Mindreading isn’t all Zunshine. It’s Dead Letters too.

In Savarese and Zunshine’s work on Autism, Savarese loosely defines the concept of mindreading as “what a theory of mind test actually gauges is the ability to read a highly particular kind of mind, a mind that has put itself at the center of the universe—above all other organisms and entities.” This applies to many groups of people with dividing lines: neurotypicals/autistics, different ethnic groups, gender, etc. It is argued that people on one side of the dividing line are unable to process thoughts the same way those on the other side of the line process their own thoughts. Therefore a schism is created pushing and strengthening this dividing line.

In Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener” it can be argued that most of the characters seem to have dividing lines between one another and therefore have issues processing the other’s emotions and thoughts. Bartleby, a strange copywriter, makes his boss uncomfortable with his odd passivity and lack of drive. As the narrator, the boss spends the duration of the short story commenting on Bartleby’s action and acts baffled whenever Bartleby is his strange self. After a particularly annoying “I prefer not to” conversation with Bartleby the narrator infuriatingly notes:  “I staggered to my desk, and sat there in a deep study. My blind inveteracy returned. Was there any other thing in which I could procure myself to be ignominiously repulsed by this lean, penniless wight?—my hired clerk? What added thing is there, perfectly reasonable, that he will be sure to refuse to do?” (73). The narrator, who is on the other side of the work divide, is unable to process or comprehend how Bartleby could be so unenthusiastic and apathetic about his work.

It isn’t until after Bartleby’s absence that the narrator seems to be able to understand Bartleby. After he learns about Bartleby’s previous job with dead letters and weighs the ramifications that come with such a job he laments, “Conceive a man by nature and misfortune prone to a pallid hopelessness, can any business seem more fitted to heighten it than that of continually handling these dead letters and assorting them for the flames?” (250). He realizes the effects that handling dead letters might have had on Bartleby and begins to understand why he might have been such a weird dude. The narrator concludes, “Ah Bartleby! Ah humanity” (251). And to me that’s exactly the point. The narrator was not able to understand Bartleby’s idiosyncrasies until he was able to take a step back and humanize the subject. Giving context and potential emotion to Bartleby’s past significantly impacted the way the narrator viewed present (well, past but present-past) Bartleby.

This aspect of humanizing is important in being able to mind read. Obviously one race can never truly feel the emotions of another and the same with genders, but until when one is ready to contextualize and humanize mindreading becomes a lot more plausible. It’s not really my place to decide whether an autistic has the ability to humanize others outside of their own thoughts. I’d suppose that some autistics could and some could not, just like some men understand the mindset of women better than others (and vice versa). I think with his aspect of relating things back to humanity an individual has a better shot of being able to empathize effectively.

The Curious Incident of Stereotypes in Literature

I’m going to be comparing the first review, the one from The NY Times (NYT), written by Michiko Kakutani and disabilityinkidlit (DKL)’s review, written by Elizabeth Bartmess.

The NYT review seemed to be an eerily accurate reflection of my feelings towards The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. I came across this book in high school and immediately loved it. I, of course, knew that this was not an accurate depiction of all autistic people. With all books, stereotypes are often enforced- teenagers are always moody in literature – does that mean they always mope around listening to Blink-182 while ignoring their parents and ranting on social media? No, I mean, probably- but nonetheless, it’s a broad stereotype. So, yes, Haddon’s book does enforce stereotypes, but he never claims that his work is a truthful description. Kakutani writes,

At the same time, Mr.Haddon writes with such sympathy, such understanding of Christopher’s interior life, that he makes all his obsessions and needs into a mirror of our own cravings for safety and order, while turning Christopher’s ”detective story” into a bildungsroman that’s not about finding solutions and proofs but about coming to terms with the disorder and betrayals of grown-up life.

The book is about so much more than autism. It’s story of a young boy who tries to navigate through the difficult maze of life while experiencing extreme difficulties because of his disorder. In a way, Chris is all of us. We all have struggles, some larger than others, and Haddon chose to write about a boy that he felt reflected the struggles of an autistic. I don’t think Haddon meant any harm by his descriptions, nor did he think that anyone would try and use his book as an autistic bible. He told a story; he couldn’t expect it would blow up as much as it did, and he didn’t expect people to classify autism based on his descriptions.

