Friday, August 6, 2010

identity politics cont

I shouldn't be disingenuous. I don't relate to identity politics. But I think that's because I don't relate to subcultures generally. Clearly it's not enough that I'm a man, am white, and am from a middle class background. I know plenty of white, middle class males who ostentatiously self-flagellate and renounce their "privilege". I don't know. It must be some weird thing in my upbringing. I just don't give a shit about that sort of thing.

wherefore the "mainstream"?

I realized today that identity politics is probably just one facet of a larger movement against the cultural mainstream. I realized this when I was thinking about the difference some draw between "liberal" and "radical" approaches to issues of gender, race, or sexual orientation. One of the features common across so-called "liberal" approaches—usually as they're portrayed by their "radical" critics—is a desire to demarginalize a group, usually by acquiring the rights that already belong to the non-marginalized groups (the "mainstream").

The particulars of this aren't that interesting to me. The scholarship on these issues is diverse and nuanced, as contrasted with views expounded by individuals on the internet who throw around terms like "radical", "liberal", and/or "identity politics", which seem coarse by comparison. What interests me is this notion which seems to have entered the zeitgeist at some point after the 60s which equates being radical with being part of a subculture or marginalized group outside of the mainstream. After all, if you go back 100 years, the opposite was the case. Radical political and even cultural claims were not founded in opposition to universalism but were understood as extensions of them. It was the conservatives and reactionaries who opposed to this the rights of the individual or the group.

Nowadays the situation is reversed. But I don't think this is a sui generis phenomenon. It appears to be part of a larger trend. You can see it in music, too. There was a vibrant mainstream in music up until about the mid-70s, and then it started to break apart into different genres. There was no such thing as the "mainstream". You could hear almost any kind of music there was in the middle of the FM dial (at least music produced by whites). The mainstream was formed from the opposition to it of the subcultures which became hip hop, hardcore, alternative, etc. The economic, material component to this was essential, of course. "Selling out" meant compromising your artistic vision for money. But it was more than that, because it was a general way of having a style and being an individual. To be an individual meant being in opposition to the mainstream.

There are probably more examples than this, but these are the two that leap to my mind.

Personally, I'm not sure whether it's a good thing or a bad thing that we now have subcultures in opposition to a mainstream. I don't know whether it's good from an artistic perspective. I don't know whether it's good from a political perspective. It raises a lot of problems. But I don't fall in the "cultural critic" camp. I don't believe we have passed out of a Golden Age into a time of decadence. I think some people in the United States and Europe have undergone a particular experience or set of experiences which have made it seem all-but-necessary to them to embrace a particular model of individuality. That it's the opposite from the model of individuality held by radicals 100 years ago is not good enough reason to reject it. That our current age is beset by innumerable problems is not good enough reason to blame them. I'd be interested in know what caused it to happen and what the general telos of the thing is, though. It might seem odd to look for the natural trajectory of something which seems fragmented and inward-looking, but if I'm right, it is, in fact, a very general trend shared across subcultural lines. You are being an individual just like everyone else—but that might not be a bad thing!

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Follow up to Of Geek Culture

I've given more thought to the subject matter of my previous post on geek culture, and I've come up with an answer which seems so obvious that I don't know why it didn't occur to me before.

Intense interest in a subject or an activity can't make you geek. You also have to be part of the subculture. And everyone knows being part of a subculture is more than taking an interest in certain subjects. It also means socializing with other people who are interested in that subject, going to organized events, joining internet communities devoted to the discussion of the subject, and in many cases wearing the clothes and adopting the manners of speech and expression of other members in the group.

That being the case, I am definitely not a geek. I have no problem with geeks per se, and I have plenty of geek interests. I'm just not comfortable with subcultures in general. While I understand it's second-nature for some people to identify themselves through inclusion in a group (or through their choice in friends), I'm rarely comfortable with that, even if the group in question is marginal or non-conformist with respect to the rest of society. Sure, I have a certain "look" to me which is premeditated (along with distinctive tastes in music, movies, and books), but it wouldn't mark me for inclusion in a group. All my friends are pretty different from one another, and it's usually strange having even two of them in the same room together.

By contrast geeks are inherently social. It seems like an odd thing to say, given the stereotype of the geek staying home Friday night to play World of Warcraft. But while geeks may sometimes not fit into mainstream culture, there's never a shortage of other people who are into roleplaying, genre fiction, cosplay, anime, or programming. On the contrary, some of these are multi-billion dollar markets. There are so many people interested in some of these things that if you want you can choose only to socialize with people who are interested in them. Of course, that's when you get the "I'm different—just like my friends!" mindset, where folks within a subculture tend to have the same cultural references (quoting lines from Monty Python or The Big Lebowski or xkcd), a lot of the same mannerisms, style of dress and music (in the case of hipsters). (That's one of the main reasons I'm not comfortable with it.)

The majority of people seem to have a strong social instinct. They form groups with an inside/outside structure that set requirements on who can belong and who cannot. They form an understanding of who they are by means of their inclusion in the group, so that the group is more than the sum of its parts but also validates the individual's form of life. (This is what Hegel called "spirit" [Geist].) The expectations of the group are norms internal to each member, guiding, restricting, and validating action on a subliminal level. If Freud is right on this point (and in general I think he is), then this is not particular to subcultures but to human civilization generally, so I don't mean to this last point in a disparaging way.

Though the irony of subcultures is that the members really do think they're somehow being more individual by being part of the subculture. For an individual who spent a chunk of their adolescence feeling like a weirdo, the feeling of relief is real when you finally find people who have similar interests as you and who you can "be yourself" around. But if there are so many other people who turn out to be pretty much the same as you—with the same cultural references, mannerisms, etc.—how much are you "being yourself" anyway? The unasked question behind all subcultures is: Who is the me that is me? Why are you you? Is there something to me besides these patterns of behavior and outward appearance? Or am I just an accumulation of causes and effects? Maybe it's because I've always been interested in questions like that that I've never allowed myself to sink into a subculture.