Nothingness & Forgiveness

From a concussion to start my year and the dizzying dreamlike states of nothingness I entered into to the same nothing-like states of memory I find in relation to a head injury from years ago, I discuss how I navigate this in terms of post-traumatic growth whilst also suggesting how we ought to consider this growth in the ways we learn to forgive the other too.


Towards the end of December I went into a haze, and there is an odd thing to going into the new year with this experience of nothingness. Alan Watts, in speaking of the beauty of nothingness, would say, “the most real state is the state of nothing” [1] because it is what we came from, it is where we are heading, and it is everything in between, from the space in between spaces of atoms to the blankness when we close our eyes. And yes, describing nothing as this immense and profound understanding of reality is beautiful and fascinating, but when I was wading through that haze of nothingness, nothing felt further from reality: for at least two weeks even the air seemed unreal.

This dizzying descent into a dreamlike nothingness to end my December and begin the new year wasn’t from some intense spiritual realisation of Buddhist philosophy like Watts’ poetic description of the beauty of nothingness, it was harsh, unkind, and somewhat trivial in the sense it could just as easily occur to anyone on any day.

But what caused this nothingness? What can produce that which is simply nothing? It was just a bop, and that was all there was to it. I just simply received a rather nasty blow to the head which resulted in a concussion.

It wasn’t from some wild Christmas party or an exciting Hogmanay adventure, but from the mundanity of life and the clumsiness of my odd and unknown proprioception which seems to fall in on itself, as my speeding wee oblivious noggin collided with a doorframe which I could have sworn was not there a moment ago whilst I was trying to tidy things up. I would go on to reference the doorframe as goalposts for a while following the incident for some reason, I suppose it makes me seem more adventurous and question less how such mundane incidents of tidying up can be so fragile. But doorframe or goalposts, I passed through them into nothingness.

I don’t remember much from that day, the whole week seems like it didn’t happen in my life, as though I must have read about some character in a different time and different place. But it was me. It is the inverse of a phenomena I sometimes experience where, courtesy of my hyperphantasia which makes reading an extremely visual experience for me, I sometimes recall a memory to then realise it was actually from a book and not my life; I find it funny how I feel as though the sparsity of memories in those weeks makes my life seem as if it were from a storybook, as though that nothing does not belong to me, as if one could possess a memory as something more than the nothingness of thoughts through time in the first place.

Another memory like that comes with another head injury, but I am not sure if it were the trauma or the trauma that caused it: there is a differentiation here as there was the physical trauma and the psychological trauma associated with this. I was assaulted whilst walking with my friend in Dublin. That whole day has been transformed into a storybook of dreamlike nothingness: there is greater clarity to it, but the memory is all remade up and it is as if I read about it in a book now. This disconnect was not just a production of time, but was present from the moment it happened, and, in that sense, I am glad there were CCTV and eyewitness accounts; although I have a feeling those eye witness accounts, like all, will be subject to the same degrees of personalisation and differentiations from whatever reality may be than my own memory of the event, but the same themes will have been there. I forgive the person who did it, I understand how situationally things occurred even though it was an awful thing to do, I still forgive them. He was a young lad with a lack of support, there were mental health components, and he was out with friends with a particular culture of masculinity whilst intoxicated on various substances, and these are just the things I am aware of: there was probably a lot going on and I hope things are better for him now. I hope he has thought over that night too, probably detached in some storybook fashion like me, and I hope he can forgive himself for doing what he did because he deserves that and just like me, he deserves to be able to grow past this, heal, and learn to be better than the nothingness of the moment which I sometimes find myself pulled back into as something more than the dreamlike state it has become.

That whole day might be filled with some dreamlike nothingness, the kind that happens when you hit your head too hard or someone else goes to do it for you, but there is no nothingness to the possibilities for growth beyond that day. In psychology there is this term which I feel, in our fascination with the darker side of things, often gets overlooked in the popular sphere: post-traumatic growth. However, I think one thing that often goes amiss here, when trauma and growth from that is focused in solely on victims (as much as I dislike that word, I don’t know what else to use here) rather than those with a history of offending, is the sense of forgiveness we can not only develop for the other but the hope for growth in them too. I think we forget through processes of dehumanisation that even the perceptually most awful of people who have done the most awful of things deserve the chance for forgiveness and the chance for growth, and that they can grow beyond a traumatic event even if they were the perpetrator, they can become better beyond this. No one is undeserving of humanity, and in that sense, no one is undeserving of forgiveness, even if it takes us a lifetime to get there. And here in lies my issue with cancel culture, with life sentences, with heaven and hell, and executions, they impose a particular set of morals at a particular moment of time with the presupposition that the individual has the inability to change, when, in reality, both our morals change through time, and we change as individuals as we grow. So, as I start a new year, in a new form of nothingness as a completely different individual than I was when I was attacked those years ago in Dublin in that older set of nothingness, I am reminded of our ability to grow, our ability to heal, and, most importantly, our ability to forgive.


To the young lad in Dublin, I hope life is treating you well and I hope you are growing more and more each day.


Live Long & Prosper


[1] Watts, A. (2013). Alan Watts On Nothingness – FULL [Video]. Retrieved 11 February 2022, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pd_uqpH4bag&ab_channel=AdamClark


A Grief Observed

Using C. S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed as a starting point, I write on the identity we find in others and how one comes to grieve this loss of sense of self when they lose the other. I discuss how we find ourselves done and undone by others in this sense, in that community may offer us a sense of wholeness but it can also decentre us in loss. Although this decentred understanding of ourselves is hopeful, even if it is hard in times of loss; we are made and remade, done and undone by both ourselves and the other and we continue to grow.


“If H. ‘is not’, then she never was. I mistook a cloud of atoms for a person. There aren’t, and never were, any people. Death only reveals the vacuity that was always there. What we call the living are simply those who have not yet been unmasked. All equally bankrupt, but some not yet declared.” C. S. Lewis, A Grief Observed [1]

I do not know if it is because Lewis is ultimately questioning God’s fairness in grief or if there is an irony in me in particular finding such solace in a line from a very Christian author on a topic of this nature, but I love this book and I love this line in particular. This line reminds me of that popularised Rumi quote where he says that we are, “the universe in ecstatic motion” [2], telling us not to act so small for this very reasoning. I really like this thought that we are all part of this great cosmic dance, and of course I have to call it, existence that is, a dance when discussing Sufi mystics. It is such a wonderful notion and it simultaneously produces so much meaning and so much insignificance.

