Autism, Automaton, Alibi

Curator's Note

The Bollywood film My Name is Khan invokes autism as alibi. The lead character’s autism is reminiscent (derivative?) of Rain Man, but with an important difference.  Here autism is introduced as a strategic conceit rather than as the real focus of the diegesis.  In Rain Man, Raymond is presented as an autistic savant, and this savoir is the focus of the narrative. My Name is Khan's agenda is something quite different, a politically charged apologia pro vita sua, and its strategic use of autism functions as an emotional buffer licensing a political message.  But does this strategic deployment of autism also constitute an ethical breach, autism-exploitation?  That is the question I want to raise in this curatorial comment.

The reference to autism in Khan is neither a serious treatment of a disorder, nor clinically or aetiologically insightful.  Rather it functions as a political or behavioral buffer and psychological license--or alibi--for the protagonist's actions.  He is charged with a political mission: to make a stand against stereotyping of Muslims after 9/11.  Khan becomes almost an automaton.  He "performs" some telling symptoms of autism: automatism, repetitive, compulsive behavior, and inability to perform routine tasks, though this inability is compensated for by superior function in other areas such as in preternatural mathematic ability.  

This autism-as-automatism is routed through what Jacques Derrida might call auto-affection.  There is, as Derrida says, something monstrous in the blank, dead repetition of the automaton; but on the other hand the machinic nature of the automaton's act absolves it of any intentionality and therefore presumes an ethical immunity. His performance of autism produces an alibi, a carte-blanche to do what ordinary citizens cannot.  For he is presumptively absolved of responsibility for his speech and actions. Only someone not bound by the usual social pieties or proprieties of custom,  customs officials, or customary inhibitions--such as our man Khan--can presume to breach Indian customs, travel through U.S. customs, tell the American President, "I Am Not A Terrorist," and heroically bring Americans together in a moment of great crisis.  Conceived as an Indian film but set to a significant degree in post-9/11 America, My Name is Khan is a tale of auto-affection, a transnational projection of a fervent desire among Muslims not to be reduced to the stereotype of the terrorist. But I wonder if it also raises questions of the (mis)-appropriation of autism as a mere conceit or cover for a political agenda.  If so, is this autism-exploitation?



For reasons of space, I could not frame the curatorial comment above, but it is important to remember the context of contemporary debates on autism.The appropriation of the semiotics of autism has re-emerged as an issue in popular culture. In the 1950s, parents were often blamed for their children's autism, and in the 1960s parents struck back, as Adam Feinstein shows in A History of Autism: Conversations with the Pioneers. Today, the diagnosis, aetiologies and semiology of autism is again controversial.  

One controversy concerns Andrew Wakefield's now-discredited suggestion that the MMR vaccine is responsible for causing autism in some children. One might then bring up the related issue of infection. Jenny McCarthy has used this questionable research to argue that vaccines against the Mumps-Measles-Rubella MMR vaccine had caused her son Evan's autism.

Autism is a spectrum disorder. The symptoms are so various that there is a burden on a parent of a specific child to studying the available information. Much of the controversy emerges from understandable even if unscientific desire to seek simple solutions to a complex problem.

As Seth Mnookin writes regarding his recent The Panic Virus, "Words have meaning and actions have consequences.... There is... a causal link between vaccine-preventable diseases and a whole range of potential outcomes — and as parents around the world discovered last week, those outcomes can include death."

Apart from questions of etiology, of Big Pharma's "manipulation of and influence over" prescription of drugs for autism and a host of other diseases, and questions of Infection, there are also questions of affection and affectation, when autism is represented in the movies. These affectations of autism may of course be justified or rationalized as consciousness-raising efforts on the parts of the filmmakers. But they may also be questioned as examples of exploitation of autism, of Autism-exploitation. For inevitably the representation of autism in a popular film intended for entertainment, whatever else it does, also raises issues of authenticity and confession, at least in the case of adult autism, and therefore of ethics, of the automaton and auto-affection. 

Thanks for giving us a glimpse into one of the rare portrayals of an adult with autism! I haven't watched "My Name is Khan" (yet), but I agree that the autism seems like a melodramatic device, designed to elicit an ultra-sympathetic response from viewers, rather than a serious inquiry into what life would be like for an adult living with autism.

Do you think this simply overly ambitious filmmaking (a "more is more" approach)? Or an attempt to manipulate audiences?

The other thing I take from both films is the use of autism to explain an adult character's child-like innocence. Are modern audiences so cynical that we cannot believe an adult in his "right mind" would attempt the quest Khan embarks upon?

Hi Nedda:

Thanks for your important questions.  I'd suggest that the film's melodramatic staging of autism as a device to elicit sympathy is not manipulative in the sense of expressing a cynical disregard for autistic persons or in being a feckless pretext to attract audiences without trying to be a balanced and accurate representation of autism.  But it is somewhat lazy and sentimental.  It is manipulative to the degree that it seeks to elicit audience sympathy for an apparently autistic adult in the service of a covert political intervention, however innocuous.  This makes the recourse to autism in my mind an alibi.

What the protagonist Khan wants to do is travel halfway across the world to gain an audience with the American President and deliver his simple message: "My name is Khan, and I am not a terrorist." On the face of it, no "socially adjusted," normalized, adults "in their right adult minds" would conceive of uttering such a jejune sentiment, although they might secretly fantasize saying it. But in the context of the frequent demonization worldwide of Muslims after 9/11, the sentimentalism and solipsism of Khan's message is coded as the politically "correct" humane defense of Muslims in general.  (This is not to say the defense is insincere.) The cloak of "autism" is an alibi that gives Khan the license--and one might even say metaphorically the cultural and political passport--an adult would need to undertake the improbable quest Khan has embarked upon, and succeeds in even beyond his stated aim. So it is not overly ambitious filmmaking but rather an overly sanguine political project.  Perhaps it is not fair--or ultimately relevant?--to require clinical accuracy on the part of the filmmaker.  That's entertainment.

By the way, for those in Boston or environs, there's a panel discussing the film at MIT on April 12 at 6 pm (Bldg. E15 Room 335).

I have not seen this film, though it has been on my To-Watch List.

Implicit in the use of autism as an alibi is the assumption that people with autism do not have responsibility for their words (actions?). Does autism truly offer that alibi? Do representations of autism that downplay the accountability for one's actions contribute to the idea that the person with autism cannot be a moral agent?

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