Gregory Bateson was fond of noting that the Map is not the Territory. This is a statement of the obvious, yet it is also a profoundly difficult concept to hold in mind. Over the past few days I have been reminded this, repeatedly.
During this time I have had the privileged of spending time with several good-hearted people who happen to be experiencing chronic, life altering, and possibly life threatening, illnesses. In each case there is a Diagnosis, after which, as if by magic, the person becomes the Illness, or rather, the Illness becomes the Person. Take for instance, Schizophrenia or Congestive Heart Failure. Each diagnosis is made in the presence of a set of Symptoms. In response to those Symptoms medication may be administered. If the Symptoms respond favorably to the medication, the Diagnosis is confirmed. At this juncture, the Patient and the Illness assume a sort of fused Identity.
I imagine a more useful way to think about Chronic Illness is as a landscape of experience. Some of that experience will be Symptom derived, yet most will be Social. For instance, having had Polio at an early age, I experienced a dramatic shift from full mobility to limited mobility. My body was no longer the companion I knew. I also experienced a profound break from my family, as I was hospitalized for many weeks. I became further socially isolated as both a Cripple and a potential Carrier of the Disease. Note that both of these roles are social constructs, yet these very constructs become Symptoms of the Disease, as well as markers for my Recovery. Over time the paralysis and weakness associated with Polio slowly lessened but did not disappear. I was permanently and chronically altered. The presence of Polio was irrevocably written on my body. Polio had become firmly social. My reactions and adaptation to this new life constituted a journey into unknown, although well charted, territory. The map, although potentially helpful, was most certainly not the territory. My experience was PERSONAL!
This problem with maps and territory also came up this week in the squabble surrounding Elizabeth Warren‘s claim to Native American Ancestry. I found myself wishing she had simply addressed the issue in all of its racism and complexity. But she didn’t, and I can empathize with that. After all, Identity issues are maddeningly difficult for many of us. They are also politically charged.
In response to the controversy CNN posted a thoughtful discussion about blood quantum and tribal membership. The piece opened:
The recent controversy over Massachusetts congressional candidate Elizabeth Warren’s Native American ancestry, where the campaign of her opponent for a senate seat called for her to release documents claiming her Cherokee ancestry, has caused some to ask: What makes someone “legitimately” Native American? And who gets to make that determination?
The remainder of the article read as a fairly balanced and nuanced exploration of the complexities of Native identity. If there is a glaring absence, it is the absence of any discussion of the history of Federal efforts to shrink tribal roles and fracture relationships between Native people and tribal life. Nor is there sufficient discussion of the Mixed Race experience, including the lack of a Federally recognized category for those of us with complex identities, a situation somewhat address in Canada by the designation, “Metis“.
In a lengthy article for Newspaper Rock, Michael Patrick Leahy asserted that as Warren appears to have no direct evidence she is Native, she is not. He further asserts that only tribal membership can be used to determine Identity, suggesting that family lore is inaccessible as evidence for Self. Of course tribes have an interest in limiting membership, both to maintain traditions and protect limited resources. Beyond that, categories must have some definition in order to be meaningful; if everyone is Native, no one is. Still, the Map is not the Territory. Leahy’s position fails to adequately address the plight of millions of North Americans who as a result of governmental action or personal surveillance, chose partial assimilation while Identifying as Native. Nor does he give sufficient weight to the immense difficulties posed by the process of mapping Native identity in families who “passed”.
Identity politics are powerful, and more often than not, the maps used to structure and validate them are faulty. I suggest that cognitive maps are inevitably as problematic as they are useful. This is especially true when the territory being mapped is that of Personal and Family Identity, Ethnicity, and Chronic Illness. History is a construct, a map created by a mapmaker, and reflects that person’s priorities and concerns. We must be very careful when applying such devices to the lived experiences of people. Too often the map erases both lived experience, and Self.