Tag Archives: community

The Problems with “Identifying-As”

A number of things I’ve read and/or observed lately run aground on the notion of “identifying as”. The notion of identifying as in a fixed manner indicates not only a misunderstanding of the proper use of that action, but a misunderstanding based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the notions of Self, identity and Self-Identity.

The only thing I identify as in a fixed way is my Self, i.e. I identify uniquely and solely as me. This isn’t some rampant individualism, since my Self is largely shared with other human beings, more so the closer we are in terms of the society into which we were initiated, and in which initiation we became human. Self-identity, at its base, is precisely the identity of one’s Self with oneself. How we comprehend this identity and how we always know when we are being true to our Selves is a complex matter, but it has nothing to do with identifying as one genera or another, or with one group or another.

When I see someone doing verbal somersaults trying to accommodate their sexuality, as an example, to a label they can be comfortable identifying as, and predictably failing, there is a demonstrable confusion between who one is and how one happens to live. Simply put, if I fuck the same sex, I’m gay; if I fuck the opposite sex, I’m straight; if I fuck both, I’m bisexual. At any given point in my life, based on how I project myself acting in the foreseeable future, picking one or the other shouldn’t be altogether that difficult. The apparent difficulty arises when we try to use the way we project living in the reasonably near future as determining who we are. At that point the simple definitions (and the huge variety of more complex ones) are never sufficient to capture every aspect of something as complex as sexuality, and the only possible outcome, beyond the above mentioned confusion, is a self-limitation to one or another group’s definition of itself as a group. Living as straight, gay, bi, is not a limitation since that projection can change as we change and develop. Identifying as any of those, or queer, or leather, or cuticle-centric, or whatever is inherently limiting the manifold ways in which we change and grow as selves.

Of course we spend time in various groups, not just over a lifetime, but over a single day, and to some degree we ‘take part’ in the identities of those groups. However simply because we are employed by private businesses we do not necessarily ‘identify as’ rampant capitalists; nor do we necessarily ‘identify as’ xenophobic nationalists simply because we come home to a family of a particular ethnicity and enjoy some of the common praxes of that ethnicity. The State arbiters between groups as groups precisely because individuals morph between various groups on a constant basis, and as a result their identities, wants, desires are far too complex and fluid for any kind of comprehensible contract between state and individual. Just as having an ethnicity that is part of my identity does not make me identify as that ethnicity, neither should having particular sexual proclivities, or being part of particular groups that are defined by some common proclivity, force me to identify as that proclivity. While it is part of my identity it may be a major or minor part, it may be constant or fleeting, or it may come and go.

The exceptions, of course, are groups where membership is a lifelong binding commitment. Being a Jesuit is not something you can take up and put down, for example. Neither is being a Hell’s Angel. Even in these extremes, though, members remain the complex beings they are, the difference being that they have made a solemn commitment to putting a particular group’s interests above those of any other group they may take part in at different times in their lives or different times of the day or week.

With the implosion of the concept of ‘personality’ and its replacement with the poorly enough defined ‘self-identity’, as individuals we are in greater difficulty coming to grips with who we are than ever before. However self-identity and identification are separate matters, and conflating them cannot lead to a satisfactory self-understanding. Simultaneously modernization, and capitalization in particular, has functioned as an acid on a vast number of shared praxes that lent a sense of belonging to members of different groups, whether the destruction of the shared praxes of particular rituals in various religious groups and their replacement with groups that only share abstract ideological belief-systems, or more recently the abandonment by capital of the shared praxes of the sciences, and the ensuing removal of funding for the scientific community and its replacement with “knowledge workers” that do not maintain the expensive and, from the perspective of global capital, useless shared praxes that gave a sense of belonging to members of the scientific community. These changes lead to an understandable desire to have a comprehensible determination of oneself, and a sense of belonging to some sort of community with whom we share something intrinsic.

Creating new communities, though, requires new shared praxes, and this is a difficult achievement, particularly in a time where people are skeptical even of skepticism itself. Trying to create communities via a shortcut of self-imposed sets of limitations via the notion of ‘identifying as’ will not work, and in fact will cause nascent communities to self-destruct, leaving individuals in the same place they were to begin with. There’s no point in defining and redefining what makes a particular group the group it is to such a degree that it becomes unrecognizable. All that’s been achieved, functionally, is the destruction of the group and its replacement by an arbitrary set of individuals with no common praxis that would lend the sense of belonging and identity desired in the first place.

Redefining something in order to make it more inclusive, in this case usually inclusive of whatever is part of your Self, but was excluded in the original definition, also makes the definition less precise. As an obvious example, some of the recent redefinitions of ‘leather’ that I’ve read are so inclusive they make it practically synonymous with ‘human’. We all belong to that definition in any case, there’s no need to duplicate it, nor will doing so give anyone any greater sense of belonging to something particular.

Communities based on new shared praxes, providing they are not particularly difficult or onerous, have the advantage of being open to anyone willing to participate in the shared activity, without thereby becoming more and more inclusive to the point of meaninglessness.

