Yesterday, Ian Hacking took to the stage in the Rupert Beckett theatre of the University of Leeds for a lecture entitled “Making Up Autism” which, at the very beginning of his talk, he changed to “The Shaping of Autism”. The original title, he explained, was a nod to the work he’s done in the area of Making Up People – this essay, written ten years ago now, regards the ways in which people interact with the way in which they are classified. The concern Hacking raised was a semantic one; “Making Up Autism” suggests that perhaps he does not think autism “exists”, that it needn’t be taken seriously, or that it didn’t always exist. This stance is very much incongruent with what he actually argues in the lecture and, more generally, in his writing.
|The Parkinson Building, University of Leeds (not actually where he spoke but still a beautiful building). Taken by me.|
Hacking discusses Foucault’s analysis of homosexuality which, argued the great French philosopher, came into being as a way to be a person in the nineteenth century. This isn’t to say that men hadn’t been having sex with other men (or women with other women, though lesbianism isn’t something Foucault really talks about) since time immemorial. They certainly were. Rather, the temporally contingent institutionalization of sexuality – its measurement, its naming, its acknowledgement – made possible the existence of “the homosexual”. When I first read Foucault, I found this mind blowing. Like so many of Foucault’s observations, it was so obvious but it was not at all common sense:
“The sodomite had been a temporary aberration; the homosexual was now a species” (Foucault, History of Sexuality vol. 1)
One of the key things I take from Foucault – something that Hacking has extrapolated brilliantly into other arenas – is one of the most important things that I believe a sociologist needs to keep in mind. There is a social and political agency that can be mobilized in pretty much any identity category. Homosexuality came into being as a way to be a person which is to say that one enacts their sexuality in response to the institution. This stretches way beyond the act of sex. There is a dynamism in the naming that is unmistakably experienced by the person so named. As a gay woman, you’re deemed so because you have sex with other women. But as a gay woman, you might also exist in certain social circles, attend gay-specific events, politicize in ways peculiar to being a gay woman. Being labeled engenders a particularity that is not necessarily policing or limiting. Indeed, identifiers can be embraced in politically powerful ways that might never have even been anticipated by those who developed the initial systems of classification.
|Ian Hacking in the throngs of explanation. A picture taken from here.|
Like Foucault does with sexuality (and many other things), Hacking takes us through an historical exposition of the bringing about of autism as an identifier and as an identity.
People who are close to autism have played a role in the evolution of autism as a concept and experience. He calls these people “PCA” (personally connected to an autistic person). It works as a really interesting category in itself that Hacking exemplifies through the telling of an anecdote. He had been at a conference with psychiatrists who’d argued that it was the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) that shapes autism, if indeed there was any shaping to be done [this has been in the news recently as the fifth DSM is released next week]. How, asked the man, could PCAs have anything to do with its shaping as only one member of the DSM board was personally connected to an autistic person. In response, Hacking said that the DSM wasn’t necessarily the shaping device; “These were just bureaucrats,” he said “who were writing down where autism had gotten to at the moment.” Those who initially brought autism to public attention we not PCAs, but – because “autism is in flux”, that is it is a continually shifting definitional category – PCAs play a very significant role how we come to understand it contemporarily. He went into discussion about Lorna Wing, a psychiatrist with an autistic daughter who initially petitioned to have Asperger’s recognised by the DSM, and who was a founding member of what is now the British National Autism Society.
Hacking mentioned a photograph he’d seen of a child chained to a tree in Somalia who likely had what might be called autism. What "autism" as a recognised categorisation has done is, in many ways, liberate children perceived to be autistic from certain limitations. “Being on the spectrum” is a specific way of thinking of oneself, of one’s students, children, and/or patients. He made mention of the Autism Network International Autreat to help autistic people “live life the autly way”, and of various other avenues that recognition of autism opens up for people. To be classified is, after all, a way of being recognised as part of a particular grouping. The lecture was altogether more dense and comprehensive than this short post would suggest, but it was a fantastic opportunity to hear him speak.
My father went to the University of Leeds to study engineering and saw the The Who play their (in)famous “Live at Leeds” concert there. Seeing Ian Hacking at Leeds is , I am not ashamed to say, my equivalent.
|My parents have a framed version of this poster in their bathroom at home.|