Ronnie Thibault

REPRESENTATION & DIFFERENCE

a cultural studies portfolio


 
 


WELCOME: FRAMING WHY REPRESENTATION MATTERS
Exploring the Cultural Politics of Representation, Identity & Difference 


"If you work on culture, or if you've tried to work on some other really important things and you find yourself driven back to culture, if culture happens to be what seizes hold of your soul, you have to recognize that you will always be working in an area of displacement."     
                                                                                                    Stuart Hall, Cultural Studies and its Theoretical Legacies


As a cultural studies scholar, I frequently return to lingering questions that surround the cultural production of difference, the meanings and values that constantly churn in, around and throughout the seemingly never-ending histories, political cycles and global economies that reproduce distant ‘others’ and the insatiable social appetites that continue to consume them. 

The works highlighted throughout the pages of this website are invested in locating the politics of representation and difference and the emerging social justice interventions they bring forth. These projects frequently draw on representational theories to explore how dominant cultural industries, media outlets, journalists, online platforms, histories, governments and institutions reproduce stereotypical ways of seeing what they frame as 'distant others'. However, these sites of engagement are only part of the equation and while topics of power and representation are a key interest in my cultural studies endeavors, I am equally concerned with cultural theories that explore why consumers and societies continue to embrace and recirculate stigmatizing notions about cultures, regions and individuals they view as different from their own. 

The Politics & Practices of Representation page highlights a series of essays in which I interact across multiple sites and contexts with cultural theorist Stuart Hall's 1998 text Representation. The fifth essay in the series, Representing Disability in Popular Culture, explores how entertainment industries call on characters with disabilities to serve the role of needy victim to the non-disabled hero narrative, and how these story lines reproduce stereotypical assumptions regarding disability experience. In contrast, the third essay in the series, Racialized Regimes of Representation, critically explores how the conspicuous absence of difference across television and internet marketing campaigns and print advertising productively erases particular identities from public view. The Politics & Practices of Representation series illustrates how I arrive at new insights regarding the persistence of stigmatizing and stereotypical assumptions about race, disability, gender, sexual identity and other socially constructed forms of difference. Through the process of constructing these articles and my study of Hall's theories, I came to realize the starting point for cultural projects regarding the politics of representation and difference is recognizing that images, texts, advertising, art, video, film and other forms of representation do not generate stereotypical assumptions on their own and that "they accumulate meanings, or play off their meanings against one another, across a variety of texts" (Hall, 1998, p. 222).   

Throughout the course of my MACS program, I analyzed representations of autism in the United States while also engaging in what I thought was a singular attempt to understand the global North’s insistence on explaining the global South as a singular geography, populated by one distressed ‘people’ lacking culture or political agency. Discernible patterns began to emerge across the two projects that provoked a different yet increasingly intriguing set of questions. Do mechanisms that impose, and to some degree rely on, marginalizing assumptions about Autistics and those diagnosed with developmental disabilities in the United States share or intersect with the characteristics, apparatuses and histories of international development that construct ‘others’ in the global South? What political histories and economic prescriptions are familiar to both representations? How and when do these subjectivities become embedded into categories of the less developed? Finally, I pay particular attention throughout these pages working to locate those erased from the representational process altogether. The articles, projects and performances situated in this portfolio tell the story of how these questions and my engagement with cultural theory and practice brought me to understand representation as a complex system of social, economic and political interactions that circulate across cultures, geographies and historic locations. 

I am deeply and personally connected to autism and in the fall of 2007, the experiences that brought me to understand and appreciate autistic family life afforded me the opportunity to engage with developmental disability (DD) cultures in professional settings. Over the next six years I collaborated with well-intentioned practitioners in the non-profit and private DD sectors to build welcoming community programs, a broad range of family awareness and education services and socially and environmentally accessible activities and events. Throughout these professional interactions, I grew intensely frustrated with what I view as deep-seated and institutionally accepted practices of stereotyping and exclusion. I overheard well-meaning practitioners call on demeaning terms such as 'autistic freak,' I sat on the board of a recreational inclusion committee that intentionally excluded individuals with developmental disabilities, and I witnessed abusive practices in a wide-range of educational settings. These frames of negativity and exclusion genuinely perplexed me, particularly since I sincerely felt a majority of those generating this dominant tone were good and honest people with a shared goal of creating safe and welcoming DD programs. I began to question the very foundations of the DD service industry; why were good people saying such terrible things about the equally good people we were charged with serving, what makes the exclusion, abuse and derogation of developmentally different cultures acceptable practice and what driving influences perpetuate their repeated use? These experiences and critical questions remain a driving influence in my cultural studies projects.   

