Jorge Luis Borges’ 1945 short story, “The Aleph,” tells of a portal, discovered beneath a stairwell, that allowed the protagonist to gaze on any part of the universe. The Aleph, in his words, is “one of the points in space that contains all other points.” The motorcycle, in its own way, is a cultural Aleph. It embodies many of our social and cultural concerns:
Its essence is speed in a world in which time itself seems to have increased its velocity.
In riding, the motorcyclist becomes one with her machine, an image of a cyborgian unity that can only become more central to our daily existence as we walk about with machines embedded in our bodies, from pacemakers to insulin dispensers.
It’s an economical internal combustion machine, embodying the contradiction between our love of engines and the recognition that our profligate use of them is destroying the planet.
The motorcycle embodies a double nostalgia, a looking-backward toward the American West, and a looking-forward toward a time when all people can unite in a brotherhood modeled on the motorcycle club.
It exemplifies modern engineering excellence, yet an owner can’t wait to modify it to make it her own.
Its birth is coincident with the modern world, and in late modernity it came to symbolize the psychic fruits of modernism: alienation and opposition to authority.
The motorcycle allows riders to flaunt a lack of concern with the constraints of society, while adhering to a de rigueur code of dress and behavior.
The motorcycle traverses all levels of aesthetic representation, from the sleazy exploitation film to the Guggenheim Museum, from Tom Swift to the Futurists.
The economics of motorcycle manufacturers instruct us in capitalism from the America-first isolationism of Harley-Davidson—which itself became a global symbol—to the internationalism of Japanese, German, and Italian bikes whose marketing strategies became the models for many American companies who want to meet the nicest customers.
Motorcycles have shown us that machines aren’t just for boys. From Theresa Wallach to Dot Robinson to Katja Poensgen, women are doing it for themselves.
Motorcycles bring people together. Motorcycles are like being naked. Just as everyone exists on the same level naked, riding one unites you with other riders, whether they be mechanics or stock brokers, professors or construction workers.
Motorcycles highlight the essential and significant tacit dimension of our lives, revealing to us the limits of language in expressing what’s most important to us. Like conveying the taste of a fine wine to a teetotaler, or the experience of sex to a virgin, language experiences its limits in trying to describe what it’s like to ride on a motorcycle.
The sensation of being on a motorcycle embodies what we’re all seeking in life.
The motorcycle, since its inception, has always been more than transportation. Because it takes place in public space, and because, in developed nations, it’s no longer essential as an economic form of transportation, it’s become a sport as well. As a result, it’s always been iconic, even over-encoded, so the mere fact of riding is at once an activity and a performance.
As such, it’s associated with notions of freedom and the erotic—though, it must be said, riding a bike in a rainstorm quickly puts paid to both of those impulses. But there’s an element of disavowal that doesn’t occur when you climb into your minivan—a sense that one is “other” than what the minivan represents.
In other words, the act of riding itself is a psychological and cultural state, ranging from urban rebellion to fetishistic longing. We know all this stuff, but there has not so far been a venue to take up these various aspects and consider them, until now, since motorcycle magazines participate and perpetuate but never interrogate.
Motorcyclist as producer and performer…
The motorcyclist is not at an end of any process, but a moment in a continual process of production, and a process that is not linear but multi-layered and multi-faceted—a truly complex process—and the motorcyclist is a multi-“talented” performer in it. Thus a new construction of the motorcyclist as producer/performer is afforded. As a producer of life experiences, identities, and meanings, the motorcyclist/performer becomes a constructor, a signifier of what is to become, of the potential(s), and is no longer simply a reproducer of the past or present experiences and conditions of consumption. Postmodern bikers as performers, therefore, need props and a stage that enables and empowers the communities they belong to, and thereby they produce/construct what is imaginable in terms of life experiences, meanings and identities more than research that reifies or reconstructs that which is. As a journal, we seek to represent a forum to discuss such processes.
In Subculture: The Meaning of Style, Dick Hebdige claimed to be “intrigued by the most mundane objects—a safety pin, a pointed shoe, a motor cycle” as they acquire meaning in contemporary culture. The motorcycle’s cultural significance is tied up with complex issues of history, consumerism, psychology, design, aesthetics, gender and sexuality. I am particularly intrigued by the ways motorcycling culture has either reinforced or subverted traditional assumptions about masculinity and femininity.
