The Spy Who Came In From The Cold – John Le Carre (1963)
Annihilation – Jeff VanDerMeer (2014)
Authority – Jeff VanDerMeer (2014)
Acceptance – Jeff VanDerMeer (2014)
The Year’s Best Science Fiction | Volume 2 – Gardner Dozois (1984)
The Sympathizer – Viet Thanh Nguyen (2015)
Wolf Hall – Hilary Mantel (2009)
The Last Girlfriend on Earth & Other Stories – Simon Rich (2013)
The Hobbit – J.R.R. Tolkien (1937)
CivilWarLand in Bad Decline – George Saunders (1996)
The Tetris Effect – Dan Ackerman (2016)
Breakfast of Champions – Kurt Vonnegut (1973)
Alt-America: The Rise of the Radical Right in the Age of Trump – David Neiwert (2017)
The Age of Jihad: Islamic State and the Great War for the Middle East – Patrick Cockburn (2016)
V – Thomas Pynchon (1963)
Think Like A Freak – Steven D. Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner (2014)
Mistborn Book One: The Final Empire – Brandon Sanderson (2006)
Convenience Store Woman – Sayaka Murata (2016)
In Persuasion Nation – George Saunders (2006)
Wolf in White Van – John Darnielle (2014)
Goodbye Columbus and Five Short Stories – Philip Roth (1959)
Nicotine – Nell Zink (2016)
The Crying of Lot 49 – Thomas Pynchon (1966)
Mistborn Book Two: The Well of Ascension – Brandon Sanderson (2007)
The BBC: Myth of a Public Service – Tom Mills (2016)
Lethal White – Robert Galbraith (2018)
NW – Zadie Smith (2012)
Lincoln in the Bardo – George Saunders (2017)
Annihilation is a brilliant film, creepy, evocative, brilliantly performed. I wasn’t wild about Ex Machina, but was relieved to see Alex Garland’s ambitions more evenly matched by the source material. The Southern Reach trilogy of books it is based on shares very little in common with its adaptation. Characters are a tad broader, there’s a tighter focus on the environmental history, and the closing in particular veers closer to existential dread. Ironically, the movie is internal as all hell, almost monomaniacally revolving around the emotional struggle of Natalie Portman’s character. For a medium commonly extolled as being better suited to the machinations of the inner mind, Southern Reach is ultimately a story about nature’s dominance over humanity, and the awe of the closing sequence is simultaneously climate-affirming and anthropologically bleak. Reading the series in the midst of a worsening crisis of capricious fucks ruining the natural world offered its own kind of comfort, a horror story where we’re all the villains and the foliage fights back.
Wolf Hall is the 2nd Hilary Mantel book I’ve read (the first was A Place of Greater Safety) and I don’t know if I’ve picked bad times to read them, or I barrelled through them too fast to pick up on the nuances, or if I’m just uninterested in historical fiction. I wanted to like them, but I went through entire passages without picking up anything, and felt weirdly empty by the time I ended it. I hate feeling like I’m missing something major, as Mantel is clearly a skilled and accomplished writer, but it did nothing for me and I can’t get myself interested enough to continue reading the series or getting interested in the final book in the trilogy coming out this year.
On a similar note, I think I’ve finally figured out that I don’t naturally enjoy Kurt Vonnegut. Breakfast of Champions was an annoying read, with characters that were aggravating to be around, running gags that had no steam, and an inconsequentialism that should keep me interested but just made me speed read the latter half just to get it over with. Vonnegut was an interesting guy, and one I’d love to have over for a dinner party, but I’ve read about five of his books so far, and none of them made me yearn for more. So it goes.
I finally got the library card in the town I currently live in around this time, and tore through Nell Zink’s Nicotine, John Darnielle’s Wolf in White Van, and George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo, all of which I enjoyed for their humour, well-realised characters and spins on the staid format of SeRiOuS lItErAtUrE. I also used it to read JK Rowling’s most recent mystery novel without having to pay for it, which was a load of old codswallop. I liked the first two books in this series fine enough, but it fell onto its face so dramatically that they’ve gone down in my estimation in hindsight. Rowling can’t seem to write a story without it devolving into another 700 pages of whining about how hard it is to be famous. All characters are neoliberal caricatures with no recognisable inner lives (behold the socialist thought leader who’s only into class struggle to crush pussy; marvel at the overly litigious and condescending Tory minister; what Rowling proposes is, they’re not that different?), and she’s more interested in score-settling and a baffling central romance over writing a decent mystery. The scenes where Strike explains the play-by-play of the central evil plot are embarrassingly bad, as if they were copy-pasted from her original notes with basic drama sellotaped on. I’ve thought about re-reading Harry Potter a few times over the past couple of years (been nearly a decade since I read them) but the bloody-minded awfulness of her recent work has left too much of a stink.
Most of my reading material while I was in college was non-fiction, and when I wrapped up my masters last year I had a deep yearning for some good fantasy and science-fiction, genres I’ve neglected in my mad scramble for true stories and information. I started the year off with Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy, which pleasantly upped the stakes and complication after a relatively simple first instalment. My forays into this world is still in its early stages admittedly, but I’m eager to get more into it.
