Vulnerable Identities: Rhetoric and Representations of Autism and Aphasia: Thursday, Jan 9, 1:45-3:00
This panel welcomes audience discussion and we have purposely built time into our session for questions and exchanges of ideas.
Autism and aphasia are frequently marked by their supposed “invisibility,” and are identities that at once invoke a politics of disability while also calling upon theories of normative embodiment. In many respects, both autism and aphasia represent communication styles that embody a sense of struggle, as Autistic and Aphasiac interlocutors work not only to locate their own voices but to make themselves heard in a cultural environment that prioritizes the voices and authority of non-disabled people.
This panel, then, in its consideration of those whose modes of communication diverge from the norm, directly engages the conference theme of “Vulnerable Times.” The panel will consider issues of agency and representation in writings by and about individuals whose communication is affected by autism and aphasia and who, as a result, occupy a precarious rhetorical position in which they are vulnerable to ideologies that may try to silence them. Claiming ownership of these conditions and asserting one’s right to speak and be heard “differently” invoke a politics of identity that echoes those of race, class, and gender.
The panel is deliberately limited to three speakers, with no commentator, in order to provide ample time for audience discussion, which we deem especially appropriate for this topic. Carolyn Goffman will serve as chair and discussion moderator as well as presenter.
In “Minding Theory of Mind: Autism, Embodiment, Narrative,” Melanie Yergeau will discuss the ways in which theories about Theory of Mind (ToM) dehumanize autistic people, with a specific focus on how ToM is theorized/applied in both narrative and rhetorical studies, often uncritically and of great detriment to those on the autism spectrum. Using autie-ethnographic analysis, this presentation traces the limits and problems of ToM as it is currently constructed in rhetorical studies and narrative theory and examines the role of the body—or the ways in which autistic people are disembodied—in theories about ToM. Theories about ToM not only deny autistic people agency; they call into question their very humanity. Across scholarly and popular domains, autistic people are portrayed as “egocentric” (Jurecic), “mindblind” (Zunshine), and “masked by a cloud of social solitude” (Greenbaum). Autistic rhetoricity has become, then, an oxymoron, an ableist trope perpetuated by narrative theorists and clinicians alike. This presentation centers the ways in which autistic life writing speaks back to normative representations of autistic selfhood and asserts autism as a way of being.
In “Tropes of Difference: Life Writing on the Autism Spectrum,” Sonya Loftis will examine bestselling autobiographies written by autism advocates. Focusing on the conflict between cultural stereotypes and the search for Autistic identity, her paper explores autism’s incredibly flexible alterity as a signifier of social and cognitive difference. This ever-moving signifier plays a paradoxical role in the construction of Autistic identity, and many literary depictions of life on the spectrum simultaneously forward both negative and positive images: indeed, these tropes are frequently adopted into the autism community at the same time that they may undermine self-advocacy and disability activism. Autobiographies by adults on the spectrum struggle against the tropes employed by fictionalized representations of autism at the same time that they employ them. Betraying an uneasy relationship between autobiographical writing, literary stereotypes, and medical discourse, these works reveal conflicted narrative voices. In spite of varied approaches to disclosure, identity, and the politics of autism, these authors share a neurologically typical audience and encourage members of various counter-cultures to identify with the autism community. Examining works by Temple Grandin, John Elder Robison, and Liane Holliday Willey, this presentation argues that these first-person narratives of life on the spectrum reveal autism as a symbol of difference that our culture transposes onto otherness that is not specifically Autistic.
In “Getting the Word Out: Aphasia and the Problem of Invisibility,” Carolyn Goffman will examine the rhetorical paradox of personal narratives that necessarily use words to describe the loss of speech due to stroke or other brain trauma. In the autobiographical “testimony of disability” (Couser), the Aphasiac is at a disadvantage. This presentation looks at several categories of aphasia memoirs: 1) works by spouses or partners in which a fluent individual speaks for the wordless one (Ackerman, One Hundred Names for Love; The Shadow Factory); 2) personal memoirs by scientific experts who suffered strokes and returned to “normal” (Taylor, My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey); 3) famous-person narrative-of-triumph memoirs (Kirk Douglas, My Stroke of Luck); and 4) non-professional first-person memoirs ((Helen Harlan Wulf, Aphasia: My World Alone), which contain unvarnished anomalies of syntax and structure. The rhetoric of aphasia occupies an uneasy balance between the wordlessness of the Aphasiac and the voice of the loved one or co-author who scrambles forward to help, thus at once telling the story but also denying agency to the Aphasiac.
Our presentations are indebted to work in Disability Studies and Cultural Studies; as such, our panel will be structured in a manner that is attentive to accessibility and audience participation. Each presenter will limit her talk to 12-15 minutes, leaving ample time for community discussion. Additionally, presenters will provide full-text copies and aural descriptions of any visuals used to ensure broader participation. Similarly, we will distribute and collect notecards for those who wish to offer questions or comments via alternative means. In short, our goal is to foster an environment of collaborative discussion that decenters traditional academic modes of engagement and reflects upon disabled ways of communicating—whether autistic, aphasiac, or non—in ways that are both practical and theoretically complex. Much as we analyze disability narratives and other forms of life writing, we offer our own panel as another such narrative, one that compels us in the field to reconsider what it means to speak, participate, and be.