In 2009, Autism Speaks, the self-proclaimed world's largest autism advocacy organization released I am Autism for audiences in attendance at the second annual United Nations Autism Awareness Day. The fundraising and autism awareness video also appeared across television, radio and online platforms and its representational frame situates autism as a metaphorical living entity that destroys lives, bankrupts families and, as the foreboding narration warns, "will make sure your marriage will fail" (cited in Thibault, p. 22). Early in my study of cultural theory I became aware of the emerging efforts of a group of autistic activist known as the Neurodiversity Movement and highly publicized  controversies surrounding their efforts to contest I am Autism and other non-autistic produced representations of autistic life. I found the lens of cultural studies uniquely suited for exploring the political struggle over autistic autonomy, justice, and self-determination and Stuart Hall's influential works brought me to ask new questions concerning the specific practices, ideologies and histories that construct what society has come to know as autism. Is autism an idea or a diagnosis? A proud identity or a metaphorical destroyer of families? Who gets to decide and who is left out of the conversation altogether? 
      
The resulting research article, Can Autistics Redefine Autism? The Cultural Politics of Autistic Activism, appears in the the Spring 2014 University of California Irvine Journal Trans-Scripts: Constructing (Dis)Ability. The four-year project draws on media, textual, image, and narrative analysis to explore how contemporary cultural industries, practitioners, and institutions reproduce stigmatizing views about autism, and whether Autistic activists are shifting these externally imposed assumptions about their lives. Cultural and media analyst Michael Pickering adamantly believes that any study of culture, or cultural politics, must engage questions of history and experience, and his works Engaging History and Experience and the Social World offer research methods and techniques specific to cultural studies that I found essential to the project's analytical frame.  The narrative productions and experiences of Autistic activists are front and center in Can Autistics Redefine Autism?; however, while categorizing Autistic works as research data it was important to maintain Pickering's distinction between individual, social and collective experience. The article offers ample narrative evidence and rich examples of Autistic expression, and as researcher and witnessing practitioner I found it tempting to situate these productions, without interpretation, as evidence to counter the dominant, persistent  and often dehumanizing ideologies about Autistic life. However, the work draws on Pickering's suggestion that "experience is just as much about what we make out of what happens to us, and for many that is where the value really lies" (2008, p. 19) to situate Autistic expression within the broader representational discourse, a strategy that ultimately deepens the articles cultural frame. 

While this examination of autism's current-day discourse effectively engages representational practices in this moment, it fails to attend to history as a productive method of exploring how dehumanizing and stereotypical frames circulate across time, place and political agendas. Pickering contends "the vitality of cultural studies depends, in one key dimension of its development, on keeping the diverse interactions between 'then' and 'now' in continual and active view of each other" (2008, p. 194). With these 'diverse interactions' in mind, the critical essay 
The Discursive Practice of Autistic Functions: A Foucault Model Analysis attempts to locate the political histories of autistic representation and turns to Hall's interpretation of social constructionist Michel Foucault’s model of discourse analysis to investigate the particular histories that shape present-day views and practices. This work briefly attends to some of the socially and historically prescribed rules for talking about autism, how autism gains authority in particular moments and how these authorities transfer to contemporary practices. I shift my analysis in The Discursive Practice of Autistic Functions away from current-day representational practice and contexutalize how current day discourses have come to rely on the lens of deficiency in the production of the autistic subject. 

 

My research concentration on the cultural formation of autistic representation emerged alongside my study of the cultural politics and economic histories of humanitarianism and global development. The Representation & Global Development page on this website links to a series of interactions and online responses to critical scholarship on the formation of global development, the politics of humanitarian aid and the consequences of Northern imposed economic policies on globally Southern regions. In these reflections, I begin to explore the representational practices of humanitarian and global development and question projects that summon child imagery to raise funds and garner political support. The Cultural Production and Commodification of Child Subjects is part of an ongoing dialogue with a fellow cultural studies scholar regarding the exploitation of child images and whether INGOs such as World Vision International rely on degrading representational strategies in their fundraising campaigns. In this online conversation, I begin to consider how the representational practices of Northern humanitarian and global development interests operate within larger structures, discourses, histories and geographies. 