A Series of Unfortunate Events – Season 3 (2019) e1-7
Danger and Eggs – Season 1 (2017) e1-13
The Tick – Season 1 (2017) e1-12
Forever – Season 1 (2017) e1-8
South Park – Season 22 (2017) e6-10
The Good Place – Season 3 (2019) e11-13
You’re the Worst – Season 4 (2019) e1-7
Brooklyn Nine-Nine – Season 6 (2019) e1-7
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend – Season 4 (2019) e9-16
Corporate – Season 2 (2019) e1-7
Scrubs – Season 1 (2001) e1-12
Game of Thrones – Season 5 (2015) e1-10
This Time with Alan Partridge – Season 1 (2019) e1
The Eric Andre Show – Season 1 e1
Game of Thrones – Season 6 (2016) e1-10
Danger & Eggs is an animated childrens’ show about the misadventures of D.D. Danger, an Evel Knievil-style daredevil and her best friend Phillip, a traumatophobic talking egg who lives inside a giant chicken. It is adorable, wholesome and not afraid to include some dark themes and characters: D.D.’s father has been left paralysed and mute following a lifetime of stunts, a minor character was abandoned by his parents and has grown to middle age in the woods still believing he is a child… The season ends with the government attempting to invade the park and assassinate Phillip’s mother. A second season is unlikely, but if you’re looking for something to fill the Adventure Time mold of wacky shenanigans, only not insufferable, then it’s worth checking out.
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is one of my favourite shows ever, and the finale was aggressively fine, a bit too neat and rushed. To be honest, I could have watched the characters just living life and being friends for another 5 seasons, but there’s something to be said for how it recognised the logical end point of its central story. I just wish it took a bigger leap before it attempted the landing.
I had to give up on You’re The Worst this season. I don’t think stories need to have likable characters to be interesting, and indeed one of the show’s virtues is how unpleasant everyone in this nasty little shitshow of privilege of squalor is. That said, the final season was just a drag that smothered any interest in the flashforwards and arc closures. I will admit that this is mostly down to me just having no interest whatsoever in Los Angeles/Hollywood satire anymore, the kind of show that’s like reading a script designed by an AV Club comment section smug-bot. I’m looking at you too, Bojack Horseman.
You Were Never Really Here (Lynne Ramsey, 2017)
Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2 (Cody Cameron & Kris Pearn, 2013)
Batman Ninja (Junpei Mizusaki, 2018)
Three Identical Strangers (Tim Wardle, 2018)
Black Mirror: Bandersnatch (David Slade, 2018)
Gangs of New York (Martin Scorsese, 2002)
Vice (Adam McKay, 2018)
Moneyball (Bennett Miller, 2011)
Hot Rod (Akiva Schaffer, 2007)
Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa (Declan Lowney, 2013)
The Lego Movie 2 (Mike Mitchell, 2019)
Captain Marvel (Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck, 2019)
There’s a scene in Vice that shows footage from the 2005 London Underground attacks. I saw the film at a full cinema in Central London. The silence and tension during that few seconds will haunt me to my grave.
If 2019 has thought me one thing, it is probably the following. One of the joys of having a full-time job is the ability to buy comics regularly. By the same token, one of the most grounding realities of having a full-time job is how easily that hobby can become expensive, repetitive, and attritional. Either way, I’ve read a lot of good comics this year, and finally got around to stuff I’ve been putting off for ages, particularly in the DC universe, which I’m not as well versed in as Marvel. Of course, the most exciting stuff in comics isn’t necessarily superhero related – if done right, tv/movie adaptations of East of West, Wicked + The Divine, and Paper Girls would be phenomenons, but no matter if they’re not, the books are already ridiculously good. Image Comics are on a blinder.
Spider-Man: Silver Lining (DLC)
Spyro the Dragon 120%
Spyro the Dragon: Ripto’s Revenge 100%
Sypro The Dragon: Year of the Dragon 117%
Dirt Rally (Achieved #1 championship)
Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
Saints Row IV
I had a mostly pretty good time with the Spyro Reignited Trilogy, though it was limited somewhat by some factors baked into the concept of remakes, some decisions that neutered the humour and character somewhat, and the obvious rush-job that resulted in two-thirds of the under-animated content not being included in the disc. I thought B-Mask did a pretty good job of covering the positives and negatives:
I will say this, though: The new design of Spyro is adorable and I want to hug him.
I nearly gave up on Witcher 3 several times due to how slow and laborious its opening few hours are, but I’m glad I stuck with it and regret that I rushed through the rest of the story without getting involved in the side quests, though there’s always the option of replaying it if I ever become unemployed or am bedridden for 6 months.
I am emphatically not a sports person, but I did always have a fondness for motorsport, and DIRT Rally pushed a lot of those buttons pretty effectively. It felt pretty damn good to win a championship given how difficult the game is designed to be, though I haven’t managed to be nearly as good at it since and the fact that I haven’t attempted with a different car or set up makes the achievement effectively moot.
To wit, 6 months into 2019 I had apparently taken in 43 books (plus 8 started and not finished), 202 episodes of 33 TV shows, 27 movies (7 at the cinema, one of those seen twice), 804 issues of comics from 73 series (499 in trade paperback form, 305 digitally), 24 video games, 2 concerts, 4 plays read and 1 seen live. This does not include content on YouTube, or music, which are too complicated and messy for me to easily keep track of.