As much as I think I believe in nothing, I do get a lot of solace from spiritual literature like this. This idea of existence as a dance, an unravelling, a great doing and undoing, as everything and nothing all at once makes me think, well, if we are everything, if we are the universe in ecstatic motion then is there a point to all of this? If we are so expansive and so reduced, so present and so absent, is there any sense to it all? My brain comes to Alan Watts here, an interesting fellow, who said, upon realising a messy meaningless to it all that, “you only go on, if the game is worth the gamble” [3]. His idea is that, well it might all be nothing, but it might also be everything, so maybe it is best to hedge one’s bets, and to be honest, if that is all one has to go on, it is a pretty safe choice to carry on. One of my favourite nuggets of wisdom which Watts ever gave was this:

The meaning of life is just to be alive. It is so plain and so obvious and so simple. And yet, everybody rushes around in a great panic as if it were necessary to achieve something beyond themselves.” [4]

I really like that last part, “as if it were necessary to achieve something beyond themselves”, but when one comes to that in a time of grief, at a time when a part of oneself feels gone insofar as the other was not fully where they were and the self not fully where I was, we were in the crossing between one another; we decentred each other in such a way that I was a part of the other and the other a part of me, we were both part of the same whole. As connected beings who constantly live in the in-between as we pull on each other’s gravity and motion, how are we meant to not grasp out beyond ourselves in such a futile manner when part of ourselves is always beyond us? Can I ever be content as incomplete? There is this beautiful episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation called The Chase where the character of the Ancient Humanoid says, “there is something of us in each of you, and so, something of you in each other” [5] and it is this point right here: I may hate the “they live on in you” spiel, but we exist in the other, and they exist in us, constantly decentred in one another’s gravity and motion. We are not just one person, we never really could be. We are forever made and remade by the other, reaching beyond ourselves until they are necessity, so that when you lose them, when they are “unmasked”, as Lewis would phrase it, it is as though an amputation takes place.

In speaking of becoming “unmasked” in death from Lewis and weaving through Watts, I am reminded of Gold Leaves by G. K. Chesterton, who Watts would often quotes in his lectures. It is a beautiful hymn which is ultimately about growing old and finding God in everything, and although I am not religious I do adore this hymn for its message as I seek to find that certain magic in everything. I often sit and marvel at the fact that those clouds of atoms may do the beautiful things they do in the moment that they do them, and the certain magic in knowing the impermanence to it all, it only makes it all the more precious. As I have it memorised, and as it is so very beautiful, I will leave you with Gold Leaves today:

Lo! I am come to autumn,
When all the leaves are gold;
Grey hairs and golden leaves cry out
The year and I are old.

In youth I sought the prince of men,
Captain in cosmic wars,

Our Titan, even the weeds would show
Defiant, to the stars.

But now a great thing in the street
Seems any human nod,
Where shift in strange democracy
The million masks of God.

In youth I sought the golden flower
Hidden in wood or wold,
But I am come to autumn,
When all the leaves are gold.


Live Long & Prosper


References

[1] Lewis, C. (1961). A Grief Observed. Faber & Faber.

[2] In Your Light – Rumi by st64. Hello Poetry. (2014). Retrieved 28 November 2021, from https://hellopoetry.com/poem/610590/in-your-light-rumi/.

[3] Watts, A. (1960). A Game That’s Worth the Candle. Musixmatch.com. Retrieved 28 November 2021, from https://www.musixmatch.com/lyrics/Alan-Watts/A-Game-That-s-Worth-the-Candle.

[4] Watts, A. (1989). The Culture of Counter-Culture: Edited Transcripts (Love of Wisdom). Tuttle Publishing.

[5] Roddenberry, G. (Writer), Menosky, J (Writer), Moore R. D. (Writer), & Frakes, F (Director). (1993, April 26th). The Chase (Season 6, Episode 20) [Television series episode]. In Berman, R. (Executive Producer), Star Trek: The Next Generation. Paramount Television.

Double Empathy Decontextualised

I give an example of miscommunication and misunderstanding at its worst to decontextualise and illustrate the precarity of double empathy problems and the potentiality for risk which lies in misunderstanding. I then give an overview of what double empathy entails and explore my frustrations of being misunderstood so often.

CW: this post discusses a traumatic area of medical history.


There is a specific horror in medical history, well, there are many specific horrors in medical history. Let me start that again…

There is a specific horror in recent medical history, in which a population which could not communicate, at least in any way in which we understood, underwent thousands of surgeries every year without any anaesthetic. It wasn’t until 1987 that these patients would be anaesthetised for surgeries in the U.S., and now, our current understanding is that this population actually feels pain significantly more sensitively than the rest of us and exposure to physical pain, like these unanaesthetised surgeries which were carried out by our inhumane medical perspectives which carried their way through the 1990s in some spaces of western medicine, can bring with it long-term negative psychological outcomes. This population, who were they? They were new-born babies. [1; 2]

But why have I just told you this horrific account of pain? What has been the point in discussing these most twisted and, quite frankly, evilly unempathetic practices of surgery, medicine, and healing, and a terrible and false misunderstanding which cannot be communicated away? Because it is, in many ways, illustrative of the story of how people try to treat, support, and engage autistic individuals. We are often left without anaesthetic and unable to communicate our pain in a way which is received with understanding, except, unfortunately, unlike Jeffery Lawson’s mother, Jill R. Lawson, who became a passionate advocate to change the practice of operating on babies without anaesthetic in the U.S. after her son had open heart surgery with only a muscle relaxant, our advocates, despite the best of intentions, are also often the one’s holding the figurative surgeon’s blade aloft. The road to hell is paved with the best of intentions and its directionality downward into the inferno is only made more efficient by misunderstandings and apathy in the face of even the slightest possibility that the other may be suffering. There are whole fields of those who would see themselves as our dearest allies, who ultimately do us the most harm and misunderstand the communication of pain in-between: I am thinking of the pains and torments of rewards and punishments in applied behavioural analysis, the overuse of physical restraint when de-escalation is possible if one took time to actually understand the problem in the first place, the unnecessary seclusion because it is easier to remove us than deal with us, and so many more situations where painful misunderstandings, otherings, and reproductions of ableism also take the form and guise of care.

