Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Ian Hacking on "The Shaping of Autism", University of Leeds

Yesterday, Ian Hacking took to the stage in the Rupert Beckett theatre of the University of Leeds for a lecture entitled “Making Up Autism” which, at the very beginning of his talk, he changed to “The Shaping of Autism”.  The original title, he explained, was a nod to the work he’s done in the area of Making Up People – this essay, written ten years ago now, regards the ways in which people interact with the way in which they are classified. The concern Hacking raised was a semantic one; “Making Up Autism” suggests that perhaps he does not think autism “exists”, that it needn’t be taken seriously, or that it didn’t always exist. This stance is very much incongruent with what he actually argues in the lecture and, more generally, in his writing.

The Parkinson Building, University of Leeds (not actually where he spoke but still a beautiful building). Taken by me.
Hacking discusses Foucault’s analysis of homosexuality which, argued the great French philosopher, came into being as a way to be a person in the nineteenth century. This isn’t to say that men hadn’t been having sex with other men (or women with other women, though lesbianism isn’t something Foucault really talks about) since time immemorial. They certainly were. Rather, the temporally contingent institutionalization of sexuality – its measurement, its naming, its acknowledgement – made possible the existence of “the homosexual”. When I first read Foucault, I found this mind blowing. Like so many of Foucault’s observations, it was so obvious but it was not at all common sense:

“The sodomite had been a temporary aberration; the homosexual was now a species”  (Foucault, History of Sexuality vol. 1)

One of the key things I take from Foucault – something that Hacking has extrapolated brilliantly into other arenas – is one of the most important things that I believe a sociologist needs to keep in mind. There is a social and political agency that can be mobilized in pretty much any identity category. Homosexuality came into being as a way to be a person which is to say that one enacts their sexuality in response to the institution. This stretches way beyond the act of sex. There is a dynamism in the naming that is unmistakably experienced by the person so named. As a gay woman, you’re deemed so because you have sex with other women. But as a gay woman, you might also exist in certain social circles, attend gay-specific events, politicize in ways peculiar to being a gay woman. Being labeled engenders a particularity that is not necessarily policing or limiting. Indeed, identifiers can be embraced in politically powerful ways that might never have even been anticipated by those who developed the initial systems of classification.
Ian Hacking in the throngs of explanation. A picture taken from here.

Like Foucault does with sexuality (and many other things), Hacking takes us through an historical exposition of the bringing about of autism as an identifier and as an identity.

People who are close to autism have played a role in the evolution of autism as a concept and experience. He calls these people “PCA” (personally connected to an autistic person). It works as a really interesting category in itself that Hacking exemplifies through the telling of an anecdote. He had been at a conference with psychiatrists who’d argued that it was the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) that shapes autism, if indeed there was any shaping to be done [this has been in the news recently as the fifth DSM is released next week]. How, asked the man, could PCAs have anything to do with its shaping as only one member of the DSM board was personally connected to an autistic person. In response, Hacking said that the DSM wasn’t necessarily the shaping device; “These were just bureaucrats,” he said “who were writing down where autism had gotten to at the moment.” Those who initially brought autism to public attention we not PCAs, but – because “autism is in flux”, that is it is a continually shifting definitional category – PCAs play a very significant role how we come to understand it contemporarily. He went into discussion about Lorna Wing, a psychiatrist with an autistic daughter who initially petitioned to have Asperger’s recognised by the DSM, and who was a founding member of what is now the British National Autism Society.

Hacking mentioned a photograph he’d seen of a child chained to a tree in Somalia who likely had what might be called autism. What "autism" as a recognised categorisation has done is, in many ways, liberate children perceived to be autistic from certain limitations. “Being on the spectrum” is a specific way of thinking of oneself, of one’s students, children, and/or patients. He made mention of the Autism Network International Autreat to help autistic people “live life the autly way”, and of various other avenues that recognition of autism opens up for people. To be classified is, after all, a way of being recognised as part of a particular grouping. The lecture was altogether more dense and comprehensive than this short post would suggest, but it was a fantastic opportunity to hear him speak. 

My father went to the University of Leeds to study engineering and saw the The Who play their (in)famous “Live at Leeds” concert there. Seeing Ian Hacking at Leeds is , I am not ashamed to say, my equivalent.

My parents have a framed version of this poster in their bathroom at home.
Thanks to Greg Radick and Stuart Murray who organised the Ian Hacking event.

Friday, 10 May 2013

Gilroy and West. Obama, the future and "progress".

Had a supervision this morning and will be a busy few weeks ahead doing work, but couldn't not watch this recent video of Paul Gilroy in conversation with Cornel West, two true luminaries on the nebulous and endless issue that is race (my supervisor today equated sociological engagement with science and race to getting a golf ball lost in a bunker. You naively think you'll get back out but will end up lost forever in the abyss of cogitation.)

