Stuart Murray's Representing Autism: Culture, Narrative, Fascination is written with such skill that it will have much to offer anyone who has an interest in contemporary representations of autism. An eminently accessible yet erudite text, it will appeal to autistics, advocates, professionals, families and friends, as well as scholars and undergraduates of disability and cultural studies. In Representing Autism: Culture, Narrative, Fascination, Stuart Murray provides a timely intellectual analysis of the narrative formations that structure the constantly circulating, sometimes vociferous, and ever-widening "autism debate" (12). As such, his work introduces a wealth of much needed conceptual frameworks for the analysis of cultural representations of the condition.
Murray explores how in the contemporary moment autism has become subject to an intense process of narrativization (22) that renders it a focus for concerns unrelated to the lives, rights and subjectivities of autistics themselves. As the second part of the book's title indicates, Murray's central aim is to explore the cultural mechanisms through which autism, as a condition that defies current scientific explanation, has become a contemporary marker of fascination. Thus, building upon the work of Lennard Davis, and of David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder, Murray reveals the processes through which autism serves as a prosthetic narrative device that ultimately constitutes "a marker of identity for a non-disabled majority" (163).
In explaining the rationale for his project, Murray notes, following Majia Holmer Nadesan, that for all of its status as a neurological impairment with biogenetic origins, autism in the contemporary world still frequently operates as a constructed idea (129). It is the interrogation of this phenomenon on which Murray sets his sights. To this end, the theoretical terms that he develops to delineate the key functions of narratives of autism are fascination, preference, compensation, refraction and witnessing. In tension with these terms, he posits the irreducible presence of "the person with autism, in whatever form" (16), so as to establish the point at which any enquiry should begin and end and to "stop the condition being only subject to the workings of metaphor and fascination" (16).
The book presents five thematic chapters that investigate the dominant ways that autism has been culturally positioned: through a notion of metaphorical difference; through the figure of the autistic savant; through spectacularized photography and film; through an emphasis on children and masculinity; and through attention to autism's purported impact on the contemporary family. Murray engages with these representative matrices to elaborate on the increased metaphorization and narrativization of autism. The chapters are buttressed by a preface, introduction and conclusion that contextualize the analysis of the core chapters. Each chapter simultaneously presents a discrete argument while providing nuanced support for the text's central thesis. Thus, in unravelling the cultural work done by autism as a "specific form of contemporary disability disruption" (3), one that has been made to carry the symbolic weight of many "recent notions of difference" (9), the majority of the conceptual terms Murray proposes are introduced early in the book and then deployed throughout to substantiate his developing claims.
Fascination, Autistic Presence, Pleasure and Preference
Murray's project investigates how autism, a condition that defies scientific rationalization by having no known cause or cure, becomes an ideal cultural space through which to exercise the workings of contemporary fascination. The preface calls for a counter-hegemonic reading of representations that actually seeks to "understand and respect the difference of autism" (xvi). The foundational concept Murray introduces to enable this respectful, productive counter-reading is "autistic presence" (xviii). In "Introduction: Autism and Narrative," he situates autistic presence as a provocative reminder that to "discuss autism is necessarily to discuss the condition of being human" (16). Thus, the often silenced perspective of the material person behind any discussion of autism is presented as the underpinning focus of the far reaching analysis offered throughout the rest of the text.
Chapter one, "Presences: Autistic Difference," explores the machinations of the contemporary fascination with autism. Specifically, it explores the cultural implications of acknowledging that what is now known as autism is "both timeless and totally contemporary," having always been part of the "condition of being human" and yet having generated so much contemporary interest, due to its admission to the public realm so soon after its first diagnostic formations (11).
This chapter posits the impossibility of the disavowal of the person with autism by locating "alternative presence" (31) precisely in the foundational medical texts of Leo Kanner and Hans Asperger. Murray then foregrounds the "pleasures" and "preferences" and preferred "modes of communication" (34) in the work of autistic autobiographers and bloggers. In doing so, he shows how the articulation "of autistic subjectivity" (34), beyond "stereotypes of autistic presence" (43), may be constituted from the inside of autism by people with autism themselves.