With babies and pain, it was more than thinking they lacked the same capacity for pain, but the surgeons ignored and muted the most primal tools of communication because a baby was not seen as developed enough to be reacting in such a way to pain: merely spinal reflexes and, well, babies are meant to cry, aren’t they? And well, yes of course, babies are meant to cry and reflexes react, but ignorance to the possibility of pain in a caring profession is unforgivable: the twinge in one’s heart and soul that one ought to feel at the sight and sound of the other’s, of a baby’s, cry and movement away from an object that is a source of pain. These reflexes and reactions were, in effect, tools of social and emotional communication expressing the most agonising pain they were experiencing, but no one saw them for what they were. Rather, they were muted by means of muscle relaxants so the surgeons may finish their job and that was it. A message by an individual communicated in one way and profoundly misunderstood by the other, and the intention of the doctor being that of believing they are causing no pain when the baby receives the communication of the doctor in their work as nothing but pain: this is, in effect, a very loose, decontextualised, and illustrative example of a double empathy problem.

Double empathy is a term used in communication between autistic and non-autistic individuals, but I wanted to try to provide an introductory example that immediately allows you (if the you that you are is a you that hasn’t experienced such a problem) to see yourself in a situation of similar quality to a double empathy problem as there is universality to having been a baby. There is universality to the experience(s) or potential for pains and illnesses which one has which may or may not yet be diagnosed which one cannot fully explain to a doctor, just that it hurts. One may not know anything beyond a misplaced and generalised pain and cannot communicate anything beyond this and the doctor may try all sorts of things to help reduce your pain; they may offer you treatments and surgeries which cause infinitely more pain than they should which you cannot quite fully communicate as you carry on in an attempt to get better because that is what you are meant to do. You are meant to do these treatments to get better. It may not be quite as dramatic as the first example, but I want you to be able to relate, even if it is just imagining yourself at the dentist and they have pumped you full of lidocaine but you still somehow feel every little jab, drill, and jolt, but they have their hands in your mouth so you cannot speak and you are flinching and moving and your heart is pounding and you are trying to get them to stop by waving your hand but they just think you are nervous so make a joke about the nervous shake they do before the 18th green before continuing to drill into you. I really hate going to the dentist. My point is you think you are communicating pain here; they just see a little bit of anxiety. They continue thinking you are fine; you both go on in your own misunderstandings of one another. I just want you to understand situations where you may have experienced similar processes so you may better understand us and how we navigate the misunderstandings of cross-neurocultural translations.

Originally, the double empathy problem was clearly defined by the autistic autism researcher Damian Milton in his 2012 essay titled On the Ontological Status of Autism: the ‘double empathy problem’:

The ‘double empathy problem’: a disjuncture in reciprocity between two differently disposed social actors which becomes more marked the wider the disjuncture in dispositional perceptions of the lifeworld – perceived as a breach in the ‘natural attitude’ of what constitutes ‘social reality’ for ‘non-autistic spectrum’ people and yet an everyday and often traumatic experience for ‘autistic people’.” [3]

Now, what Milton highlighted was truly ground-breaking for many allistics and a profound encapsulation of what many autistic individuals knew and had always known but never had the vocabulary to express: the double empathy problem. We would call it misunderstanding. We would call it being misunderstood. We would call it frustration. They would call it a deficit on our part. They would call it “come on, you need to make the effort”. They would call it a thing we don’t fully grasp. We would be silent. We would be bent in so many ways in your often subtle yet violent and well-intentioned efforts of neuroconformity; we would break, and you would then call it progress. They would call it our fault; we would know that is just easier for them to say. We would be left empty, bare, nothing, filled with what you want, and you would finally call us whole. They would finally see themselves in us whilst we felt our most distant: a nothingness presenting as someone, as something neuropalatable. They would call us a person with autism, as if it could be separated from our motion, from our core, from every single atom of our being. We would call ourselves autistic, knowing full well it is not some accessory but central to everything we are, embodied in our actions, thoughts, and communication. We are autistic and they see a neurotypical holding that autism, it is hardly surprising they do not understand us.

In my first blog post I wrote, an essay titled What Kind of Thing is an I, there is one paragraph in it which captures so many of my thoughts, my pains, and it holds this notion of a quiet and oddly gentle yet violent neuronormativity:

“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.”

There is nothing quite so gut wrenchingly depleting as to be misunderstood as lesser. To be pushed down into both misunderstanding and lack of worth. To have all the commands and tools you have to express your ways of being and knowing and loving and growing, but it is not quite enough. When I speak, and I use that term for the broadest sense of my communication, I do so in staccato; I am understood only in the crest of my waves as they remain oblivious to the rise and confused or annoyed or frustrated or bitter or tired or pitying or saddened or angry at the fall. It is hard. Communicating is hard.


Live Long & Prosper


References

[1] Chamberlain, D. (1989). Babies Remember Pain. Pre- And Peri-Natal Psychology, 3(4), 297-310. Retrieved 2 September 2021, from http://www.cirp.org/library/psych/chamberlain/.

[2] Walco, G., Cassidy, R., & Schechter, N. (1994). Pain, Hurt, and Harm: The Ethics of Pain Control in Infants and Children. New England Journal of Medicine, 331(8), 541-544. https://doi.org/10.1056/nejm199408253310812

[3] Milton, D. (2012). On the ontological status of autism: the ‘double empathy problem’. Disability & Society, 27(6), 883-887. https://doi.org/10.1080/09687599.2012.710008

Growing Around Grief

I write on Lois Tonkin’s concept of growing around grief and how one learns to live with grief, focusing on a typical bereavement reaction where, although one may integrate the loss and the absence of the other, they still carry the grief. This is to say one does not finish with grief, rather that it is lived and an embodied experience that we may grow with.


