On Burnouts and the University That Must Blaze

Mais voilà que je ne veux pas être réparée. Sauvegardée. Rafistolée pour continuer à avancer. Je ne voudrais pas qu’on colmate ce que je m’acharne à défaire, à découdre.

Vois-tu, je travaille à être insauvable, irrécupérable. Aussi fugace, irrattrapable et fragile qu’un moment dans le temps. Pour ne pas offrir de prise, il me faudra rentrer en silence comme on va en résistance. Et à toute interrogation, leur répondre : je ne sais pas, je me demande, je cherche. Je dépose des questions. Je fabrique des doutes.[1]

—Lola Lafon, Nous sommes les oiseaux de la tempête qui s’annonce


spacingWhat can the position of neurodiversity in the university be if not under? Underserved, underrepresented, passed under silence, relegated to the underground, undercovers, hidden in the undercommons, always under threat of expulsion, exhaustion, explosion or implosion.
What position can she adopt in the university if not under? When she was a child, she hid herself under tables, and swayed her body. Later, at university, in Japan, she re-learned to seek refuge under tables, to find a respite when the world around her was shaking too hard.
In the university, her experience is discussed in classes with titles as charming as “The Diseased Brain” and “The Global Burden of Mental Illness”; she learns to be an object of study rather than a subject of experience. She relinquishes even the possibility for an “I”.
The university demands from her to be flexible, to adapt harmoniously. To be different without being too disturbing. To be exceptional, and to remain an exception. The university puts her at risk of burnout. The university stands on a field of ashes. From the underside of her table, at university, she positions herself alongside Erin Manning, alongside Catherine Malabou, against the constant demands for flexibility. She refuses to bow her head with a smile.

spacingAccording to Manning, “[t]he neurotypical is the category to which our education system aspires” (“Histories”). The university tolerates difference, invites it even: it creates exceptions to prove the rule of normalcy. Manning states: “Difference will always be accepted to a degree. As long as the norm is upheld, it will always be good to have a few exceptions, especially when those who enter the space clearly mark themselves as different” (“Me Lo Dijo” 5). In its own words, the university is inclusive. And the university accommodates, as long as the accommodations remain “reasonable,” as long as they fail to threaten its structure. At its heart, the university demands to continue to presume whiteness, to presume straightness, to presume neurotypicality. The university invites difference, but asks it to bend into sameness, to adapt to its language, to its ways of knowing. Manning states: “Every classroom that knows in advance what knowledge looks and sounds like is working to a norm” (“Histories”). The university denies even the possibility for forms of knowledge other than its own to exist. Manning asks:

What are the undercommon ways of cawing, the sounds lost, left behind, not only unaddressed but unregistered, in the systems of power/knowledge we call academia? What cannot be heard? What cannot be listened to? And what are the stakes of the performance of knowledge that plays out in the name of the “norm” that upholds what is too often generalized around the concept of “quality” or “rigor”? (“Me Lo Dijo” 2)

It echoes the words of José Esteban Muñoz: “A question: Who owns rigor? I suggest that rigor is owned, made and deployed through an institutional ideology” (7). And this institutional ideology holds that what does not find a translation in the language of the university is no language, is no knowledge. As pointed out by Muñoz, “Work and thinking that does not employ and subscribe to traditionalist scholarly archive and methodologies are increasingly viewed as being utterly without merit” (7). The university refuses to hear her voice.

spacingWhen it comes to neurodiversity, it seems that the world has a problem of language. For Mel Baggs to be recognized – and treated – as a human being demands from her to learn their language, to fit her experience into the narrowness of their wor(l)d(s). Manning states:

There is an infinity of gestures coming out of the neurodiversity community that repeat this experience that neurotypical folks have a much too limited idea of what constitutes experience, a perpetual dearth that doesn’t allow for the vividness of the more-than of worlds in the making. (“Me Lo Dijo” 7)

It is not simply a question of speaking, but also of speaking “like everyone you [are] supposed to be like” (Prince). Dawn Prince, who states that she “[has] always had the gift of language” points that her relationship to language differs from that of most people, for whom language represents “a kind of weapon rather than an amorphous mist of the birth waters of reality.”
The problem is not a problem of language per se: it is a problem of order-words. As pointed out by Manning, “It is not language that constrains knowledge, but the order-word that moves through it” (“Me Lo Dijo” 15).  For Deleuze and Guattari, the order-word always represents a death sentence. Order-words negate her experiences, deny them even the status of experiences: “Nothing to see here; move along now” (Baggs).
If language seems to be the condition to be recognized as “human,” the university demands from her to speak its language to recognize her as a student, as a scholar. The university only accepts as knowledge what it can measure and evaluate, what fits – or can learn to fit – its standard. The university demands from her to cite, it demands authorship – it demands subjects in the Lacanian sense of the term. Manning emphasizes that “[d]espite extraordinary work in studies of pedagogy, knowledge continues to be organized in most classrooms as though language came directly, untethered, from a source that can be named and sequestered” (“Histories”). Similarly, Prince states:

For example, you must always show when and where someone said something before you did. You must show that your ideas are not original, but built on the previous ideas of others; specifically, the ideas of people who have learned to follow the rules and say what still other people said before them.

