›Total Strangers‹? The Figure of the Autistic in Science and Literature

Project description

The word autism was coined in 1910 by the psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler to describe a symptom of schizophrenia. In the 1940s it became the term used for an entire syndrome that afflicted children. It took some time before it gradually became disassociated from madness. Today, autism is understood in a new light as a complex »developmental disorder«. Not only is it the subject of intense research in psychiatry, but also in biology and the neurosciences, among other disciplines. Furthermore, autism has gained the attention of the public sphere in many countries around the globe. It frequently makes headlines in newspapers and is widely discussed in online forums. In fact, today people with autism are considered ideal candidates for employment in the IT sector, and it is not uncommon to find autistic protagonists in films and novels.

The project aims to analyze concepts of autism in their cultural-historical context as driving forces behind and expressions of significant cultural debates in the 20th and 21st centuries. Conceptions of autism always involve negotiating models of subjectivity, communication, or empathy, and of childhood and family. Representations of autism, which often portray it as an interpersonal disorder per se, elucidate historically variable understandings of the ›social‹. It is precisely through its constitutive intangibility that the figure of the autistic often makes visible that which it is not – and thus often occupies a position in the vacuous center of social self-descriptions. This project will culminate in a history of knowledge that sheds light on a range of historical conceptions of autism with the aid of scientific, literary, and popular sources. It also posits the question of which epistemic effects various methods of representation (in texts, films, and images) have on specific concepts of autism and how interactions between different discourses impact them as well.

From 2014 to 2015 this project was funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG) within the framework of the research collaborative Cultures of Madness, and from 2011 to 2014 it was funded with a scholarship by the PhD-Net Das Wissen der Literatur.

Ill. above: »For many decades, the autistic child has typically been represented as locked up within a shell« (Uta Frith, »Autism«, in Scientific American 268, 1993, p. 108).

Dissertation project 2017–2019
Associate Researcher(s): Novina Göhlsdorf


28 Apr 2018 · 8.00 pm

Novina Göhlsdorf: Autismus. Diagnose der Gegenwart

Freie Universität Berlin, Habelschwerdter Allee 45, 14195 Berlin, Hörsaal 1b der Rost- und Silberlaube

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