Just looking at that makes me want to scarper to the mountains at the first opportunity and do one of those extreme cultural detoxes where you water the same plant for two weeks straight and find zen through the majesty of boredom. I don’t know if I’ve directly learned anything significant about my entertainment habits from this exercise so far, other than that slamming through six Kingdom Hearts titles in a few months is a good way to resent the concept of language, and that the Marvel house-style circa 2004 is a drag to look at.
Hornby states in his latest column that his ultimate goal is “to break the link between literature and grim duty” and I’ll admit to falling into this cultural obligation hole quite a bit in recent years. This was compounded by a few years submitting freelance work as a music writer for a publication’s last 2 years. I was a bit out of my depth, reeling and raw from a recent mental health breakdown that threatened my life. Though I learned a lot from writing reviews of music I had an interest in on a regular basis, it soured a significant part of my approach to media and I left it with a severely depleted faith in my abilities to write, critique and keep my perspective in check (this is entirely on me, the editors and colleagues I had were wonderful and I’m grateful to this day for the opportunity).
I noticed that in the wilds of Internet Talk About Pop Culture in this decade past, it’s rare that a piece of media gets a hearty recommendation from the algorithm lords without being saddled with unwieldy moral importance that’s unfair to the work, audience and creators and conversely not remotely unfair enough to the corporate mandate that’s invested in such passioned praise. When Beyonce released Lemonade (which I enjoy a lot) in 2016, I saw a tweet by a fairly popular film critic that said that he still didn’t enjoy her music, but that this was his own failing and he was clearly wrong. As tempting as it is to mock the obsequiousness, he surely isn’t alone in falling for that line. If I had the ability, patience and time to make a point-by-point breakdown of the entertainment content I took in since I began college, I’ll bet a substantial portion of my intake got the Beyonce effect. I know for a fact that I did some mental gymnastics over the suffocatingly average Ghostbusters reboot just to sick it to the misogynerds, and three years on I feel duped by falling for corporate-flavour student politics.
I honestly don’t think enough time has passed for me to recognise what exactly this malaise is or where it came from bar speculation, but I’ve noticed some rattlings of perspective since I took on my Masters degree and moved into adult life. I was halfway through the latest seasons of Bojack Horseman and You’re The Worst and it dawned on me that I kind of hate them, the concept of the recent Chernobyl series strikes me as exploitative and vulgar, I’d rather one hundred more average superhero movies than another biopic/celebration of 70s musicians or ripped from the headlines Oscar bait, and I almost don’t want to bring those up in polite conversation because to do so seems transgressive in an almost obscene way. That’s obviously a ridiculous thing to believe. Granted, I’m not naturally a person who delights in hot takes or contrarianism. I’m a sucker for good pop songs and blockbuster movies as much as anyone. However, as much as it makes me sound like a South Park character, I do have a deeply ingrained contempt for conformity, and for too long my attempts to run along at speed with the cultural conversation put that on the backburner and left me disproportionately annoyed when certain sites treat the latest #GoodTVShow as the universally hailed peak of artistic achievement and we are now living in a post-[X] Show era. Wait, what?
It’s almost like a sizable contingent of fandom want to turn art into sport, or to marry one’s cultural taste and aesthetic with their moral character, both concepts I can’t truck with. Whenever a critique of popular media feels the need to say that the product in question ‘matters’ or is ‘the [X] we need right now’ I cringe, not just for the boilerplate terminology but because part of the joy of art for me is specificity, its ability to pierce one person’s circulatory system while utterly failing to make an impression on others. Art’s vitality and futility are welded together in a way that I find compelling, but vitality is all that gets clicks, and that can get exhausting to sit through, if not outright pious.
I’m aware that my argument sounds eerily close to those toxic morons who think white males are being erased from their precious Star Wars and the like. I don’t think anyone’s approach to media is wrong, the absolute last thing I want to do is make people feel bad for how they enjoy art, and I certainly don’t think my views on this are ‘objective’. I think that anyone alleging an ‘objective’ critique of popular media, with dogmatic axioms and splenetic disaffection, is trying to sell you something and are better avoided. I don’t think art can be truly apolitical, cultural commentary is a great and precious tradition, and the push for diversity in entertainment is overdue and should be encouraged at every opportunity. I also don’t think it’s a contradiction to cut slack sometimes and not treat all downtime as a culture war battleground, since I think it’s a form of low-level conformist pressure to turn passion into the ‘grim duty’ Hornby laments.
More than should be necessary I’ve privately resented that my pile of ‘to read’ books were largely made up of stuff I wouldn’t normally be interested in, or been frustrated by testing the thesis that bingewatching mediocre TV somehow ameliorates the tedium. I’ve started and abandoned with a completionist fervour many lists of books, movies and tv shows I ‘need’ to have seen in order to fit some pre-packaged notion of being well-versed in the subject; the joy of taking in art, of researching and learning, of finding truth and resisting bullshit, of creativity, had been siphoned away. Entertainment became work became a grind became irritating, and I don’t blame anyone other than myself really, my own tendency to obsess, a neurotype that had been accustomed to figuring out and taking notes from the rhythms of others that went into overdrive for a period of five years and zapped out like a slam into a brick wall.
