Fernand Deligny: Mapping Autistic Gestures and Trajectories, and the “Wander Line”

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“Fernand Deligny found many ways of describing himself: primordial communist, nonviolent guerrilla, weaver of networks, cartographer of wandering lines. A visionary but marginalized figure often associated with the alternative and anti-psychiatry movements that emerged in the decades after World War II, Deligny (1913–1996) remains difficult to categorize — an enigmatic sage. Beginning in the 1950s, Deligny conducted a series of collectively run residential programs — he called them “attempts” (or tentatives, in French) — for children and adolescents with autism and other disabilities who would have otherwise spent their lives institutionalized in state-run psychiatric asylums. After settling outside of Monoblet in the shadow of the Cévennes Mountains in southern France, Deligny and his collaborators developed novel methods for living and working with young people determined to be ‘outside of speech’ (hors de parole).

It was [outside Monoblet] that Deligny consummated his longstanding preoccupation with mapping the gestures, movements, and trajectories of the autistics living within his networks. He first experimented with cartographic tracing in the late-1960s in collaboration with a young militant filmmaker, Jacques Lin, who joined the group’s small desert encampment. Deligny, Lin, and their collaborators began to follow their autistic counterparts as they made their way through the Cévennes’s rocky terrain, making rudimentary line drawings to indicate their direction of movement across the rural encampment and into surrounding wilderness.

The tracings soon became a central aspect of the group’s activities, and the maps grew steadily more detailed and elaborate. They developed visual systems for designating the various sounds and gestures encountered along their pathways, and started to use transparent wax paper to trace the children’s daily routes. No attempt was made to interfere with their movements, or to explain or interpret them. The focus remained on the process of tracing itself. Yet distinct patterns began to emerge: certain trajectories tended to be repeated from one day to the next, and Deligny noted that some of the wandering lines seem to correspond to the conduits of underground waterways.

In his writings, he calls these cartographic trajectories lignes d’erre. This phrase might be translated as ‘wander lines,’ ‘errant lines,’ or ‘lines of drift’…The concept of the wander line…condenses, in a single stroke, his lifelong pursuit of ‘draining off stagnant humanisms’ by unsettling the primacy of speech. He undertook the process of mapping the lines ‘in order to make something other than a sign.’ Before phrases, words, and letters can form, there must first be lines. Tracing the quotidian trajectories of his autistic collaborators, it seems, was an attempt to return to writing’s origins, before it became codified or standardized, and when it still resembled the outlines of things encountered in moving through the world.”

Thanks to Liz K. for the link!

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