“I hereby declare upon my word of honor that I have neither given nor received unauthorized help on this work.”
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.
ENGL 384: Disability and Literature
07 December 2021
Word Count: 1,012
Challenging Characterization of Austic Children in Rebecca Faust’s “Apologies to my OB-GYN”
The bitterness in Rebecca Faust’s poem “Apologies to my OB-GYN” is palpable. The poem begins with Faust relaying her son’s precarious health condition at the being of his life in the first two stanzas, which against expectations he recovers from in the third stanza, and the fourth stanza is set in the present in which the poem was written describing how her son spent the day saving moths that were trapped in their porchlight before falling asleep. It also implies the clear resentment that she was treated with by the hospital staff for being a difficult case to treat. The “apologies” she makes throughout the poem are a sarcastic response to when the medical staff acted like her son was purposefully making their job more difficult. Yet this lack of empathy is something that would be much more readily assumed of her child, just because he’s autistic. “Apologies to my OB-GYN” challenges the characterization of autistic children as cold and unfeeling by comparing the callous regard of the medical staff towards her son to his compassionate actions towards the moths, a “lesser” form of life than himself.
Faust’s choice of pronouns used to refer to her son in “Apologies to my OB-GYN” traces how the concept of agency is applied to her child, both by the hospital staff and herself.
Faust only refers to her son once as specifically being her son in the very first line of the poem, calling him “my boy” (line 1). Faust’s choice of my “boy”, instead of my “son” or “child”, grants him far more independence and individuality than he would have if he was referred to by a term that would define him by his relationship to his mother. Throughout the rest of the poem, he is exclusively referred to by he/his/his and in the active voice. At first, this is used sardonically in the first and second stanzas, implying how the medical staff treated her son as if he had chosen to be a difficult case for them to treat. The absurdity of this over-ascription of agency to a baby regarding their own physical condition at birth is emphasized in his first “action” of the poem: “my boy birthed himself/ too early” (lines 1-2). In the second stanza, Faust refers to herself and her son together as “we” and “our”, identifying she and her son as a team, as equals, and equally blamed for needing to make night calls. This same over-ascription of agency is inverted in the third stanza as Faust continues to use it when narrating her son defying expectations and getting better. His actions become a heroic, conscious struggle to survive if was in fact fully in control over his body. In the final stanza, when he is older and at least a small child, referring to him exclusively as he/his/his and not “my son” or ‘my child” gives him exactly the agency he deserves. It enforces it was his choice to free the moths from the light and distances Faust herself from taking ownership or precedent in son’s narrative. Faust’s use of pronouns shows how the ascription of agency can be used both for and against an individual.
Faust chooses these incidents from her son’s life to directly contrast the difference between the hospital staff and him when responsible for a life often deemed as having “lesser value”. The medical staff treats Faust and her son with resentment for being a difficult case when her son’s survival hangs in the balance, and when dealing with birth and early complications is part of their job responsibilities. They are made to feel like they are taking up too much space when her son weighs barely two pounds, in a hospital wing meant specifically for their kind of case, and like “pains in your ass” (line 7) by making night calls, for being rude enough to have medical emergencies at night. Her son’s life is weighed against “skyrocketed premiums” (line 14) and “cost-benefit analyses” (line 15). The final damning line of the fourth stanza “sorry he took so much of your time/ being so determined to live” (lines 18-19) directly challenges how the hospital staff valued themselves above the health and safety of her child. By contrast, her son has no responsibility or even obligation to save the nymph moths from the porch light, yet he chooses to do so anyway. The moths like him are described as a “hopeless case” (line 20) and are insects whose lives are very little valued, but he still does the tedious task of saving each one “one matrix-dot/ at a time” (lines 21-22) without complaint. “Being determined to live” (Line 19) falls being the first life of the fourth stanza, symbolically that this is the life that has determined to live— one of compassion. He manages to be more compassionate towards fragile lives than those who saving fragile lives is their job, their purpose.
This poem is not just about the mistreatment of Faust and her son by one hospital staff, It points out the irony of autistic children being perceived as cold and unfeeling when they themselves are often not treated with empathy by allistic members of society. Her son shows far more compassion for the moths he saved than the doctors who were in charge of his own human life. The Conclusion of the poem “blue wingbeat/ pulse fluttering his left temple—there,/ there again. Just like it did then.” asserts her son’s life and value. That he was a person worth saving even before he was able to demonstrate kindness, because he was alive, and that should be enough to treat him with respect and dignity.
“I hereby declare upon my word of honor that I have neither given nor received unauthorized help on this work.”
Faust, Rebecca. “Apologies to My OB-GYN.” From the Fishouse, Fishouse Poems,