autism, empathy, and the ethics of psychoanalysis

This is the second post reading Mari Ruti’s The Ethics of Opting Out in terms of autism. Maybe interpreting everything in terms of autism will become a new school of literary criticism. The first post was about nonverbal autism as a rebellion against the desire of the Other.

This is a discussion of autism acceptance in terms of Lacan’s “ethics of psychoanalysis,” which is that “the only thing of which one can be guilty is of having given ground relative to one’s desire.” Antigone is his model of the ethical act. It’s counter-intuitive that ethics should have to do with acting on one’s desires instead of inhibiting one’s sins. Here’s guilt, according to Lacan:

What I call “giving ground relative to one’s desire” is always accompanied in the destiny of the subject by some betrayal–you will observe it in every case and should note its importance. Either the subject betrays his own way, betrays himself, and the result is significant for him, or, more simply, he tolerates the fact that someone with whom he has more or less vowed to do something betrays his hope and doesn’t do for him what their pact entailed.

We tried acting normal, and look where that got us.

Ruti performs a valuable service by translating Lacan into the more-familiar Foucault. It’s about removing cultural programming from your own head and getting closer to where your autism wants you to go. It’s explicit that there is no “cure,” which is philosophically opposite to ABA. Direct quote: “Separation–a studied Fuck You! aimed at the Other–is the Lacanian antidote to alienation and thus an opening to intervention.”

It seems to me that what perhaps most unites Foucault and Lacan is their shared appreciation for the ambivalent intersection where self-reflection meets the passions of the body. Foucault’s term for these passions was eros; Lacan called them desire (or the jouissance of the real). Foucault talked about the care of the self; Lacan talked about analysis as an elaboration of the subject’s desire. Neither thinker believed in the notion of a definitive cure; but both were interested in the subject’s capacity to develop an inquisitive relationship to its destiny.

I guess it offends other therapists when Lacanians say “we don’t cure patients?” In Lacanian psychoanalysis, you’re encouraged to be a weirdo. It’s great. Lacan hated “ego-psychology” and thought of it as a lame American thing. “Psychology has discovered a way to outlive itself by providing services to the technocracy.” Lacanian psychoanalysis is compatible with not even trying to be normal, as advocated by the neurodiversity movement. It’s also compatible with the First Noble Truth of Buddhism, that life is suffering. Also, we’re alone in a cold and uncaring universe.

As a consequence, at least when it comes to bad feelings, we might benefit from recalling the Lacanian formulation I have already resorted to a couple of times: there is no Sovereign Good. Though many of our bad feelings are generated by an unjust world–and hence open to theoretico-political intervention–a degree of feeling bad defines the human condition. The harshness of this conclusion may explain why Lacanian analysis never thrived in happiness-saturated America. Fair enough. I can see why most people would rather go to a therapist who promises to make them feel better than one who tells them that she is going to reconcile them to their castration, including the fact that they will be likely to always feel a bit shitty. But is it possible that even American progressive critics cannot quite shed the idea that bad feelings represent a deviation from life rather than life itself?

On that note, it’s interesting that the Veterans Health Administration endorses ACT, another “suffering is normal” therapy I tried.


Returning to the point, one of Ruti’s emphases is that Antigone rebelled on behalf of her brother. The desire she acted on wasn’t necessarily antisocial. Ruti is explicitly trying to spread a different interpretation of Lacan than Žižek, who makes the endpoint of the whole thing sound like a bummer: “subjective destitution.” I note the similarity between being nonverbal and Žižek’s description of subjective destitution. The nonverbal and the real is a different topic…


I think it’s funny that my IRL Lacanian therapist told me “politics is outside the scope of therapy,” where Mari Ruti connects psychoanalysis and political rebellion. IRL therapist also said I needed to find some kind of “activism”:

The populations that took up arms to liberate themselves from colonial rule, the proponents of the civil rights movement, the imprisoned suffragettes who were force-fed through tubes crammed down their throats, the antiwar protesters willing to endure police brutality during the Vietnam era, and defiant queer subjects (including queers engaging in socially disparaged sexual practices) all had/have one thing in common: they were/are no longer willing to give ground on their desire in order to please the Other. Similar acts of insurgence are currently erupting around the world, particularly in opposition to global capitalism and Western imperialism. To argue that psychoanalysis is responsible for such acts would be ludicrous. Yet Lacan’s ethics of psychoanalysis as an ethics of fidelity to one’s desire provides one way to grasp something about the psychic processes through which individuals come to possess the inclination for rebellion. This inclination, in turn, is an essential component of political action: the subject’s ability to take a degree of distance from hegemonic power–or to sever the social ties that bind it to this power–may not, by itself, be enough to generate political action, but it is a necessary precondition of such action. In more Marcusian terms, it keeps the subject from “performing” in the obedient manner that it may have been conditioned to do…

