Take Home Final- Hannah Harris

Hannah Harris

Dr. Foss

ENGL 384 Section 1

08 December 2021

Entropy:

Order

— Autism— 

Chaos 

Diagnosticians use the DSM-5 to categorize Autistic Spectrum Disorders according to a “quick-serve menu… establishing groupings of significant autism features and asking mental health practitioners to choose a set number from each category — one from column A, two from column B” (Rodas “Intro” 9). There is a certain irony to this strategy, given the ease with which these professionals jump to pathologize the compulsions for list-making and delineation seen in autistics. Rodas argues that the fixation of non autistic authors on offering explanations for list-making and ordering passes not only a “clinical judgment” but is also “aesthetically charged” (Rodas “Intro” 19). This necessity for order seen in autistics warrants a conversation on entropy, and the science fiction background of Rivers Solomon’s An Unkindness of Ghosts, combined with Rodas’ assessments in Autistic Disturbances, provides a way to view autism as intrinsically entropic, and thus unequivocally true to nature. 

The scientific concept of entropy falls under the umbrella of thermodynamics, the study of the relation between heat, work, and energy, and the ability of this energy to be transferred from one place to another (Briticana). This branch of study also happens to be the title of Part 1 of Solomon’s novel. The basics of entropy are simple; neglecting all mathematics and symbols besides one, entropy = chaos. Something creates entropy if it breaks apart from one to multiple pieces, heats up and begins moving faster, or expands. The splitting of water to hydrogen and oxygen used to fill a mask (Solomon Chapter 4) involves an increase in entropy. Small instances of negative entropy, contributions to order rather than disorder, can and must occur. The letters being placed strategically beside one another to form these words are one example. However, the overall system, the universe as a whole, must continually fall apart; this is how life survives until it too must succumb to that fate. 

There is evidence of entropy in autism, despite its diagnostic characteristic of ordering, in both the literary and biological sense. Rodas first explores the “disparaging” (Rodas “Intro” 17) literary appraisal of list-making in her Introduction. For instance, critics often dismiss Mr. Casaubon in Eliot’s Middlemarch for his “dry collection of dead scholarship” called The Key to All Mythologies. Eliot’s narrator describes Margaret’s interaction with these elements:

She pictured to herself the days, months, and years she must spend in sorting what might be called shattered mummies, and the fragments of a tradition which was itself a mosaic wrought from crashed ruins — sorting them as food for a theory which was already withered in the birth like an elfin child.

Eliot chap. 48, qtd. in Rodas “Intro” 17

Mr. Casaubon’s work is neatly ordered, but meaningless. In fact, it is compared to a disabled, “‘withered’” child (Eliot chap. 48, qtd. in Rodas 17). While this is viewed as a shame, a waste of potential that would be unacceptable for any “normal” “natural” man, the pieces that are shattered and the mosaic that is crushed like ruins are the most realistic representation of entropy. What some see as a negative assessment of the value of Casaubon’s work can and should actually be read as one way in which the character and those like him are more attuned and intimately acquainted to the true necessities of existence than others. They do not simply lack the propensity to put together collections of great value. Instead, they realize the futility of this exercise. 

This entropic metaphor is brought to the forefront even more in Rodas’ UnConclusion, even the name itself giving a nod to chaos. In the theory of autism poetics, critical reception of list forms recognizes that the assessment of autistics minds as “rigid, repetitive, [and] rule bound” (Roth “Imagination and Awareness” 157 qtd. in Rodas “UnConclusion” 187) as antiquated and incorrect. Instead, an “‘infinity of aesthetics’” (Eco “Infinity of Lists” 17 qtd. in Rodas “UnConclusion” 187) consistent with the laws of entropy is suggested. Rodas makes an example of Jorge Luis Borges’ list which includes categories as broad as “‘others’” and as hyper-specific as “‘those that have just broken a flower vase’” (Borges “Analytical Language” 103 qtd. in Rodas “UnConclusion” 188). She does all but say the word entropy when reframing the list as “[an] explosive device, bringing into proximity otherwise neutral elements rendered volatile by contact with one another” (Rodas “UnConclusion” 189). All of this is to suggest that, while autistics like order and attempt to create it though list-making and organization, they also readily engage with the “disordered and the absurd” (Rodas “UnConclusion” 190). Again, this naturalizes them, bringing them as close to the unchanging realities of science and the universe as one can be. Thus, their list-making is well informed, realistic, and less of a disease than the medical establishment’s own orderly diagnostic methods. 

