Mozart and the Whale

I was never a big fan of the romantic comedy genre. While some of these movies are often admittedly entertaining, they always leave me feeling a bit cheated. I do enjoy myself; I laugh, I get emotional, I sympathize with the characters, and I’m often completely engaged with the protagonists’ relationship, rooting for its success. But then, as the movie draws to its inevitable happy ending, I start to question the credibility of this whole thing. I start to reflect critically, and usually realize that the story was a bit too… much; the breakups too dramatic, the gestures too grand, the female protagonist too stereotypically cute, the male protagonist too stereotypically charming, and their love way too unreasonable. I then regret actually having been made to feel something, wasting sadness or sympathy on such an obvious falsity. I even feel I was cheated into laughing – odd as that may sound – because (except for in the first 20 minutes or so, where the jokes are usually quite good) it’s always that kind of laughter that stems from being surprised while overly emotional; like in Pretty Woman when Julia Roberts bursts into laughter when Richard Gear hands her the diamond necklace and then shuts the box abruptly. It’s not really funny – unless you’re four – but you laugh anyway. “What did I go through all that for?” I think angrily. What did I gain? I feel duped!  Give me back my 1 hour and 45 minutes! And more importantly, give me back my cynical faith in the inherently pessimistic and sarcastic nature of the human spirit.

Well, that was pretty much how I felt watching Mozart and the Whale. Image

But I have to say, that’s not all bad. See, I’ve been learning about autism for a while now; reading personal memoirs, papers and books in the humanities and social sciences as well as studies in the natural and medical sciences. Reading articles in popular media, and watching documentaries and lectures – as well as movies and series. And autism, I found, is almost always talked about in this earnest austerity; like it necessarily warrants a very grave face, the one you would wear at a funeral. (Example: recently I applied for a research grant for an ethnographic study on emotional experiences in autism. The reviewer rejected my proposal for what I thought were entirely unfounded reasons, ultimately suggesting that I might modify my research to focus on ‘distress’ as a main theme. Why distress, I wondered? Why not love, pride, aspiration, or attraction?  Why assume that the only way to talk about autism is through negative prisms?) Yet at the same time I also know autistic people; and our conversations are rarely austere. We share laughs, enlightening discussions, as well as mind-numbing chit-chat (alright, not so many of the latter). Sure, sometimes difficult experiences are talked about, where earnestness is indeed in order. But it’s not my impression that that’s the norm. It is not the only way to talk about autism.

Anyway, I found watching Mozart and the Whale to be kind of a multi-layered experience. In the beginning, I enjoyed it tremendously; the writing is good (in that pristine yet banal sort of way), the acting is pretty great, and the whole thing is done really professionally – as romantic comedies usually are. So I laughed, I got emotional, I sympathized with the characters, and rooted for them. Then, as the movie was drawing to a close, I started getting a bit angry, as it dawned on me – like it always does in this genre – that I am being duped. Why did they break up? I understand they had a fight, fair enough, but to actually break up over a thing like this? (This applies to each of the three times they broke up). Why did Izzy get so mad when Donald freaked out when she rearranged his apartment? She did this without asking him, and he’s obviously into order and routine. How about some understanding on her part? And him, how about some self-respect? This girl plays with his feelings like a marionette. I’m not saying forget about her, because she’s really cute and all and he obviously loves her, but how about calling her out on her overreacting whenever he does the slightest thing to upset her? How about these two guys have a CONVERSATION between them? You know, actually TALK about what’s bothering them? That’s kind of a major thing in relationships (for a fantastically angry and eloquently written review of the film check out this post by Caroline Narby).

But then, I was overtaken by yet another feeling, and that’s the one I’m still carrying now; it’s actually pretty cool that a movie where all the characters are autistic, and where autism is the main theme (well, aside from love; it is a romantic comedy after all), is made as just another movie in a genre. Not trying to educate, not trying to scare, not trying to draw a meaningful lesson on human nature, not even trying to promote tolerance or acceptance (not that there’s anything wrong with that); just another romantic comedy, where the characters happen to be autistic. Obviously, as far as representation of autism goes, it’s got its flaws (again, check out Caroline’s review). But still, this movie makes you want to put politics aside, and just say “hey, I just moderately enjoyed a mediocre movie about autism, without it antagonizing me by making a huge deal out of itself”. That’s a nice accomplishment I think. Maybe it even does teach a valuable lesson; sometimes autism is not the most important thing in autistic people’s lives. Sometimes it’s just something some people have to live with, while busy with work, errands, family, and relationships; in short, while occupied with living their lives.

