ENGL 384 Section 1
08 December 2021
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
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.