On Neuronationalism: Autism, Immunity, Security

Jack Strange, Worried Couple, 2009. Courtesy Tanya Bonakdar Gallery.

The purview of national security extends to the surface of the brain to secure hierarchies already structured by state violence

On May 27th 2014, just four days after the horrific Isla Vista massacre (whose perpetrator, Eliot Roger, was presumably autistic), the Center for Disease Control and Prevention released new data regarding the prevalence of autism in the United States. The surveillance study identified 1 in 68 U.S. children as autistic, the highest occurrence of autism spectrum diagnoses in the world. While many contend that the United States is in the midst of an “autism epidemic,” others within the scientific community understand the higher prevalence of autism as a result of changing diagnostic practice. While as-yet-unidentified factors specific to the environmental milieu of the U.S. cannot be ruled out (e.g. environmental toxicity, vaccination, poor nutrition, media oversaturation, spiritual alienation, etc.—though it seems highly unlikely that such environmental factors could influence the development of autism), the voracity with which the United States searches for and anticipates its emergence suggests that the notion (or condition) of autism has begun to occupy an increasingly important space within the U.S. national imaginary. The affective valence of neurological difference otherwise known as a “neurotype” (a term used by the autistic community to refer to discursive groupings of similar neural embodiments) is becoming a progressively important category of national citizenship.. Nascent regimes of “neuronationalism” invoke the neural tendencies of the human body within the effort to manage national feeling—and secure national sovereignty from the threatening emergence of neural difference. By constructing the supposed pathology of autism as a national crisis, neurological (dis)ability inheres with national identity, and diagnostic practice entangles with an imagination of the national future. The sharp rise of autism diagnoses within the early 21st century must therefore come as no surprise, as neurological capacity and the meanings which attach to it become central to emergent regimes of governance and national sovereignty.

The “autism epidemic,” and its concomitant cure project—premised upon the pathologization of neurodivergence and the treatment of autistic individuals as objects to be cured or explained—is beginning to take the shape of a national crisis. Mark Roithmayr, former president of Autism Speaks, declared it a “national emergency” calling for “a national plan.” Roithmayr entreats the heroic agency of the nation to intervene upon this epidemical emergence, thereby transforming autism from one of the many possible expressions of the body’s neurodevelopmental trajectory into the very embodiment of a crisis-event. “Cure culture” (a term used by the autistic community to describe the apparatus of institutions and discourses which pathologize the autistic body as an object to be rehabilitated by medicine) prompts the nation to secure itself from the presumed threats which autistic embodiment pose to the neural future of its citizens. Organizations such as Autism Speaks help to produce the climate of discourse necessary for the project of transformation in which neural embodiment becomes symptomatic of a plague: a sudden, dangerous, pathogenic hazard to the health of the nation.

By mobilizing both medical research and psychiatric surveillance, national forces respond to this crisis by mapping a pathology upon autistic bodies, casting them as objects upon which to project the ambient tension of the contemporary. The surveillance of neurology—and any information about bodily difference that we might glean from it—re-encodes national sovereignty, while the national imaginary refigures the meaning of cognitive difference within its immunizing projects. Nation and neuron become co-constitutive entities, as regimes of neuronationalism define citizenship along neurological terms. Increasingly, neurology defines the characteristics of individuals viewed as members of society, while the terms of national inclusion increasingly determine how one’s neurological embodiment should be understood. As the security of the nation becomes enmeshed with the neurological security of its citizens, medical machinery promises to immunize the social body from the pathogenic emergence of danger. The map of the nation now extends to neural registers of being. The “neuron” belongs to the realm of science fiction both as a signifier that structures national feeling and as a measurable unit of surveillance or control. Neuronationalist aesthetics attach a sensationalized valence to neurology and disability, inhering national meaning with (imagined or actual) neural difference.

The political aesthetic of neuronationalism figures importantly to disabled artists working within the current political moment. In their interventions to gallery space, autistic artists Christopher Knowles and Andrea Crespo answer artistically to the securitization of national neurology by charting and augmenting the spatial topographies structured by neuronational projections. In “Untitled (Alert Paintings)” (2004), painter and poet Christopher Knowles depicts the Homeland Security Advisory System on five canvases of increasing size. The variation of scale among Knowles’ canvases suggests the multitude of social registers monitored by risk-management: from the national to the molecular, the ideological to the neural. Using a marker, Knowles re-painted the five notorious color-coded danger levels which ascend from “Low” (green) to “Severe” (red), mapping degrees of risk using bright colors which attach discrete danger levels with affect (red or orange entreating more anxiety in viewers than green or blue).

