Deleuzian Motorcycle: Towards a Theory of Motorcycles and the Other

Esperanza Miyake

A car driver once complained to me about how bikers are a nuisance on the road, casually saying that “all you bikers are the same anyway.” I think he meant to sting me, a supposed obnoxious comment designed to irritate. On the contrary, as a Japanese female biker, I found it liberating simply because I felt it to be true. When I am riding—particularly at certain speeds—my body loses feminine shape, like the neutral contours of the genderless motorcyclist’s silhouette on a road sign. The colour of my skin and the slantiness of my eyes disappear as I am covered in leather, racing yet raceless from behind a visor. I am free in a completely different sense: my gender and race cease to matter. It is only when I stop and remove my helmet that the protection and mask fall away, I am a “Japanese woman” once again.


But then again, why would I want to dismiss and be divorced from my gender and race? I guess I am a capricious brat. On the one hand, I want to retain my engendered and racialised identity that gives me a sense of grounding and pride. But on the other hand, I also want the agency to escape the structured materiality of my existence which binds me to the negative socio-cultural stereotypifications surrounding my Othered identifications. In many ways, this tension points towards longstanding debates within feminist, post-colonial and queer theories surrounding difference, identity politics and the postmodern destabilisation of identity.[1] In this article, I want to argue that the specific time-space of riding a motorcycle is where this tension is momentarily resolved—or at least re-negotiated—and how such a spatio-temporal site has theoretical and political implications when thinking about motorcycles in relation to the Other.[2]

During the course of this article, I want to propose the idea of motorcycling as a theoretical verb, one which needs a series of encounters between the bike and biker—the bike-biker—to activate its political meaning. In order to explore my ideas, I shall be referring predominantly to some of the recurring concepts found in the works of French philosophers, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, particularly those relating to Machines and becoming-other. I argue that Deleuzian notions on Machines and becoming-Other are useful in theoretically framing the bike-biker and motorcycling, respectively, as a political figure and verb. That is, one where the very act of riding a motorcycle is a political story of becoming-Other: the transformational, simultaneous embodiment and dissolution of identity in a constant state of flux. I suggest that the Deleuzian bike-biker and motorcycling can help us to further understand the mechanics of Otherness and motorcycles, and also by extension, enable us to reconfigure racialised and engendered (or “Othered”) identities in relation to motorcycles. Ultimately, this article seeks to understand how we can begin to theorise the politics of motorcycles and the Other, to explore the bike-biker and motorcycling as an interrogative process. The discussion is an incomplete journey, a work-in-progress, a hypothetical murmur, and is in no way designed to be comprehensive or conclusive. I merely hope to open up another theoretical debate surrounding motorcycles, motorcyclists, and motorcycling…and the Other.

Motorcycles and the Other: the story so far…

A motorcycle is a wonderful intersection of connective wires, nuts, bolts, metal parts, plastic bits, oil, fuel, grime and of course, the rider. Within scholarly discourse, the motorcycle has also proven to be a connecting point, an interdisciplinary subject matter of fascination. For the purposes of this discussion, I have identified three broad, main interrelated areas within motorcycle studies where the question of identity—particularly in relation to Otherness—have been articulated, explored and understood: a) through the experiential and corporeal; b) through representations of motorcycles in popular culture; c) through the culture and social practices surrounding motorcycles. I will first provide a brief account of each of these three areas by way of mapping the existing field of motorcycle studies and the Other. Emerging from this assemblage[3] of existing motorcyclic understandings of identity and Other, I will draw from Deleuzian notions of Machines and becoming-Other to begin theorising the politics of motorcycles and the Other. Finally, I will return to these three areas of motorcyclic concern and consider how we might bring the question of Othered experience/corporeality, representations and socio-cultural practices closer together through a Deleuzian approach.

Motorcycles as experience: mind, body and soul

I think a lot of bikers would agree that the act of riding a bike can at times feel like a near-spiritual experience, one which brings our minds, bodies and soul into a heady and heightened state of being. Miguel Grunstein’s beautiful, reflective, sensuous and hypnotic film, Absolutely Nothing, Next 22 Miles…A Fugue for Motorcycle (2012), encapsulates this experience, an audio-visual trance that is close to experiencing a ride without actually being on a motorcycle.[4] Similarly, Richard Hutch’s (2007) piece specifically connects the space-time experience of riding to spiritualism, transcendence and perception. Clearly, this ephemeral and ethereal experience of riding is an important aspect of understanding motorcycles (and why we ride motorbikes for that matter), and begins to take on political implications when considered in relation to issues surrounding identity and Otherness. This is perhaps because (riding) experience becomes closely linked with the process of self-actualisation, self-narration, and self-realisation of identity.

Authors like Lisa Garber (2013 and 2011) and Sheila Malone (2013), adopt a very corporeal language—akin to Monique Wittig’s Les Corps Lesbien (1973)[5]—in describing and understanding the sensuous experience and act of motorcycling. Such a body of work is politically charged as a form of écriture féminine[6] which brings the female subject, body and agency to light. Such authors are, in the words of Donna Haraway, “story-tellers exploring what it means to be embodied in high-tech worlds’ and they highlight how “fundamental body imagery is to world view and so to political language” (1991, p.173). Writing the female body through motorcycles is part of a political language; writing the motorcycle through the female body is part of politicising the discourse of motorcycles and the discourse of the Other. Malone’s phenomenological approach to motorcycles explores the sensuous and experiential relationship between the body and motorcycle, particularly in relation to identity and Otherness. Whilst I will engage with Malone’s work in further depth later, I want to highlight her work here as it specifically theorises the politics behind the experience of riding, where the body “orients itself to resist heteronormative structures of gender and sexuality” and the motorcycle “produces political and performative space” (2013, p.1). Here, Malone demonstrates how the motorcycle and motorcyclist can be theoretically posited within the political realms of queer identity and performativity.