The education system hence stands as a closed-circuit of pre-approved knowledge, leaving no space for other ways of knowing. The university refuses to hear the caws. The university has no time for what the birds have to say, for what does not find a direct translation into its language of knowledge – into what it thinks is the only language of knowledge – what cannot be bent into APA, MLA or Chicago, what stays in the margins but can never fit the page. The university has little interest in changing. “You can’t wake up someone who is pretending to be asleep”: me lo dijo un pajarito. The university pretends not to hear, so she cites – often too much – in the hope to be heard. She loses her voice.

spacingTo some extent, she will pass. But she will refuse for passing to be a triumph in a society, in an institution, that regard and reward flexibility as the highest value. She will not earn a degree in passing. According to Malabou,

To ask “What should we do with our brain?” is above all to visualize the possibility of saying no to afflicting economic, political, and mediatic culture that celebrates only the triumph of flexibility, blessing obedient individuals who have no greater merit than that of knowing how to bow their heads with a smile. (79)

She might burnout in the process. It’s okay; she will remember that “some explosions are not in fact terrorist” (Malabou 79). When she does not manage to bend into the shape the university wants to give her, she will remember that flexibility represents “plasticity minus its genius” (Malabou 12), that creativity is to be found on the side of plasticity. The idea of plasticity as theorized by Malabou resonates well with the project of the undercommons. Indeed, Jack Halberstam states that the undercommons want,

to take apart, dismantle, tear down the structure that right now, limits our ability to find each other, to see beyond it and to access the places that we know lie outside its walls. We cannot say what new structures will replace the ones we live with yet, because once we have torn shit down, we will inevitably see more and see differently and feel a new sense of wanting and being and becoming. What we want after “the break” will be different from what we think we want before the break and both and necessarily different from the desire that issues from being in the break. (6)

Similarly, Manning points out that, “The University is beyond rebuilding. The building is already beyond repair. The outside is pushing in. Outside doesn’t mean a space already created” (“Me Lo Dijo” 5; emphasis added). For Malabou, the explosive capacity of the brain allows to unleash new possibilities, new ways of living, new ways to be happy; plasticity gives rise to forms yet unknown. As a consequence, it is impossible to know prior to “the break” what shapes the new structures will take. But if for Malabou, the plasticity of the brain represents “an agency of disobedience to every constituted form, a refusal to submit to a model”(6) – making change appear almost unescapable –, Manning reminds us that resistance in the institution never represents a given, even within the field of neurodiversity. For Manning, “Resistance is always to be crafted. The work must do its work, and for that, the conditions of experience have to be recalibrated each time anew in relation to the ecologies of practices which they compose” (“Histories”).

spacingFrom under her table, in the university, she waits for “the break,” or for breaking, whatever comes first. And in the meantime, to experiment in “sitting together differently” (Manning, “Me Lo Dijo” 3). How can the concept of neurodiversity not be relegated to a single class, but pervade the whole university? How can we make space in the university for other ways of knowing? Can we make space in the university for other ways of knowing? Eli Clare states: “my body has never been singular. Disability snarls into gender. Class wraps around race. Sexuality strains against abuse. This is how to reach beneath the skin” (506); how can we create ways of resisting that truly reach beneath the skin? How can I find my voice again in the aftermath of the silencing of my identity? I don’t know. I raise and put down questions. I don’t have answers. But I have 5 years, and a lifetime, to look for them.


Works Cited

Baggs, Amanda [Mel]. “Up in the clouds and down in the valley: My richness and yours.” Disability Studies Quarterly 30.1 (2009).

Clare, Eli. “Stones in my pockets, stones in my heart.” The Disability Studies Reader. Ed. Lennard J. Davis. New York: Routledge, 2013. 497-506.

Halberstam, Jack. “The wild beyond: With and for the undercommons.” The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study, edited by Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, Minor Compositions (2013): 2-13.

Malabou, Catherine. What should we do with our brain?. Fordham University Press, 2008.

Manning, Erin. “Me Lo Dijo un Pajarito: Neurodiversity, Black Life, and the University as We Know It.” Social Text 36.3 (2018): 1-24.

Manning, Erin. “Histories of Violence: Neurodiversity and the Policing of the Norm.” Interview by Brad Evans. Los Angeles Review of Books, 2 January 2018, https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/histories-of-violence-neurodiversity-and-the-policing-of-the-norm/.

Muñoz, José Esteban. “Ephemera as Evidence: Introductory Notes to Queer Acts.” Women and Performance: a journal of feminist theory, 2.8 (1996): 5-16.

Prince, Dawn. “The silence between: An autoethnographic examination of the language prejudice and its impact on the assessment of autistic and animal intelligence.” Disability Studies Quarterly 30.1 (2009).



[1] “But that’s just it, I don’t want to be repaired. Preserved. Patched up so I can keep going. I would hate to have them plug up what I’m desperately trying to undo, to unsew.
You see, I’m working at being unsalvageable, unredeemable. As fleeting, irretrievable and fragile as a moment in time. To become impossible to grip, I have to enter into silence the way one goes into resistance. And to their every question, answer: I don’t know, I wonder, I’m seeking. I raise and put down questions. I create doubts.” – Lola Lafon (translated by David Ball and Nicole Ball), We are the Birds of the Coming Storm, 240.

Position Paper and Poster by Julie Dind