Program of study

I’m a Ph.D. student in English. I finished coursework in March, and I’m now prepping for my candidacy exams, which I hope to take the last week of September. My department requires a program of study from PhD students — a longish document in which we propose our field and focus areas for our exams, as well as our reading list. The POS also includes a description of the dissertation, plus some other description-like stuff (e.g., previous graduate work, teaching and professional experience, conference presentations, publications, projects, and the like).

I’m happy to say that my POS passed (!), and I’ve begun tackling my reading list. I’ve here posted the descriptions of my field, focus, and dissertation, if only because they deal with autism and rhetoric in a large way. Of course, things are subject to change, and my thinking will evolve, I’m sure. But nonetheless, this seems to be an accurate picture of where I’m at right now.

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Empathize with this

So, one of the popular medical theories surrounding the “puzzle” of autism spectrum disorders involves theory of mind — or lack thereof. Possessing a theory of mind involves the illusion that one can understand what another human being is thinking or feeling, a neurotypical ESP of sorts. Theory of mind largely concerns empathy, the ability to place oneself in another’s shoes, so to speak. Many autism specialists, among them Simon Baron-Cohen, argue that people on the autism spectrum either lack a theory of mind or have an impaired theory of mind. Autistics supposedly cannot empathize with or predict the NT world, and they thus have a whole bunch of communication issues.

Of course, I think that this theory has done quite some damage. Autistics have been represented as characteristically unempathetic individuals. And this “unempathetic” characterization has often been conflated with emotionlessness, conceitedness, apathy, and plain old malevolent and murderous evil. While I don’t deny that I’m hardly able to place myself in the shoes of others, I do posit that no one can really, truly place themselves in someone else’s shoes, unless we’re talking about literal shoes with similar foot sizes. In any event, I think there’s a limit and a danger to this thing we call empathy, because empathy isn’t wholly concrete and logical. Empathy, by definition, involves assumption and guesswork.

Empathy (or imagined understanding) can only be remotely successful when engaged between people with similar backgrounds, people who occupy similar social stations. Thus, in the same manner that autistics have difficulty empathizing with NTs, so too do NTs have difficulty empathizing with autistics. (James Wilson, in Weather Reports from the Autism Front, makes this very point about empathy. He can’t pretend to understand his autistic son’s experiences, his ways of knowing and being. Neurotypicals are just as empathetically impaired as autistics.)

Jenny McCarthy and empathy
[Jenny McCarthy: “expert” on autism, empathy, and strapless bras]

I like Dennis Lynch’s complication of empathy in “Rhetorics of Proximity: Empathy in Temple Grandin and Cornel West.” In his article, Lynch suggests that true empathy is never possible because such an act results in “bodily displacement,” in colonization or assimilation. So, in order for an NT to step into an autistic’s shoes, the autistic has to physically remove her feet from her shoes. As a result, when an NT claims to empathize with autistic experience, the NT is really imagining what it would be like for an NT to be an autisticnot what it is like for an autistic to be an autistic. The same could be said about an autistic person attempting to empathize with an NT: bodily displacement results.

Of course, because neurotypicality is the dominant neuro-discourse, NT ways of empathizing are considered more acceptable than autistic ways of empathizing. Warning of empathy’s co-optive dangers, Lynch writes,

Empathy in this way may seem like a harmless practice as one imagines how another may be feeling about an event, circumstance, or issue, but, as these critics argue, whatever’s empathy’s expressed aims may be, asking people to empathize usually locates the obstacles to empathy—to listening and to being heard—solely in the minds and habits of individual participants, and so obscures or ignores the political and economic and bodily dimensions of social struggles. (6)

This isn’t to say that empathy is inherently bad or wrong. However, empathy has its limits and dangers — severe limits and dangers. In assuming we can experience the fullness of another person’s “lifeworld,” we erase, or make transparent, very real differences (Lynch 9).

Goodbye, September

I’m sad that September is ending in the next half hour. As a tribute, I’ve been listening to Jeff Lynne’s rendition of “September Song” repetitively in iTunes. I’m wondering if Jeff Lynne will ever release a new album again, whether he does it under his own name or the guise of ELO. His only solo album, Armchair Theatre, on which “September Song” resides, came out in 1990. Zoom, under the ELO name, was released in 2001. And, though several ELO albums have been re-released with bonus tracks, b-sides, outtakes, and alternate song versions these past few years, it’s been a while since anything wholly new has come about. I suppose all I can do is wait and wonder. (And listen to every ELO song in alphabetical order. That’s always fun.)

So, as I now listen to “September Song” for what is probably the fiftieth time today, I am also trying to complete a “map” of what I want to complete (and when) in my independent study this term. As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, I’m focusing on autism, rhetoric, and representation. I’ve so many things that I want to read, and I keep having to tell myself that I only have ten weeks to accomplish this, and it’s hard for me to figure out what a workable reading load is. This past weekend I wanted to read a couple books written by parents of autistic children (including Jenny McCarthy’s book — and not because I like Jenny McCarthy’s ideas). However, I ended up on a rabbit trail of sorts, and ended up re-reading Michael John Carley’s Asperger’s from the Inside Out. (I suppose he counts as both an aspie AND a parent of an aspie. So I wasn’t completely off track.)

I also finally worked up the nerve to email a professor in the field of rhetoric and composition who has been doing work with autism. I wasn’t sure whether or not it was socially appropriate to email random professors at different colleges because of e-stalking I’d done via Google and CCCC electronic conference programs. So, I spoke with a couple of non-random professors (a.k.a. my professors) and got some tips on what to say (and what not to say). After spending three days writing the email and having two fellow grad assistants read over what I’d written, I finally hit “send,” and actually got a response — a very pleasant, encouraging, and helpful response. He sent me several pieces he’d written, and so I decided to read those in lieu of vaccine-bashing narratives.

I’m really excited to finally connect with people in my field who are looking at rhetorical and social constructions of ASDs. It’s hard to talk about my interests in autism to non-humanities people a lot of the time. It’s not their faults, necessarily: we just have different disciplinary approaches, and the things I’m interested in are wrapped up in language and philosophies about meaning-making and axiological assumptions, not studying brain functions or therapeutic interventions.