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.
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.