The Cyclist as Man/Woman-Machine
The Cyclist as Man/Woman-Machine

Asking whether it makes sense to talk of ‘the philosophy of…’ something is a question that immediately launches other ones. It makes sense to talk about ‘the philosophy of physics’ or ‘the philosophy of biology’, insofar as it’s possible to explore the fundamental presuppositions of a science (e.g. what kinds of things are there?) and see if they cohere together. On the other hand, to talk of ‘the philosophy of nanotechnology’, or ‘the philosophy of mobile phones’ would be a stretch – perhaps ‘the philosophical implications of x‘ would make more sense. At last night’s Cardiff Philosophy Cafe, Clive Cazeaux, Professor of Aesthetics at Cardiff School of Art and Design, offered some reflections on the nature and meaning of cycling. While these focused on the philosophical implications of the experience of riding a bike, Clive suggested at the same time that, among these implications, is that cycling provides a particular way of ‘knowing’, or revealing, the world that makes up a coherent worldview. This, indeed, may be at the root of why cyclists and motorists sometimes find it difficult to share the same piece of tarmac.

Clive began by pointing out the multi-sided nature of cycling – that it ‘contains’ a variety of different kinds of cycling (road racing, mountain biking, utility cycling) but also reaches into and changes various areas of bike-riders’ lives, from work to shopping and leisure. Other practices also have this quality of course (including driving), but what is the nature of the changes it introduces? To explore this, Clive introduced the ideas of Martin Heidegger and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, representatives of phenomenological approaches to philosophy. Phenomenology, Clive explained, questions whether the difference between subject and object is a fundamental feature of experience, and asks after where this distinction derives from. For Merleau-Ponty in particular, the basis of human experience of the world is our ‘rootedness’ within it, guaranteed by our embodiment, the fact that all experience of external objects and indeed of ourselves arises from our bodily being.

Heidegger described human being as, rather than defined essentially by the possession of a mind separated in some sense from body and world, a way of ‘being in the world’ that finds the meaning of things revealed to us through our active, practical engagement with them. An implication of this is that technologies are not just more or less neutral tools, the meaning of which lies in how they help us achieve pre-existing purposes and intentions. Instead, ‘tools’ redefine the possibilities which exist in the world, and in doing so, redefine our capabilities, making new forms of experience possible. Tools transform our bodily engagement with the world, and as a result, they help us to ‘see’ or understand things differently. In the words of the philosopher Graham Harman, tools possess ‘tool-being’: they remake the world and the significance of the objects within it in particular ways, and thus have effects on us and on the world all by themselves, independently of our intentions.

In the case of a bicycle, we can interpret it as a tool which gets us from A to B. But it also changes the way we experience the world, transforming the experience of walking (a kind of controlled falling, balancing one’s body in motion against the force of gravity) into one of gliding, in which a dynamic connection with the world around us is created that brings with it new feelings and sensations. The bicycle, as a tool and a machine, creates the possibility for new states of consciousness, examples of what the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls ‘flow’, an example of a state which can be called ‘autotelic’, or an end-in-itself, a state which gives meaning to other experiences. The specific nature and value of cycling, Clive suggested, lies in how the bicycle creates a new way of experiencing the world, one that fosters a kind of connectedness that is good in itself, but may also (from, say, an environmental or social point of view) render salient other ways of being connected.

This differs, he went on, from driving. The experience of driving enacts a Cartesian understanding of the relationship between mind and body, in which the car driver (like the minds in Descartes‘ metaphysics) is separated from the world around him/her, and insulated from a full sensory connection with it (sight is the sense privileged in the driving experience). Driving creates a firm sense of defensive interiority, as contrasted with the experience of cycling. Hence the tensions which often emerge between drivers and cyclists on the road derive from fundamental distinctions in how each experiences the world around them. The connectedness, flow and continual multi-sensory feedback which cycling produces, and the fine adjustments necessary to maintain it (like avoiding potholes and so on), are inseparable from a relative unpredictability in how cyclists move through congested traffic environments which car drivers, from their essentially defensive positions, find troubling and even anxiety-inducing (‘what happens if I hit a cyclist?’).

The audience, in discussion, reflected on this characterisation of cycling, with many finding it congenial and accurate. Some attendees had participated in the recent Welsh Velothon and noted that, in sportives or similar events, the closing of roads, clear marking of routes and provision of water and food stops accentuates and maximises the feeling of ‘flow’, creating something like a peak cycling experience. Rather than the utility function of cycling (e.g. the most efficient way to get from A to B in cities), people valued what might be called the ‘excessiveness’ of cycling, the character of an experience that drives people to joyous sprint finishes in the last 500 metres of a 150km sportive. This excessive character has been written of by a number of commentators:

Walking and cycling year-round, if judged by contemporary standards of comfort and well-being, are a ridiculous waste of time and effort; they condemn one to a harrowing descent into “discomfort.” Arriving sweaty at one’s job at the Department of the Treasury, after having cycled sixteenmiles from Bethesda, Maryland, is the indication of a grossly inef?cientexpenditure of time and effort that would be better invested in tending tothe details of the American economy. The worker who does this sort of thing is participating in another economy at the moment he or she worksfor the larger, inanimate fuel-fed economy headquartered (one of its heads,in any case), in Washington, D.C. The expenditure of personal energy isnevertheless tied to an immediate pleasure, a jouissance, of spending set against the great closed (“global”) economy of the world (Allan Stoekl, Bataille’s Peak, p. 192).

Others spoke about the emotional attachment to specific bikes that have accompanied their riders through a variety of adventures. This contribution of singular objects (of various kinds – including cars, perhaps?) to our sense of identity and to the narratives of our lives has been studied by anthropologists such as Daniel Miller. Moving away from the ‘inner’ character of cycling, as described from the perspective of a rider, others wanted to explore the meaning of cycling from external points of view. Does the unpredictability of cyclists, the freedom of movement which cycling creates, make them neither fish nor fowl from the point of view of motorists – and for that matter, urban planners used to trying to accommodate the mass movements of millions of motorised Cartesian bubbles every day? Like Mary Douglas’ concept of ‘matter out of place‘ [PDF] and the troubling ambiguities it creates for human cultures, do cyclists simply not fit in standard transport categories, or indeed within the moral categories we use to think about how others should behave?

In this thought-provoking exploration, one of the key questions Clive left us with was undoubtedly that of the social, and indeed political implications of the distinction between cycling and driving as ways of disclosing, experiencing and being in the world. If they are as incommensurable as they seem, does this mean that the ongoing growth in cycling can only be accommodated by building new, dedicated cycle infrastructure, safely separated from motor vehicles? Many cycle campaigners would agree, arguing that this is the only way to open up the ‘being-in-the-world’ of the bike rider to as many as possible.

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