Image Description: Growing Around Grief by Lois Tonkin, 1996 - circles depicting that although grief may not reduce in size we continue to grow so that the grief becomes comparatively smaller. the text in the circles reads, "people think that grief slowly gets smaller with time. in reality, grief stays the same size but slowly life begins to grow bigger around it"
End of Image Description

Tonkin’s concept of growing around grief is one that I knew of but had never quite seen so visually until today. It is just one depiction of a definitionally ambiguous concept, grief that is. It is a funny thing to try to define grief, an experience with such universality, and yet when it comes to its embodiment, grief as lived, felt, and truly known beyond its descriptive characteristics, we falter in expression and dialogue, decentred in the loss of the other, as if they buried our words with them. We come to know grief in as many ways as we come to know loss, there is this universality in the differences known to the pains we feel when the other leaves us. There is this commonality to the weight of our losses, to the different ways we come to know the terrible sadness and the bitter joys held in the waves of grief yet to come.

However, Tonkin’s conceptualisation of grief, it is an interesting one and one that holds a lot of truth insofar as grief will remain in that it is typically something that is lived with rather than a finished process, that is to say that one does not reach an end point in their bereavement. You never really finish grief, one may move past the initial bereavement reaction in a typical manner without complications, but grief remains like a shadow waxing and waning in the light of our days as we carry on. And we do carry on, carrying in more ways than one as we are set to carry our losses as we carry our love for the rest of our days. There are of course landmarks of a typical trajectory of grief, but even once things have steadied, once one has learnt to live in the absence of the other, the grief still resurfaces at points: typically this would be at anniversaries and reminders and so on, but life grows around it. The individual grows around the loss. It becomes easier to live without the other, even when their absence once seemed unbearable and unimaginable; life grows, you grow, and it becomes okay again. But yes, I just really like this visual representation because it is true, although the grief may be something one always bears, “slowly life begins to grow bigger around it“, one continues to live and grow and learns to be okay again because it will be okay again.


Live Long & Prosper


References

Growing Around Grief – Whats your Grief. Whats your Grief. (2021). Retrieved 22 November 2021, from https://whatsyourgrief.com/growing-around-grief/

Tonkin, L. (1996). Growing around grief—another way of looking at grief and recovery. Bereavement Care15(1), 10-10. https://doi.org/10.1080/02682629608657376

On Neurodiversity & Neuropalatability

I write on the categorical constructs or, as I term them, buckets, of neurodiversity, neurodivergence, and autism. I look at how we define these buckets through processes of self representation and the identity politics behind this which is centred on an appeal to neuronormativity. After exploring various aspects of neurodiversity’s situation within identity politics, I finish by coining the term neuropalatability to reflect the appeal to neuronormativity and the representations of normalcy within the neurodiversity movement (i.e. those who are often centred tend to be white, cisgender, speaking, very successful at masking, etc.) which ultimately further marginalise those who do not meet these (neuro)normative standards of being in and engaging with the world.


I spent a year of my undergraduate degree studying at the University of Toronto where I took a course on Indigenous Worlds, Worldviews and the Environment taught by the incredibly gentle and kind Professor Neera Singh. It was a truly wonderful class and one thing she spoke of with such beauty and passion was the idea of human becomings, that we are never really human beings because we never really are, we are always growing and changing and moving. This motion, this constant growth with the environment around you, lends to the idea of being human becomings instead of human beings, unbounded by any buckets (i.e. socially constructed categories) that may inhibit our unbounded possibilities for growth and change.

This concept of human becomings is not just useful for humans but for knowledge too, and I think there is a lot, in terms of how we frame our buckets of knowledge, which can be learnt from indigenous ways of knowing and worldviews. Tim Ingold and Terhi Kurttila note, in a study on how individuals perceive the environment whilst contrasting two distinct ways of knowing Indigenous Knowledge: as discourse of modernity or as lived, reproduced, and generated in the practices of locality, that Indigenous Knowledge is unique in the sense it cannot necessarily be quantified, that is to say that we “cannot formulate explicit principals” of what is traditional. There are no adequate buckets for that which is already boundless. One cannot categorise the living and growing knowledges and people engaged in their (re)production and continued (re)shaping of these knowledges.[1]

This stems from the context in which Indigenous Knowledges are usually situated, in a framework of modern western thought; if we are to generate a static understanding of Indigenous Knowledge, it can be regulated, and these regulations can prove fundamentally damaging to practicing these ways of knowing as they compete with the dynamic nature of Indigenous Knowledges. Thinking of any form of knowledge as static is inherently destructive as it does not facilitate growth or allow for change. So, why do we do this with people? Why do we allow for the gravity well of the bucket to hold on them, to preserve them in still life, as a diagnostic chart, as a set of buckets and for that to be all there is?

However, this idea of a static and traditional Indigenous Knowledge perpetuated by modern science is what lends to the notion that Indigenous Knowledges lack dynamism and cannot change, that indigenous practices can be regulated as an unchanging way of living. Indigenous Knowledges are rich in oral tradition and are hereditary, being passed down generationally. However, this knowledge is not just passed down, but also learned as if it were a craft, embodied in the way one engages with the world around them insofar as they come to know their surroundings as well as they know themselves. These knowledges can be preserved through the oral tradition, museum work, schooling, and research, however, for indigenous peoples their knowledges cannot necessarily be separated from actually putting them into practice, and the cataloguing of their knowledges in places like museums often promotes the colonial stereotype of the static nature of Indigenous Knowledges.