So this project, if anything, is my passive attempt to reformulate my own specificity, my willingness to experiment and try new things, and to follow my nose where my interests actually lie. Especially if it means 500 pages of exploding spaceships or dense social theory about a factor of life I find genuinely fascinating instead of suffering through another Booker Prize doorstopper about a philandering knob with metaphysical monologues on the narrative potential of an onion or some shit. Stuff that’s as interesting as a cardboard sandwich just because some self-righteous Graun twit, canon-obsessed Buzzfeed Quiz, fart-sniffing Film Twitter bro or poptimism zealot tell the world that no good informed citizen can do without. I don’t think those approaches are without their merits, but right now it’s as though the entire planet is overestimating culture’s external impact, and underestimating its internal one. I’d rather be left alone.
Anyway, what now then?
The next post in this series will go through some of the stuff I enjoyed in the first few months, because negativity is boring, as well as other stuff I may or may not have thoughts on. For example, I decided to jump back on a project I abandoned last year by going through recent Marvel history thanks to their Unlimited app (hence the horrifically large amount of digital comics I’ve read in a short span of time) and who knows, I may have something to say about Game of Thrones that hasn’t already been ground into dirt and snorted up Google’s API. I highly doubt it, but weirder things have happened.
The Google doc hasn’t included music, as that is one field that’s a bit too vast for me to catalogue without going mad. I may relegate that to a separate series, but I have not made that decision just yet. In any case, here’s a Spotify playlist with songs representing releases I’ve enjoyed from the year so far.
Last month, I was alerted by Google that a year had passed since I cycled for over an hour in the Dutch heatwave to deliver the thesis that I had spent the previous 10 months working towards. I felt weird about it then and still do now – yes, it was a relief to finally get the exhausting amount of work off my back, but the process kicked a ball down a hill that refused to stop moving even past the deadline. Certain sentences haunted me, arguments I had underdeveloped, inconsistencies in terminology, large glaring gaps in logic that screamed “DAVID DID A LAZY”. Yes, I successfully managed to write an entire thesis on autism in the media without mentioning Rain Man once, but those sentences with passive voice? oof.
Forgive the tooting of horns, but I did pretty well, all told. I graduated with a very good grade and got a job the week after I finished the course. I’ve been very fortunate, not just to successfully start the next stage of my life but to move into a field where I could spare myself having to think about autism day in, day out. The research I undertook showed parts of humanity that at times genuinely disturbed me, and I didn’t know how to express that to family, my closest friends or even to myself. By contrast, my job at the minute usually requires proofreading press releases about construction equipment – the most worrying thing I typically have to deal with on a regular day is listening to a bunch of Brits talk about football: a circle of hell for sure, but a mercifully light one compared to what came before. It’s hard to imagine a situation further from the postmodern academic wormhole of neurodivergent chaos I enmeshed myself in for months on end.
But… I kept thinking about it. Or rather, the neurodiversity paradigm continued to truck along, and I had acclimated my sensitivities to the ongoing developments of what I had covered. The Autistic Dark Web continued to be a thorn in the sides of autistic-led Twitter, wearing its reactionary influences far more clearly on its sleeve. The British driving authority proposed that autistic drivers must declare their diagnosis for risk of a fine before backtracking. Measles outbreaks continue to crop up as a result of anti-vaccination scaremongering. The so-called “Gender Critical” use autism as the flimsiest of excuses to justify their transphobia (when they’re not using it to demonise neurodivergents). Cultural representation of autistic characters remains pitifully overwrought. The systematic abuse of autistic people in care homes remains a serious issue while posts such as this that advocate cruelty against the autistic reach the upper levels of Reddit karma-farming every other day.
I also encountered stuff that was a little more positive, if still acknowledging the difficulties. A classmate sent me this interesting piece on autism’s place in cultural theory that I think about often. Katherine May articulated many of the frustrations I had felt, only much more well written and vital. I had the pleasure of meeting Steve Silberman in Sheffield – NeuroTribes was the book that kickstarted my original idea, and getting it signed by the man himself seemed a nice capper. Public figures like Greta Thunberg and Chris Packham refuse to shy away from their autism as they indefatigably try to mitigate wrongs against the environment.
I initially wanted to go into these particular episodes in greater depth – both as a mea culpa outlining where I had failed when writing the original thesis, and as a purging of sorts, an exercise to get the rapid turning of the autism gear in my brain to subside ever so slightly. In the act of writing this, though, I’m not sure I entirely feel up to it. What can I say about these issues that hasn’t been better articulated by those who’ve dedicated so much more of themselves to the cause than I ever have, ever could? How could I depend on the resources afforded to me by the university that I have now been locked out of? It’s nice that my student card doesn’t expire for another 4 four years of cheap bus tickets, but I’d trade that for some access to scientific studies, please.
There’s also that ever-lingering elephant in the room. Sensory Overload was an academic exercise, at times an incredibly typical one (I cite Foucault, for fuck’s sake). Therefore, outside of some sneaked-in gags and admissions of personal sympathies I wrote the entire thing in a dispassionate voice, the observer on the side that may have a horse in the race but won’t tell you if they are in possession of hooves. I’ve only ever ‘come out’ as on the spectrum to very few people – I could probably count them on one hand – and my experiences when I did so were rarely positive. I told one friend, who immediately suggested I was trying to make up for my inadequacies as a white man and pretend I was special. Another friend took on the information and spent a few more months hitting and gaslighting me regardless. I’m not so oblivious that I didn’t assume others would surmise that there was something going on. I remember two mutual friends having a discussion on a Facebook thread over how much I reminded them of Sheldon from the Big Bang Theory. I was not tagged, but speaking of autistic people as though they are not in the room and can’t peg on to their little social obliviousness theory has been common in my experience.
