Sunday, June 3, 2018

"Normativity Makes Little Sense": MLA 2018, part one

This is the first installment of a series wherein I share my notes on the panels I attended at January's convention of the Modern Language Association.

44. Neurodiversity. Elizabeth Donaldson, Michael Mahoney, Ittai Orr, Ralph Savarese. About thirty people in the audience, including Cynthia Wu, Janet Sayre, Rebecca Sanchez, Julia Miele Rodas, Michael Bérubé.

Jonathan Kramnick’s introduction of the panelists contained some exciting info, including the fact that Donaldson had co-edited an “Emotion and Disability” issue of the Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies, and that Savarese’s See It Feelingly: Classic Novels, Autistic Readers, and the Schooling of a No-good English Professor is coming out imminently. Savarese has also co-edited the first collection of essays on neurodiversity.

Elizabeth Donaldson apologized for the fact that her talk, “Psychosis Blues: Distributed Cognition, Collaborative Media, and Schizophrenia” is two parts of two projects: she hopes it makes sense. She began by suggesting that schizophrenia is the most feared and stigmatized of all mental illness categories. In the spirit of Lawrence Carter-Long’s “Say the Word” campaign, which urges us to embrace the term #disabled, E.D. wants us to go with #schizophrenia and #sz [that’s a diagnostic shorthand for schizophrenia, not for a Slovenian psychoanalytic scholar—jbl]. She wants to talk about how Ravi Thornton’s cross-media trilogy, HOAX: Our Right to Hope functions as an act of communal problem solving, making a maligned disability experience publicly legible.

While E.D. is supportive of the mad pride and c/s/x movements, she aligns herself not with their doctrines but with memoirist Elyn Saks as “pro-psychiatry and anti-force.” We need to support resources for people with schizophrenia: homelessness and prison should not be our go-to solutions.

Graphic memoirs of mental illness go back at least to the early ‘70s, with
Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary. Such narratives later get increasingly medicalized with such memoirs as Stitches and Hospital Suite, both of which start out with physical illness and then move on to mental disability. More recently we’ve seen work by Alison Bechdel, Ellen Forney, Allie Brosh, and Darryl Cunningham. Book-length first-person prose memoirs of schizophrenia are oddly rare. [Makes sense: schizophrenia is more common and more debilitating in men, and most Mental Illness Memoirs are by women—jbl]. Clem and Olivier Martini’s graphic memoirs are written by the neurotypical Clem and illustrated by his schizophrenic brother Liv. They dramatize their struggles with the Canadian mental health care system and, notably, dramatize male caregiving.

The second part of Ravi Thornton’s HOAX: Our Right to Hope, which commemorates her schizophrenic brother Rob, is a graphic narrative, Psychosis Blues. It includes Rob’s poems in between narrative chapters. Each poem is illustrated by a different artist, making the piece a collaborative memorial and an act of distributed cognition. But this foregrounds the ethical questions that Tom Couser has raised, about what we do when we write about someone else’s illness or disability without their consent. Indeed, Ravi confronts us with Rob’s perspective on the unrepresentability of his experience, in a harrowing two-page sequence wherein Rob, in a dimly lit room, insists to Ravi, “You don’t know.” “No. You don’t know. You can’t imagine.” “You think you know. But you don’t know.” Ravi makes affirmative noises and ultimately de-escalates by leaving the room. [I’m not doing justice to E.D.’s close reading of the visual rhetoric here—jbl]
I missed a portion of Michael Mahoney’s “’It Had Something to Do with Paying Attention’: ADHD and the Contemporary Office Novel,” making a brief trip to the rest room. Upon returning, I found it difficult to close the door to the conference room: turned out Michael Bérubé was on the other side, on his way in. I am now in physical therapy in the hopes of improving my posture so that I can see tall people when they’re nearby: slouching and looking downward has its drawbacks.

Mahoney’s piece was a close read of the theme of attention in Wallace’s The Pale King and Helen deWitt’s Lightning Rods, with brief references to Then We Came to the End, Personal Days, and Zone One. He cited Woloch on minor characters and C. Wright Mills on how the occupational demands of self-management arise: “The employer of manual services buys the workers' labor, energy, and skill; the employer of many white-collar services, especially salesmanship, also buys the employees' social personalities. Working for wages with another's industrial property involves a sacrifice of time, power, and energy to the employer; working as a salaried employee often involves in addition the sacrifice of one's self to a multitude of 'consumers' or clients or managers. The relevance of personality traits to the often monotonous tasks at hand is a major source of 'occupational disability,' and requires that in any theory of 'increasing misery' attention be paid to the psychological aspects of white-collar work.” Wallace in particular dramatizes how this occupational disability feels like ADHD.

Ittai Orr’s talk on “Robert Montgomery Bird’s Neurodiversity Hypothesis” pointed out that, if we take neurodiversity seriously, “cognitive normativity makes little sense.” And indeed, the cognitive hierarchy as we know it is a pretty new thing: at the end of the nineteenth century, Galton threw out the Lockean idea of the universal mind, but before the 1880s, intelligence was not ranked in the way (or for the purpose) the eugenicists came up with.

