Authoring Autism: On Rhetoric and Neurological Queerness by Melanie Yergeau (Duke UP, 2017)
Jay McClintick, Michigan State University
(Published June 7, 2019)
What is the range of the rhetorical? Who does it exclude and how are those ranges expanded, queered, or blown up? Melanie Yergeau’s Authoring Autism takes to task these ideas as an important intervention in the field of rhetoric. Yergeau centers these questions on the autistic individual, working within a history of autistic authored activism to reclaim autistic communities from a clinical gaze that sees them as arhetorical. Yergeau instead shows us how the living embodiment of the autistic disrupts the boundaries and understandings of rhetoric, expands them outwards, and makes space for the neuroqueer to exist. The neuroqueer exists outside of rhetoric’s cisgendered, heterosexual, colonial, able-bodied formations, and instead works demi-rhetorically to imagine futures beyond rhetoric's scope. Yergeau uses the work of queer scholars like Jose Esteban Munoz, Sara Ahmed, and Jonathan Alexander to draw parallels between autistic history and embodiment and queer notions of disorientation, refusal, and futurity to position the autistic neuroqueer as one that exists within and without rhetoric. A demi-rhetorician capable of hir own rhetorical acts and gestures, sometimes gesturing socially, sometimes anti-socially. Neuroqueers “practice demi-rhetorics, queerly relational and queerly nonrelational spaces, spaces in which our disclosed bodyminds continually (re)invent the contours of our rhetorical being” (Yergeau, 206). It’s these invaluable (re)inventions, Yergeau argues, that can lead to queer futures we’d otherwise lose sight of.
Yergeau’s book is broken into four parts: Intention, Intervention, Invitation, Invention. In the “Intention” chapter, Yergeau discusses the ways intentionality in rhetoric is used to make autistic people seemingly arhetorical, unable to intend. The autistic person is reduced to the neurons firing in their brains, unable to control their impulses, their tics and stims. Yergeau pushes against this conceit and instead elaborates the autistic as demi-rhetorical, as someone who rejects the normative boundaries of rhetoric. Using Munoz’s theorization of how the queer rejects the present and past and instead lives on the boundaries of futurity, Yergeau introduces us to the neuroqueer: the subject who lives and rejects the normative boundaries of thought and action. The autistic becomes a neuroqueer center for Yergeau to theorize from, but the boundaries of the neuroqueer are not restricted to autistic people. They extend to all who reject normative rhetorics and embrace demi-rhetorical forms.
Intervention is perhaps one of the most difficult chapters to read, since it details the reparative therapies used on autistics even today. Yergeau historicizes the origins of clinical reparative therapies. What we know now as “conversion camps” were used both on autistic people and queers alike. Yergeau draws parallels between queer and autistic bodies to show how a neuroqueer embodiment is one that resists the normative behaviors conversion therapies try to enforce. Yergeau analyzes rhetorical approaches to neuroscience to trouble our relationship between rhetoric and neurochemistry: “in particular, [Skolnik] suggests that dong rhetoric is tantamount to changing one’s brain… our brains change as we rhetoricize” (131). Behavioral interventions are made to discipline us into rhetoricity, to pass as normative and rhetorical subjects. Yergeau ends the chapter by proposing that the “plasticity” of brains should not only be thought in how they can be molded into rhetoric but as plastique (the explosive) as well. So that plasticity exists on a spectrum “situated between two extremes: on the one side the sensible image of taking form(sculpture or plastic objects), and on the other side that of annilation of all forms (explosion)” (133). The neuroqueer subject, then, has the ability to explode rhetoric’s normative frameworks.
In the “Invitation” chapter, Yergeau opens by detailing the ways disclosing her autism creates moments of invitation and danger. How does one respond to the autistic body in motion? Yergeau elaborates on a paradox most disabled people face; wherein one discloses disability the nondisabled judges them either too disabled (too arhetorical) to understand or speak for their disability or not disabled enough to understand and speak for it. Yergeau defies these limitations by focusing explicitly on how autistic people author themselves and tell their own stories. Yergeau writes, “In this regard, autistic rhetorics might be regarded as a way of thinking not about ‘how much rhetoric or how much autism can my brain hold,’ but rather about rhetorical attraction or rhetorical desire, and what it means to roll, crip-queerly, outside the bounds of rhetoric.” Yergeau points to how invitational rhetorics, rhetorics of listening and politeness will only take the neuroqueer so far, because the neuroqueer is sometimes antithetical to invitations: they resist definition or rhetorical standards and stand outside them.
In the final chapter, “Invention,” Yergeau begins by describing a meltdown at a conference where “I am not thnking about parents, or real autism… I am not thinking about anything at all. My skin is my cognition.” From this arresting intro, Yergeau shows ways of being and invention that exist outside normative Cartesian and rhetorical logics. She considers the ways autistic acts have affective dimensions that can be (a)rhetorical or demi-rhetorical, such as stimming, melt downs, or entelechy. Yergeau pushes against notions that rhetoric need to be spoken, or acted upon with normative intentions in mind. Yergeau by no means creates an exhaustive list of autistic acts we might consider rhetorical, but instead highlights some acts to show how we might reclaim the demi-rhetorical as a space to act from as neuroqueers, as a space that can be valuable to dwell in.
Yergeau ends on an epilogue titled “Indexicality,” where she recalls the embodied experience of working on and theorizing for this book. She creates compelling scenes of lived experience. These experiences are peppered through the book, interspersed with broader theorizations mentioned above, but it is in this final point of the book where these personal narratives become most striking. Here, Yergeau uses the embodied experience of working on this book and puts it into a comparison with what reader’s experience of reading the book might be. She writes, “It is here I close, sitting in a field. The field was literal, but is has grown symbolically. I gesture symbolically in part out of concern for readers who need symbolism in order to understand meaninglessness” (212).
The effect of writing these gestures is felt throughout the text. As Yergeau points out in the book herself, the text is written in a way that Yergeau feels reflects her autistic nature. This style of approach actually makes for a very enjoyable, spirited read, as Yergeau’s writing voice is distinct and strong throughout with moments of sadness, fear, anger, happiness, and humor conveyed by her sharp prose.
Overall, Authoring Autism doesn’t just show us what the neuroqueer can offer rhetoric, what the embodied experience of autistic people have to teach us of rhetoric, it resists these clinical gazes for us to study and instead urges readers to consider their own rhetoricity. How it might be neuroqueered—expanded, warped, and blown up. Yergeau wishes for us to embrace a future rhetoric full of tics and stims, and if this book is a glimpse of that future, it’s one every rhetorician should be advocating for.