Anyway,

I want to talk about one specific event that happened to Donald and Izzy. When Donald’s boss comes over to their house for dinner, Donald asks Izzy if everything could be ‘nice’. Isabelle interprets this (probably justifiably so) as a request that they act ‘normal’, and that makes her upset. She responds by acting – well, I’m not sure how to describe her behavior, as she’s not being herself, but not what you would stereotypically refer to as ‘normal’ either. She basically goes out of her way to make both Donald and his boss feel uncomfortable. Which I found was quite rude, seeing as he did ask her nicely and this dinner means a lot to him. Why not just tell him you were hurt by this request and that you refuse to change your behavior for his boss? That’s a very legitimate stance. Instead, she chose to act all awkward and bizarre. Anyway, that’s not my point. My point is that this scene, I think, offers an opportunity to reflect on what seems to be a very dominant theme in the lives of many autistic people. The notion of normality, and the demand that autistic people either embrace (mimic) it, or reject it, or do both alternately.

An important concept that will help us discuss this matter is ‘discourse’. Basically, discourse refers to any loosely connected cluster of texts, written or spoken, that subscribe to a certain attitude or perspective towards a particular field or domain. For example, you have the gourmet discourse, where unique and delicate tastes, textures and smells are glorified; then you have the health discourse, with its emphasis on nutritious consumption, breaking food down to its dietary elements; and you have the vegetarian discourse, which infuses food-talk with notions of morality and conscience. Clearly, these aren’t the only discourses on food, nor are they mutually exclusive. In this sense, bringing up ‘discourse’ is more of a working tool than it is in any way an objective descriptor of reality.

Similarly, there are different discourses on autism. Again, these are not mutually exclusive, and are very far from static; instead they are fluid, dynamic, and contested; reality is never so simple that it can ever be accurately sketched with such ease. But this sketch is still useful to appreciate the various influences that affect our understanding of things. Broadly put, there are two main discourses on autism, which are mostly in opposition with one another. On one side is the biomedical discourse, otherwise referred to as the deficit model, which views autism as essentially a disease, impairment, or disability. It seeks to find the causes of autism; trace its genetic, neurological, or cognitive mechanisms; find cure or treatment; subdue autism; alleviate its symptoms, and ultimately normalize autistic individuals. Medical professionals, as well as researchers in genetics, neuroscience, or psychology are usually prone to this kind of discourse (also promoted by various types of organizations), which they, in turn, reproduce and reify.

On the other hand is what’s usually referred to as the neurodiversity discourse, or the social model. In this discourse, autism is not seen as an impairment but as a difference, a form of human diversity. The autism traits (the equivalent of what the biomedical discourse refers to as symptoms) are considered ontologically inseparable from the autistic person, and thus there is no desire to be rid of them, lest the person him/herself will simply cease to be. This discourse emphasizes the role of society and its institutions in the disabling of autistic people, by way of marginalizing, silencing and othering; punishing for atypical behavior; and glorifying normality while devaluing difference. Instead, according the social model, society should be more accepting and tolerant towards all forms of diversity, including autism.

So you can see how normality is a central sticking point in discussions about autism. The very acceptance of such a thing as ‘normality’ ­– as an absolute and a positive – will most likely lead one to accept the biomedical discourse. Alternatively, leaning towards the neurodiversity model will unavoidably drive one to reconsider what ‘normal’ might actually mean, to the extent of arguing that there is really no such thing – or at the very least that there shouldn’t be.

Except, of course, there is such a thing as ‘normal’, because we all use it. We all know what the word means. So the question to ask might not be ‘does normality really exist?’ but rather ‘what sort of power dynamics do current notions of normality reflect?’ What ideology is served when ‘typicality’ is rearticulated as ‘normality’? What institutions will have trouble justifying themselves once ‘normality’ is readjusted to include autistic behavior? And how are people’s lives affected by the idea that normal=good, and abnormal=bad?

You might think that normality always existed. After all, what’s more natural and inevitable than drawing a line separating what’s normal and what’s abnormal? But this awesome graph illustrates just how recent, and therefore contingent and far from inevitable, our obsession with normality really is. The proportionate use of the words normalcy and normality has increased fivefold in literature over the last century.