These very same mechanisms of power and categorisation which hold Indigenous Knowledges in some timeless space in which it is rendered to still life, also hold individuals in restrictive clinical categories of classification under a neuronormative medical framework of power. Disability studies scholar, Lennard J. Davis, highlights that understandings of positionality within medical spaces can often be seen in language and rhetoric. This is important to note when comparing competing claims, from what it means to have a clinical condition under a medical model to how that is then mobilised into models of self-representation, such as in the neurodiversity movement. Davis furthers this by exploring how language usage enforces and maintains social structures and normative practices of power:

“Language usage, which is as much a physical function as any other somatic activity, has become subject to an enforcement of normalcy, as have sexuality, gender, racial identity, national identity, and so on, As Canguilhem writes, ‘there is no difference between the birth of grammar… and the establishment of the metric system… It began with grammatical norms and ended with morphological norms of men and horses for national defense, passing through industrial and sanitary norms’.”[2]

Davis’ notion of normalcy and language as a concept which is both restricted by social structures and a restrictor of them, shows a cultural focus of the norm over the ideal, and in so doing, sets in place these fixed notions, these buckets, of the way one ought to be and should be over a more fluid backdrop of an unattainable ideal which validates deviation from the norm as it acknowledges this deviation as a common space. These concepts, framed around autistic social and healthcare issues, demonstrate rigidity and belief in universality of autistic healthcare and normative medicalized understandings of how one should be autistic due to restrictive clinical criteria, guidance, and language within medical spaces. This is furthered when Davis discusses the origins of the word normal within Romance Languages:

“As Canguilhem writes, ‘Between 1759 when the word normal appeared [in French], and 1834 when the word ‘normalized’ appeared, a normative class had won the power to identify … the function of social norms, whose content is determined, with the use that that class made of them.’ Democracy needs the illusion of equality, and equality needs the fiction of the equal or average citizen. So, with the creation of representative democracy comes the need for an ideology that will support and generate the aims of normalcy.”

Representation in this sense only serves to reenforce and reproduce normative categories of lesser. This idea that language, and thus narrative, are being used to produce social norms, facilitates a western medical voice, which speaks from an authoritative position of power and universality to define, pathologize, and bucket neurodiversity in terms of how it most frequently manifests in medical spaces. This is done without the need to acknowledge possibilities, realities, and transgressions to sets of criteria which are fixed for long periods at a time and are not reflective, and never will be, of the universal experience of the set condition defined or of a universal experience of neurodiversity as a whole.

In order to combat a medicalized bucketing of the body, health and medical geographers, Michael Dorn and Glenda Laws, highlight that it is important that the body is not just seen as a site for pathologizing and medicalizing, but rather is viewed more holistically as a unique and individual space.[3] They see the body as host to differing corporeal compositions, realities, and socio-cultural backgrounds and desires situated in a simultaneously unique and shared positionality within a social structure intent on pathologizing and/or categorizing deviations from normalcy.

Now, what is quite interesting is where the neurodiversity movement fits into all of this, as it is not quite removed from categorisation, and, as much as it pains me to say it, it shouldn’t be. I hate labels, but we also need them. I need my diagnoses for so many things beyond self-understanding and being understood, I need these categorical labels to live. If it weren’t for my ADHD diagnosis, I would still be self-harming, that was a big feature of my impulsivity, but being able to understand that and to manage my ADHD through more supports and medication, that may very well have saved my life. Granted I have a most complicated presentation of ADHD as I am also autistic, have very bad anxiety, I do not speak, and I have experiences of complex trauma, but without the diagnosis, without this particular bucket, I would not be writing this, and I really would not be okay, as being able to manage the ADHD helped many other aspects. However, as I said, the neurodiversity movement sits on a funny precipice in terms of categories.

I mean, how does one define such a term as neurodivergent? It is ultimately framed in binary opposition, which is to say that to be neurodivergent means to not be neurotypical. But then that queering of buckets is just creating this binary of neurotypicality and neurodivergence, which is just yet another set of categories. Yes, these are now objects of self-representation, but they are still limiting. Yet, if I were to seek to research neurodivergent people, who would I be researching? How do we define neurodivergent because one cannot really research something if they don’t know exactly which population they are focusing on? However, I feel that highlights both an issue and, ultimately, the importance of neurodiversity and neurodivergence as concepts, that they are not constrained by these restrictive categorical constructs. They do not belong to buckets.

I think the broader neurodiversity movement is ultimately more in fitting with the scope of a medico-social bridge in the sense that it takes a somewhat queer ontological status which starts with these clinical buckets and reproduces them in forms of self-representation and subjective ways of being and knowing and experiencing the world. I feel this kind of ontological bridge between clinical categorisations, such as neurodevelopmental disorders, and self-representations of neurodivergence which the concept of neurodiversity provides ultimately raises the importance for understanding the politics of self-representation behind the buckets being (re)produced and/or leveraged in order to express ways of being, knowing, and engaging with the world in a non-neuronormative fashion.

I see an interesting and contrasting parallel with the ways in which we leverage self-representation in the neurodiversity movement and neo-Marxist approaches to understanding identity politics, as they both frame a model where identity runs in parallel to another system: a medical model for the former and class politics for the latter. Neo-Marxist approaches to identity politics often see culture as separate from, although not impermeable to, the government, the economy, and corporation, rather than viewing culture as forming, limiting, and being (re)produced by these very institutions.[4] Sociologist, Mary Bernstein, notes in a review of the neo-Marxist literature, identity politics is often regarded as a separate political process running, “in contradistinction to class politics[5] much in a similar way that concepts of identity in neurodiversity are both held by, maintained, and restricted in a contrasting parallel to medical powers which (re)produce the rigid categorisation which is fundamentally decentred and queered by neurodiverse identity politics. This notion can be further seen in the art historian Roslyn Deutsche’s understanding of a neo-Marxist geography,[6] with approaches to and knowledges of social justice which ultimately reinforce an opposition between culture, in this case we have self-representations of neurodiversity, and society, where we have a more fixed and restrictive understanding based on set categorical buckets of diagnostic criteria. 

However, although there is reflection in the narrative between these understandings to identity politics in one instance, there is ultimately little joining of the two, as neo-Marxist approaches to identity politics regard the overall concept of identity politics as problematic. The problem for them comes as activists often take on identity labels as essentialist terms, that Born This Way narrative in the popular sphere, rather than socially constructed and socio-spatially contingent status categories (re)produced by both the actor and the very institutions that maintain the identity of lesser. The political scientist, Wendy Brown, contends that processes of marginalisation, injustice, victimhood, and their legacies (re)produce the framework for the political and cultural ecology of identity groups.[7] She argues that seeking equality centred on oppressed positivist ways of being will only, in turn, produce heightened socio-political regulation and control over the identity groups by the dominant group which marginalises them in the first place. So, charting out a framework of what it means to be neurodiverse under a framework of neuronormativity will only serve to reinforce that neuronormativity in the first place. Therefore, one needs to queer it, one needs to break off from neuronormative bucketing and policing of traits in that sense. Moreover, this is understood by sociologist, Todd Gitlin, as:

