• A Rhetorical Model of Autism: a Pop Culture Personification of Masculinity in Crisis

      Matthews, Malcolm; Interdisciplinary Humanities Program
      ABSTRACT In my dissertation, I argue that significant rhetorical mechanisms are at work in the production and consumption of portrayals of autism in literature, TV, and film. My project is driven by a central question: In what ways do portrayals of autism function as a visual rhetorical reconfiguration of masculinity that reimagines and repurposes disability in the service of the promotion of Humanist notions of white male hegemony in a technocentric era? I begin with Hans Asperger’s 1944 claim that autism is “a variant of male intelligence.” I connect that originary declaration with contemporary observations by Stuart Murray that autism is a form of “metaphorized hypermasculinity” and with Simon Baron-Cohen’s controversial insistence that autism represents a version of “The Extreme Male Brain.” Such testimonials, coupled with results from my own analysis and taxonomy of autistic characters throughout emerging popular culture manifestations, has led me to hypothesize that autism in portrayal serves as a survival guide for the white Western male in an era that threatens to be post-racial, post-ableist, post-phallocentric, and even post-anthropocentric. Fictional adolescent autists (e.g.: Christopher Boone, Nathanial Clark, and Colin Fischer), living autists (e.g.: David Paravicini, Daniel Tammet, and Temple Grandin), autistic “techno-savants” (e.g.: Spock, Rain Man, Sheldon Cooper), and speculatively diagnosed historical figures (e.g.: Alan Turing, Andy Warhol, and Bobby Fischer), advance a distinct “autism aesthetic” and function as rhetorical texts whose readings expose an unexplored intersection of disability, masculinity, ethnicity, and digital technology. Such characters illustrate in visual rhetorical terms how certain traits of autism are being romanticized in a digital era to equate ethnic whiteness with intellect and with a re-branded form of techno-masculinity. By providing a Rhetorical Model of autism as a link between autism as a clinical condition and as a cultural construct, I aim to form a more complete picture of autism and of its role in popular consciousness. As an interdisciplinary project, my dissertation draws upon the vocabularies and methodologies of gender, disability, and media studies. Under the unifying umbrella of visual rhetoric, I explore ethnicity, sexuality, and symbol-manipulation on the autism spectrum as they relate to Western man’s hope for a unifying techno-human singularity and his anxiety over the possible obsolescence of conventional constructions of masculinity. At stake are notions of hegemonic masculinity and of autism as a rhetorical artifact with real world implications.