Assuming that the possibilities for ‘being’ are infinitely varied, discourses constitute our best tool for tracing the influences that made people ‘be’ the way they ‘are’. They are a handy substitute for the still popular concept of ‘culture’, whereby it is often argued that it is culture that made you the way you are. Not that this statement is entirely wrong, it’s just terribly inaccurate. ‘Cultures’ are not homogenous; within any given culture there are hundreds or thousands of different available discourses which one can subscribe to; usually people subscribe to discourses which are most relevant to them in terms of age, gender, religion, ethnicity, social status, education, geography etc. Yet importantly, one very often has to make a choice – either conscious or unconscious – between different or even opposing discourses. Another alternative is to mix different discourses, taking just a bit of each.

With regards to autism, then, the choice is not so much between normality and abnormality; instead, as Nancy Bagatell, the medical anthropologist, has suggested in her 2007 article, being autistic involves a constant struggle to orchestrate two opposing discourses; the biomedical and the neurodiversity. Are my traits merely a form of difference, or are they symptoms to be subdued? If I wish to be alone, is that a valid choice or must I urge myself to seek company? In difficult times, should I fantasize about a cure for autism, or about a more just, tolerant, and accepting society? And mostly – should I lay my best efforts in attempting to pass as what others consider to be ‘normal’?

The conflict between Izzy and Donald is a marvelous example of this dilemma, primarily because the filmmakers do not suggest that any of these choices is necessarily right or wrong. Donald has a job which he loves, and therefore feels the need to impress his boss; this requires (presumably) that he and his girlfriend behave appropriately at dinner. Izzy, on the other hand, feels that her only way of getting by in the world is by not hiding her eccentricities, instead making them work for her advantage. Importantly, as the movie demonstrates, this is more than just an idle inconsequential decision; it affects relationships, employment, and social status. We, perhaps unfortunately, live in a world where appearances matter. I would think that the choice of whether to act normally or not is never an easy one. Bagatell indeed suggests that this necessity to constantly orchestrate these different ‘voices’ in choosing who to ‘be’ is itself a source of much stress and anxiety in the lives of autistic people.

But on the bright side, seeing as what we’re really talking about is not ‘normal’ vs. ‘abnormal’, but rather this discourse vs. that discourse, there is room for change. Currently, the dominant discourse has it that there is just one way of acting that is considered normal and appropriate; but like any other discourse, this discourse is also susceptible to change. Hopefully, the day when ‘autistic behavior’ would not fall outside the remit of the norm; or otherwise, the day when normality, per se, would cease to be in itself a value – might not be too far ahead.

What do you think about all this?

P.S. Did anyone else think the scene where they all go to the bleachers, boys on one side on girls on the other, is a homage to that famous scene in Grease?

References:

  1. Bagatell, Nancy. “Orchestrating Voices: Autism, Identity and the Power of Discourse.” Disability & Society 22, no. 4 (2007): 413–426.

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Snow Cake

There are a couple of things I didn’t want this blog to be about, though I knew steering away from them will take some conscious effort on my part. First, I never intended for this blog to be a film review. I’m not particularly interested in discussing how good a film is, the quality of its writing or acting, the choices made by the director, or its production value. There is quite enough of that already, and I don’t feel especially qualified to talk about these sort of topics anyway. I like movies a lot, and then sometimes I see a movie that I categorically don’t like. I can probably analyze why this is, but to be honest, I prefer to just read a well-written review by someone else to set my mind at ease, and think “ah, yes. That’s what I didn’t like about this movie!” It’s not the most original way to reflect about a film, but why waste my energy articulating a position that’s already been articulated by others?

The second thing I didn’t want to focus on, for quite different reasons, is the representation of autism in film. See, representations matter; they play a significant role in shaping our view of reality; indeed, of shaping reality itself. When members of certain social categories (e.g. black, gay, Jewish or autistic) are routinely represented in a certain way, this creates stereotypes, which in turn leads to stigma. In other words, negative, wrong, or even just overly simplistic portrayals of autism in cinema lead people to hold false beliefs about autism. This has real-world effect, as autistic people inevitably have to deal with these false beliefs on a day-to-day basis. At the very least, this involves having to repeatedly correct people’s preconceived notions about them and their condition. At worst, it prevents them from finding employment, acquiring an education, accessing services, or forming relationships. Representations matter.