As I have stressed, the self-destructive act is merely the most extreme version of the Lacanian ideal of staying faithful to the singularity of one’s desire; according to the interpretation that I have advanced, any subject who resists normative forms of desire by choosing to pursue the thread of its distinctive desire qualifies as a defiant subject in the Lacanian sense.

So here we have an approach to therapy in which the exemplary ethical act is a suicidal symbolic gesture. Also, they don’t cure patients.


They’re against empathy as a basis of ethics. The connection to autism is obvious:

My point is merely that the other’s jouissance, including its suffering, can render it so uncanny that we find it impossible to identify with it in the usual sense of the term, and that when this happens, the only thing that unites us with the other is our awareness of our own (comparable) uncanniness. More generally speaking, in post-Lacanian theory, Lacan’s reflections on the other as “real,” as an “alien” entity that ruptures the (always fantasmatic) coherence of our social world, have been recast as a political query about how we can ethically relate to what is most terrifying, overwhelming, off-putting, or repellent about the other. That is, the main ethical concern is no longer how we might manage to recognize others as our equals even when they hold different values–how we might build a viable “human” community out of radically divergent opinions and outlooks–but rather how we are (or are not) able to meet the seemingly “inhuman” (real) aspects of the other

This is precisely Lacan’s point about the ethical injunction to love thy neighbor: this injunction domesticates the other’s alienness, with the consequence that when this alienness resurfaces, “love” washes away in a flood of aggression.


Before the autism diagnosis, I already knew that I’m subhuman because I’m black. I’m still getting used to it from the autism. I haven’t seen the movie Perfectly Normal and only know it’s connected to autism in some way. What’s more interesting to me is the comments, as usual. If it weren’t for comment threads, how would I know what normal people think? Normal people aren’t sure that I think (comment not representative…for people who read New York Times movie reviews):

A question I have never found an answer to: Does an autistic person know when they are acting in an autistic way? When, for example, the conversational looping begins or the inability to comprehend what seems so obvious to everyone else continues, does an autistic person recognize that they are responding autistically? And if this were pointed out to them, would they understand what the question is referring to? Ultimately, the question is: How capable is autism of self-awareness?

To put it in perspective, I’d say I’m more likely to notice myself fucking up socially than white people are to notice they’re being racist. If it were pointed out to me, I’d probably be mortified, compared to the defensiveness of the wypipo:

But don’t you think the term is derogatory and kind of racist towards whites? No. It is derogatory towards wypipo. White people love to issue the caveat “not this white person,” and exclude themselves from any negativity. This is their perfect opportunity to do that. Plus it is a great lesson on white privilege.

How so? Do tell. There you go with those wypipo sayings again.

The reason so many white people find the term “wypipo” objectionable is because they aren’t used to being lumped in with others simply because of the color of their skin. That is the privilege they live with every day. 97 percent of school shooters are white. White nationalist extremist have killed twice as any Americans as any other ideological group. Rapists and sexual assaulters are more likely to be white. Yet, a white male in a dark parking lot or unlit alley doesn’t engender nearly as much fear as a black male. That’s the immunity of whiteness.

So when you are unfairly (or even fairly) associated with anything negative, it is offensive because you live with the privilege of existing as an individual. You are not used to being reduced to a stereotype or trope.

It’s as reductive and demeaning as being referred to as “inner city,” “urban” or “underprivileged.” That’s what the term “wypipo” does. It is a tiny, microscopic taste of wypipo’s own medicine, and I understand why they find that little spoonful bitter. It is infuriating to be cataloged into a cliché that paints you with such broad strokes.

Don’t you find it maddening? Isn’t it despicable?

But if you stop crying for a few seconds, and listen to the universe, you just might be able to hear the world’s tiniest man playing an even-tinier piano. He is strumming a sad song, collectively written by the ancestors of slaves, the descendants of Jim Crow’s strange fruit and the marginalized people all across America. Its low-volume wail reflects the buckets of white tears and caucasian pain felt by the aggrieved souls of whiteness everywhere.

