Authenticity Roundtable – Authenticity in Motorcycling

Steven E. Alford

Significantly, motorized transport is often an element in an owner’s identity formation, from Ford Mustangs to Teslas, from Vespas to Harleys. What one drives or rides reflects the owner’s character, suggesting that there’s no small identity anxiety involved in the purchase and use of a motorized vehicle. Groups form around them, and then further distinctions are made among owners. In the world of motorcycling, distinctions are often made among riders, with some suggesting others aren’t “real bikers.” This issue is further compounded by the role popular culture has played in establishing the image of the “real biker,” i.e., a member of a patch club (commonly referred to as a “gang” member).

△ Members of the Motor Maids women’s motorcycle club pictured with co-founder Dot Robinson’s Harley-Davidson. [Fig.1]

The notion of patch club members being “real” results not from any empirical facts about the motorcycle-riding public (patch clubs form a tiny minority of American motorcyclists), but from the overwhelming success of various media, in particular the movies, in creating an image of the “bad-ass biker” for the non-riding public. This mythologizing began with 1953’s The Wild One, through Roger Corman’s B-pictures, evolving slowly from Harley-riding white men to culturally diverse, sports bike-riding men and women who would not look out of place on a Parisian catwalk.[1]

Central to the discussion of who is and is not a real biker is the concern with “authenticity,” a better term than “real,” as it captures the heart of the issue: some people are “authentic” motorcyclists and others are “inauthentic”; the latter are, for example, posers, squids, or, for some, women.

What do we mean by the word “authenticity?” I will focus on three ways of addressing the issue, through philosophy, cultural history, and psychology. I will argue that what links these three areas together is the phenomenon of anxiety, and that ultimately the resolution of anxiety in the motorcycle community results from a mistaken notion of authenticity.

Heidegger on Authenticity

Philosophically, there is no better way to understand the phenomenon of anxiety, and hence authenticity, than to look at the framework engendered by Martin Heidegger in his famous 1929 work Being and Time.

For Heidegger, we “always already” find ourselves “thrown” into the world — we do not “enter” the world but find ourselves within it. Our consciousness itself is not separate from the world but gains a sense of itself through its ongoing engagement with the world, not as the inherited Cartesian notion would have it — that we are our mind, with a body attached somehow to it, observing a world external to us. Whether through actual things, or representations of them in the mind, connectedness is our natural condition.

Our task is, then, to describe this ongoing connectedness, what he calls “being-in-the-world.”

The principal internal property of this being-in-the-world is anxiety. For Heidegger, the roots of this anxiety can be understood in a couple of ways. First, on the deepest level, anxiety results from the recognition, and consequent fear, that I am going to die, a thought both temporally uncertain and deeply frightening. One way we deal with this anxiety is to ignore it, pursuing transient pleasures, acquiring things, chasing money, desiring novel experiences. All these seemingly normal human pursuits can be explained as means of distracting ourselves from focusing on what Heidegger calls our “ownmost possibility,” that of our death. For Heidegger, to resolutely confront the possibility of one’s own death is the beginning of living an authentic life.

A second way to understand the Heideggerian “authentic” is to return to the notion of thrownness. We find ourselves always already in the world and, in asking ourselves who we are, what sort of person we are, we rely on definitions outside ourselves that have been established and clung to, often for no reason, owing largely to tradition. Heidegger refers to this inauthentic mode of being as the “they-self”: the modes of action and self-identification that result from our need to belong to and identify with a group. We are partners in a socially acceptable marriage; we identify with our birthplace; we root for particular sports teams, we aspire to dress in certain “fashionable” ways, etc. We share these and many other properties with numberless friends and strangers and, interestingly, define ourselves in opposition to those who do not share these connections. Yet, if I were to ask what makes me me, it cannot simply be a random collection of seemingly accidental relations with others. Hence, on another, perhaps more superficial level, I am possessed of an ongoing anxiety about who I am.

