Karen Kopelson

Karen Kopelson

Associate Professor of English
University of Louisville


My new research project, just begun this summer, is interested in the rhetorical and cultural function of the term/concept “high-functioning” as it circulates in discourses of autism. On the most general level, I am interested, as others have been, in how “the idea of high-functioning constructs the use-value of the condition” (Murray 2010) in ways, we might note, that both marginalize others on the spectrum and misunderstand/misrepresent the actualities of autism. Yet, because the notion of “high functioning” so often signifies “ability to work” (this is true when it is appended to other “disorders” as well, such as alcoholism or various forms of mental illness), I have become especially interested in the rhetoric of the many recent “self-help” employment/career advice guides addressed, primarily, to individuals with high functioning autism or Asperger’s but secondarily (and significantly) to their families, teachers, advocates, and, most important for my purposes, to their prospective employers. (Some of these employment guides are written by “neurotypicals,” such as two new books by “career coach” Barbara Bissonnette [2012; 2013], and some by people with Asperger’s [Rudy Simone 2010] or autism [Temple Grandin 2008; 2012].)

Following in the tradition of those who have analyzed representations of autism or the symbolic “inscription/production” of autism in order to understand what these representations or inscriptions may reveal about a specific cultural moment, and about that moment’s valuation and devaluation of certain kinds of persons/subjects (e.g.,Murray 2008; Nadesan 2005), I am reading these employment guides with an eye to how they reflect, construct, and perhaps reinvent cultural desires and fantasies about twenty-first century work, workers, and workplaces. This is not to deny the practical value and specificity of these books nor the very real employment obstacles people on the spectrum face—though, importantly, I am finding the employment guides often intimate such obstacles are readily overcome with (a uniquely American form of) self-motivation and drive. But my approach to the texts is to attend instead, or also, to the values in and circulated by the books and thus to ask what rhetorical, discursive, material effects these texts might have beyond aiding certain individuals in job-searching, career development, or workplace “survival.” As Dustin Galer observes in conclusion to a recent Disability Studies Quarterly article entitled “Disabled Capitalists,” [a]s we reflect on disability and economic participation,” so do we also, inevitably “deliberate on the construction of [the] meaning and significance of work in modern society” (2012).

Galer’s concluding sentiments rearticulate my guiding questions: what can we learn about the (variable) meaning and significance of “work” from reading these career advice guidebooks which have, as a primary rhetorical purpose, the establishment of proper employment/career aspirations and goals for a specific (but various) population? What can we learn from the guides about cultural desires and fantasies for, from, and about contemporary workers and workplaces given that another of their overt rhetorical purposes is to convey the market-value of high functioning autism or Asperger’s and another still is actually to market individuals with these conditions as ideal employees to their secondary audience of prospective employers? I suspect the answers to these questions will shed much light indeed on the rhetorical constitution of a uniquely twenty-first century cultural moment and its valuation/devaluation of particular worker-subjects, particular formations of work, and particular configurations of workplaces.

Keywords to describe work

cultural, analytical, theoretical, critical, rhetorical

Work in relation to symposium keywords

The words theory and dissemination relate most to my work.

Theory, because “critical theory” is always an informing framework for me, even when not overtly, and because I’ve recently become taken with, and challenged by, the idea that work in rhetoric of health and medicine must contribute back to rhetorical theory (rather than just “use” it). Dissemination, because I’ve been very interested in the idea that medical rhetoricians should somehow make an impact on medical or public health practices, and because, even though my own work does not aspire to this broader dissemination, I struggle always with where/how to locate/disseminate my work even within, or across the lines of, rhetoric and discourse studies.

Participation Questions

  • How would you explain what you do to medical personnel/stakeholders/the public?

