Histories of Violence: Neurodiversity and the Policing of the Norm

By Brad EvansJanuary 2, 2018

Histories of Violence: Neurodiversity and the Policing of the Norm
THIS IS THE 17th in a series of dialogues with artists, writers, and critical thinkers on the question of violence. This conversation is with Canadian cultural theorist and philosopher Erin Manning, who holds a University Research Chair in Relational Art and Philosophy in the Faculty of Fine Arts at Concordia University (Montreal, Canada). She is also the director of the SenseLab (www.senselab.ca), a laboratory that explores the intersections between art practice and philosophy through the matrix of the sensing body in movement.


BRAD EVANS: Your work has for some time addressed fundamental questions around what it means to think and act in the world. This has invariably raised questions about limit conditions and forms of disavowal. Why are you interested in the neuropolitical and how does it speak directly to the problem of violence?

ERIN MANNING: I have never considered the concept of the “neuropolitical” in relation to neurodiversity. It’s an interesting proposition, though, so let me think it through with you. Neurodiversity is a movement that celebrates difference while remaining deeply nuanced on questions of (medical) facilitation and the necessity of rethinking the concept of accommodation against narratives of cure. The added emphasis on neurology has been necessary in order to challenge existing norms that form the base-line of existence: the “neuro” in neurodiversity has opened up the conversation about the category of neurotypicality and the largely unspoken criteria that support and reinforce the definition of what it means to be human, to be intelligent, to be of value to society. This has been especially necessary for those folks who continue to be excluded from education, social and economic life, who are regarded as less than human, whose modes of relation continue to be deeply misunderstood, and who are cast as burdens to society.

“Classical” autistics fall within this category. As my work has sought to underscore (following the writings of autistics such as Tito Mukhopadhyay, DJ Savarese, Amelia Baggs, Melanie Yergeau, Ido Kedar, Lucy Blackman, and many others), not only is the mainstream understanding of autism deeply flawed, but autistics have a vital contribution to make precisely due to their neurology. One way in which neurological difference presents itself is through what I call “autistic perception.” Autistic perception is a deep sensitivity to the coming-into-itself of form in experience. While all perception includes an edging-into-form, more neurotypically aligned perception in most cases occludes the process itself: objects and subjects are seen and not their process of coming-into-form. Autistic perception dwells in the interstitial, perceiving the process itself. Anne Corwin speaks of neurotypicals as those who “chunk” experience: neurotypicals perceive by categorizing. Autistic perception, on the other hand, troubles categories, feeling-seeing the world coming into itself. Autistic perception is the direct perception of the forming of experience. This has effects: activities which require parsing (crossing the street, finding the path in the forest) can be much more difficult. But there is no question that autistic perception experiences richness in a way the more neurotypically inclined perception rarely does.

As I’ve suggested at length in both Always More Than One (2013) and The Minor Gesture (2016), autistic perception is not a mode that should be reduced to autism. First, as every autistic will tell you, there is infinite difference among autistics. Second, autistic perception should be seen as a limit case of what accompanies all experience. Nonetheless, I think it’s fair to say that this enhanced perceptual field is an aspect of much autistic experience and something neurotypicals could learn a lot from, not only with regard to perception itself, but also as concerns the complexity of experience.

This has direct effects on what is considered a livable life. Much of life as it is organized in neoliberal capitalism works against autistic perception. This is not simply a question of speed: autistic perception is not necessarily slow. It is rhythmic, moving across relays of experience in-forming. This layering of experience is intense and often overwhelming, particularly in circumstances that deaden complex rhythms, which is certainly the case in the forward-oriented tendencies of contemporary life. This includes education, which tends to be organized not in terms of what is lived but in terms of what needs to be parsed in advance as knowable.

I foreground all of this to underscore that there is a neurological difference, or a spectrum of neurology, that must be attended to. The movement for neurodiversity is not interested in homogenizing experience. We are different and we require different accommodations. On the other hand, my interest is not in the neural per se, which I find quickly loses its usefulness in such discussions, particularly in the ways it can be taken up in the humanities and the social sciences as an explanatory category. The neurological is only one point of departure for the question of autistic perception, and of autism more broadly.

So I would say that the concept of the neuropolitical is not particularly interesting to me. I want to support the movement for neurodiversity because I find it exciting and deeply important in its foregrounding of complexity as the baseline. And I want to think about the ways in which an engagement with neurodiversity affects how we think of the political and how we effect change. The political emphasis here is less on neurology than on the question of how normative modes of being subsumed under the unspoken category of the neurotypical organize experience, and how an engagement with neurodiversity changes the questions we ask and the actions we support.

How does this concern with such diversity relate directly to the problem of violence?

Neurotypicality is a grounding narrative of exclusion. The neurotypical is the category to which our education systems aspire. It is the category to which our ideas of the nuclear family aspire. And, it is the category on which the concept of the citizen (and by extension participation in the nation-state and the wider global economy) is based.