Related, other authors (Murphy, 2013; Moon, 2011; Pryce, 2009 and 2007; Kubein, 2006; Semack, 2006) document their experiences of riding within an everyday life context (or in the case of globe-trotting adventurer, Lois Pryce, not-so-everyday), self-reflective snapshots of life, where writing about the experience of riding is a narrative of the self, often one relating to freedom, discovery and transformation. Such writing is equally political, aligned to feminist theories and politics surrounding autobiography[7] where writing the self is part of a process of self-representation, transformation, and articulation of the Other. By the same token, in writing about motorbikes, such works “motorcycle” the existing body of women’s autobiographical discourse and can begin to dismantle what Steve Koerner states as being a “myth about the motorcycle […] the long-standing belief that it is a “man’s machine” and therefore unsuitable for women” (2007, p.1, my edit). But this myth perhaps exists partly because there is a dominance of men on machines in popular culture (more of this to come), including (auto)biographical works of men and machines: from David Beckham’s Into the Unknown (2014), Motorcycle Diaries (Salles, 2004), Ewan McGregor’s and Charley Boorman’s Long Way Round (2004), Ted Simon’s Jupiter series (1979 through 2013), to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (Pirsig, 1974). Without dismissing the importance of this male discourse, one could argue that in a predominantly male-oriented world of motorcycle chronicles, counter-narratives of women by women are an engendered example of a political process of self-representation, knowledge construction and the documentation of the Other.

Motorcycles as representations, “vehicles of meaning” in popular culture

Semiotics initially gave us the term, “sign-vehicle,”[8] which I bastardise here and equate to the motorcycle. Representations of the motorcycle have been used ubiquitously in popular culture—films, cartoons, books, magazines, music, advertisements—and just as they carry people and bags in “real life,” motorcycles also carry meanings which are often engendered, racialised, classed and otherwise Othered. From the poster-perfect Steve McQueen on a Triumph, a group of bikini-clad women selling motorcycle insurance, to the “vroom vroom” heard in the background of the Shangri-la’s “Leader of the Pack”[9]: they are indeed sign-vehicles that travel between a cultural text and its social signification, a journey that is at once discursive and material in that it ideologically constructs and produces (engendered, racialised, classed and Othered) identities. As such, the analysis of motorcyclic representations in popular culture can often contribute to an understanding of political and ideological struggles for representation and identification.

To expand on the above, Mary K. Coffey and Jeremy S. Parker (2007) explore the motorcycle as “art” and “artefact” in relation to cultural meaning and value, where “culture” relates to issues surrounding the differences between the “popular” and the aesthetics of “high” culture. Sushil Chandra and Sudhir Atreya (2011) also approach the motorcycle as a “cultural object” and “artefact,” and explore the semantic meanings surrounding the design of a motorcycle where “class conflicts, gender equations, caste and race inequities, and sexual dynamics reflect closely on motorcycle design” (2011, p.1). Such authors think about the relationship between aesthetics, cultural value and social meaning in relation to the motorcycle, and in the case of Chandra and Atreya, specifically incorporate the idea of difference and Otherness within such understandings. In this context, by analysing representations of motorcycles in popular culture, one can throw into sharp relief the “ideological struggle between contending discourses,” where “textual analysis can be employed to follow the moves in this struggle, by showing how particular texts take up elements of different discourses and articulate them” (Hartley, 2011, p.110 ). The deciphering of the motorcycle representation can thus become an exercise in understanding the often hierarchical ordering of cultural meanings and value.

Authors such as Lily Phillips (2005), Lisa MacKinney (2008), Julie Willet (2009), Sarah Boslaugh (2006) and Michael Chappell (2009) analyse the representation of the motorcycle (and its riders) in popular texts by contextualising them within broader American culture and history, situating them within existing American discourses relating to identity: Phillips and MacKinney investigate the Teen/delinquent identity as Other; Willet explores White and African American masculinities; Boslaugh explores lesbian as Other; whilst Chappell examines the “older man” and masculinity in crisis. These works demonstrate that representations of motorcycles are not innocent, they are shaped and shape existing cultural meanings surrounding identity and Otherness. To take these issues further, Kris Slawinski (2006) and Cheryl North (2013) demonstrate not only how representations of motorcycles often relate to the construction of the (engendered) Other in culture, but also how these ideological articulations have socio-political implications. That is, both articles refer at some point to the audience/reader of the cultural texts under examination, and highlight the importance of considering the social signification of these cultural meanings surrounding the Other. In consuming these motorcyclic cultural texts, audiences play a role in the circulation of these cultural meanings and become part of a social meaning-making process: a concept explored by D. Mark Austin, Patricia Gagne and Angela Orlend (2010) in their study of the commodification of popular images of bikers in American culture.

North analyses Black Cat (Harvey Comics, 1941-55) as an example of the representation of women riders in popular culture, where the motorcycle and the female rider “serve as a model to readers of female agency and ability” (2013, p.7). North’s claim points towards the necessary connection between a cultural text and its social signification, how representations of motorcycles and the Other do not circulate within a cultural vacuum but are part of a social meaning-making and identity-making process (more on this later) for the audience who consume these texts: in this case, a Black Cat is a sexy, active and “positive model” for the readers. Considering the other side to this point, Slawinski reflects on gendered reactions and assumptions of her sexuality as a female biker, where she explores representations of female bikers in a range of media texts (internet jokes, photographs, emails, calendars, fashion ads, books, and magazine articles). In the context of what feminist Rosalind Gill would call the “sexualisation of contemporary culture” (2007, p.256), Slawinski’s article demonstrates how motorcyclic discourses of women in media concern not just the engendering but also the sexualisation of motorcycles through women, and how as a consequence, social bodies read and are read according to these existing cultural meanings. Empowered or not, in the case of female riders, usually “hairy dyke,” “tomboy,” or “catsuit fantasy chick.” The plethora of available choices is yours. Whoop-ee.

