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  • The Critic as Neurocosmopolite; Or, What Cognitive Approaches to Literature Can Learn from Disability Studies: Lisa Zunshine in Conversation with Ralph James Savarese
  • Ralph James Savarese (bio) and Lisa Zunshine (bio)

This conversation began at MLA in 2012 when we recognized that cognitive approaches to literature and disability studies, two rapidly and independently developing fields, must start talking to one another. The subject is autism: how it has been divergently understood and deployed and how it can be convergently understood and deployed. Kept apart, the two fields seem vulnerable to caricature. The former sometimes applies scientific and medical insights uncritically (such as the assertion that autistics have no theory of mind and, thus, cannot read fiction); the latter sometimes advances a completely social-constructionist understanding of physiological distinction (as if stigma were the entire story of alternative embodiment). Scholars in cognitive approaches to literature need the insights of disability studies to think about mind, narrative, and agency in neurodiverse ways; scholars in disability studies need the insights of cognitive approaches to literature to give the concept of neurodiversity, [End Page 17] which is quickly becoming a kind of platitude, some actual neuroscientific content. Talking across conventional disciplinary divides has precipitated questions that we would never have thought to ask. It has also made us hope that an ongoing conversation between cognitive approaches to literature and disability studies will transform both fields. We cannot foresee the exact shape of this transformation, but the formerly distinct trajectories already feel more intertwined.

A Postcolonial Neurology

Lisa Zunshine (LZ):

In her recent contribution to Disability Studies Quarterly, Paula C. Durbin-Westby, an autistic disability rights activist, builds on Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s “Can the Subaltern Speak?” to stress the importance of the “inclusion of autistics as active collaborators in research, rather than mere research subjects to be studied and then written about, often in language that many autistic people find demeaning. We must insist,” she writes, “on being ‘speaking subjects,’ with our participation and input used in meaningful ways, rather than being ‘spoken subjects,’ a position which can lead to misinterpretation of research results and to uninformed experiments.” Would you comment on the ramifications of this practice of adapting the rhetoric of postcolonial studies to disability studies?

Ralph James Savarese (RJS):

The postcolonial analogy can be traced back to a number of scholars, including Arthur Frank, who in The Wounded Storyteller likens medical patients to colonized peoples: the former’s bodies have been rationally conquered and their indigenous experience of illness or disability has been haughtily disregarded. In its place, an official narrative, in something like a foreign language, has prevailed, leaving patients feeling both alienated and disempowered. But over the last thirty years or so, patients, like postcolonial subjects, have begun to write back to this kind of empire. According to Frank, “Postcolonialism in its most generalized form is the demand to speak rather than to be spoken for . . . or, in the worst cases, rather than being effaced entirely” (13). The rhetoric of postcolonial studies thus helps us to think about the historical circumstances of the neurological other: the subaltern has not only learned to speak, it has also begun to organize, as the neurodiversity movement and organizations such as the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network make clear. Insisting on the right to self-determination and advancing a notion of autism as neurological difference, not pathology, ASAN has agitated for progress on a range of issues: from better education, employment, and housing opportunities to better, more respectful medical care and scientific research.

The difference between the privileged outsider view and the newly empowered insider one is, however, considerable, and because the scientific community often has trouble with what autistic writer Dawn Prince calls “the superior part of speaking” (“The Silence Between”)—namely, listening—it continues to cause [End Page 18] damage. Think, for instance, of the common claim that autistics don’t experience empathy, which popular novels such as The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime have only further promulgated. This claim is prevalent in the many fields that make up cognitive aesthetics.1 If one actually listens to autistics, one hears a different story. Stephen Shore, for example, distinguishes between being...


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