Bicycles, the Body, and Ideological Instability

This was posted 2 April 2021 on From The Forests of Arduinna through Substack.
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This morning I whiled away an hour in the garage replacing a bike tire.

There is a sublime pleasure to repairing things yourself. In the last few months, I’ve learned how to replace my bike’s brake pads and optimize their tension and re-calibrate the gear mechanisms (the derailleurs), along with a few other adjustments. Next up I’ll learn how to replace the derailleurs themselves and also the brake cables.

Replacing a rear bike tire is a bit of a complicated process, because there is the bike chain to negotiate with. This one is probably even a little more complicated than others because it is an electric-assist bike. There is a battery which adds propulsion to the back wheel (incredibly useful in this place, which is all hills), and the connection for that electricity is also part of the rear bike.

Nevertheless I figured it out and it works wonderfully. What is more interesting to me is not how long it took to change the bike tire, but how long it took me to understand it needed changing at all.

I noticed something weird happening with the bike a few months ago, just after I had changed the back brake pads. There was a “bump,” a soft rhythmic shake to the bike as I rode. I initially assumed it was a flaw with the wheel itself, or perhaps I had not set the pads in place correctly. But for the most part it didn’t get in the way of riding the bike, so I ignored it.

One day I noticed the bike itself was becoming unstable when I turned. But it was an incredibly windy day, so at first I suspected it was that and continued to ignore it. It happened again on a calm day, so I finally took the time to really listen as I rode to determine where and how it was happening.

I noticed an apparent bulge in part of the tire, corresponding with the “bump” as I rode. So I did some research on the internet, and immediately panicked in the same way one does when you research medical conditions on the web, reading the worst case scenario first. Forum after forum suggested it was the inner tube escaping the tire in a place, or bunched up, which would inevitably result in a “blow out,” and a bike tire blow out while going down a steep hill pretty much means serious injury at best.

I stopped riding it for a few days because of this, but then really needed to use the bike to get to my new gym (a bit more on that in a bit). So I rode cautiously and slowly, staring at the tire often to make sure I wasn’t going to die. After the gym, I examined the tire and realised no: the inner tube wasn’t out. It was the tire itself, broken in a section. The bike could be ridden a bit more, but I would need to change the tire soon.

The long process of understanding what happened mirrors also something I have come to understand with this new gym. It’s a “training” gym, swank and clean and kinda high class, and each member is assigned a personal trainer. The idea of ever going to one like that terrified me, as I’ve been going to a “basic” gym (actually, “basic” is literally in the name) and teaching myself what to do for the last three years.

My first week of training at this gym was utterly exhausting, much more so than most of my previous self-led sessions. This is in spite of the fact that the weights I am now using are much lower than what I was on my own, and there are fewer sets in the program my trainer developed than I was doing. The difference here is that I have someone watching me constantly to make sure I am only using the muscles I am supposed to, not “cheating” by using others. There is also an intense focus on full range of movement, something I never came to on my own.

These two experiences both remind me of what happens in ideology. Previously in my training, I didn’t fully understand how my body works. I knew “the task” well: lift this very heavy thing this many times, move on this thing very hard for this amount of time. Likewise, for the bike I understood the “symptom” and focused on that in order to eradicate it, rather than taking a much larger look at the bike itself and seeing how it was put together.

Ideology is maybe less like a bike and more like a body. Ideology has a heart, a founding world-view at its core that is invisible, just like our internal organs are not easily seen. Everything is connected to that core, but all the other parts of it, which are the “working parts,” are rarely understood as connected to that foundation. And like a body trying to do certain tasks (like lift weights), ideology often will compensate for its weak parts by enlisting other aspects of itself.

Also like both a body and a bike, adjustments to an ideology (though here I really mean “worldview”) constantly must be made. Bike parts wear down and must be replaced, gears and brake lines slip and must be adjusted. Doing the same thing in the same way with the body every time can lead to injuries, illness, and imbalances. Parts that are weak will stay weak if parts that are stronger are always used to compensate for that weakness, and this ultimately will wear down joints and cause injury.

This I think is particularly relevant to a lot of the ideology and worldview of what we sometimes call ‘“the left,” or particularly the “social justice left” (though here I must confess I have less and less attachment to political definitions than I did previously). Especially in matters of identity, the focal point is always on “symptoms” and “tasks”: inequality and the desire to rectify it, imbalances in wealth and access, and all the negative “-isms” that form a constellation of oppression.

But starting from the symptom or the task can lead us to miss how things are actually put together and not notice where the problem really is. It can lead to compensations and adjustments that maintain and even reinforce the underlying problems, ultimately leading to a core instability that causes even more problems.

This is especially true in the matter of identity. You might know that there was a bit of a furor over something I posted five or so months ago, asserting that all racial categories were erasures and false abstractions. The general consensus (with the exception of several Black Marxist comrades attempting to defend my statement) was that this itself was racist of me to have said. Generally, “whiteness” is bad and must be eradicated, but “blackness” is vital and liberatory and must be cherished.