I have been delighted to find that working in and on rhetoric of health and medicine has made it much easier to explain to anyone what I’m doing—from colleagues in other disciplines (or even my own department) to my parents (who are both retired medical personnel) to “laypeople”/the public—than any of my previous or other scholarly interests or projects. I guess this is because issues of health and medicine are never insular, even if our individual projects may remain very discipline-specific. For instance, I can meet with knowing nods of (what I interpret as) “I get it” and “I get why you would do that” when I say, “I’m writing about how doctors write about internet-informed patients in medical journals,” or “I’m writing about how environmental breast cancer organizations talk about breast cancer compared to how mainstream organizations like Komen do.” (And that indeed is how I generally explain what I do: “I write about how X writes about X.”) Whereas, telling someone in the larger public (or even within other academic disciplines) that I was writing about “queer pedagogy,” or about why “passing” was an inadequate metaphor for the postmodern subject, never got me very far—other than to allow me to make pacts with certain friends and family members never to ask me about my work (which has its own perks). In short, work in rhetoric of health and medicine seems to seem relevant to people, and accessible. Which makes explaining it pretty easy.

However, this does not mean that my work in/on rhetoric of health and medicine actually is relevant or accessible to laypeople/the public/medical personnel, and so once I get past the initial nods of recognition and understanding I may still bump up against a lack of understanding in attempting to explain what I do. Particularly, this lack of understanding seems to arise from the implicit question of why I (or anyone) would write about a health or medical phenomenon in the ways and venues that I do. Though I have not often attempted to explain my work to medical personnel, when I have, I felt like I met with genuine surprise (I also felt kind of like an interloper)—e.g., why would I be writing about how they write about internet informed patients in their journals in a rhetoric journal? What a strange and curious undertaking. And to what ends? Perhaps my mother’s reaction to my work says it best, “too many big words. What’s the point?” This is all to say that, though my work now deals with more recognizable, publicly accessible phenomena or content—such as doctor patient relations, breast cancer, autism—it is ultimately no less insular and academic and utterly humanities-based for having this content as its focus. And explaining humanities-based academic inquiry to the public is always a challenge! I realize I have departed somewhat(/a lot) from the question of how I explain my work to elaborate on the reception of those explanations, but I think the issue of reception speaks directly to the  question of “dissemination.”

  • What are some research challenges that you face and how do you work towards solving them?

Both of these challenges involve issues of “positioning,” though in different respects.

Challenge 1

This first is perhaps more a writing and rhetorical challenge than a research challenge, per se, but it arises directly from issues of methodology.

Because my methodology (at least) is fairly consistent, I find I am always in position of writing about the rhetorical/discursive constitution of “subjects” and/or the ideological effects of rhetorics/discourses which are, at the same time, representative of very real people (e.g., addicts, patients, breast cancer activists, people with high functioning autism) and very real conditions or states of being about and around which, moreover, real people have much sensitivity, suffering, and pain (addiction, patienthood, cancer, autism). To take examples from some of my earlier work on addiction and recovery (which I did not think of or position at the time as located in rhetoric of health and medicine), in my writing, the “female addict” was a “radical, subversive figure,” the language of recovery a “discourse reflecting deeply pernicious American values,” while, meanwhile, people die from addiction and “recovery” from it may be a good thing. In other words, I am always in the position of writing about “the real” as if I have no concern for the real and, in a sense, that is true: My research is utterly unconcerned with “the real.” (I do not claim to be writing about “real” addicts, or patients, or breast cancer activists, or people with autism etc.)

Yet, while I understand that, and I think many others do, too, I frame this as a research and rhetorical challenge because (reception of my work has taught me that) writing from this methodology can seem to dangerously elide the reality and complexity of lived experience. In short, it can seem/be received as grossly insensitive, even in humanities-based disciplines quite accustomed to studies of discursive “representations and effects.” I am especially anxious about, and trying to be sensitive to, this perceived insensitivity as I approach my new research project on the career advice guides for people with high functioning autism, even more so because I have no experiential connection to autism and came to the project in a round-about, wholly unexpected way through an interest in the term “functioning” and then “high functioning.” I have noted, though, and so has Stuart Murray in Representing Autism, that most scholars who write critically about autism discourses seem to have a personal connection to autism and usually foreground this connection, which I don’t have. Yet, again, even when I’ve written on subjects/conditions about which I felt I had more of a “right to speak,” and almost regardless of the journal I’ve targeted for publication, I have felt (and/or been made) conscious of the risks of eliding the real. I have met this rhetorical challenge rhetorically, through what might generally be called and read as a lot of careful (over)qualifying of my claims. At some point or various points in everything I write I know I am going to have to make one or more of the following moves: 1) acknowledge what I do and do not purport to have access to, 2) acknowledge the difference between what I am analyzing and “the real,” and my respect for this difference, 3) make a case for why what I am analyzing is a) still important, and b) also “real”—because rhetoric and discourse have material effects on real “subjects” and can determine, not just reflect, lived experience. In my new research project, I intend to meet the challenge of writing critically about the career advice guides by foregrounding that mine is really a project about twenty-first century ideologies and expectations of work and workers, which it is, more than it is about autism. Or, as Ian Hacking put it in his recent article about autism fiction, “My question is not about autism but about our times” (2010, 632). But I’m still nervous about it.

