‘Total Strangers’? The Figure of the Autistic in Science and Literature

In 1910, the psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler introduced the term ‘autism’ to describe a symptom of schizophrenia. Since the 1940s, the term denotes an independent syndrome in children, and it was only over time that its connection to insanity was gradually dismissed. Today, autism is understood as a complex ‘developmental disorder.’ Not only is it an intensely researched subject in psychiatry, but also in biology and the neurosciences. In many countries, autism is a subject of public interest, being frequently discussed in newspapers and online forums. Since recently, people with autism are considered to be ideal employees in the IT sector. Also, films and novels feature autistic protagonists more and more often.

To this day, conceptions of subjectivity, communication or empathy, childhood or family are discussed through autism. Depictions of autism, which is often seen as the interpersonal disorder par excellence, cast a light on historically variable compositions of the ‘social.’ Through their constituting trait of being impalpable, in particular, the figure of the autist often becomes visible as what they are not—and thus they find themselves in the empty centre of social self-descriptions.

This dissertation project aimed at telling a history of knowledge of autism. With the help of scientific, literary, and popular sources, the project examined various historical conceptions of autism. It asked for the epistemic effects of various methods of representation in texts, films, and images as well as of interactions between different discourses on specific concepts of autism Furthermore, these concepts were viewed in their culture-historical context as both a catalyst and as an expression of significant cultural debates of the 20th and 21st centuries.

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

Dissertation project 2017–2019
Head researcher(s): Novina Göhlsdorf

Publications

Novina Göhlsdorf

  • “The Magical Device”: Temple Grandin’s Hug Machine, in: Monika Ankele, Benoît Majerus (eds.): Material Cultures of Psychiatry. Bielefeld: Transcript 2020, 228–254
  • Der seelenlose Cyborg. Wenn Philosophen hassen, in: Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung, 11 Aug 2019, 34
  • Autismus. Diagnose der Gegenwart, in: Kinder- und Jugendlichen-Psychotherapie. Zeitschrift für Psychoanalyse und Tiefenpsychologie 182.2 (2019), 277–303
  • Epidemie der Kindheit. Die Poetik der infantia in Silent History, in: Davide Giuriato, Philipp Hubmann, Mareike Schildmann (eds.): Kindheit und Literatur. Konzepte – Poetik – Wissen. Freiburg i.Br.: Rombach 2018, 309–335
  • Empathie, in: Falko Schmieder, Georg Töpfer (eds.): Wörter aus der Fremde. Begriffsgeschichte als Übersetzungsgeschichte. Berlin: Kulturverlag Kadmos 2018, 88–95
  • Digital Curation in the Age of Semantic Technology, in: Kultur und Informatik. Glückstadt: Verlag Werner Hülsbusch 2017, 193–208 (with Jing He)
  • Knowledge of Childhood: Materiality, Text, and the History of Science – an Interdisciplinary Round Table Discussion, in: The British Journal for the History of Science 50.1 (March 2017), 111–141 (with Felix Rietmann, Mareike Schildmann, Caroline Arni, Daniel Thomas Cook, Davide Giuriato, and Wangui Muigai)
  • Wie man aufschreibt, was sich nicht zeigt. Autismus als Widerstand und Anreiz früher kinderpsychiatrischer Aufzeichnungen, in: Cornelius Bock, Armin Schäfer (eds.): Das psychiatrische Aufschreibesystem. Paderborn: Wilhelm Fink 2015, 225–244
  • Immer in Beziehung. Der Handschuh, in: Christine Kutschbach, Falko Schmieder (eds.): Von Kopf bis Fuß. Bausteine zu einer Kulturgeschichte der Kleidung. Berlin: Kulturverlag Kadmos 2015, 278–286
  • Störung der Gemeinschaft, Grenzen der Erzählung. Die Figur des autistischen Kindes, in: Angelika Ebrecht-Laermann i.a. (eds.): Jahrbuch der Psychoanalyse. Beiträge zur Theorie, Praxis und Geschichte, vol. 68: Autistische und autistoide Störungen. Stuttgart/Bad Cannstatt : frommann-holzboog 2014, 17–34
  • From a “Total Stranger” to the Superhuman of the 21st Century? The Autistic as Key Figure of Our Times, Atomium Culture (Dissemination European Research Project/Best Young Researchers)
  • Von Wegen. Fernand Deligny und sein Leben mit Autisten, in: Dummy Magazin 30 (March 2011), 77–84 (withSascha Lehnartz)
  • Narben tragen, in: Eugen Blume, Annemarie Hürlimann, Thomas Schnalke, Daniel Tyradellis (eds.): Schmerz: Kunst + Wissenschaft. Köln: DuMont 2007, 233–240

Events

Vortrag
31 Oct 2019 · 8.00 pm

Novina Göhlsdorf: Von einer ›tiefgreifenden Störung‹ zur ›Superkraft‹? Autismus-Bilder im Wandel

Goldstein Galerie, Schweizer Str. 84, 60594 Frankfurt a.M.

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Lecture
06 Sep 2019 · 8.00 pm

Novina Göhlsdorf: Tiefgreifende Störung oder Existenzweise der Zukunft? Autismus zwischen Pathologisierung und Idealisierung

C.G. Jung-Institut Berlin, Hauptstr. 19, 10827 Berlin

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Lecture
02 Nov 2018 · 11.45 am

Novina Göhlsdorf: Empathy. Between Human Nature and Self-Optimization

Centro Cultural Paco Urondo, Facultad de Filosofía y Letras - Universidad de Buenos Aires. 25 de mayo 201, Buenos Aires (Argentina)

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Lecture
09 Jul 2018 · 5.30 pm

Novina Göhlsdorf: Autismus in Literatur und Film

Universität Koblenz-Landau, Campus Koblenz, Universitätsstraße 1, 56070 Koblenz

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Lecture
04 May 2018 · 9.40 am

Novina Göhlsdorf: The Magical Device. Temple Gardins »Umarmungsmaschine«

Medizinhistorisches Museum Hamburg, Universitätsklinikum Hamburg-Eppendorf, Fritz Schumacher-Haus (Haus N30.b), Martinistr. 52, 20246 Hamburg

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Keynote lecture at the 65th annual conference of the VAKJP
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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