Silence Starts With “P”: A Research Project

Silence, for me, has always started with P.

Since I was eleven months old, lying on the shag carpeting of my great-aunt’s living room and listening to The Grownups talk about me with no inkling that I understood them, silence has been a Problem.  Even after I learned to talk, silence was a Pathology.  The Pressure to speak, and to keep speaking, is Profound.

Classical rhetoric has little use for silence, or for listening.  They’re figured predominantly as reception, Passivity, the void.  Listening, when it is mentioned, is addressed not as a Positive Presence in and of itself unless it is a form of speech (see “active listening”).

What I intend to do for the next two months is to explore listening, and silence, as Positive sites, sites not only of Potential or Promise but of actual Presence.  My Purposes, loosely, are:

  • to assert listening as a central, centralized, and active rhetorical stance;
  • to stake out space in listening and silence as primary, active modes with their own rhetorics, not merely as the flipside of “speech” (a term under which I include non-verbal forms of communication, like gesture, writing, images, and sign);
  • to carry out this project without explaining what it is I am doing;
  • to respond to Melanie Yergeau’s call to “fuck that shit up,” the “shit” in question, here, being the expectation of “listening” as a form of reciprocal speech.  As I’ve noted in previous posts, I am The Worst at so-called “active listening.”  Since “active listening” operates as a form of speech, I intend to use my The Worstness at it to my advantage by not trying to get any better at it in the next two months, and thus to subvert expectations of what a “project of listening” is supposed to look like.

My method (or Process, if you Prefer):

  • do not talk for two months.  If talking accidentally occurs, make note of it and examine what it is that seemed so earnestly to demand it;
  • to “speak,” rely on alternative communication options (writing, AAC apps, sign, etc);
  • “speak” only when necessary to get things done – and to interrogate what exactly “necessary” means;
  • listen in ways that are natural to my own bodymind listening processes and prioritize actually listening over appearing to listen – i.e., do not fake “active listening” even if the situation appears to demand it.
  • offer no explanation beyond “I can’t talk but I am listening.”

The project should run through July and August 2015.  I have not decided whether singing counts as talking (my brain understands them as two different processes), but since I never sing in public anyway, I’m not sure it’s relevant.  I’ll contemplate this further.

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Livetweeting #2015SDS: My Schedule and Other Sources

Originally posted on Autistic Academic:

As part of the Digital Access Facilitation Team, I’ll be livetweeting several sessions at the 2015 Society for Disability Studies (SDS) conference in Atlanta, beginning tomorrow.  You can follow all the SDS fun at #2015SDS – there are conversations going on both Twitter and Facebook right now.

To follow all the DAFT livetweeters at once, check out our Twitter list here.  The full SDS conference program is available online here [pdf].

The sessions I will be livetweeting (with a partner) are:

Thursday, June 11:

1.5 Occupying Digital Spaces: Disabled People Creating Community and Resisting Ableism Online – 8:30 – 10:00 a.m.  #s11

2.4 New Dimensions in Literary Disability Studies – 10:30 a.m – 12:00 p.m.  #s24

3.3 Rethinking Religious Histories of Madness – 1:30 – 3:00 p.m.  #s33

Friday, June 12:

6.7 Excess, Access, Deviance, and Distress: Trauma as an Analytic in Disability Studies – 10:30 a.m. – 12:00…

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On Deconstruction, Speaking, “Speaking,” and Digital Spaces: #cwcon Presentation

Originally posted on Autistic Academic:

Here are my working outline and slides for the talk I’m giving at the Computers & Writing conference tomorrow at the University of Wisconsin-Stout.

The tl;dr version: “Stop telling autistic people we can’t speak when we are allll up in your Internet talking our brains out.”

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My #Kzoo2015: A Recap

I just finished attending (and presenting at) my first-ever academic conference: the 50th International Congress on Medieval Studies, aka #Kzoo2015.  Here’s a recap:

1.  My presentation, on representations of mental difference and the rhetoric of disability in Gregory of Tours and the “Green Children of Woolpit” tales, went better than I expected – especially since the room had about ten times the number of attendees I expected.  Big thank-yous to MEARCSTAPA for sponsoring and to Tory Pearman for a fantastic response.

2.  Several people contributed to livetweeting the panel and my part in it.  I’ve Storified the tweets here.

3.  I collected not one but TWO shout-outs in the recap of Day 1 of the Congress.  (This is probably a better measure of how few medievalists were tweeting that day than it is of my (non)influence in the field.)

4.  Over dinner on Thursday (medieval cafeteria salmon), Rebecca Straple clarified for me why it is I keep getting dragged back into the Middle Ages, despite my primary interest in rhetoric and disability studies:  We “other” the medieval in many of the same ways we “other” disability, from the point of view of modernism and its anxiety about the production of the self.  As a result, though I was expecting this Congress to be my only Congress, I now know I’ll be back.

5.  RESOLVED:  I must write that “autism and changeling narratives” paper.  I’ve gotten unabashed enthusiasm for the idea from both the autism side and the medieval side, so.  Luckily, Congress really helped me focus my thoughts in this arena – I even worked up an outline while standing in the interminable Fetzer coffee line yesterday – and a colleague in neuroqueerdom recommended I pitch it to Autonomous Press as a book chapter.

6.  RESOLVED II: Leaving the practice of law for an academic disability studies career: A+ life choice.  While the sessions on legal history I attended yesterday were fantastic scholarship and very informative, I couldn’t shake that nagging personal sense that these were not “my people” in the way the monsters/disability people are “my people.”

