Autism, Automaton, Alibi
by Samir Dayal — Bentley University
April 06, 2011 – 00:00
The Bollywood film My Name is Khan invokes autism as alibi. The lead character’s autism is reminiscent (derivative?) of Rain Man, but with an important difference. Here autism is introduced as a strategic conceit rather than as the real focus of the diegesis. In Rain Man, Raymond is presented as an autistic savant, and this savoir is the focus of the narrative. My Name is Khan’s agenda is something quite different, a politically charged apologia pro vita sua, and its strategic use of autism functions as an emotional buffer licensing a political message. But does this strategic deployment of autism also constitute an ethical breach, autism-exploitation? That is the question I want to raise in this curatorial comment.
The reference to autism in Khan is neither a serious treatment of a disorder, nor clinically or aetiologically insightful. Rather it functions as a political or behavioral buffer and psychological license—or alibi—for the protagonist’s actions. He is charged with a political mission: to make a stand against stereotyping of Muslims after 9/11. Khan becomes almost an automaton. He "performs" some telling symptoms of autism: automatism, repetitive, compulsive behavior, and inability to perform routine tasks, though this inability is compensated for by superior function in other areas such as in preternatural mathematic ability.
This autism-as-automatism is routed through what Jacques Derrida might call auto-affection. There is, as Derrida says, something monstrous in the blank, dead repetition of the automaton; but on the other hand the machinic nature of the automaton’s act absolves it of any intentionality and therefore presumes an ethical immunity. His performance of autism produces an alibi, a carte-blanche to do what ordinary citizens cannot. For he is presumptively absolved of responsibility for his speech and actions. Only someone not bound by the usual social pieties or proprieties of custom, customs officials, or customary inhibitions—such as our man Khan—can presume to breach Indian customs, travel through U.S. customs, tell the American President, "I Am Not A Terrorist," and heroically bring Americans together in a moment of great crisis. Conceived as an Indian film but set to a significant degree in post-9/11 America, My Name is Khan is a tale of auto-affection, a transnational projection of a fervent desire among Muslims not to be reduced to the stereotype of the terrorist. But I wonder if it also raises questions of the (mis)-appropriation of autism as a mere conceit or cover for a political agenda. If so, is this autism-exploitation?