Now, Bartmess wrote her DKL review from a much more critical viewpoint. She doesn’t seem to see the same mirroring that Kakutani points out. Instead she seems to think that the book is outwardly disgracing autism. After I read her review and the comments that followed, I felt guilty ever saying I enjoyed such an autisim-phobic novel. But I disagree with her; I do, of course, apologize for anyone the book has offended, but as I mentioned before, Haddon didn’t mean it that way. It’s all in the way you describe something. Bartmess is describing and dissecting the details of the book in a way that is almost ethnocentric (and by that I don’t mean relative to an ethnicity, but rather relative to her field of study). Yes, it may be unfortunately offensive, but she is missing a large aspect of the novel: its function as a coming of age bildungsroman. In addition, she also speaks of the abuse Chris suffers. She seems to blame this solely on the autism but never on the individuals. His father murders a dog, lies to his son, and his mother abuses him. This is not a reflection of autism, rather a story of abuse- why isn’t Bartmess offended by the way it treats violence and abuse in regards to people in general? But rather insists this is all because of Chris’ condition.

I think this has been a bit of a rant, but it really bothered me how negative Bartmess was towards the novel. I do agree it is not an accurate depiction of autism and can offend people, but like Kakutani I feel like there are other and broader topics in the book to address.

Is Piggybacking in Writing a Boar?

Mark Gaipa’s 8 strategies pretty effectively sum up every essay ever written. Essays are formulaic in structure and his strategies map out these formulas. I found the third strategy, piggybacking, rather applicable to Murray’s work on Autism (Murray’s essay was not a bore [or a boar], but there are only so many related puns I can think of). Gaipa defines piggybacking as: “agree[ing] with a scholar… but then complete[ing] or extend[ing] the scholar’s work.” Although Murray is already a scholar, as a researcher he is removed from autism itself. He uses other scholars to back his points with real life examples and writings. Murray cites many neuroscientists and writers who deal with autism as a field of study; yet, his most effective citations are those of the ones who experience autism first hand. By using “famous” autistics in his work, such as Tito Rajarshi Mukhopadyay and Amanda Baggs, who are scholars in autism because they experience it first hand, he successfully draws a picture of the struggles, wisdoms, and daily challenges as told by autistics (But they are people, so, he is in fact people-backing http://shelsilverstein.yolasite.com/little-pigs-treat.php).

Often Murray will provide a block quote from Mukhopadyay and then explain and analyze his words. For example, after a paragraph written by Mukhopadyay Murray writes: “Tito’s sense of his own completeness, then, which might constitute ad form of overcoming, is nevertheless couched within a desire for a tolerant, diverse acceptance of the variety of the human spectrum…” (150). He uses the words of Mukhopadyay to lead into his academic evaluation of autism and its effects. This is effective because it presents the reader with the invitation to consider autism from two different perspectives: one of a personal anecdote and one of scholarship.

Murray also analyzes YouTube sensation Amanda Baggs’ strategy for being autism rights advocate, when she writes, “If what I do seems to fit an autism stereotype, then so be it. If what I wasn’t to do seems to fit a stereotype of not being autistic so be it too” (44). Murray responds to Baggs with his thought on her statement: “Baggs’ articulacy here allows for an understanding that, for all of her role as an autism rights advocate, her sense of her own autism is not one that involves any straightforward acceptance of terms” (44). The two quotes successfully “piggyback” off one another. Sentiments from Baggs or Mukhopadyay evoke support and empathy from the reader. In addition, they provide descriptions that are legitimate and accurate because no one understands the intense emotions they experience better than they do. Murray, and the other scholars he cites, adds an air of academia to the writing. It verifies their statements. Of course, the statements do not need to be verified- they can speak for themselves, but using scholarship allows science and academic thought to support their assertions.

Monkey See, Monkey Probably Won’t Do Because the Characters in the Text are Kinda Static

Kaitlyn Greenidge’s work was rather surprising to me. When I first opened it up and began reading I was taken aback. I don’t know why but I had some weird preconceived notion that Charlie Freeman was an autistic boy. Lo and behold, instead he was suddenly a chimpanzee. After that first initial shock I had a hard time getting over the seeming randomness of the text: a black family teaches a chimpanzee sign language. That’s a weird premise. Someone asked me what the book I was reading was about and I responded: pick a race, an animal, and a language and see if you can guess (unfortunately, he was wrong and picked Sudanese, alligator, and jive [which I think it technically a dialect, but it’s cool]). Nonetheless, as I moved through the text, I found it compelling. The work raised a lot of deep and important issues that flowed with its unique storyline. But then that was it. It never really explained what was going on or why it chose to follow the path it did. I have no idea why I found the book compelling- I guess I thought I’d develop a connection with a character. I thought that by the time the book ended I’d be saying “I love you, Charlie Freeman” (as cheesy as that sounds), but I mean, no, as much as I truly adore chimpanzees, I don’t feel like the book gave me a reason to love him. I don’t feel like the book gave a lot of reason in general.