7.  Not my work but worth mentioning: Natalie Grinnell’s “A Song for the Hills of Kalamazoo,” inspired by all the walking Congress demands.  Since I live on the city’s most famous hill (not on campus, alas), I relate extra-hard.

8.  Unrelated to Congress but still pretty cool: I found myself linked in an online article in Good Housekeeping of all things.

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Does the Subaltern Have a Theory of Mind? Revisited

I finally wrote that paper asking “does the subaltern have a theory of mind?”  The one-page handout is available here [pdf].

The answer, in short, is “This question continues to be incoherent because Theory of Mind is incoherent.  The operative question is “do either theory of mind or subalternity have any use as concepts or metaphorical constructs?”  I do not answer this question in the paper.

As far as Spivak’s subaltern goes, I hypothesize that the concept may still be useful, but only in the context of a materialist analysis.  Put another way, I think there may be some value in tracing who is so far outside the means of production that the very discourse of production is itself impenetrable (and unpenetrated).  I also think, tentatively, that this may be in some ways analogous to the question of how non-autistic material and cultural conditions disable autistic people.  “Mindblindness,” then, would be not an empirical fact of neurology, but a product of social pressure.  And since autism and subalternity are both essentially narrative conditions, I think there is value in recalling us back to the narrative position.

What I find increasingly incoherent, in either context, is the idea of any figure who is genuinely unable to speak, who is forever outside the bounds of rhetoric and thus forever outside the bounds of the human.  To try to site this in anyone we might otherwise think of as a “person” – to posit that people who are really mindblind or really subaltern, in some essential and unchangeable way, actually exist (whether or not we think that fact then compels “us” to do something about “them”) – seems both impossible and dangerous to me.

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Deconstructing “Active Listening”

A few weeks ago, “Whole Body Listening Larry” made the rounds of the autistic community:

Image: A green poster, featuring a cartoon image of a little boy on the left and a series of cartoon images of body parts on the right.  The poster is titled "Whole Body Listening!"  Its subhead reads "Larry wants to remind you to listen with your whole body."  The cartoon body parts are captioned, respectively, as follows: Eyes: "Look at the person talking to you." Ears: "Both ears ready to hear." Mouth: "Quiet - no talking, humming, or making sounds" Hands: "Quiet in lap, pockets or by your side." Feet: "Quiet on the floor." Body: "Faces the speaker." Brain: "Thinking about what is being said." Heart: "Caring about what the other person is saying."

Image: A green poster, featuring a cartoon image of a little boy on the left and a series of cartoon images of body parts on the right. The poster is titled “Whole Body Listening!” Its subhead reads “Larry wants to remind you to listen with your whole body.” The cartoon body parts are captioned, respectively, as follows:
Eyes: “Look at the person talking to you.”
Ears: “Both ears ready to hear.”
Mouth: “Quiet – no talking, humming, or making sounds”
Hands: “Quiet in lap, pockets or by your side.”
Feet: “Quiet on the floor.”
Body: “Faces the speaker.”
Brain: “Thinking about what is being said.”
Heart: “Caring about what the other person is saying.”

The discussion at the time centered on how Larry’s approach to listening is a neurotypical-centric one, and that, for many neurodivergent people (including autistic people), behaving in the way Larry describes actually prevents them from listening.  Larry, the argument went, forces autistic and other ND kids to make a tough choice: pretend to be listening but actually get nothing from the conversation, or listen but get reprimanded for not behaving in the prescribed way when they do?

As someone who has to make the choice whether to “listen” Larry’s way or to, you know, actually attend to and comprehend what the speaker is saying, I’m sympathetic to the pushback against this model.  But I’m also struck by how little of what we portray as “active listening” – what Larry demands – isn’t “listening” at all.  It’s speaking.

It’s not verbal speaking – Larry does ask us explicitly not to make mouthnoises.  But it’s communication all the same.  The body postures that Larry’s “whole body listening” demands are all concentrated on communicating to the “speaker” (here, the person making the mouthnoises) that their mouthnoises are the most important thing in the room.  Larry’s intended message isn’t about making himself, or you, a better listener – whatever that means.  It’s about reassuring the “speaker” that they have an audience by telling them that they have an audience.  The form of “listening” we prize most highly, Larry’s “whole body,” “active” form of listening, is at its core a form of speaking in service of reifying speaking.  “Listening,” in the sense of “attending to and comprehending the context, content, and format of someone else’s communications,” really has very little to do with it.

Larry’s instructions for listening might not be wholly useless.  In a world that prized and taught attending-and-comprehending communication on a par with issuing communication, there could easily be any number of people who did their best “listening” while adopting the body postures Larry advocates.  But that world would not seek to impose any particular set of gestures on its population, and speakers in that world would not require the reassurance of this particular set of gestures in response to their speech.  Instead, that world would allow for the fact that there are many ways of effectively “listening,” and not all of them desire or require this particular set of nonverbal signs in order to operate.

That’s not the world we currently live in, and that’s why the autistic community finds Larry problematic.  Larry becomes yet another way autistic children (and adults) are told to speak in a way that is unnatural to them or else.  But Larry also reveals how we subordinate listening to speaking not only by preferring speaking over listening, but by demanding that listening itself behave as a form of speaking.

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Remember That Paper on the Temporal Prime Directive I Was Going to Write?

I wrote it.  But it turned out a bit differently than expected.

I’m not posting the paper in its entirety; it’s a draft, and I harbor secret ambitions of actually presenting a later draft at a conference someday.

But I will post the one-page handout I made to accompany said paper.  The pdf is at the link; the text is after the jump. Continue reading

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