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There is no identity or self

By June 10, 2021July 6th, 2021No Comments

There is only the mattering map

All over the planet, identity politics are pitting us against each other in ever increasingly proprietary action. I want to propose here that a “turning in” to one’s own identity group is an important stage in any liberation movement. It is a strengthening, a “coming together,” but it is not a destination. It is a phase that we must pass through and return to periodically for support, but to remain in this phase is to defy moral and psychological development.

None of us has only one identity. We each live within multiple identities and influences that morph and move just as we speak. We are not, in the final analysis, members of categories. Categories are products of our human minds. Our brains are primed to create categories in order to make meaning of experience. They are an epistemic device endowed upon us by Mother Nature. As with other aspects of education, they are designed to be outgrown, broadened and deepened as each human mind develops. Not to do so is to remain developmentally delayed in an important sense, to eternally view the self only in contrast to others and not in harmony with them as well.

In other words, identity or the so-called self is not static and unchanging. Nor does any one of us have only a single identity. Only reductive and undeveloped thinking can make this focus seem so. The problematic alternative to such a reduced self has for some time in Western thought been a fragmented self. A feminist epistemology1 sees something different from both of these traditional choices. At least, my feminist lens, proposes otherwise.

When women and underrepresented minorities were finally admitted into fields such as psychology, we found the field divided, fragmented and self-perpetuating in the image of those who inhabited its structures and its fields. We found disciplines. Clinical or experimental, social psychology or personality theory. And between disciplines, psychology or sociology, social science or hard science, academic or practitioner, objectivity or subjectivity. All those false choices. All those disciplines, falsely divided from each other, each growing discipline looking for its own narrow answers.

Those of us who were missing from the theories were shocked and dismayed and watched our previous version of “reality” deconstruct before our amazed eyes. Built on faulty foundations, they easily crumbled as we began to ask the question of a child’s puzzle: “What is missing from this picture?” It turned out to be us. It turned out to be the experiences of the marginalized, those of us excluded from making psychological theory and conducting research.

We set about deconstructing and reconstructing entire fields. I want to begin by leading you out of this urban construction boom to a larger metaphor, not as a replacement, but one large enough to encompass the others and offer an integration of the separated fields. And that is what I have named the “mattering map”. Both of these simple words contain whole universes of meaning, so I want to open these worlds for you to enter.

Let’s begin with mapping. Maps originally included the footprints of the traveler and depictions of events along the way. They were as much works of art as of science and designed to guide the traveler through dangers, monsters and everything else that the intrepid adventurer might encounter along the way. They were as much psychological as they were geographical and we humans were an integral part of them.

In Costa Rica today, where I have lived for many years, almost no one can read maps, although they are reasonably oriented in space and time.

This makes it extremely difficult for first world tourists as they depend on a two dimensional, flattened and decontextualized representation. If you show such a piece of paper to a Costa Rican, they would probably shake their head and not understand. Then they would offer you more useful instructions such as: “Continue on until you come to a sleeping dog. Turn left there and then right at the tree that was in front of the pharmacy that burnt down in 1948.” Without history and context, without three dimensional complexity, the traveler is lost.

The mattering map

I prefer the term “mattering” to meaning for its ability to encompass and enfold, to embrace meaning and caring, mind and heart, feelings and ideas, for they are not separate nor are they related in a linear “cause and effect” sequence. Instead they are inextricably intertwined, each implicate in the others and deeply enfolded in the matrix of human experience.

The mattering map is many things at the same time, too many, in fact, for the human mind to grasp all at once. It is, in one sense, a model of meaning making, of what matters in psychological life. Humans are nothing if not social creatures, and all social relationships are also organized by mattering. Our human minds cannot do otherwise than search for mattering; our human hearts cannot do other than have others matter to us and ourselves to others. We are built this way as exquisitely social animals.

Mattering is also inextricably intertwined with matter, each of which shapes the other through the processes alternately named genetics, biology, psychology, culture or human experience. It is, at the same time, a meta-concept and the glue of all human experience. Mattering is what unites diverse aspects of the context into patterns that repeat themselves sufficiently to be designated in our human minds as significant and it is what connects us to each other so irrevocably. As much as matter is a sine qua non of our material existence, so is mattering of our psychological, spiritual and cultural aspects. It is the interpersonal glue, the psychological equivalent of gravity.

Human thought, feeling and responses used to be conceptualized as occurring in specific, isolated areas of the brain. As neurology has been increasingly able to look at that brain while it is responding, it has become apparent that the brain itself is connected in complex and interacting networks and does not function autonomously in isolated locations. It may well be said that there are no isolated and unchanging locations within the brain or on the mattering map.

In the human brain, enormously complex circuitry connects disparate locations and thus permits complex biochemical, energetic, psychological, socio-cultural experiences including, but not limited to, memory, suffering, pleasure, love, desire and despair. Complex neural circuits fire in harmony to produce these experiences and the more they are associated with each other, the more they become associated and begin to fire together, as originally noted by behaviorists many years ago2. The architecture of the brain is continuously modified by each of these events and is characterized by varying degrees of plasticity throughout any lifetime. Change is not only always possible, but inevitable.

Energy fields

Finally, mattering can be conceptualized as a force field, an interpersonal gravity. There are multiple energetic forces impinging upon any individual and any social interaction. Much as various areas of the brain may be linked in a particular response, so does mattering always have multiple sources and manifestations.

You might picture each of us and all of us as enveloped in a force field, a cloud of energetic probabilities and potentials. This field does not stop at the skin or at the nerve endings. It is unbounded. Should it encounter a different energetic system, which it inevitably must, they can interact, clash or they can fall into synchrony with many variations in between. This process of entrainment has been noted in many natural cycles, including that of menstrual cycles beginning to coordinate when groups of women are living together. The energetic cloud in which we all are enveloped can and has been observed to overlap with another’s when they are well in tune with each other and actually to merge when two people are reportedly in love (Lipton, 2002).

It is impossible to reproduce the book here, so I intend instead to offer certain important aspects of my thinking in this and the next few articles I write. Because it matters.


1 Developed most recently in my book Sight Unseen: Gender and Race through Blind Eyes (Columbia University Press, 2015), translated into Spanish as Mirar Sin Ver (Uruk Press, 2020).
2 Hebb, D., 1949.

This article was originally published in the Wall Street International Magazine.

Ellyn Kaschak

Ellyn Kaschak

Ellyn Kaschak, Ph.D. is an internationally acclaimed and award-winning psychologist, author and teacher. She is well-known as a speaker, workshop leader, human rights advocate and a public intellectual.