Heidegger’s analysis of anxiety puts us in a peculiar position. On the one hand, we suffer from anxiety regarding our mortality, an emotion we assuage by pursuing superficial goals, such as money, sensual pleasures, and social status. Simultaneously, in attempting to understand ourselves as individuals, we gravitate toward socially agreed-on pursuits and goals, most of which are clearly inauthentic. The solution for Heidegger is not through forming social bonds, but through confronting the unique, individual inevitability of our own death. A resolute confrontation of this biological fact is, for him, the path toward authenticity. Yet, humans are fundamentally social creatures, so “finding oneself” through the private, philosophical pursuit of authenticity seems to ignore this significant other dimension of human existence.

Clearly, there is a conflict between the internal quest to live an authentic life and the connection to a wider community. Another window into this tension can be seen in our inherited Western commitment to “individualism.”

Western Individualism

The notion of the individual striving for excellence among his competitive peers has a sound place in American culture, with the Self Made Man held up as a social ideal. Yet, this celebration of individual success as a worthy life goal has not always been paramount in Western culture.

For centuries, humans saw themselves as positioned in a fixed, particular hierarchy of existence. This hierarchical structure was solidified in the concept of The Great Chain of Being. This chain placed humans, as one scholar has put it,

in their proper place along with angels, heavenly bodies, and our fellow earthly creatures. This hierarchical order in the universe was reflected in the hierarchies of human society. People were often locked into a given place, a role and station that was properly theirs and from which it was almost unthinkable to deviate. Modern freedom came about through the discrediting of such orders. … But at the same time as they restricted us, these orders gave meaning to the world and to the activities of social life. (Taylor. p.3)

The transition from a rigid social hierarchy to our contemporary notion of individual freedom has been explored by numerous scholars. Let’s just note that we understand freedom in the context of modern individualism as the right to choose our own goal(s) in life and the path toward achieving those goals. Ideally, this choice is unburdened by any sort of restraint, as the individual herself is the ground of the legitimacy of the goal and its path. We are not “born into” a rigidified place in society (as a king, soldier, priest, or peasant), satisfied that a Deity has placed us in that position. By contrast, the burden of modern individualism is expressed in a conception of an atomistic individual uncoupled from her surroundings, who determines her place and path in life through her own actions. This is destructive both to the individual and society, a society with which the individual identifies only when she sees it in her own (often falsely understood) interest.

Thus understood, “the government,” “the man,” “the deep state” all function as a limitation on individual freedom and thus one’s progress toward contemporary authenticity. However, as Charles Taylor notes, “The danger is not actual despotic control but fragmentation — that is, a people increasingly less capable of forming a common purpose and carrying it out. Fragmentation arises when people come to see themselves more and more atomistically, otherwise put, as less and less bound to their fellow citizens in common projects and allegiances” (p.112). As Taylor notes, “The more fragmented a democratic electorate is in this sense, the more they transfer their political energies to promoting their partial groupings” (p.113). In our case as motorcyclists, many feel the need to characterize certain types of riders as “real bikers,” distinguishing between the authentic and inauthentic relations between riders and their machines.

Taylor observes that the moral implication of individualism is that “everyone has a right to develop their own form of life, grounded on their own sense of what is valuable. People are called upon to be true to themselves and to seek their own self-fulfillment. … No one else can or should try to dictate its content” (p.14). As a consequence, “a liberal society must be neutral on questions of what constitutes a good life. The good life is what each individual seeks, in his or her own way, and government would be lacking in impartiality, and thus in equal respect for all citizens, if it took sides on this question” (p.17).

How can we understand authenticity as a legitimate personal goal without misunderstanding the nature of not only “the individual” but selfhood itself? The individual is constituted not as an isolated monad, but dialogically, through reciprocal interaction with others. Without ongoing social interaction, there is no self; without a self there is no possibility for interaction. This phenomenon is demonstrated with some simple psychological observations.

Psychology and Authenticity

People insecure in their own identity and sense of self turn to a group with which they can identify as having shared values. The problem, of course, is that the shared values themselves are by definition localized and narrow; this creates the possibility for shutting out other connections we might share with others. Instead, we look at ourselves as members of a tribe, and we resent the threats that the supposed larger society has toward the significant continuance of our tribe, and in turn our own self and sense of authentic identity.