The Difficulty of “Community”

There is a lot of discussion, pro and con, regarding “community” among the set of people that view themselves as “kinky”, or “into BDSM”, whether that means the leather community or some more general community.  However there are a few fundamental difficulties that don’t affect more stable forms of community to the same degree.  If it seems like I’m singling out the leather community that’s simply because it is a nameable group or set of groups that people identify with as being-part-of, as belonging-with, something that is more difficult when you’re talking about “people into kink”, where the notion is so indefinite (how does one pick out a kinky person in a crowd?) that the idea of belonging-with is too intangible.  I also know a fair amount about the leather community, having been peripherally involved since my teenage years, without personally identifying as leather.  Partly this lack of identification comes from my not being particularly community-oriented, belonging-with has never been a focus of the way I am and therefore behaving in any specific manner other than what I felt like in order to belong was never particularly attractive.  At the same time I have consistently had friends who were very involved in the leather community, and I have no issues with their involvement, since it works for them.

One issue is the push-pull between inclusion/being included and exclusion/separating.  This has been an issue in the LGBT community, particularly in terms of ‘acceptance’ politics, for years.  I recently read a post by a leather dyke complaining about not wanting to be part of the “pansexual” play space because they prefer to be separated from het couples.  Although the post had a number of self contradictions (the main one being the notion that gay women had more “right” to being part of the leather community than het couples, when in actuality gay women were only accepted as part of the gay male leather community at the same time as heterosexuals, and even then somewhat begrudgingly).  There was also a snide comment about people “living based on fiction”.  While I’m not a fan of the fiction being referred to myself,  as far as leather goes, the look and the communities that followed were popularized by the film “The Wild One” with Marlon Brando, and as far as I remember it wasn’t exactly a documentary.  Prior to that there was really only one major biker club that had a look anywhere close to the way Brando dressed in the film, and ironically even that club changed their logo to resemble the one in the film after its release.  Gay leather and all the variations that followed came after the film and their dress code was based on it.  

Overall, my feeling about that post and similar ones I’ve read, is that you can’t really accuse people of jumping your train when it isn’t yours, and it barely left the station in any case.  The first women’s leather club was formed only 25 years ago, so even referring to the “history” of dyke leather (or any other form really as they’re all fairly new) is a pretty ersatz notion of history.

A more fundamental problem, though, is the lack of any praxis that is shared by the community as a whole.  Other communities, whether religious, scientific, political etc. generally have, or believe they have, a set of shared praxes that foster the sense of community, however BDSM doesn’t involve any particularly necessary praxes that are therefore shared with everyone and determine at least partially who they are. One would think that, within the leather community, the shared praxis of wearing leather in order to dress in a way that evokes masculine power, which was the original point of the dress code, would be the minimal requirement since it determines who the person is at least insofar as their appearance goes, but even that requirement is not acceptable to many people that nevertheless claim to be part of the leather community.  As a result the leather community, which at least appears to be more of a community than the kink scene as a whole, is in actuality a hodgepodge of clubs with very different praxes and ideas.  Someone who recently attended a couple of leather conferences complained to me that those who take it upon themselves to “represent” leather are themselves a very small group that, because they travel to most conferences, give an appearance of representing a community that in fact is mostly mythical, and only exists in the appearance itself as appearance.  Since I’m friends personally with certain people involved in that representation, there was a degree of trepidation in his saying it to me, but I think his perception is fundamentally correct.

This is true, though, in some cases more than others, of many communities that we still think of as actual communities.  For instance scientific method as the shared praxis of scientists is only valid if you stretch the meaning of scientific method to include a wide variety of techniques that contradict notions such as the repeatable experiment completely, simply because that method is not particularly useful except in particular sciences.  Yet even those scientists that fundamentally never use most of what is meant, strictly speaking, by scientific method, themselves believe that they use it in a modified form, and as such are members of the community.  There are equivalents in most religious and political communities . In other words, the representation of community in those that represent it doesn’t necessarily represent any specific reality behind the representation, but instead gives a specific form to how someone in the community might appear and behave and therefore be known as belonging-with that community, and in turn at community events that form is more or less followed by most attendees. This appears to confirm the representation but in fact is post facto based on prior knowledge of the representation, such that the presentation of community as community mimics the representation, not the other way around.  That many of the attendees don’t dress that way at other times doesn’t affect the situation, since it is only at such events that the community presents as a community.

This isn’t necessarily a negative judgment either on the community or those that represent it.  It may be the only means of creating a sense of shared, social being in a situation where we are only ‘together’ in a negative sense, i.e. because we have a shared dislike of the lifestyle promoted in the mainstream, but no specific shared likes.  In this sense the truth of the community is that it is a fiction, but truth often takes the form of fiction, the reality only appearing after the fiction has created its preconditions.

It can become problematic mainly if the fiction over-determines reality rather than simply determining a particular appropriate aspect, in the sense of normalizing practices and relationships that we specifically left the mainstream in order to not have normalized for us by others.  The representation has to be seen as only one possibility that may even be purely fictional, but represents a myriad of realities that specifically do not want a normalizing representation.