Capitalism, Neurotypicality, and the War on Consciousness
“Within myself I know I am Different” — Cora Anderson
My magic, my poetry, my politics, and my medicine all arise from my experience of the world as alive — and that experience is a product of my divergent neurobiology.
My senses take in torrents of information that sometimes overwhelm my capacity to process them, making me miss things that would seem obvious to most, but at other times (and sometimes simultaneously) make me aware of subtle presences in the world that elude others’ attention. My brain process processes information in non-linear ways that make it easy for me to perceive patterns and connections in the world but difficult to complete a step-by-step process like paying the electrical bill. I have a complex relationship with language — sometimes loquacious and poetic, other times completely non-verbal. When I speak in metaphor, people tend to take me literally, and when I speak literally people often assume that I am speaking metaphorically, because my baseline assumptions about the world differ from those of the vast majority of people around me, and they always have.
In Ireland at the height of British occupation, these traits might have branded me a changeling, dangerous for ways my existence suggested something old and strange, associated with the mythic predecessors of my people who also fought against invaders from over the sea. In the terms set out by contemporary neuropsychology, I am defined as Autistic, an identity I simultaneously embrace, as it links me with a community celebrating and sharing its experiences and struggles, and struggle with, because it emerges from a discourse that pathologizes my existence.
For much of my life, lacking a context for understanding who I was, I struggled to conform to the patterns of behavior I saw in the culture around me, and to translate my thoughts and my language into terms that conformed more to dominant discourses — be they academic or colloquial (though often I failed to register the proper register and found that my tendency to weave theoretical concepts and academic language into conversation made me socially awkward, and my inability to believe in or practice objectivity and to keep poetry out of my prose made me a poor academic.) Now that I am embracing my Autistic nature, I am discovering that, in many ways, it has made me a born rebel against capitalism and monotheism.
CAPITALISM AND THE COLONIZATION OF CONSCIOUSNESS
“The only war that matters is the war against the imagination.” — Diane DiPrima
The colonization of land is made easier and more efficient by the colonization of minds.
The outlawing of language and religious and ceremonial practices and the indoctrination of children in the language and religion of the occupying powers was a fundamental feature of British capitalism’s colonial expansion into my ancestral homeland of the Irish Gaeltacht and my current home on unceded and still occupied WSANEC territory. The schools my kidnapped Irish ancestors were forced to attend were the model for the schools kidnapped Indigenous children in British Columbia were forced to attend until the 1990’s. (And the shut down of the residential schools didn’t mean an end to the institutionalized indoctrination of Indigenous children, they were simply replaced by foster homes and juvenile detention centers.)
This was an attempt to eradicate ways of thinking that prevent people from participating in the brutalization of each other and of the living world. Terrence McKenna said
The real secret of magic is that the world is made of words, and that if you know the words that the world is made of you can make of it whatever you wish.
It follows that the remaking of the world requires a remaking of language — something the colonizers understood. Capitalism depends on commodification, the process of turning parts of the world into objects which can be traded in the marketplace. But you can’t commodify a forest or a mountain if people call it by a name which recognizes it as alive. Patriarchy depends on the enforcement of gender roles. But you can’t enforce patriarchal gender roles within a culture that has no words that denote gender, such as the Tlingit, unless you rob people of their language.
So the process of colonization requires either a process of forced conversion and inculturation — the liberal alternative — or a process of eradication. In both Ireland and North America, British capitalism, engaged in both. But forced inculturation was more cost efficient than mass slaughter and also left the colonizers with a labor force to extract value from stolen land.
Now, as a white Autistic person with strong language skills and usually passable social skills who has successfully evaded any institutions more brutal than public schools and an Ivy League college (I am not counting brief stints in county jails for civil disobedience), nothing I have experienced is remotely close to the devastating violence visited on Indigenous people. But, there are parallels. Autistic people are taught to modify our language and behavior to conform to cultural expectations. Those of us who can’t are frequently institutionalized. White upper and middle class Autistic people are medicated and pathologized. Poor Autistic people and Autistic People of Color are locked up and brutalized and criminalized — a process which begins with modified jail cells in schools for “unruly,” overwhelmingly Black and Brown, children. And there are also neo-eugenic moves to eradicate us — from efforts to identify and eliminate the reasons for our existence in the hope that no more Autistic people will be born; to the leader of the world’s most well known “Autism Awareness” organization/ anti-Autistic hate group, Autism Speaks, talking on camera, in a film the group produced, about fantasies of killing her Autistic daughter (who is seen in the background, clearly within earshot, as her mother speaks); to the actual murder of Autistic children and adults by parents and police.
THE FUNCTION OF FUNCTIONALITY
“Culture is not your friend.” — Terrence McKenna
What’s so threatening about Autism?
Psychology, psychiatry, and neurology, like all forms of medicine under capitalism, serve primarily to maximize worker productivity. They give rise to pathologizing discourses of “neurotypicality,” which Autistic scholar Nick Walker succinctly summarizes:
The pathology paradigm ultimately boils down to just two fundamental assumptions:
- There is one “right,” “normal,” or “healthy” way for human brains and human minds to be configured and to function (or one relatively narrow “normal” range into which the configuration and functioning of human brains and minds ought to fall).
