Identity politics as such

Or; now that I’ve got everyone’s attention it is time to loose it.

My recent post has everyone thinking.  Good, though not too good because too many are agreeing with me.  So I’ll expand on a particular pivot in that post which has, seemingly, eluded many.  Identity politics is at first glance the idea that beliefs flow out of some category of identity.  A natural assumption which our minds understandably use to order the world, and one which is often quite accurate.  The problem comes with that unconscious orthodoxy reverses itself, and you begins to not only organize but create beliefs out of the assumption that you are part of a certain group and that thus you ought to belive/think/act/etc in a certain way.

This is of course dreadfully simplified, and rarely takes place out in the open subject to timely introspection.

Do not go to wikipedia looking for illumination here, the article is awful.  Instead, read Chantal Mouffe:

I want to make clear at the outset that my reflections will be inscribed within an antiessentialist theoretical framework according to which the social agent is constituted by an ensemble of subject positions that can never be totally fixed in a closed system of differences.

Which is to say that while our collective tendency to use identity groups (stereotypes is not quite right here) as shortcuts in ordering experience, the almost inevitable hardening of basic assumptions which follows almost always has pernicious consequences.  This is the point about contemporary cultural critique which the crude brush of American education so often misses; that you can have (for example) discrimination which is intentional on a cultural level but accidental and largely without malice on an individual level.  The summative weight of complacency is what leads to structural discrimination, the essentialism mentioned above, where certain attributes are inscribed as essential to the being of a certain group of people.  Women not having the mental wherewithal to be trusted with suffrage, for instance.  The fallacy is not in any particular example, but in the idea that there is any internal validity or coherence to these categories outside your particular vision at a particular time.

What does this have to do with backpacking?  The belief that once you enter into and self-identify deeply enough with a given category, that you are permanently part of that category.  A basically good person does not need to continually do good things to stay that way, and a card carrying SUL backpacker need neither continue to examine her practices nor actually backpack often to remain so.

Simple self-complicity, but it’s useful to think about how it perpetuates and becomes a matter of groupthink.

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9 thoughts on “Identity politics as such

  1. One reading of this entry is that you are calling for identity self-policing. While this may improve individual well-being by encouraging people to be more aware of discrepancies between their actions and intentions, and more able to recognize when it is time to move on from an identity, culturally it is really no better than in-group policing since it leaves the identity category and its associated dogma intact. A more generous interpretation is that you’re suggesting that individuals deconstruct the category themselves in order to re-make UL as a philosophy of being rather than having, or at least decoupling having from being. I ask, though: what is the larger cultural change intended from this reformation, and is UL particularly suited as an avenue for it?

    I’m sure for many individuals the UL methodology becomes the philosophy–“can” becomes “should” becomes “must,” but I’m also sure that in a consumerist culture this shift is a structural inevitability to remain culturally relevant. This is the ironic underpinning of BPL’s current woes, in my opinion–how do you sustain a capitalistic enterprise when the core “philosophy” of said enterprise is centered on “less” consumption? Well, by advocating having more but using less, of course. You can see the success of this approach by all the NW(O)T, never-worn, set-up-once-in-the-backyard offerings on Gear Swap. And the natural extension of using less is getting outdoors less and less. You argue against complacency; what I see is not complacency but rather vigourous post-hoc justification of the merging of having with doing. This is why I question the utility of examining UL with an eye towards reform. It has progressed exactly as its framing says it should have.

    There is a larger matter here in which you’ve not defined whom you’re actually criticizing. Even given a perfect seperation of methodology from dogma, not everyone’s priority is going to be maximizing time in the woods, nor should it be. Some people need less time in nature* to recharge; others have other responsibilities or hobbies; some just can’t afford the time or the expense for more involved trips. You seem to be criticizing a very specific sort of ULer: the (upper) middle class Westerner with the time and disposable income to prioritize getting outdoors but who deliberately chooses to acquire gear and talk about it online instead. It may or may not be true that this demographic encompasses the majority of your readers, but I think specifying your target will clarify your argument.

    *For the sake of simplicity I’m defining nature as (mostly) undeveloped terrain with native or restored undomesticated flora and fauna. Examining the assumption of a human/nature dichotomy can wait for another day.

    1. I see little purpose in further specifing a target; readers can decide applicability better.

      I agree that BPL (being the most prominent and, more importantly, articulate and coherent example) has become based on a contradiction, and with your analysis of the same. Fortunately a publication is not a building and structural paradox need not be cause for immediate panic.

      I think UL backpacking is as well suited as anything for the change you discuss, and the methodology is obvious: more narrative content, and most especially technical content framed more explicitly in experience.

  2. One thing I am curious about is this: why does it matter to you what other people do, or how they choose to identify themselves? The behavior you describe can be seen in all kinds of people groups, whether it be hobbys, religions, (sometimes it is hard to tell the difference between peoples hobbies and religions) etc.

    You are obviously very convicted about this, so I would say live out your convictions. Inspire the change you want to see by living an inspired and inspiring life. Keep writing about your life – like you have been. Whether UL lives, dies, or morphs into something else shouldn’t matter to you – unless you have some sort of identity yourself wrapped-up in the term.

    1. “Whether UL lives, dies, or morphs into something else shouldn’t matter to you – unless you have some sort of identity yourself wrapped-up in the term.”

      That is based on the simply fallacious idea that what others do does not affect me, or anyone else. Obviously in this particular case the impact is modest and of trivial importance, but that mindset writ large is and continues to be responsible for all sorts of ill.

      1. I am not suggesting that what people do does not affect others – that is why I suggest that the best way to affect change is to inspire it by being the example you want to see. Being overly concerned with what others are doing can sometimes be a slippery slope. I find myself continually having to pull myself from that trap – the Internet doesn’t help matters 🙂

  3. Good summary. There is certainly a ‘sociology’ to hill walking, and you start to identify and unfold it. I think however it goes beyond your analysis insofar as you describe the politics of identity, but you do not consider qualitative differences. “Discrimination”, before it became a bad word, was a good word. It meant evaluation, scrutiny, intelligent appraisal, etc. I suggest, to put it bluntly, all “identities” and by implication all cultures, beliefs, etc, do not have the same value. To suggest otherwise is to suggest Cultural Marxism, which gets tied to ‘political correctness’.

    But yes – there certainly are “identity” factors, not only in hill walking but in other hobby pursuits too. This is then corralled and manipulated by gear companies, and the result is gear is regarded in terms of ‘fashion’.

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