So why don’t I want to write about the representation of autism in film? Two reasons. First, other people do it better than I can; in fact, some do it brilliantly. Look up Stuart Murray for a good example. Murray is neurotypical, but there are also many autistic bloggers online who have a justifiable bone to pick with depictions of autism in movies; many of these blog posts are sharp, accurate, brilliantly articulated, and sometimes angry as hell. My input in that field is just not really needed. The second reason I don’t want to write about representation of autism in movies is because it will just deflect me from my real purpose, which is to employ movies where autistic characters are depicted to talk about other social and cultural aspects of autism, as understood by various social scientists, including myself.  In order to do that, I actually want to suspend my disbelief, and take the on-screen portrayal as at least partly representative of reality, so that we can all discuss certain aspects of autism without being overly general or obscure, through a discussion about specific (albeit fictional) people and events.

snowcake

So why am I telling you all this? So that you can appreciate my difficulty in discussing the film I just finished watching, Snow Cake. I had a hell of a hard time suspending my disbelief on this one, as every little thing in this movie just shouted out at me from the screen “this is fake! And poorly executed! And a terrible representation of an autistic woman, who appears to lack any depth, life experience, or ability to experience grief or come to terms with her own emotions!” Ehm. So you see my problem? Having a serious discussion about fictional people and events is fine. That’s what this series is all about. But having a serious discussion about fictional people and events which I don’t believe and think are devaluing to autistic people is quite another. But perhaps I’m being overly critical. After all, this movie does offer some food for thought. Let’s give it a shot. Meanwhile, for a spot-on review of both the movie’s quality and its treatment of autism read this excellent post from Bitch Magazine by Caroline Narby.

Linda (Sigourney Weaver), presumably in her 40s, lives with her teenage daughter in the township of Wawa in the Canadian province of Ontario. One day a car accident kills her daughter. If I seem to report this devastating event offhandedly, it’s only because this is pretty much how the filmmakers chose to portray this tragedy. We never see Linda receive the news of her daughter’s death, but instead we encounter her for the first time a few hours later, when Alex (played by Alan Rickman), who was driving the car at the time of the accident, shows up at her doorstep to explain and apologize. Amazingly, Linda appears rather unaffected by the news. She’s not apathetic, though; she displays anger (at her intruding neighbour), joy (at the toys which her daughter had bought for her minutes before the accident), and distress (at Alex’s wet clothes which threaten to contaminate her carpet), but no sorrow, grief, or sadness. One could say that such an unimaginably tragic occurrence as losing one’s only child takes time to process. That’s possibly true; except during the 1 hour and 47 minutes of the film, Linda barely displays any emotion whatsoever with regards to her daughter dying. Pretty much the only time she expresses any negative reaction at all to Vivienne’s passing is when she refers to her, in the past tense, as “useful”. She was “useful” to her. Her only child, who we later learn was her best friend, the one person who truly accepted her, who played and danced with her, who shared stories and snowmen and made-up words with her, was “useful”. Oh, and Linda is autistic. As if that explains it.

But I digress. I actually don’t want to focus on grief at all (mainly because, as Caroline Narby observed, Linda’s character never gets a chance to grieve, but instead the grieving is reserved for Alex, who barely knew Vivienne!), but on another, less explicit theme in the movie: Minutes after they first meet, and her autistic traits become obvious to him, Alex worryingly asks Linda “Are you alone here? … is anybody… I can stay with you for a couple of days”. Linda’s ability (or inability) to live independently is recurrently referred to throughout the film. I already mentioned Alex’s amazed reaction at her living alone. Her next door neighbor Maggie expresses her own concern: “She needs other people to do things for her, if not necessarily with her. Vivienne did all the boring stuff, what’s she going to do now?” While Linda’s father mentions, without solicitation, that he never liked her house and never felt at home there. “Linda always liked it” He says, “We bought it for her because she wanted to be independent”. In one of the very last scenes, while Linda was enjoying the snow cake Alex had made for her (any ideas what this snow cake symbolizes? Couldn’t quite figure it out myself), Maggie, following through on her concern, takes out Linda’s trash.