Motorcycles as a cultural and social practice: communities and Otherness

Whenever I pass a fellow motorcyclist in the UK, I usually get a tip of the (crash) hat, a friendly nod of acknowledgement and greeting. In France I was most amused when legs and feet stuck out in passing (hello!), an imaginary mobile football game between two-wheeled travellers on the road. Whether we ride solo and/or as part of a group/gang, there is no denying the feeling of camaraderie, an international feeling of togetherness amongst bikers. In this sense, I would argue that there really is a nation of motorcyclists, an “imagined community”[10] consisting of networks of bikers formed in an organised (even institutionalised) and/or temporary manner, without boundaries of geography and tied together through a sense of collectivity. Having said this, I am not suggesting a motorcycle utopia, that all is harmonious and bikers hold hands and toast marshmallows around the campfire regardless of differences. In fact, and to almost undo my previous point, motorcyclists can be fiercely territorial where questions of identity are very much tied to geographical location: stepping into or out of such sites can be anything but convivial. By the same token, many actively disassociate themselves from any particular category or group of bikers (e.g. “cruiser riders” or “Hells Angels”), like Kris Slawinski (2005), who observes how the motorcycling community is not “homogenous, harmonious and cohesive” (2005, p.2), and explains how she feels a lack of identification with some motorcycle communities and groups.

Whichever way one looks at it though, what brings these ideas together is the concept of community—whether it is participating in one, or feeling alienated by one—and it is important within motorcycle studies.[11] Communities are brought together through a shared sense of identity and the motorcycle becomes a central anchoring point during this process: as a brand or means of consuming a life-style; as a means of social visibility and political connectivity; as a subcultural style and form of political expression. In relation to questions of Otherness, it is then about considering how these motorcycle communities are demarcated, and understanding how cultural and social practices surrounding the motorcycle are part of a process of identification (or dis-identification).

Perhaps because cultural consumption is so closely connected to the social process of constructing identities,[12] it is no wonder that the idea of consumption is a focal point in studies of motorcycles: both the consumption of the motorcycle as a cultural product; and the consumption of related activities and spaces (in its geo-cultural meaning) surrounding the motorcycle. For example, authors like John W. Schouten and James H. McAlexander (1993) examine the Harley-Davidson as a brand, a product demarcating a subcultural community brought together through a “common commitment to a particular set of consumption items or activities” (1993, p.389). Similarly, Geoff Crowther (2007) examines ideas on embodiment in relation to the consumption of the landscape and the Isle of Man TT Races as a commodified experience and cultural product. Such work brings ideas of motorcycling and consumption together with questions of identity and the motorcycle as part of a socio-cultural practice. Within this context, Patricia Gagne’s and D. Mark Austin’s (2010) empirical study on women touring motorcyclists opens up a space for considering the gendered aspects of this consumption process, a significant point when considering women as a marginalised group within an already marginalised community of bikers: participating in motorcycling as a leisure activity “empowers women to challenge internalized ideas about gender and public space” (2010, p.1). In this light, one can see how it is through the consumption of motorcycles and related social activities that enables the articulation of Otherness in the narratives of the self as referred to earlier on.

In many ways, it is difficult to explore the idea of Otherness within the context of a group already Othered by “mainstream” culture and society. One could argue that motorcyclists and the motorcycling community are already conceptualised and perceived as being Other: outlaws, delinquents, deviants, gangs, skin-heads, fetishists, hell-raisers and other identities relating to subcultural communities.[13] There is then a difficulty in discussing Others within this context, a minority within a minority: similar to some of the literature within Queer theories which problematises the subjugation, invisibility and marginalisation of “other” Others within a homo-normative hierarchy which privileges white, middle-class gay men over, for example, black working-class transsexuals.[14] The lack of “other” Others in motorcyclic literature could partly be explained through the prevailing representations of motorcycles and motorcyclists in popular culture (as discussed earlier) that renders the Other invisible, but partly because motorcycling has historically been an activity accessible to men with the social and economic means to do so. The previously mentioned Koerner (2007) provides a compelling account of manufacturers’ attempts to target female motorcyclists through transformations in design and sheds light on the stigma and social difficulties surrounding women’s participation. Clearly, the demarcations of a given motorcycling community(s) which provide senses of belonging and communal cohesion and identity (as it does for Kubein, for example, in her relationship with the Hells Angels) can become the very barriers to participation and further marginalisation, a political point which authors such as K. Alex Ilyasova (2006), and M. Shelly Conner (2009) explore. Conner discusses the exclusionary practices involved in subjugating women in Black Motorcycle Clubs, whilst Ilyasova explores counter-demarcational practices of “dykes on bikes.” Thus, it is not so much the motorcycle itself but the culture and social practices surrounding the motorcycle, where motorcycling is a communal activity that provides a means to articulate, negotiate, and interrogate questions of Otherness.

The above review—by no means complete—hopefully begins to establish how issues surrounding identity and Otherness have been approached thus far within studies of motorcycles. I hope to have demonstrated that it is a growing yet relatively under-developed and under-researched area that needs further rigorous theoretical attention. I shall return to these three main areas of concern—experience, representation, and socio-cultural practice—later on to consider how we might bring them together in theory. In this sense, this article is also an attempt “to motorcycle” theories, to see how existing ideas of motorcycles and the Other can be connected to one another. However, for the moment, as stated earlier, my task is to explore how we can theoretically politicise (or politically theorise) the motorcycle and the Other through Deleuzian notions of Machines and becoming-Other.