Arguing for a notion of autistic preference as "an affirmative mode through which autistic presence can be gauged" (23), Murray conducts an astute analysis of pleasure and humor in Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (2003). Acknowledging the novel's unique alignment of autism and humour, Murray contends that, although unusual, "to deny a relationship between autism and humour is to deny [autism] a basic humanity"(49). For, as he provocatively asserts, it is routinely overlooked that "in many ways autism centres on an idea of pleasure" (49).
Developing the notion of pleasure through preference, he goes on to discuss Herman Melville's Bartleby the Scrivener (1853) as a "radical narrative of autistic presence" (51). Arguing that "the story's ultimate sense of negotiation between majority and autistic perspectives comes…from the explanatory narratives that are offered as possible reasons for [Bartleby's] behavior" (53-54), Murray reads Bartleby's difference as the carrier of Melville's critique of Emerson's thesis of liberal individualism. Thus, Murray posits Bartleby as a "deeply radical figure" (57), stressing that, in reading him as autistic, one must not "sacrifice his strangeness by making him into a representative" (Reed 265 in Murray 58) figure of anything but, rather, maintain that strangeness to realize the disruptive force of "disabled difference" as "a foundational category" in the text (58).
Compensation and Refraction
Chapter two, "Idiots and Savants," suggests that representing autism through the figure of the idiot savant enacts a compensatory or refractive maneuver for the benefit of the dominant majority. In this chapter Murray explores the relationship between representations of idiocy in the nineteenth century and representations of autism in the contemporary period. Again tracing the "barely readable" (74), but nonetheless identifiable, presence of autism in texts from autism's "prehistory," Murray illuminates the transformation of the idiot, as culture's "derided and sentimentalized" figure of "both fascination and contempt" (68), into that of the, specifically autistic, savant.
This chapter investigates how, in contemporary fictions, the "generic idea of the savant figure has increasingly become accepted as a common face of autism" (97). Murray attributes this to the utility of the "unknowable" element of savant skill in "creat[ing] what is fundamentally a flexible and open space" (96-97). Thus, with autism eminently available for projection, any potentially autonomous autistic presence that a character might evince — such as Raymond Babbitt in Rain Man (87) — is overwritten by the symbolic weight of the cultural fascination they bear.
As a result, autistic presence is quelled by the narrative functioning of savant ability operating as compensation for disability. This function positions the savant character as a silent, refractive cipher through which non-disabled characters gain personal insight and emotional growth. In this way, the use of the autistic savant, as the predominant representational signifier for autism, creates a cultural space ostensibly concerned with disability that actually works to assuage society's fear of loss associated with the condition (94). This process closes down pressing political issues — for example, education and respite care — that are associated with the actual materiality of the disability portrayed (98-99).
Chapter three, "Witnessing," situates autism as "an eruptive force" (104) and, following Garland-Thomson, it contends that "seeing is vital to any consideration of autism" (105). Thus, the chapter focuses on the predominant visual signifier for society's fears and concerns about autism: photographic representations of autistic children. Recognizing the tension inherent in looking at portraits of autistic children in photography, where viewers are often invited to "look for…autism, even as it is clear that this is an impossibility" (112), Murray advances the concept of "witnessing" (114). Witnessing is a deconstructive process — "a bringing to bear on the individual photograph of an amorphous and often contradictory set of ideas that stand for what we know of autism at the present time" (114). For all our knowledge," Murray writes, "we simply don't know what causes autism. As a result, we don't so much see autism as act as witnesses in the discussion of what we believe it to be" (115).
