Sunday, November 25, 2012

Week 12: 11/19-11/25

This week, I finally sat down and poured over Simon Baron-Cohen book, Mindblindness. In this book, Baron-Cohen (BC) attempts to theorize autism by approaching it as a constellation of deficits related to certain evolutionary components of innate sociability mechanisms. He is clearer than I am.

BC starts his project off asserting that neurotypical people are “mindreaders,” that they have the “capacity to imagine or represent states of mind that we or others might hold” (2). BC believes that this mindreading capability is evolutionary and that it is necessary to function as a fully social being: “…a person with mindblindness [the inability to “mindread”] is thrown back on temporal-regularity accounts or on routine-script explanations…or is forced to use unwieldy things resembling the ‘reinforcement schedule’ explanations that behaviorist psychologists construct. None of these seem very useful here. The first two are too limited in their application to the constantly changing social world; the third takes too long to compute. In the heat of a social situation, it pays to be able to come up with a sensible interpretation of the causes of actions quickly if one is to survive to socialize another day. Non-mentalistic explanations are just not up to the job of making sense of and predicting behavior rapidly. Instead, a person with mindblindness is left confused: Just what are Joe and Tim up to? In the meantime, the mindreader seizes up the situation instantly” (4).

It is important to note that BC prefaces the book with the caveat that “children and adults with the biological condition of autism suffer, to varying degrees, from mindblindness. For reasons to be explored, they fail to develop the capacity to mindread in the normal way” (5). BC also hedges about intuition quite a bit in the early chapters. For example, BC wants to create an analogy between expert chess players and neurotypical socializers: “Expert chess players may feel that they intuitively know what the next best move is, and their skill at chess may be an excellent metaphor for how we routinely make judgments during social interaction. Like the chess expert, we are social experts. Our social reasoning process has become automatic and effortless—possibly as a result of years of daily practice, possibly also because, right from the beginning of life, the human brain is programmed to automatically and effortless interpret social behavior in this way, as a result of millions of years of evolution” (19). BC spends much of the start of his book with “maybes.” This makes it easy to tell other stories, other counterexplanations. More on that later…

BC dos not think that behaviorist approaches to behavior (and language) are as powerful or economical as mindreading because mindreading can take place when there are no behavioral cues. BC cites a friend not calling for a number of months as a potential example. In this example, BC argues, one might take the silence as evidence of offense caused and attribute the intentional state that one’s friend is offended at a previous action (25-26). It’s not clear how mindreading is the best explanation here. One could tell another counter-story dependent on contextual actions.

BC is not only concerned with the relationship between behavior and mindreading—he seems to primarily be concerned with the relationship between mindreading and communication.  BC argues that mindreading is what helps us connect intentional states and semantics, that it fills in the gaps that words and their arrangements leave.  For example, borrowing from Stephen Pinker’s work, BC provides the following dialogue that, he believes, implies mindreading:

Woman:          I’m leaving you.
Man:                Who is he?

In this example, BC argues, “the man must have thought the woman was leaving him for another man. When we make this attribution to the man, the dialogue hangs together perfectly. If we did not make it, the dialogue would seem disconnected, almost a random string of words. As mindreaders, we perceive the man’s sentence as far from random. Presumably, a person with mindblindness would struggle in vain to find any relevance in this exchange” (28-29). But this doesn’t sound exactly right.  There seems something conventionalized about this exchange. Here is another experiment (not BC’s):

Woman:          I’m leaving you.
Man:                I’ll put the seat down.

In this example, a mindreader has to work a little harder, but they can read intentional states (the man believes the woman is leaving him because he leaves the toilet seat up). This ascription is predicated on a causal linkage: the second utterance is assumed to be causally connected to the first both in why it is offered and in the content (the content is assumed to be related to the first). Because of this, I would argue we can ascribe the intentional states to the man. This second example might show how the causal relationship can then imply context as the key to intentionality rather than any sort of mindreading device.

Once BC gets to the fourth chapter of his book, he begins to systematically put together his theory of mindreading. He does this by scaffolding upward, uniting four mechanisms that are responsible for mindreading.

