I use a prompt from the void to discuss identity, who I am (if such a question can be answered), psychology, and some random things, like history of the Ancient Near East. After the prompt, it starts with, as I intend to start a lot of my pieces on here, an ADHD-fuelled autistic ramble on the topic of identity being constructed. Following this there is a more structured less rambly section split into three parts: culture, consciousness, and the public/private border. Lastly, there is a brief conclusion where I feel I kind of just go “oh well, what even am I‽” as I realise how expansive that pronoun, I, can be. Anyway, I hope you enjoy this.
Random Voice from the Void: hey pallyallyally…
*pallyallyally turns dramatically*
Random Voice from the Void: pallyallyally, if that is your real name, so you are blogging now…
pallyallyally: who… what… are you?
Random Voice from the Void: Dang it! You stole my line!
pallyallyally: that’s okay, take a breath friendo. want to start again?
Random Voice from the Void: Can you be alarmed by my presence?
pallyallyally: yeah, sure, whatever you need.
Random Voice from the Void: pallyallyally, if that is your real name!
Random Voice from the Void: good good.
pallyallyally: thank you 🙂
Random Voice from the Void: so you’re blogging now I see, but who and/or what even are you? Does that even really matter? Identity is just a construct anyway, and your identity pallyally-whatdyamacallit is just a mere construction! How do you feel about that, uh‽
Initial Response: an ADHD-fuelled autistic ramble on identity
Okay, yes, a lot to unpack there. Firstly, Are you okay? Am I okay? Are we okay? But Yes, I am the pallyallyally of which you/we speak, but you can just call me ally, no need for capitals, grammar too is a construct! And all I can think to say is, “ah wonderful, okay, let’s do this. In short, I feel okay, yes, okay.”
Okay, but that is not a satisfying response now is it, you want more than a monosyllabic series of grunted agreement, and to be honest, so do I. I want some fun with this too because, well, yes, yes it is a mere construction, you are quite right, but why and how and how have others thought of this so that I am pulled by the gravity of someone else’s knowledge coupled with my own ways of knowing this world to know the world around me as constructed and to be okay with all of that – wow lots of constructed ways of being and knowing there. It is just fascinating really. And how does one reconcile with this knowledge of living in and embodying this (re)produced construction and artificiality? If nothing is truly wholly me, how am I comfortable ever knowing who I am? Can I ever truly know who I am? Can one ever know the self as anything separate from the other(s) which constructed? Oh god!
So, to start my response to this rather abrupt assertion that my identity is a mere construction, I first of all need to acknowledge, rather importantly given the topic, that I am writing this response, not some passive “this article” or “this post”, but me, a human being, writing in the first person. Acknowledging this is important because, as someone who has just finished up their master’s in the field of psychology, and although I am obviously writing this post with that focus, chiefly on social psychology, given the breadth of not only social and critical psychology, but the study of identity as a whole, I really do want to align myself with postmodernist epistemological approaches by writing myself into this post [1; 2]. I do always want to write myself in to things in some way or another, it seems inhuman to unacknowledge humanity in writing for the sake of some sense of false objectivity (yep, I just made up that word unacknowledge – language is a construct); but what do I know, I am only human! I should note that postmodernist approaches in psychology generally question the whole idea of being able to objectively know and the idea that knowledge is universal, rather it is inherently subjective and contingent on so many different factors (a very brief summary, do forgive me).
Writing oneself into their work is critical as it acknowledges the subjectivity inherent in all ways of knowing, that one cannot know any single truth or way of being from some objective nowhere due to the inherent subjectivity in the construction of knowledge(s) [1; 3]. For example, most of us think of time as an objective measurement to be understood in a specific linear way, but we often forget that it is a constructed measurement. My favourite example of culturally contingent understandings of ways of knowing and understanding time comes when we compare our current western understanding of time as something with the past behind us and the future ahead with Mesopotamian understandings. If you were to ask a Babylonian, for example, you would get a very different conceptualisation of time: for the Mesopotamians, you see, although they had the same linearity to time, as they knew the events of the past, these events could be seen and, consequently, they faced forward to into the past whilst, being blind to the events of the future, they walked backwards into what was yet to come . Their way of thinking, at least to me, makes much more sense.