All of these episodes are well over five years ago, with the toxic people in my life long cut off, but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t leave some lingering resentments.That would be petty, however, compared to a much more complicated problem. I spent five years in higher level education, with a year in between degrees working in retail. After the social nightmare of secondary school, I barrelled into college with a clear goal of fitting in and making friends, and made a 24/7 effort to do just that. I was masking, obviously – taking constant conscious notes from the people around me, using their world to inform how I participated in class, how I approached people, how I dealt with customers. I embarrassed myself a lot – a lot – but I did get the hang of it, living life in a way that for years was alien to me. When I struggled through a year abroad, an abusive friendship, a final year marred by student politics and a very serious depressive episode, they presented themselves as episodes where my coping mechanisms just stopped clicking, and it was my job, so I thought, to reformulate my mask and get on with things.
This is something that many non-autistics do not understand, as it can sound faintly ridiculous. I had work, I got along with people, I did well in class, all true. But it was EXHAUSTING, and not just in the manner associated with garden-variety introversion. I’ll spare the details, but I had burnt out from the whole thing more than once.
This does not mean I regret my experiences or that the friendships I’ve made to this date were sought out insincerely. That would be clearly bollocks. My friends are dear to me and the stuff I’ve learned while I struggled to be a human in a neurotypical world have helped me become a better person. If anything, I regret the times I’ve hurt others while I struggled with my own pain, the creative work I was putting out into the world that I knew in real-time didn’t square with my values or work ethic but I farted out anyway. Those times highlighted how unintuitive the enterprise is to people like me, how difficult it can be to articulate that without sounding adrift or self-pitying when that is not my intent. Although it was first and foremost an academic thesis, with the primary goal of getting a good grade, Sensory Overload reads to me now like an attempt for me to articulate those feelings I had long struggled to recognise, albeit through the arguments and lived experiences of others as though I were a human aggregator.
I doubt that I will dive into a project this laser-focused on autism again for a good while. I doubt I have the stamina to be as academic, to take on such weighty topics without descending into juvenile humour every few sentences. I could sit here and write a point-by-point breakdown of where I went wrong in the thesis, but it would be pointless rehashing of the arguments I made over a year ago, not to mention kind of self-cannibalizing and insulting to the prospective reader, as if they don’t understand the concept of time passing and perspectives shifting. Ableism remains a day-to-day occurrence, and I may go deeper into it, but I don’t feel any real impulse at the moment.
I have not yet decided what I’ll do next with this site. I have playlist ideas, and I’ve been juggling creative ideas around for a while without anything sticking just yet. In the last couple of years I have been very inspired by certain #extremelyonline creators who’ve seemingly founded an exciting, new avenue of self-expression, mostly on YouTube, which I know I don’t have the fortitude to even consider. Sensory Overload reads to me like I had found a voice, but an authoritative, academic one that doesn’t reflect my day to day world, the David that laughs at the sex number and has medium-to-warm takes on superheroes. Look, I’m just saying, if cinema is dead, is that such a bad thing? fun stuff, you know.
When I decided to write an ‘epilogue’ to Sensory Overload, it was intended as a consolidation, instead it reads more as a journal entry, trying to make sense of what occurred a year before when I was too tired and stoned to understand what was going on. Like the main event, I imagine I’ll look back on this piece a year from now and wish I had a better grasp of what I was going for. Or, hopefully, maybe I’ll be too busy working on the next thing to notice. Maybe by then I’ll understand enough about Foucault to know not to cite him to look smarter.
The increase in autism diagnoses coupled with the remaining ambiguity over the condition’s etiology has left the field vulnerable to misinformation, flawed and/or fraudulent studies and conspiracy theories. The most notorious of these is the theory that autism is linked to the use of the MMR vaccine. Despite current scientific research indicating a genetic link to autism, the discrediting of the original study, and Andrew Wakefield’s license being revoked, the theory persists in the public eye due to vocal parent groups, physicians and scientists along with unsubstantiated media reports and even litigation sponsored by some advocacy groups. Prominent celebrities and autism charities, including the Autism Research Institute, Defeat Autism Now!, Cure Autism Now, Autism Speaks and SafeMinds have also received criticism for taking supportive or equivocal stances towards the theory, with some suffering resignations from opposing staff members as a result (Mnookin).
It is also apparent that the vaccine theory has benefitted from the increasing scale of the world-wide web. Misinformation benefits from the ability to form social circles on any topic with accompanying selective media habits that best serve their worldview. “Selective exposure to content is the primary driver of content diffusion and generates the formation of homogeneous clusters, i.e., ‘echo chambers’. Indeed, homogeneity appears to be the primary driver for the diffusion of contents and each echo chamber has its own cascade dynamics” (Del Vacario et al). A study of online misinformation networks found that fact-checking becomes less prominent towards the core of the network, falling commensurately with increasingly dense connections between users.
Anti-vaccination support on the internet is reliant on scientific-sounding arguments and the endorsement of certified physicians and celebrities. The community is most prominent on YouTube, although it is difficult to analyse reception as some videos opt to disable likes, dislikes and comments. A content analysis of nearly 500 anti-vaccine websites found that persuasiveness was based on manipulating parents’ latitude of acceptance on theories related to an understudied condition, and on inoculation theory, which attempts to ensure loyalty by immediately discrediting the counter-position (usually with weakened or inaccurate depictions of the opposing side’s position), thus “inoculating” the audience from opposing arguments.