Deleuzian motorcycle: Machines and becoming-Other

I have kept referring to the idea of motorcycling as a verb. There are several components to what I mean here: a) it needs both motorcycle and motorcyclist; b) it is a process of becoming, about motion, and not about getting from point A to point B but what happens in between points A and B; c) how this process can be political as it opens up a space for potentially dis-re-assembling different experiential, representational and social lines of being. I want to argue that the specific time-space of riding a motorcycle—motorcyclingis where the tension between identity and its loss is temporarily resolved, or at least negotiated and re-configured. It is indeed a moving moment in time and place where my brattish wishes are granted: a Japanese woman who simultaneously loses and (re)gains her race and gender through the act of motorcycling. In attempt to begin grounding some of the following abstractions, I shall be referring to my own relationships with my motorcycles.

a) Bike-Biker: connecting Machines

The most obvious place to begin conceptualising the idea of motorcyclist and motorcycle would perhaps be Haraway’s theories on cyborgs, it seems to be a perfect fit: motorcyclist (organism) and motorcycle (machine). After all, she specifically interrogates the slippery boundaries between machine and organism (amongst other dichotomies) and politicises hybridity. As mentioned briefly earlier, Sheila Malone’s phenomenological approach to motorcycles in fact draws from Haraway’s cyborg theory, where she argues that the cyborgian relationship between lesbian and motorcycle enables a phenomenology of the machine which “undoes the heterosexist and normative matrix of the motorcycle as masculine and the gazed upon body as feminine” (2013, p.5). Malone argues that it is through the encounter of machine and organism that the destabilization of gendered and sexualised positions can occur and ultimately open up a political and performative space for the re-orientation of a lesbian body. In many aspects, this is part of what I am arguing in relation to motorcycling, how both the motorcycle and motorcyclist (bike-biker) are needed for the activation of political meaning, to “escape” the normative matrix which organises how our experiences/bodies, representations in popular culture and social processes are read from and into our identities. So why not just refer to Haraway’s cyborgs at this point, since, as Malone has demonstrated through her piece, cyborgs are a very fruitful way of framing and politicising the relationship between motorcycles and the Other?

The main reason why I favour Deleuze and Guattari over Haraway in the context of this article is because for Deleuze and Guattari, the body (without organs)[15] is also a machine, composed of interconnecting parts. For Deleuze and Guattari, machines are “inherently connective in nature,” where “because the first machine is in turn connected to another whose flow it interrupts or partially drains off, the binary series is linear in every direction” (1985, p.5). In other words, for Deleuze and Guattari, it is not just about merging the either/or as is more the case with cyborgs, but instead, it is also about the multiplicity of both-and more, the plurality of series that concern how and where the interconnections occur. Within this framework, the encounter(s) between motorcyclist and motorcycle is an encounter(s) between machines, it is about exploring the infinite manner in which machine parts connect, disconnect, reconnect, assemble, disassemble, and reassemble in a series of constantly moving parts to produce different meanings and functions. So if we approach the bike-biker as a cyborg, we assume that the body-organism is a closed identity, and that the motorcycle-machine is also a closed identity: bringing them together, the end product is the cyb-org. For Malone, for example, “the body conforms to the shape of the bike,” where the merging is described as “a union that reconstructs the body” (2013, p.4). For me, I do not want a union as it implies an end, cause-and-effect, a result, a closed identity (or anti-identity). Instead, I wish to think of the bike-biker in terms of connective unions, the productive process leading up to the cyborg product: it is about what Deleuze and Guattari state as being, “the productive synthesis, the production of production” (1985, p.5). The Deleuzian bike-biker then is about considering the productive synthesis—not just the product—and the endless possibilities of re-organ-ising[16] our identities, one which simultaneously “escapes” but also appropriates existing meanings produced by and within the normative matrix.

I want to hijack Colebrook’s (2002) wonderful analogy of a bicycle at this point, ideal for thinking about motorcycles, approached from a Deleuzian perspective:

Think of a bicycle, which obviously has no “end” or intention. It only works when it is connected with another “machine” such as the human body; the production of these two machines can only be achieved through connection. The human body becomes a cyclist in connecting with the machine; the cycle becomes a vehicle. But we could imagine different connections producing different machines. The cycle becomes an art object when placed in a gallery; the human body becomes an “artist” when connected with a paintbrush (2002, p.56)

What I want to emphasise here is that it is not just the merging of bike and biker (cyborg), it is about how different connections can produce different meanings and how these meanings change according to the context of production. So for example, I currently have two motorcycles (I told you I was a brat): a Yamaha TDM 850 and a Honda CD 185 (or the “Benley”). The former is a sturdy long-distance sort of motorcycle (although its engine did blow up on me on the motorway, a day filled with fun and laughter), the other is a “retro”/classic bike (in the contemporary context, since it’s over 30 years old and cost me 84 pence to insure). When I ride the TDM, not only can I mechanically travel further than the Benley, I am a silent “tourer” or “long-distance biker.” When I am on the Benley, I can only manage shorter distances, I am much louder and become a “classic bike lover” or “hobbyist.” In this way, different machinic connections produce different mechanical experiences of space-time, which in turn produce different identities and meanings: I am not just a biker, I am bikers; there is no singular “motorcycle” that everyone rides, there are motorcycles. Hence it is not just about a binary-destroying cyborg, it is about the multiple possibilities, the “production of production, inherently connective in nature: ‘and…’ ‘and then…’” (Deleuze and Guattari, 1985, p.5). Not a closed either/or entity, but a series of connective and-and-and entities, the “producing/product identity” (Deleuze and Guattari, 1985, p.7).

When we start to think about the Deleuzian bike-biker in relation to the Other, it becomes significant as it opens up ways in which we can potentially think about multiple possibilities of being, or rather, becoming (more on this later). The bike-biker as a producing/product is an “identity that constitutes a third term in the linear series: an enormous undifferentiated object” (ibid.) which Deleuze and Guattari explain as being an “imageless, organless body, the non-productive, exists right there where it is produced, in the third stage of the binary-linear series” (1985, p.8). In other words, the productive moment where bike and biker connect, that time-space is both identityless yet simultaneously produces identities as explained above through my TDM and Benley. In this context, Otherness becomes meaningless as identities become connected, “not through mediation of systems of ideology or representation, nor through the central organisation of an apparatus like the state or the economic order” (as explored earlier on), but instead, through the very process of machinic formation (Grosz, 1994, p.180). In this way, I can temporarily cease to define my Otherness through socio-culturally constructed identities, and instead, I can define my Otherness through the very connective act of motorcycling. That is, rather than being a “Japanese, female biker” because of the way I look, because of being associated to similar popular cultural imagery, or because I am the only Japanese, female biker in a bikers’ bar, when motorcycling, I become just a connective machine—“an enormous undifferentiated object”—moving through space-time, I am outside (or Othered from) both the heteronormative and homonormative matrix: the third term in the linear series. As Deleuze and Guattari argue, “the only way to get outside the dualisms is to be-between, to pass between, the intermezzo” (Deleuze & Guattari, 2011, p.305). Motorcycling is the intermezzo, the bike-biker connections are the series of linear links and possibilities that enable the state of “be-between.”