The Homeland Security Advisory System, a chart used by the Bush Administration to measure and manage ambient fear within the national imaginary, mediates security data acquired by surveillance technologies and functions as an affective interface between information and feeling. Here the Advisory System passes through the autistic body of the artist, whereby it is creatively distorted into an aesthetic form. The sketchy, repetitive graphical content of the paintings imply the painterly body that produced them, leaving traces of its disability which become especially evident when reading the work through a clinical lens (a mode of spectatorship compelled by the outsider art context within which Knowles’ work is often placed). Knowles’ repetitive re-inscription of visual and textual information is pathologized by medical discourse as echoplasia (autistic behavior involving the repetitive self-stimulatory tracing or contouring of objects) or echographia (which involves the repetitive copying of written text). The fact that such medicalized terms attach to Knowles’ works speak to the manner that medical discourses couch the interpretation of work by autistic artists. The application of clinical vocabulary to Knowles’ artwork defines his creative expression in terms of his body’s distance from an arbitrary norm—thereby subjecting his work to a clinical gaze not unlike the clinical gaze of the diagnostician.

“Untitled (Alert Paintings)” inhabit the conditions of surveillance that comprehend the painterly body of the autistic artist as a medical case, commodity, or spectacle. The clinical gaze obliged by the “outsider art” context of Knowles’ work uncovers information that makes his neural difference explicit. These patterns of artistic spectatorship engage with the clinical surveillance of the disabled, in which expressions of the disabled body are seen as holding within them traces of (presumed) originary difference to be discovered by the spectator’s gaze. Art institutions that valorize Knowles’ work in framing it through this difference seem to contradict the presumed neutrality of their spaces by positioning (and commoditizing) the expressions of disabled people as objects for medical observation. In re-inscribing the Homeland Security Advisory System, the commoditized autistic becomes a medium for the circulation of national tension. Knowles’ paintings therefore intervene upon gallery space as a context already structured as an arena for national feeling; as a location formed by collusions among the state, the clinic, and the art market.

Knowles’ choice to reproduce the Homeland Security Advisory System, with its gradient of danger levels, suggests how autism and terror engender similarly structured supervision by national regimes of risk management, and the work’s incremental scale can be read as a visualization of the plural currents by which the nation is imagined and secured. Neurodivergent and mentally ill people live within a continuum from “low” to “high functioning,” with those deemed “high functioning” understood as “mildly disabled” and those deemed “low functioning” understood as “severely disabled” (a second instance where the language of severity is invoked). Severe comes from the Latin severus, meaning grave in demeanor. It refers here to the seriousness of a threat—the degree of atmospheric risk or danger within a given environment. These discourses contain the presumed dangers posed by disabled bodies such as Knowles’ through the same language that the nation deploys in response to the presumed danger of terror. While this does not conflate the autist with the terrorist, as both are pathologized along different registers in the national imaginary, these figures nonetheless both compel a similar deployment of affective tension in the attempt to maintain the securitization of the national body.

The “Alert Paintings” resonate with Sarah Lochlann Jain’s pronouncement that, ‘‘all of us in American risk culture live to some degree in prognosis.” Prognosis, a trajectory which maps the likely outcome of pathogenic danger, structures national crises which call upon clinical surveillance to measure, manage, and understand bodily difference in the interest of foreclosing risk. Different bodies position differently within prognosis, namely because individuals access medicine and medical diagnoses differently, and because regimes of surveillance differ depending on a body’s position inside or outside of the national neurology. While those civically excluded are subject to routinized police or military suppression, surveillance comprehends those belonging to the national community through clinical, therapeutic means (as opposed to disciplinary repression) that endeavor to immunize affluent citizens from the imagined danger posed by neural difference.

For those white subjects who commit acts of spectacular violence, the national gaze penetrates past the skin—explaining violence through a molecularized discourse of the diseased body. Power must search for inscriptions of deviancy on surfaces other than the whiteness of their skin, imbricating their neural embodiment with pathology—rendering disability as a risk to the health of the nation. For example, by circulating the medical diagnoses of neurodivergent school shooters within the media, the nation comes to know the violent [white] perpetrators as diseased bodies, as sick citizens who “fall through the cracks” of the medical apparatus meant to anticipate the development of their disordered embodiments. Unable to attribute violence to infection by racialized outsiders, the media attaches the “autism epidemic” to the phenomenon of school shootings, narrating a crisis regarding the cancerous emergence of dangerous pathogenicity from within the social body.

