Identity Poetics

The boy who rode on slightly before him sat a horse not only as if he’d been born to it which he was but as if were he begot by malice or mischance into some queer land where horses never were he would have found them anyway. (Cormac McCarthy, All The Pretty Horses)

I’m going to talk here about the sense of “fit” that I feel when reading something written from a subject position that seems to resemble mine, the feeling of excited recognition, and how far or in what ways it can be trusted. I had that feeling, or a feeling in that family of feelings, this morning as I read a piece of writing by Melanie Yergau, a self-identified “spectrumite” (that is, someone on the ASD spectrum). It’s a really take-no-prisoners piece of writing, superbly spikily uncollegial, and it filled me with shock and delight. Even as the essay talks about the absurdity of portioning the world of discourse up into communities bounded by sharp circumferences, I feel a proximity to it, or a desire for proximity towards it: it may not demarcate a crisp circle in a Venn diagram, but it opens up a rhetorical space that I feel comfortable in partly because it is ringed about with enough apotropaic barbed-wire to keep hostile forces at bay – and I feel myself comfortably on the right side of that barbed wire, enclosed rather than repelled by it.

At the same time I’m ambivalent about that sense of comfort, which seems simultaneously tempting and presumptuous. On the one hand, it’s tempting to say that it’s no accident that I feel this sense of familiarity and identification: something in me responds to something about that written voice, the experience and perspective it articulates, and this must be because I have something in common with the speaker; perhaps it is that I am also a “spectrumite” (as I’ve believed for a while, in fact). On the other hand, it is unavoidably true that it is also somewhat of an accident. This discourse, this manner of speaking, might never have existed, or I might never have come across it. There is nothing inevitable or necessary about the articulation that has formed between my way of feeling and this form of expression. My identification with it, my use of it as a mirror in which I think I see something about myself reflected, is opportunistic, and might even be seen as voyeuristic or exploitative. One of the concerns of Yergau’s piece is the desire of the “typical autistic essay” to maintain a sharp distinction between those who may legitimately picture themselves in that mirror, and those who are copping an attitude (so to speak). I’m not sure I can reliably distinguish in myself between sincere, well-founded, defensible identification, and trying a position on for size. I’m not not copping an attitude.

I would like, it is true, a bona fide, argument-ending retort to the suggestion that I am simply impossibly stubborn, or was inadequately socialised – that is, whipped into shape – as a child. I know that there is something odd about me that is as incorrigibly resistant to force or persuasion as some people find their sexuality to be. You can squelch it or deform it, but you really can’t make it go away. The world of my childhood was quite sharply divided into people who recognised that this was the case, and people who didn’t; and the latter were and remain an enemy between whom and myself there can never be enough barbed wire. My oddness doesn’t excuse me from making adult decisions about how to function in the world, but it does impose upon me the necessity of weighing up questions such as “will putting myself in this situation cause me to have a frightening and embarrassing meltdown” to which the answer is sometimes “yes” irrespective of all the very good reasons why I ought to just knuckle down and get on with it. The task of cultivating “coping strategies” is, let’s say, ongoing.

It’s not just a matter of mapping internal states, but of giving names to experiences. The experience of being aspified or autismatised, if you like. A while back I was standing with a group of friends, all computer-y people, talking about the sorts of things computer-y people like to talk about. We were relaxed, companionable, fluidly interacting. Then some non-computer-y people came over and started talking to us, and we were instantly “the nerds”. It was efficiently, if subliminally, communicated to us that our confidence in our own social presentation was ill-founded, that in fact we should be ashamed of ourselves for existing. After we prickled at them a bit, the aggravating people (who said nothing outwardly aggressive or harassing) went away and we were able to recover ourselves somewhat. But I was strongly reminded of how much “nerdiness” is a social relationship, a hierarchical relationship, rather than an essence one carries around inside oneself. This wasn’t, in my reading, just ingroup-meets-outgroup (which will always shift the tone somewhat). It was very distinctly an experience of being put in one’s place.

There is always something a bit vicarious, a bit unstable, about identification. Which doesn’t mean that we’re all mistaken in our identities – it’s more that there’s a constitutive instability to the way in which society at large constructs and projects identity categories. We live through others’ ambivalence towards us, and are sometimes forced to bear the consequences of their attempts to resolve that ambivalence to their own satisfaction. That motive seems to me to be at the root of most of the psychic violence that has ever been directed towards me, in any case (and is undoubtedly also at the root of much of the psychic violence that I’ve doled out in turn). It’s a relief to escape from that ambivalence into a positive assertion of identity, but I am always haunted by the feeling that this is a sort of mis-step. The prerogative of deciding belongs to others: when you’re acting peculiarly, you’re being a bit autistic (which is a problem you need to work on); when you’re affirming neurodiversity, you’re not nearly autistic enough to own that position. This is perhaps a better problem to have than the problem of being positioned as irremediably low-functioning, but it’s generated by the same value system. I’ve learned from my wife’s research that there’s a similar catch-22 around class identity, where those with the cultural clout to challenge classist stigma are invariably defined out of the stigmatised group (“not really” working class, or working class but not really impoverished, etc), and can be variously accused of copping an attitude, maintaining a chip on the shoulder that really ought to have been brushed off by now, or illicitly appropriating others’ genuine misery.

It was impossible not to wince when I was introduced to a friend-of-a-friend who had done therapeutic work with autistic children with “oh yes, Dom’s a bit on the spectrum himself” – as I sat in a noisy pub, drinking beer, not noticeably twitching (the beer helps), and even remembering to make eye-contact from time to time. Her diplomatic “well, we’re all somewhere on the spectrum” was I suppose the nicest possible way of telling me to pull the other one. It’s true and it’s not true, because neurotypicality is a thing and not everybody is that thing, and because the prevailing assumption is that neurotypicality is healthy, functioning and socially viable in ways that non-neurotypicality is not. Where some of us are on the spectrum – even if it’s a long way from being constantly excruciatingly over-stimulated by everyday situations – is a problem. Identification with the problematised position comes with a shock of delighted recognition when you see that it is after all possible to speak from within its contradictions.