Simultaneously, the question of Otherness becomes meaningful because it is not a “symptom of a patriarchal culture, not simply products, or effects of it, but are forces, intensities, requiring codifications or territorialisations and in turn, exerting their own deterritorialising and decodifying force, systems of compliance and resistance” (Grosz, 1994, p.180). In other words, it is through the productive time-space of the bike-biker that different meanings can be produced, ones that re-arrange and scramble the existing meanings codified by the “matrices.” This is an important point—one which I will explore later—for one should not lose sight of how we are corporeal and can never really “escape” the material conditions of our existence; and with the material conditions of our existence come socio-cultural and ideological constructions of meaning. Otherwise, why have preferences for certain kinds of bikes? Some people buy or actively avoid buying Harley-Davidsons, not because of the machine itself, but because what the machine means: whether it is connected to questions of wealth, consumption of America(na), subcultural value and/or belongings to gang/crime. So for me, I get an enormous sense of joy riding my Benley, not just because of the bumpy and rather scrappy mechanical ride, but because I am aware of what the Benley means: Japanese, “classic”/old school and these make me feel (more) Japanese, they racialise my connection to my motorcycle, they materialise my raciality. In other words, connections are never innocent and socio-cultural meanings are incorporated within: it is in considering how one can use these generative connections to produce different meanings of Otherness that the bike-biker begins to take on political significance. It is political because things like race do matter, and they are signalled through space-time. The materiality of producing/product should never be forgotten, for as Alexander and Knowles (2005) argue, materiality is where power and racialised meanings are inscribed; and echoing Grosz’s Deleuzian feminism, where “individuals can lay claim to their own sense of embodied identity and resistance” (2005, p.2). It is about how we can occupy—reterritorialize—the “third term,” how we can re-connect and re-define.

The Deleuzian bike-biker can be understood therefore, as a productive and connective space-time, a producing/product where identities are neither fluid nor fixed but instead are a series of interconnecting fixities. The bike-biker is a site where/when identities are flattened out to become gender-less and race-less connective machine matter—parts—between bike and biker, but are simultaneously, a space-time for the possibility of producing and thinking about Otherness, or what I will now explore as becoming-Other through motorcycling. In this sense, the bike-biker is a configuration that neither loses sight of the motorcycle and the Other as being grounded by the material processes that link experience, representations and the social processes, but nor does it necessarily fix the question of identity to these various material spheres of being. The bike-biker is thus a connective figure in motion who both loses and produces identity through the act of motorcycling, one which I would like to now explore through the idea of becoming-Other.

b) Motorcycling and becoming-Other

As a Japanese, female motorcyclist, one thing that has persistently irritated me is the idea of Japanese bikes as being “replicas,” imitations of the “real deal”: American or European models. I used to own a Yamaha Dragstar 650, and either had people assume I wanted a Harley-Davidson but could not afford one (“poor man’s Harley”) or was seen as a cute girl, wanting to copy my “big brothers” as if I had the toy version of the “real thing.” As you can imagine, this rankled on so many different levels. There are historical reasons behind these assumptions, of course. For example, one of the first Japanese motorcycle manufacture companies in the 1930s—Rikuo Internal Combustion Company—operated under license from Harley-Davidson.[17] In the previously mentioned article by Schouten and McAlexander (1993), the authors state that one reason why Japanese bikes are generally treated in a derogatory manner (“rice grinders” or “rice rockets”) and are scorned by Harley-Davidson riders is due to “the perceived disdain of Japanese manufactures for tradition, as demonstrated by the frequent introduction of new models and the extinction of the others after only a few years. Harley-Davidson in contrast emphasizes a continuity that connects its newest motorcycle in a direct line of ancestry to its earliest prototype” (Schouten & McAlexander, 1993, p.53, emphasis mine). Without wishing to get into a complex debate concerning copy and original, what I do want to highlight here is yet another dichotomy which is also about ideological struggle and power: on the one hand, Japanese bikes as copies, cheap imitations, mass produced with no origin, no continuity; on the other hand, American bikes as original, expensive and “authentic” with a proud history, signalling longevity and continuity. Almost always, Japanese motorcycles are never approached in their own right. They are nearly always attached and in contrast to Euro-American models, and provide the negative Other, one opposing and contrasting Euro-American values and ideologies.

One way to dissect these ideas to a point of molecular politics (as opposed to the molar)[18] is through Deleuze and Guattari’s ideas of becoming-Other. For them, becoming is not a “resemblance, an imitation, or at the limit, an identification” (Deleuze & Guattari, 2011, p.262). Instead, becoming produces nothing other than itself, where Deleuze and Guattari argue that “we fall into a false alternative if we say that you either imitate or you are. What is real is the becoming itself, the block of becoming, not the supposed fixed term through which that which becomes passes” (ibid). In this light, it is not about Japanese motorcycles resembling or imitating Euro-American motorcycles, and nor is it about being a Japanese motorcycle per se as a closed identity. To do so would be to think yet again in dualistic terms (either/or). Instead, it is about a block of becoming which involves Japanese-and-American-and-European-and-female-and-animal-and….and…(both/and). In this context, “Japanese” or “American” cease to be subject positions defined against one another (or “motorcycle” for that matter), and for that matter, “Japanese” stops being the Other. Instead, it is just a(nother) connective process that becoming must pass through.

