Canaries in a coal mine

Found: an interesting excerpt from Jonathan Letham’s new book in the “Readings” section of Harper’s.

Gist: Upon taking part in a science fiction writers conference, Letham suggests that the Aspergian means of living in a confusing but fascinating world might be an important coping stance for (he doesn’t use this term) neurotypicals and artists (he does use this term) trying to navigate a world “where corporations, machines, and products flourish within their own ungovernable systems.”

Do read on. He says it much better than my stumbling synopsis. And he got me pondering conventional definitions and the expectations surrounding our ideas about human being.

“The mental room-tone at the Raddison is Genius-Asperger’s (which is not to presume a diagnosis of any of the occupants): cognitively astonishing accounts of living in an environment to which one does not fully belong, the terms of which one cannot fully discern or trust. This aura prevails in the conversation as much as it defines the contents of the writing. The protagonist in science fiction analogizes not to the writer but to the reader, plunged into a world organized according to hidden operations, full of codes to crack and of the affective feedback of people taking for granted what you’re puzzling to grasp. This stance feels important for its resemblance to science, philosophy, or what the academics call theory; to experience it is to feel consciousness as a never-ending stream of epiphanies–wait, they use a fork to consume this substance, but this other they lift to their mouths with their bare hands? Fascinating! At its best, unpolluted by too many compensatory power fantasies, it is important, if you grant that examining the invisible systems that organize everyday life might be worthwhile…

The Genius-Asperger’s may be the defining artistic room-tone of our time, speaking as it does to the bewilderments attached to the confluene of global corporatism, the information ecology, and so forth. From the works of creators as seminally ‘postmodern’ as Stanley Kubrich, John Ashbery, Andy Warhol, Jean-Luc Godard, Laurie Anderson, David Byrne, Brian Eno, Michelangelo Antonioni, David Lynch, Lydia Davis, and Guided By Voices to the writings of the Pynchon-DeLillo-Wallace-Saunders continuum…you might grasp the outlines of a consensus approach to the matter of selfhood: embracingly curious while affectively-challenged. The air of cognitive estrangement, of disassociation, isn’t so far removed, I think, from the fact that after a day of two at a science fiction convention it can not only be surprisingly challenging to enact the unspoken protocols for getting in and out of a crowded elevator (a difficulty that’s rampant at the Radisson), it can seem both fascinating and urgent to consider that such protocols exist in the first place, and then to attempt to describe them, to consider how they formed and were taken unassumingly into our bodies. Please believe me: this can happen to you. The Internet’s only a much more complex (and crowded) elevator.

I’m not terribly interested in whether real, brain-chemically-defined Asperger’s is over-or under diagnosed, or whether it exists at all except as a metaphor. I’m interested in how vital the description feels lately. Is there any chance the Aspergerian retreat from affective risk, in favor of the role of alienated scientist-observer, might be an increasingly ‘popular’ coping stance in a world where corporations, machines, and products flourish within their own ungovernable systems? If so, finding such a stance itself human–finding it more human, rather than less–might be one of the imperatives of our art. If there’s anything to this at all, you’d have to agree that the science fiction people are not only canaries, but that they sensed before anyone else that we’d entered a coal mine.”

Jonathan Letham, from The Ecstasy of Influence: Non-fictions, etc.

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