Anti-vaccine websites are mostly independent, though some have been given titles like National Vaccine Information Centerand National Autism Association that give the impression of being governmental or authoritative. Along with reproducing anti-vaccine claims, these websites promote other spurious treatments, including expensive supplements and so-called “magic stones”, as well as an Amazon Smile program. The movement also includes medical professionals who claim to be concerned over vaccines’ safety, including the Oregon-based paediatrician Dr. Paul Thomas, an author of anti-vaccine literature and a YouTube personality who posts regular recordings from his clinic along with a playlist of vaccine scaremongering.
Anti-vaccination also receives support from the conspiracy theorist Alex Jones and his site Info Wars: “Many historians say the lead poisoning of the citizens of Rome exacerbated its downfall. Today, vaccines are strongly contributing to the same sort of downfall of modern civilisation”. The movement relies on emotional language related to the pathology of autism in order to make an impact, for example referring to the rise in autism diagnoses as an “epidemic”. Although there is no evidence to support the existence of an epidemic of autism as defined by the medical field, the term has been echoed by Info Wars, SafeMinds, actor Jim Carrey, U.S. Presidential Candidate Jill Stein and U.S. President Donald Trump, whose administration is criticised (among other things) for its ambivalence and hostility towards the disabled. Vaccine misinformation has already been linked to a decrease in vaccinations in the United States, and a measles outbreak in Europe reported in August 2018.
Kerri Rivera, a prominent proponent of MMS and author of Healing the Symptoms Known as Autism, says: “Almost all of the people with autism have high levels of pathogens; virus, bacteria, parasites and heavy metals. Chlorine dioxide kills pathogens and helps the body to detoxify itself. It is considered safe at doses we use for weight.” She adds: “There are over 225 people who no longer have autism after using it.” The Guardian
Emerging as an after-shock following years of the vaccine conspiracy theory, websites advertising and selling dangerous “cures” for autism rose to enough prominence to garner mainstream coverage and political responses. Miracle Mineral Solution (MMS) gained word-of-mouth recognition in online support groups for parents of autistic children, leading to alarming reports of vulnerable, well-meaning parents force- feeding industrial-strength bleach to their children. Such treatments typically tout the common occurrence of gut problems in autistic people, thought to be the result of regulatory issues but blamed in these instances on ‘poisoning’.
Where vaccine theory proposes an opt-out argument (that’s no less dangerous), the sellers of fake cures encourage and directly profit from active harm towards a minority group, profiting off online misinformation techniques even when the information is easily debunked. The use of bleach as the central object in this case also presents an unsettling parallel with the “Bleach Drinking” meme, most popular on 4chan and similar sites in 2016, the same year the bleach treatment advertisements were first reported and weaponised autism made significant inroads in the reactionary far-right.
Other controversial cures of negligible worth include chelation and lupron (which involve the use of drugs intended for vastly different conditions like prostate cancer and fibroids), vibroacoustic therapy (the use of particular frequencies to calm or motivate children), holding therapy (wherein the autistic patient is held down forcibly to ensure eye contact) and Facilitated Communication (FC) or “supported typing”. FC involves a facilitator touching a disabled person’s arm to encourage the use of a keyboard. Introduced in the late 20th century, it was almost immediately discredited after a series of controversies involving facilitator misconduct. The animal-rights group PETA have also claimed a link between cow’s milk and autism and have advocated for a vegan diet in its stead, prompting immediate backlash.
“Although the deficits of a man with AS become painfully clear in time, they often present as normal in the beginning of a relationship. Men with Asperger’s may not disclose their disorder to you. Some purposely try to hide it. They are unable to understand that it will cause significant problems for you and for the relationship, so they see no reason to tell you. There are many classes, coaching programs and websites that offer training to help them act like a neurotypical (NT, or “normal”) man. Many study the words and behavior of NT people around them, and copy it. They learn exactly what they should do and say in a romantic relationship, since none of it comes naturally to them. It’s an act, one they feel they must put on to win you. No one can keep up an act forever.”
A considerable amount of autistic children rely on prompts provided by adults to stay on-task, complete activities and effectively transition between different activities at home and school. Prompt dependency is thought to continue into adulthood, potentially affecting intimate relationships. Under a media studies perspective, prompt dependency overlaps with theories of mediated sense perception, particularly McLuhan’s conception of televisual images as “tactile promptings” that elicit reaction from viewers.
Mindblindness and theory of mind are two of the most common frameworks used to understand living as an autistic person. It has supplanted previous problematic metaphors for the autistic experience, including the perception of autists as alien or people whose “real” selves are trapped by autism. Theory of mind is the process by which an individual interprets the actions of another by ascribing unto them the same thought processes. Mindblindness was coined in the early 1990s by Simon Baron-Cohen to describe what he described as the central cognitive deficit of autism: the inability to attribute and interpret mental states in others.
Perception of the autistic individual as unmotivated or incapable of responding to prompts in a romantic relationship is used a scapegoat for websites that argue autistic men are incapable of love and are to be avoided. Mindblindness is used as the primary source on “The Truth About Aspergers”, one of a loose network of website encouraging the separation of autistic men from their partners and children. Baron-Cohen is not personally involved in the spread of this misinformation and is a supporter of neurodiversity despite ambivalence towards his work by autistic activists.