- If your neurological configuration and functioning (and, as a result, your ways of thinking and behaving) diverge substantially from the dominant standard of “normal,” then there is Something Wrong With You.
It is these two assumptions that define the pathology paradigm. Different groups and individuals build upon these assumptions in very different ways, with varying degrees of rationality, absurdity, fearfulness, or compassion – but as long as they share those two basic assumptions, they’re still operating within the pathology paradigm (just as ancient Mayan astronomers and 13th Century Islamic astronomers had vastly different conceptions of the cosmos, yet both operated within the geocentric paradigm).
The psychiatric establishment that classifies Autism as a “disorder”; the “Autism charity” that calls Autism a “global health crisis”; Autism researchers who keep coming up with new theories of “causation”; scientifically illiterate wing nuts who believe that Autism is some form of “poisoning”; anyone who speaks of Autism using medicalized language like “symptom,” “treatment,” or “epidemic”; the mother who thinks that the best way to help her Autistic child is to subject him to Behaviorist “interventions” intended to train him to act like a “normal” child; the “inspiring” Autistic celebrity who advises other Autistics that the secret to success is to try harder to conform to the social demands of non-Autistics… all of these groups and individuals are operating within the pathology paradigm, regardless of their intentions or how much they might disagree with one another on various points.
Like any oppressive discourse, discourses of neurotypicality hurt everyone. They constrain the words and thoughts and behavior of Autistic and non-Autistic people. My friend jim mcdonald recently suggested that we should replace the word “neurotypical” with the word “neurodomesticated,” which conveys the reality that discourses of neurotypicality are really all about enforcing compliance with social and cultural norms.
But Autistic people are especially hurt by these pathologizing discourses, and their accompanying hierarchy of functionality, which seeks to identify and define us in terms of our ability to operate within capitalist culture.
Those of us who are able to at least partially pass as neurotypical for the duration of the average work day are defined as “high functioning” Autistics, and are tolerated as useful eccentrics, especially if we are willing to focus our brain’s unusual capacities in ways that generate wealth for others. The computer industry, for example, celebrates and exploits a certain kind of Autistic mind because its capacity for pattern recognition and systems thinking makes it useful in the realm of programming, and people in love with numbers can write code into the wee hours of the morning without taking a break if they are given the right working conditions. (Not all of us are in love with numbers, the gifts and fascinations of Autistics are as varied and numerous as we are. Mine lie in the realms of plant medicine and political and social analysis, and I have been fortunate enough to find a college which will pay me to speak endlessly about my obsessions to students.)
Such passing takes its toll. Chronic stress and trauma associated with being Autistic in a neurotypical world contribute to the high rates of anxiety, depression, and autoimmune conditions among Autistic people. The internalization of pathologizing discourses and the hypervigilance associated with trying to maintain a performance of neurotypicality exacerbate these problemss.
People who are more visibly Autistic — less able to hide the repetitive behaviors most of us engage in to ground ourselves in a world that is always changing around us, and the “stimming” behaviors that we use to create stimulation strong enough to override sensory overwhelm — are defined as “low functioning.” But they too may prove useful if they can be given work to perform out of public view.
At the bottom of the ladder are Autistics who don’t speak, commonly labeled “severely Autistic.” A person operating outside the realm of spoken language is hard to bring into compliance with standards of thoughts and behavior. Recently, assistive technologies have allowed some non-speaking Autistics to type, often writing with a clarity and power that give lie to the assumption that they possess no human consciousness (the lie perpetrated by the founder of the abusive methodology most commonly used to instill compliance in Autistic people.)
And then, there are those of us who are tired of functioning and refuse to comply, and we threaten the whole game . . .
A QUEER WAY OF THINKING
“Loyalty to their kind/ they cannot tolerate our minds/ and loyalty to our kind/ we cannot tolerate their obstruction.” — Jefferson Airplane
Many of us whose ways of thinking and processing diverge from the narrow confines sanctioned as normal by discourses of neurotypicality have begun celebrating and embracing our difference. I see neurodiversity — the wide and wondrous neurological and cognitive variation among humans (and other sentient beings) — to play the same role in the realm of consciousness that biodiversity plays in ecological communities. Cultures that foster neurodiversity are healthy and resilient, like biodiverse ecosystems. Cultures that enforce neurotypicality are brittle and susceptible to sudden collapse, like the monocultures created by industrial agriculture. I am proud to be a stubborn weed in the wheat field of capitalist culture.
Ibby Grace, Nick Walker, Michael Scott Monje Jr., and Melanie Yergeau have coined the term “NeuroQueer” to describe people who, inspired by the work of Queer communities and the Queer Theory that arose from those communities, actively resist, subvert, and defy the expectations the dominant culture places on the behavior, thoughts, expressions, and appearance of Autistics and other neurodivergent people. By carving out spaces for ourselves and each other, NeuroQueer people begin to break the stranglehold a culture of enforced neurotypicality has on everyone’s consciousness, creating the possibility for new expressions an new experiences.
