The Ghosts That Haunt the Human Mind

It is, I think, a pretty standard practice among those who take the social model of disability seriously to evaluate observations about autism against the background of our own “real” experience with it, experience that tends to consist of practical facts and is little mediated by society’s imposed interpretations of autism.  This is after all exactly the sort of ongoing reality check offered by a model of disability that seeks to identify “systemic barriers, negative attitudes and exclusion by society (purposely or inadvertently) that mean society is the main contributory factor in disabling people.”  That reality check needs to be enforced if the social model is to gain traction in society, and if the hive mind is to be prevented from being lazy or self-serving about its definition of disability.  To be clear at the outset here, I am in favor of that reality check being enforced.

At the same time, disability and its messily-defined cohorts still exist as all-too-real, all-too-potent entities, rooting around within a self-interested society’s hive mind, moving its imagination and fueling its fears – all without being much attended to.  Much as we may be seeking to starve these entities into proper perspective, in order to leave society no choice but to take responsibility for its own scheiße … there they are.  I notice them, anyway, and I suspect the attention I pay to their little ecosystem – acting as a naturalist, after the example of psychologist James Hillman, of society’s collective psyche – is what some readers of my recent entries here find to be such a foreign, nonsensical, impossible-to-entertain practice.

There may in other words be one perhaps rather narrow set of general observations that might be applied to autism, for instance, as it is experienced by autistics and their associates who understand and apply the social model, and as it is observed by researchers who similarly lack blinders and preconceptions.  And, there may be another set of general observations, possibly just as accurate even if wholly contradictory, concerning autism as it exists and affects their world from within the society in which they live.

Sticklers will insist – and who can blame them – that only the first set of observations can be said to apply to autism per se.  I think this is a sticky problem but a minor one, a question of semantics or nomenclature.  What I see as a bigger problem is that there is value, intelligence value, strategic value if nothing else, in observing how society views disabilities, and what the interplay is between the actual conditions associated with them, and the manner in which those conditions manifest in society’s collective imagination – and that we are throwing away that value by cleaving too literally to the social model, as if it were fundamentalist doctrine.

An approach complementary to the social model might be to suggest that society experiences autism as if from the perspective of a dreamer.  Autism the scary monster for one instance, the voice of Autism Speaks, kidnapping children, ruining marriages, essentially a force of evil.  Anyone who’s seen the movie Inception might recognize advertising campaigns sponsored by the organization Autism Speaks as having been constructed by what the movie refers to as a dream architect, and inhabited by an actor with an agenda every bit as specific as the one carried out in the movie:  to influence the waking actions of the dreamer by planting an emotionally potent, contagious idea within his subconscious.

Against this methodology, it seems that (with all due respect to the capable fighters of ASAN) we as the opposition have been sitting here with arms folded tightly across our chests, eyes defiantly wide open, primly squeaking out in response, “Well, hmph! Conjured fears and evil goblins aren’t real, so there!”

There is a fragment in Edward Abbey’s journal, so far as I know never put to use in any of his novels or essays, in which he poses himself the question, “Do I believe in ghosts?”

With the reply, “I believe in the ghosts that haunt the human mind.”

So do I.  I believe those ghosts are real enough, in any case, to shape our decision-making and affect our actions as a society.

So, as the content of their advertising campaigns has indicated, does Autism Speaks.

And so, I say – given the degree to which those ads got under your skin and creeped you out – do you.

Whether you’re ready to join us here or not though, it’s worth remembering that we all know of the dream where the personified darkness, the scary monster-goblin-ghost turns out to be something else after all, perhaps even an ally, or a mentor, or maybe just some character who really needs you to buy him, say, a homeopathic cup of black, black coffee.  That’s the dream, or one of them, that we need to be architecting, scripting, and setting in motion.  And I’m not sure that can be accomplished from within the social model, or from within what I see as an idealistic, doctrinaire, or even prudish reluctance to engage with autism as it actually moves and breaths within the Western unconscious.  One never discovers the true identity, intentions, or needs of the scary monster after all, save by stopping, turning around, and walking forth to meet it face-to-face – once and for all and at last.  If the effort does prove fatal, as Inception reminds, the worst that can generally happen is that we wake up in a cold sweat, and live to try again another night.

