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April’s Disability Research Forum session

Our next Disability Research Forum session will take place on the 5th of April at 2-4pm in Arundel 10311, Sheffield Hallam University City Campus, Howard Street, S1 1WB.

The first speaker will be Dr Jill Smith who is a lecturer in Autism Studies at Sheffield Hallam University.

This time last year (April 2016), I presented a paper at the Equality, Diversity and Social Justice research group making a case for theory in ‘autism research’. A year on, in coming to the DRF, I return to theory with fresh enthusiasm, like visiting an old friend, picking up where we left off all that time ago. In this paper I will make a case for the theoretical work I came to find so valuable in my PhD research, a case for theorising dis/orientation in research about everyday life, autism, and childhood. I will explore that giddy feeling I get in trying to grapple with the theorising of everyday life and the messiness and somersaulting that requires. In that spirit, I’m going to return to the work I’ve been doing around dis/orientation, a theoretical sentiment that I’ve been thinking with and writing with since those heady days of thesis writing. My use of dis/orientation brings together a number of theoretical ‘titbits’ from dis/humanism (Goodley and Runswick-Cole, 2014) and Sara Ahmed’s (2006) ‘orientation’ in queer phenomenology. I throw in a nod to Deleuze & Guattari for good measure to encourage that we work towards staying with/in dis/orientating in our relation to autism, childhood and dis/ability beyond reductive dichotomies of lives labelled autistic being either simply disordered or simply different.

The second speaker will be Hannah Ebben who is a PhD student at the Autism Centre at Sheffield Hallam University.

My presentation will tie my critical thinking on disability with my background in the field of Cultural Studies. The social construction of disability involves a great amount of speculation, from clinical practices of examination to disability living allowance eligibility and everyday phrases such as ‘Why are you in a wheelchair?’. The disabled subject in its embodied, performative, and bureaucratic reality is greatly shaped through a ‘political economy of doubt’, in which people are allowed to speculate about human populations and conditions. Outside of clinical and political praxis, popular culture offers a safe haven to speculate. On a television or film screen, the fictional world of the film or series that you are watching does not hear your thoughts about plot development or the characters. This brings a feeling of pleasure, often named scopophilia in reference to Freud within feminist film criticism, which is of interest to the study of everyday practices of speculation and doubt in relation to disability.

In film and television, questions to speculate about often form the backbone of a plot; for example, when the groundbreaking series Twin Peaks aired in 1990, it started a so-called ‘water cooler effect’ in which people spent their chat-up with colleagues at work discussing who could have killed Laura Palmer. Originally, however, this murder investigation was meant to be a mere device to keep the plot about eccentric townsfolk going, which is a phenomenon called a MacGuffin in film theory. Even though this ‘MacGuffin’ left much room for speculation up until the reveal, the disabled characters that appeared throughout the series do not trigger much of this. Some of them have visible impairments with an origin that gets explained in-universe, whilst the appearance of others contribute to the surreal, mythical, and paranormal atmosphere of the series.

In my talk, I would like to compare this to one of my case studies in my PhD study on autism as a discourse in film. The 2011 movie Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, based on the novel by Jonathan Safran Foer, child protagonist Oskar Schell is searching for the lock of a key belonging to a person called Black, that he found in the cupboard of his father who died during the 9/11 attacks. The main plot is driven by his desire to find the key destination and thus to come closer to his deceased father. Ultimately, the film actually focuses on the way in which Oskar copes with trauma, interacts with his remaining family members, and gains more life experience overall. The element of speculation for the viewer lies in his condition: could he have Asperger’s Syndrome? I will discuss these different forms of looking with doubt and anticipation (and the moments during which these might fail to occur), as well as the wider implications that these could have on perceptions and cultural constellations of disability in society as a whole.

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