ine gevers on Tue, 7 Mar 2000 22:31:15 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> symbolic order and its limits2

To Brian, to Katrien, to Max,

Thanks for your positive reactions. I noticed that I made a mistake in
sharing the URL of my website. Here again (I
am still working on it). If you have shockwave you should enter as such
because it starts of with some beautiful quotations. If you want to go
through it quickly, go to 'words' and find 'about this site'. In the
documentation section are lots of articles, including the one that I
wrote for the seminar ENCOUNTERING THE CULTURE OF THE NORM, organised at
Stichting De Geuzen, Amsterdam in december 99. 

For those who are interested, here is the english version:

(En)countering the culture of the norm is a day long seminar focused on
the culture of autism. Autism is a diagnostic term used in reference to
people who are differently brained and whose language and/or (social)
behavior deviates from the norm. Starting from the acknowledgement that
autism is in fact a culture, the focus of this seminar is on the both
the unique and heterogeneous qualities of the autistic community. 

As a curator and writer, my attention has always been concentrated on
issues of representation and identity. I have looked at how the norm is
constructed, how 'others' are defined in relation to that norm and more
over how types or identities are depicted. I have sought through various
exhibitions and symposia such as Cultural Identity: Fiction or Necessity
and Place Position Presentation Public to get at the very heart of these
questions. I explored these issues further in an exhibition I curated
with Jeanne van Heeswijk entitled, I + the Other: Art and the Human
Condition. During the exhibition we examined how society through the
establishment of norms and stereotypes, excludes and marginalises
others. Distanced from the world we construct, removed from personal
engagement with others, it becomes difficult to move beyond

 Despite these realizations, I soon learned through a very intimate
experience that I was only a student of these issues. My practice, in
spite of my best intentions, had been developed from the position of
luxurious detachment as well. During the making of I + the Other
something occurred which shattered my safe perspective on Otherness and
made me realize the limits of my own language and thinking. My son was
diagnosed as autistic. He appeared to live in a world that wasn't mine,
and vice versa I lived in a world he couldn't make sense of. Language
and meaning were not a matter of course for him. He couldn't manage to
enter our world of shared meaning, the symbolic order that connects us
with one another. Gradually he withdrew himself. For the first few years
following his diagnosis, we lived in a state of panic, trying to stop
the process of disintegration and attempting to reverse this
development. I couldn't think of anything but searching for new
treatments for him. My quest for a cure led me to a variety of therapies
such as sensory integration, cognitive behavioral therapy, auditive
training, acupuncture, milk- and gluten-free diets and vitamin therapy.
Although I knew I was forcing him to fit into my world, I was just too
scared to loose him if I didn't. It took a long time before I understood
that all my attempts to normalize my son would fail and that I had to
find other ways to reach him. I began to see that, instead of pushing
him to learn my language, my social rules, norms and values, I would
have to make an attempt to learn about his perception, his way of
thinking and his manners of making contact.  

 People with autism perceive the world around them differently from what
is accepted as normal. They interpret this world accordingly and
therefore it can be justified to speak of another way of thinking or a
different mindset. As a result their use of language and/or social
behavior deviates from the norm. The position of the autistic is that of
the ultimate Other. Jim Sinclair, autistic himself, proclaims in Don't
Mourn For Us: "It takes more work to communicate with someone whose
native language isn't the same as yours. And autism goes deeper than
language and culture; autistic people are 'foreigners' in any society.
You're going to give up your assumptions about shared meanings. You're
going to have to learn to back up levels more basic than you've probably
thought about before, to translate, and to check to make sure your
translations are understood. You're going to have to give up the
certainty that comes of being on your own familiar territory, of knowing
you're in charge, and let your child teach you a little of her language,
guide you a little way into his world". Sinclair speaks about the
autistic as foreigner, as a stranger who does not automatically take
part in the symbolic order. Someone with autism may seem to come from
another planet. According to his judgement, autism is not something you
have, it is what you are. It is pervasive and complete. Therefore it is
much more revealing to think of autism as a different culture.
Sinclair's proposition of how to arrive at a cross-cultural translation
is therefore a learning process that is not only of interest to those
who are immediately effected. 

 Philosophical and artistic discourses have been and continue to be
engaged in suggesting models for cross-cultural dialogues to take place.
Possibilities are tested of how to exceed the borders between ourselves
and others, how (intercultural)communication between people can be
improved, and whether there are other forms of communication before or
beyond language. The work of the English sociologist Scott Lash is one
of many examples. Lash introduces the notion of 'sociability' to
describe what he considers to be the precondition to a serious encounter
with the Other. In his view we will never know 'the Other' unless we let
go of our fixed subject-positions. Only if we are able to turn to point
zero - the place where the 'I' ends and 'the Other' begins - space opens
up for the other as Other. This risking of one's own subjectivity, this
questioning of the very grounds of our language and its certainties, is
a primary task for parents of autistic children. I too had to cross this
threshold. In learning to communicate with my son - mostly on
pre-linguistic levels - I had to give up all the things I thought to be
givens, even universals and certainly essential to my identity. But
then, enabling myself to communicate with him in a more intuitive,
physical and nonverbal way, didn't solve the problem as well. Sharing
the symbolic order with those who are 'the same', 