The first mechanism is the “Intentionality Detector” (ID): “a perceptual device that interprets motion stimuli in terms of the primitive volitional mental states of goal and desire. I see these as primitive mental states in that they are the ones that are needed in order to be able to make sense of the universal movements of all animals: approach and avoidance…The basic idea is that this device is activated whenever there is any perceptual input that might identify something as an agent…This could be anything with self-propelled motion…It works through the senses (vision, touch, and audition), and its value lies in its generality of application: it will interpret almost anything with self-propelled motion, or anything that makes a non-random sound, as a query agent with goals and desires” (32-34). Of course, there is a learning curve here, and experience will teach one that certain things—like clouds—are not agents (35).

The second mechanism is the “Eye-Direction Detector” (EDD): “I suggest that in the human case EDD has three basic functions: it detects the presence of eyes or eye-like stimuli, it computes whether eyes are directed toward it or toward something else, and it infers from its own case that if another organism’s eyes are directed at something then that organism sees that thing. This last function is important because it allows the infant to attribute a perceptual state to another organism (such as ‘Mummy sees me’)” (38-39).

BC argues that ID and EDD can form dyadic intentional representations such as “Agent-wants-the food” (ID) or “Agent-is looking at-the door” (EDD): “these representations can be described as dyadic, since they only specify the intentional (i.e., mentalistic) relation between two objects (Agent and Object, or Agent and Self)” (44). Such representations have their use, but they do not allow for communication about a shared reality, the necessary step to avoid an “autistic universe” where “you would have sensations, and you would have images of people doing things and even wanting and seeing things, but you would have no way of knowing that what you and another person were seeing or thinking about was the very same thing” (44). This is where the third mechanism comes in.

The Shared-Attention Mechanism (SAM) builds triadic representations: “Essentially, triadic representations specify the relations among an Agent, the Self, and a (third) Object. (The Object can be another Agent, too.) Included in a triadic representation is an embedded element which specifies that Agent and Self are both attending to the same object” (44-45). The triadic representation is built, then, when an agent recognizes another agent’s perceptual state. “It then computes shared attention by comparing another agent’s perceptual state with the self’s current perceptual state. It is like a comparator, fusing dyadic representations about another’s perceptual state and dyadic representations about the self’s current perceptual state into a triadic representation” (46). BC is quick to point out that using SAM in this way is very limiting because the only way to verify mutual attention is by being mutually present to that which each agent was attending (47).

The final mechanism is the Theory-of-Mind Mechanism (ToMM), which “has the dual function of representing the set of epistemic mental states [pretending, thinking, knowing, believing, imagining, dreaming, guessing, and deceiving] and turning all this mentalistic knowledge into a useful theory” (51). A unique and invaluable part of this theory involves “referential opacity”: “ToMM allows the referential opacity that is a key property of epistemic mental states. Referential opacity (or non-substitutability) is the property of suspending normal truth relations of propositions” (52). For example:

“Snow White thought the woman selling apples was a kind person” may be true even though “Snow White thought her wicked stepmother was a kind person” is false (52-53).

BC goes on to say, “My idea is that ToMM is triggered in development by taking triadic representations from SAM and converting them into M-Representations. In its strongest and clearest form, my claim is that without SAM ToMM cannot get started” (55). “M-Representations” involve propositions + intentional stances towards them such as “Adam believes ‘monkeys are magic.’” The proposition within the M-representation may be false, but the intentionality is what determines the truth value of the whole (51-52). This ability to misrepresent (in a sense) makes ToMM more versatile and powerful than the other three mechanisms (56).

BC feels that ID and EDD can both be functionally intact in children with autism, but he feels that there is a “massive impairment in the functioning of SAM in most children with autism” (63-66). BC argues that the joint-attention mechanisms (that form triadic relationships) are absent or underdeveloped in children with autism (66). Even hand-over-hand actions—such as when an autistic child may put an adult’s hand on an object to get the adult to operate it—are considered instrumental and not indicative of shared interest (68-69). This is highly questionable, and BC does not offer any reason why this must be the case.