This list-making tendency appears in An Unkindness of Ghosts as early as chapter three. Aster’s ordered collection contains items of random nature and drastically varied levels of importance ranging from “clean body (use soap and the scrub brush today)” to “amputate Flick’s foot” (Solomon Chapter 3). This not only serves to identify Aster with those on the autistic spectrum, but it also increases entropy. Perhaps the easiest moment to grasp Aster’s autisitc relation to entropy comes in her theoretical telling of her own story in the beginning of chapter four. Theoretical is the key word here as, “Yes, if Aster told a story, I’d go like that — but she wouldn’t tell a story” (Solomon Chapter 4). Aster refuses to envision such a story because “the precisionist in her hate[s] oral history and memory and that flimsy, haphazard way people sp[eak] about the past” (Solomon Chapter 4). At her core, she despises when people “assign meaning where there is none” (Solomon Chapter 4) as Theo cautions her about early in their working relationship. Again, this clearly links to entropy. Aster is ok with chaos, with the inability to have concrete answers, especially when the answers others try to impose upon her assign false meaning and make connections where there are none. In these claims, she is true to the laws of nature. However, she does contradict her argument in several ways as she investigates her mother’s death, including her incorrect assumptions concerning a link between the poisoning of Sovereign Nicholeas and her mother as well as the identity of Cassidy Ludnecki. Nonetheless, her eventual recognition of these faults within herself and her eventual recognition of the messiness of the past recenters her character as entropic. 

Science corroborates the inherent link between autism and entropy. Here, entropy has to do with information theory and statistics rather than thermodynamics, but the principles are similar. An algorithm called sample entropy (SampEn) has been developed to measure the randomness in a series of data without any previous knowledge about the source of the data set (Delgado-Bernal & Marshak 3). A study published this year in “Brain Research” found differences in sample entropy in the brains of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) children when comparing their fMRI brain scans to those of their typically developing (TD) counterparts (Maximo et. al, no pagination). While sample entropy was higher in three brain areas of ASD children, it was found to be lower in a fourth region. However, the nature of the brain and the role these areas play in its function means an increase in entropy and randomness of the system may present clinically as a propensity for order (Maximo et. al, no pagination). This scientific explanation, just like the restructuring of autism poetics in literary theory, allows for the coexistence of an appearance of order and an underlying basis of entropy. 

Thus, autism can be read as a natural result of the innate ability to comprehend the thermodynamic laws of entropy. Given how much these laws affect life’s start, course, and inevitable end, the nonautistic community could stand to learn about the intersection of order and chaos and how one informs a richer understanding of the other. 

Word Count: 1326

I hereby declare upon my word of honor that I have neither given nor received unauthorized help on this work. Hannah Harris

References 

Delgado-Bonal, Alfonso, and Alexander Marshak. “Approximate Entropy and Sample Entropy: A Comprehensive Tutorial.” Entropy, vol. 21, no. 6, 6, Multidisciplinary Digital Publishing Institute, June 2019, p. 541. www.mdpi.com, https://doi.org/10.3390/e21060541.

Maximo, Jose O., et al. “‘Unrest While Resting’? Brain Entropy in Autism Spectrum Disorder.” Brain Research, vol. 1762, July 2021, p. 147435. DOI.org (Crossref), https://doi.org/10.1016/j.brainres.2021.147435.

Rivers Solomon. An Unkindness of Ghosts. Akashic Books, 2017. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspxdirect=true&db=nlebk&AN=1700262&site=ehost-live.

Rodas, Julia Miele. Autistic Disturbances: Theorizing Autism Poetics from the DSM to Robinson Crusoe. Forward by Melanie Yergeau, University of Michigan Press, 2018. Pagination comes from PDF posted on Dis/Lit website. 

Thermodynamics | Laws, Definition, & Equations | Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/science/thermodynamics. Accessed 6 Dec. 2021.

The Imperialism of Unkind Ghosts

Jamie Keller

Dr. Foss

Take Home final examination

12/6/2021
“I hereby declare upon my word of honor that I have neither given nor received unauthorized help on this work.”

Option 1: Thesis-driven literary analysis focused on one aspect of An Unkindness of Ghosts

Word count: 1,061

The story “An Unkindness of Ghosts” takes place in a world, far into the future after the world has already been destroyed. The last living humans are on a spaceship, are on a spaceship with multiple different levels and jobs set for each person. While on the ship, there are strict rules and there is also one person who rules over the entire ship. The society that formed in the ship created a system similar to the European imperial system.

First and foremost, with how the ranking system is set up, it is very reminiscent of how money and rank tends to stay with those who already have it. There are three overall subtle language changes that happen between the upper and lower levels. The upper levels have a more proper language that is more ‘noble-like’ while the lower class have a more ‘rough’ language and the middle class is a mix between the two. If someone who is from the upper class overhears something from the lower class’ language would not be able to understand it unless there is a specific reason from their past why they would be able to understand it. Traveling between each of the levels is not allowed, especially if they are someone of the lower levels, unless they have a pass which is a way of control. Continuing on the form of control, if anyone breaks a martial law that was put into place, like the head count, there are extreme punishments similar to how if a slave broke a rule would get a punishment more severe then it should have been in modern days.