A line of becoming is not defined by points that it connects, or by points that compose it; on the contrary, it passes between points […] A point is always a point of origin. But a line of becoming has neither beginning nor end; departure nor arrival, origin nor destination […] A line of becoming has only a middle. The middle is not an average; it is fast motion, it is the absolute speed of movement. A becoming is always in the middle; one can only get it by the middle. A becoming is neither one nor two, nor the relation of the two; it is the in-between, the border or line of flight or decent running perpendicular to both. (Deleuze and Guattari, 2011, p. 323)

Within this context, I argue that the act of motorcycling is where we may mount the “line of becoming,” ride between and overtake the “points” (Point A=American Origin, Point B=Japanese Replica) in “fast motion” and in true motorcyclic style, through “absolute speed of movement.” It is motorcyclingenabled by and enabling the bike-biker as a connective producing/product—which allows one to follow a “line of becoming”: rather than being a “Japanese motorcycle” or a “Japanese motorcyclist,” motorcycling is about becoming-Japanese. Such a state is politically salient.

Conversely, if Jews themselves must become-Jewish, if women must become-woman, if children must become-child, if blacks must become-black, it is because only a minority is capable of serving as the active medium of becoming, by under such conditions that it ceases to be a definable aggregate in relation to the majority. Becoming-Jewish, becoming-woman, etc., therefore imply two simultaneous movements, one by which a term (the subject) is withdrawn from the majority, and another by which a term (the medium or agent) rises up from the minority. (Deleuze & Guattari, 2011, p. 321)

An ongoing theme throughout A Thousand Plateaus (1986) and Kafka: toward a minor literature (2011), is the politicisation of minority, or “becoming-minoritarian.” Deleuze and Guattari politicise the “minor” subject, but not one defined against the “majority” in terms of quantity (“minor” to mean lesser). Instead, they argue that the minority is only a political minority if they move through a process of becoming-Other, disconnecting (or deterritorialising) from the majority. The majority has already “become” or is “being” as it is a standard. By comparison, the minor has the possibilities of becoming. So if motorcycling is “the middle,” the “in-between,” the “border or line of flight,” then it is motorcycling that enables me to become-Japanese: I can lose or withdraw (deterritorialise) my “Japanese” subject as a minority socio-culturally defined against the majority of “American/European,” and instead, I become-Japanese as a deterritorialised minoritarian, reterritorialising “Japanese” as a dimension that is free from its original meaning and has the potential for becoming-Other. By extension, the Deleuzian Japanese motorcycle is no longer a replica or an imitation as defined in popular culture and by society, it is a machine that opens up the possibility of producing different and interchangeable, political Japanese identities that have no origin or future. It is about becoming multiple Japaneses, the plurality and production of Japanese possibilities. It is of little wonder that we all feel liberated whilst motorcycling. We are deterritorialised upon the line of becoming, yet also have the tools for producing countless (political) selves. It is such that motorcycling is a material process, a verb, in motion for becoming-Other, a political space-time—the “intermezzo”—where indeed, we can all be brats. Even better than brats, for we get both and more. I am neither Japanese woman, nor anti-Japanese anti-woman: I can become different Japanese women. I am production of my own production of identities when in motion, when motorcycling.

Back to Experience, Representation and Socio-cultural practice

I hope to have demonstrated how Deleuze’s and Guattari’s ideas on Machines and becoming-Other are useful in theorising and politicising the motorcycle and the Other. I mentioned earlier how this article also attempts to bring together the three spheres of concern previously outlined: experiential/corporeal, representational, and socio-cultural practice. Perhaps I have over-ambitiously bitten off more than I can chew, but nonetheless, there are interconnecting points that the Deleuzian motorcycle does pass through (in a becoming manner) which I wish to consider briefly here. In fact, earlier on I referred to the term, assemblage, as a way of describing the combining of these three areas within motorcycle studies of the Other. The three areas correspond directly to what Deleuze and Guattari define as being an assemblage: “an assemblage, in its multiplicity, necessarily acts on semiotic flows, material flows, and social flows simultaneously” (2011, p. 25). In this sense, the experiential/corporeal (material), the representational (semiotic) and socio-cultural practice (social) are by no means exclusive to one another and rather than being separate theoretical areas, should be considered as, indeed, “flowing” into one another. The following is an attempt to approach the assemblage of motorcyclic discourses on Other as a series of interconnected flows. To reiterate, these ideas are merely hoping to open up a discussion and are in no way claiming to be unproblematic or all-encompassing.

Firstly, if we refer back to ideas relating to the experiential, corporeal, and the sensuous writing of and by the Other as a transformative process, it is in fact very similar to the manner in which Deleuze and Guattari discuss minoritarian literature through Kafka (1986): “a minor literature doesn’t come from a minor language; it is rather that which a minority constructs within a major language” (1986, p.16). In this sense, one can conceptualise the writing of experience and the body on motorcycles as part of a process in constructing a minor literature within a major language. As I hope to have established, a Deleuzian becoming-Other is minoritarian, not because of amount and quantity, but because of the minoritarian position in relation to the majority “standard,” it is a position where things must pass through, becoming-Other (the majority has on the other hand, already become). In this light, the transformative and enlightening descriptions of motorcycling journeys, sensations and feelings are part of a minor language and they can be approached as tales of becoming-Other: the writing of deterritorialised minoritarians. Indeed to further reinforce this point, whilst Deleuze’s and Guattari’s work has often been criticised by feminists as being a part of a patriarchal discourse, it has also been defended by feminist scholars, especially in relation to the female body, materiality and writing.[19] What if we were then to approach the bike-biker as an experiential writing Machine, one that enables different articulations of Otherness as the body—or body without organs—experiences different speeds and motions through motorcycling? What if the bike-biker’s experiences of becoming-Other in turn produced different experiences of identity?