As I was reading I couldn’t help but compare the book to Gilman’s “The Yellow Wall-Paper”. Both texts depicted an individual who was trapped (in many ways). Gilman’s work showcased a young woman who was trapped by patriarchy, and by mental illness, while Greenidge’s text covers issues of being entrapped by race, gender, appearance, and stigmas. Gilman used her text to try and breakthrough these problems; her text concludes with, “I’ve got out at last”, the protagonist is finally freed (or working her way to freedom). She has been somewhat successful. But what did this text really accomplish? The family continued to break and didn’t progress- the father left, the siblings grew apart (never to fully reconcile only to meet briefly annually), the race issues were still stigmatized, and Callie still felt insecure about her appearance, unable to handle responsibility, and was treated as a little girl (the mother was unhappy with her decision to live abroad). They were all still trapped. Even visiting Charlie at the end seemed to me a telling sign that they are not ready to move on. Their actions are static. Charlotte discovering her own identity was the only defining factor that seemed to suggest she was breaking past her stigmatized and stereotyped relationship with Aida.

So ultimately, it didn’t seem that the family, other than Charlotte, really grew or un-trapped themselves. They didn’t escape the labyrinth that Gilman’s character worked so hard to create a path for. They didn’t seem to really grow throughout the novel, but rather continued to get stuck in their problems, growing with them, and only marginally moving out of them.

Invisible Man (I thought I’d reiterate the metaphor in case anyone missed it the first 5000 times it was mentioned)

There was a black man whose life was wrought by racism leaving him defined by his apparent and unfortunate lack of salience in society. He is aptly called the invisible man because all he does and strives for is for naught solely because the color of his skin renders him invisible. And he lives underground with a lot of light bulbs and makes a nice pun about yams on page 266; that’s really all. Nonetheless, the book is 581 pages long.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I think this book is important, deep, and filled with metaphoric resonance. Moreover, it depicts the struggle that blacks and other ethnicities endured (and continue to endure) and acted (acts) successfully as a satire that comments on how these ethnicities are often forced to live out their lives in extreme and unfortunate manners. However, the book was just too long. The metaphor of invisibility was too stretched out and too many things in the book were just too drawn out. It almost seems as if the author wanted to inflict the narrator’s pain on the reader by presenting a never-ending book (not that the pains are comparable, of course).

This brings me to the qualities of Ellison’s narrator. This appropriately unnamed individual (he’s invisible, remember?) presents his story in a quasi-stream of consciousness. His life plays out in front of the reader while he listens to jazz in his well-lit mole-home. However, the narrator defines himself as the invisible man- in fact, he begins the entire book with this fact: “I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allen Poe…” (3). While this man is clearly learned (citing Poe within seconds of “meeting” the reader), he accepts the label society placed on him. The duration of the book consists of our out of the box narrator being broken and reformed into this invisible man with an accepted invisible status. While this is terrible (and again a deep metaphor for societal racism) it makes me question the narrator’s sanity and trustworthiness throughout the rest of the book. Has he gone crazy? Or has he just been broken? Are the memories skewed as traumatic events often are?

On my way home from school today, a very mentally unstable lady was on the bus. An old man said something to a teenager about his backpack being in the way and this old man would not drop the topic. The lady then proceeded to give a sermon to the entire bus about everything that has ever happened to her in her life. She spoke of David, Mary’s husband, whom nobody likes, who raped her, slavery in Brazil (she was not Brazilian), and stabbing pains in her heart. Somehow, her point was that the old man should shut up and walk to the back of the bus instead of raising other peoples’ children. Her story seemed terrible, but her speech was incoherent and she seemed to ramble (stream of consciousness?)- did these events really happen, or did the memories stem from other traumas or mental instability?

I don’t doubt the horrors that occurred to the bus lady or our narrator. However, the narrator’s pained acceptance of his life and status by the end of the novel seems like he is no longer the same intelligent and mindful character he started out as. Is that character un-development? Are those the effects of trauma? Or is the outcome simply the progression of his life? Is this an un-bildungsroman? Does a character’s defeat mark the essence of the novel- and if so can we trust the narrator?

