July 2006

READING THE RIDE, OR GETTING A MOTORCYCLE COURSE PAST THE ADMINISTRATION

Katherine Sutherland

I know that many people reading this journal have found a way to contrive a career around bikes and riding or have written about motorcycle culture in one form or another, as I myself have, and these projects have forced us to find audiences or contexts receptive to serious considerations of riding. This is often difficult. But more difficult still is the feat I managed: that is, I was able to convince the university where I teach to allow me to offer an entire course on motorcycles, speed and literature. This particular project did not just involve finding a receptive audience among the students; it also involved the far more daunting task of convincing my colleagues and the administration that motorcycles are worthy of serious scholarly attention.

Now, I’d like to be able to tell you that I spent some months quietly cultivating various cunning pedagogical arguments which would persuade my entire department of the righteousness of my personal world view, but I’m afraid the story is more banal than that, and I don’t come out looking particularly clever. Basically, the guy who was supposed to teach the shell course, “Studies in Literature,” got a big research grant and dropped off the face of the earth; the next guy on the list for the course was on sabbatical; the woman next on the list for the course had a massive anxiety attack (familiar to all academics) at the thought of prepping a course mere months before offering it; and thus I, seizing the opportunity to look noble while actually getting my own way, answered the increasingly desperate call for volunteers with a martyred “Well, I guess I could take on this heavy burden, you know, for the department.” And then, more quietly, muffled by the grateful effusions of the workload planning committee, I added, “I could throw together something on mumble mumble and literature.” And so, I give you mile one on the road to having your very own motorcycle course: carpe diem. This part is easy, because, as you know, situations of extreme planning panic are commonplace in university settings.

So the course was officially on the books, though still awaiting final approval based on content—something I would be able to put off for months—but also based on strong enrolment, which was a slightly more pressing consideration.

The enrolment issue, or step two, posed a challenge: unfortunately, it was too late to get the course into the calendar, because, as you likely already know, the registrar’s office makes it a rule to print the calendar months before any department could possibly know which courses will be offered (and thus, the colorful tradition of internal, departmental cock-fights to have our own courses made into requirements for the Majors program. This also explains why some Majors have such bizarre requirements, like, say, an English Major that demands six credits of Ancient Norse Sagas: it’s not really that the course will be invaluable to a later thesis on poststructural theory, but rather that the guy who teaches the sagacourse is obviously the department pit bull). So my problem was that even though I has managed to wangle this course called “Motorcycles, Speed and Literature” into the timetable, there was no hope of making it a requirement of the English Major, not on the first offering, anyhow. And, to be frank, even I had difficulty wrapping my head around the idea that Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance had the literary virtues of a classic—in fact, I was already struggling with the inevitable truth that I would actually have to read this book again, as an adult.

A sad fact was becoming clear: the course had to be an elective, and so the students would have to want to take it. Having only taught courses that students had to take in the past, this was new ground for me. Undaunted, and with a clear, North-American understanding that surfaces are far more important than substance, I dropped immediately any notion of advertising a scintillating reading list and decided on posters, really sexy posters. Here I was lucky again: the head design guy in the print shop just happens to ride. Cue the poster, produced by Horst Holstein. I spread these posters liberally around campus; a week later, virtually all of them had been stolen. I replaced them, this time in locked, glass poster cases, which required the keys of someone different in every building—keys handed out with no discernable logic or master list, as it happens. But happily, as registration began, the course filled rapidly. Step two had been successful. 

I had precious little opportunity to put my feet up and gloat over this not insignificant victory, however, because only a few months passed before a series of annoyingly keen and conscientious students began coming around my office to ask for reading lists in preparation for the course, which would begin in January. I immediately began to experience the vexation I feel whenever my job requires me actually to work and felt very put out that from among nearly 10,000 students I somehow had managed to attract the half-dozen or so who actually give a damn. So, having dealt with institutional logic, more or less, to get the course on the books, I now had to consider the internal logic of the course itself as articulated in the syllabus: that is, I had to select some readings that would win the approval of the department planning committee.

Step three, then, would be to create a reading list and plan of study that would magnify the glory of motorcycles while maintaining values consistent with a decent, liberal arts education. In short, I needed an anthology. Cue my friend and colleague, Steve Alford, who is doubtless far more qualified to teach this course than me. Steve just happened to be reviewing a proof of an anthology of motorcycle writing called She’s a Bad Motorcycle that seemed just the thing. The syllabus would practically write itself! Or not. This anthology is excellent, perfect, really, but it is organized chronologically, which does not in itself provide enough content for a whole course—it’s hard to imagine twelve weeks along the lines of “the social awareness of low modernist motorcycle literature was in conflict with the elitism of high-modern motorcycle writing, with its obscure allusions and stream-of-consciousness syntax. … I’d give you some examples, but there aren’t any.” I had to find a thematic framework within the texts to combine with a chronological approach to keep the momentum going for a whole term. This approach would, however, require that I read the entire anthology before term began and even consider reading some supplementary texts.

