Monday, January 28, 2008


Here are some random thoughts around “autism” overlapping with some random thoughts around “feminism,” “rhetoric,” and “translation.”


Some time back, we looked at the implications of this statement:

Simon Baron-Cohen, a professor at Cambridge University and one of the world's leading experts on autism, had an intriguing hypothesis. Autism is far more common in males than females. Those afflicted with the disorder, including those with normal or high IQ, tend to be socially disconnected and clueless about the emotional states of others. They often exhibit an obsessive fixation on objects and machines. . . Mr. Baron-Cohen suggests that autism may be the far end of the male norm -- the “extreme male brain,” all systematizing and no empathizing. He believes that men are, on average, wired to be better systematizers and women to be better empathizers. He presented a wide range of correlations between the level of fetal testosterone and behaviors in both girls and boys from infancy into grade school to back up his belief.

The extreme male brain is hard-wired autistic, so says the expert. Are women who are extreme feminists and not autistic of the same mind as the male expert?


My friend Jason would know. He’s a Ph.D. candidate in rhetoric who has some personal interest in autism. The dissertation research he’s doing shows how disparate the voices, and how few people are listening to one another on the subject. Rhetorician Krista Ratcliffe (keynote speaker of the most recent Feminism[s] and Rhetoric[s] conference) has offered “listening rhetoric” as a way to investigate what’s going on in autism. Just as Ratcliffe a self-identified white woman listens in (as in her Rhetorical Listening: Identification, Gender, Whiteness) so does Jason, a self-identified father. (Interestingly, the one who’s learned to listen to horses, namely the horse whisper Monty Roberts, offers techniques for feminist rhetorical listening for autistic children.)


Oh, if anyone cares, my translation for the Greek word we translate as “rhetoric” is “speakerism.” But we might as well look at “translingualism” as another way of conceiving “translation”; Lydia H. Liu says that the Chinese translingually appropriated western modernism (as if one hosts a guest, not as if one targets another). But I’ve digressed before I got started. In Parade magazine yesterday, there’s the word “epidemic” used again for “autism,” which is something Jason is quite interested in; we get our English “epidemic” by transliterating Greek again, when we could have just translated it as “what’s come on the people.” What’s come on us is the notion of autism. But guess who first coined that word? Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, at least in translation by Ralph Manheim: says Freud: “. . .both of them pounced on me, insisting that I should replace the word `sexuality' with another (on the model of autism . . .)” (page 85) and “. . . True, he wants to call it something different, for fear of offending the squeamish, perhaps sexity, on the model of autism” (page 87) and Jung replies “. . . Bleuler's `Autism' is very misleading and extremely unclear theoretically. ‘Shallow’ is probably the right word for it” (page 217). But all this talk would bring us back to what Michelle Ballif has said about Freud and Aristotle; and the talk about Aristotle brings me around all over again to feminism, rhetoric, and translation, asking questions about hard-wired brain-science mindsets, and about listening, and about more inclusive more egalitarian perspectives half of us pretend not to have.

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