Money and how people view you are also a part of the older version of imperialism. Those with a lot of money, land, and are talked about either through rank or through being extremely good at something. Those specifically are carried through the family line and those that do not have access to that or are able to make a name for themselves, tend to stay in the lower class. If people view someone else as different, they normally get shunned out of society, in this “Unkindness of Ghosts”, those that are not welcomed by society are living in the lower levels of the ship. Their conditions are extremely poor, just like the slaves and peasents of the past as they are doing whatever it takes to survive to day to day. Throughout the story, there is continued proof that the conditions needed to be improved. The examples are such as freezing temperatures that gave someone frostbite and being punished for just wanting a change. Those that are from the lower class or levels that are seen for wanting change enacted by others with more power are seen as crazy or too lazy to be able to pick themselves up from their boot straps and make the situation better themselves. Even if you are extremely smart but have something that no one likes, it makes it hard to be able to change it. Most people would think of them overcoming the disability rather than actually being smart which is a sad reality of the real world. If seen as defective or not following the social norm of how one is supposed to act, then you stick out like a sore thumb that others feel like they need to fix.

With how the story ends, it shows how the world works in reality. Not all disability characters get killed off or get cured for their “happily ever after”. Everyone is not suddenly “happy” with their living conditions because they got a bandaid over any old scars that there might be. It shows that no life is perfect and not every story has a happy ending because life is full of ups and downs. There is no life that is perfect every single day, nor does bad things happen every single day. An important thing to remember is that from day to day, those living in an imperialistic society would not be thinking of those ruling over them unless a major event is happening to the ruler or the fact that they are going through a bad day. Each person is going through their own lives and another person’s life does not usually matter.

When finally getting back to earth, and escaping from an imperialist government, mixed feelings fell upon Aster. She was sorry for everything that she had lost to get where she was now but at the same time, she was finally happy to be where she was supposed to be. In terms, if she had just listened to those above her, she wouldn’t have lost those close to her, on the other hand though, she would not have gotten to earth by disobeying. Which brings in the question, which is better? Being in a government that is absolutely horrible to those of the lower class and those that are different, or being in a completely forgeign land by yourself and no one to be able to help besides the skills you have learned? I think in Aster’s case, since she always felt a little alone, the latter was better for her and most probably would agree. Those that have a better rank in the society would probably not want that same choice and go with the first one. When it comes to real life, it might be hard to make the choice because if you do not have the skills to be able to survive on nearly nothing, it might be safer and give you the ability to more than likely to survive if you stay with something familiar. At the very least, Aster now has the ability to do whatever she desires. There is no one stopping her from reaching her full capabilities nor no one punishing her from doing what she thinks is right. In any story, of course the main character is usually in the right, unless proven otherwise so I have a feeling that whatever plans to do now that story is over is going to be the best for herself and any future humans that happen to escape and come back to earth in the future. With the knowledge she has, hopefully she knows better than to set up a system that empowers those with ill intentions for those who are weak and different.

Final Exam – Kelly Brown, Melissa Madsen, and Lisa Gisselquist

Kelly Brown, Melissa Madsen, Lisa Gisselquist
Dr. Chris Foss
ENGL 384-02
7 December 2021

Becoming Human: The Progress of Autistic Representation from Of Mice and Men to An Unkindness of Ghosts

Whether consciously or unconsciously, authors tend to write novels and characters reflective of societal views at the time. Books written prior to the American Civil War, for instance, tend to view African Americans in a more derogatory manner than books written afterward. Similarly, novels containing disabled characters have changed their representation as society has learned more about different conditions. As shown through Lennie from John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and Aster from Rivers Solomon’s An Unkindness of Ghosts, the literary portrayal of autistic-coded characters and how they are treated by people around them is evident of how society viewed said characters at the time the novels were written. A comparison between the two shows how society’s opinion of autism and neurodiverse people has improved in the last eighty years.

Lennie and Aster share many of the same symptoms of autism, as illustrated through their mannerisms. For example, both characters have touch sensitivity: Lennie enjoys touching the fur of soft animals but cannot handle other textures, while Aster dislikes being touched by other people “unless it [is] certain skin” (Solomon 211). Another similarity between the two is a difficulty understanding language subtleties, with Aster not realizing her mother wrote in code until Giselle points it out, and Lennie taking George literally when he uses a figure of speech. Yet, these different portrayals of autistic symptoms indicate how the overall opinion of autism has improved throughout the years. Steinbeck’s characterization of Lennie, with his low perception skills and general naivete, represents the hyperbolic ‘low-functioning’ side of autism. In contrast, Aster has a higher awareness of her disability and her surroundings, portraying a more accurate representation and combating the idea that autism has a ‘high’ or ‘low’ functioning level. Because these similar depictions of neurodiversity, and therefore autistic-coded traits, have been reshaped over time to fit a more accepting narrative, society has gradually learned not to fear or chastise people who do not fit the neurotypical norm.

