Feb 7, 2010

Temple Grandin's ableism

As an autistic animal scientist who seemed to problematize even further the connections between the disability critique and posthumanist thinking, Temple Grandin had always been a very interesting and intriguing character and author for me for a long time, when I finally found a reason to buy one of her books from Amazon. One of my Literature teachers in my undergrad program, Eliana Ávila, who was also in my BA dissertation committee, has recently become deeply interested in Disability Studies to the point that she founded a research group focused on the interconnections between post-colonialism and disability. She invited some of her students to present something in a future conference on Gender Studies about disability-related othering. And my publication-greedy self thought that that was exactly what I needed to finally start reading Temple Grandin, to analyze what she brought of interest to the posthuman/disability 'conflict', and to present her to the Brazilian academia.

But now that I'm halfway through the bestseller Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior, I see that I was totally wrong and that her ideas are way too problematic to even be quoted. I could go on and on about the many cringing moments in which she seems oblivious to the amount of ideology she seems to be hiding under 'biology' or just plainly supporting with her weird take on disability and animal mind. But, in a nutshell, the problem is that she is basically a humanist through and through. Through the book, she never once tries to bring the notion of disability into question, to see it as consequence of an unconditional love for ability, or to problematize the human/animal distinction. Basically, she tries to value, in a very humanistic fashion, the 'abilities' that she feels the 'disability' that she shares with animals gives her. That is doubly unnerving because one of her main 'superhero disabled abilities' is the capacity to "see the details that make up the world, while normal people blur all those details together into their general concept of the world." (30).

It may seem that she is making the very sophisticated point that maybe animals and autistic people, due to their 'different' relationship to language, can have access to the open, the alétheia, but she's not. In typical bestseller fashion, she is just celebrating the (humanist) values that the underdog turns out to also have (no pun intended). I guess everything would sound much more thought-out if she didn't insist on using expressions like "the real world" as opposed to "their idea of the world" or on summarizing every chapter with a dumbed-down sentence at the end.

I have other quibbles with her reasoning, especially with her constant quoting of biological fact as if she were quoting the Holy Writ. Her refusal to take the conclusions of complicated, fuzzy behavior experiments with a grain of salt begs me to do so. After reading so many maxims about the brain and neurotransmitters, I began to wonder what she would say if someone pointed out to her that most (if not all) research on the brain and behavior have been done by "normal people", who, according to her, "are built to see what they're expecting to see" (51) and who basically can only perceive what they want, and not the 'real world', with all its 'details'.

I, for one, also believe that whoever explained 'normal people' to her didn't give her a correct picture. To being with, I don't think she understands the gigantic difference between thinking linguistically and thinking verbally. She may say that verbal thought is alien to her, but her description of thinking visually still sounds very linguistic to me. This distinction, which brushes on the definition of the nature of language, is of course very delicate. But I believe that language is not reducible to words, and that the kind of categorical thinking she calls visual is still linguistic. Also, take a careful look at her description of mixed feelings, as in "a love-hate relationship", which is something she says she is incapable of imagining, to see that she is missing the point of how feelings intersect in a linguistic maze.

I know she has another book (I don't remember which) that contains a chapter called "Why I still work for the industry." I would like to read that, because that's exactly the question that goes on my head while reading Animals in Translation. But I guess I'm not really reading the right author if she has written a book called Animals Make Us Human. This is such a passive description of the problematic connections between humanity and animality (connections that she avoids) that I feel discouraged to even critique her.

But I believe what finally strikes me the most about her is her refusal to rethink disability, to embrace an ethics of vulnerability, and to follow Derrida's transformation of the word "can" to a non-ability, a passivity. In the end, it's her confidence in a humanist belief in ability, potency, and evolution that makes such an interesting project implode.

Edit. Other people have written very intelligently on the connections between disability and posthumanism, such as Kari Weil, Licia Carlson and Cary Wolfe (on Temple Gradin herself). You can also watch Wolfe reading his paper at a talk and taking some questions at the end.

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