A significant means of how we identify with a group is by rejecting anything not part of that group; this rejection helps sustain, and may clarify the identity of the group, and in turn the identity of the person. Hence, we identify things that are authentic and things that are inauthentic, which mutually define themselves and solidify the sense of and the importance of being authentic.

This type of tribalism has a good number of attractions. It is centrally advantageous because of its circularity: a person seeks a group to identify with, and then in turn that identification gives one certain positive affirmation. This positive affirmation, in turn, solidifies a commitment to the group itself. This commitment to the group then also reinforces a negative perception of those outside the group: there’s something wrong with those people because they do not share the values or identify with the group in question.

Yet, as Taylor said, “self-fulfilment, so far from excluding unconditional relationships and moral demands beyond the self, actually requires these in some form. The struggle ought not to be over authenticity, for or against, but about it, defining its proper meaning” (p.72).

And here we find the crux of the argument: what counts as being authentic, being real? I have suggested that the impulse toward authenticity is anxiety, whether that be metaphysical or psychological, and our modern Western cultural tradition, with its emphasis on individualism, has problematized the notion of belonging in the quest to live authentically. This much is certain: we must assume that authenticity is a practice, an activity, not a goal that can be realized unilaterally or definitively, and that it can only be achieved through social reciprocity.

Given that authenticity requires social reciprocity (in simpler terms, belonging to one group or another) the real issue is not the positive notion of identifying with a group, but rather the negative notion of identifying with a group too narrowly. When we distinguish judgmentally between, for example, Harley riders and sport bike riders, we are failing in our quest for a more holistic and encompassing notion of the self that sees its situatedness in a broader culture, which is the ongoing activity indicated by a search for authenticity. A successful search for authenticity, to repeat, is not a fixed goal, but a never-ending activity, one which would involve a widening of the horizon of ideals worth striving for, resulting in a larger personal identification of the individual with the whole, whatever that might be.

Our style of motorcycle dress, our choice of motorcycle, how and where we ride, our mechanical abilities — these markers of authenticity are bound up with their negation, whether those negatives involve riders on “foreign” motorcycles, riders who don’t share our sexual orientation or religious belief, or riders incapable of working on their bike. Narrowing the circle of motorcycling authenticity is not only wrong, but, in the long run, self-defeating if our goal is to become a more authentic person. Making judgments or engaging in actions in the quest for authenticity through an act of negation may be a natural reflex but should be avoided whenever possible.

We’re not squids and posers and bikers; we’re motorcyclists. Let’s all ride together, and ride like nobody’s watching.

Alford, Steven E. and Suzanne Ferriss. Motorcycle. London: Reaktion Books, 2007.

Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. Trans. John Robinson and Edward Macquarrie. London: SCM Press, 1962.

Taylor, Charles. The Ethics of Authenticity. Boston: Harvard UP, 1991, 2018.


[1] For a more detailed discussion of identity formation around motorcycling and popular culture representations of riders and their machines, see Alford and Ferriss.

Image Attributions

[Fig.1] Photograph courtesy of Motor Maids, Inc. (Alford and Ferriss, 2007, p.68)

Steven E. Alford taught philosophy, film and literature at Nova Southeastern University from 1982 until 2016. His areas of research and teaching include contemporary Continental philosophy, film criticism and theory, and the contemporary American novel. With Suzanne Ferriss, he published Motorcycle (Reaktion Books, 2008), as well as An Alternative History of Bicycles and Motorcycles: Two-Wheeled Transportation and Material Culture (Lexington Books, 2016). His book on environmental philosophy, Pathways to an Environmental Ethic, is forthcoming from McFarland.
He currently lives in Oregon.

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One Comment

  1. You are right, Steven (E. Alford). You are wrong, Steven: Some use a motorcycle just as a transport to travel long distances to discover the beauty of the world. Just between the heaven and the earth. The motorcycle-type is not important.
    BaiBeiByeBernd (Tesch, 82,4 y. Germany. United Europe. Hoping united world someday). Happy 2024!

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