In the context of education, which is the one I am most knowledgeable about, the mechanisms for upholding the neurotypical standard are everywhere in force. Every classroom that penalizes students for distributed modes of attention organizes learning according to a neurotypical norm. Every classroom that sees the moving body as the distracted body is organized according to a neurotypical norm. Every classroom that teaches predominantly for one mode of perception is organizing its learning according to a norm. Every classroom that knows in advance what knowledge looks and sounds like is working to a norm.

Intelligence, understood as the performance of a certain kind of knowledge acquisition and presentation, is built on the scaffold of neurotypicality as the unspoken norm. To speak of the normative tendencies of education is not new. My concern is with what remains largely unspoken in that conversation. Having “special needs” classrooms upholds neurotypicality, for instance, as the dominant model of existence. Drugging our children because of their attention deficit is upholding a neurotypical norm. Sending our black and indigenous children to juvenile detention centers in disproportionate numbers is upholding a neurotypical norm which takes, as neurotypicality always does, whiteness as the standard.

To engage with neurodiversity is to speak up about the extraordinary silence around neurotypicality and to acknowledge that we do not question ourselves enough as regards what kinds of bodies are welcomed and supported in education, and in social life more broadly. It is still far too rare that we discuss neurotypicality as that which frames our ways of knowing, of presenting ourselves, of being bodies in the world.

In any classroom I’ve ever taught, I would say at least 50 percent of students don’t work well with the norm. This may be clearer for me than for other professors because I teach in studio art, where students who have different modes of learning have already been funnelled. But my experience is not limited to fine art students: it also includes students in the wider humanities and social sciences. Accommodations are not complicated: facilitating a classroom organization which is not completely frontal and allowing participation to occur in ways that don’t privilege eye-contact, or allowing for and even generating movement in the classroom are two simple techniques. The accommodations are not mine to make but ours to invent, and each class will do it differently depending on the needs of the participants. And, lest this be seen as an “unserious pursuit” (I wish I didn’t have to underline this), these students I speak of are leaders in the field: brilliant writers and artists and philosophers and dancers, folks whose PhDs have become important books, whose teaching practices have deeply affected their students, whose thinking about what else knowledge can look like has altered their practices and continues to orient their politics.

The violence of the norm that is imposed without ever having to be spoken as such is debilitating. Not only does it normalize education, siphoning out difference of all kinds, but it also forces all bodies who want to be recognized as “knowledgeable” (and thus human) to be organized within an incredibly unimaginative matrix. This violence of course plays out far beyond the academic institution, affecting how bodies are considered to have value to society, even allowing certain bodies to be killed or altered to facilitate neurotypical existence (see Not Dead Yet for an account of how neurodiverse and disabled bodies tend not to be given the same life-saving medical treatment; see the Ashley Treatment for medical procedures that allow parents of disabled children to alter their bodies without their consent).

Connecting this more directly to the policing of thought, as you indicate in your work, in order for thought to be recognized as being meaningful, it needs to conform to preset ideas regarding authentic thought-processes. Can you elaborate more on this in terms of the denial of alternative modes of thinking and expression?

I recently wrote an essay entitled “Me Lo Dijo un Pajarito: Neurodiversity, Black Life and the University As We Know It,” where I engaged this question in detail. One path I would like to highlight from that piece is the concept of the free indirect. In A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze and Guattari write: “Language is not content to go from a first party to a second party, from one who has seen to one who has not, but necessarily goes from a second party to a third party, neither of whom has seen.”

Neurotypicality as mode of knowledge policing builds on what it considers “direct” communication. But language, as Deleuze and Guattari point out here, never comes directly. It always moves through experience, altered by the detours it has taken. Despite extraordinary work in studies of pedagogy, knowledge continues to be organized in most classrooms as though language came directly, untethered, from a source that can be named and sequestered. It is the order word that makes this possible. Deleuze and Guattari explain:

We call order-words, not a particular category of explicit statements (for example, in the imperative), but the relation of every word or every statement to implicit presuppositions, in other words, to speech acts that are, and can only be, accomplished in the statement […] An order always and already concerns prior orders, which is why ordering is redundancy […] When the schoolmistress instructs her students on a rule of grammar or arithmetic, she is not informing them, any more than she is informing herself when she questions a student. She does not so much instruct as “insign”, give orders or commands. A teacher’s commands are not external or additional to what he or she teaches us.

Speaking in the free indirect, catching language in the making, the order-word is carried in the performance of what the instructor does not actually need to say. The school, its habits, the teaching expectation and pedagogical format enforce a certain organization of knowledge that moves through the free indirect to give it the form of a command, here, now. It is not language that constrains knowledge, but the order-word that moves through it.

Because the order-word moves through language indirectly, pedagogies must be invented that are sensitive to how the order-word not only classifies knowledge, but also organizes bodies. I am interested in pedagogical modes that open the way for the realization that there is no “individual subject” of enunciation. The “individual subject” is in fact what sustains the neurotypical norm: the belief that knowledge is sequestered and held by certain kinds of bodies allows us to police those bodies who learn differently.