I have told many people of this different way of viewing time and had many different reactions and much in the same way some would not even humour the idea of time being anything other than the continued forward flow of some objective linear motion, they do not humour me either. They cast me aside in some way or other. I am not normal. I am not what is to be expected in many ways for many people and that causes a whole mix of reactions: from abject violence to protective infantilisation and everything in-between, nobody knows quite what to do with me. Well, unless they also exist on the margins, knowing what it means to be the other, to exist in the spaces where your meaning is made for you.
I occupy a space of multiple transgressions to normative societal identity constructs: I am queer(ed) in sexuality, gender, and neurotype. My favourite insult that has ever been hurled my way is spazzy tranny. It was said by a horrible human, but it has such poetic rhythm and eloquently, albeit crudely, brings together the confluence of my transgressions of these normative identity constructs and highlights the very real danger which may arise when they are witnessed by those whose identities afford them greater social power, by those who may leverage this power to (re)shape my meaning. I still do like the term spazzy tranny though, although the large bald white man, who I will call Alberto because it just somehow makes it easier to make him softer in name, who called me it on the bus late one Tuesday night in November terrified me.
A lot happened on that journey with Alberto and the quiet ones. The memory still pulls on me and (re)shapes me in ways, I suppose time isn’t wholly linear in either the way we or the Mesopotamians think it. Alberto’s gravity still pulls me back into the past and anxiety for the future sits by my side. I hold the weight of my history in the present along with the fear for that which is yet to come. pallyallyally the spazzy tranny, she is fucking timeless.
Yet, I am boxed in. Bound tightly in so many ways. I exist fundamentally constrained by multiple narratives society (re)produces to construct modes of identity around and about me and this is what frames my ways of being and knowing [5; 6]. I am queer(ed) and I know the world queerly. I am autistic and I know the world autisitcly. I don’t like large bald white men named Alberto on late night buses on Tuesdays, and I know the world anxiously.
From an understanding of queer crip and disability theory [7; 8] and neuroqueerness , there is an importance to establishing thereness: the situations in which identities and knowledges are made. Consequently, I ought to engage in critical self-reflexivity  so as to understand that I have come to know identity as constructed from a marginalised position held within societal narratives which (re)produce certain identities as lesser in order to uphold systems of established power [11; 12]. My positionality in it all is so very important. If I were not queered by discourse, I would probably not be critical of the mechanisms of power which construct power-knowledge-based identities, which are ultimately productive for a select few who benefit from those systems and profoundly restrictive for the rest [12; 13]. It is absolutely brutal.
I am aware that I am deeply critical of these systems because they wound me in a multitude of ways, and yet I still cannot escape practices which uphold cultural hegemony: I have my Prime subscription because I cannot go out shopping on my own, I reproduce even greater femininity for my gender identity clinic appointments because I feel I need to uphold a “correct way of being trans” for them and that means ensuring I am aligning with the binary, I apologise to new people for how I communicate and try to meet their needs as best I can instead of asking that they meet mine because I am the other there, I am the problem that needs to change to fit the space. Again. It is brutal.
So, this is how I start my response to your/my/idk statement of my identity being a mere construction: that my affirmation of your statement is as much of a construction and (re)production of social practices and processes as my identity itself, that any sense of novelty in any of my ideas is merely a summative reproduction of every social exchange which has ever decentred me in its motion, every bit of knowledge I possess which has pulled on me with the gravity of its own subjectivities and patchworked legacies of different ways of being and knowing insofar as I say from some subjective somewhere that identity is “merely” a (re)construction of discourse [1; 3; 14]. And breathe.
De-Rambling: Situating Identity
The next part of all of this is now based on the assumption (I know one should not assume) that after reading my initial response you want to know more; so, I, rather ironically, have constructed three categories – yep, so the constructee becomes the constructor – in which to explore this further under a spatial lens insofar as to better situate the context of discussion away from just an unbounded ramble. I use a spatial lens as I belonged to a rather different discipline before I decided to do psychology. You see, I was also constructed (I feel that term is apt here) as a geographer as well as a psychologist: despite being someone who would get lost very easily if I strayed from a familiar route, I do somehow also have a degree in it, so spatial and temporal enquiries are very much a thing I enjoy. Nevertheless, this will be quite focused on social psychology I suppose, and I will consider three components in the construction of identity: culture, spatial understandings of consciousness, and the public/private border.