Upside Down and Inside Out

Both Damasio and Dehaene’s chapters this week presented an overload of neurobiological information that was extremely hard to contextualize and process. Therefore, I tried to relate their writings back to something a little easier to comprehend. Pixar’s recent film, Inside Out, reminded me a lot of this week’s readings. This movie, for those who have not been fortunate enough to have seen it, is about the emotions of a young girl, Riley, who is going through standard, kid issues: moving, changing friends, dealing with school, etc. The movie gives an inside look into the kid’s emotions, which allows the viewer to see why the girl acts in the ways she does. This, to me, seems like a very good and accurate representation of how the brain works: when you see something you don’t like, disgust flips a switch and makes you nauseated by the scene. Anger is quick to act, Sadness cries all over everything, and there is a sad but hopeful furry elephant that helps everyone out while singing catchy jingles (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vn3fteOja7M). Sadly, these readings choose to complicate this.

Damasio discusses three closely related phenomena: an emotion, the feeling of that emotion, and knowing we have a feeling of that emotion (8). I guess this is what Pixar was trying to highlight in a simpler way: There are primary emotions that everyone has, the emotions were personified and verbalized and therefore the viewer understood the feeling of the emotion, and the access into the Riley’s brain allowed the viewer to understand that people have this emotion. Why do we get angry so quickly or sad over insignificant things? Sometimes it’s easier to understand heavy concepts through artful mediations (Inside Out, Neurocomic?) rather than scholarship

The idea that the emotion, or feeling is relative to the individual is also played out in both mediums. Damasio writes, “there is a presence of you in a particular relationship with some object. If there were no such presence, how would your thoughts belong to you?” (11). He notes the importance of presence- it’s always there. Inside Out placed the viewer as the presence in Riley’s mind. At the same time, we understood her experiences while also possessing more in tuned knowledge of her mind because we had an inside access. We were the observer and the thinker, the actor, the knower, and the perceiver along with the Riley- every neuroscientist’s dream. Still, the movie lacks the scientific ability (because it’s aimed at kids) to explain how and why the emotions act in the ways they do. Damasio tries wrestling with these concepts too along with his problems of consciousness. He speaks about lesions and the specific indices of brain structure and activity- maybe this helps explain what Inside Out is lacking.

While the authors we read for today would probably be very uncomfortable with Pixar’s rudimentary depiction of the human consciousness I like to think Pixar got some really important things right and I would say to an extent, the authors might agree with that. I think it would be worthwhile to analyze this movie from a refined neurobiological perspective in order to understand the complexities of the brain in a basic way.

The Shaking Behind The Yellow Wall-Paper

Charlotte Perkins Gillman (Stetson)’s late 19th century story, “The Yellow Wall-Paper”, is ripe with feminist ideals. While, it is almost impossible to ignore these ‘down with the patriarchy’ cues, in fact the story was written to bring awareness to women’s mental health. In a very short article titled, “Why I Wrote The Yellow Wall-Paper”, Gillman relays her experience with nervous breakdowns and melancholia. Much like her character, Jane, Gillman was told not to touch a pen, brush, or pencil. Her creative expression was severely limited. This speaks to both the feminist aspect of her work as well as the neurological. For anyone who is interested you can read the rest of her short article here: https://csivc.csi.cuny.edu/history/files/lavender/whyyw.html

Siri Hustvedt wrote a sort of memoir-like essay of a book, The Shaking Woman, with undeniable comparisons to Gillman’s story. Hustvedt speaks of her inability to stop herself from shaking while speaking about and eulogizing her father. Her book explores hysteria, schizophrenia, and other mental disorders. While the test cases and research in her book were very interesting to analyze and consider, her book was a 199 paged long essay on neurological disorders with her personal anecdotes interspersed. Her writing and research seems obsessive, as she frequently notes, and to be honest, not particularly healthy. It made me wonder if aside from her shaking she suffered from some form of OCD-like complex.