BC goes on to argue that deficits in SAM lead to impairments in ToMM. BC’s litmus test of this is “false belief tests.” While there are a number of variants on the test, the “Smarties test” is perhaps the easiest to understand. In this test, a researcher shows a child a cylindrical tube with a Smarties candy label on the outside. The researcher then asks the child what the child thinks is in the tube. The child responds “Smarties.” The researcher then opens the tube, showing the child that it is actually filled with pencils. After this sequence, the researcher then asks the child what he or she initially believed was in the tube. A neurotypical child will respond “Smarties,” while autistic children tend to respond “pencils.” The researcher will then ask what the next person who looks at the tube will think is in it. The neurotypical child will respond “Smarties,” while the majority of autistic children will respond “pencils.” From this, BC infers that the autistic children “answered by considering their own knowledge of what was in the box rather than by referring to their own previous false belief or to someone else’s current false belief. The robustness of this finding suggests that in autism there is a genuine inability to understand other people’s different beliefs” (71).

This impairment in ToMM, BC hypothesizes, should also manifest an impairment in pretend play (as this is predicated, in a sense, on false beliefs), and research seems to bear this out (76-77). BC also speculates that autistic children should have trouble understanding belief-based emotions and argues that his previous research supports such a view (78-79). Finally, BC argues that children with autism have difficulty distinguishing between appearances and reality, with much of their world being constituted by immediate perceptions (82).

Near the end of Mindblindness, BC explicitly points out that his theory points shows that “individuals with autism may be delayed or deviant relative to the normal course of development of the mindreading system at any point” (136). He goes on to say that individuals may, indeed, develop compensatory measures and even develop some mindreading ability, though such theory of mind will differ from typical theory of mind (just as an ESL-speaker’s English will differ from a native speaker’s, even if such difference is “remarkably subtle” (136-37). And herein lies the crux of the issue (at least for my purposes).

Baron-Cohen's theory seems quite compelling: it has significant predictive power, it is intuitively appealing, and it is backed by a good deal of research. The only major limitation is one that Baron-Cohen himself points out: it is developmental. In other words, he leaves open the possibility that individuals can develop either a ToMM or compensatory measures that would mirror the work that a ToMM might do (such as an intentional calculus). Anecdotal evidence suggest that both of these may be the case sometimes. 

One additional limitation in BC's work is that it lumps "autism" into a uniform disorder (more or less), and variants of autism might have quite divergent SAM and ToMM. To be fair, by classifying his theory as both developmental and "deviant," BC does leave room for his theory to accommodate this aspect of autism. 

All told, I tend to buy into much of BC's theory as a developmental one. I do think that ToMM needs to be studied longitudinally, and I think there is vital research to be done in terms of adults on the spectrum and how they negotiate ToM. I'll have more to say on this in my seminar paper, I think...

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Week 11: 11/12-11/18

Ong, Walter. “The Writer’s Audience Is Always a Fiction.” Cross-Talk in Comp Theory: A Reader.”

Ong’s canonical text on audience raises a number of issues that should be foregrounded when thinking about autistic rhetors and their audiences. First, Ong points out that “context” is in some ways given when rhetors are speaking to a present audience: “Context for the spoken word is simply present, centered in the person speaking and the one or ones to whom he addresses himself and to whom he is related existentially in terms of the circumambient actuality” (57). By extension, then, context for writers is not given and must be constructed given varying degrees of knowledge within the relevant targeted discourse communities, and this knowledge is going to vary widely even within discourse communities (72). In addition to this constructed context, Ong argues that successful writers fictionalize their audience not on the basis of their own imaginations of an audience, but based on how previous authors fictionalized their imagined audiences which, in turn, were fictionalized according to previous patterns, and so on (60).

When Ong talks about the “fictionalization” of audiences, he is not merely referring to the narrative tradition of constructing assumed audiences based on prior constructions (though this is part of it, of course); he is also talking about the audience’s fictionalization of itself: “A reader has to play the role in which the author has cast him, which seldom coincides with his role in the rest of actual life” (60).” This fictionalizing dialectic, Ong argues, is endemic to all writing, even the writing of diaries (70-73).