In discussing the self, it is important to remember that we do not exist in a vacuum separate from others, our identities also occupy and are occupied by the cultures we exist within [15; 16]. In cultural psychology there is the notion of both the independent and interdependent self, where the former is associated with autonomous internal attributes and the latter develops relationships and is socially embedded within the space, stemming from understandings of collectivist and individualist cultures . Moreover, the way we socially engage with the culture and society around us, and the way it engages with us, can fundamentally (re)shape our identity insofar as to not only maintain identity constructs within the space through reproduction of those constructs, but also by dequeering the space when transgressions arise [18; 19].
Agamben  writes about the concept of homo sacer in relation to how one is punished for transgressions by being cast out to the margins of the culture they exist within, where the narrative constructed to box their identity places them outwith the protection of the law, rendered less than human by a cultural construct of their identity. Like I said before, it really is brutal.
This very same narrative of cultural identity constructs of ‘less than’ of marginalised groups seen in Agamben’s homo sacer is echoed in other notable poststructuralist work, such as Foucault’s  history of the sheer abject othering of madness in which he begins by demonstrating a culture which deemed it permissible to quite literally cast those with leprosy to the margins by sending them off to sea and showing how these very same processes of displacement, of othering, of most profound and realised marginalisation were inflicted upon those who were seen as mad. And with locked wards with bare walls and profound societal separation of the most mentally ill and an economedical (yep, another made up word) culture that values efficiency in time and cost of treatment above all else for the rest, that treats certain conditions as untouchable and unknowable because they are deemed attention seekers, or addicts, or too difficult, and a societal culture that still says, “you’re fucking mental, crazy, psycho, schizo, etc.”, we really still have a massive issue with othering, displacing, and marginalising the mentally ill. It is fucking brutal.
The same processes of marginalisation are also echoed in Butler’s [11; 18] discussions on the performativity of gender and how transgressions from cultural gender norms are policed by violent institutional and informal practices, but I will try not to do the same ramble here as before, I mean you surely know if one transgresses societal gender norms they run the risk of both subtle and not so subtle acts of ‘correction’ and violence. You know this. I know this: pallyallyally, the fucking spazzy tranny.
Moreover, not only are we policed by culture or the gaze , but we internalise that societal panoptic gaze to police ourselves and this (re)shapes our self-identity; ultimately, identity is constructed not only by discourse, but continuously (re)produced by our engagement with discourse [18; 22]. This is important in terms of how we view our own identities and those of others, and in turn (re)produce them, with our self-esteem being affected by how we compare ourselves with others . To add a further spice of psych, sociometer theory demonstrates self-esteem as a response to relational evaluation-devaluation  and this feedback mechanism will ultimately shape our identity as it (re)produces different status categories .
Overall, culture provides social context in which to situate identity and polices and (re)produces identity constructs in order to maintain specific power relations and normative ways of being and knowing within that space. Culture in of itself is constructed and relative to a particular space and discourse, upheld by the simultaneously restrictive and productive processes of categorisation it (re)produces. It is all a very odd and complicated thing.
To understand the construction of identity, I would argue that it is important to also understand the construction of consciousness because, well, it all is constructed and the two are intertwined beyond any degree of separability. To have an identity and label it as such is to have the consciousness to do so; to be conscious is to be, to be an I, to be a someone, to be a thing, to be an identity: as Locke  would argue, the two really are inseparable. Due to the spatiality often considered in consciousness, that consciousness exists within or outwith oneself or some combination of the two, I focus here on the construction of identity, consciousness, and the geographies of mind and body.
Foucault  coined the term empirico-transcendental doublet to describe the fundamentally unfixed subjectivity of the modern hyperreflective mind. Wowza! What a mouthful! Don’t worry we will break it down. Drawing on Hume’s  understanding that experience is the progression of the variety of its own components, Kant  said that consciousness is transcendental, that is to say it has the ability to (re)shape reality, yet consciousness is also an object, thus it is empirical and realised; hence, empirico-transcendental. Now, the hyperreflexivivity component of modern consciousness is that it is aware of both itself as subject and object, that it exists as this empirico-transcendental doublet in which it is simultaneously product of and being produced by the space it exists within . How cool is that! This notion is echoed in ideas of performativity, which is to say that my identity is produced by discourse and my living of that identity reproduces that discourse and so on and so on .