Secondly, the question of representations has also been an important area under discussion. I argued that motorcycles in popular culture point toward the politics of representation and the ideological struggle that connects cultural meaning to social signification. If we approach such a process through the Deleuzian motorcycle, such a process becomes both apolitical and at the same time deeply political. To reiterate Grosz’s point on Deleuzian feminism, subjects become connected directly to the social and cultural, “not through mediation of systems of ideology or representation,” but instead, through the very process of forming into machines (Grosz, 1994, p.180). In this way, during motorcycling, when the productive and connective process of bike-biker begins, the mediation of the ideological and representational become obsolete, for we no longer need modes of signification, just direct modes of connecting and becoming. This deterritorialising act is what opens up the possibility of reterritorializing, or indeed becoming-Other, to flow out into other areas such as the semiotic or the material. It is only when the motorcycling stops and the bike-biker connection no longer moves that we are sucked back into the ideological and representational medium. But even then, one could argue that the consumption of motorcycles in popular culture becomes part of the productive process of motorcycling, where the semiotic consumption forms part of the material production, which in turn is fed back into its consumption in popular culture through its own articulations (think about the minoritarian writing mentioned above)? After all, in Deleuzian terms, consumption and production are simultaneous, where the “production of consumption” marks a process where “everything is production, since the recording processes are immediately consumed, immediately consummated, and these consumptions directly reproduced” (1985, p. 4): a materialist Deleuzian productive consumer[20] perhaps?

Thirdly, I identified the importance of communities and the socio-cultural practices surrounding the motorcycle. What if we were to approach these issues in terms of the bike-biker and becoming-Other? At various points in this article, I have referred to the Deleuzian notion of body without organs: the body as a whole is an organised organism, ordered, hierarchical and is thus molar, major, and macropolitical; the body without organs, however, is an un-ordered machine and as such is molecular, minor, and micropolitical. Because Deleuze and Guattari engage directly with psychoanalysis—which systematically organises and orders the psychical with the physical—for them, the body (without organs) is very much a literal and corporeal concern relating to production, reproduction, and desire (hence, the “desiring-Machine”). But the body (without organs) and its materiality are also conceptualised in Marxist terms, where the fully functioning social body is a similarly conditioned, codified, organised “social machine” and is thus related to social production, capital, labour, and the State: the full, social “territorial machine” is nothing other than a collective investment in organ parts, “instituted as partial objects, distributed on the socius and attached to it” (1985, p.142). For Deleuze and Guattari, social organisation is therefore not about structure but instead, is “a practice, a praxis, a method, and even a strategy” (1985, p.147) that are a means of codifying and classifying a territory (be it geographical or otherwise).[21] Within this context, the only way to “escape” codification and territorialisation is through dispersion and scission “such that all the possibilities of coding would be suppressed: decoded flows, flowing on a blind, mute, deterritorialized socius–such is the nightmare that the primitive social machine” (1985, p.153).

If we look at the idea of biker communities and the socio-cultural practices surrounding the motorcycle then, one could argue that each of these communities and their motorcyclic practices are a process of territorialising and codifying space (for “territory” also implies Earth in Deleuzian terms). For example, ever notice the organised and unspoken rule of motorcycle parking? I would never dream of parking my “plastic” TDM, for example, next to a line of shiny Harley-Davidsons being spit-polished by their owners. Similarly, I would feel slightly embarrassed parking my tatty Benley next to some high-performance speed bikes. Even such an innocent act of “parking” is part of a strategic territorialisation which marks our material filiation and alliance–albeit differently aligned–to the socius, for one must never forget that motorcycles cost money and they form part of a circulation of economic, social, and cultural capital. The motorcycle is thus a material means to mark filiation and alliance to the socius, even if bikers might be “outsiders” and a sub-cultural group with its own means of systemisation against the “mainstream.” Motorcyclic socio-cultural practices are thus a means of ordering and classifying motorcyclic filiations and alliances, they are indeed “a practice, a praxis, a method, and even a strategy.”

In this light, it is of little wonder that the aforementioned Conner (2009) describes the practices in Black Motorcycle Clubs as “subjugating women,” an example of a strategic social praxis which orders and organises its organ-parts. But in true Deleuzian style, it is in how the very means of connecting us and ordering us are disassociated from their intended use that can have political implications, as demonstrated by Malone’s (2013) or Ilyasova’s (2006) spatial counter-politics during Pride marches or other demarcational social processes, or what I would describe as a Deleuzian deterritorialising praxis, “deterritorialized socius.” We return back to the body without organs, only the bike-biker Machine, the deterritorialised minoritarian who has the means through motorcycling for becoming-Other, occupying and re-territorialising a place and “identity that constitutes a third term in the linear series: an enormous undifferentiated object” (Deleuze and Guattari, 1985, p.7). Both and more, a socio-political figuration or re-configuration of the motorcycle and the Other.

Not the End

I have no real conclusion, in the sense that like the Deleuzian motorcycle, my discussion has been more of a journey that has attempted to make open-ended theoretical connections to produce potentially new lines of enquiry about motorcycles and the Other. Whilst I have only scratched the surface of Deleuze’s and Guattari’s work (ironically, their work is very much about superficial inscriptions and connections), I hope to have demonstrated the usefulness of thinking about motorcycles and the Other through some of their conceptualisations, mainly those relating to Machines and becoming-Other. I have argued that the bike-biker Machine is thus a connective figuration, one which simultaneously sheds its Othered identity as it becomes nothing other than its connected parts, but also is a political and productive figure in that its connections open up the possibility of producing new Othernesses through motorcycling. In this context, I have tied the act of motorcycling to the process of becoming-Other, where the Other bike-biker Machine can move through a minoritarian process of deterritorialisation and re-territorialisation in motion, speeding “in-between” points of being.

Similarly, I hope to have demonstrated how such ideas can also be used to move through different approaches and theories of motorcycle studies and the Other, mainly those pertaining to the experiential/corporeal, representational, and socio-cultural. One of the underlying concerns in Deleuze’s and Guattari’s work is to demonstrate how these three dimensions are necessarily connected and organised, but paradoxically and importantly, how they can be dis-connected and reconfigured through its very machines of production. In this way, Deleuzian notions on machines, deterritorialisation/reterritorialization, and the body (without organs) can be approached not only as theoretical concepts to think about motorcycles and the Other, but also as a form of disciplinary praxis where one can interrogate the different flow of ideas and approaches to theorisations of the motorcycle and the Other.

