Defining the rootless label: a romantically ironic appeal

This article deals with a thought process which I have tried to capture. For a long time I have wished for a definition of Asperger’s Syndrome, a desire based on my own experience with it. Here I would like to illustrate that my study and life have evoked some thoughts about Asperger’s. Those ideas have developed into a recognition of a tendency that could be metamodern. My essay strives for an awareness of the experience of having Asperger’s, and of the way it’s embedded in culture and society.

I’m a student of Cultural Studies with Asperger’s Syndrome and a participant in the Radboud Honours Academy, a supplement to my bachelor’s program.[1] In daily life I have to guide myself consciously through public spaces like canteens, restaurants and train stations. Because of my sensitivity to sound and vision, and thus to the presence of people, the detailed interior and the acoustics within the room, I have to think carefully where I will take a seat. Each tiny point in the room could give me other impressions and perceptions of all the sounds and images around me. Generally this process doesn’t bother me since the sensitivity gives me the chance to be aware of the world around me.

As a part of the Honours program, I have set up a research project on the public image and reception of British electronic pop star Gary Numan. In the recent interviews I am busy analyzing, Numan identifies himself as having Asperger’s Syndrome.[2] Based on my own experiences, I recognized some ‘Asperger-ish’ tendencies in some citations from biographies written in the eighties and nineties. In Numan’s autobiography from 1997, a few years before the claims about being mildly autistic, I found quotes like this:

Apparently there are certain social interaction skills that we learn as we’re growing up. […] If someone holds a door open, that kind of thing, we respond in certain, and correct, ways. These skills get progressively more complicated as you get into more diverse social situations. The thing about eye contact, what you should and shouldn’t be doing for example. It becomes incredibly complicated but most people pick the responses up automatically. I worry that I lack some of these skills. There are certain sorts of interaction between people which most find easy and natural and a very few find stressful and difficult. That’s me.[3]

Numan declares the difficulty he experiences during social contact. However, precisely because of his estrangement in daily life, Numan is able to reflect on patterns of social behavior, to gain insight into  and to learn from it. I think this doesn’t result in a process of assimilation, but in an attitude of observing and Bildung, self-realization without a clear purpose and end.[4]

Note that my reading is based on affect, rather than on a discursive analysis. Its arguments aren’t based on a universal and essentialist definition of Asperger’s, but on my personal perception of it. On an academic level, the general validity of my reading could thus be questioned. However, within cultural studies it’s impossible to make an appeal to a certain cultural heritage dealing with Asperger’s. Mild forms of autism have a very brief and limited cultural history and tradition. Besides recent application in the television series Community, few established cultural expressions refer to the autistic experience. Moreover, something like a real autism community, with special bars, lifestyle magazines, and so forth, still does not seem to be concretely, commonly and visibly settled. Asperger’s Syndrome is a very immature discourse, a fact resulting for me in a certain feeling of rootlessness within my field of study.

What could be a valid academic way to approach both the case of Gary Numan and my rootless feeling? A field of study which does pay attention to the autism discourse is the so called ‘disability studies’. This is an interdisciplinary field which approaches ‘disability’ as a “label, a signifier, that inaugurates consignment to an identity category, which signifies disadvantage and oppression”.[5] Disability studies develop theories about the social-economic, political and discursive consequences of excluding and marginalizing people because of their handicap and socially constructed ‘shortage’.[6] As a result of this, their scholars do more research in the social model of disability rather than its biological and physical consequences.[7] They point, among other things, to the ideological nature of observing abnormalities and impairment: in this viewpoint it would be a way to hierarchically rank people in order to gain control over society and social balance.[8] For example, an individual who is observed within scientific study is isolated from ‘real’ society.[9] The disability studies scholar Shelley Tremain relates impairment to a Foucauldian sense of discursive and disciplinary power/knowledge practices of institutions, consisting of governmental and scientific experts.[10] About her remarks on present-day society is written:

In recent years, we have witnessed a rise in the sheer volume of impairment object (e.g. ADHD, SEN, Autism, EBD), where children are subjected to a battery of diagnostic tests that purport to describe these phenomena objectively. Promulgated by the biopower of psychology, medicine and education, these diagnoses actually construct the very objects they seek to describe.[11]

I can’t deny the significance of these theories about the oppressive ‘othering’ of disabled people. However, for me it’s hard to identify with the emphasis on discursive constructions of the ‘autistic’ person. The disability studies scholars seem to address the medical and governmental elite, assuming powerful hierarchical frameworks within the use of the term ‘autism’ in social contexts. It’s difficult to examine such institutions within my research, since Gary Numan often doesn’t explicitly refer to them during interviews. Moreover, the personal affective experience of autism, which I tried to capture in the introduction, isn’t discussed here. Is, in the case of my perception and my research, the personal political? Is the affective personal experience real, or is it actually an implicit pattern of discipline, an ingrained discourse? Why exactly do I firmly hold on to a frail label like ‘Asperger’s’, even in an academic context?

