Sunday, March 27, 2005

authenticity politics

Authenticity politics is an idea I came up with a few years ago to capture the kind of discussions that surround a particular identity. Specifically I am thinking of who is a real cyclist, or skater, or islander, or blues musician, or whatever. If you have spent time with a group like this you will have noticed that a lot of discussion surrounds the identity itself, and how the various practitioners enact it. The discussants slice the world up into those who are real whatevers, and those who are not. Those who are not are labelled posers, goat-ropers, tourists - there are all sorts of good terms.

In day to day life among the practitioners, discussions revolve around what characteristics actually count in the identity. If one is a cyclist, does one have to spend $500 on the bike, $1000, $2000? Does he have to shave his legs? Does s/he have to wear the whole spandex getup? What about the wackos - the singlespeeders and the fixed gear types? Do they count, even if their rigs are cheaper and their legs hairier?

Is it possible to spend too much money on the bike, and the clothing? Ahh yes and this is the worst offender - the wannabee. If one spends a lot of money on the bike, one better have the legs to back it up.

More often than not if you follow these games all the way through you end up in an ideal type that ensures no one is a real anything. The mythic figure of cycling is the old farmer in overalls on his single speed schwinn who shows up and wins the race. On Islands the mythic figure is someone who was conceived there, born there, lives there currently, hasn't been off the island for very long (in short a very dull person). In blues clubs it's four grizzly old black men sitting in the basement drinking burbon out of water glasses pickin out tunes.

The real people that actually do these activities fall short of the ideal types. Cyclists come in all flavors. Many would like more time to ride and more money to spend on their equipment, but what matters is they are riding. Islanders also come in all flavors, but what matters is they are living and trying to make a living in their little town surrounded by water. So too with blues men. They may not look like Muddy Waters in his juke joint, but they're playing blues to paying customers. What bothers the purists is the songs are old timeworn classics and the customers are often white tourists.

This game goes on ad nauseum with almost every subgroup I bump into. Indeed it is really more about community, belonging, and politics, than any of the philosophical issues associated with the identity. It seems to mostly be about who is strong in a community, who his/her associates are, and who are left out. These identity politics turn out to be about the same thing any politics is about - power and resources. Being in with the right crowd allows cheaper resources, better help, more knowledge from those who know, and so on. To be accepted as a cyclist by a community of cyclists gets you access to all sorts of used parts, knowledge, wrenching help, and sometimes at-cost parts. The solo cyclist, with no cyclist friends has to buy everything at whatever price s/he can negotiate or find on the net. S/he has to teach him/herself to wrench, breaking lots of expensive stuff in the process.

The reason it is authenticity politics is because the authenticity of that particular identity is negotiated between the individual and the community, and between neophytes and the established members all the time. These negotiations are part of the subtext of conversations about the identity and the paraphenalia that goes with it.

An interesting aspect of this approach to identity is that it focuses as much on community acceptance as it does the individual's behavior. This is in stark contrast to lots of thinking about identity. Much that is out there today focuses solely on the individual enacting an identity, missing out on the community aspect.

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