Tracing Autism: Uncertainty, Ambiguity and the Affective Labor of Neuroscience

Tracing Autism: Uncertainty, Ambiguity and the Affective Labor of Neuroscience. Des Fitzgerald, Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2017, 226 pp.

At one point in his fascinating new book about how neuroscientists talk about their autism research, Des Fitzgerald quotes a professor of psychology from South London. She marvels that some people on the spectrum tend to interpret statements in a literal fashion, which leads her to wonder why all of us don’t interpret things literally. In its own way, Tracing Autism is like an experiment in such literal interpretation. The statements neuroscientists make to Fitzgerald are not plumbed for more depth, whether dissolved into their respective contexts, or viciously critiqued from a safe distance. Fitzgerald “holds suspicion in abeyance” taking his interlocutors’ statements at face value from interviews (p. 180). Neuroscientists of different kinds are asked about the object it is they are studying, about which they are or seek to be acknowledged experts, and whether it can be considered an object at all.

As the parent of a child on the autism spectrum who was diagnosed in South London in 2008, I can speak literally of a time, not long ago, when neuroscientists claimed publicly that a biomarker for autism—and a possible treatment—were on the horizon. I remember thinking that things would have been so much better had our son only been born a mere 10 or even five years later. Fitzgerald’s research occurred as that optimism was beginning to dissipate. While neuroscientists remain committed to finding autism somewhere in the brain and body, they do so with ambivalence. “My entirely minor ambition,” Fitzgerald writes, “has been to show that when you talk to neuroscientists who are engaged in the cerebralization or neurobiologization of some complex psychological or psychiatric diagnosis (such as autism) you are unlikely to encounter a confident language of monolithic neuroreduction” (p. 176). The first chapter is largely devoted to exploring the seemingly paradoxical double bind within which neuroscientists operate, committed to both the singularity of the condition as neurobiological and to the multiplicity of “autisms” that seem to characterize the empirical world of diagnosis and lived experience.

In the second chapter, Fitzgerald draws inspiration from studies of brain imaging that have pointed out how flawed they can be yet how much the images can seduce various publics. But his more critical point goes beyond this to show the ambivalence of researchers who actively use MRI. Drawing on the “agential realism” of Karen Barad, Fitzgerald advocates “a refusal to separate the practice of science from the practice of studying science” (p. 76). In other words, it is not only that interviews can serve as a perfectly acceptable substitute for full-fledged participant–observation, but that neuroscientists are continually engaged in a form of critical auto-ethnography themselves. In this respect, I am sympathetic to the book’s method. It deprivileges and democratizes ethnography as something that non-anthropologists regularly engage in. That said, there is something strange about applying feminist materialist approaches to autism as an object. As Fitzgerald says, “autism has long been a testing ground for exploring what gets to count as human in the first place” (p. 138). For this reason, it would appear to be troubled by the very same anthropocentrism that forms of weird realism are normally marshalled to contest.

There are times when one wonders what it might look like if the troublesome object of autism were animating Fitzgerald’s approach more. For instance, in Chapter Three the focus is on the emotion (or affect, though Fitzgerald is somewhat skeptical of this term’s typical application) that pervades neuroscientific accounts. Interestingly, evocative descriptions of “stomachs, feelings, suffering, and heartbreak” (p. 93) show a corporeality underlying the conceptual lives of neuroscientists. For Fitzgerald, this runs parallels to their more abstract labor. What more might have been gained had he drawn on theories of autism spectrum condition as associated with troubled introspection, or the processing of internal feelings? If true, it would seem that people on the spectrum are themselves living a life in parallel with their emotions. These sorts of comparisons are not explored in the text, which is perhaps understandable given its narrow focus on neuroscientific statements in isolation.

Chapters Four and Five take on more directly the boundary work that neuroscientists engage in. They have to show how they have moved psychology away from its roots; at the same time, they have to make autism “hang together” despite its heterogeneity. Here, and throughout, the limits of interview alone become evident. To his credit, Fitzgerald is very open about this (p. 105), as he anticipates critics who would prefer a “deeper” dive into the everyday lives of scientists. The critique I have in mind, however, is not about going deeper behind statements, but about tracing the production and circulation of statements themselves.

This is in line with the sociolinguistic tradition, with its interest in what happens, other than the production of propositional content, when we talk. On occasion, Fitzgerald does consider the non-propositional content of utterances, as when he describes memories as being mobilized to facilitate self-presentation (p. 121), wonders if the word “social” is used for his benefit (p. 131), or any time interviewees seem to respond to his questions and comments by shifting not only what they say but how they say it. For instance, psychologists’ spontaneous references to Freud may not come “out of the blue” (p. 119) as Fitzgerald assumes, but are likely the intrusion of intertextual references from classes they have had, classes that they teach, and things they read. To know that, one needn’t follow neuroscientists into the lab, but one might follow them into the lecture hall or the occasional media interview. The point would not be to get a deeper or more real understanding of who they are but to follow their utterances as they mutate and respond to different contexts or reshape them. To offer an even stranger possibility, one that comes from studying how we speak and not only what we say, it might be that the sense that autism is a coherent presence, which many of these neuroscientists share, is a product of an English language ideology that includes a tendency toward nominalization.

Incorporating a sociolinguistic approach to these interviews is not simply about avoiding bias, in other words, but about finding a rich resource for understanding people. The problem with the interview is not that it is not deep or critical enough, but that it is weird. Interviews are unlike any form of interaction and yet are the dominant method of social scientists. Interviewing might actually be a familiar social interaction for Fitzgerald’s interlocutors, but we are not told whom else they may speak with in this manner, and whether that has shaped how they talk about autism. Given the prestige that neuroscience still has and the attraction of the topic of autism to the general public, the people Fitzgerald interviews might be all too familiar with shaping their responses for audiences, reporters, granting agencies, and the like. It would be interesting to know how these forms of talk travel, not to replace surface with depth, but to follow along the surface. To paraphrase Fitzgerald, “we might begin to trace important and functional relations between the kinds of psychological [utterances] that hold sway, the scientific histories with which those [utterances] seek affinity, and the sorts of things and people that those [utterances] help to bring into existence” (pp. 129–130).