Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Monday, May 8, 2017

mobility, bicycles, cyborgs

I’ve mentioned that Adam Roberts is blogging his way through the voluminous works of H. G. Wells, and I’ve found myself thinking often about this post, on Wells’s early book The Wheels of Chance: A Bicycling Idyll (1896). At one point in the post Adam engages in helpful ways with Paul Smethurst’s recent book The Bicycle: Towards a Global History (2015):

Smethurst’s account of the rise of the bike argues for speed as the salient, something he equates with a new mode of mastery that is both spatial and sexual. ‘Pedestrian travel is more embodied and place-bound than bicycle mobility, but mastery of space is more limited,’ he suggests. ‘Ground gained step-by-step can be less expansive: there is little sense of speed and motion is absorbed into the surrounding space. … Bicycle mobility has a greater potential for transgression than walking because the cyclist can more readily breach the boundaries of social space.’ [Smethurst, 64] He concedes that the motor car ‘has displaced the bicycle as a figure of speed’ nowadays, but maintains that bicycling involves the actual penetration of space in a way that the spectator-like experience of driving does not.

Then Adam quotes Smethurst:

As modernity advanced in the West in the late 19th century, the idea of existential spatiality was beginning to supersede attachment to traditional place-bound community, in both theory and practice. … Humans are said to be able to cope with severing ties to traditional place-bound communities through a capacity to objectify the world by setting themselves apart, by creating a gap. While this is sometimes represented in modernism as a negative sense of alienation, bicycle mobility re-engages the subject through narcissistic projection and a mastery of space en passant.

And comments:

It’s a particular kind of machine, in other words. Wells pitches the narcissistic projection (as it were) as comic, and his take on the mastery of space is tied, I am going to argue, as I freewheel down the hill of this post, with a sensibility we would nowadays call cyborg. Not just the fusion of man and machine in the context of modernity, the fusion of male and female, and their respective modes of sexual desiring.

You should read the whole post. It’s really good.

I think both Roberts and Smethurst are onto something quite important here. Reading them together you discern that the bicycle as a technology occupies a distinctive point where embodiment and crossing meet. (I say “crossing” rather than “transgression” because I don’t want to confine myself to morally or politically freighted uses, and though the root of “transgress” means simply to “step across,” we now use it exclusively to describe bold, risky crossings that defy something or someone, either for good or ill. That’s too freighted a set of connotations for my purposes. Smethurst often uses the term “crossing” for similar reasons.) The appeal of the bicycle lies in its power to enable crossings of space, including politicized social space, that would be frustratingly time-consuming on foot, but to do so in a way that requires your embodiment, that demands your full physical engagement. And if Adam is right, this particular nexus of possibility is powerful enough that people can become in a sense fused with their bicycles and thereby become proto-cyborgs.

As Adam notes in another post, this one on the 1905 book A Modern Utopia, the question of mobility is an essential one for Wells:

Not for the first time in Wells’s career, the ability to move freely about is the real index of utopian desire. His alt-world, with its globe-spanning networks of rapid electric trams and trains, and its happily nomadic population, is one vision of that possibility. Where Thomas More sequestered his utopia on an island against the hostility of the larger world, Wells inverts that model: his whole world is perfect except for ‘the Island of Incurable Cheats‘’, ‘Islands of Drink’ and so on. But this larger logic of inversion reveals itself as, actually, an ideological shift. For just as Wells’s Utopians zoom here and there with ideal and total mobility, so they are surveilled with an ideal and total surveillance. Every Utopian is assigned ‘a distinct formula, a number or “scientific name,” under which he or she could be docketed’, and every single citizen is included in this database: ‘the record of their movement hither and thither, the entry of various material facts, such as marriage, parentage, criminal convictions and the like’.

This, provocatively, suggests a proportional relationship between a given person’s mobility and his or her legibility (to borrow a term from James Scott You are free to move about insofar as the state can “read” you, can know who you are no matter where you are. As mobility goes up, privacy goes down; one freedom comes at the expense of the other.

In this context we might note that in the (benevolently?) panoptic world described by Iain M. Banks in his stories of the Culture, those who commit crimes are not imprisoned but rather are followed everywhere they go by a drone, which in turn leads to social ostracism. Mobility is not restricted because the prerogative of the state of punish does not, in circumstances of unlimited surveillance, require the restriction of mobility. But for the person who gets “slap-droned,” freedom of movement may not have much point.

But in our imperfectly surveilled world, one of the primary ways that citizens become legible to the government is through having homes, domiciles, permanent addresses. A legal system like the Schengen Agreement is meant to apply to people whose governments are sure to know where they live; when it’s made to deal with refugees and others who are homeless, confusion ensues. For those who make, and most completely benefit from, the rules by which the state sees us, mobility might seem to be an unalloyed good, which is why Emmanuel Macron’s campaign slogan was En Marche! — On the Move! On the way! To where, one might ask, but it doesn’t matter, the point is simply that we picture ourselves as mobile people, unconstricted by place.

