Upcoming Talk at Theorizing the Web

by scholastress

Below is my early abstract for Theorizing the Web, a very progressive conference that will take place here in NYC from the 17-18 of April. My talk will be a brief summation of the research I conducted for my MA thesis, with all the art junk scrubbed from it. If it interests you, I hope you’ll come or tune in over the livestream. (Hit me up afterwards for the art junk bits, if that’s your thing).

Techno-Autism: Confronting the Ableist Ideals in Media Criticism

After many years of hype and celebration concerning the Internet’s capacity to foster novel and enriching forms of sociality, many critics of recent years have described a converse, disabling effect on the rise. Autism, with its preference for indirect communication and seeming withdrawal from the vibrancy of embodied social exchange, has been frequently invoked as a metaphor to describe the tenor of digital sociality. In the work of Sherry Turkle or Anne Balsamo, for example, one finds the assumption that human relationality as a whole is becoming problematically autistic as more and more of it is mediated through technologies that defer the demands for immediacy in time, place, and attention that otherwise characterize face-to-face conversation. This condemnation by way of analogy to a disability, however, invites careful reflection on the ableist assumptions that underlie this concern. What unexamined ideals underpin our definitions of human sociality and mediation, and what is the cost of their defence?

Focusing specifically on the relational challenges and alternatives autism brings to bear on models of interpersonal communication, this paper traces the historical and contemporary intersections of relational impairments, networked communication, and forms virtual reality. Using a disability studies approach, this discussion details the often conflicting demands of feminist and disability studies media scholarship, suggesting that early debates about the role of the body in VR and digital communications often served to exclude people with relational impairments from a foundational idea of human ethics. This paper will also provide a parallel account of autistic online communication, illustrating how autistic media, whether literally or metaphorically understood, still provide ways of successfully relating and building communities even if the aesthetics and grammars of these forms of communication are not immediately legible to outsiders as such.

As media alter the forms and meanings of social contact, producing revisions to long-held social norms, there is an opportunity to make the defensibly human a more inclusive category. By acknowledging the merit of a plurality of human communicative capacities, media criticism can stand to be more descriptive rather than reactionary. If the Internet is “making us autistic,” then perhaps there is much to be learned through productive exchange, in considering this form of relationality as different but not necessarily diminished way of being human.