lacanian psychoanalysis, aba, and the children who won’t speak

I feel a little bit bad for picking on the Fathering Autism guy, because this is going to be another post using one of his videos to make a point. He comes across as likable and well-meaning, to me. His crime is blindly trusting experts.

An earlier post talks about the autistic tendency to discount innocent intentions when making moral judgments. I also want to continue some earlier discussion of Lacanian psychoanalysis and autism. The issue is that I’ve found it very useful to think about Lacan’s ideas, and they seem to fit the way my mind works better than, e.g., Klein’s ideas On the other hand, Lacanian psychoanalysis seems to be a disaster for autistic children in France, at least judging by The Wall.

Lacanian psychoanalysis is a lot about having a difficult relationship with language and the broader symbolic order. The real itself resists symbolization, i.e., it’s nonverbal. Ineffability is also a big theme in Zen Buddhism. Earlier in Mahayana Buddhism, Nagarjuna came up with the “two truths doctrine,” where the higher truth is a deep wordless understanding of the emptiness of emptiness. There’s just dependent arising, all the way down. This is similar to poststructuralism.

If Lacan wrote anything about autism, I wouldn’t know. Here, I’m going to argue that “resisting entry into the symbolic order” describes autistic mutism.

Fathering Autism’s video dramatizes the subject’s struggle against the Law taking its jouissance away. Autism and addiction are biologically related, and in Lacanian terms they could both be called turning away from the Other as a source of jouissance.

The video below is the (Name-of-the-)Father’s take on his daughter and the signifier.

Before getting into anything, at 0:45, he brings his shirt closer to the camera: “I never imagined I would be a super cool autism dad, but here I am killing it!” It illustrates a point I’ve emphasized before, that autistic children happen to everyone, including people who used to beat up autistic classmates. I think a lot of people would do a lot worse than Fathering Autism.

Learning that I’m autistic was an identity shift for me. I don’t know that it required an identity shift on my mom’s part. Do the other disabilities have that? Are there cerebral palsy parents? My childhood didn’t feel dramatized. I was the third. My parents had done this before, and I guess they mellowed with age. We never had “my child is an honor student” bumper stickers or anything like that.

01:25, “neurons are firing across her brain and they’re missing their mark,” said like it’s a tragedy. At some point, someone must’ve explained to him about structural or functional corpus callosum stuff. The corpus callosum is the bundle of axons that connect left and right cortex. Underconnected at long range, overconnected at short range. Weak central coherence. Like…it’s OK. My corpus callosum feels alright to me.

I know what he meant, though. Whatever skill I used there is how I teach. I know the subject matter, and I can recognize it when it’s very garbled.

Why not use an analogy like x86 vs. ARM processors? You can compile a program for either architecture, but they have different functional trade-offs.

At any rate, it’s impossible that his daughter hasn’t picked up on the tragic absurdity of her existence. “Her protest noise is cute.”

Around 3:20, he starts talking about how his daughter will physically grab people and drag them to what she’s interested in, forcing them to “submit.” In another video, her mom talks about putting a backpack on her at the grocery store to use as a handle for controlling her daughter’s movements. Everyone is allowed to pull her around, but she’s not supposed to pull others. What can explain the logical inconsistency, besides the fact that she’s less-than?

The sequence from 7:00 to 7:45 was amazing to me. She’s asked directly if she wants to go back to school tomorrow. Yes or no. She says no. More than once. The dad is obviously disappointed and asks why, which of course she can’t answer. “Mommy, do you want Abby to go back to school?” She says no, right before the mother says yes and starts being loud and excited.

The first time she said she didn’t want to go back to school, he replied “yes you do.” That’s really not good.

Overall, she’s learning that the way to please her parents is to never express herself, even when prompted to express herself. It’s a trap! She has to know the right answer according to other people even then. It’s understood that this is damaging for normal children.

We don’t see the father’s reaction behind the camera the first time she said no. We do see that she starts looking down and averting her eyes more. All of this is interpreted by the parents as language acquisition problems, because they don’t see the hopeful sense of humor behind saying “No, mommy doesn’t want me to go back to school (oh please).” The answer they don’t want to hear is the wrong answer. There’s a right and wrong answer to how she feels about things.

Next, he starts talking about iPads. What rubbed me the wrong way was that the emphasis was on his hopes that she’ll talk one day, as a motivation. She probably has a lot to say right now, which it would be important to her to express. Worry about that, rather than how “badly” she’ll turn out.

The last chapter of Mari Ruti’s The Ethics of Opting Out is a dialogue about silence. I don’t think the word “autism” appears anywhere in the book. You can read it like it’s about autism, though, like you can read The Inability to Mourn as if it’s about American society instead of German society. Abigail’s plight, discussed in much more detail here, puts concrete imagery to what Lacan was talking about.

In Lacanian psychoanalysis, the Other is fundamentally crimping your style. Fitting in and being functional isn’t the goal. Lacan disliked that goal.

Imagine that behaviorism is stupid and that Abigail is a sentient being. I think this dialogue does a great job of explaining the conflicts she’d be going through.