But if you’re a Syrian refugee, being en marche can become a curse. It is good, indeed, to reduce one’s chances of being bombed or gassed or shot, but it is also harrowing to have no idea when one can stop being on the move, can rest — can, maybe, even have a home. We might here offer a thesis: The value of mobility is relative to the option of stability.

In this recent essay on displaced persons, past and present,, Peggy Kamuf writes,

What, then, of the right to move, the right to migrate? Is it not the most fundamental human right, presumed by every other right that can be claimed as a human right? … Although the Universal Declaration of Human Rights recognized in 1948 that everyone has “the right to leave any country, including his own,” none of its 30 articles says anything of the right to migrate to elsewhere. As for freedom of movement, the Declaration envisions it solely “within the borders of each state” (Article 13, “Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state”). As conceived by the UN, then, freedom of movement is a right limited by the sovereignty of the nation state. Writing in the same year, Hannah Arendt pointed to just this limitation of the “best-intentioned humanitarian attempts to obtain new declarations of human rights from international organizations.”

Freedom to depart means very little if there is not also the freedom to arrive.

In a few days I’ll be going to Wheaton, Illinois — a thousand miles from where I now live, in Texas — to visit my old friends, and I’ve decided to drive. I’ll not try to do it in one day; I’ll have to stop overnight; it’s not exactly a scenic drive; and yet I’d rather put up with those inconveniences than with the multiple indignities of commercial air travel. That is, in this particular case, I would rather accept restricted mobility than accept the multiple ways that the TSA and the airlines demand that I become what Michel Foucault calls a “docile body.” (I might feel different about all this if I could afford business- or first-class travel, but I can’t.)

All of which should serve as a reminder that it is not only mobility that we are discussing here. Flying does not give me more mobility, it gives me greater speed: that is to say, it uses less time. If I were wholly unconcerned about time I could ride a bicycle or walk to Illinois. But if I were more concerned about time than I am — if, for instance, I were in the middle of a school term and could only spare a couple of days — then I’d simply have to accept the indignities of being the airline’s docile body. Or stay home. But I’m not in school right now, I have no pressing deadlines, and my wife and son are happy to share his car for a few days; so I’ll be driving.

Publicists and salespeople speak of “the romance of travel,” but not all travel is romantic, and among the kinds that could plausibly be so described, there are multiple sources of appeal. Crossing the Atlantic on the Queen Mary, or Europe on the Orient Express, or Route 66 in an old Mustang, may all be romantic, but in radically different ways. (Is flying first-class to Europe also romantic, or just luxurious? I’m not sure.) We might experience the romance of being served, the romance of novelty, or the romance of … well, what is the driving-cross-country romance, the On the Road romance? It has a good deal to do with making your own decisions, driving as long as you want to drive and stopping when you want to stop. The romance of novelty can still be had in an automobile, but can be more readily had if you stay off the interstate highway system, which promises (and delivers) the complete absence of novelty.

Because you drive the automobile yourself — a situation that will last for the next few years at least — a fairly high level of physical as well as mental engagement in the act is possible, especially if (a) your car has a manual transmission and (b) you’re not on the interstate. As Nick Carr points out in his book on the powers and limits of automation, The Glass Cage, it’s even possible when driving a car to enter into the state of flow celebrated by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi — and that sense is what enables the cyborg-feeling that Adam talks about in his post on bicycles.

So any serious understanding of mobility will require that we map our experiences on a complex set of axes:

  • slow/fast
  • embodied/disembodied
  • independent/docile
  • impoverished/luxurious
  • rooted/rootless (or secure/insecure, or sameness/novelty)

Typically, people emplaced in the world as I am — i.e., wealthy people in safe and stable societies — have control over at least some of these dimensions, while the further you descend the social scale the fewer options will be available. And those who can choose will choose rather differently, because they will have different “sweet spots”: for some the conservation of time will be paramount and will therefore fly whenever flying takes less time than driving; others will prefer to stay local so they can be on their bicycle, or on their feet, as much as possible; and so on. We’ll have different preferences in different circumstances, of course; but each of us, I think, has an “all things being equal” default preference when it comes to being en marche.

Please look again at the binaries listed above. In general, I think we’ve seen over the past century or so a dramatic shift of preference towards the right-side options: willing to be more docile and disembodied in exchange for speed, luxury, and rootlessness. Which is why, even if the most important thing an individual can do for the environment is to stop flying, that’s simply unthinkable even to the most bien-pensant among us.