I could only truly believe that communication had taken place with my
son after I had transcribed our experience into my language. I overcame
this by accepting the limitations of language, which I had imagined to
be infinite. I had to learn that the power of language and the symbolic
order was both limited and relative. This led to a strange sense of
alienation making me feel like a foreigner in my own homeland. And yet
at the same time, I wanted to share this idea of being imprisoned in

I became intrigued by revealing these limits and interested in
discovering ways to stretch them. If not from within then from the
outside. As I could not satisfy myself with only playing with tactics of
inversion (however much I validate them), neither with extending the
discourse on diversity and pluralism with the notion of neurological
difference on an academic level, I started my own research. My main
questions were: how to set the conditions that enable me (and others) to
learn more about perception, ways of thinking and communication of
so-called 'non-symbolic' cultures and how is it possible to bridge
between these different worlds in a way that enriches both. 

As a result of my research and quest to answer these questions, I have
been working towards establishing the Centre for Non-Symbolic Cultures.
Both the terms 'non-symbolic' and 'cultures' - seemingly in
contradiction to each other - need some explanation. I chose this
particular frame for primarily tactical reasons. I did not want to
exclude people who do not share the proximity of those who either are
themselves diagnosed as having a neurological disorder, or are involved
as family members, caretakers or doctors. By recognizing people with
autism, schizophrenia and/or other developmental disorders as
communities that share certain values, perspectives and experiences,
like deaf culture for instance, it might become easier to address them.
In understanding autism as a culture there is a necessity for learning
about the shared insights and ways of interpreting the world as well as
generating a respect with regards to difference. When autism is
recognized as a community, moving beyond medicalisation and brought into
different constellations with other sub-cultures, stereotyping can be
avoided opening up a greater understanding of the heterogeneity of
people sharing certain patterns of behavior. The usage of the term
'culture' also brings forward an activist discourse that has been
developed by autism network groups for the last 10 years. 

Why I have brought these cultures in the plural - people with autism,
schizophrenia and/or developmental disabilities - under the umbrella
'non-symbolic' is even less obvious. Non-Symbolic seems to be a
problematic term. It is questionable whether this term describes any of
the subgroups sufficiently, not to mention the danger of stereotyping
that comes with it. Coining a new term , however, allows me to define
it. 'Non-Symbolic' stands for those moments when people do not (cannot)
automatically subject themselves to the order of shared meanings: the
symbolic order and language. This doesn't mean that what they say or do
cannot be qualified as being symbolic, it does implicate however that it
is not (at all times)compatible with the normative order. 

My ambition is to establish a multidisciplinary centre, based on
cooperation with people with autism (schizophrenia and/or other
developmental disorders) as well as parents, support persons and people
in the medical profession. The aim is to de-marginalise the position of
autism and to support the self-representation of autistic culture. The
tasks of such a centre could be quite diverse, from guiding people with
autism in self-advocacy, empowering parents and caretakers, informing
the immediate surroundings and sharing information with the medical
field, to researching the possibilities for non-linguistic forms of
communication and self-representation (body-language, music and visual
art, including video and film). Further, it is crucial that perspectives
are developed from inside and contextualised artistically and culturally
rather than classified in terms of neurological disorders or different
from the norm. My own experience as a cultural producer and my
professional knowledge of autism are connected here. There is a
fundamental relationship between recognizing the culture of autism and
becoming aware of the limitations of normative culture. Stretching these
boundaries is therefore not only in the interest of those who are
excluded. The Centre of Non-Symbolic Cultures is unique in its effort to
think in at least two directions simultaneously and to position this
within the multi-cultural discourse at large.

 Stichting de Geuzen has invited me to organize a day long event as a
first attempt of gathering information and sharing different
perspectives. I invited two speakers for the seminar (En)countering the
Culture of the Norm: Gunillia Gerland and Martijn Dekker. Both have
autism. Both have been actively communicating about their Otherness for
years, the one by writing, publishing and lecturing, the other by
writing and generating activist networks on Internet. I have asked them
to tell about their encounters with the culture of neurological typicals
- normative culture - and about the impact this had on their lives.
Which surviving strategies and subversive tactics have they managed to
develop along the way? How have these experiences changed their
perspective and their relation to the normative culture that excludes
them time and again? How could the transcultural communication they are
engaged in enrich both cultures at once?  

Being a representative of the neurologically typical, but with a major
motivation to research the boundaries of our shared order of meanings
and to challenge them simultaneously, I will speak about how my personal
experiences forced me to enter new fields and turn these into politics.
Further I would like to take this gathering of different people in terms
of culture and mindset as an advantage point and ask you to reflect upon
possible interfaces between disparate communities and cultures at large,
and between normative culture and the culture of autism particularly. 

 Ine Gevers, December 1999

NB. I am still in the midst of a large discussion concerning the aims,
needs end services of this Centre. This discussion even includes the
term 'non-symbolic', questioning whether this term adequately describes
and circumscribes the conceptual framework of the Centre. Anyone of you
having suggestions or comments is welcome to do so. Ine Gevers, 7 march

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