Color, Space, and Spectrum

The ridiculously named and sublimely informative BoingBoing last Sunday posted an article about the interplay of language and visual perception as it affects how we see and speak about color and space.  Color and space being the two visual elements that make up a spectrum, and spectrum being the predominant metaphor used when discussing the variety of ways in which autism presents itself, looking for parallels between autism and the subject matter of the article seems a worthwhile task.

While the researchers look to differences in language and culture to explain differing views of color and space, one of the confounding aspects of autism is that people who share more even than a culture and a language can have profoundly different views of what the autistic spectrum consists of and looks like, as well as where it starts and ends.  Even so, when we confront others who do not share our views on autism, it can certainly seem as if the challenges are similar to those of communicating with a foreign culture—right down to the tendency to be the Ugly American who seeks to be understood by speaking English, only more loudly than usual.

Clearly to some extent then there is a language and culture clash of a different sort going on among those who pay attention to autism; what I want to focus on for now though is simply the examples given in the article of how profoundly different our perceptions of colors and their relationships can be.  For instance, in the English-speaking world, red and pink are distinctly different colors with their own gradations of shade, whereas blue and light blue are understood to be shades of the same color.  However in Russia and in Russian, blue and light blue are linguistically and conceptually distinct from one another—just as are red and pink among English speakers.  Blue and light blue are not, in other words, different shades of blue to a native Russian; they are different colors from one another.

There’s more.  Believe it or not, the McCarthyites of 1950’s America were way ahead of us on this.  They feared the Red Menace, the Soviets and the Red Chinese above all, yes, but also “the left-wing pinko press” and the “pseudo-pinko-intellectuals.”  The McCarthyites alone had the keen cross-cultural insight to figure out the ChiComs and tip us off to pink as a shade of red—a secret the Chinese had kept for hundreds, perhaps thousands of years before Marx and Mao.  For the Chinese, pink has always been “light red.”

In addition to color, the article continues, spatial perception varies among cultures.  Having once spent some time in a job which involved getting driving directions from people who were not used to giving driving directions, I can attest that spatial perception varies among individuals to a degree that is truly jaw-dropping. The researchers at any rate describe cultural variances which suggest that spatial conception can be organized in even more fundamentally different ways than can color, enough so for example that those who only orient themselves in terms of “north, south, upstream, downstream” may be utterly lost when communicating with another who instead uses only descriptors such as “in front of, in back, left of, and right of.”  And vice-versa.  Witness the tragicomedy that is me or my wife trying to give driving directions to one another.

Transposing all this to how each of us perceives a notion such as “the autistic spectrum” is something of an abstract task, but the tune still plays in a different key, I think.  There is supposedly a running battle in autism circles for instance as to whether autism “is” or “is not” a disability.  This seems roughly as meaningful as a “battle” over whether or not the colors described above are part of the same spectrum, shades of one another, or not.  The idea that autism could “shade” from disability to gift or neutral trait depending on situation or context seems quietly self-evident to some, and an abominable, irresolvable contradiction to others.

In circles where autism is not a frequent subject of conversation, I have seen people reject out of hand the notion that certain strengths and abilities could “be” autism, because for them there is insufficient disability or pathology involved—just as for someone who speaks only Russian, light blue cannot be blue because it clearly does not contain enough … blue.  In both of these examples, the actual nature of the autistic spectrum does not even come into view; what takes center stage instead is simply our own perceptual biases and limitations.

Add the dimensions of space and time to our differing notions of the spectrum, and it really does turn on its end and become a Tower of Babel.  I tried to grapple with this in ++ungood, where I pointed out first of all that we’re all constantly in motion back and forth across and sometimes entirely off the spectrum (Julia Bascom recently tackled this from yet another direction).  I’d maybe amend that to say that the spectrum is also constantly moving around beneath us, sometimes in the direction we’d like, sometimes not, and sometimes, we’d just like it to stop.  If this imagery is all starting to sound a little unwieldy, maybe that only highlights the larger point of that entry, which was that the language we’re currently in possession of to describe the experience of being autistic is almost entirely inadequate to the task.

I’m beginning to think the metaphor of the spectrum is similarly inadequate to the task of describing autism. I’m not quite ready to swear off using it, but I’m definitely ready to find something more apt, something not so susceptible to the sort of apparently intractable perceptual roadblocks described here.

on 07/2/10 in featured, Language | No Comments | Read More

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