What autistic perception teaches us is that things are not necessarily as they seem. Just because something can be categorized as an object or a subject does not necessarily mean they are more vital than other modes of welling experience. What is needed are not more categories but more sensitivity to difference and a more acute attunement to qualities of experience. This would allow us to see that knowledge circulates and it is through this circulation that learning happens: language and other forms of expression move through us and it is through this movement that we learn. Expression is social and it is this sociality that most interests me. This is not to say that all enunciation happens “with” others. It is to underscore that language is social at its core, organized around the unsaid in the saying, oriented by the lapses and detours and reorientations of what we think of as direct communication. Our bodies, whether speaking or not, are alive with this sociality of expression.

To make this claim is to open language beyond linguistics, to value modes of expression that function across and beneath and in excess of words (including, of course all that beyonding that takes place through the linguistic itself).

Deleuze and Guattari describe this interstitial modality of language in terms of “pass-words.” These are modes of expression that activate a passage, that create circulation. Pass-words are the illicit carriers of a text’s uneasiness: they undo language of its securing of reason as preestablished category. They make expression sparkle by moving it past the order-word, by freeing indirect language of the unspoken categories and imperatives that would shape it.

The challenge is that modes of passage, or pass-words, amplify the free indirect quality of expression: they make it felt that language moves us as much as we move it. This is why order-words tend to be more pervasive in the academic environment where the detours of language tend to be excised from our work, and from our bodies: we hold ourselves to the chairs in the same gesture that we delete lines of flight from our writing. To make apparent the flexibility of passage within expression would be to trouble the categories and methodologies that undergird our disciplines. It would also unsettle the linguistic bias of education — the notion that knowledge is expressed through a particular usage of language. Of course, there are plenty of examples of those who risk speaking across the lines. But the risk should not be underplayed: there are bodies, plenty of bodies, who are excluded from education because it is taken for granted that they cannot adhere to the order-words on which our educational systems are built and sustained.

New modes of knowing come with the danger of being “unrigorous,” “unformed,” “unclear.” But we need to be careful in assuming that the order-word means rigor. The order-word is short-hand for knowing how to perform. Modes of passage that trouble existence as we know it will always feel uncertain: autistic perception lives in the quality of tendencies coming into themselves, not in already-rehearsed forms. Modes of knowing that take off from qualities in-forming will involve rethinking the very question of value.

If we take Gilles Deleuze’s idea that resistance is a creative process seriously, how might we revaluate the political importance of those who society tries to pathologize, and by that token effectively disqualify from having a credible or authentic voice, on account of what are badly perceived as neurological “deficiencies?

Your question takes me in two directions. First, there is the question of creativity, and then the question of how a creative process activates a politics of resistance. Let me begin with the first. Deleuze’s provocation that there is no relationship at all between art and communication is very important in this regard. In The Minor Gesture, I proposed the concept of artfulness to allow us to move away from the concept of art-as-object. Even with the proliferation, for at least the last half century, of more ephemeral works of art (including performance, installation, et cetera), there tends to remain a very strong association of art with an object, and thus with form. If you add to that the current tendency to canalize art toward a set of concerns or issues (as advanced by the now ubiquitous artist statement), what we have is too strong a tendency, I believe, to connect art to communication, and by extension to the order-word. I am much more interested in the force of art for the invention of free indirect modes of discourse. This is where the concept of the artful comes in — a notion that what creates a shift or an opening in experience carries with it the quality of artfulness. This can include an artwork but is not limited to it. Nor is it limited to the human.

This leads us to the question of political resistance. Artfulness and autistic perception are deeply allied to the degree that both engage with qualities of experience over category or form. In a world that foregrounds category at every turn, the tendency is to also see political change in terms of form: change is only change insofar as it has affected or altered the form. On the political spectrum, this situates change only in terms of what we might call macropolitics — politics that have a shape and a history and a preexisting orientation. But what about protopolitics — isn’t it at the germinal level that the political has most potential for reorientation, or even reinvention?

Creation as resistance begins here, I would say, where artfulness cleaves experience to produce not a recognizable set of frameworks, but new modes of knowing, of feeling, of acting. There is no question that neurodiversity opens the way to such practices, even if only by unsettling the norms through which objects and subjects come to be differentiated and “known.”

This doesn’t mean that resistance is a given within the field of neurodiversity, however. Resistance is always to be crafted. The work must do its work, and for that, the conditions of experience have to be recalibrated each time anew in relation to the ecologies of practices with which they composes. In Deleuze’s vocabulary, artfulness always calls forth a people to come.


Brad Evans is a political philosopher, critical theorist, and writer, who specializes on the problem of violence. He is the founder/director of the Histories of Violence project, which has a global user base covering 143 countries.


Artwork: Adam Wolfond, Movements While Walking. Courtesy of Estee Klar.

LARB Contributor

Brad Evans is a political philosopher, critical theorist, and writer, who specializes on the problem of violence. He is author of over 17 books and edited volumes, including most recently Ecce Humanitas: Beholding the Pain of Humanity (2021) and Conversations on Violence: An Anthology (with Adrian Parr, 2021). He leads the Los Angeles Review of Books “Histories of Violence” section.


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