The recognition of a collective hurt, followed by the mistaking of group position for culture followed by the mistaking of a culture for a politics.[8]

However, the views which problematise an essentialist identity politics often presuppose that actors wilfully ignore or remain ignorant to the multitude of varying connections identity has to bodies of power, institutions of governance, and the political economy. And for the neurodiversity movement this simply is not true. From a philosophical perspective, acknowledging the social (re)productions of identity categories does not prevent actors from forming collectives around those identities: we see this all the time within queer communities, for example, with trans and non-binary individuals who acknowledge the social construction to gender. And there is a large body of scholarship, such as work from Taylor[9],  Young[10] , and Kymlicka[11], which centres the notion of group identity markers forming where there exists a legacy of particular collective injuries and oppression. However, this body of scholarship challenges the idea that these differentiating identity markers necessarily produce impermeable, essentialist groups. They also do not posit that protected categories afforded to certain groups which have a history of trauma should be granted to every group, such as antidemocratic groups or, in other more neo-Marxisty words, groups which cannot reach a common vision and, by that means, exclusionary groups.

Nevertheless, this conflicts with the legacies of certain identity groups gaining momentum for liberation by means of exclusionary practices and exclusive spaces as sites of collective healing, recollection, and resistance. These spaces where one can exclude and decentre the neuronormative visions, rules, bondages, and violence of a neurotypical society are key to not only the success of the neurodiversity movement, but also the wellbeing for the actors fronting the movement. We need non-neuronormative sites of sanctuary, spaces to heal and unmask insofar as to not only continue on this great press for change for the benefit of neurodiverse and neurodivergent individuals, but also for our safety too: spaces to escape the violence of a world that seeks to alter how we ought to be or confront our ways with ridicule and abuse.

Moreover, generally, neo-Marxist approaches to identity politics broadly omit instances where holding essentialist identity is a political tactic or tool of rhetoric rather than an understanding of the identity itself. For example, it is much easier to say, “I was born this way” than it is to list potential biological and social conditions which may have produced a characteristic which defines an identity group. I come to Robert Sapolsky here when he attempted to sum up what depression is and came out with this fantastic line:

It’s a biochemical disorder with a genetic component with early exposure experiences that make it so someone can’t appreciate sunsets.”[12]

This is not to say we are going to start saying, “I was born this way” when it comes to depression, nor is it to say we will say the opposite of autism, it is merely to represent the sheer complexity to even one component of one’s own self and one’s own identity. So, for many who recognise the fluidity to things like sexuality, gender, and sex, they still reproduce a fixity in their own narrative because it is simply easier to recall this than to express such fluidity because our language hasn’t quite caught up yet beyond queer and suffixing queer: genderqueer, neuroqueer, etc. Even non-binary, to claim you are outwith this binary construct, is often just viewed as a third option rather than the fluid and queer dynamic form of self-representation as refusal of categorisation it is meant to represent. In this sense, non-binary has come to develop a representation of fixity where there should be fluidity, that one is stable in a category outside of social construct of gender which, in reality, is just another social construct of gender: a dequeering of the queer.

Overall, neo-Marxist approaches here may critique identity politics for being too cultural, essentialist, and not challenging class structures which produce social injustices and inequalities. However, these approaches are problematised by their distinction of the political economy as separate from culture rather than seeing them as two interconnected processes which continue to (re)produce one another and, as a result, status-based categories which are contingent both on the culture and political economy in which they are constructed and reproduced.

So, what lens do we have to look at the neurodiversity movement?

We have to move to another bucket of political and philosophical thought to look at how we consider identity in the neurodiversity movement and from this we can come to the anarchist approaches to neurodiverse identity politics.

An anarchist approach to identity politics provides a platform from which individuals can resist against a set of hegemonic norms with their own queer and queered practices and ways of being. Anarchist approaches to identity politics centre on the idea of what academic turned publishing consultant, Laura Portwood-Stacer, calls, “authentic expressions”.[13] However, as Portwood-Stacer notes, authentic expressions enveloped in political identity can be divisive in nature and run the risk of overriding concern from the tangible pushes for real material change to the more individualised and surface level focuses within identity groups. Nevertheless, despite the individualist concern, compounding acts of resistance and purposeful deviation from hegemonic norms, individualistic identities, and, that which is interesting about anarchist identity politics, refusal and resistance as an identity onto a genuine push for socio-political change can produce coalitions and collectivise groups. Now, these groups may appear in the first instance to lack common meaning with preference for individual concern but may well in the second instance produce meaningful material socio-political change.

A prime example really comes in the notion of queer identity; queer identity as an example of anarchist identity is represented as a refusal, rejection, and defiance of the authority and validity of, “socially dominant sexualities on the basis that they are natural or intrinsically valuable[14] or even just socially permissible. It is this rejection, the refusal of governance over the intimate and the individual, which is emblematic of the very core of anarchist thought and echoes the classic individualist anarchism stance that:

If the individual has the right to govern [themselves], all external government is tyranny.”[15]

Sociologist, Jeff Ferrell, sees anarchist identity politics developing as a result of accumulated transgressions of an external government by individuals who lack spatial fixity, the drifters who already repeatedly transgress societal norms and thus start to look for alternatives to the system which constantly places their individual ways of being on its margins.[16] Does this sound similar to aspects of the neurodiversity movement? That we drift. That we already cannot help but consistently transgress social norms and now we are looking for alternatives to a neuronormative system which value our individual neurodiverse ways of being which have thus far been cast off to the margins.

Moreover, as noted by the geographer, Simon Springer, anarchists established a very dissimilar geographical vision from Marxists, that is the imagined geography of self-containment and self-sufficiency that displaces the requirement for a central governing system, a site which resists the need for external government and thus authority which one’s identity can transgress.[17] In the neurodiversity movement we can see this in the continued march for agency and autonomy from medical governance, however, there remains the individualist concern to rely upon that power for its positivist categorical understanding of neurodiversity, that in order to have this category to queer you allow it to be made and reproduced in the first place.