Poe was irked by the fact that Sheppard Lee’s spirit was not consistent or independent of the bodies it inhabits but seemed to be subsumed to the personalities or desires already present in those bodies. The differences among those characters is not in intelligence. Indeed, they’re theatrical stock characters—the Miser, the Philathropist, the Swain, the Happy Slave, et alia. Lee is kind of a method actor. But his lack of activity and of ambition is not stigmatized: it’s regarded as a natural characteristic. This nonjudgmental approach pervades the story, which presents character as a matter of diversity, not hierarchy: the various types the story presents are not blameworthy for their actions. We are very near T.H. Huxley’s “steam-whistle” theory of human agency here, wherein all animals, ourselves included, are “conscious automata”: our thoughts and feelings are epiphenomena of our bodies, with no more possibility of altering the bodies that generate them than a steam-whistle can alter the locomotive whose presence it announces.

Bird’s opposition to disciplining and judging—he posits inherent differences while rejecting a hierarchy of essential worth—recommends radical empathy, but emphasizes how different minds do work differently. Bird’s limitation is that he seems to think society already provides a role suited to every type. This is a dangerous conviction, as we see when he trots out the Happy Slave. He’s oblivious to tragedy, conflict, and the need for social change.

Ralph Savarese’s “Reading Short Stories with Temple Grandin” had its genesis in a consideration he made when assembling his forthcoming book on autistic readers. What will the general reader expect when approaching a book of interviews with autists? Just like when you want to get to the President, you have to go through his Chief of Staff, when you want to attract the attention of the general reader to autism, you have to go through Temple Grandin. Thinking about Miall’s “Emotions and the Structuring of Narrative Responses,” Savarese asked Grandin to read Midge Raymond’s short story, “The Ecstatic Cry,” a tale of illicit passion and death in Antarctica. Grandin’s comments would not address the psychology of the people in the story. She would come up with remarks like, “Of course, under current conditions, you have to accept tourists in order to support scientific research in such a place. But they’re going to generate a lot of garbage, and you have to be prepared to deal with that.” In other words, she was primarily interested in the policy issues the story raises. Her mind, Savarese felt, is like an airline hub from which she randomly catches flights in all directions. On the one hand, Savarese realized that, in wanting Grandin to talk about characters and feelings and motives and relationships, he was trying to hammer a neurodiverse response into a norm; on the other, there’s enormous peril in saying, “She lacks the ability to do that: that’s just the way things are,” a perspective that has been used to justify some grave oppression.

He was nonetheless moved by Grandin’s comments on the penguin, whose cry gives the story its title: “She was identifying with the animal, not erasing it with metaphor, as the narrator does.” And more generally, he was struck by how her comments reflect the problem with empathy, and its arrogances. This resonated with Elizabeth Donaldson and myself, both of whom are also Against Empathy.

The Q&A period began with one guy in the audience saying he could not help thinking of Andrew Solomon’s brilliant book Far from the Tree and Thomas Nagel’s “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” and adding, can these books help us expand our circles of compassion as Peter Singer suggests we should. Donaldson flinched at hearing Singer’s name and said she is not in favor of instrumentalizing literature like they do in the Medical Humanities. Savarese said we should ask of people, “Do they want to be in the circle?” Bérubé elaborated, “Sometimes when someone says, ‘You think you know, but you don’t know,’ you should just leave the room.” Mahoney opined that we do need to listen to other voices, and cited the classic Amanda Baggs video in which she explains how she perceives language as exemplary of the sort of thing we should be listening to.

Another questioner asked, “Are we all Sheppard Lee? Our bodies and characters do change, in ways that are inextricably tied together, throughout our lives.” A third asked, “How do graphic narratives of mental disability differ from the kinds that address other disabilities?” Donaldson talked a little about how interior states and things usually hidden get graphically displayed. A questioner remarked, “I’m working on Joanne Greenberg, whose novels cover all of the issues the panel has mentioned” and went on to articulate the correspondences between each of the talks and a different Greenberg novel. It didn’t seem to be a question, exactly. But at the end, she remarked, “Levinas said ethics is founded on the recognition of the vulnerability of the other,” which is useful to know.

I don’t want to give away the climax of the discussion, as it will probably be a major point in the final chapter of Savarese’s book. Suffice it to say that Temple Grandin revealed to Savarese some information about her life that cast a completely different light on her celibacy and her attitude toward sexual relationships, which she had previously explained with a curt “I don’t think my autism would be conducive to addressing the emotional needs of a partner.” Savarese gave all the credit to the Midge Raymond story, saying that it had “created the conditions in which Temple Grandin could articulate a different view of her past/her self than she had in any previous book or interview.” An audience member responded, “We all tend to think that way, but Ralph? It might not have been the story! It might have been you!”

Afterward, I recommended that Bérubé and Donaldson read Le Guin’s “Vaster than Empires and More Slow”; and Donaldson, Savarese, and I talked about the need to dethrone empathy and the evils of Rebecca Solnit.

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