Taking from the idea of performativity, normative societal practices can be a bit of a trap really, maintained by the perpetual motion of those pulled and policed by the gravity of its direction and intention, and to deviate from them in any way whatsoever is more than difference, it is more than being queer(ed), it is more than rebellion, it is warfare. Every time I refuse to bend over backwards to maintain normative social understandings of how I ought to be, I go to war. My not-quite-so-passing makeup is my war paint. My stimming my weaponry. My muteness my war cry. The violence is so present, so determined, so costly and even the smallest of victories feel glorious. And then I remember the battles continue. To be different in a society which reproduces and maintains an expectation of your identity which, try as you might, you will never meet is to be at war. It is brutal.
This is all upheld not only by how we (re)produce our own identities, whatever they may be, but how we interact with those around us in terms of both consciousness and identity. Merleau-Ponty’s  notion of the lived body gives a spatial understanding of consciousness being outwith the body, being an embodiment of our engagement with the world rather than strictly on inner thought, which can be used to highlight identity as constructed via relational interactions and performativity [18; 31]. Merleau-Ponty’s lived body suggests that consciousness is not strictly a private experience, rather one only knows themselves through existing in the world and contrasts with Descartes’  human body with an impermeable mind-body dualism to consciousness. Who am I? What am I? What kind of thing is an I?
Understanding consciousness from Merleau-Ponty’s  perspective as, “in front of us, as articulations of our field”, is critical in understanding the construction of identity based on interaction, for understanding what kind of thing an I is. Judith Butler, in her fantastic piece, Speaking of Rage and Grief,  reminds us, our identity is never individual, rather we are decentred by those we interact with insofar as our identities are (re)constructed by our social exchanges, the kind of thing an I is is always tied up in the other. Overall, not only is consciousness a product of discourse, but it also can be considered to be embodied within discourse, continuously (re)shaping itself within this exchange and in so doing, (re)constructing our own identities and ways of being in the world.
Okay, I would love to say this is where the geographer in me really comes out, and they do conceptually, but really I am much more focused on psychology now. The public/private border is a critical point of encounter (oh that is geography!) which expands beyond Merleau-Ponty’s  understanding of the self being constructed through embodied engagement within the world to a more complex system of relationality between discourse and the self with no fixed impermeable boundary [33; 34]. Where does the I that I am begin and where does it end?
One of my favourite concepts from the psychology of grief is the idea of continuing bonds , that you stay connected to the person you lost even though they are no longer present, and I think this highlights an interesting point of where does the I end and lends a nice way of framing an answer which has no clear ending as we are always caught up in the other. Decentred by the gravity of possible embodiments and enactions (yep, another made up word) of all the Is we were, we are, or they thought we would be. Whenever I eat a packet of crisps, I cannot refuse my hands as they are inhabited by the I of one I loved who folds it into a perfect triangle, not because that is what I want to do, but that is what someone I love used to do, what another I used to do, and the thing is, that other I still does it, as they embody my action to complete the task. This is not about ghosts or anything spiritual, just the gravity of our bonds and motions. We are a lot more expansive and permeable than we realise and time is a lot less linear than we seem to think it.
Gestalt therapy gives us an understanding of the self of being constructed of three zones of self-awareness: outer, middle, and inner . The middle zone, is concerned with the awareness of how one is as an individual, whereas, the outer zone, focuses its awareness on how others perceive oneself based on outwardly observable behaviours . However, the inner zone, that which is the secret self, is composed of feelings and can often be met with interruptions or gaps which shape our understandings, experiences, and ultimately who we are . Gestalt is quite neat really!
This understanding of the self existing in multiple permeable zones is furthered in discussions on how discourse (re)shapes private self-experience and ultimately (re)produces particular identity constructs via relational feedback across the public/private border [33; 34]. Butt and Langdridge , for example, highlight that discourse transgresses one’s own private borders of the self insofar as to profoundly affect and (re)shape one’s identity, self-experience, and intimate relations. I am writing this thinking of all the odd virtual, techno-social, and parasocial relationships I have developed during the pandemic: only knowing my supervisor and other students online, making friends in the comments sections of TikToks, the one-sided social media relationships I have. It is all very odd.