Delineating witnessing as "the specifics of an essentially visual form of fascination" (121), the remainder of the chapter deals with Hollywood's a priori misrepresentation of autism within the contemporary genre film. Supporting the work in previous chapters, Murray concludes that while "an idea of autistic presence raises any number of narrative possibilities in the films discussed…any greater understanding of the presence of autism within contemporary culture eludes the audiences of these texts" (133). The predominant function of films about autism is to produce refractive pleasures for the majority non-disabled audience.
In chapter four, "Boys and Girls, Men and Women," Murray meditates on the seemingly inseparable connection between autism and children. Building upon his analysis of child photographic portraits in the previous chapter, he notes that "it is through a focus on children that autism is increasingly being understood" (139). He reads the twin fascinations of autism and masculinity in the contemporary moment (156) alongside those of savantism, and he sees them coinciding in the figure of the child male autobiographer Tito Mukhopadhyay. Tito, Murray shows, has acquired the status of an "autism celebrity" (148); as such the narrative surrounding his life, family and writing triumphs over "the content of his own expression, the details of his presence as he himself writes it" (148). Accordingly, Murray indicates the fragility of the self-expression of those with autism. Their subjectivity may be supplanted by cultural forces seeking to articulate concerns "that ultimately have their meaning in non-disabled contexts" (163).
Having established the tension between autistic self-expression and its cultural over-writing, Murray identifies the "clear incompatibility between the nuanced presence Tito articulates for himself" (151) and the dominant representations of autism as "a 'disease' that takes children away" (151). This prompts Murray to consider a "new set of parameters" (152) for both care and representation as Tito grows into adulthood. This move is not easily accommodated by the discourses that surround the famous "child" autobiographer, and Murray notes the danger inherent in such "autism celebrity" for the young: "Tito the example will come to eclipse Tito the person"(152). This process, Murray argues, has already started to happen.
Chapter 5, "In our Time: Families and Sentiments," explores the representations of autism in narratives focused on the family. It interrogates "two central economies through which autism functions in the contemporary world": finance and maternal love (191). Murray's examination exposes how these two economies become embroiled in discourses of love, where love means a willingness to work for "recovery" and where "recovery" means cure (195). He investigates how "the 'family with autism' has, in the contemporary era, become a certain kind of cultural product" (199), through which the focal maternal relationship of mother and child (169) ensures that the "ghost of Bettleheim [remains] alive and well" (190).
The chapter concludes by asserting that autism in our contemporary moment is still seen somehow to belong to the dynamics of the family (176), where the impact of the condition on the family constitutes the pivotal concern (170). Indeed, even in cases of parental suicide with infanticide, the presence of autism allows for cultural anxieties regarding "home, caring and familial love" (171) to exploit the idea of "impact" and, in so doing, occlude the personhood of the autistic individual involved. To counter the cultural acceptance of this most brutal silencing, Murray posits the "reasonable" assertion that to have autism in the family is ordinary and acceptable. The repetition of this reasonable assertion, he insists, can help in facilitating respect for autistic presence.
The final chapter, "Conclusion: Causing/Curing/Caring," consolidates Murray's methodology for ensuring the foregrounding of autistic presence through a notion, following his analysis of Bartleby, of "radical care." Demanding that we be actively aware of the cultural uses to which cognitive difference is put, he proposes that such an awareness be part of "aggressive, proactive and provocative" care (212). Such care functions not as "shorthand for an idea of liberal tolerance and acceptance" but instead as the reconstitution of the potential of difference. Rather, it is "a process of acknowledging, of thinking about, of admitting, debating, listening and sharing" (212). Murray concludes, "Caring about autism — what we know of it and how we put it in our narratives — is something from which all manner of people can and must benefit" (212).
Stuart Murray's Representing Autism: Culture, Narrative, Fascination is a welcome piece of scholarship. The first book in Liverpool University's Representations: Health, Disability, Culture series, it undertakes the difficult task of interpreting the cultural contours of our contemporary moment. In doing so it displays deft control of its subject matter while balancing the acuity and accessibility of its prose. As such, it is a seminal text in the oeuvre of cultural disability studies.