But I wonder if that could change, given (a) the increasing unpleasantness of air travel, (b) increasing reports of the unpleasantness of air travel, or (c) both. I have always hated long-distance driving, but the more time I spend in airports the better driving looks to me, thus my decision about this week’s trip. And next month, when Teri and I head to Biola University in Los Angeles for me to lead a faculty seminar there, we’ll also be automobiling there — certainly a more interesting drive than the one from Waco to Chicagoland, but also a longer one. And then maybe those who now drive can recover the pleasure of bicycling … Well, it’s something to hope for.

Though I don’t think the trajectory can be reversed: speed and neophilia (the love of novelty) are, I think, sufficiently desirable to most people who have choices that they’ll gladly accept docility and disembodiment in exchange for them. And that exchange is one of the key paths to the posthuman.


  • The appeal of fixed-gear bicycles seems to me that they pull biking towards the left side of your axes.

    It also occurs to me that while 'mobility' tends to mean 'overall quantity of motion,' it can alternatively be taken as 'power over one's own motion and rest.' Sometimes when we praise increased mobility, it's because we have the second thing in mind: increased power as a self-mover. The refugee has plenty of the former, very little of the latter.

  • Well this is a wonderful post, Alan: long and chewy with ideas and thought-provoking, which is just how I like them. There's a great deal to engage with here, and a lot I agree with; but for now I'm going to respond to one thing.

    You say "Freedom to depart means very little if there is not also the freedom to arrive"; which makes plain sense. And of course I share your hatred of the manifold humiliations of air travel, and try to minimize that mode of transport as much as I can in my own life. But it's a function of travelling in ways that are, in one way or another, encumbered, isn't it? You, for instance, have to travel to a particular place at a particular time to see your friend. In the UK there's a general grumble about the way airlines hoik-up prices as soon as the school terms end, because they know that that's when families want to fly abroad. This is nothing but market forces of course, but it creates huge resentments amongst ticket-buyers, in exactly the 'they've got us over a barrel' sense you're talking about. Parents taking their kids out of school early, illegally, disrupting their education and so on, all to get cheaper flights, has been a news story over here lately.

    But all this is so only because the travel is encumbered by the various practical constraints of certain ties, certain specific destinations and so on: by the necessity of specific arrival you touch on. It's all the constraint of arrival, which is the real enemy of the freedom of arrival you mention.

    Travel without that constraint and the whole thing becomes much less oppressive. And this brings me back to the bicycle, where you start; or more specifically to the bicycle as cyborg. In my original Wellsian post I mention Kraftwerk in passing; but really they merit a whole post to themselves, because they really are the first great prophets of the cyborg bicycular manmachine. This post quotes an interview with Ralf Hütter about his many bicycles, and how he likes to ride them, and this bit in particular strikes me:

    "Hütter saw cycling as more than a mere leisure pursuit, something closer to a political statement: 'No, it’s not for holiday. It is the man machine. It’s me, the man machine on the bicycle. Holidays are an alienation, a consumption concept. To relax ourselves, we ride the bicycle, it’s enough. We are liberated from holidays.'"

    Liberated from holidays! This, it seems to me, is the real freedom of arrival, because it is the cyborg eradication of those constraints by which car companies and train companies and airlines hem us in. Travel, in this model, would be a purer sort of flâneur living: turning up and buy whichever tickets are going cheap. Travelling for the same of travelling. Pursuing motion for the sake of motion rather than destination; travelling hopefully, not arriving.

    Not sure that appeals to me, mind.

    (And it may have its own cyborg downside: in 1983 Hütter was involved in a bicycle crash serious enough to put him in a coma for two days; and when he woke his first words were "where’s my bike?")

  • ". . . speed and neophilia (the love of novelty) are, I think, sufficiently desirable to most people who have choices that they’ll gladly accept docility and disembodiment in exchange for them. And that exchange is one of the key paths to the posthuman." As I read this, in the context of a post on bicycles and air travel, I recalled the scene in E.T. where the kids on their dirt bikes are hemmed in and magically fly over the town to escape. Having reached the dead-end of their ability to transgress social spaces, they're liberated into a different - extraterrestrial - kind of freedom. A wonderful wish-fulfillment!

  • These are great comments, folks! I shall incorporate them into my thinking and you may hear from me again on these matters....

  • Regarding academics ("bien-pensants"?) and flying, you might like to take a look at flyingless (also Twitter @flyingless).

    To drive a given (fairly long) journey, alone in an average American car, is typically less carbon-efficient than flying the same journey, though the math changes if you carry passengers. Flying's carbon impact, then, comes less in its passenger-mile efficiency than in the expanded range of possibilities that it opens up (as in, "I am going to China for a three-day conference"). Do we really need to attend all those conferences? But of course our whole academic ecosystem, including our system of status evaluation, has fashioned itself around them.

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