The ways of thinking that emerge from unbound Autsitic minds tend to be subversive. In an interview about Autism and Akido, Nick Walker says:
[. . . ] many people seem to wrongly equate systems-oriented thinking with a rigid, mechanistic attachment to superficial order. But the two are not at all the same. In fact, the sort of systems-oriented thinking at which many Autistics particularly excel is in some ways incompatible with the rigid mindset that is addicted to the imposition of artificial and static forms of order.
Autistic systems-oriented thinking, developed to its fullest potentials, means insight into the rich depths of underlying patterns and structures, the beauty of the deeper levels of natural order beneath surface realities, the beauty of the Tao.
It’s not fussy anal-retentiveness, it’s a deep and joyful mysticism, a meeting of the intellectual and the spiritual.
This spells trouble for capitalism, which needs to keep bodies and minds compliant in order to maintain production, and needs to maintain
THE WITCH AT THE EDGE OF THE WOODS
“Witches were the first ones to walk into the darkness outside the edge of the campfire. They made weapons.” — Victor Anderson
What does this have to do with magic?
The changeling is the mythic archetype that most closely represents the experience of the feared, despised, and misunderstood Autistic child, the witch at the edge of the woods represents what that child can grow into — a strange and powerful being living outside social norms who is the defender of the wild and the source of otherworldly healing and power. As my friend and fellow Autistic herbalist, Kiva Rose writes:
My desire to be an herbalist bloomed from the oldest of stories, those where a witch lives at the edge of a deep, dark wood. She may be beautiful or she may be ugly, she may speak with a siren’s voice or cackle deep in her wrinkled throat. It doesn’t matter, it only matters that the forest holds her to itself like a beloved child and that she speaks the names of the plants and animals as if they were her confidantes and lovers, sisters and elders.
The people from the village fear her. The townsfolk cross themselves when she walks past them on her to way to treat an ailing grandmother. They question her humanity and her religion, but still they creep to her door deep in the night to ask for a cure for their baby’s croup or a wound that won’t heal. She may serve the community, but no one would mistake her as one of them. This healer archetype speaks of otherness in a primal, and sometimes frightening way. We see pieces of it in the story of almost every witch to appear in European and North American fairy tales, from the hag-like visage of Baba Yaga to the beguiling beauty of the queen in Snow White. So often the antagonists of our moral tales, these powerful women refuse to fit into society’s molds of what is good, safe, and proper. They stand, frequently alone, at the periphery of community and consciousness. Wrapped in a shadowy cloak, they embody the fierceness, hungers, and otherness that incites both interest and fear. It is the habit of human social groups to demonize what is outside of them, and thus it is of great importance for there to be interface between what is inside, familiar, and comfortable with that which is outside, unfamiliar, and potentially frightening. We need the witch in the forest for her healing is raw and close to the source of the First Forest, the archetypal darkness from which humanity was birthed.
There is still a place in the story for the other, for the witch and the wildwood. Without these elements the story of healing in our cultures would lose both power and depth. We need those who live within the communities and heal through familiarity and kindness, and we need those who keep to themselves and bring something less known to the table. Above all, the earth needs diversity, and we all have a role to play as the story of life unfolds along the brambly, winding path.
The witch at the edge of the woods is magnificently NeuroQueer. Hir strange manner and hir defiance of social norms are part of hir power. So is hir relationship with the plant, animal, and spirit realms — the kind of relationships that many of us NeuroQueer people excel at creating, since a lifetime of trying to translate our sense of the world into a language shaped by a culture that assumes realities we don’t experience or participate in gives us practice in bridging the communication gap with beings whose consciousness is radically different from our own.
Historically, the witches at the edge of the woods were early capitalism’s worst nightmare. Church and state collaborated to eliminate them through torture and execution in order to cut off sources of forbidden knowledge — especially the knowledge that plants and animals and rivers and stones were alive and speaking to us. The knowledge that the world was alive was the largest obstacle to separating people from the land and employing people to exploit the earth’s “resources.” Even after most of our forebears were killed or driven into hiding, the witches at the edge of the woods haunted the culture as the villains in fairy tales and folklore.
Now, at late capitalism’s twilight, witches are reappearing at the edge of the woods. Our homes and our cars are filled with animal bones and jars of strange botanical brews. Sometimes we speak in poetry, sometimes we mumble incantations, sometimes we sing old ballads in uncanny tones, sometimes there are no words at all. We know our history and have learned its lessons. Our bodies and our minds cannot be domesticated or colonized. This time we will not be burned. This time our queer power will break the spell that created the illusion that the world was dead. We have returned to bring back our forests. We have returned to re-enchant the world.
Sean Donahue is a highly neurodivergent wild forest creature who defies the seelie/unseelie binary. He lives on traditional Klickitat territory in Trout Lake, WA and has an herbal practice in Portland and Beaverton, OR. He is an initiated priest of the BlackHeart line of the Feri Tradition of witchcraft, and carrier of the Green Wand.