On Styles of Consciousness, Autism Included


Whatever else it may be, autism is a way of being in the world.  It is a style, a manner of behaving and perceiving, and of being perceived.

Classical Greece had a whole lexicon of different “ways of being in the world.”  Human styles of consciousness in all their diversity were recognized and honored with festivals and in architecture.  We know these styles of consciousness today by names such as Apollo, Persephone, Dionysus, and Aphrodite.

When our enthusiasm for instance is to shed light on a subject, to dig it out and lay it flat, pick it apart, expose its inner workings, and see it in the full light of day, we are experiencing an Apollonian style of consciousness—one to which autism does not yield easily, not to date, and conceivably not at all.  But the Greek root enthusiasmos does after all mean “to be possessed by the god.”  Apollo today, Dionysus this weekend; we all are tossed back and forth, our enthusiasms making the rounds between and amongst gods and goddesses—or styles of consciousness—both named and unnamed.  This is, as the Greeks saw it, what it is to be human.

That autism also would be a god—an archetypal style of consciousness—seems strange enough at first blush. Who would have suspected?  Well, there was that old Unitarian dropout Emerson, who observed, “… no one suspects the days to be gods.”  Substituting “autism” for “days,” we might get “No one suspects autism to be of the gods.”  And who would argue with that?  How about Carl Jung, who not only suspected but explicitly claimed, “The gods have become diseases.  Zeus no longer rules Olympus, but rather the solar plexus and produces curious specimens for the doctor’s consulting-room.”

So it is that we are still in search of the literal “curious specimen,” the neurological anomaly that will open the door to an autism with its component parts laid out plain to see on the glowing flatscreen monitors of radiologists the world over.  There are though other, less Apollonian ways to understand, to stand under these things, other more humble ways to gain access and insight.

Key to that humility is one’s position in the first place on the subject of many gods versus one true God—or, one true style of consciousness.  To be clear, I am not speaking literally here. I have known practicing monotheists (those whose god is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob) whose style of consciousness was as polytheistic as the day is long; also, several assorted banes of my existence have been professing pagans or atheists who were in fact unyielding monotheists at heart.

But yes, when you are able to comfortably entertain multiple, competing and contradictory notions of truth or reality, when you can face ambiguity without needing to do anything about it, your overall style of consciousness might be said to be polytheistic.  When you behave as if there are not all that many right, healthy, or justifiable ways to be human, when you see differences as deviations from an ideal rather than variations on multiple ideals, when you discount gray tones for black and white, when you focus on the literal rather than the metaphorical, your overall style of consciousness might be said to be monotheistic—yea, though you are still tossed around and toyed with by various lesser gods, just like the rest of us.  Eros for instance makes fools of us all at times; never mind whether you “believe” in him, portraying him as a ridiculous cherub on Hallmark cards doesn’t begin to make up for the kinds of suffering he can bring.

At any rate, I’m sure you can intuit where my preferences and prejudices lie; I’m sure you can also see how these competing styles line up with the split in thinking over whether autism is an unambiguous pathology to be wiped from the face of the earth like smallpox or malaria, or an ambiguous logos we would do well to—and by—to listen to before we assume we know what it’s asking of us.  What Jung was getting at after all was that styles of consciousness, when ignored or blocked from consciousness, will get our attention via whatever avenues are left open to them, human suffering be damned—particularly when human suffering happens to be the only open path.

In this way they are very like gods, whether jealous, vengeful ones like the Old Testament’s Yahweh or yet older ones like the similarly petty, prideful inhabitants of Mount Olympus. And very like gods they make claims upon us which we must attend to, or there is hell to pay.

How then, do we go about hearing what autism wants of us, perhaps especially as it presents in non-verbal autistics?

My colleague Andrew Lehman, founding editor and regular contributor here at Shift, proposes Gregory Bateson’s understanding of Freud’s concept of primary process as a root description of the style of consciousness that is autism.  To be sure, depending on which section of the autistic “spectrum” one happens to be transiting at any given time and place, one can expect to experience a greater or lesser degree of primary process.