Of Mice and Men’s portrayal of Lennie reflects negative views of autism from the 1930s by constantly emphasizing how Lennie is a victim of his disorder and, as such, needs to be protected by George, a ‘normal’ person. Throughout the novel, Lennie is portrayed as not having a full understanding of what is going on in any circumstance due to his one-track mind, whether he misses social cues or does not respect personal space. One example of this is when Lennie asks Crooks, the only black farmhand, why Crooks has a separate bedroom from the other farmhands and why he is not wanted in the main bunkhouse full of white men, completely missing the racist social understanding of the time. Hence, when Lennie murders Curley’s wife, the text emphasizes how Lennie killed her unintentionally and that his ‘simple-mindedness’ is the real culprit. Lennie’s only goal was to subdue her and stop her from yelling, evidenced by Lennie outright saying that “I don’t want ta hurt you” (Steinbeck 87). Lennie was “bewildered” when Curley’s wife just lay there motionless because he did not understand that he used too much force (Steinbeck 87). And when Lennie finally realizes that he did something bad, he repeats over and over that “George’ll be mad;” the fact that he does not mention anyone else other than George signifies that he does not comprehend that there could be other consequences for his actions (Steinbeck 87). Because Lennie does not understand the gravity of half of the situations he finds himself in, Steinbeck gives him a caretaker that can understand: George. George and Lennie have been traveling with and looking out for each other ever since Lennie’s Aunt Clara died. However, instead of being equal partners, George is the one that holds all the power in their relationship. George tells Lennie what to do and where to go. George secures Lennie a job on the ranch and tells him to stay quiet during the interview, because “if he finds out what a crazy bastard you are, we won’t get no job” (Steinbeck 6). Additionally, George is the one who decides that it would be better for him to kill Lennie than to allow the angry ranch mob to avenge Curley’s wife, without even attempting to tell Lennie what is going on. Since George believes he is essential for Lennie’s survival, he is the one who decides whether Lennie lives or dies, taking away whatever agency Lennie had. This reflects society’s overall negative views on autism at the time. Because the disorder causes decreased cognitive functioning and situational awareness, those on the autism spectrum were considered not only less intelligent than neurotypicals, but also robbed of the life they could have had if they were born a normal child. Therefore, children on the autism spectrum required a guardian to advocate on their behalf, because society believed they could not do it themselves.

Although there are vague mentions of Aster being treated poorly, An Unkindness of Ghosts focuses on the positive reactions to her disability – with a very subtle mention of autism – that reflects the improving opinions of society. Throughout the novel, Aster occasionally mentions people treating her poorly and calling her names. At one point, when someone calls her a “witch-freak,” “she could not contest [the freak part] and let [it] stand” (Solomon 138). This indicates that she had been faced with such bullying in the past. However, despite this, the subtle representation of autism in the book and the reaction of the people close to her shows how far autism representation has come. Her symptoms are only alluded to, not focused on. She is referred to as “Insiwa” or “Inside one” (Solomon 18), a gentle nickname by the people who have observed her. Her Aint Melusine believes that everything the girl says is “the right words to my mind” (Solomon 175). At the very end of the novel, it is Aster who solves the mystery of their location and sends Matilda back to Earth. She defeats Lieutenant, who called her an “aberration,” thus defeating all of those who see her as such (Solomon 232). Though she faced trouble because of being autistic, there are very light mentions of it in comparison to Lennie being constantly mistreated for being neurodivergent. Published eighty years after Of Mice and Men, Aster’s story is a sign of hope for a better future for autism.

While neither of these novels is a perfect portrayal of an autistic character, there is significant progress being made as time continues. Each novel has its own issues, but Aster from An Unkindness of Ghosts is portrayed positively whereas Lennie from Of Mice and Men is not. Steinbeck’s depiction of Lennie reflects a limited understanding of and disdain for autism while Solomon’s portrayal of Aster reflects a new understanding of autism and a hope for a future that fully accepts neurodiversity. While this ideal future may take some time to reach, one may hope that it will be here soon.

Works Cited

Solomon, Rivers. An Unkindness of Ghosts. Akashic Books, 2017. EBSCOhost, search-ebscohost-com.umw.idm.oclc.org/login.aspxdirect=true&db=nlebk&AN=1700262&site=ehost-live.
Steinbeck, John. Of Mice and Men. Covici, Friede, Inc., 1937.

Word Count: 1254

We hereby declare upon our word of honor that we have neither given nor received unauthorized help on this work. -Kelly Brown, Melissa Madsen, Lisa Gisselquist