More or Less-than-Human?

Cognition, Estrangement and Autism Poetics in Blade Runner (1982)


David Hartley, University of Manchester


With the publication of Melanie Yergeau’s Authoring Autism and Julia Miele Rodas’s Autistic Disturbances in 2018, the formulation of an ‘autism poetics’ gathers pace and finds a new critical mode to tackle the ‘less-than-human’ rhetoric that haunts considerations of autistic identity. And while Yergeau contends that ‘it is hard to construct an autism rhetoric […] when the mediators, realities and discourses have been storied as so fantastically different’ (13), this paper will argue for science-fiction and fantasy as productive generic realms for encountering the poetics of ASC. It will apply a paradigm of neurodiversity to the canonical sci-fi screen text Blade Runner (1982) to explore how an autistic encounter with a fantastical human periphery can be coded as radical resistance to ‘normative positivisms’ (Bolt, 2015). In doing so, it will demonstrate how an engagement with autism poetics serves to reconfigure fundamental understandings which underpin the literary criticism of the fantastical genres. 

Human, but more so?

When talking of autism and neurodivergence, the rhetoric of science fiction and fantasy is never far behind. We talk of autistic brains as being ‘wired differently’ to nonautistic brains (Murray, 2013, p.55), while the tropes of aliens, robots and ghostly possessions are common metaphors employed to contend with the difference of neurodivergence (see Hacking, 2009). Sonya Freeman Loftis has contended that such usage ‘suggests a less-than-human quality to those with cognitive difference’ (2015, 17), while Yergeau (2018, p. 13) notes that it is hard for autistic expression to find stable ground ‘when the mediators, realities and discourses have been storied as so fantastically different.’ Furthermore, attempts to redress this balance have tended to reach too far the other way. For example, in his paper arguing that the autistic brain must make extra effort to comprehend nonautistic narrative construction, Belmonte (2008, p. 166) reaches the conclusion that autistic people are ‘human, but more so.’

Less-than-human, more-than-human, but never quite just human: it appears that the use of science-fiction and fantasy metaphors have become not just a tendency, but a necessity. They are employed, perhaps, to safeguard the label of ‘human’ for those who seemingly fit the paradigms of normativity. For Yergeau, herself an autistic scholar and activist, the movements and vocalisations of autism constitute a challenge to the fundamental understandings of rhetoric and meaning-making. At once, she argues, autism is a ‘rhetoric unto itself’ as well as an outright rejection of needing to always be rhetorical. She concludes, therefore, that ‘autism is a negotiation between rhetorical and arhetorical worlds’ (2018, 205).  

And yet in this hinterland between rhetoric and arhetorical – between the real and the unreal – an affinity with the same dynamic in fantasy and science-fiction can be seen. Indeed, autistic association with these genres is not wholly a space of dehumanisation and oppression. As Gary Westfahl has shown, the fan spaces and narratives of the fantastic have offered refuge and belonging for autistic people, while many heroic figures of popular fantastical culture have been claimed for the autistic ‘headcanon’ (2006, online). These latter include Spock and Data from Star Trek, The Doctor from Doctor Who, Newt Scamander and Luna Lovegood from the Harry Potter franchise, and many more.

Can the rhetoric of autism find a cohesion that’s celebratory?

In my research, I’m asking whether the rhetoric of the fantastic and the rhetoric (or anti-rhetoric) of autism can find a cohesion which is celebratory rather than regressive. I accept that the dehumanizing metaphors will not (and should not) be circumnavigated, but still see potential in the radical subversions of a ‘fantastic autistic’. My approach has been to take new developments in critical autism studies by the likes of Yergeau, Julie Miele Rodas (2018), James McGrath (2017), and Damian Milton (2017) and bring them into provocation with core genre theory and subsequent textual analysis. In particular, I reconceive Darko Suvin’s (1979) theory of science fiction as ‘cognitive estrangement’ into a neurodivergent version which is then applied to the analysis of fantastical texts that deal, in some form, with neurodivergent minds.

Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner

Ridley Scott’s 1982 film Blade Runner is one such generative text. This critically acclaimed cult classic has been analysed countless times but is rarely considered for its commentary on disability. The film concerns a near future dystopian Los Angeles where a robotics corporation has succeeded in creating cyborgs which are virtually indistinguishable from real humans. They are used as slaves and soldiers in off-planet endeavours and have been declared illegal on Earth. When a rebellious band of these ‘replicants’ return, it becomes the job of blade runner Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) to track them down and exterminate them. In doing so, Deckard must make use of a test which detects empathy – an emotional register the replicants are supposed to lack. Along the way, Deckard’s conviction falters when he falls in love with a replicant and is defeated by the philosophical grandstanding of the leader of the rebels, Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer).

As disability scholar Kathryn Allan has shown, the emergence of the replicants as the heroic figures of Blade Runner‘s narrative indicates that ‘the ideal but unrealised outcome in the film is the proliferation of disability, not its eradication’ (2016, online). Allan does not specify the disability she identifies, but the behaviours, actions and social positioning of the replicants suggest a cognitive disability, such as autism, as the closest match. As has been widely documented, the ‘classic’ behaviours of autism such as social withdrawal, fixation on detail and a preference for strict routine, have been erroneously interpreted as deficits in emotional connection, particularly empathy (see Milton, 2017, 26). Such interpretations have structured the diagnostic approach to the condition, with autism tests worded and administered in similar ways to the empathy test in Blade Runner

Challenging the narratives of empathy deficit

Just as the replicants rebel, so have autistic voices. Activists, such as Yergeau (2018) and Milton (2017), have challenged these narratives of empathy deficit while the neurodiversity movement continues to insist on the validity of autistic expression and experience. As with the effect of Batty’s famous ‘Tears in the Rain’ speech, previously rigid mindsets are being challenged and changed. Furthermore, with Blade Runner figured in this neurodivergent-estrangement framework, the film’s celebrated visual style can also be reconsidered. The sweeping spectacle of the cityscape which dominates the film, which is often read as a postmodernist vision of depthless and empty signifiers (see Begley, 2004), instead becomes suffused with autistic possibility. The mise-en-scène is rich with detail, the camera obsessed with exploring it, and the audio-visual landscape of Vangelis’s score and Douglas Trumbull’s special effects commit a vast sensorium onto the screen akin to the sensory intensities experienced by autistics.

The fantastic and the autistic: a conclusion

If there is a villain in Blade Runner, it is the shady Tyrell Corporation whose motto, proudly declared, is ‘More Human than Human’. Such rhetoric suggests a betterment of a flawed model, but bases itself on an exclusionary version of perfection. By being conscious of the subversive potential of the expressions of divergent minds, Blade Runner‘s estrangements reveal that the ‘human’ exists where normativity is resisted and exposed. In such a reading we can glimpse at the mutual potential shared by the fantastic and the autistic.

Reference List

Allan, K. (2016) ‘Disability as a Generative Narrative in Blade Runner’. Conference paper, ICFA. 

Belmonte, M. K. (2008) Human, But More So: What the Autistic Brain Tells Us About Narrative. In: Osteen, M. (Ed.) (2008) Autism and Representation. Oxon: Routledge, pp. 166-179.

Begley, Varun. (2004) Blade Runner and the Postmodern: A Reconsideration. Literature/Film Quarterly, 32(3), 186-192.

Hacking, I. (2009) Humans, Aliens, Autism. Daedalus, 138(3), 44-59.

Loftis, S.F. (2015) Imagining Autism: Fiction and Stereotypes on the Spectrum. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press.

McGrath, J. (2017). Naming Adult Autism: Culture, Science, Identity. London: Rowman & Littlefield International.

Milton, D. (2017) A Mismatch of Salience. Pavilion Press. 

Murray, S. (2013) Autism and the Posthuman In: Davidson, J. and Orsini, M. (Eds.) Worlds of Autism: Across the Spectrum of Neurological Difference. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press. pp. 53-72.

Rodas, J. M. (2018) Autistic Disturbances: Theorizing Autism Poetics from the DSM to Robinson Crusoe. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Suvin, D. (1979) Metamorphoses of Science Fiction: On the Poetics and History of a Literary Genre. Connecticut: Yale University Press.

Westfahl, Gary.  (2006) ‘Homo Aspergerus: Evolution Stumbles Forward.’ Locus Online.

Yergeau, M. (2018) Authoring Autism: On Rhetoric and Neurological Queerness. Durham: Duke University Press.

Blade Runner. Directed by Ridley Scott. Warner Bros. 1982

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