There was no help for it; I began to read in earnest and, indeed, themes began to emerge that were more or less chronological. I decided to break the material into three segments, beginning with texts featuring the classic hero figure and the quest motif, followed by those centred on the existential anti-hero, and concluding with the most recent works, which featured cyborgs, or complex fusions of machine and body. I was actually getting quite excited at this point, so I decided to bring myself down with a medicinal dose of philosophy to accessorize the reading list. I included Heidegger, Kierkegaard, Virillio, Greil Marcus, Donna Haraway and The Futurist Manifesto. I also added Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, because I felt I really had to, and Melissa Holbrook Pierson’s The Perfect Vehicle because it is such a good book. I ended the course with Ted Bishop’s wonderful travel journal, Riding with Rilke. And as I reflect, it seems to me that the whole experience of teaching this course could be broken down into much the same segments as the syllabus: there was the modestly heroic effort to get the course mounted; followed by some moments of crisis always present the first time any course is offered, but particularly so in this case; and finally, there were some examples of real, cybernetic intersections between minds and machines.

Having already described the quest aspect of offering this course, I’d like to turn now to the moments of existential despair, by which I mean, the moments when the course seemed like it wasn’t going to work. First, there was the problem of the students’ expectations. They certainly weren’t expecting a feminist course, and I hadn’t really planned to take this approach—I usually teach the feminist and postcolonial courses, and I was looking for a change of pace. However, so many of the readings at the start of the anthology wrote about women with such violence—including descriptions of rape as a gang initiation ritual—that we had to discuss it. Usually when I approach these topics, it’s in a room mostly full of women and entirely full of students who have chosen an overtly political subject area. In this case, I was faced with a room mostly full of men who just wanted to talk and think about motorcycles and riding. I can tell you, I really fretted about this in the days leading up to the discussion of the rape images, but it wasn’t as difficult as I had feared. None of the students, no matter what gender or academic background, had felt very comfortable reading these passages in the excerpts from Hunter S. Thompson and Frank Reynolds. This topic also led to two excellent papers which compared gang culture to the military, one by a young woman who had grown up an army brat and was herself a cadet.

This was not the only political context in which we considered the hero and his (or her, in later texts) quest; we also looked at several of the motorcycle travel journals to consider tourism as a modern form of imperialism. Events like the Paris-Dakar rally and Rachel Kushner’s description of the Cabo 1000 race, in “Girl on a Motorcycle,” provided great material for discussion of this point. We also had fun with the overtly political symbolism of Che Guevara’s Motorcycle Diaries. Many of the students had just completed or were contemplating their own grand tours, and they were fascinated by the political implications of their own travel plans.

The hero/quest theme led neatly to the next course motif, the existential anti-hero, the rebel without any cause other than the open road. This sounds exciting, I know, but this is also where the students confronted the first of the philosophy readings. Because the course was an elective, most of the students were not English Majors; they were pretty randomly attracted from across the disciplines, unified mainly by an interest in motorcycles. The course had opened with 30 students—the cap being 31—and, after one look at the reading list, I was down to 25. I was left with students who were not keen but at least willing to read a bit of philosophy and another, smaller group of actual philosophy students, which made me anxious, as they would almost certainly know the existentialists better than I do. This kind of anxiety is inherent in our rigid adherence to the idea of discrete disciplines; we are afraid to be perceived as academic dilettantes. But however intimidating it is to offer any interdisciplinary course, it seems important that a motorcycle course be about more than literature. Somehow we needed to consider why people ride and how the relationship between body and machine might be understood. Though the philosophy was difficult for the students at times, it definitely gave us a context of thoughtfulness within which we could consider riding. For example, we discussed the popular notion that motorcycle riders have a death wish in the context of Heidegger’s notion that “Death is Dasein’s ownmost possibility.” Heidegger argues that “Being towards this possibility discloses to Dasein its ownmost potentiality-for-Being, in which its very Being is the issue” (115, italics in original). In applied, simple terms, this meant that riders weren’t seeking death, but they weren’t afraid of it either. They rode with an awareness of their mortality, and this made the ride—and the life of the rider—full of its “ownmost potentiality-for-being.” Heidegger also describes this as “an impassioned freedom towards death” (116), which strikes me as a great description of any physical activity which contains both danger and thrills.