Independence is a problematic and laden concept. In general discourse, the ability to live independently is valued as a proof of a person’s general competence; it connotes worth, self-definition, importance, even meaning. Independence allegedly differentiates child from adult; burden from contributor; disabled from able-bodied. In autism discourse (among other discourses), independence is often equated with what’s come to be known as ‘functioning’; so that someone would be considered high-functioning if they demonstrate an ability to live independently, while those who allegedly can’t  would be labeled ‘low-functioning’. The concept of independence in this regard has meaningful and tangible implications. It influences policy: resource allocation, housing benefits, education programs, service provision etc. In the more abstract and yet equally significant spheres of life, demonstration of independence is often a precondition for respect, for equal and humane treatment, for recognition of personhood.

But what does independence mean, anyway? What is “living independently”? Does anyone truly live in-dependently? And is that really what we should be striving for so passionately? Independence stands for not being dependent on anyone. I’m neurotypical, and I certainly do depend on other people daily, constantly, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. So yeah, I take my own trash out, but my wife doesn’t. She hates it. She wouldn’t freak out if she had to do it herself, but she definitely prefers that I do it. Bad example? Alright. I hate fixing the toilet. I hate the chemicals, the smell, the – well – stuff that clogged it in the first place. Also, I don’t know the first thing about plumbing, I’ll just mess it up if I try. I depend on other people to do that for me. Sometimes I have to pay for it. Sometimes I ask a friend to do it as a favor.  Does that make me less independent? Well yes, probably, but so what? We all have those things.

We rely on other people to help us live our lives. If I had to butcher my own cow to make dinner (or grow my own beans, if you prefer it) I would freak out! Different people have different skills and different preferences; that’s why we have distribution of labor. That’s how society works. I was never referred to as being any less independent because I can’t raise my own lunch, and I was never complemented for my impressive independence when I took out the trash.

But that seems to change when disability is concerned.

Because people need to differentiate. We (as in members of society) need to determine the boundaries of what’s normal. Those boundaries are then naturalized and presented as fact. Namely; some dependence is ok, but too much dependence isn’t. Rephrase; ‘just some’ dependence is renamed ‘independence’, while ‘too much’ dependence is termed lack of independence. Now it’s all sorted. But how arbitrary is this?

Taking a step back – obviously some people are more dependent than others. My wife’s reluctance to take out the trash is nothing like Linda’s anxiety. People are not the same, but are infinitely different. Autistic people, by and large, need more assistance in various aspects of life than many neurotypicals do. And of course, among those on the autism spectrum, some are more dependent, while others are less. I’m not arguing with that – I think acknowledging this is a fundamental part of promoting acceptance. What I am arguing with is the arbitrary dichotomous division between independent (healthy / able-bodied / adult / typically male), and not independent (sick /disabled /child / typically female). This dichotomy does nothing but reproduce power dynamics, in which those who are apparently independent must assume responsibility for those who aren’t. Case in point – Maggie, driven by the very best of intentions, takes out Linda’s trash, which was traditionally Vivienne’s role. But Maggie never asks Linda if that is something she would have wanted. In helping her (and in a pretty rude manner, I have to say, not even saying hello as she enters her house uninvited) she creates a reality in which she (Maggie) is the powerful decision maker, while Linda is that week receiver of assistance. Similarly, Alex decides to stay with Linda to “take care of her”, without her ever asking! Is that really a legitimate choice on his part?

Friends can and do often help each other; they should help each other; but without resorting to this kind of power dynamics, which occur when one party in the relationship is regarded as less than independent.

Rosetti and colleagues (2008), following an ethnographic study which included participant observation and interviews with autistic individuals who type to communicate, made a similar point. These authors challenged notions of agency, independence, and capability in autism discourse, arguing that all people have agency and capability, although they might require very particular conditions to express their agency (by which they mean “the opportunity to initiate a topic or agenda, participate in a dialogue, move a conversation in a particular direction, interpret others, affect the person with whom one is in dialogue, make a point, interact as a peer, and be seen as a person with ideas to contribute and a personality to inject into the conversation.” 2008:365) Independence does not exists, they argued, since everyone is always interdependent. Following from this is that incapability is never a quality of an individual, but always an outcome of environment and context.

