“In the chain of supplements, it was difficult to separate writing from masturbation.” De la grammatologie, Derrida, p. 235.
Some people say it is ludicrous to diagnose historic figures with autism. They, consciously or not, rely on deconstruction to make their point. The word autism only exists from the 20th century and imputing it to historic figures is trying to accord a reality to it which it cannot have. This is bollocks. Instead of deconstructing (i.e. unmasking) a naïve view of things, it reconstructs some kind of innocent naïveté in which nothing goes wrong except by oppression. As if everything we supplement in this society is foreign to the true nature of it. As if words like autism are intrinsically violent and we need to put on our “original” masks of aboriginal innocence. Bollocks – nothing is further removed from the actual text Derrida has written. It is back to the ideas of Rousseau – as if Derrida had not written his supplement on that supplement. It is a reactionary idea common in progressive thought that got scared from its own conclusions and hides in a window-dressed conservatism.
Let me take one of those wild associations of Derrida – masturbation and writing – and do the right thing to show via hyperbole how autism can be literally traced to Homeros – the first (blind!) writer and how the idea of supplement is unavoidably also that of autism as a kind of mental masturbation.
Imagine the sheer cost to society of having people dedicated to memorizing and reciting whole scores of texts. They have to be fed. They even have to be praised. Why would one voluntarily pay taxes to keep the weird individuals capable of such obsession alive? They are indeed sulky, strange artistic individuals who can’t tie their shoe laces – but excel in a thing which is wildly foreign to most hard working individuals. Imagine Homeros, fed up even with the constant back and fro of performing, sticking out his own eyes in order to be free to write down in his own head an Odyssey that captures the imagination of all of those too unimaginative to leave the trodden paths of the traditional niche carved out by their forefathers. Imagine the society so captured that it pays for the scribes that can sit with him to write it down and use writing for the first time in a non-instrumental sense. I believe that Derrida would say that it is this kind of (allowance for) mental masturbation that creates the difference deferring the object of gratification in a way allowing for what we term culture (including moral agency).
Well, this is autism! Not only this Homeric attitude of obsession with reciting, reordering and creating a text but also the society which marvels at it and is captivated by it. There’s in fact no separating the two: you can only have autism if you want to eat it too. Autism – in this sense – is literally leaving a trace (a text), creating a supplement (a reflection), and, making a (moral) difference with respect to what is and should not remain as such. As an anti-conservative – as history shows: a down right subversive – tendency it destroys what is by appearing to help conserve what was. It does so by retreating from society so one is better able to find the regularities that other people live but are blind to see. It plays with them as every kid should play with its own genitals in order to see what is attractive, and what worth pursuing. Only through this most solitary exercise any new public effect can be achieved. Being different is dangerous &, at the same time, the only thing worthwhile.
Ordinary any history of philosophy starts with Homeros as the point where myth – being articulated – leads to the unavoidable final breakthrough of logic; where mere “feeling” is becoming displaced by truthful “reason”. This unavoidability is however, as Derrida does note, only seen from a specific logocentric Western point of view. A point of view where – as Nietzsche would have it – the philosophical myth is created of the original destiny of a civilized culture which shackles an individual to behave logically, consistently in craving redemption from all of the supplementary stuff of society and culture. When society thus recovers the autistic difference shaking the earth of thought (the ground of reason) it can only but react to difference as its enemy because difference refuses to be assimilated and this reactionary tendency is what we have lived out in the past millennia in the West. We have lived it out so vehemently that we have fought difference across the globe and have made that fight into what defines us as moralizing Western saviors of the human race. So the difference that autism created is what has created the modern desire to root out the irreducible difference that autism is.
Which brings me back to where I started: the recovery of deconstruction to construct the idea of a linear time in which progress is steadily made towards more ‘liberal’ attitudes – paternalist times where being progressive is conserving people in a difference instead of really listening to them as the disquieting voices they need to be. Because considering the autistic as a text written by society and “feeling” for her is to be closed off to the meaning of the open-endedness of the text the autistic is always writing and cannot but be writing (reminding us that we have to place ourselves in the different rather than console us in a false feeling of open-mindedness which has no consequences for our outlook on life). It is a philosophical myth that time has to be understood linearly and that notions like autism are confined to historical periods coming from somewhere and going to somewhere. The notions of trace, difference, supplement, masturbation, writing and, yes, autism are what makes time thinkable and can – therefore – not be placed in time. Being radical comes at a cost and it is its own prize, there is no rationalizing that.
If this is picked up I guess I’ll be accused of romanticizing autism & of ignoring its reality of problems. I am doing neither. I am saying that the reality of autistic problems is also a reality of society not allowing the time to express a difference, not putting up with a cost, not bearing the fact that bad luck and good fortune do determine a course of life. That it makes no sense if sense is something else than taking the time to listen to those who can’t express themselves in “normal” ways. Listening not because it makes us “better” but just because listening is a precondition of talking (as saying something different is likewise a precondition for listening). Life is a struggle and only when we let that be (as we must) is it worth living. We have to learn to let go of the idea we can control these things – and get with the program of allowing people to stick out their eyes just to do whatever it is they – autistically, controlling their environment – are, sometimes madly, driven to do.
As long as they genuinely talk to us, which assumes we try to genuinely listen to them.