This interaction sparked a much deeper conversation that influenced my research focus on the historical and political structures that perpetuate the use of child victim images in INGO and NPO marketing campaigns. 
Mapping the Cultural Production of the Child Sponsorship Subject
investigates how humanitarian agencies interact politically and culturally with media, governments, journalists and the public to represent children as commodities, how the child image is consumed, circulated and reproduced, and why audiences come to accept organizations like World Visions ‘online child menu’ as a noble fundraising strategy. The final project digitally incorporates media images, archive documents, television commercials, online productions, texts and government correspondence onto a Google map as a method of visually interrogating the discourse of child sponsorship.

Mapping the Cultural Production of the Child Sponsorship Subject transformed the focus of my work and my analytical views regarding representation. While researching the political, social, economic and cultural formations of child subjectivities across time and place, I began to critically consider whether the structures that frame the cultural politics of autism and developmental difference in the United States share or intersect with how humanitarian and global development interests represent regions, cultures and individuals located in the global South. These questions sparked a year long research project that culminates in my MACS capstone and my continued interest in how certain cultures, populations and regions become fixed into categories of the 'underdeveloped', primed and waiting for the benevolence of the 'properly developed' savior, citizen, nation or society. 

My capstone project, The Cultural Politics of Representation, Global Development & Humanitarianism: Radical Digital Cartography as a Cultural Studies Methodology,
explores the cultural industries surrounding INGO and NPO practices and how the images, signifiers and representations they produce in the name of humanitarianism and child saving take on a circulatory life of their own through media, consumers, political economies, histories and institutional agendas. To illustrate how these subjects become culturally, politically and historically produced I point to specific moments situated on two digitally interactive radical cartographies created for this project: The Cultural Politics of Global Development & Difference map, and the map entitled The Cultural Production & Historical Formation of Developmental Difference in the United StatesThese cartographies and the accompanying capstone article explore how images and text, both historically and in the current moment, function to reproduce power and difference. These visual productions are the culmination of mixed methods research centered on theories of representation that blend deep explorations of historical archives, experiential and narrative methods, critical media analysis, primary resource data and discourse analysis with robust cultural studies theory to probe the circulating systems that reproduce tragic victim ideologies across time, place and subjectivities. The process of creating radical digital cartographies allows me to tell a particular story of global development and developmental difference; however, they also provide open access to my research archives in order to provoke reader engagement with the multiple elements and data points on their own terms. 

As I finalize this portfolio and reflect on the significant impact theories of representation have on the projects contained in these pages, a firestorm is brewing around singer Toni Braxton's controversial confession that she once considered her son's autism as a punishment from God for her decision to have an abortion as a teenager. The methods, theories and practices I have gained through my engagement with the MACS curriculum brought me to appreciate that while incredibly irritating and understandably upsetting to some, Braxton's notion of what it means to have an autistic child is deeply rooted in historical practice and situated within a broader social and political frame well beyond Braxton's own making. As I move forward through my education, cultural studies endeavors and representational projects, I will continue to ask critical questions to provoke new ways of understanding difference, to question how we as a society and individuals are implicit in the production and reproduction of dehumanizing ways of describing difference, to tell better stories about people, cultures and regions that are different from our own, and to get out of the way as individuals perform the telling of their own lives.  This is the intervention of cultural studies.     


References

Hall, S. (1997). Representation Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices. London: Sage.

Hall, S. (2007). Cultural Studies and its Theoretical Legacies. In S. Hall, & S. During (Ed.), The Cultural Studies Reader (Third ed., pp. 33-44). New York: Routledge.

Pickering, M. (2008). Research Methods for Cultural Studies. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Thibault, R. (2014, June 3). Can Autistic Redefine Autism? The Cultural Politics of Autistic Activism. Journal Trans-Scripts, 4, 57-88. Retrieved from http://www.humanities.uci.edu/collective/hctr/trans-scripts/recent_issue.html


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