Lecture: Pooja Rangan, Autism, Voice, and the Humanitarian Impulse in Documentary

Friday, March 31, 2017
4:00 PM
Grucci Room, 102 Burrowes Building

On Friday, March 31, 2017, Pooja Rangan (Amherst College) delivered a lecture titled “Autism, Voice, and the Humanitarian Impulse in Documentary.”

This event was presented in conjunction with a reading by Cathy Park Hong sponsored by the Modern and Contemporary Studies Initiative, Friday, March 31, 2017, 7:30 PM in 112 Chambers Building.

Event flyer

Description of presentation

What can autism teach us about the documentary politics of “having a voice”? This talk, based on one of the chapters of my forthcoming book, Immediations: The Humanitarian Impulse in Documentary (Duke University Press, June 2017), places autistic accounts of language and communication in conversation with critical and media theories of voice. I ask: what do the documentary tropes of persuasive speech have in common with contemporary therapeutic and humanitarian interventions around autism spectrum disorders? What would it look, sound, and feel like to realize an autistic voice in documentary — and how might such a voice unravel the metaphysics of voice in documentary’s reality-effects? I look at three films involving autistic protagonists — “I Am Autism” (2010), an advocacy video by the humanitarian organization Autism Speaks; Autism Is a World (2004), a television documentary; and “In My Language” (2007), a YouTube video by Mel Baggs — that represent a range of approaches to voicing in documentary that also map onto ongoing debates around autism, humanitarianism, and disability.

Speaker bio

Pooja Rangan is Assistant Professor of English and Film and Media Studies at Amherst College. Her book Immediations: The Humanitarian Impulse in Documentary (Duke University Press, June 2017) examines the humanitarian ethic of “giving voice to the voiceless” in global participatory documentary interventions that equip disenfranchised subjects with visual media as a means of immediate empowerment. Rangan’s writing has been published in differences, Camera Obscura, Film Quarterly, South Asian Popular Culture, World Picture, Feminist Media Histories, and other anthologies and magazines. Rangan serves on the board of the Flaherty Film Seminar.

Description, from publisher’s Web site

Endangered life is often used to justify humanitarian media intervention, but what if suffering humanity is both the fuel and outcome of such media representations? Pooja Rangan argues that this vicious circle is the result of immediation, a prevailing documentary ethos that seeks to render human suffering urgent and immediate at all costs. Rangan interrogates this ethos in films seeking to “give a voice to the voiceless,” an established method of validating the humanity of marginalized subjects, including children, refugees, autistics, and animals. She focuses on multiple examples of documentary subjects being invited to demonstrate their humanity: photography workshops for the children of sex workers in Calcutta; live eyewitness reporting by Hurricane Katrina survivors; attempts to facilitate speech in nonverbal autistics; and painting lessons for elephants. These subjects are obliged to represent themselves using immediations — tropes that reinforce their status as the “other” and reproduce definitions of the human that exclude non-normative modes of thinking, being, and doing. To counter these effects, Rangan calls for an approach to media that aims not to humanize but to realize the full, radical potential of giving the camera to the other.

Other resources

Pooja Rangan web site

In Defense of Voicelessness: The Matter of the Voice and the Films of Leslie Thornton,” Feminist Media Histories 1, no. 3 (Summer 2015): 95–126.

For a Critique of the Documentary Logic of Sobriety,” World Picture 9 (July 2014).

Humane-itarian Interventions,” differences 24.1 (2013): 104–136.