The autistic school shooter figures aesthetically in art work such as Andrea Crespo’s “Complex Cases” (2014-), which engages the circuitry among representations, commodities, bodies, clinical discourses, and neurological media that structure ambient violence in U.S. culture into spectacular media-events that manage national feeling. “Complex Cases” maps flows of data from which the media narrates violent national crises. The collection consists of modified video game disc cases textured by images, objects, and texts, many of which cite the self-articulated interests of school shooters as posted on online forums. Crespo’s punny invocation of “case” within her title implies case as container as well as case as event. “Complex Cases” slips in meaning as a material or discursive enclosures—as plastic containers that protect and make durable data written on a compact disc—or as events organized by the mediated articulations of clinical and police authorities that transform white male violence into a national incident.

The cases are empty, implying a lack; this lack fills Crespo’s cases with a mysterious vacancy that exceeds the structure that envelops it. The cases themselves—not the discs they function to protect—visually embody information gleaned from police and psychiatric investigations, whose optical data is interpreted not by hardware but by spectator. This resonates with discourses that implicate violent videogames in the emergence of psychic pathology within white male school shooters, connecting war video games, virtual reconstructions of national violence captured as visual data by surveillance footage (by drones or other means), and the circulation of weaponized affect at a national level. The heightened feeling contained by the discursive circuitry by which school shootings become national spectacle redirect the surplus of tension generated by “the war on terror” toward the securitization of whiteness from the pathogenicity of autistic violence. The response to school shootings can be seen as a redirection of apprehension– from the mediation of violence by digital technologies toward the neurodivergent body, marked as pathological by the immunization efforts of the nation. By positioning the viewer as a node within the currents of data collection and interpretation which make violence legible to a national public, Crespo situates spectators within the informational infrastructures that stabilize atmospheric violence into spectacular events. “Complex Cases”’s engagement with gallery space charts the ways in which digital surveillance technology structures national sovereignty by mediating spectacle.

At the same time, the objects themselves appear remarkably ordinary. Composed of mundane materials, “Complex Cases” look like ordinary commodities pulled from the zone of everyday life. The pedestrian tenor of both Knowles’ alert paintings and Crespo’s manufactured cases reverberate with the manufactured ordinarity which structures spectacular violence within the United States. School shootings (like acts of terrorism) become meaningful as an attack on ordinary life, positioning affluent white schools as zones within which death is extraordinary. This is perhaps why school shootings within communities of color do not engender the same frenzied response as those involving affluent (mostly white) communities. Racialized context amplifies or dampens the reactive intensity to school shootings, with events involving racialized victims understood as ambient occurrences endemic to their communities and those involving white victims as national tragedies which beget immediate response. Within this conceptual apparatus, the racialized school shooter becomes a result of his or her culture, while those who engender the death of white students become emblems of their extraordinary neural difference. In this way, the machinery which make the vitality of the neuron radiant with danger do not supplant racial hierarchies, but further cement them within the fabric of the nation by rendering certain deaths as (extra)ordinary.

Neuronationalism attaches itself to already structured social exclusions in order to manage fear among affluent citizens within the nation from pathogenic threats within the social body, a form of risk-management that responds to a perceived insecurity from the aleatory emergence of violence. The purview of national security therefore extends to the surface of the brain in an effort to secure hierarchies already structured by state violence.

The burgeoning “neurodiversity” movement finds itself in dangerous terrain, carved out by the institutional assemblage that structures neuronationalism. In fact, the “neuro-” in “neurodiversity” emblematizes the urgency with which autistic people must invoke neurological discourse, in partial answer to the embeddedness of autistic individuals within the discursive circuitry endowing the neural with national meaning. Autistics often live within positions that demand the recognition of institutions, such as medicine or the state, even while those structures participate actively in those forces which most injure them. Therefore, the neurodiverisity movement involves a re-coding of what it means to be neurologically embodied, recapturing the neural from nationalist discourse and reterritorializing it within a demand for social justice. Calls for neurodiversity participate in a vital contestation for the authorship of our neural futures. The movement intervenes upon and complicates understandings of “ordinary” embodiment, resisting the ordinary by creating social space for autistics. However, such expressions of neurologically different subjectivity involve a recapitulation of those discourses that make neural difference meaningful, thereby deepening the connection of the neural to the political. The mandate to articulate oneself in neurological terms as well as the legitimacy of the nation-state as an agent of social change remain unquestioned by current social movements addressing neurodiversity.

In deploying the presumed neutrality of artistic space to map and augment the circuitry by which the neural maps the national, artistic production (such as works by Crespo and Knowles) becomes a unique mode through which autistic subjectivities intervene in topographies charted between medicine and the nation—topographies plotted by those very institutions that differentiate neural embodiments as a form of governance.