I think personal questions like these deal with a metamodernist sentiment. I feel academic approaches have been limited in their descriptions of Asperger’s Syndrome. I’ve noticed a desire to define Asperger’s and to use it in my academic discourse – but not without the consciousness of the fact that this is an impossible aim.[12] It isn’t, and will never be, a static label: each (mildly) autistic person has his own perception of it. Furthermore, ‘autism’ might stop to exist in the (near) future, as the definition of this term is always changeable. My motives are manifestations of “informed naivety” and “pragmatic idealism”.[13] It’s a belief in the embodiment of an autistic mind, while keeping in mind the social construction of autism; a search for unity without being able to find it. Through an introspective analysis of my pattern of thought, stirred up by my research into Gary Numan, I discovered an attitude based on romantic irony.

My personal interest dissuades me from developing a real argument: I can’t claim essential values on my own. I think it’s more suitable to make an appeal to the reader, autistic or not: to ask him/her to think about the possible meaning of the ‘autistic discourse’. This call is based on reconstruction: the constant replenishing of signs and meanings associated with ‘autism’ and ‘Asperger’s’.[14] Precisely because of my rootless feeling towards the cultural heritage of Asperger’s, I think the arts are able to make a contribution to this reconstructive attitude. They may be able to broaden the autistic issue beyond the reach of the psychiatric and political discourse. A fitting starting point could be the examination of the existential world around us, in an attempt to capture the affective experience of autism/Asperger’s. Space could be a starting point: not discursive spaces, but the space you and I live in, here and now. This might be equally interesting and important: we mustn’t lose sight of the way people concretely make use of private and public spaces. The same counts for social contact. What exactly is the ‘label’ autism/Asperger’s: an existentialist search, a form of inwardness, or outwardness, or an oscillation between these poles? Considering these issues and asking questions together may become a metamodernist longing for an ‘autism community’.


[1] Cf. Radboud Universiteit Nijmegen. (2012) “Radboud Honours Academy. Honoursprogramma Letteren” http://www.ru.nl/rha/letteren/  (25 March 2012). (Dutch)

[2] Cf. Grant, Peter. (2007) “Gary Numan: Aspergers made me aloof” http://www.liverpoolecho.co.uk/liverpool-news/local-news/2007/07/20/gary-numan-aspergers-made-me-aloof-100252-19482198/ (25 March 2012).

[3] Numan, Gary and Steve Malins. (1998) Praying to the aliens. An Autobiography. Paperback edition. London: André Deutsch Limited: 218-219.

[4] Vermeulen, Timotheus and Robin van den Akker. (2010) “Notes on Metamodernism”, in: Journal of Aesthetics & Culture, Vol. 2.

[5] Goodley, Dan. (2011) Disability Studes. An Interdisciplinary Introduction. London: SAGE Publications Ltd: 9.

[6] Ibidem: xi.

[7] Ibidem: 11.

[8] Ibidem: 59.

[9] Ibidem: 75.

[10] Ibidem: 113.

[11] Ibidem: 114.

[12] Vermeulen, Timotheus and Robin van den Akker. (2010) “Notes on Metamodernism”, in: Journal of Aesthetics & Culture, Vol. 2.

[13] Ibidem.

[14] Ibidem.

Image: Edward Hopper, Morning Sun (1952). Via The New York Times http://www.nytimes.com/2007/05/04/arts/design/04hopp.html?_r=2

There are 4 comments

  1. Hila

    Hannah, I really enjoyed reading this piece because it’s not often we get to hear such a personal perspective on the subject. I have noticed too the tendency within academic or theoretical discourse to attempt to create ‘identity categories’ rather than engaging with the subject from a more individual perspective. Thank you for writing this.

  2. Paul

    Hannah, I understand your issues, and I’m dealing with a comparable problem, although this state is not really present in my life anymore. When it comes to psychiatric subjects, the definitions and diagnoses can be very disturbing for a person and explaining people why you’re ‘different’ is almost impossible. I think the arts definitely can contribute to the understanding of these worldwide phenomena. You may always e-mail me about this subject if you want.

    1. Hannah Ebben

      Dear Paul, before I heard I had Asperger’s Syndrome in 2006, I had never expected my behaviour would have a certain name. Nowadays I don’t experience the diagnosis as a word that narrows my view on myself. On the contrary, it stimulates me to think about the notion of identity and about the possibilities and limitations of poststructuralism. Therefore I accept Asperger’s as a part of my personal identity, but if somebody doesn’t agree with his own diagnosis, he is, of course, free to utter his indignation and criticism.

  3. LJ

    This was an interesting read for me, well done. I was actually already thinking about the concept of “truth” when I happened to come across your essay. I was thinking about how relative truth really is. Coming from a person who is socially accepted, any statement automatically has that certain “truth” factor in it. Or rather, whatever “normal” people say is believable right away. Then I thought, what about those with mental conditions, or even those who are high or drunk for that matter? Dont their words count? For example, if I see a magic flying elephant and no one else in the room sees it, does it mean that it isnt true? If I believe that what I experience is true, then am I not, in the socially accepted definition of the word, telling the truth? As of now I really dont have an answer but oddly enough, your essay helped me clarify that truth isnt just “one” thing. I am coming from a philosophical perspective so I wouldnt really know much about psychology or laws but this article really caught my eye. Thank you.

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