June 28, 2012

The Verfremdung Illusion

In an unpublished essay by Alison Gopnik, we find the following imagined account of what it is like to be “mindblind”, a condition allegedly afflicting people with autism (a mindblind person supposedly lacks or is deficient in the ability to ascribe wishes, beliefs, intentions, feelings, etc. to other people):

This is what it’s like to sit around the dinner table. At the top of my field of vision is a blurry edge of nose, in front are waving hands ... Around me bags of skin are draped over chairs, and stuffed into pieces of cloth, they shift and protrude in unexpected ways .... Two dark spots near the top of them swivel restlessly back and forth. A hole beneath the spots fills with food and from it comes a stream of noises. Imagine that the noisy skin-bags suddenly moved toward you, and their noises grew loud, and you had no idea why, no way of explaining them or predicting what they would do next.

(Alison Gopnik, "Mindblindness"; unpublished essay, University of California, Berkeley. Frequently quoted, for instance in Simon Baron-Cohen, Mindblindness, an Essay on Autism and Theory of Mind. MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts 1995, pp.4-5.)

The writer’s purpose, undoubtedly, is to convey an eerie impression (rather like a Francis Bacon painting). Bags of skin, holes being filled with food and producing noises are undoubtedly disgusting. The question is, are we really getting a sense of what it is like to be autistic? Why should we suppose that autistic children see people as bags of skin shifting and protruding in unexpected ways? First of all, granting that people’s words and behaviour are altogether unintelligible to the child, what do we suppose the child is expecting, so that their noises and movements come across as unexpected? Isn’t it rather because we have some idea of what people in our surroundings are saying and doing that some of the things they say and do may surprise us?
Besides, in introducing the idea of movable skin bags, isn’t the writer playing on a set of contrasts that are available to us, while it would be begging a lot of questions to attribute them to the child? Skin bags, I would suggest, seem weird because they are covered by skin yet not human. But to the child, on the account being proposed here, the objects in front of him are neither human nor non-human. (Why, by the way, should they be described as skin bags: is this a child who recognizes an object as made of skin but not as human?)
What inclines us to suppose that some account such as Gopnik’s must give a realistic idea of what it is like to be autistic? The suggestion I wish to make is that it does so because of a deep-rooted but misguided way in which we tend to think about perception. I wish to get back to this matter in a later blog.

1 comment:

  1. Gopnik’s description seems designed to invoke a sense of horror in us, but the peculiar thing about that sense of horror is that it is dependent on us (the readers) not being autistic. When we are told to “Imagine that the noisy skin-bags suddenly moved toward you…”, we think to our selves ‘What horror, normally I am dinner with people, but now I am having dinner with skinbags!’

    But conversely, if Gopnik’s description was correct (which it is probably isn’t), I could imagine the same sense of horror invoked in autistic child along these lines: “Of course, normally you’re having dinner with skinbags, but now imagine that each of these skinbags actually have a rich inner life like you; these beings, which you presumed lifeless, now turns out to have all sorts of complex feelings towards you – some of them may just like you, but some of them – and you don’t know who – may dislike you, some of them want to manipulate you in all sorts of ways, some of them have sexual attitudes to towards you, all of them expect certain things of you.”

    In any case, I don’t really think that Gopnik’s description describes “what it is like to sit around the dinner table” as an autistic child. Rather, it’s description of what it would be like for us to be in a zombie-movie…