However, her book did act as an interesting lens to interpret and better understand Gillman’s short story. It almost acts as a personified version of Gillman’s character. The history of hysteria and other neurological disorders helps put both Hustvedt and Jane’s compulsions into context. Other cases help amplify their extent. Both works speak to how society shies away from dealing and understanding mental disorders and how hard it is for those who suffer from these disorder shave to work to get people to take them seriously. Aside from that I thought it was very interesting that Jane was told not to write from which the lack of expression aided her descent into madness. On the other hand, Hustvedt did write and boy did she write a lot. Was this her saving grace? Is this what kept her grounded? Hustvedt speaks of her work with patients suffering from various disorders and the writing exercises she did with them and how cathartic it was. To me this amplifies the importance of having an outlet, whether it is writing, reading, art, or anything to express oneself.

Starr-y Night: Aesthetics and Beauty in Literature

Farinella and Ros’ Neurocomic and Starr’s introduction to Feeling Beauty both try to explain neurological experiences to their readers. While one text uses graphics and a story to explain the technical functions of the brain the other uses formal essayistic structure and poetic examples. The comic is an almost meta- personification of Starr’s theory on aesthetics.

First, the text itself is a form of art, while it’s not poetry, literature is still an art form and any form of written words can still move an individual. Arguably, the font in which the words are written could be perceived as an art form too. If “images of poetry can trick us with simulations of truth” what does the all caps, handwritten font tell us about the authors’ intentions for this comic (Starr 7)? The fact that the protagonist in Neurocomic is chasing after a girl speaks to the aesthetics of (her) beauty. Even though she is just an image, the reader is compelled and sympathizes with the protagonist so much so that we follow him on a journey across his brain as consolation and in curiosity (an “as if” make-believe response to an image (6)).

What emotions are invoked from the nuero-images in the comic? Are they, as Starr calls them, “narrative imagery”(9)? Are the images enhancing or taking away from the plot and the story? Can there be such a thing as something having too much aesthetic to process (overcrowding)?

As Starr notes, beauty evolves. Comics are a popular form of literature presently, however, such a text would probably have not been held to high prestige in the 1800s. The evolution of texts and moreover, the evolution of beauty in conjunction with 21st century standards appreciates a graphic approach to a complicated topic.

While Starr and Neurocomic discussed different topics in relation to neuroscience, Neurocomic was reader friendly and took into account the readers’ levels of understanding neurology. Starr did a very good job of making his text relatable and understandable, but alas there were no personified nuero-transmitters explaining their functions. Rather, their functions were just implied or defined and left for the reader to comprehend. That being said, both texts presented their material in different ways and therefore elicited different results. While Neurocomic left the reader with a more comprehensive understanding of neuro-functions, Feeling Beauty left the reader with a more internalized and expressed view of how and why we process beauty and emotions.

Helen and Ralph are Kinda Batty

In David Lodge’s novel, Thinks, Helen’s students submit work on what they think it might be like to be a bat. This exercise based off a discussion that Helen had with Ralph, as it seems most of her assignments are. Lodge chooses to showcase four of Helen’s fictional students’ works. To an extent, many of the characteristics that the imagined bats have fit the stereotypes characters in the book portray according to Ralph.

M*rt*n Am*s’ paper on Freetail bats has an aspect of Ralph’s stream on consciousness. His bat seems to be relaying whatever comes to mind, whether it is pleasant or not. His bat is egotistical- comparing himself to Tom Cruise and much like Ralph, devotes a great amount of his rant to sexual topics. The bat does not have such an enthusiastic view of sex and almost seems to blame the female bats for having babies and then not watching them. He does not offer to help watch the bats but rather believes in survival of the fittest, which seems reminiscent of something Ralph might say.

Alternatively, S*lm*n R*shd**’s paper on bats is a fairly accurate depiction of Helen. This bat is a long-winded humanist. It’s written in a very classical novelist format with attention to detail and imagery. However, much like in Lodge’s novel, about half way through this assignment, a Ralph like personality over takes the Helen bat. It of course, as a Ralph possessing Helen bat, then must discuss consciousness, “my fellow bats…are perfectly content… because they don’t know they are bats” (93). Just like Helen in the beginning of the novel; she was very content until Ralph started teaching her the ways of consciousness. Then the bat becomes more sexual, speaking about porn, sex, and erotic sculptures. This is reflective of Ralph’s effect on Helen and how he seemed to bring out her sexual side and almost overtake Helen completely.

Lastly, S*m**l B*eck*tt’s blind bat exemplifies how Ralph perceives his wife’s knowledge of his sexual life. She is in the dark. He thinks, much like the bat, that she once saw light but has given up and now is certain that she’s in the dark. However, the reader knows that Carrie is aware of his actions and in fact having an affair as well.

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