Although the film is a fictional representation, I will not engage in a kind of hairsplitting of what is fiction and what is fact in her life; instead, I'd like to look at how she was presented in the film (since this is what I am immediately familiar with). In Our Posthuman Future, Francis Fukuyama argues that we should base our ethics and politics on rights and that in order for rights to have meaning, we have to ground them in "nature." Fukuyama is not naive and is trying desperately not to be essentializing through his leaning on statistics rather than ontological claims. He grounds the human in the complex interplay of several characteristics and claims that human beings have all these characteristics and this is what makes up their uniqueness. But Fukuyama places a marked emphasis on emotions: "I would argue that possession of full human emotional gamut is at least as important if not moreso [as other human characteristics" (Fukuyama 169). The lack of "feelings" typically is something that we say a computer cannot do.
But what are these things "emotions" and "feelings"? They are psychological states of mind--part of the psychic system that is autopoietically closed (according to Luhmann and Wolfe). I think Grandin, at least as she was represented in the film, challenges these universal human "emotions" that we all seem to display. If the complex range of human emotion is what makes us human, then many people may not be considered human. This idea of 'capabilities' of human emotion directs the question away from Bentham's animal question: can they suffer--yes, they can suffer, but can they do anything else.
I should emphasize that I am not saying Grandin has no emotion, but it did seem like she did not know how to express those emotions or could not 'read' emotions or at least the same kind of emotions. In the film, we are shown Grandin's (aunt? i think) showing her hundreds of pictures and Grandin is saying "i'm happy in this one" or "I"m angry." She also does not seem as phased by death (again, as represented in the film) saying "where did/do they [he] go?" Grandin in the film does not shed a tear or get terribly sentimental.
I talk about this not because I am devoid of emotions, but that maybe what we consider "emotions" and "humane" treatment is still not posthuman enough--perhaps empathy is still not going far enough. This is, in a way, how I try and read Stelarc when he says stuff like "I don't think its interesting to emphasize emotion. All of these performances are done with acute indifference, not with expectation or immersed in emotional expression" (223). In my opinion, "indifference" might not be the best word, but this kind of inhuman indifference sans emotion and really more like "sentiment" seems more posthuman to me; not in the sense of pure, masculine, Cartesian rationality, but rather that it opens us up to different ways of thinking about being.
An example is in order.
If we took PETA (for instance) or someone who is an "animal lover" to the ranch that Grandin first saw the "machine" in (more on that later), someone may call such a device "inhumane," and "perverse" or "harmful" even though Grandin clearly sees that it calms them down. Rather than saying "how would you like it if you were in a cage," and moving on to argue from there that no one would enjoy this, she does a scientific experiment and finds that this works to calm her down as well. The device is neither sexual nor hurtful, but useful. Someone looking at the slaughterhouse may not have said "how can we calm down the animals" it is "oh my god how horribly we kill cows!" True, she does say that this is how, if she were cattle, she would want to die--calm and without much struggle--but again its not. . .sentimental. She also does not seem to have a naive view that nature would take care of the cows like a mother-- "nature is cruel, but we don't have to be."
"Mama's got a squeezebox and she don't need no Daddy or Mommy"
Yep, I had that song stuck in my head as soon as she said "squeeze machine." Its interesting that Grandin compares this machine to a "hug," even though it is not from a human being. However, in her filmic graduation speech, she attributes a lot of her success to the machine, saying "because of my machine" I am here. Sure she talks about her mom pushing her and that is just as important, but the prosthetic becomes a character in itself, through many manifestations. Her main talent is to build machines rather than men that calm the cattle.
I've been reading and talking about the "Panopticon" section in Discipline and Punish and I could not help but think about how Grandin creates technologies that make cows 'docile'. It is perhaps ironic that she created machines that ultimately puts cows to death more efficiently and without less man-power, and that the added benefit of saving money was probably ultimately what made for her technology's acceptance. The film comments on the sexism she experienced, but not on the slaughterhouse industry, perhaps because the industry was not as horrid in the 60s as the ones nowadays (I am not sure).
I do not really know what to do with this aspect of the film.
Furthermore, cattle have a different embodied experience than other animals. One of the things Derrida constantly questions is "what we call animal" as if it were a homogeneous genus. Grandin felt close to cattle and horses, but, at least in the film, we do not see her interacting with household pets. Personally, I liked how the film focused on a human-animal relation that was not one of what Donna Haraway would call "companion species." In one sense, cattle were her companions, but, and Haraway points this out, as in science experiments, the relationship is always asymmetrical. For Haraway, the best we can do is to have respect for these animals. Respect is different than sentiment and I tend to think it avoids a kind of humanistic anthropomorphization.
"The seeing leading the blind, the blind leading the seeing"
I do not know if Grandin's roommate was actually blind, but it was fascinating how the film juxtaposed these two 'disabilities'. Grandin's character says "we're the same only you have what I have through sound." I take issue with this statement because they are drastically different in many ways, but this does raise the question: Do autistic people interact better with other autistic people or with people with other disabilities? As we pointed out, each case of autism is different. Is each case of blindness? Do the blind "think in sounds" as Grandin "thinks in pictures"? Is this not just as essentializing of designating some kind of essence to woman, man, or animal?