie-awry, despite the extreme and violent conséquences to his close friends and family. When Frankenstein goes to court to discover the verdict regarding Justine, he “dared not ask the fatal question” (55; vol. 1, chap. 7). O n the eve o f her execution, Justine begs to know if Victor believes that she is guilty o f having killed his brother, but despite Frankenstein’s faith in her innocence and her desgerate need for réassurance, he “coulci answer” (57; vol. 1, chap. 7), nor does hg alerjLthejudges to the likelihood that the Creatum is. the murderer. When his father encourages him to set an early date for his marriage to Elizabeth, Frankenstein, knowing it will be impossible to accédé given his promise tQ the Creature, listen s “in silence, and remained for some time incapable o f offering any rçply” (104; vol. 3, chap. 1 ). Squawk. Neither to his intimate friend Henry Clerval, nor to the authorities that later mistakenly arrest Frankenstein for Clerval’s murder, does Victor communicate what he knows about the instrument o f ail this destruc­ tion. Rather, the creator leaves hearers uncertain about his expressive intention, speaking in what might be considered “stereotyped phrases” and “metaphorical language” (Kanner, “Autistic Disturbances,” 241; “Irrelevant and Metaphorical Language”). “Have my murderous machi­ nations deprived you also, my dearest Henry, o f life? Two I have already destroyed; other victims await their destiny” (122; vol. 3, chap. 4). In fact, Victor breaks his silence about the Creature only to Robert W âltônftô whom the reader is indebted for the entirety of the Franken­ stein text; when the révélation does come, then, it is divulged to an out­ sider who can do nothing to intervene, communication without practical purpose. Moreover, when Victor does finally speak, his words pour out as a single unbroken episode o f fully realized apostrophic narration: “his words [ . . . ] flow with rapidity and unparalleled eloquence” ( 1 : letter

The Absence o f the Object •


4; 16); his speaking is punctuated with éjaculations, “melodramatic outbursts” (Clemit, Godwinian Novel, 34). The primary, enfolding narra­ tive voice, that o f Robert Walton, is thus completely subsumed, drowned in the extraordinary flow o f Frankenstein’s “yak-yak-yakking” (Paradiz, Elijah’s Cup, 167), his articulation effusive, unidirectional, uninterruptible, insistent. Crayfish, sharks, fish, and rocks. Despite its eruptive» ejaculatory expression, however, Victor’s novel-length utterance is not a dominating, disciplining rhetoric, like the DSM, perhaps, insistent on its own cultural and semiotic authority— what Mikhail Bakhtin calls the “unitary language” o f mass officiality— but a form o f individual résistance to conventional dialogism. Frankenstein’s, m onologic bent is an insistent ? exp ression o f selfness, a rejection o f both institutional a^diiiterpersonal discourse. His stream o f language, undisrupted by rejoinder, brocaded like the narrative o f Villette with extraordinary détail, may be understood as characteristicàlly autistic, an “obsessive” rhetoric distinguished by “considérable pressure o f talk” (Kanner, “Autistic Disturbances,” 235); Frankenstein^ rhetorical relentlessness echoes against the “elaborate explanations” o f Ernst, who “talked incessantly” (Asperger, “‘Autistic Psy­ chopathy,”’ 60-61). Frankenstein and his Creature participate, then, not in a dialogic, but rather in mutually reflective communicative processes, their respective silences and urgencies o ï language suggesting a iinguistic aesthetic that is, in turn, reflective o f autism. Dahlia, dahlia, dahlia. These excesses o f verbal restraint and fecundity are, o f cou rse, also essential to Roman tic convention, rhetorical evidence o f the highly charged sensibility indispensable to the Romande subject. Though more moderate in their range o f expression, many o f the characters in the novel— Frankenstein’s father, Robert Walton, Elizabeth, Clerval— at least faintly echo the pattern o f quietude and fluency evident in the rhe­ torical extremes o f Frankenstein and his Creature, delicate reticences counterpoised against frank and confident speaking. When he encounters Frankenstein, for instance, most unexpectedly, in the far and icy reaches o f the North, Walton notes, “Certainly; it would indeed be very impertinent and inhuman in me to trouble you with any inquisitiveness o f m ine” (15; vol. 1, letter 3). That is, though he has encountered a solitary ill-equipped man in a région where no person can survive alone, Walton knows that he ought not to say anything about it; any comment on the subject would be vulgar. Likewise, Clerval, after single-handedly nursing his friend through a months-long illness, leads up to a request that Frankenstein write to his family, with a diffident and indefinite “I may speak to you on one subject, may I not?” (38; vol. 1, chap. 4). Even



