The Limits of Semantic Ambiguity: A response to Steve Fuller

‘Your beliefs become your thoughts,
Your thoughts become your words,
Your words become your actions,
Your actions become your habits,
Your habits become your values,
Your values become your destiny’

Mahatma Gandhi

I was at a seminar once, presenting an early version of some research on popular culture and world politics. During the question & answer period, a colleague – a distinguished scholar in literary studies and creative writing – asserted, quite forcefully, that I should reconsider my use of the concept of narrative. It didn’t belong in my scholarship, he argued, it was a concept with a history and a trajectory and its home was in literature not International Relations, the oddly ill-disciplined discipline in which I have found myself. My colleague raised his voice during this exchange, became somewhat upset. His emotional register, his irrational response to my naïve and perhaps clumsy use of a concept he had spent decades working on: he behaved like a woman.

Academics in general are such emotional creatures. We might speak, in fact, of ‘academic feminisation’. They’re so invested in their work, and the good ones are so committed to their students: they nurture, they foster talent and possibility, they provide guidance and professional socialisation. They act like women. They respond irrationally to criticisms of work, or the complaint that a concept is being misappropriated; or they focus on some perceived ‘injustice’ rather than take an argument at face value and use logic to refute it. Hysterical responses are not uncommon…

… It is clear, I hope, that the above paragraphs are deliberately ridiculous. In no scholarly outlet, one would hope, would such a flagrantly reductive and offensive set of gender stereotypes find a platform. And yet Steve Fuller was able to publish an article recently on the multi-author blog Sociological Imagination that used flagrantly reductive and offensive stereotypes about autism to support an argument about ‘semantic ambiguity’ in sociology. I want to respond here to both Fuller’s blog post, and his defence of said post – both in the comments and on Twitter – in which he essentially ‘doubles down’ on his original position.

sagittal brain scan black and white

By Genesis12~enwiki [CC BY-SA 2.5] via Wikimedia Commons

In Fuller’s post, he uses the outdated, inaccurate, and wildly offensive stereotype that associates autism with rigidity of thought, inability to tolerate ambiguity, and a lack of ability to connect across different life worlds. As many people have by now pointed out (including a bunch of #actuallyautistic folk and #autisticsinacademia), this approach is ignorant and misguided. It is ignorant because it betrays a lack of knowledge about how autism is now conceptualised both within and outside of the academy, in medical discourse, and even in colloquial usage. And it is misguided because is it not necessary. There is no need for the tired trope of austistic-as-awkwardly-literal-thinker to advance the argument that Fuller wishes to make in the article.

He could just as easily have talked about the difficulties of communicating across disciplinary boundaries, the dangers of ‘camp’ mentality in scholarship, the importance of humility and courage as academic values to inform efforts to break down disciplinary silos. But he didn’t.

And then he doubled down. When challenged about the offence he had caused, Fuller asked: ‘Then why not have these people positively re-appropriate the terms, so that they’re not both pathological and technical?’. There’s a lot going on here, so please bear with me while I work through it. First of all, Fuller’s premise here is the fundamental fluidity of meaning: as Derrida would have it, there is an eternal slippage between the signifier and the signified, such that meaning can never be fully fixed. Concepts are always open for re-appropriation, re-deployment, reclamation. Theoretically, of course, Fuller is on to something here. Theoretically, I share this view. But Derrida – and Foucault, and Barthes, and Butler, and others who write on the instability of meaning – acknowledge that every representational practice is also a practice of power.

Far from contributing to the reclamation of the descriptor ‘autistic’, Fuller’s post re-articulates the term with a whole bunch of characteristics from which autistic people have fought hard to distance themselves. To carelessly reproduce a series of profoundly problematic associative chains in a scholarly work and then charge a marginalised community of activists, advocates and allies with the work of undoing those chains to ‘re-appropriate the terms’ is disingenuous and unhelpful in the extreme. Further, it is – again – ignorant, in the most literal sense of the word. It ignores the fact that people have been working hard to reclaim the term, and to define ‘autistic’ in ways that works for them, as a community, as individuals, as people trying to navigate a world in which the default assumption is one of neurotypicality.

As I said at the outset, it would be unthinkable to see a blog published that challenges the quality of our critical interactions through feminising academia and deploying ancient stereotypes of ‘hysterical women’. It would demonstrate a profound lack of respect, and a profound lack of sociological imagination. This is the final critique that I level at Fuller’s post: as someone with a platform, with a position of great institutional privilege, he has a responsibility to be better, to do better. I’m saddened by the post, and by Fuller’s responses, for what it implies about our intellectual community. I’m disappointed that someone whose work I respect, whose scholarship has been so influential for so many, reflected so little on the potential impact of the words they chose. It is not enough to say that ‘Your words can mean whatever your readers let you get away with’. Please: choose better next time.