What would change in Snow Cake, had Linda merely been considered interdependent rather than (not entirely) independent? For one thing, instead of offering to stay with her in order to ‘take care’ of her, Alex would probably have inquired about what precisely Linda might need help with in her to-to-day; since it’s not much (presumably just taking out the trash), he could have easily stayed at a hotel. Linda’s father may not have been so surprised and resentful that his adult daughter wants to live alone; perhaps accepting this would have helped him to like her home, and actually enjoy spending time there. We don’t know why Vivienne went to live with her grandparents as a kid; we’re never given that information. I suppose someone decided Linda couldn’t take care of a child all by herself; fair enough (though like I mentioned before, no one ever does anything 100% alone. That’ why we have nannies, teachers, social workers, food deliverers, therapists, doctors and nurses). But how many alternatives were considered before the decision was made to simply separate mother from daughter? How would a notion of interdependence affect that decision-making process? Actually a very nice example of portraying interdependence in the film was when Linda asked Alex to come with her to identify her daughter’s body. That was – I thought – the most touching and convincing scene in the film, because yes – people can ask their friends for help, that’s absolutely fair and legitimate. Especially in such hard times. Her independence would not even slightly be affected.

Language shapes reality; it can divide people, reproduce damaging power structures, and hinder positive development. But it can also lead to positive change, help growth, and unite people. This is basically just another claim for the thoughtful use of labels.

What do you think? Let’s talk about this some more. Please share and comment.

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Lars and the Real Girl

In a peaceful Northern U.S. town, Lars lives in the garage of the house where his older brother and pregnant sister-in-law live. Generally speaking, he lives a rather unremarkable life. Karin (sister-in-law) describes him on one occasion as “a sweetheart”. He really is. And yet, something about him does stand out. For one, he doesn’t go out much, except to work and church. He continually rejects his relatives’ breakfast invitation, using whatever excuse comes to mind. He is oblivious of his attractive female co-worker’s advances, or maybe he just acts as if he is. He’s shy, uncomfortable in social situations, and an all-around goodhearted guy.

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His un-remarkability is put into question when one snowy afternoon he introduces to his bemused brother and sister-in-law his new girlfriend Bianca; an anatomically correct, human-size, marginally life-like doll he ordered from the internet and who arrived in a crate. To him, Bianca is 100% real. He has a delusion, his doctor/psychologist says.

I don’t know if Lars is autistic, and I’m in no position to say (who is?) To be honest, we are offered another perfectly valid explanation for his idiosyncrasies. He was orphaned from his mother at birth; he was raised by a depressed and anti-social dad (who may or may not have blamed him for his mother’s passing); his brother had admittedly ran away as soon as he possibly could, leaving Lars and his dad behind, only to return after the latter’s demise. That sort of depraved childhood is likely to leave its mark on any person, autistic or not. But then there is his enhanced sensitivity to touch, whereby he describes being touched as inducing an excruciating, burn-like sensation; which possibly means his is not strictly a psychogenic disturbance. Autism does not usually involve delusions (although according to these guys http://aut.sagepub.com/content/9/5/515.short, it often does – what do you think?).  But just because someone is delusional does not mean they weren’t also autistic to begin with.

Anyway, having made a huge deal about autism not existing if it is not named in my previous post about The Bridge, this whole discussion is a bit redundant. What is the point of trying to diagnose a fictional character? It’s just speculation. I guess what I’m trying to say is – I’m not too concerned about whether Lars is autistic or not. But I do want to talk about the movie. So for the sake of argument, say he is autistic. Fair enough?

Autism is very often thought of in terms of a social disability, social impairment, social deficit; autistic people often describe difficulties in initiating social interaction, maintaining social relationships, interpreting social cues, or adhering to social norms. All these said difficulties have one very obvious thing in common – the use of the term ‘social’ to describe them. But what if we are simply using this term all wrong? What would happen if we just tweaked its meaning a tiny bit, so that it stands for something a little different? What if ‘social’ stopped referring exclusively to interaction between people, and used to refer to interactions in general? Suddenly, we get quite a different picture. Do any of the above claims still hold true?

Of course, this is not my own original idea. If I’m going to make such an outrageous claim, I’m going to have to lean on someone more authoritative than I. Bruno Latour, the French philosopher and anthropologist, wrote, “I think time has come to modify what is meant by ‘social’” (2005:2). His point was this: ‘social’ is not a thing. It does not denote any kind of substance that is essentially unique, and for which a distinct explanatory framework is required, and for which distinct laws apply. The term ‘social’, he argues, is merely a by-product of another – equally meaningless – term; ‘Natural’. When physicists, biologists, geologists and the like started going about accounting for all sorts of phenomena, they designated them ‘natural’. i.e., deriving from nature, independently of human actions. Sociologists then came along, and rightfully started wondering this: what about all those types of connections that can’t be explained using newton’s laws, osmosis, or photosynthesis? How should we account for the types of connections that occur between people, regardless, and equally independently, of said ‘natural’ processes? Such connections were designated ‘social’.