As a bumper sticker, Bateson’s take on primary process would read, “One Time, One Place, No Opposites.” There are connections there to dream consciousness, to animal consciousness, and to the human collective unconscious, all of which can be difficult to relate back to the everyday experience we think of as autism.  And without corroboration, it’s all too easy to presume that non-verbal autistics are mute simply because busy basking in primary process—though who knows, it may not be far from the truth.

I don’t know that either of us is proposing anything quite so direct, though.  There’ve been a few posts of mine where I’ve danced around this subject, but I’ve yet to find the opening I’m looking for.  And I’ll confess that even today, I’ve not caught up to Andrew’s grasp of the connections here.  What I’ve liked about it from the beginning though is that considering primary process as a taproot of autism invokes a respect for mystery—without, I think, descending into woo—and thus provides a framework for respecting the autistic experience, human suffering included, that is sorely missing from every other approach to autism with which I’m familiar.

For all that though, it’s still not entirely clear to me how we go about propitiating the “curious specimen” that is autism.  Before we try festivals and architecture, one thing I do believe needs to happen is that we learn to recognize it as a style of consciousness.  This, both in the sense of recognizing that it is a style, meaningfully self-consistent across the millions of people who “have” it; and also that we learn to recognize it when and wherever we see it, not just when it produces itself “for the doctor’s consulting-room.”

First things first.  One step at a time.  There are rituals after all, surprisingly similar, for establishing communication whether with animals, people, gods, or whatever.  You begin by respectfully recognizing the Other’s presence.

on 04/2/10 in featured, The Unconscious | 11 Comments | Read More

Comments (11)


  1. KWombles says:

    Interesting piece and lovely writing…..while I enjoy Freud and Jung for metaphysical speculation and nonliteral interpretations, about the only thing scientifically backed up in Freud is the defense mechanisms. Jung’s typology has had some examination, but it’s at best a mixed bag.

    I suppose the question of woo becomes one of importance if and when such speculations become more than that and are pronounced as fact. I also think there’s tremendous danger in thinking of the more severely impaired (being nonverbal doesn’t necessarily mean disconnected from the world) are simply stuck in primary process- I think that becomes as dangerous an idea as the refrigerator mom. Being autistic certainly is another way of being in the world, but it is not an intentional choice; it is a function of neurology. That doesn’t make it bad or wrong. But we are all engaging of ways of being that are results of our neurology. The problem is when the majority decides a minority is a pathological way of being to be exterminated.

  2. Mark Stairwalt says:

    Thanks K —

    How very Apollonian of you, sweeping aside Freud and Jung like that. :-)

    It’s funny, I first sat down just to put forth the idea that autism should be recognized as a style, and may well have needlessly complicated things by bringing in primary process. Oh, and also emailing you the link with the subject line: Woo? There was that, too. 😀

    Now that I’ve put my foot in it though, I remember that I left out either-or thinking as a monotheistic trait, and that what I and perhaps Andrew may be arguing for is a third place from which to speak, one not defined by the either-or, science-woo axis. This is James Hillman whom I’ve quoted before:

    “Mersenne is himself a personification of that figure both in our Western collective history and in each of us who upholds reason at the cost of imagination. It is Mersenne’s voice we hear when we ask for the facts, when souls must be located in literal bodies, and when we would reduce the images and metaphors of the psyche to dogmas on one hand or to scientific measurements on the other. His is the position that allows no third place between theology and science, no place for psyche.”

    For what it’s worth, I view the idea of being “simply stuck in primary process” as a very Mersenne-like literalism, and yes, ill-considered literalisms make for all sorts of avoidable harm. The point though is that like Mersenne with his one foot in the monastery and the other in 17th-century science, woo and science together control the zoning board in this county, defining its reality between them, with no provision for a third, competing place.

    Things have been this way for nearly 300 years, I realize, so imagining otherwise seems like folly — and I do appreciate that with science, we now have far fewer heretic-burnings. With that, not a little punchy from lack of sleep, I gotta go. Thanks for coming over and livening up the place so early in the morning. :-)

  3. KWombles says:

    :-) Hah, it was, wasn’t it? I responded before I’d had coffee this morning, does that help? You did prime me! And I teach way too much of Freud. Hah, though not enough Jung. I’ve actually read quite a bit of their works, and what I haven’t read waits for me on the shelves (they do take up some room). And, for what it’s worth, I do love them, I do. Dreamers and fascinating men, although shew, their issues were multitudinous and many.