Jordan Mulder, one of Ruti’s grad students, starts things off:

JM: …It seems to me that this valorization of speech as the “one medium” of psychoanalysis raises quite forcefully the problematic of the silent subject, the subject who slips into silence, who refuses to speak. Does such a subject become, as Kirsten Hyldgaard proposes, “an empty, passive canvas for the brush-strokes of the Other?” (2003, 240). Put differently, does silence involve an automatic acquiescence to the misrecognitions of the Other? Or can it perhaps be read as a form of resistance, as a refusal to open one’s interiority to the interpretive, probing attitude of the Other (or other)?

MR: …like the ethical act and desubjectivation, silence can destroy–or at least damage–the subject’s viability as a symbolic entity, particularly in social situations where speaking, even speaking up, is expected; like failure, it can render the subject an outcast, a creature who may be physically present yet not (success)fully a member of the social group; and like bad feelings such as melancholia and depression, it can signal the subject’s withdrawal from the usual preoccupations of life. In a way, it is a means of uttering the defiant No! I have analyzed without actually uttering it. From a Lacanian perspective, what you say about silence being a refusal to open one’s interiority to the interpretive, probing attitude of the Other (or other) could be said to be a sign that the subject has learned not to heed the desire of the Other, which in most social situations, especially ones involving authority of any kind, elicits the subject’s speech (active participation). Yet you also raise the possibility that silence can be appropriated by the Other, that when the subject does not speak, it offers itself as a passive canvas for the misrecognitions of the Other. Essentially, you wonder whether silence is a form of resistance or acquiescence. Perhaps it can cut both ways, as for instance masochism also does: masochism can imply resistance when enacted by certain subjects–say, men who are expected to stay on top, literally and figuratively–but it can imply “business as usual” when enacted by, say, straight women in relation to their empowered male partners.

JM: …silence becomes a way to expose the fact that the language, the discourses, and the axioms in which one moves are always already aligned against the self.

Stimming and running away are definitely related to this:

JM: One sign that silence can enfeeble the self is the unease that often attends being silent. To be silent is often to be anxious, especially and most obviously when one is in talkative company, when one feels the familiar, slowly mounting pressure to contribute that, for the really silent person, remains unheeded; to be silent is to be anxious especially and most obviously during those times of nonspeaking when one suddenly finds all the surrounding bustle of activity impossibly foreign in nature, inexplicable in purpose, a theater put on for an audience in which one’s presence is an accident–uncanny, in short.

Before reading this last passage, think about Abigail saying that she doesn’t like school.

JM: …However, the silent subject is anomalous in refusing to “get over” the harsh imposition of this injunction to adopt language; this subject appears jealously fixated on and resentful of the moment in its prehistory when it was forced to cut itself off from pre-Oedipal self-presence. The silent subject every day seeks to repeat this moment in which the Law vanquishes the self, hoping to obtain a victory from the conflict. Consequently, it recoils from those situations in which the command to speak is issued, for these faithfully replicate the formative submission to the code of language. Silence in this way might constitute an ambivalence or resistance to one’s very constitution as a subject, a stubborn but steadfast compulsion to reenact the traumatic originary instance of language’s assertion (the unconscious hope being that in sidestepping the assertion, one is able to undo the trauma).

MR: …You describe the silent subject who recoils from the violence of th Other by opting out of the Other’s signifiers. Queer theorists, in turn, describe alternative ways in which subjects–through defiant acts, failure, bad feelings, and so on–recoil from the same violence. Indeed, your reference to the silent subject’s unwillingness to “get over” its constitutive wounding by language resonates with queer theory’s unwillingness to “get over” the painful legacies of queer abjection. Does this mean that the silent subject is automatically the ally of the–often not so silent–queer subject?

JM: I would say yes in the sense that the silent subject’s defiance, like that of the queer subject, tends to elicit the hostility of the surrounding world. It is not only that the silent subject irks the Other by its noncompliance to the rules of social interaction; it is also that the talkative subject who elicits–but fails to receive–a response from the silent subject can start to feel like an aggressor, even a sadist. In the latter situation, the talkative subject comes to view the silent subject as an enemy because this subject, in turn, makes it feel overly forceful. The talkative subject resents the silent subject for turning a seemingly innocent, commonplace interaction into a contest for domination. The silent individual becomes the enemy because he makes the talkative individual feel like a monster.

MR: You are referring to an intersubjective dynamic that shares parallels with the one Sara Ahmed (2010) calls attention to in the context of describing the queer child’s relationship to her parents. Essentially, the problem is that the child’s queerness can make the parents unhappy even when she is not actively doing anything to cause this unhappiness; it is the sheer fact of queerness–like the fact of silence–that feels uncomfortable to the parents, who consequently start to project their unhappiness onto the child, insisting that she must be unhappy (even if she happens to be perfectly happy). So in both instances, the problem is on the side of the Other’s perception, on the side of the Other’s gaze in response to a queerness or silence that is experienced as alien and therefore disturbing.

Ruti also describes how staying silent for 50 minutes was the turning point in her own analysis.  “Fortunately, my analyst was smart enough to recognize the significance of this moment.  She was a true Lacanian in the sense that she respected my ability to resist her desire.”