For an academic, the study of motorcycle culture offers a multiplicity of theoretical perspectives; there are questions of identity, of class, of gender, of the making and attributing of both meanings and values, of the creation and embodiment of community, of a subculture formed from and around agents whose interactions with the dominant culture take multifarious forms.
For someone who has spent half a lifetime writing for and about motorcycles and motorcyclists, as I have, it offers a chance to step back and try to understand what I was doing and what it meant. And it offers us all a chance to sit, both metaphorically and literally, under that old shade tree and bullshit about bikes.
There is one compelling and overarching reason for the study of motorcycling, not just its culture (which is only a small part of motorcycle studies) but its economic, psychological, and other aspects: because it’s fun.
When a 1947 motorcycle rally in the little-known town of Hollister, California, turned into what the press labeled a “riot,” the motorcyclist became both the object of national scorn and the inspiration for millions of Americans to take up the sport of motorcycling. The mixed emotions surrounding that event and the controversy it provoked not only provide considerable insight into the development of motorcycle culture but also the larger history of the United States as men and women from all walks of life struggled to come to terms with the motorcyclist and all that he/she stood for.
We believe that riders sometimes want more than latest “Super sport bike shootout” or travelogue to read. So that’s one of the reasons we decided to start this journal. On the other hand, there are riders who believe that to study motorcycling is to violate the almost mystical experience it is. To them, I say legitimate study can only mark the boundaries between what can be understood and what cannot be and, far from reducing the mystery, points the way to what is the core, inexpressible truth of the experience.
Academics, on the other hand, may find motorcycles to be too déclassé for serious study—except, of course, the occasional thesis on, ho-hum, yet another aspect of outlaw motorcycle clubs. Yet, to dismiss motorcycling is to disregard a very real and important roles sub-cultures play in any society or culture:
In a very certain and real way, sub-cultures safe-guard and preserve historically important—though perhaps not currently prized—values and keep them “in the mix” or at least available for use or restoration. In some ways and cases, those values can also act as a muted counter-point to the predominant culture. And, in the USA, this is how motorcycling has functioned from the 1950s on.
Sub-cultures can also embody the values society rejects, even disavows, but still exist. In this way, groups like the Klu Klux Clan act as not only object lessons but as a way society can safely funnel certain members out of the mainstream but not annihilate them. Yet, because societies are intrinsically, unavoidably, pragmatic packrats, these rejected values are still available, if ever needed. Motorcycling, in the USA at least, has functioned this way in the past—and, sure enough, the values it represents are, once again, being re-appropriated.
In these ways, sub-cultures act not only as boundary-keepers and guardians but as balancing agents ensuring society’s survival. How these roles play out in terms of sociology, cultural studies, history, anthropology, economics, politics, etc. can be more revealing of the whole than of the part.
But motorcycling also can throw the issues of class, race and gender into a new and valuable light by examining, at any given time, who is riding and why they ride and to what degree society approves of it.
An equally essential reason for motorcycles is that there is no motorcyclist without the motorcycle. In this way, the identity of the performer cannot be separated from technology. Examining the often passionate relationship between the rider and machine, the interplay of technology, experience and community; the different demands at different times and situations we require of design and performance; and other aspects of this dynamic can inform the greater human-machine conundrum in the past and present and perhaps suggest future ramifications.
For all these reasons, motorcycle studies is not only valuable to the academic community but long-overdue addition to the on-going discussion in various fields.
I chose to study motorcycle culture in the same way I have directed my entire academic career: on a whim. To be perfectly honest, my husband and I were going to the Isle of Man for TT2000, and I thought it would be great if I could have my trip paid for by some sort of research fund, and that’s exactly what happened. However, once on the Isle of Man, I found myself necessarily looking at motorcycles in a much more thoughtful way, in full knowledge of the need to justify my trip to a government agency that I might want to appeal to in the future, and out of this came my most interesting and, frankly, most publishable work to date.
My work has always emerged form one personal passion or another, but usually I lose interest after a paper or two; this particular topic keeps growing and shifting in my mind, and I expect to be engrossed for many years to come. I must add here, however, that for me the interest in not motorcycles alone, though I do love to ride them and watch them race. My fascination is with speed and sport—I am equally passionate about running and skiing and would like to write about speed in those contexts too—but motorcycles are perfect in providing contexts in which to explore speed and cyberculture, gender, race, marketing, and too many other contexts to list here.