Ede, Lisa and Andrea Lunsford. “Audience Addressed/Audience Invoked.” Cross-Talk in Comp Theory: A Reader

In this article, Ede and Lunsford take up similar ideas to Ong, distinguishing the “addressed” audience (a real or somehow more present audience) from the “invoked” audience (a constellation of values, knowledge states, and roles constructed as a somewhat pragmatically constructed audience) (78 ff.). The authors seem to align for the most part with Ong, but they take some issue with Ong’s reciprocal fictionalizing dialectic: “…it is only through the text, through language, that writers embody or give life to their conception of the reader. In so doing, they do not so much create a role for the reader—a phrase which implies that the writer somehow creates a mold to which the reader adapts—as invoke it” (90).

Brown, Heather M. and Perry D. Klein. “Writing, Asperger Syndrome and Theory of Mind.” Journal of Autism & Developmental Disorders 41 (2011): 1464-74. Print.

In this study, the authors attempt to quantify the writing capabilities and theory of mind of individuals with high-functioning autism spectrum disorders (HFASD). This article is an important example of the terrible disservice that can be done to autistic writers and to composition and writing studies in general when inappropriate metrics are brought to bear on written productions.

In broad strokes, the researchers assign HFASD individuals two writing prompts: a narrative and an expository writing prompt. The summary of the findings of the study read: “In sum, the results demonstrated that writers with HFASD had significantly lower text quality across both genres. They also wrote narrative texts shorter in length. Across both genres, mechanics did not differ significantly between the two groups. Finally, there were no significant group differences in the frequency of references to various types of mental states” (1470). These findings are suspect when one looks to the metrics used for evaluation.

For example, the expository writing prompt reads: “Now I’d like you to write a composition. I’d like you to write an essay on the topic of problems between people. Please discuss the topic, and present your ideas. Do not write a story, but an essay. You can take some time to think, and then start writing. Any questions?” (1467). This essay was evaluated according to suspect variables including “quality” where quality refers to “A holistic judgment out of seven on how the text impacted the reader (e.g., Was it enjoyable to read?)” (1468). Rather than go into the complete study design, it is more expeditious to abstract some generalities.

In sum, the study uses arbitrary criteria, decontextualized writing prompts, and impossible-to-construct audiences to evaluate the writing of autistic individuals. One can imagine making a case for an expected audience construction that aligns with a standardized testing “audience”; indeed, two other quality composite variables were the “global coherence score” (“A holistic rating out of five based on the degree to which the participant’s text fit together into a whole on the assigned topic”) and the “percentage of locally coherent sentences” (“The number of sentences which made reference to the subject or predicate of the previous sentence divided by ‘total sentences’”) (1468)—both of which imply a picture of writing assessment based on vague holistic current-traditional notions of well-formed texts (note: the first author works in the Department of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences at the University of Western Ontario while the other author resides in the Faculty of Education at the same institution—neither are writing or rhetoric faculty, in other words). Of course, neurotypical writers may be able to better construct audience/context expectations in such circumstances—as the study seems to show—but this may be a function of previous gaming of standardized or current traditional writing instruction/assessment.

The readings this week raise some valuable questions and concerns. First and foremost, I find myself wondering how badly “theory of mind” gets abused in both autism and composition literature. There seems—at least at this point in my reading and understanding—a conflation between “mindreading” and audience construction; in other words, there may be an assumption in psychosocial theorizing that audiences are—to borrow Ede and Lunsford’s language—addressed, and preparatory to addressed, parsed. Is this a fundamental disconnect between disciplines? I’m not sure. Next week, I am going to read Mindblindness (the canonical “theory of mind” work by Simon Baron-Cohen) in the hopes of seeing if psychologists and sociologists are, in fact, giving credence to “addressing” audiences rather than invoking them. If this is the case, there may be the opportunity for attitude-shifting in importing audience fictionalization in discussions on theory of mind. I have some hypotheses, but I’ll hold onto them for now (I do have a seminar paper to write, after all).

Monday, November 12, 2012

Week 10: 11/5-11

I'm a little behind my schedule this week--oh, sick children who don't realize that sleep is non-negotiable--but I'v got lots of good stuff, so here goes...

