Greta Thunberg, responding to ableist critics, insists that autism facilitates her climate activism and that "being different is a superpower." 1 Erin Manning's The Minor Gesture offers a philosophical account of the links between autism and activism highlighted by Thunberg. Manning contributes to the field of Critical Autism Studies by developing the framework of autistic perception, which describes an attunement to the minor gesture as it subtly activates a change within experience. In doing so, The Minor Gesture centers autistic experiences to offer new understandings of politics, art, and resistance. Because the book is oriented towards techniques for opening up perception to the minor gesture, it positions itself against a methodological demand for reasonability that excludes autistic perception (chapter 1). To operate against method, and in a minor key, The Minor Gesture is not organized around a systematic investigation of the minor gesture, though it relies upon approaches from art criticism, critical theory, and literary analysis. Instead, Manning links the minor gesture and autistic perception to Deleuze and Guattari's schizoanalysis, which becomes a central approach in the book.

Manning develops two central concepts throughout the work: the minor gesture and autistic perception. Rather than addressing social change through grand gestures—aligned with the major and with logics of credit—Manning suggests that the minor gesture's subtle shifts precede more perceptible social change. The major reifies existing power relations, while the minor gesture's changeability and risk allow other ways of living and expressing to emerge. Manning develops this concept of the minor gesture across different sites of analysis, including her own sculptures (chapter 3), high fashion (chapter 4), and philosophical methods (chapter 1). Perception of the minor gesture's momentary inflections requires attention to events as they emerge. Many people are not usually attuned to the minor gesture and miss the shifts that are available through autistic perception. Manning's autistic perception characterizes a delay or refusal to parse sensory input. Focusing on autistic perception reveals that the seemingly self-evident, solid, and differentiated world of a neurotypical perception is an illusion made possible by an almost-instantaneous perception of discrete objects. Manning develops this framework through close readings of autobiographical writing of Lucy Blackman, Ido Kedar, and Donna Williams, primarily in the 5th and 6th chapters.

Manning's theory of autistic perception is not as essentializing or medicalizing as it might sound. First, it does not claim to describe the experiences of every autistic person. Manning is also careful throughout the text to not overlook the impairments autistics might experience in a neurotypical world. Though Manning's discussion of the neurodiversity movement usually centers autistics, the 7th chapter's account of depression and activism suggests that autistic perception is linked to—rather than distinct from—other neurodivergent experiences. In Manning's account, both autism and depression are on the same continuum of neurodivergent temporal perception. Most significantly, Manning explores how autistic perception is a form of attention available to all, even though it is often devalued or refused through the medical model. For example, while Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) operates to train out autistics' behaviors, Manning is inversely interested in proliferating such autistic modes. The first half of the book explores how fashion and art installation might facilitate an autistic perception for some neurotypicals. Though this framework is a powerful tool in refusing a deficit approach to autism, sometimes Manning's terminology undermines her intervention, as in her reference to "classical autistics" in descriptions of writers who use facilitated communication and who have movement impairments.

Because Manning is working to problematize seemingly self-evident concepts, The Minor Gesture's discussions of perception, agency, and resistance rely upon deft theoretical argumentation. The work extends Whitehead's speculative pragmatism, Deleuze and Guattari's schizoanalysis, and Moten and Harney's undercommons in examinations of art installation, fashion, architecture, and autistics' autobiographies. Though Manning closely examines several cultural objects, the book is mainly driven by philosophical discussions that work to make available new modes of perception. The density of the text is sometimes akin to poetry, and itself works to trouble the kinds of perception a reader might bring to it. Readers with a background in affect and critical theory would be best equipped to address the nuances of Manning's argumentation. The Minor Gesture would be useful in a graduate seminar on neurodivergence and political, affect, or critical theory. The book's final chapter, an interview between Manning and Arno Boehler, offers a more approachable entry point to the book's rich theoretical frameworks.

While The Minor Gesture is oriented towards a wide-reaching philosophy of resistance and agency, Manning's discussion of neurotypical identity politics offers several frameworks that are useful for disability studies specifically. Manning develops a thoughtful reading of neurotypical identity politics as central to ideas about personhood. This framework of neurotypicality contributes to discussions in disability studies of ability and ableism by centering developmental disability. Manning characterizes neurotypicality not just as a specific neurotype, but as a system of value which accounts for existing relations at the nexus of the "volition-intentionality-agency" triad (6). The major key often occludes the minor gesture because the major is invested in the neurotypical regime of volition and decisiveness. It is this regime which enables the delegitimization of facilitated communication, addressed in detail in chapter 6. While the triad insists on the ability of a singular body to act or speak in the world, Manning instead positions the body as an "ecology of practices" that is always being facilitated by the environment (115). Here Manning offers a particularly lucid tracking of a hungry person's desire for an apple and failure to grab and eat it. It is not the individual's agency, or its failure, that matters here. Rather, the outcome of this desire is shaped by a broader field: "volition is not where we usually assume it is: it is not ahead of experience, but in experience" (149).

Manning works to decenter the neurotypical idea of humans as sole actors, and accordingly does not enfold autistics into the human. Instead, she challenges the neurotypical myth that volitional action is separated out from the involuntary reflex, a misperception used to exclude autistics from the human. In a thoughtful analysis produced in conversation with Fred Moten's unpublished comments in his review of the manuscript, Manning attends specifically to the ways neurotypicality is on the side of whiteness, and its implications for black study, writing: "insurgent Black life is neurodiverse through and through" (5). While this theorization of the racial implications of neurotypical identity politics is not always emphasized in every chapter, this discussion illustrates the potentiality of a theorization of neurotypicality for wide-ranging social critique.

In Manning's account, neurotypical identity politics are vital for broader discussions in disability studies beyond critical autism scholarship. Because agency and independence are so key to ideas about both bodily and mental capacity, Manning's framework of neurotypical identity politics implicitly links ableism against mental and physical disabilities—both are undergirded by a demand for a "self-sufficient body" (112). A focus on autistic perception reveals how separations between body and world or body and mind are reflections of neurotypical supremacy. However, the work does foreground neurodiversity as a framework through discussions of autism and depression, and focuses less explicitly on physical disability. This is evident in Manning's reading of a Comme des Garçons fashion collection as opening up new forms of perception. The sculptural garments might signal deformed bodies just as much as suggest the shape of the body wearing backpacks and winter jackets.

Manning's challenge to volition-intentionality-agency also offers broader insights into the possibilities of freedom and resistance. Manning explores this interest in political action through the framework of an activist philosophy which centers the neurodiversity movement's reworking of agency. Neurodiversity movements do not simply provide examples of minor gesture but are the central location through which life's values and definitions are contested. Manning refuses ideas of freedom as a quality of volition to instead situate the minor gesture's activation of the event as a site of more radical freedom, as a move "from agency to agencement" in Deleuze and Guattari's formulation (123, 133). Discussing Idle No More in the book's conclusion, Manning shows how the minor and autistic perception produce insurgent subjectivities and relational fields which allow for more mobile social movements.

Throughout the book, Manning refuses to frame autistics as subjects to be included in activism or in scholarship. One of the work's most valuable contributions is its insistence that autistic modes of being are vital to social movements and to critical theory.


  1. @GretaThunberg. "When Haters Go after Your Looks and Differences, It Means They Have Nowhere Left to Go. And Then You Know You're Winning! I Have Aspergers and That Means I'm Sometimes a Bit Different from the Norm. And - given the Right Circumstances- Being Different Is a Superpower. #aspiepower." Twitter. @gretathunberg, August 31, 2019.
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