It is officially entitled “Blues For Butthurt White Snowflakes in the Age of Resistance”

We call it “Wypipo music.”

Wypipo be like this:

A fame-seeking white supremacist came to New York to kill black people in the “media capital of the world” — and took out his race rage on a 66-year-old can collector, police said Wednesday.

Army veteran James Harris Jackson, 28, took a Bolt Bus from Maryland on Friday to “target male blacks” in the city, said Assistant Chief William Aubry of Manhattan South Detectives.

He particularly didn’t like black men who were romantically involved with white women, sources said.

“The reason why he picked New York is because it is the media capital of the world,” Aubry said. “He wanted to make a statement.”

Jackson, who served in the Army for four years, identifies as a white supremacist and told police he penned a manifesto about his racist views, the police sources said…

Jackson used a 26-inch mini-sword to repeatedly stab Timothy Caughman in the chest and back as he was digging through the trash near the corner of Ninth Avenue and West 36th Street at about 11:30 p.m. Monday, according to Aubry.

The wypipo be outta they damn minds! Wypipo hate miscegenation!

I don’t want the last thing that I ever do to be walking for 1 block with holes in me and collapsing in the police station.

It was really interesting to learn in Neurotribes that Asperger chose the original cases to report in order to convince the Nazis not to kill his patients. The idea that Asperger’s patients were all “high functioning” and not on a spectrum is apparently false.

Trying to get Nazis to identify and empathize with Others seems like a waste of time. An interesting and unexpected move at the end of the book is to call for a new universalism.

It seems that Dean and Bersani are right to assume that an ethics of empathy only goes as far as empathy itself does, which is why it can be unacceptably erratic, too easily derailed by lapses of empathy (and there will always be lapses–even Butler cannot prevent these). As a result, an impersonal universalism that cuts through differences may be the only viable alternative. I know that this is a hard thing for posthumanist theory, including queer theory, to admit. But it feels like we have exhausted–tried and found wanting–our other options: rampant relativism, interpersonal recognition, empathetic identification, grieving the other, feeling bad about the impotence of our mourning, destroying ourselves for the sake of the other, and so on….But impersonality and universality–like subjectivity, autonomy, and rationality–are not the property of Western metaphysics. They can be thought along different lines.

I liked the idea of starting therapy with a Lacanian because I knew I couldn’t expect to be understood, and I was right, and it made sense to choose an idea of therapy that didn’t depend on the therapist empathizing with me. I didn’t know I was autistic, but I knew the whole point was that I’m not exactly likable, so how is it ever going to work if the person has to like me?

Look at the kind of crap that comes from empathy: Living the categorical imperative: autistic perspectives on lying and truth telling–between Kant and care ethics. I might come back to it and read the whole thing, but here’s the abstract:

Lying is a common phenomenon amongst human beings. It seems to play a role in making social interactions run more smoothly. Too much honesty can be regarded as impolite or downright rude. Remarkably, lying is not a common phenomenon amongst normally intelligent human beings who are on the autism spectrum. They appear to be ‘attractively morally innocent’ and seem to have an above average moral conscientious objection against deception. In this paper, the behavior of persons with autism with regard to deception and truthfulness will be discussed in the light of two different ethical theories, illustrated by fragments from autobiographies of persons with autism. A systemizing ‘Kantian’ and an empathizing ‘ethics of care’ perspective reveal insights on high-functioning autism, truthfulness and moral behavior. Both perspectives are problematic from the point of view of a moral agent with autism. High-functioning persons with autism are, generally speaking, strong systemizes and weak empathizers. Particularly, they lack ‘cognitive empathy’ which would allow them to understand the position of the other person. Instead, some tend to invent a set of rules that makes their behavior compatible with the expectations of others. From a Kantian point of view, the autistic tendency to always tell the truth appears praiseworthy and should not be changed, though it creates problems in the social life of persons with autism. From a care ethics perspective, on the other hand, a way should be found to allow the high-functioning persons with autism to respect the feelings and needs of other persons as sometimes overruling the duty of truthfulness. We suggest this may even entail ‘morally educating’ children and adolescents with autism to become socially skilled empathic ‘liars’.

No. Normal people should learn to value logical consistency, and they should take a Lacanian approach to therapy and learn to handle the awful truths of life instead of making everybody else accommodate their weakness.  Recognizing the reality of evil is qualitatively different than suffering through leaf blowers.