Jurecic, Ann. “Neurodiversity.” College English 69.5 (2007): 421-42. Print.

In this shockingly terrible article, Ann Jurecic explores how the academy must learn to deal both with Asperger’s syndrome and with the “fact” that cognitive science has much to teach us about Autism. In this article, Jurecic also discusses how she “diagnosed” a previous student with Asperger’s syndrome (when no other professional had diagnosed “Gregory” previously) and that she had to be careful not to give away too many identity markers because “…as far as I know, he remains undiagnosed and is perhaps still unaware of his Asperger’s” (428). Hubris?

Jurecic motions towards autistic people having issues with theory of mind and empathy, but she seems to not to commit to this perspective (426); at least, she does not commit until near the end of her article when she states: “…our more recent conviction that writers should learn to work within different frames and conventions and with different models of audience. But for the student with Asperger’s, a pedagogical practice focused on rhetorical strategies and shifting audiences may have little chance of succeeding” (433). This determinism and medicalization is totalizing and chilling. Indeed, Jurecic goes on to say that “Despite our awareness of the dangers of medicalization, we need to return carefully and critically to medical frameworks to discover what neuroscience has to offer” (434).

In a curious move, Jurecic admits that the problems her "autistic" student had were the same as other college students in terms of the writing, just that his were "different in degree and persistence" (427). Jurecic wants to argue that her student wrote differently because of fixity in his neurological processes, a disturbing position both because of the biological determinism and because of the exhaustive equation of cognitive processes and writing ability (427-28).

In speaking of Temple Grandin’s writing, Jurecic identifies Grandin’s work in terms of what Grandin cannot do: “"Her writing is 'autistic' in large part because, even after she has written six books and dozens of articles, she still cannot consistently define a line of argument, guide a reader from one point to the next, or supply background for references that will otherwise be unclear" (429).  Over and over, Jurecic equates good academic writing with argumentative structure, which, in its perseveration, makes it far more "autistic" than more associative writing. Ironically, Jurecic talks quite a bit about Grandin's seeming leaps and jumps in her prose, but without more text FROM Grandin, this is empty air—indeed, though Grandin’s work may not read like a stilted, 5-paragraph essay, it’s associative qualities and rhetorical nuance make it more than clear.

Jurecic feels that perhaps the best pedagogocial approach is to “nurture an Aspergian alternative discourse” (435) but since Asperger’s Syndrome exists along a continuum and since it is a shifting constellation of behaviors, what would such a discourse look like?

Ultimately, Jurecic calls for compositionists to learn about the neurology of Autism and Asperger’s “not so that we can exclude, but so that we can teach” (339). Put another, more telling, way we need to learn about neurological variation because nuerological variation determines social activites like writing. Snort.

Lewiecki-Wilson, Cynthia, Jay Dolmage, Paul Heilker, and Ann Jurecic. “Two Comments on ‘Neurodiversity.’” College English 70.3 (2008): 314-25. Print.

In this piece, the authors respond to Ann Jurecic’s article, “Neurodiversity,” with Jurecic responding to these responses.

Lewiecki-Wilson and Dolmage point out how Jurecic has a monolithic view of the essay (314) and  how Jurecic’s position elides the social nature of disability: "Disability studies is radical because it argues that disabiliy is a social construction. This does not mean that disabilities are not real and embodied; it does mean that the meanings and values attributed to the disabled are enacted by cutures, not nature" (315).

The authors point out how Jurecic violates the students right to privacy by asking high school teachers about the student's past behavior (316). Additionally, they point out the implicit abelism in this: "A teacher, faced with a student who doesn't quite 'fit' assumptions about 'normality' and doesn't thrive on 'teaching-as-usual' practices, seeks to explain or diagnose the students' 'deficiency' or 'deviation' rather than or before reflecting on and perhaps revising his or her own assumptions and teaching practices" (316).