[1] Simplistically put, I am referring to debates between those for whom civil rights and equality are closely tied to a common identity “woman,” “black,” “lesbian and gay” (i.e. “women’s rights,” “black movement,” “lesbian and gay politics”), as opposed those for whom the very idea of “identity” is problematic as it ignores differences and power relations within these identity categories through essentialist and reductionist thinking (e.g. class differences in women, lack of women’s voices in black movement, invisibility of transsexuality/bisexuality in lesbian and gay politics). See for example, Identity Politics Reconsidered (Alcoff et al., 2006).

[2] By “Otherness” I mean qualities belonging to those who have been posited—or “Othered”—against those of the Dominant group (Dominant/Other). Similarly, by “Other,” I am referring to the marginalised group of people.

[3] By assemblage, I am referring to Deleuzian notions on collectivity and multiplicity, especially in relation to knowledge. See Deleuze’s and Guattari’s chapter on “Rhizome,” in A Thousand Plateaus (2011) pp 3–28.

[4] Refer to Grunstein’s own reflection of his film (2014) entitled, “Absolutely Nothing, Next 22 Miles … A Fugue for Motorcycle: An Interpretation” in, International Journal of Motorcycle Studies 10(1).

[5] Seminal literary and political work by French radical lesbian feminist theorist, where the lesbian (body) is appropriated from a dominant language of signification through detailed and poetical lyricism of the lesbian body.

[6] A term used by French feminist Hélène Cixous (1976), where the female body is written into text as a way of escaping (particularly psychoanalytic) masculinist thinking and logic.

[7] Refer to: Long, 1999; Smith and Watson, 1998; Polkey, 1999; Gilmore, 1994.

[8] Most notably, Charles Peirce refers to “vessels” carrying meaning (1956, pp. 100–101) and later on, sociologist Erving Goffman uses the same term in a dramaturgical context, where the personal front acts as “vehicles for conveying signs, such as racial characteristics” (1959 rep 1971, p. 21)

[9] For a detailed discussion on this particular song and its context in American culture, refer to Lisa MacKinney’s piece (2008).

[10] I am referring to Benedict Anderson’s “imagined community” (2006).

[11] See for example, Suzanne McDonald-Walker’s work (2000).

[12] Refer to: Adorno, 2001; Baudrillard, 1998; Featherstone, 2007

[13] There are works which theorise the motorcyclist as “other”: Osgerby, 2005; Perlman, 2007; Thompson, 2009; Cohen, 2002; Willis, 1978.

[14] Anthologies which attempt to readdress the imbalance, for example, include: Black Queer Studies (2005); Transgender Reader (2006); and Queer Studies: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Anthology (1996).

[15] An important differentiation in terminology must be made at this point to avoid confusion but also to highlight one of the differences between Haraway’s body and the Deleuzian body. For Haraway, the body is “organism” to suggest organic matter (as opposed to cybernetic, mechanical matter): hence the cyb-org. For Deleuze and Guattari, the body as a whole is an “organism,” that is, an organisational and hierarchical ordering of body parts/organs, usually in reference to psychoanalysis and Marxism (phallus and mouth as most significant in the organised body as a whole, or the capitalist State/nation as a whole). But the idea of body as machine, is to think of the body at molecular (as opposed to molar) levels, a body without organs, parts without the hierarchical ordering and organisation.

[16] I am referring here to a recurring theme in Deleuze and Guattari’s work, the concept of “body without organs” (see En xv). In their work, the body without organs is reduced to molecular parts with no (productive) meaning or hierarchical order. For example, desire is generated not through genitals but through the superficial connections between body parts. In other words, a body without organs is a body that has been stripped of organisational and hierarchical meaning in relation to the body as a whole, or as an “organisation,” free to make its own connections and counterblows.

[17] See Jeffrey W. Alexander’s Japan’s Motorcycle Wars: An Industry History (2009). Whilst Harley-Davidson’s website (under “History” section) is silent on the matter, some Japanese motorcycle websites do refer to the connection between Harley-Davidson and Japan. For example:

[18] Against the universal molar/macropolitical/major, Deleuze and Guattari equate the minor to the molecular, similar to their concept of body without organs which is reduced to its connective surfaces of possibility.

[19] See feminist scholar Verena Andermatt Conley’s piece (2000, pp 18–37) which specifically outlines the similarities between Helene Cixous and Deleuze and Guattari, especially in relation to writing. Refer also to Elizabeth Grosz (1995 and 1994) and Rosi Braidotti (1994), other notable feminist scholars engaging with Deleuze and Guattari in relation to the female body.

[20] “Prosumer,” “prod-user,” “productive consumer,” “proactive consumer” have all become somewhat interchangeable terms. Here I am referring to the idea of someone who consumes and produces, or even must consume in order to produce. See George Ritzer’s piece on “presumption” (2013).

[21] I do not have the space here to discuss these ideas in depth, which are situated within the context of “filiation” (as administrative and hierarchical) and “alliance” (as political and economic). See section on “Savages, Barbarians, Civilized Men” in, Anti-Oedipus (1986) pp.139–271.

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Esperanza Miyake is currently a Research Associate working on digital cultures at Manchester Metropolitan University, and she also teaches Media and Cultural Studies at Liverpool John Moores University. She has published work mainly on popular culture (especially music), sexuality, and race, including a co-edited book, Out of Place: Interrogating Silences in Queerness/Raciality (2008). Esperanza currently rides two motorcycles, a perfectly shaped Yamaha TDM 850 and a shaky but reliable 30-year old Honda CD 185.

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One Comment

  1. an awesome article. I was very intrigued by you perspectives and perceptions. Although I am a traditional American motorcycle club biker, I do not discriminate against make or model of motorcycle, nor race, creed, or color of the rider. The act of motorcycling and the art of motorcycling is both an individual experience as well as a community experience, and those that do not partake in motorcycling do not, and will never, “get it”.


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