These websites are targeted towards romantic partners of autistic men, typically with voluminous misinformation alleging that autistic partners are inherently untrustworthy. The site’s blogroll includes links to several other sites alleging links between autism and domestic violence, murder and sexual abuse, although in some cases the linked pages directly contradict the site’s agenda.The negativity of these sites often goes so over-the-top that it resembles trolling more than misinformation: Asperger Partner’s “tips for NT spouses” include “Realise: it does not get better” amid claims that leaving said partner is the only logical option. The comment section of an article on the same issue repeats similar stories in an almost copy-and-paste manner, along with attacks on commenters who critique the article and claim to be autistic.
The disturbing implications of this viewpoint — seemingly relegated to a few small social groups online — can be seen in the autism-parent memoir To Siri, With Love and the admission by the author that she’s considered securing medical power of attorney over her autistic son so he can be involuntarily sterilised. Furthermore, Newman’s book was decried as ‘neurodiversity lite’ — the use of language typically associated with the autistic community in work that contradicts its core concepts, arguably allowing powerful groups to ‘effectively disguise ableist stereotypes and harmful practices for audiences that aren’t aware of or attuned to them’.
The Autistic Dark Web
Some of neurodiversity’s most active opponents claim an autism diagnosis themselves — and use many of the same tools. The Autism Wikia site categorises these individuals alongside prominent anti-vaccine activists and Autism Speaks under “Autistic Enemies”, highlighting the high emotional stakes in the debate as well as the charge made against the neurodiversity movement of intolerance towards those who do not wish to celebrate their autism.
The most prominent of these figures is Jonathan Mitchell, an American blogger who writes on the negative consequences autism has had on his life, career and romantic relationships. Mitchell’s colleagues include Oliver Canby, who has kept a relatively low profile since his last blog post in 2015 outside of sending death threats to various neurodiversity supporters. Canby’s entry into the neurodiversity debate was inspired by the rants of John Best Jr., a conspiracy theorist and author of the blogs Autism Fraud and Hating Autism which claims that the condition was concocted by the government to enforce civilian compliance. Canby and Best’s conduct received heavily detailed responses from the sites “Lock Oliver Canby Up” and “John Best Jr: Jackass” which reproduce the hateful messages that Canby has since deleted.
Over the course of May and June 2018, the #ActuallyAutistic hashtag on Twitter increased its rate of activity. Autistics who disagree with neurodiversity in turn co-opted the hashtag to debate others. Spurred by the moment, the #AutisticDarkWeb was formed as a ‘safe space’ for pro-cure autistics. As the name suggests, the board’s opposition to identity politics and ‘victimhood’ and promotion of personal responsibility is influenced by the #IntellectualDarkWeb, a collection of self-styled academic renegades whose ranks include Sam Harris and Jordan Peterson. The Autistic Dark Web is made up of autistics who advocate for a cure, and protest against the perceived demonisation of parents and medical professionals. The Twitter page Autistics Against Hate (@AutisticsH) was started the month of this thesis’ completion as an extension of the Autistic Dark Web. The feed consists of retweets of autistic people promoting neurodiversity, with the goal (stated in the bio) to “expose hatred against parents, doctors, scientists, neurotypicals & internal dissidents”.
The AutisticDarkWeb has already received support from the charity Treating Autism, who regularly retweet and reply to accounts who claim to have founded the counter-movement. The charity has also retweeted parents accusing neurodiversity proponents of faking their autism. The #ActuallyAutistic hashtag has not been overwhelmed (many opting to not feed the trolls), however there is concern raised over the DarkWeb’s use of intimidation tactics, dog-whistling retweets, and appeals to outside organisations.
Aesthetic Nervousnesswas coined by Ato Quayson to describe literary presentations of disability, drawing from postcolonial literary theory. Quayson argues that popular representations of disability reflect society’s “subliminal fear and moral panic” in encounters between the disabled and non-disabled. Disabled characters serve to remind the temporarily non-disabled of the capriciousness of their own health and to trigger an affective response in turn. The text then explains that this tension is revealed through a series of aesthetic crises that undermine the humanity of the disabled.
In an article lamenting the ease with which YouTube algorithms and generative animation can be exploited, the artist James Bridle declared his discomfort with the (at-times horrifying) videos masquerading as safe children’s entertainment, using accessible video platforms to “systematically frighten, traumatise, and abuse children, automatically and at scale”. Autistic people, much more likely to be the victims of violence than perpetrators, are themselves the targets of algorithmic fuzziness that play into the hands of misinformation campaigns — most notably the multifaceted anti-vaccine movement, which catastrophises the autistic mind and body for pseudoscience, and the promotion of dangerous “cures” among the online parent groups that are typically lionised by mainstream media.
Mindblindness is considered to be the key issue in criminal cases involving offenders with autism, either informing the views of prosecutors or instrumentalised by the defence as mistake in fact, failure of proof or diminished capacity. A 2007 study from a religious perspective took this to a logical end of sorts by considering mindblindness as a central characteristic of evil. Just as the alt-right’s co-optation of ‘weaponised autism’ can arguably be understood as an attempt to re-affirm negative attitudes towards autism, the #AutisticDarkWeb represents an internal schism in autistic identity, one that disregards the neurodiversity paradigm, adapting tactics from troll culture and the alt-right to sanctify the medical model and redefine autism as an ideological struggle over supposed hegemonies of pathology and difference.
