I have been writing about how academic writing is often classed and gendered. Referring to feminist and Marxist critiques of the writings of philosophers who were not able to be reflexive about their own ideological positions- and all the time I’ve been thinking about neurodiversity and how it can be very hard for academic thinkers to be open about.
Take autism for example. Some good reasons for philosophers not mentioning they might be on the spectrum: it wasn’t a (known) thing until 1943. Fair dos, excellent reason. But other reasons? For quite a long time Western philosophers were writing from the position of a “Universal subject”. Problematic because that subject was generally a white, European male. But it also meant they didn’t have an investment in saying “Mind, don’t take everything I say as universal. I’m quirky as you like. Sense and process the world massively differently to at least 59 out of 60 people I meet”. Now, in fact, the will to sit in a dusty room thinking obsessively about the same thing for years, while having everybody bring you cups of tea because you’re a genius is actually fairly job-friendly for the neurodiverse among us.
I’ve recently been reading the work of the Russian philosopher and literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin. He’s most associated with the concepts of the carnivalesque, grotesque realism and dialogism. In extreme summary, he saw people as made up of others, and language as being one way in which people perform the differences between themselves and others. (This is a really crap summary, apologies Mikhail).
I love his work and have recently been musing that I’d think he’s pretty high on the spectrum. I’m not sure why though. Is it just because I like and relate to it? That would be quite a bad reason. Is it because of it’s density? Maybe. But he also writes very clearly. I think it’s something about his insistence on the particular and concrete over the abstract. His passionate, in-depth insistence. His engaging but definite repetition. Language was synaesthesiastically alive to him- it wasn’t just a system. It lived and so he could see its provisional nature: “All words have the “taste” of a profession, a genre, a tendency, a party, a particular work, a particular person, a generation, an age group, the day and hour. Each word tastes of the context and contexts in which it has lived its social charged life, all words and forms are populated by intentions” (“The Dialogic Imagination”: 293)
Despite the sort-of dubious ethics of diagnosing people in their absence, I felt like I had to know. There’s not much biographical information out there about him. He worked in Stalinist Russia, most of his manuscripts were lost or unpublished in his lifetime, but he did get “discovered” and lionised before he died in 1975.
Nonetheless I found these titbits in a Google Books of Michael Holquist’s study of his work; apparently he had a small philosophy group and always addressed it as if he was addressing a large lecture hall. He never asked his students anything about themselves and failed to realise two of his main students were sisters. He was very impractical and refused to answer the phone or letters- his wife did most of the looking-after him. He was perfectly happy as long as he had endless cups of tea and meals at fixed times.
“You see! Told you!”, I said to no one in particular. This man who emphasised the uniqueness of each individual based on the fact that only they were occupying their particular time and place in space, was as neurodiverse as they come (according to me anyway). And found a time and space that worked for his particular brain quirks (partly gendered, clearly he’d have been less likely to find a nice husband to be his philosophy helpmeet if he’d been a woman- and partly classed, luckily he came from quite a well off family who didn’t have to say “Mikhail, you bob off and become the world’s worst shoe mender so you can make a living”).
Much of his work focuses on finding a way to bridge the gaps between self and other, and world and language and other (the false gaps, since they are always-already entwined). He advocated a joyous appreciation of the body, of the material and the here and now. Of an honest appreciation of the gaps in how own knowledge and how they will always need the point of view of others to bring ourselves into a full role in the world. Difference, for him, was a strength not a weakness and the default condition of us all.