Monday, October 18, 2004

"autism, Pynchon, and the philosophical underpinnings of capitalism"

I was in high school or junior high when my sister, two years younger than me, brought home a book on autistic children for a school project. I didn't read it, but the pictures fascinated me at the time and stayed with me for years. They were drawings made by a boy named Joey, an autistic patient of Bruno Bettelheim's at the Sonia Shankman Orthogenic School in Chicago where Bettelheim treated autistic children during the 1950s and 60s. The drawings showed how Joey perceived himself and his bodily functions to be attached to machinery -- to be machinery in fact. This struck a primaeval chord in me somehow, as if Joey's experience had been mine in the distant and forgotten depths of childhood. Though I have never been autistic nor suffered from a serious mental disorder, it all seemed uncannily familiar, as if I had been through a morbid stage such as Joey's and forgotten it.

Years later I was writing my Ph.D. thesis on the works of American novelist, Thomas Pynchon, and in the course of reading Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, again I encountered a description of Bettelheim's patient, Joey. After reading The Empty Fortress: Infantile Autism and the Birth of the Self (1967) by Bettelheim, I came to see connections, not only between autism and the work of Pynchon, but between autism, Pynchon, and the philosophical underpinnings of capitalism. All three evoke disturbing evidence of a modern humanity subverted by machinery, with an underlying imperative of Cosmic Law driven by despair and paranoia.

Pynchon's first three novels describe a world in which technology and its corresponding capitalist structures are manifestations of what might be called a general autism, wherein society and its individuals act in ways similar to those of clinically autistic children. General autism is ruled by an imperializing Cosmic Law, a law which proclaims, as Bettelheim put it, "you must never hope that anything can change." This law spreads like an infection by means of its imperializing paranoia, inspired in the observers of the autist. Pynchon's novels constitute a critique of capitalism and its technological manifestations and suggest that a collective autism underlies the drive for materialistic and technological consumption in capitalist society.

...continues: Autism, Thomas Pynchon, and Capitalism as Cosmic Law by James W. Horton