Anarchist approaches to identity politics, unlike neo-Marxist and poststructuralist approaches too, explicitly understand that adoption of an identity, be it that of essentialism or refusal, which somehow can be seen in some odd duality within both the context of neurodiversity and neurodivergence, can be done as a political strategy. For example, queer is often regarded just as much as a political identity, if not more so, than as a way of representing certain sexualities and gender identities. To be queer as refusal of identity construct is to be political, it is not about whether or not one engages in heterosexual practices but is rather a rejection of the socio-political pressure of compulsory heterosexuality.[18] Queer identity politics centred on refusal of fixity and labels of lesser is less about rejection of straightness and more concerned with opposing its cultural dominance.

Moreover, queer as a refusal of status categories not only opposes heteronormative politics but also that of homonormativity.[19] This concept of homonormativity is explored by professor of women’s and gender studies, Jasbir K. Puar, who ties queer identity politics with that of a national identity politics in which partial acceptance of the gay community is linked to those who fit within a certain national narrative which sees white gay men being tolerated in the U.S. context while the rest of the queer community is still thrust to the margins.[20] These same processes are true for the cute and young white autistic cisnormative boys and those who fit similar narrative of neurodiverse as palatable or neurodiverse but not like them, but this grand march of neurodiversity progress sadly leaves those most marginalised further disenfranchised from those in whom they could find the most similarity in experience(s). It is “nothing about us, without us”, unless you are us and forget this in any privilege and power you gain within the movement in the celebration of a very white, a very cisnormative, a very laterally ableist, dequeered, and homogeneous self-representation of neurodiversity.

This odd and contradictory homogeneous representation of neurodiversity is productive to whomever benefits from the privilege afforded by the narratives represented but pushes those who do not fit within those buckets further to the margins. It is ultimately restricting to those not privileged in a neuronormative hierarchy of self-representation built on the weight of white voices with lower support needs and cisnormative expressions of gender and sexuality which subjugate the voices of the other.

I would like to leverage the concept of homonormativity into the neurodiversity movement insofar as to understand the progresses we have made and those we have left and continue to leave behind in processes of, often racialised and lateral, ableism and reductive and revisionist understandings of ourselves. Those of us who gain the most from the progress of such social movements tied up to neuronormative societal frameworks of power are the ones who are the most palatable to that neuronormativity: it is the young, it is white people, it is those who do not have significant support needs, those who are conventionally attractive, and those who actively communicate verbally. It is those who can appear like one of them in a moment of masking and look good whilst doing it. There is this element of moving beyond masking where those who are palatable to neurotypical space may be themselves but only because in doing so they are not perceived as to be deviating significantly from a perceptual construct of neuronormativity: this is what I call neuropalatability. It is the representative normalcy both of and within the neurodiversity movement and this pursuit of neuropalatability over a general allowance of neuroqueerness and radically non-neuronormative ways of being which stagnates our movement and further pushes those within it to the margins. Ultimately, an appeal to neuropalatability prevents us from relinquishing the restrictive neuronormative buckets cast upon us in our quest to establish our own narratives of self-representation.


Live Long & Prosper


References

[1] Ingold, T. and Kurttila, T. (2000). Perceiving the Environment in Finnish Lapland. Body & Society, 6(3-4), 183-196. https://doi.org/10.1177/1357034X00006003010

[2] Davis, L. (2002). Bending Over Backwards. New York University Press.

[3] Dorn, M. and Laws, G. (1994). Social Theory, Body Politics, and Medical Geography: Extending Kearns’s Invitation. The Professional Geographer, 46(1), 106-110. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.0033-0124.1994.00106.x

[4] Taylor, C. (1992). Sources of the Self: the making of modern identity. Harvard University Press.

[5] Bernstein, M. (2005). Identity Politics. Annual Review of Sociology31(1), 47-74. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev.soc.29.010202.100054

[6] Deutsche, R. (1995). Surprising Geography. Annals of the Association of American Geographers85(1), 168-175. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-8306.1995.tb01802.x

[7] Brown, W. (1995). States of Injury: power and freedom in late modernity. Princeton University Press.

[8] Gitlin, T. (1996). The Twilight of Common Dreams: why America is wracked by culture wars. H. Holt & Co.

[9] Taylor, C. (1992). Sources of the Self: the making of modern identity. Harvard University Press

[10] Young, I. (1990). Justice and the Politics of Difference. Princeton University Press.

[11] Kymlicka, W. (2000). Multicultural Citizenship: a liberal theory of minority rights. Clarendon Press.

[12] Sapolsky, R. (2009). Stanford’s Sapolsky On Depression in U.S. (Full Lecture) [Video]. Retrieved 19 October 2021, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NOAgplgTxfc&t=55s&ab_channel=Stanford.

[13] Portwood-Stacer, L. (2010). Constructing anarchist sexuality: Queer identity, culture, and politics in the anarchist movement. Sexualities13(4), 479-493. https://doi.org/10.1177/1363460710370653

[14] Portwood-Stacer, L. (2010). Constructing anarchist sexuality: Queer identity, culture, and politics in the anarchist movement. Sexualities13(4), 479-493. https://doi.org/10.1177/1363460710370653

[15] Tucker, B. (1911). State Socialism and Anarchism. Fifield.

[16] Ferrell, J. (2012). Anarchy, Geography and Drift. Antipode44(5), 1687-1704. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-8330.2012.01032.x

[17] Springer, S. (2013). Human geography without hierarchy. Progress In Human Geography38(3), 402-419. https://doi.org/10.1177/0309132513508208

[18] Rich, A. (1980). Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 5(4), 631-660. https://doi.org/10.1086/493756

[19] Duggan, L. (2002). The New Homonormativity: The Sexual Politics of Neoliberalism. In R. Castronovo, D. Nelson & D. Pease (Ed.), Materializing Democracy: Toward a Revitalized Cultural Politics (pp. 175-194). Duke University Press. https://doi.org/10.1515/9780822383901-008

[20] Puar, J. (2006). Mapping US Homonormativities. Gender, Place & Culture13(1), 67-88. https://doi.org/10.1080/09663690500531014

Unrelinquishable Son & Unknown Daughter

With everything that has been going on this week I have been reflecting on how I am affected by transphobia as there is a seemly constant rise and permissibility in TERF rhetoric which is truly scaring me. Although, in my own reflection I was most saddened to realise just how much I permit and grant allowances for a particularly intimate form of transphobia and the fact I will probably carry on making these allowances in the way I do. This is nothing but another ramble, and a brief ramble for me at that. It was not intended to be a blog post and there is also simplification of certain things here, but I just needed to get this ramble out of me.