Fair enough. So what’s wrong with that? Well, that hardly any relationship, simple or complex, is ever purely ‘social’. For example:

Take the relationship between Gus and Karin. Theirs is quite unambiguously a ‘social’ relationship, right? They’re a married couple. Well, no, not unambiguously at all, because her getting pregnant by him was obviously a biological process, involving sperm cells, the uterine tube, the corona radiata, ooplasm, and an acrosome reaction – if any of these fails to function, there is no conception. And seeing as this pregnancy is an extremely meaningful aspect of their relationship… Would it have been the same if ‘biology’ hadn’t stepped in to do its part? Their relationship is based at least as much on biological processes as it is on ‘social’ ties. And yes, it relies also on physical, chemical, legal, linguistic, and a million other types of ties. Social is but one of them. That is, If you must insist on ‘social’ having any kind of meaning at all.

My point is that ‘social’ is never exclusive of ‘natural’. Latour is arguing that we don’t need these concepts that do us little good but instead only mislead us. Let’s forget about what’s ‘social’ and what’s ‘natural’; what’s actual and what’s imagined, what’s real and what’s fake; and instead let’s just talk about meaningful connections. Specific, traceable, significant connections.

Joyce Davidson and Mick Smith from Queen’s University in Canada read 45 autobiographical works written by autistic authors, and found that in so many of them (approximately half), authors spoke of meaningful connections to non-human (or otherwise more-than-human) objects: animals, trees, flowers, hills, rocks, sand. Sometimes these connections were regarded as easier than interacting with people, hence more desirable. Sometimes they were described as making more sense, having more potential for growth and learning; they were said to be calming, relaxing, rewarding, enjoyable, fun. Davidson and Mick make a great point when they ask: why should we consider these connections as any less meaningful than if they were between people? Is it just because old-fashioned humanism would have it that way? Why not take these people’s accounts seriously? If they say these are meaningful connections, why not take their word for it? Latour would similarly say: if the connections are indeed meaningful (except he means in an empirical, non-subjective way, i.e., having a meaningful impact on real-world events), who’s to decide that they aren’t? By all means, let’s trace these connections. Let’s see what we learn!

Whether or not one morally approves of Lars’s somewhat unusual love affair (I admit I was shocked and embarrassed at first – I do literally get embarrassed for characters on film), one has to admit it did him a world of good. It changed Lars. It helped him develop a sense of meaning, self-confidence, self-esteem. It helped him regain trust in people. It made him happy. It made him whole. Bianca did all that! Insofar as she was the catalyst of this series of events, Bianca is an incredibly meaningful character in Lars’s life story – and of all the town’s people as well. She is an extremely significant actor in Lars’s life. Would this process have happened without her? No, it wouldn’t! Alright, did she MEAN to make it happen? No, of course not, she’s a doll. And yet, doll or no doll, she DID make it happen, through and through. Her relationship with Lars, their connection, made it happen.

Should relationships with non-humans (animals, plants, rocks, or inanimate man-made objects) be ignored? Should they be tolerated? Should they be discouraged? Should they be seen as psychologically perverse, morally questionable, damaging? Should they be seen as allegorical or symbolic? An extension, compensation, replacement? I suppose that by and large, the answer to all these questions is a resounding No. Such relationships should be taken seriously. After all, everyone has them. A favourite shirt, a beloved chair, a childhood toy, a cherished old car… Not to mention a pet. Such relationships should be respected. And when they are respected, maybe we get a somewhat different picture of what autism really is.

What do you think? Do you agree? Have you had similar experiences? Please leave your comments!

P.S., Lars says the exact feeling he gets when someone touches him is like when your feet have frozen from the snow, and then let to thaw too quickly. By the end of the movie, he shakes hands with Margo, gloves off, with great intent. Moral? Before, he was “frozen”. A human touch meant too much, too soon. Thanks to Bianca, he gradually thawed, and a warm touch doesn’t hurt him anymore. That’s nice, I think.

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