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9 thoughts on “The Limits of Semantic Ambiguity: A response to Steve Fuller

  1. well, such problems, as one identified above, probably stem from a loose attitude to the meanings of one’s own words, which is, in turn, motivated by the very thesis on the fluidity/instability of meaning. I am not sure who exactly proposed the thesis, but it obviously contradicts itself. (“The meanings of the words you read in this sentence are all very unstable or fluid or open to any interpretation” – have this sentence read aloud with the underlying belief in the thesis of the fluidity of meaning, if you can) Also, Foucault, and definitely Barthes, would be very unhappy with being added to the camp you improvised in the article. On the other hand, this does not imply that ‘creative play with meanings’ is illegitimate. However, for it to be legitimate, it needs to be reasonable, well-motivated, and useful in a sense.

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  2. While the original article does discuss semantic ambiguity, it is really about the manifestation and resolution of boundary transgressions in academia, drawing attention to how readers manage an offending author’s words. ‘Autism’ is used pejoratively in the article as a metaphor to characterise the defensive academic attitude toward such transgression. The defensive posture typically takes the form of fixating on error to the exclusion of everything else written by the offending author. My comments about the semantic fluidity of ‘autism’ and other mental conditions came after respondents to the article made autism itself the topic of discussion. And indeed, I have displayed my ignorance of such a well-organized autistic community, and I have apologised for causing offence.

    However, since you have taken the trouble to continue this matter, let me ask you a question. Most of the alternatives to ‘autistic’ that people have offered for what my article is talking about don’t work because they’re not sufficiently mental (e.g. ‘silo’ may work as a metaphor for knowledge but not for knowing). One metaphor that may work is ‘tunnel vision’. Now, as far as I know, there are no self-identified communities around this condition who might take offence at my pejorative use of the term. So does that term pass as far as you’re concerned? If so, would your attitude change if in the future it acquired its own self-identified group, in light of some combination of new medical knowledge and social activism?

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    • Thanks for the engagement. I have seen, and appreciated, your acknowledgement that you were unaware of the existing work being done in the autistic community to challenge reductive/negative usage of the word ‘autistic’. Indeed, the comments on your original post will hopefully serve a valuable educative function for many readers, so that is a good thing.

      In terms of your actual argument, as it happens, I agree with you – rigidity of thought does not lend itself to intellectual development. It is not helpful to pursue a line of thought or argumentation without considering where and how such arguments are manifesting within other intellectual/epistemic communities, nor is it productive to have a knee-jerk critical reaction to a line of thought that either runs counter to prevailing currents in one’s immediate intellectual terrain or deploys a familar concept in unfamiliar ways. I think you could have made that argument quite easily without resorting to metaphor.

      I can see why ‘silos’ feels inadequate as a metaphor, though. If I understand you correctly, you are talking about an epistemological orientation or tendency that organsises or governs the practice, something prior to the construction of the silo – the blueprint for the silo, if you will, or its imagining. ‘Tunnel vision’ might work, I suppose. As to the question of whether it ‘passes’, that’s not up to me; I’m sure there are ways of finding out whether the term has associative chains with which we are both unfamiliar. And as to the follow-up question of whether its passing would change in the future if it were to be reclaimed by a particular political community: for me, the answer is ‘of course’. I’m sure we could each give each other a half dozen examples of labels or categories that were once acceptable parts of public discourse and which have changed radically over the course of a decade or two – whether the change is to normalise or exclude the word’s usage. Language is slippery like that, isn’t that the point you were making?

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  3. What an interesting (and auspicious) turn! As it happens, I disagree with both of you on the substantive issue. I thought actual autistics were entirely justified in finding Steve’s post offensive too, mind you. But, not having a dog in that race, it is far more important to me these days to defend the (colloquially) “autistic” virtues of rigour of thought and the dogged pursuit of facts. Even calling it “rigidity” is, of course, a slur. It is a denigration of a particular scholarly posture, a rhetorical style.

    I don’t think Steve was completely wrong to assume that actual autistics are sometimes considered (as JL puts it) “unhelpful” when they (as she also puts it) “pursue a line of thought or argumentation without considering where and how such arguments are manifesting within other intellectual/epistemic communities” (i.e., without sensitivity to the social status of the participants in the conversation, without “face work” or much care for other people’s intellectual vanities). Their contributions are also sometimes (often?) dismissed as “counterproductive” because their intuitive awareness of logical contradictions are experienced by “neurotypicals” as “a knee-jerk critical reaction to a line of thought”. To the “autistic” (in perhaps both the clinical and popular senses) it is not merely that it “runs counter to prevailing currents in one’s immediate intellectual terrain or deploys a familiar concept in unfamiliar ways”. It is that it defies the laws of logic (or mathematics or physics or statistics, as applicable).

    It is very hard for autistics to explain this feeling, I imagine. It is the immediate, palpable, disruptive appearance of nonsense in conversation. Even I, a perfectly charming guy in ordinary life, run afoul of the increasingly fashionable tolerance for “ambiguity” that is a condition for much work in the social sciences these days. Pointing out that someone has contradicted either themselves or some uncontroversial, known fact is considered impolite. It is certainly, let’s say, impolitic. (It is considered not a statement of what you mean but whose side you’re on.) Neurotypicals know how to cause such offence intentionally and take the resulting backlash in stride, the inevitable bedfellows with good cheer. Others are not as savvy.