They go on to say: “Jurecic urges compositionists to consider ‘medical frameworks’ (434) and cognitive theories of inherent differences when creating a pedagogy for autistic students. This move essentially leaves behind the critical approaches of disability studies, in fact, flying against the very ethos of disability rights, pushing for an even more comprehensive labeling and deficit-based compartmentalization of autistic writing and writers and the assumption of a determinist view of difference” (317).

“When faced with a  wide range of diverse students, we shouldn’t see ourselves as compositionists on Mars. The world of autism is everyone’s world; neurological ‘difference’ is constructed against a normative interestedness, and the maintence of the norm, at all costs, is what we hope can be challenged by and with individuals from all the long way across the spectrum of neurodiversity—for the benefit of all” (318).

In his response, Heilker points out that autism differs from other disabilities in the sense that although everyone will become disabled in some sense if they live long enough, it is not the case that everyone will become autistic if they live long enough: "autism is a disability issue, no doubt, but it is not only a disability issue" (319).

Heilker reminds us that we can and should look to rhetorical perspectives when thinking on autism and its relationship to audiene (Ong, Lunsford & Ede, etc.) to see what such perspectives can uncover (320). Heilker motions towards discourse analytic approaches (or ones like them) that will help us to see disabily as something enacted and something that exists intersectionally (320).

In her response, Jurecic tries to counter the criticism that her view of writing is monolithic by pointing out that she is constrained by the particular course she teaches and its outcomes (323). She also tries to sidestep the fact that she diagnosed her student with Asperger's Syndrome, but she only says that she was privy to "valuable information." (324). Neither of these steps are effective, and Jurecic trips, falling flat.

McLeod, Susan and Kathy Jane Garretson. “The Disabled Student and the Writing Program: A Guide for Administrators.” WPA: Writing Program Administration 13.1-2 (1989): 45-51. Print.

This is a practical guide for writing program adminstrators. The authors’ purpose in the piece is to try and strategize some policies and procedures to help WPAs meet “reasonable needs for accommodation”: “A general guideline in working with disabled students is this: the student must achieve the goals and objectives of the course like any other student, but the process by which those goals are achieved may be modified to fit the student’s particular abilities and needs” (45).

Even in1989, these authors recognize that accommodation should be negotiated on a case-by-case basis with individual students (46), and that chronic health and sensory issues should be taken into account when determining how to work with attendance policies and (students with sensory issues might be able to do work in other enviornments like the teacher’s office) (46).

The authors recommend that the WPA form a relationship with the campus representative for disability services and perhaps even invite that person to TA orientations to help new instructors think about accommodation (47), and perhaps designating instructors and/or sections as more accessible (47).

Kremer-Sadlik, Tamar. “How Children with Autism and Asperger Syndrome Respond to Questions: A ‘Naturalistic’ Theory of Mind Task.” Discourse Studies 6.2 (2004): 185-206. Print.

In this article, Kremer-Sadlik uses discourse analytic methods to examine adjacency pairs (questions and answers) in conversation between children with Asperger Syndrome and their parents. In broad strokes, she finds adjacency pairs operating according to conversation analytic tendencies, with children fulfilling Austin’s “felicity conditions” by overwhelmingly demonstrating an awareness that a question is a question and attempting to answer the question in a way relevant to the initial speaker (191-92). 

Kremer-Sadlik uses this finding to start to forward the hypothesis that parents’ local modeling of socio-cultural roles and situations helps children on the autism spectrum “to attend to predictable features and perceptual cues embedded in social situations to appropriately respond to and participate in social activities, as well as to better understand the internal dispositions of members participating in them” (200). Kremer-Sadlik then proposes that future investigations might “consider the notion that socio-cultural perspective-taking supersedes interpersonal perspective-taking [“theory of mind”] and that socio-cultural knowledge and understanding then facilitate and guide individuals in interpreting the individual members’ intentions, thoughts, and feelings” (200).

These findings are exciting for a number of reasons. First, as I suspected, autistic children are capable of internalizing the schematic rules of conversation. They may deviate in terms of other language game conventions (certain deployments of metaphor, for example), but they can understand and operate according to CA norms (“norms” meaning enacted regularities in discourse). Second, that they are able to do this means that at a minimum, they can conceive of an audience with particular expectations and beliefs that autistic interlocutors are expected to interact with in definable ways; in other words, autistic individuals can be rhetorical. Of course, this is controversial.