Gilroy and West in conversation (A still from the video linked to above.)
I often find myself lost in a swell of emotion listening to Barack Obama hooting his horn about one thing or another. I remember, as an undergraduate, lying awake in the middle of the night to see the final decision called before he accepted his victory. It was a massive deal for me, perhaps because it was such a big deal for my parents - especially my father whose own dad came to the UK from Jamaica in the fifties. What West had to say about Obama - "the black face of the American empire" - was very stirring indeed. It gives pause for very serious reflection about the mindlessness with which I admit I often find myself imbibing the quotidian leftist rhetoric; rhetoric about a man who - though still a symbol, still the personage who offered succour after Dubyah, still a voice unlike that I had ever heard - has opened up new cans, and been unable to close others.

It is the second question from the audience that is my other choice moment from the hour and half of refreshing discussion. An audience member enquires about the sharing of wealth, asks how on earth do the poor and the wealthy stop hating each other. She appends to this a note about the super rich who are in control of state apparatus. It's this question of money - the material - that I find so dark and alarming. I think Bauman does a good job of bringing more than a tinge of fatalism to the modernity we find ourselves in. Gilroy doesn't necessarily have that dark edge to him though the implication of this may seem so. I'm not sure that it is. Here is what he had to say:

"Is progress really the right word for the readjustments that are necessary to understand a future with less of everything that you have. I mean, there’s a certain kind of ironic invocation of this in the language the government uses to speak about austerity. We repair our shoes. We learn to cut patterns again to have clothes. We are going to reequip ourselves with the idea of thrift… All of these things of our future. 

A carbon democracy. A carbon lifestyle. 

… We’re not going to sit around until someone comes up with a technological fix of this life that can’t be fixed. We’re not going to give any ground to that fantasy. We have to develop a different practice and the practice is centred on asking people to see their lives in the overdeveloped world in the light of what lies outside it and I think that’s a different politics. 

I don’t think that’s a left politics at all actually."

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Edinburgh value(s) symposium - Innogen

[edit 1/6/13: this post has been reposted over at the Postgraduate Forum on Genetics and Society]

The 'Dimensions of Value and Values in Science, Technology and Innovation Studies’ Symposium, held by Innogen at the University of Edinburgh was a two-day event with a diverse range of talks from academic working with the issue of value(s) in the wide arena of science and technology studies. During the second day, postgraduate students took the helm to discuss the intersections of value(s) in our own research. Day one saw a range of plenaries on research into specific sectors; metrics for analysis of life sciences; and the dynamics and dimensions of value. Professor Donald MacKenzie introduced us to the world of High Frequency Trading (HFT) in financial markets and the array of practices undertaken by stock traders. Interview data were illustrative of the complexity of values at work in the HFT arena. Along with more responsible trading, Mackenzie discussed the practice algo-sniffing (detecting the footprint of an algorithm used by an institutional investor then buying/selling ahead to make a profit). Here, then, there are questions not only about profit accumulation but of the moral terrain of HFT practices.

Lots of hills and alleyways. Beautiful city.

Nik Brown's talk on contradictions in values gave us an incite into the tensions inherent in any discussion of values. In many ways his talk fed into one of the broader themes emerging from the event. That is, how are we talk about value and values? Are they two separate things? Is the singular noun an allusion to specifically economic value, a Marxian exchange value? In opposition – if indeed the terms of value and values can be opposed – is the collective "values" the signifier of the non-economic, the moral or ethical tensions of something? Brown's amusing video of C'Elle menstrual stem cell banking illustrates the difficulty of understanding often contradictory value(s). How is something at once waste now recognised as a use value? Indeed, in the case of stem cells, can we always recognise use value? As Brown notes, a use value cannot be deferred, and yet some biobanked stem cells are sequestered because they might have use with the advent of new grafting and typing technologies.

Apparently Adam Smith died in Edinburgh. Who knew?

The second day of the symposium gave the postgraduate participants an opportunity to parse their own research through the lens of value(s). The valuation and evaluation processes at play in our various areas of investigation were diverse, though we were all able to recognise them in one form or another. With the assistance of academics from institutions as far away as Canada and Sweden, we attempted to locate practices of value-making in our own research, hitting upon epistemological issues always best unpicked by a group of minds rather than one.

This invitation to reflexivity was all the more fascinating because of the breadth of research being undertaken and the number of people doing so. Students based at universities as far as London made the journey up to Edinburgh to participate. It is, of course, always invaluable to meet other postgraduates working in the STS field. This is particularly true for discussing overarching conceptions like “value” that, whilst seemingly nebulous, are the avenue to recognising hidden links between apparently disparate areas of research. Sperm donation, the film industry, disabled body subjectivity, plant biodiversity – all of these topics being investigated by postgraduates at then event deal with value(s) and processes of (e)valuation.