CW: discussion of transphobia


What does it mean to be social? Most people would associate the word with being outgoing and extraverted, kindly and somewhat boldly enjoying the company of others. But most people would forget that there are as many ways to be social as there are interactions to be had. The neuroendocrinology researcher and author of countless articles and books, Robert Sapolsky, speaks of categorical classifications and perspectives in research as these metaphorical “buckets” when giving his incredibly popular lecture series on human behavioural biology at Stanford University. How Sapolsky navigates these buckets throughout his lecture series and throughout much of his popular writing ultimately problematises viewing an individual’s behaviour in terms of just one perspective, rather we behave, we act, and react due to a multitude of social, environmental, and biological factors. This is common knowledge really, but most people often forget it. For example, I am trans and you would expect me to go on to write about the nature and nurture and neuroqueerness of my gender development, and I will no doubt revisit this, but no, I will demonstrate these buckets elsewhere, where the pain is.

I am my mother’s unwelcomed daughter and unrelinquished son. I am the child that wounds her by existing as she made them to be. Living as they are. The child whose name sears her mouth shut and turns her stomach so that only a displaced memory of who they were escapes her lips. She loves and supports me so much, and I am beyond grateful, but who she loves and supports, he isn’t me.

I have been out now for years and yet her face still scrunches in odd and twisted ways at the slightest mention of this. She is visibly pained by my name. If it weren’t for the explosions and tears when I first came out, I don’t know if I would be able to see it, but the hollowness carried on: angered by a set of pronouns, hurt by who I am and who I cannot help but be. What an awful thing it is to cause so much damage by simply existing. An implosion of suffering replacing motherly joy with grief. What a painful thing it is to hurt you with my name.

But back to Sapolsky’s buckets, this is not just that she doesn’t like trans people, no. There is a terrible awareness we have on hatred in neuroscience which adds a layer of nuance beyond the buckets of mere transphobia. It makes the kind of sickness she feels at my name almost redoubled and recemented in her biology. So, it is almost instinctual, that it is some intractable urge of disgust she simply caves too again and again until I have to forcibly become diminished. Small enough. Palatable. Less enough of me in front of her so that it is okay for her to love and support this version of me because this, whatever version of me it is I am performing, this is what is palatable to her. This me removes enough of her pain which I am ultimately left to bear for her instead, as we carry on a fiction that leaves us both a little emptier in each exchange but allows her to feel as though she can carry on. She will always be a mother to a son, and although it breaks me to never know the joys of daughterhood, it would break me more to be without a mother.

This me I present doesn’t decentre her into tears and grief and disgust, rather it meets my mother in waves; it holds her in protracted moments of presence before that bitter churning ambiguous loss swells and stops her motion.

From neuroscience we have this explanation of human behaviour linked to what has been dubbed the brain’s hate circuit. To simplify one component of the circuit, the same part of the brain that feels disgust, the insula, is also active when we see something we disagree with emotionally, when we see someone we hate; this may be why one might feel sick with rage or hate, and it is one of the many reasons why my mother still turns her lip and sadly scrunches her face when she sees my name or hears me say I am not a son or a brother or a man and proceeds to warp me into just that. Hate is not solely social, it is a modifiable state residing in many buckets, with social, psychological, biological, and environmental components all playing a role. There are many reasons one can hate, but one is not reduced to these buckets, despite bucketed categorical research suggesting we are, humans seldom fit neatly into a rhyme or reason, and just as there are many reasons one may hate, there are also many reasons to resist hate, to love, to show compassion, to accept, to tolerate. And yet quietly and violently, as if she is wading into pools of grief and disgust, my mother denies me my womanhood again and again.

And again.

She is not just her reaction to stimuli, she can think, she can question her beliefs, her disgust. She is a loving and compassionate human; I do firmly believe this. Yet she holds this disgust, disallowance, and ultimately denial for me. She lets herself collapse into it and, in so doing, pulls me in the gravity of her motion until she no longer has to bear that which she simply cannot go on bearing anymore. Until I am the son. The brother. That unrelinquishable, unchangeable, and ungrievable boy. Forever fixed in masculinity, I am forever warped into what she wants me to be, queered and dequeered into the ghost I used to be.

It has been years and she hasn’t yet managed to come to terms with the me that I am. That unbounded her. That strong woman I am. That beautiful name she cannot bring herself to say, and yet I sink further into letting her cross that boundary of quietly and violently speaking ghosts because… because, well, I need her. I am both done and undone by crossings of maternal love and violence. I am caught up in her and she is caught up in who she thinks I used to be. I will forever remain that unwelcomed daughter and unrelinquished son, always loved and supported and always known in ways I will never be.

It is odd, I would love to say I do not care, that I do not need my parents’ authentic love or validation, but all I really want is just that, their love, and to have it authentically so. For them to love me as me. They would say I have it, but we know they love a figment, a ghost, a man from the air of the past. I just want them to see me. I just want them to be happy I exist as I do; I quietly dream in the same unrelinquished way they loudly love their fiction, both knowing it will never come true.



Live Long & Prosper


What Kind of Thing is an I: on culture, consciousness & the public/private border

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!

pallyallyally: *gasp*

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 [4]. 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 [9], 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 [10] 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.


Culture

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 [17]. 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 [20] 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 [21] 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 [12], 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 [23]. To add a further spice of psych, sociometer theory demonstrates self-esteem as a response to relational evaluation-devaluation [24] and this feedback mechanism will ultimately shape our identity as it (re)produces different status categories [25].

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.


Consciousness

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 [26] 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 [27] 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 [28] understanding that experience is the progression of the variety of its own components, Kant [29] 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 [27]. 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 [18].

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 [30] 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’ [32] 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 [30] 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, [14] 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.


Public/Private Border

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 [30] 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 [35], 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 [36]. 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 [36]. 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 [37]. 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 [38], 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 [38]. 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 [39]. 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.


Conclusions

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.” [41] 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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