Some might be interested in arguing that, according to Kremer-Sadlik’s preliminary findings, the autistic individuals represented are not working with a  theory of mind, or “mindreading” as it is called. But what would this mean? Does it mean that they are not attributing internal states to other individuals they interact with? Are they only approaching interactions from the (philosophically) functionalist standpoint? Maybe. So what? There is something suspect in using the ascription of mental states to other individuals as the litmus test for rhetoricality; after all, the cognitive closure that exists between minds (or sensoria or whatever) has been a prevalent issue for pretty much all of Western philosophy, including 20th and 21st century philosophy of mind.

These findings point to more thinking that needs to be done in terms of theory of mind and its usefulness, in terms of the way that autists read context, in terms of how autists can learn social intercourse and discourse via modeling. If students with autism can parse contexts and audiences via socio-cultural rules, then they can--contrary to Jurecic and her somewhat narrow view of rhetoric--participate in discourse in meaningful and even effective ways, and Compositionists don't even need to turn to neuroscience for authorizing discourse! Indeed, as Heilker points out, there is a rich rhetorical tradition that circles around the constructed nature of audiences and how these audiences are social and local constructions.

As McLeod and Garretson (and many others) argue, disability can be negotiated within individual classes. I understand this position, but I am wondering if this negotiation (at least in terms of autism and Asperger's) continues to reify and categorize disability instead of using disability as a way to re-conceive the goals and work of Composition. Does accommodation mean we will forever normalize?

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Week 9: 10/29-11/4

This week, I return once again to Davis’s massive tome, The Disability Studies Reader. My readings this week go some distance towards complicating the medical model of disability, the social model, and the very idea that disability is a stable category or identity marker.

My first reading is Joseph N. Straus’s “Autism as Culture.” Straus wonders whether autism is “a medical condition (syndrome, disorder, pathology) or is it a social group (an identity, a shared culture)” (536). As far as the social group goes, Straus notes that such a formation is problematic for a group whose uniting characteristic (in many cases, at least) lies in difficulties in communicating and in forming social bonds (537). Discussing such commonality is problematic because autism is so heterogeneous; indeed, the very notion of a “cure” for autism elides the fact that autism must be located at the nexus of social behaviors between individuals at a historico-social point (540-41). Because of this, Straus argues, there is some absurdity involved in the notion that a medical diagnosis can exhaustively designate who is “autistic” and that it is perfectly reasonable for individuals to self-identify (542).

In his chapter, Straus also explores the notion of “local coherence,” the idea that autistic individuals apprehend objects “in their full discrete and concrete individuality rather than as members or representatives of a larger subsuming abstract category. Autistic cognition involves ‘detail-focused processing’…it is based on local coherence” (542). Straus goes on to show how echolalia can be interpreted as a desire for local coherence, for rhythmic fixity, and he points out that “one aspect of local coherence is a refusal to subsume perceptions into a hierarchy—individual events are full and complete in themselves, not operating [in] the service of a higher totality” (542-43). Straus wants to advance the view that autistic thinking is based on networks of meaning predicated on local coherence and that the tendency of autistic writers to eschew conventions can be read as them simply ignoring patterns irrelevant to their search for private meaning (543-44).

Overall, Straus wants to emphasize that autism is a construct, that the behaviors associated with it only coalesced into a (somewhat) stable constellation that was named in the 20th century, that it is a culture and not a medical designator, that it is a difference.

In a slightly different vein (ha, ha, ha), I also read Lerita M. Coleman Brown’s essay “Stigma: An Enigma Demystified.”  Coleman Brown begins her chapter with Goffman’s definition of stigma as “undesired differentness” (179). She points out that such a view means that stigma is context-dependent, relational, and hegemonic (i.e., the dominant social group defines those traits that are desirable) (180-81). She also is careful to show that stigma may originate in typical cognitive developmental stages (fearing strangers as prototypical for social stigma), but is concretized and fixed in social relationships (182-83) and remains so as long as it is useful for maintaining hegemonic power relations (189).