There is a deep and apparently invisible problem to this internal contradiction, besides just its reinforcement of race as an essential category. I point to this in my most recent essay at Another World, “A Plague of Gods: Cultural Appropriation and the Resurgent Left Sacred.”

…the current arguments about cultural appropriation lead to an increasing framework of racial separatism. “White people should not do non-white things,” whether said by a white nationalist or a social justice activist, ultimately leads to the same terrifying end, which is ultra-nationalism and fascism.

The same problem also occurs with the insistence that culture can be described and defined through the (invisible to most activists but nevertheless deeply present) capitalist framework of property and ownership. The problem is that these lines of reasoning only reinforce that framework and ultimately lead to a much more dangerous conclusion.

But that conclusion is rarely noticed, because everyone involved in such lines of reasoning are so focused on the task at hand, lifting the heavy weight of exploitation and colonialism. Here the effects of this problem are seen as mere “bumps” that can be compensated for, especially the increase of identitarianism and even more racial conflict.

The responses from those who have read my essay have been deeply positive. Less so those who reacted to quotes on Facebook, including a few who felt the need to publicly denounce me as a heretic. Of course, that’s social media for you, and also what happens when people react to what they think you are saying rather than what you are actually saying.

I’m okay with that. The core problem is much too serious for such things to matter to me.

The core point of the essay is the issue of the sacred itself. What makes a thing sacred? Is it because people have made it sacred, or is it because the thing is already sacred in-itself, regardless of what humans think or do? I’ll end this dispatch with a longer quote from that essay:

If one doesn’t believe the sacred exists, or if one’s conception of the sacred is something relative to an individual or people group rather than something that is in-itself sacred, then the conversations will always be founded instead upon secular political situations and frameworks. If on the other hand a person believes the sacred “really” exists, not just as metaphor or cultural forms, then the conversation will include a line of reasoning that those secular political situations cannot accommodate.

To put it in a much simpler way, consider the sacred oak tree outside my window as I write this. Is the tree sacred because humans made it sacred, or was this tree sacred and I merely recognize its sacred nature? The first view is human-centric and assumes that humans are the arbiters of what is sacred and what is mundane. The second view, which is the animist view, recognizes that there is a divine Other which exists outside, without, and despite us. In this view, the tree is sacred in-itself, not because “all trees are sacred” but because the divine Other intersects through this particular tree’s existence and the tree itself is divinely Other.

In the secular, non-animist view, appropriated cultural forms do harm to people and ultimately endanger those forms. In the animist view, the appropriation of cultural forms are a sign of the sacred “transgressing” the boundaries humans made for it, attempting to spread and expand just like forests tend to do. This latter view, the left sacred view, does not necessarily mean that theft should be encouraged. Instead, it concludes that this is part of the nature of the sacred itself, a buried or chthonic shadow aspect.

The divine Other wants always to infect the world, to overwhelm the channels and burst past the dams we build for it. Thus, it is not only not surprising but also quite humorous that gods worshiped in India are inked into the arms of London and Los Angeles hipsters, that sacred entheogenic practices colonial administrators attempted to eradicate are now being practiced in the very nations from which those administrators came. Likewise, it is both unsurprising and also humorous that the gods and ancestors of colonized and oppressed peoples of Africa and the Americas were hidden in plain sight through their syncretic association with Catholic saints (the original meaning of “cultural appropriation”), just as the pagan gods of European peoples like Brigid, Ana, and Hermes survive in Catholic saints Brigitte, Anne, and Expedite.

Shift the view slightly and we can also find ourselves laughing at the terror of a white Southern Baptist preacher seeing his grandchildren wearing the hairstyles and using the language of the Black people he fought to segregate out from “proper” society, just as medieval Catholic bishops complained relentlessly of the faithful dancing the old dances, visiting the old fountains, and even engaging in secret rites with menstrual blood under the full moon.

We must remember here: in the animist view, the sacred cannot be destroyed, because it is wholly-Other. The sacred is a terrible, terrifying, powerful force. Attempts to destroy it, or to suppress it, only make it angry, make it more insistent about transgressing into the mundane.

That, I think, is what is happening now. It is a messy and unclean process, especially politically. The social justice framework cannot accommodate for this sacred resurgence, especially because the sacred cares nothing for modern myths about racial and national identity. There is little we can do about it, as policing the borders of culture only further entrenches the right sacred at the expense of its left.

Recent works

  • A Plague of Gods: Cultural Appropriation and the Resurgent Left Sacred
    available at Another World (includes downloadable PDF) or at my Patreon (PDF only).
  • The Trade (an audio recording of one of my favorite short written works)
    available also at Another World and on my Patreon later today.

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