Challenge 2

Strangely, perhaps, or perhaps not, locating my research projects in rhetoric, or at least in what I will (problematically) call “rhetoric studies proper,” has been a persistent challenge for me. I don’t seem to think, initially, in terms of rhetorical terminology or perhaps even in terms of rhetorical theory. And, for reasons I’m not sure I can explain, I usually seem to read “outside the field” first. For example, I began my current project by reading the vast amount of cultural and literary studies and medical sociological and disability studies work on the cultural construction/ representations of autism. Maybe I am just trying to get the big picture first. But this research trajectory inevitably means that I must eventually stop myself, move away from the hugely cultural and abstract, and 1) decide what texts I am actually going to analyze, and 2) actually read in “my” discipline to see how “we” are talking about the medical/health phenomenon I am studying (and make sure no one has already done my project).

But even once I have located my work in these ways, positioning challenges remain. I usually write first without an expressly “rhetorical studies” frame, located sort of nowhere. I have met this challenge by doing something I would possibly advise my graduate students against doing (though I am no longer sure): by essentially finding, after the fact, and then superimposing a rhetoric frame on top of what I have done and then weaving the frame through it. To give one most illustrative example: After I drafted my most recently published article on the rhetoric of two environmental breast cancer organizations with essentially no rhetoric studies frame (but thought I was “done”), my first reader and good friend was kind enough to point out its lack of frame to me and said, “it seems that the main rhetoric term you are working with here is ‘audience.’” True. This sent me to revisiting all my graduate school readings on “audience,” from classical rhetoric to present. Nothing clicked or fit my argument. Finally, somehow, and I don’t remember how, I stumbled upon Maurice Charland’s work on “constitutive rhetoric,” with which I was utterly unfamiliar. (It seems important to note that disciplinary divides between rhetoric studies in English and rhetoric studies in Communication are why I had never encountered this apparently “seminal” text on audience.) This text gave me a way—a rhetoric way—to do what I was already doing and say what I was already saying anyway in the “right way.” I laid the theory and terminology on top of and wove it in through my argument. And it worked. I resolved my challenge. I did “real” rhetorical analysis within “rhetoric studies proper.” But this seems an awfully roundabout way to do research and to write.

Distinctions between “humanities” and “social sciences” research orientations (and stakes)

This brings me back to issues of “the real.” I think social sciences research is much more likely to deal with it directly than humanities research: Social sciences research is more likely to have and engage and analyze “real” human research subjects and phenomena via qualitative methods such as interview, case study, participant-observation, ethnography etc. Even if not engaged with real people, social sciences research is more likely to collect and present “data” in a “systematic” way. I guess by default I am saying a humanities orientation to research is the opposite (“unreal” and “unsystematic”?? Certainly I can’t mean exactly that).

One stake of this distinction is that a “social sciences” research orientation is somewhat more likely than a “humanities” research orientation to allow and facilitate collaboration with actual medical personnel and maybe to make an impact on medical practices, if that is a goal, because its methods are at least somewhat closer and more recognizable to the methods and purposes of medicine (as others have argued at length).

But even if/when direct impact or collaboration with medicine is not the goal; even if/when social sciences research positions itself radically outside of and in deeply critical response to medical/health practices and phenomena (which is an orientation I associate with the humanities), I still see it as being more likely than humanities to do qualitative work of some sort. To deal with “the real.” What is at stake in these instances, then, is respect for and reception of, and—before that—interest in, each other’s work regardless of methodological differences.

Personally, my primary orientation and commitment as a scholar is to critique. I have realized that many different disciplines and many different research methods can produce critique. And I am interested in reading and using and engaging anything that can.

Recent Posts