I also read Simi Linton’s “Reassigning Meaning” in which she scrutinizes a number of terms endemic to disability studies. She wants to show the power that resides in naming and in who gets to name. For example, Linton argues that locating the right to name “disability” in the medical community makes disability something to be cured rather than a political category to be troubled (225). Linton is especially interested in this piece to calling attention to people with disabilities as an oppressed minority group (225) and in doing things like foregrounding the label “nondisabled” (an uncovering of the normalized, hegemonic, and abelist stance from nowhere), she does a good job in politicizing the terminology in public and institutional discourses on disability.

Linton goes on to look at some of the terms used in various discourses surrounding disability and how they are overtly or implicitly deleterious. For example, the term “physically challenged” seems innocuous and politically correct, but—as Linton points out—it locates the challenge in the individual body, not in the society that disables that body through unequal access (226). Additionally, it reinscribes the cultural narrative of “overcoming” and relegates those persons with disabilities who are not supercrips to a position of stubbornness. Throughout her chapter, Linton points to the need for disability studies to not just study the disabled person or disabled social structure, but also to “examine the nondisabled position and its privilege and power. It is not the neutral, universal position form which disabled people deviate, rather, it is a category of people whose power and cultural capital keep them at the center” (236).

My final reading this week was Lennard Davis’s “The End of Identity Politics.” In this chapter, Davis wants to critique stable notions of group identities. Such identities, Davis argues, have their uses when they form locations around which individuals can gravitate and achieve group solidarity. However, eventually these positions become too constricting for members as the group identity is normalized for later members who, subsequently, challenge its singular formation (301-02). Davis wants to argue that disability may have a special status as an identity category, that it may link other identities to one another, and that such linkage may replace “postmodernism” with “dismodernism” (303).

Davis believes that much of postmodernism has been cashed out and that social constructionism, though once “daring” and “shocking,” has “simply become a way of saying that objects in the world have a history of shifting feelings, concepts and durations” (306). This leads Davis to wonder exactly how firm a line can be drawn (a la the social model of disability) between impairment and disability (309). Davis argues that “The dismodern era ushers in the concept that difference is what all of us have in common. That identity is not fixed but malleable. That technology is not separate but part of the body. That dependence, not individual independence, is the rule. There is no single clockmaker who made the uniform clock of the human body. The watchword of dismodernism could be: Form follows dysfunction” (311).

All told, the readings this week have been especially helpful in thinking about disability and writing, especially autism and writing. Coleman Brown’s chapter on stigma was thought-provoking for me in that I continually see how autism is stigmatized in terms of rhetoric and composition. These rhetors (though many would say they are not technically rhetors) are held up as a group incapable of rhetoricality for their perceived impairments regarding other minds and audiences. This, in turn, sets up “normates” as more rhetorically sophisticated (though, experience tells me that most normates are not very capable in terms of audience relationships). Juxtaposing this with Straus’s chapter on “Autism as Culture” and its focus on local coherence helped me to what may be a minor intellectual breakthrough.

In most composition courses, reflective writing has begun to play an increasingly prominent role. In reflective writing, students can navigate their own contexts, negotiate with their readers over meaning, and demonstrate how and why they made the choices that they did—all qualities that are valued in academic writing. If this is the case, why not foreground reflective writing as a universal design initiative? Autistic writers would then have the ability to describe and explain the choices they make in their writing—they can formalize and externalize their patterns of internal coherence. This could then form the connections that other readers may not initially be able to parse and which could otherwise lead to continued stigmatization.

Furthermore, if autistic writers have problems with theory of mind, this could be a therapeutic intervention. If reflective writing is foregrounded, then instructors can see how autistic writers (and all writers, really) are conceiving of the quadralogic relationship between writer, text, context, and reader and they can intervene; in other words, instructors can potentially help autistic writers construct other minds through the media of their texts and local contexts.

Not to mention that reflective writing as the primarily-assessed writing would level the playing field between autistics and normates AND provide greater validity/reliability.

I need to think on this a whole lot more, but I think there is something here.