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Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Ethos of Authenticity

A recent post at the Bicyclism Blog (Jan. 1, 2009: Authenticity) got me going today. The author takes a lead-out from "Futurist" Richard Watson's discussion of the increasing importance of authenticity, perhaps in the context of increasingly transparent universal interdependence (I'm not sure about that, I haven't read Watson's book). Bicyclism articulated Watson's focus on authenticity:

...with the increasing uncertainties of our times, people will seek authenticity (rather than pretence and ambiguity) as a refuge for sanity and safety. Showing off, he said, is dead. Like the predilection to imbibe exotically labeled bottled water that comes out of the tap anyway. And like the predilection to wear your fantasies to youth and virility by driving a Lamborghini or souped-up V8 muscle car. Cracked leather is good. Like the wrinkles on a face. Plastic faces are out.
and later waxed poetic (a practice I support entirely):
We are the pedlars of authenticity in an age of swelling demand. So, to weave my own futurist vision, can the raw authenticity of cyclists become a societal template to replace that to which bankers and CEO’s once laid siege? In my vision the bicycle becomes an instrument of authentic expression; an instrument of societal progress and integrity. Of course, to we cyclists, this is already the case. But wider recognition would surely catalyse some interesting reconfiguration of a civilisation that is still over entranced with the devilry of manufactured image and misplaced values. It’s time for the age of the peloton of authenticity. We cyclists are, naturally, the ideal lead-out men for a ride such as that.

Aside: There is an essay by Charles Taylor entitled The Ethics of Authenticity. I haven't read it recently, and undoubtedly it's not exactly what I remember it to be. Nevertheless, my fondness for the title has remained. This is important to mention because the title of this post is a reference to Taylor's essay, and becuase I want to generally acknowledge that the value of authenticity is not a new discovery.

As I was writing and thinking about critical mass yesterday I felt uneasy--my thinking wasn’t clear. Now I've found at least one of the missing pieces: the artiface of anarchy. Perhaps that phrasing is too sing-song for serious consideration, but I think the idea is there. It is the antithesis of authenticity.

So, critical mass:

  • Unplanned? Hardly.
  • Transportation? Hardly.
  • Leaderless? Hmm, a suspect claim.
  • A big F-U to auto-domination? You-betcha.
  • A celebration of bicycle culture? OK.
  • Presenting bicycling as outsider or liminal culture? Jah.

Lets bring it on home. The ethos of authenticity is, ahem, critical. Normalize. I'm looking for The Solution, and I believe, as much as I believe anything, that it will be a Bicycle Solution. No,

The Bicycle Solution.

The Bicycle Solution is where the god of What Is meets the god of What Must Be. I'm less clear about how it will come to pass, but I suspect that compassion and softness will be important.

I'm sure that if anyone bothers to read this I'll get shot down as a critical mass nay-sayer, but let me assure you, I love bicycle culture, I love nonsense, costume dress, and irreverent behavior. I like liminal spaces. I like outside-inside tension, sort of. But we can't afford to leave bicycles in the liminal space. Again: we can't afford to leave bicycles outside mainstream culture.

It's the great paradox of liberty, diversity, and tolerance: humans can aspire to be more than human. Go figure. I'll keep working on it. For now, my only advice regarding critical mass is this: don't let yourself become part of a mob. Mobs are what happens when we let go of our aspirations.


  1. Bicyclism, on authenticity: http://blog.bicyclism.net/?p=271
  2. Richard Watson, on authenticity: http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/story/0,25197,24866627-28737,00.html, and http://www.scribepublications.com.au/book/futurefiles
  3. Charles Taylor, on authenticity: http://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog/TAYETH.html


Freewheel said...

Well said. I'd like to see a monthly, respectful, memorial ride.

cgm said...

Yep. I run a community bike shop, and we strongly discourage our core volunteers (as visiblew representatives of the shop) from participating in Critical Mass -- for exactly the reasons the you have brought up.
It marginalizes cycling in a liminal (and ultimately reactive) space, by having bikes play the role of bizarre opposition to the normative auto culture. There is nothing revolutionary in being divisive and different - in fact, it is exactly that kind of difference that helps describe and outline the normative. Every time that we make cycling look aggressive, weird, courageous, etc., we actually reaffirm the normality of cars.
What's most important to me, in my bike shop, is creating an open space that EVERYONE (even conservative-voting SUV yuppies) feels comfortable coming down to explore cycling. We have no advocacy agenda other than education & skills development. If I ride in critical mass, the driver that I antagonize is unlikely to feel interested or welcome to visit the shop to learn about cycling.
Finally, the way to do this - in my experience - has been to excercise self-control, patience and discipline. Sure, we can dream of a radical change in culture that, overnight, produces a complete shift in transportation habits. But that ain't gonna happen- society is a big, complex, slow moving beast. With a disciplined approach to advocacy, we can reign in our radical tendencies & actually do things that productively make the space for the big, slow society to move into. We need to build infrastructure and make bureaucratic paths ahead of time.
In other words: pull the bedraggled radicals together and get them to make the same kind of habit changes (i.e., pulling in their tendencies towards a single-visioned cycling culture) that they ask of car-culture, in order to productively make a space for the slow beast to move in.
Without that discipline of the cycling left, we'll all remain in a dialectical limbo of normative playing off the radical. It's boring, weak, and too divisive to inspire the SUV driver behind me.


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