    You’re right, of course, that there should be something in between woo and science, and philosophy is a lovely spot in between the two. :-)

    And the idea that autism is (at its less impaired) another way of being is one I emphatically agree with. I see me and my husband in my three children, and where the world bends, their impairments are reduced. The world needs to bend more, to see that there are other ways of being and that when we work cooperatively we create lives that are full and meaningful and satisfying for all, regardless of the level of support needed to provide it.

    I fear that I spend enough time in the hard science side that I have come to prefer that if something is knowable by research that it be known that way and in the process,
    I’ve let my philosophizing side get rusty.

    Shift and your posts are a delightful way to exercise that philosophical side of me. The garden girlies and I adore Greek philosophy, while the bright boy is all things Egyptian. Perhaps I will spend a little more time in those worlds and a wee bit less in the scholarly journals, and that way not come over and just kick Freud and Jung to the curb? (I had to teach Freud’s psychosexual stages of development yesterday, so I was primed even before the reading!)

  4. Mark Stairwalt says:

    K, I’m glad you understand; I struggle every week with how to encompass and address the entire variety of autistic experience, how to speak about all of it, at once, without contradicting myself. The thing is, there’s so, so much of that experience that’s gone unvoiced, unheard, and unrecognized, and has thereby gotten distorted and become invisible — you just have to jump in and speak the truth about what you see from where you stand, get it into circulation, and trust that ye olde hive mind is going to sort it out from there.

    As far as a third place to speak from then, while philosophy does occupy such a place, I’m coming more from the bloodline of psychology that never got into bed with neurology or pharmacology. Post-Jungians tend to get lumped together, but the first director of the Jung Institute has a lifetime of work behind him now (http://springpublications.com/hillman.html ), which was the subject of a seven-year autistic obsession I went through from my mid-twenties into my thirties.

    Hillman stands head and shoulders above any of the other post-Jungians as far as I’m concerned — and novelist Haven Kimmel, for one, seems to agree. Her book Iodine is told through the eyes of a university student who embodies a style of consciousness that is thoroughly Hillmanesque (not only in my opinion; Kimmel credits him in her acknowledgments), all while concerning itself in good part and in loving detail with the teaching of Freud in the university classroom.

    For that reason alone, I have to recommend it to you — though believe me, that’s hardly a full summary of what you’ll find in Iodine (there’s also transglobal epileptic amnesia, for instance, and the most ruthlessly hilarious sendup of Goth culture you will find anywhere on earth).

  5. KWombles says:

    Interesting; I turned away from Freud and Jung, moving into the neuropsychology perspective. I’m not familiar with Hillman, but will thoroughly enjoy aquainting myself with his work, as well as Kimmel’s Iodine.

  6. Mark Stairwalt says:

    Fwiw, Kimmel is a wonderful reader of her own work. I’m not much of an audiobook person, but I listened to her reading Iodine over and over; she’s got a wicked sense of dry humor, and knows exactly where the jokes are buried.

  7. Whatever else it may be Autistic Disorder is a disorder, a medical disorder, which severely restricts the lives of many who carry that diagnosis.

  8. Mark Stairwalt says:

    Your definition is certainly among the things which autism is. May I assume that since you repeat the words, “Whatever else it may be,” you are signing on to the notion that autism is subject to multiple interpretations? I’d suggest at any rate that whether autism *can* be understood in other, complementary, or even contradictory ways-including those experienced and reported by autistic people-has more to do with the perspective of the observer than with anything intrinsic to autism. You’ll find no argument here, in other words, over whether or not your definition is “right.” Your conflict-assuming there is one-seems to be more with the idea that there can be more than one valid way to experience, understand, or perceive autism. This is a discussion which as KWombles implies above, is better taken up in the arena of philosophy. Like you perhaps, I find the struggle between the One and the Many to be a compelling one-and make no mistake, that’s the only conflict I’m seeing here. I suggest it has far less to do with autism than you may think.

  9. […] that other people have minds, as it is often simplistically described.  Rather, as Mark Stairwalt sets out in detail, it involves making rigid assumptions about what others ought to be thinking.  A primary process […]

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