Mr. Kirwin, the magistrate who must décidé Frankenstein’s culpability respecting Clerval’s murder, déclinés to question Frankenstein directly regarding the crime, genteelly inferring his prisoner’s guilt or innocence based on V ictor’s affect and appearance. This ongoing tension between \ silence and “redundant melodramatic excess” permeates the Frankensteinvàn metanarrative (Sherwin, Frankenstein, 902), an ongoing ten­ sion “between the impulse to communicate and the urge to retreat into isolation and death” that is evident in Shelley’s larger opus as well, an essential underlying feature o f her own Roman tic voice (Brewer, “Mary Shelley,” 163). This pervasive dialogue between silence and prolific. a^lici^lation exposes the Romantic sense o f ^ lo n e n ^ sv w urgent desire for a communion and understanding that are effectually impossible. Implicit in the aesthetic o f Romantic voice, with its paradoxical valuing o f reticence and frankness, is the inherent solitude o f th.e.Romanüc self, for whom dialogic exchange is singulaçly uncharactepstic. Embodied in the per­ son o f Safie, “the charming Arabian” affianced to Félix the cottager (81; vol. 2, chap. 5), the Romantic subject may be understood as a “stranger who uttered articulate sounds, and appeared to have a language o f her own,” but who “ [is] neither understood by [others], or herself under­ stood” (78; vol. 1, chap. 5). PoorElaine. No tadpoles in the house. This idiolectic subject surfaces repeatedly in autism studies as well, Mel Baggs’s frequently cited video “In My Language,” for instance, translating into neurotypical terms the multisensory nature o f sie own communica­ tive experience; tactile, aurai, kinesthetic, object- and texture-related, Baggs’s language, seen from outside its own logic and aesthetic, is incom­ préhensible. The right one is on, the left one is off. Like Safie’s “articulate sounds,” the communicative whole is expressed in patterns that abound with latent significance, but which remain indiscernible for most without translation. Such a model challenges the ordinary exchange between expressive and receptive language; the gap that troubles understanding forestalls the interlocutor in spéculative mode, imagining a potential meaning, without dialogic circulation o f language. Such an aesthetic need not be pathologized as déficit, but might illuminate the earliest clinical theories o f autism, which focus on ideas o f selfness or aloneness. Autism and Romanticism, then, may both be understood to challenge the social understanding o f language as necessarily dialogic. For both Romantic voice and autistic yoice p arti cip a te in expressive gestures that question assumptions o f language as a fully. reciprocal te ^ n o ïo g jr Romantic voice lingçrs, at the rift betweeja .pxpressiv^ and receptive

The Absence o f the O bject •


language, foregrounding the relationship not pf.cpnneçtion, J^ut of 1origîïï^TllI Tfr^ T^om antîc mode, as in the autistic mode, “silence and verbal precocity” may be the dominant styles, but transparent dialogic communication is frequently averted, existing as a site o f potential or ofspeculation. “I have one want,” Robert Walton writes, “which I have never yet been able to satisfy; and the absence o f the object o f which I now feel as a most severe evil. I have no friend” (10; vol. 1, letter 2). This desire for connection is expressed, specifically, as “the absence o f the object,” a feeling identified, concretized, by vacancy. The absence materializes as language, voice giving shape to what is not there, silence, absence. You have to treat nothing as if it were something. True to this man­ ner o f speaking— both Romantically and autistically— Frankenstein compels the reader’s encounter with fundamental affective and linguistic lacunae, gaps that queer the seeming transparency o f communicative language and o f intuitive social intercourse. Both autistic aesthetic and Romantic aesthetic çomplicate conventional social and discursive expectations, troubling clear and forthright communication through the introduction o f devices— narrative, rhetorical, and semiotic— that arrest the audience or interlocutor within the potential communicative exchange. This is visible in Frankenstein by an enforced intimacy with linguistic disruption, the text confronting the reader with “the absence o f tfie object,” and generating an uncomfortable consciousness, a sense o f discontinuity, around the conventïonally implicit corrélation between speaker and audience, absence and presence, symbol and subject, word and meaning. Like the walls o f the Creature's hovel, this focus on rhe­ torical disruption and discontinuity serves as boundary, a membrane articulating both barrier and connection. This résistance, this site o f signifying absence, is also apparent in the remarkable narrative architecture o f Frankenstein, what George Levine identifies as the “Chinese-box-like structure” o f the novel, the inner nar­ ratives envèloped by surrounding narrative frames (“Ambiguous Héri­ tage,” 18). Peter Brooks explains this framing succinctly: “the interview which leads to the Monster’s telling his taie to Frankenstein, [is] the story-within-a-story (itself a story-within-a-story-within-a-story, when we consider thé rôle o f Robert Walton as initial and ultimate narrator)” (“‘Godlike Science,”’ 591). Reflecting the individual rhetorical patterns o f the characters occupying the taie, the larger narrative is itself a set o f expressive monologues that challenge dialogic exchange, the “embedded fabula” becoming an çssential “part o f the .narrative’s .poetics” (Bal, Narratology, 59). Though they speak Ço one another, each story also \