From Kierkegaard, we took the idea that “a revolutionary age is an age of action; ours is the age of advertisement and publicity” (5) and applied this to the paradox of biker culture, which simultaneously seeks and rejects publicity, like any rebel culture. In Hell’s Angels, Hunter S. Thompson writes about this phenomenon in the sixties:

Besides appearing in hundreds of wire-serviced newspapers and a half dozen magazines, [the Hells Angels] posed for television cameramen and answered questions on radio call-in shows. They issued statements to the press, appeared at various rallies and bargained with Hollywood narks and magazine editors. They were sought out by mystics and poets, cheered on by student rebels and invited to parties given by liberals and intellectuals. They whole thing was very weird, and it had a profound effect in the handful of Angles still wearing the colors. They developed a prima-donna complex. (39)

Both Thompson and Tom Wolfe write about the brief moment in the sixties when the Hells Angels hung out with Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters before both groups realized that they were very different forms of counter-culture. No one is more savvy about media than our twenty-first century students, and this section of the course led one of my students to write a particularly brilliant paper comparing the sixties counter-culture of his grandparents to today’s X-games and X-treme sport culture—his argument being that in both historical moments, the rebellion of youth was quickly packaged and marketed back to the young people who had created it. And ultimately, we had to consider whether offering this course at all threatened the rebel status of motorcycle culture; nothing is more mainstream than university culture.

The most interesting part of the course for me was the final section, where we discussed cultural constructions of speed and machines. We began here with Paul Virillio and his maxim that “Stasis is death really seems to be the general law of the World” (67, italics in original). His analysis of the constant circulation of power and representation as a kind of political pleasure principle applies very well to motorcycle culture, especially in the context of the paradoxes of rebellion versus commodification or speed versus crashing. Rachel Kushner, in “Girl on a Motorcycle,” and Melissa Holbrook Pierson in The Perfect Vehicle, both explore these themes. Holbrook Pierson describes how motorcycle leathers suggest both rebellion and sexual chic:

At various times bomber jackets, aviator’s caps, and cowboy and engineer’s boots worn outside of their sweaty, risky, or working-class applications have carried a potent charge of subversiveness. The vague twinge of fear they inspire in the ordinary citizen is due to the fluidity they recall, the refusal of the lower orders to stay in their place. The threatening symbolism of black leather motorcycle gear is only partly its kinky sexual associations; the rest is the terrible spectre of the prole run amok. (68)

Rachel Kushner describes crashing in the Cabo 1000 race in grim detail and lists the deaths of friends who have crashed their bikes, and ultimately she gives up riding, but still she recognizes how crashing liberates her from personal demons: “I think it’s [the] idea, of a woman seduced by the freedom of  a motorcycle, yet not entirely in control of her life, that I identify with so strongly” (238), she writes. And at this point in the course, I actually managed to bring in Ted Bishop, from the University of Alberta, with a reasonable honorarium, to give a guest lecture about crashing his motorcycle—to a full room, perhaps partly because of the posters once again created by Horst at the print shop.

In this final part of the course, we also read The Futurist Manifesto, watched the film The Terminator and read about Japanese motorcycle tribes. Here we considered the relationship between bodies and machines, or the cyborg that Donna Haraway describes the “hybrid of machine and organism” (149). The question here is whether cyborgs are the monstrous, “illegitimate offspring of militarism and patriarchal capitalism” (Haraway 151), or whether they promise a utopian, liberated future. Our bodies have sometimes been understood as organic machines; machines are often personified, named, beloved—especially vehicles. They extend and expand our embrace of pleasure, futurality, Heidegger’s ownmost potential for being, and they emerge from the human imagination. We can no longer remember a subjectivity not founded on speed. But in the end, we always return to the body, if not with a crash then with a whimper.

The course, I would say, was a great success for all concerned; it was fun, and we all learned. In fact, my department wants me to make it into a permanent offering, and I know that this would only be possible at a small, new university like the one where I teach, and so I feel that the same craving for freedom and newness which attracted me to motorcycles also attracted me to return to my hometown to help invent the institution where I spent my first year after high school. But as much as I’d like to leave you with this picture of scholarly bliss, there is one final problem I have yet to resolve: the past fourteen years of working at a job I love at an institution open enough to allow me to offer a motorcycle literature course has left me with such severe carpal tunnel syndrome from marking and writing that my throttle hand turns to a block of wood after thirty seconds on my motorcycle. So, do I stop riding or writing? Do I submit the body to the invasions of medicine to consummate the attachment to machine? Do I return to the comfort of leaning against the warm leather of my husband’s back as he leans into the tank of one of his four motorcycles? I haven’t quite decided. But I can tell you this: I will be damaging my throttle hand just a little bit more when I fill out the forms to make “Motorcycles, Speed and Literature” a permanent fixture in my university calendar.


WORKS CITED

Haraway, Donna. Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge, 1991.

Heidegger, Martin. Excerpt from Being and Time in Existentialism. Ed. Robert C. Solomon. New York: Modern Library, 1974.

Kierkegaard, Soren. Excerpt from The Present Age in Existentialism. Ed. Robert C. Solomon. New York: Modern Library, 1974.

Kushner, Rachel. “Girl on a Motorcycle.” She’s a Bad Motorcycle: Writers on Riding. Ed. Geno Zanetti. New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2002.

Pierson, Melissa Holbrook. The Perfect Vehicle. New York: WW Norton & Company, 1997.

Thompson, Hunter S. Hell’s Angels. 1966. New York: Ballantine, 1996.

Virillio, Paul. Speed and Politics. Trans. Mark Polizzotti. New York: Semiotext(e), 1986.