    In any case, I think academia should be more hospitable to those who see ambiguity as the result of conquerable ignorance, not as a necessary condition of discourse or, worse, a virtue in itself.

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    • Thanks, Thomas. Your comments reminded me of Kieran Healy’s wonderful essay on nuance, have you read it? I read it with my Honours students this year and the sociologists in particular were most perturbed by the perceived dismissal of all they held to be good and true: nuance, ambiguity, context, detail, the million shades of academic grey… But there is a difference, is there not, between ‘ambiguity’ and error? You say that ‘Pointing out that someone has contradicted either themselves or some uncontroversial, known fact is considered impolite’ these days, but if I understand Steve’s original post correctly, he’s not talking about error but about the emergence of concepts in particular discursive formations, and the tensions that arise when these concepts are ported into different discourses and used in different ways.

      To give a concrete example: attachment means something different in Buddhism than it does in child psychology. It is likely that a Buddhist and a psychologist both building an argument about attachment would find the other unintelligible if the point of the interaction were to establish the meaning of the concept. Its meaning is ambiguous, but neither is wrong, necessarily, in their interpretation and usage of it. But just because meaning is fluid and at times ambiguous, it doesn’t mean ‘anything goes’. I am ok with questioning errors and following up on contradictions – but perhaps that does indeed make me impolite 😏

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      • Yes, I love Healy’s essay. I’ve written a little about it here and here. I can well imagine the reaction of sociologists! I applaud you for bringing the essay to their attention.

        There is definitely a difference between ambiguity and error. The problem that I’m calling (colloquially) anti-autism (which could alternatively be called a “pro-social” stance in academic discussion) expresses itself as the reinterpretation of an error as an ambiguity. The speaker retreats from fact to nuance, we might say, when an utterance of theirs is interpreted as a statement of fact and that fact is then drawn into question.

        As an example of this, let me pick on Steve, who once reframed a critic’s suggestion that his writings contained a “profound contradiction” by saying that the critic had “rightly identified a tension in my work”. To the “autist” (in my positively re-appropriated sense) that’s a frustrating move because the rhetorical norm of resolving contradictions in favour of one side or the other is undermined. If the speaker is happy to let the “tension” remain, we no longer know what to say in response. Steve, of course, would simply say, “Welcome to the dialectic!”

        To address your example of psychological and Buddhist interpretations of attachment, the “autistic” (or “anti-social”) move here would be to acknowledge the difference in sense (even reference) of the two uses of the words, label them “p-attachment” and “b-attachment”, for example, and let the two words circulate in their nonoverlapping (and nonoverrreaching!) magisteria. That way, they can both be right (or wrong) but about different things–unambiguously different things. Everything is tidy and orderly and rigorous again. The “sociologist” (in the pejorative sense) will want to suggest that psychologist and Buddhist need to try to resolve the contradiction at all. They can both be right about the same things. It’s just that the thing is “ambiguous”, nuanced. I think Healy is right about what we can do with that sort of nuance. 😉

        Steve has also defended (I think that’s a fair reading) the use of “strategic opacity” in to about precisely the sort of ambiguity that lets two disciplines talk, for a while, about what they think is the same thing, reaching what they think is an agreement, but actually meaning very different things by the words they use. This is satisfying for people who value interdisciplinarity (and social commerce more generally) for its own sake. The more dogged seekers of truth, however, are frustrated by this, I think. Social concerns seem here to get in the way of settling the factual issues. You don’t have to be properly autistic feel that frustration. But I, for one, empathise with it.

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  4. First, I want to thank Laura Shepherd for engaging with the substance of my argument, and also thank Thomas Basboll for capturing well my intellectual starting point when I wrote the original article (including the use of the phrase ‘social commerce’, which is why I’m not as hostile to market-based thinking as others on the left). I will let Thomas’ response stand without comment.

    To Laura: I see what you’re saying and I’m not surprised by your response. But I suppose, then, you don’t see language as something akin to a commons? The trajectory that you project, which I can easily imagine, looks like encouraging the linguistic equivalent of ‘land grabs’, whereby an interested party, perhaps backed by the medical profession, manages to colonize word usage to gain recognition that they would not otherwise have. (That such a party needs recognition is the not issue here, but how they do it. I see the medical profession here functioning like Christian missionaries giving voice to genuine unvoiced concerns but then taking them in perhaps unsuspecting directions.)

    Moreover, in the case of ‘autism’, where the condition has expanded into a spectrum of disorders, many originally unconnected to the original stereotype, I would be inclined to say that the word itself should be abandoned for medical purposes and let stand in colloquial usage to capture surface traits that imply nothing about aetiology. More generally, people should not so quickly identify with medical accounts of their being in the world, such that ‘born this way’ becomes an identity marker. I say this not only because I’m hostile to genetic identity markers (though I am) but also because the science of this stuff changes over time, which could lead to a rude awakening if scientists decide based on evidence to abandon a category around which people had organised their collective identity for many years.

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