d is t u r b a n c e s

speaks itself_Qutward,.vbFeadGasting...tQ.. the otfier parts o f the taie with­ out apparent reçipxQ.c^lJuatÊ.rface. I turned to share the transport— Üh! with whom / But Thee, long buried in the silent Tomb. The narrative framing o f Frankenstein rhetoricizes an act o f social partitionifig, eachpart«of>the sto­ ryselfk:oniaïne 3 ^ nd the;rel^ dia­ logic exchange between ijts contingent parts. Like autistic idiolçct, with its “sudden disruptions o f topic and m eaning/’ or “an auti&tia.person’s abrupt introduction o f unrelated. concepts,” this kind o f narrative délin­ éation and fragmentation forwards autistic values and aesthetic (Chew, “Fractioned Idiom,” 136); the abrupt closures and absence o f rhetorical bridging between narrative parts are a signature feature o f autistic stylistics (Frith, Autism: Explaining, 118-20; Glastonbury, “Incommunicado,” 119; Happé, “Autobiographical Writings,” 210, 214, 215, 22o;Jurecic, “Neurodiversity,” 427, 430; Murray, Representing Autism, 42; Straus, “Autism as Culture”). The compartmentalized seriality o f Frankenstein s em bedded narratives thus demonstrates on an enlarged scale similar discretionary rhetories evident in the DSM and in the writing o f Andy Warhol and o f Georges Perec. One blini, one empanada, one dried beef. Three snails. Each item in discrète relation to another, even though the point o f relation may be defined by a gap or partition. Frankenstein s narrative partitionirig exemplifies the implicit poetic potential o f language that is elsewhere regarded as pathological, foregrounding sites o f cpmmunîcative gap and disruption. But such Ssruption need not be understood asf a. p o in t,o f failure or déficit; instead, the “logical gap between oral narration and its transcription within the fram ing narrative” m ight be understood as open[ing an] interpre­ tive space for the reader” (Duyfhuizen, “Framed Narrative,” 187). The reader’s experience o f the story as a seamless “w hole” is prevented by the apparent ruptures in the text; but the audience, instead o f passively receiving and understanding the story, instead becomes com plicit in its construction, actively interpreting and stitching together the dismembered parts o f the taie just as Frankenstein pieces together the dis­ tinct parts o f his own Création. As Charles Robinson observes, “V ictor’s assembling o f disparate body parts into his monster is not that différent from W alton’s assembling his discrète notes about Victor into a narra­ tive and both these Creative acts may be compared to Mary Shelley’s esemplastic fusing o f words and images and symbols and punctuation into the text o f her novel” (“Texts in Search o f an Editor,” 9 1). So, just as the uncanny wholeness o f the Creature threatens the human sense o f transparently integrated self in every encounter, Shelley’s book, too,

The Absence o f the O bject •


obtrudes an encounter with narrative discretion/disintegration. T h r serial monologism o f the book compels the reader’s contact with nar­ rative interstices, that site o f “absence” in turn forcing a direct encoun­ ter with the mechanism o f the storytelling. The narrative breaks that demarcate the text, like the walls o f the Creature’s hovel, both divide and connect, these spaces “between” language ultimately pointing m etaphorically to the core concerns o f the book: the act o f création, the condition o f aspiration, the nature o f human connection, and the impossibility o f a fully constituted wholeness, either individually or in relation to another. The silent spaces between the actual tellings o f the Frankenstein story, like other sites o f autistic silence, may be understood as queerly and bountifully expressive. Moreover, these sjlençes^.with th