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The Fantastic Autistic: Divergence, Estrangement, and the Neuroqueer Screen in Blade Runner: The Final Cut (2007) & Community (2009-2015)

  • Independent Researcher

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Metaphors of aliens, robots and other fantastical beings are often employed as shorthand for autistic difference. While such rhetoric can serve to dehumanise a disabled minority, the same otherworldly subjects have also provided meaningful spaces of cultural belonging, identity, and community for autistic fans. This thesis positions the fantastical screen as a space of cross-neurotype encounter where shared experiences of estrangements can be productively encountered and explored. It is led by the work of neuroqueer theorists Melanie Yergeau and Julia Miele Rodas, whose analyses of neurodivergent embodiment in social rhetoric and literary texts have enabled innovative discourses of a poetics of autism. Developing this work for the screen, I establish how cinematic and televisual techniques align with neuroqueer thinking, before delineating the ways in which this approach enables dynamic critical incursions on the understanding of autism and estrangement. Moving to analysis, I follow autistic interest in Ridley Scott’s science fiction dystopia Blade Runner: The Final Cut, to reinterpret its postmodernist aesthetic as neuroqueer expression. The film’s cyborg characters are recast as neurodivergent individuals framed by an aesthetic attitude of empathetic attachment for atypical worldly resonance. In the TV sitcom Community, I locate a neuroqueer narrative agency in the trickster dynamic of its celebrated but under-theorised autistic hero, Abed Nadir. I analyse three episodes where Abed negotiates his neurodivergent expression via the invitation of fantastical energies, thereby positioning estrangement as a key methodology for embodying autistic difference. In conclusion, I offer the fantastic autistic and the fantastical screen as powerful allies in the articulation of neuroqueer divergence and the negotiation of cross-neurotype communication.
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Sensory experience is subject to considerable political and normative pressure, often felt, but rarely theorised. Taking as a starting point Simmel’s conceptualisation of the stranger, whose ‘position as a full-fledged member (of society) involves both being outside it and confronting it’, we propose neurodivergence as a form of Simmelian sensory stranger-hood, phenomenologically, spatially, and temporally situated as a tool for critical exploration of expressions of – and discourse around – cognitive normate sensory experience. We therefore consider neurodivergent experience less as an object of study than as a perspective. Here, the writers take the collective experiences of their own ‘bodyminds’ as a source of data. This chapter therefore consists of an auto-ethnographic project with a triple aim. First, we use this exploration to consider sensory normativity, and how this may affect the ways in which neurodivergent people are able to construct themselves and their identities. Second, we propose a reading within which the ‘sensory stranger’ provides a valuable epistemic asset whose potential exceeds the ‘particularity’ of neurodivergent experience. Finally, we are interested in considering the conditions and circumstances under which neurodiverse writing methods may be emancipatory.
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Lay abstract: Although autistic people may struggle to interact with others, many autistic people have said they find interacting with other autistic people more comfortable. To find out whether this was a common experience, we did hour-long interviews with 12 autistic adults. We asked them questions about how it feels when spending time with their friends and family, and whether it felt different depending on whether the friends and family were autistic or neurotypical. We analysed the interviews and found three common themes in what our participants said. First, they found spending with other autistic people easier and more comfortable than spending time with neurotypical people, and felt they were better understood by other autistic people. Second, autistic people often felt they were in a social minority, and in order to spend time with neurotypical friends and family, they had to conform with what the neurotypical people wanted and were used to. Third, autistic people felt like they belonged with other autistic people and that they could be themselves around them. These findings show that having time with autistic friends and family can be very beneficial for autistic people and played an important role in a happy social life.
The 1982 film, Blade Runner, presents many questions conceming the position and relevance of the human being in the postmodern epoch. The audience is confronted with androids, called replicants, incredibly handsome "beings" whose language rises at times to poetic beauty, while the humans in the film are embarrassing physical and moral examples of the species. With whom will the audience identify or sympathize, the human or the simulacrum? The film further complicates this issue by incorporating traditional Christian symbols and language in relation to the replicants. The film seems to suggest that consciousness is the defining characteristic of humanness, whether one speaks of an organic human being or a replicant. Current debate between scientists, philosophers, and theologians centers on the question of consciousness and its relationship to the brain and, for some, the soul This essay addresses the dilemmas in the film, while keeping in mind the central question: What is a human being?