Further, as McGuire & Michalko point out, under Foucault’s conception of knowledge and power dynamics rendering autism inscrutable creates a feedback loop where the basis of autism’s unknowability implies that only non-autistic professionals can hope to demonstrate its nuances. This engenders a power relation where the researcher’s actions “have nothing to do with desiring to have the mystery of autism in our collective life; instead, the only interest in these pieces is to remove autism, mysterious or not, from collective and individual life”. Such stereotypes can influence even relatively innocuous assessments that misappropriate autism as a metaphor, such as a 2011 paper that described the unusual writing style of Gertrude Stein as “an autistic ethos of modernism”, where autism is described merely as the presence of overwhelming solipsism or Simon Reynolds’ repeated characterisation of 90s rave culture as autistic, his rationale not being much more than the fact that the music was pretty weird.
As a disorganised niche within a niche, it is doubtful that the characters covered in this section will reach the public prominence of the Jordan Petersons and Info Wars of the world. However, they are worth assessing in the context of #ActuallyAutistic’s habilitated agencement — as autistic identity reformulates the boundaries of their impairment through digital media, resistance from critics are liable to increase.
To each of the movements covered in this section, “autistic pride” is a clear oxymoron. To John Best Jr., autism is a diversionary tactic of the deep state poisoning the nation’s children. To the pushers of bleach treatment, it is a creation of Big Pharma that can be magicked away with miracle cures. To the Cassandra Syndrome network, autistic pride is the erasure of misery imposed upon innocent neurotypicals by the inherently ‘mindblind’. To the Autistic Dark Web, it’s a delusional practice encouraged by postmodern victimhood.
To such groups, a return to prosthetic agencies is seemingly not enough, suggesting a desire for a possible rehabilitated agency where market influence and individualism is contingent on a certain level of social acceptability. In other words, their version of the clearest path for autistic agency is to remove autism from the equation entirely.
For most of autism’s history, people diagnosed with the condition were “sites for the operations of institutional practices and bodies of knowledge […] seeking to know and act upon the purported ‘essence’ of autism”. The phenomenological embodiment of the autistic experience is under-analysed, and past concessions to the internet’s accessibility to autistic children rarely amounted to much more than lip- service. In this series I set out to illustrate how the new media ecology has catalysed and served the ongoing debate on autistic identity, autonomy and expression. The primary representations of autism — as political identity, medical tragedy, social farce, moral crisis — are unavoidably intertwined with and shaped by longstanding association with digital media.
The resultant struggle over a thick web of online networks is over the definition of ASD itself — not just in a semantic sense but in practical ideologies that critique the orthodoxy of the medical model and of prominent charities like Autism Speaks. For the nonverbal, blogging and video platforms have afforded them the opportunity to finally speak for themselves, and have since offered a wealth of content directly critiquing the societal expectations that they class as a form of oppression. It is an emerging civil rights (possibly counter-cultural) movement that sees technology as a potential liberator, not unlike the utopianism of early internet culture or the political malfeasance of troll culture and “meme magic”.
In contrast to those examples, however, I have illustrated that the theories formed around the autism phenomenon are complimented or paralleled by aspects of the new media ecology. Dysprosody is echoed in the unusual language mannerisms of meme culture, almost all modern entertainment platforms allow users to easily satisfy echolalia and perseverating (to say nothing of its capabilities to assist the ‘special interests’ so closely connected with autistic identity), while media’s tactile promptings serve as an effective corrective to prompt-dependency deficits or a need for predictable routine. As Tarnoff and Weigel argue, even the pathologisation of compulsive media use and Silicon Valley overreach unnecessarily undermines a reality for many whose autism adversely affects everyday life: “Many people rely on the internet for solace and solidarity, especially those who feel marginalised. The kid with autism may stare at his screen when surrounded by people, because it lets him tolerate being surrounded by people. For him, constant use of technology may not be destructive at all, but in fact life-saving”.
One of the alt-right’s commonly cited characteristics is their claim of “weaponised autism” — a statement that has gone relatively unremarked even in thorough examinations of Neo-reactionary populists and identitarians. The argument that the alt-right is racist, sexist, homophobic, anti-Semitic and Islamophobic is fairly regarded as a given — while their deep relationship with ableism is rarely acknowledged beyond the surface level. Weaponised autism posits that the traits of ASD holds potential for intense and impressive feats of data-gathering while simultaneously indulging in demeaning stereotypes. My best guess for the relative lack of insight is a combination of the dialectic foothold of the medical model and an unwillingness to take the alt-right seriously.
However ill-fit for cultural penetration, the cultural stereotype of the oblivious autistic remains most prominent in meme culture and the parents of ‘severely’ autistic parents, who oppose the autistic identity incorporating people who can and will speak for themselves and defend their own prosthetic and habilitated agencements. As autistic dissidents increasingly appropriate the language of reactionary politics and academics describe the politics of ASD as aggressively hallucinatory and divisive (“Autism politics is faculty politics on PCP”, so says John Pitney, Jr.), an inclusive framework to assess the ongoing consolidation of agencement and mediation of autistic identity into the future will become all the more relevant.
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