Moreover, to complicate the call from the void’s claim that my identity is a “mere construction”, people are already situated, pre-reflectively engaged with the world around them prior to shifting that embodied engagement to an engagement with discourse critical for self-understanding . Damn. Therefore, one could argue that assuming one’s identity is merely constructed is overly simplistic and reductionist as we may exist with that identity prior to engagement with discourse, yet we need the critical self-understanding afforded by discourse to construct the identity in the first place . In this sense, people are not simply subject positions within discourse but have agency, and have the ability to produce categories which can ultimately be (re)shaped continuously in a pattern of aesthetic subjectivity in which the self has no predetermined identity [5; 40]. That all feels kind of neat but, there has to be a but. In reality, as I, this I, this pallyallyally the spazzy tranny, have been discussing, transgressions and policings of identity occur which continuously (re)construct and (re)produce restrictive identity categorisations. Again, like I keep on saying, it is brutal.
Overall, the public/private border demonstrates how discourse affects the construction of the self and our identity at the most intimate level. Moreover, it also demonstrates a feedback between the individual and discourse in which the individual (re)produces discourse through their embodiment of societal narratives at every point across the public/private border. When I ask what kind of thing an I is, I suppose an I is too caught up in others to ever be defined in terms of space or time. We are product and producer, the gravity and motion. The I, that awfully unbounded pronoun, seems not to know the limits of space. What kind of thing is an I? I really don’t know.
In sum, my response to this voice from the void’s assertion is profoundly one of agreement, that my identity is indeed merely a construct; however, it is not as simplistic as solely being the construct of discourse, rather my identity is simultaneously constructed by and constructing of discourse, situated in the unbounded geographies of the self and caught up in the other. The I of who and what I am, the identities I choose and those I have thrust upon me, are embodied in my actions and (re)produced by them in processes of interaction and performativity. The way I bend and mould and flap and fold to fit and the ways I never quite will, I am pulled in by others to be more of something when I am already enough. Queerly I shift through the world as less than in so many spaces that will try to both loudly and quietly, peacefully and violently make me whole, when they cannot see I, that ever expansive pronoun, am already overflowing in both time and space. My identity and all my ways of being and knowing may be fundamentally (re)constructions of the discourse I exist within and cannot be separated from the very narratives which continue to shape them, but it doesn’t make it any less personal, whatever that may mean. Identity may be a construct but it doesn’t mean that it is lacking uniqueness. What kind of thing is an I? Constructed? Yes. Complicated? Yes. The I that I am is anxious of busses because of another I named Alberto, the I that I am somehow produces perfect triangles with packets of crisps because an I I loved had to do this, the I that I am wrote this thinking no other Is would read it all and is content with that. To say “I exist” or “we exist”, there really isn’t much difference between the two beyond material emphasis. What is the self without the implication of the other anyway. Even alone and stubborn and unempathetic, one is never made up of just their own stories, we are always existing at the confluence of the self and the other. The gravity of all our other past encounters and the decentring motion of that which may come weathers the subjectivities of this meeting producing a constructed perspective based on a legacy of how one has learnt to be and know. The I that I am is because of all the Albertos and crisp packets and smiles and laughs and pain and tears and yet the I that I am is somehow more, somehow less, somehow different. The I, what we really are, deep deep down, cannot be measured or described, I don’t even know if it can be truly known, perhaps it is just the very thing that one is, that one ought to experience and that is to be enough. I am reminded here of the Neil deGrasse Tyson Onward to the Edge lecture from the My Favourite Universe series where he finishes with, “and when I reach for the edge of the universe, through the Hubble Deep Field, I do so knowing that along some paths of cosmic discovery, there are times when, at least for now, one must be content to love the questions themselves.”  Perhaps to know what the self really is, to know what the I is, is just something we will never know and that is okay, it is fun to think about it nonetheless. To be a human exploring what that means, what a wondrous thing indeed!
So, who am I? What am I? What kind of thing even is an I? All truly fascinating questions, majestic, stupendous, spectacular questions even! Incredibly interesting questions, yet I honestly have no idea what the answers are and I am absolutely okay with that, the questions are delightful enough on their own.
Live Long & Prosper
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