Consider for instance how we might further cement the figure of the autistic as standard-bearer of honesty and justice into the collective imagination.  As was driven home to me repeatedly in the comments this month, this is viewed as a wrong, wrong, wrong thing to do from a literalistic, science-based point of view – which reminds me, somewhere Hillman made exactly this point, that empirical science and fundamentalist religion have far, far more in common that is generally acknowledged.  Disparate as the foci of their respective literalisms may be, they still are united in their devotion to literalism itself, united in that neither wishes to place any stock in that third place, neither scientia nor faith, but from which much that moves the world comes nonetheless.

So what I’m suggesting is likely to displease full-time proponents of both perspectives.  I’m saying that one place we need to go, one place we need to be effective from in order to realize the benefits of the social model is into the space – yes, I’m afraid without a massive advertising budget – where Autism Speaks went with the autism-as-kidnapper and the I Am Autism campaigns.  And in that space, along with much else, evoking the dream-figure of the autistic as standard-bearer of honesty and justice is very much within the rules.

Granted, if I had this to do over I might not start out with a figure who carries quite so much cultural baggage.  As it happened, I just took the opening offered by Gwen’s essay, but there are after all other autistic archetypes that don’t push so many buttons.  All’s fair nonetheless in love and war and the dreamworld.  And if you didn’t notice that those ad campaigns were acts of war – or that the theater of battle in which they took place was neither of Heaven nor of Earth, neither of faith nor of science but of myth-making and archetypal conjuring – you weren’t paying attention.  And really, who better to call onto the stage as a worthy archetypal rejoinder to I Am Autism?  I’m open to suggestions …

So.  It’s always less confusing for everyone involved to know they’re in a dream – and ain’t that just like a dream, to spend the whole time fully engaged with the storyline or the conversation, yet frustrated and bewildered at how little of it makes sense according to dayworld rules?  It would have been nice though, certainly better manners, had I managed to give everybody this heads-up before I sent Leeroy Jenkins on his suicide run straight into that whirring buzz saw of righteous literalism.  But like I say, even when you die, you wake up, you get to try again.

Oh, and hey, if you catch sight of that scary dude from the I Am Autism ads in some dark alleyway in the wee hours of your slumber this week?  Don’t cross to the other side of the street, and don’t run away.  Instead stop, turn around … and be sure and introduce him to our friend the peculiarly honest and justice-minded autistic.  Take them around the corner and down the block, sit them down in an all-night diner, and buy ’em both a bottomless cup of coffee.

Then just sit back and listen.  I bet those two have got a lot to talk about.

[image:  Edward Hopper, Nighthawks]

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related:  LEEEEEEEEEROY!!!!1!!!

on 02/25/11 in featured, The Unconscious | 2 Comments | Read More

Comments (2)


  1. Gwen McKay says:

    Mark, I love your lyrical description of the space within which the conflict is taking place. To the extent that I disagree about how best to deal with the scary monsters, it’s chiefly a matter of political framing and tactics, rather than righteous literalism. But that’s likely to get much too long for a comment, so I’ll save it for my post on Wednesday.

  2. Mark Stairwalt says:

    Well, literalism is literalism but like I say, had I realized this was all leading us into that space I describe, I might’ve approached things differently. For one thing, I’m not so much a fan of the direct frontal assault, which is why I moved the whole encounter to a get-to-know-you chat over late-night coffee.

    And whether or not one wants to bring I Am Autism or any other particular figure into it, the larger takeaway I’d like to see is that definition, including self-definition does happen first within that “third place” before it ever pops up into consciousness. If we insist that it take place all according to the daylight logic of literal truth, I think we may continue to find that all we can do is petition for amendments to the definitions already placed upon us.

    That said, there’s plenty of room for differing framings and tactics. Am looking forward to your post.

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