In 2018, cultural historian Maiken Umbach and I published a book on ‘authenticity’ as an ideological concept. We explored the ideological appropriation of the idea of authenticity across discourse about the natural world, about industrial society, in leadership, and in the field of consumption. We had a few pages in there on authenticity and motorcycle subculture, and that potential connection between motorcycling and authenticity is something I have always wanted to come back to. How might an existentialist notion of ‘authenticity’, as a possible life-mode or way of being, connect with the experience of motorcycle riding?
△ Rider on his Rudge-Whitworth motorcycle, Australia, ca. 1935. [Fig.1]
What I am interested in, here, is a way of thinking about the perennial question of ‘why we ride’ from an existentialist perspective, and, in particular, why we ride despite the elevated risk of being ‘killed or seriously injured’ if we are involved in a road traffic accident. This way of thinking about that question involves the opportunities that the experience of motorcycling might offer for moments of authenticity in a world where, for entirely understandable reasons, inauthenticity is the norm, and what it might mean, (and why it might matter), that such moments of authenticity can, possibly, be realised.
I will begin here with a brief account of the concept of authenticity as it appears in various strands of existentialist philosophy, focusing mostly on the thought of Martin Heidegger and his notion of ‘being-towards-death’. I will then move on to look at some examples of writing about motorcycle riding that appear, to me, to highlight connections between that experience and a notion of lived authenticity. The final section seeks to draw these two strands together and explore how riding a motorcycle, and the experience of being (as a motorcyclist) a ‘vulnerable’ road user, offers opportunities for authentic moments of existence.
For existentialists, human life is not some kind of metaphysical entity, with a static essence, a ‘real self’ or core to it that gives it fixed meaning. Life is a time-bound process, we are what we make of ourselves, what we do from birth to death, and only we ourselves can give our one life meaning. Furthermore, in Martin Heidegger’s version of existentialism, the starting point for understanding human life is in the everyday interactions that we experience in our societies. We are ‘thrown’ into a world which is already social, in which roles, structures, and pathways already exist, which offer us modes of life that we can adopt without having to think too much about what we are doing. To live according to existing social norms and practices, simply because they are there to be followed, in an unquestioning way, is to live the life of the ‘Anyone’, in his terminology. ‘Anyone’, because these social roles are interchangeable among people, so ‘anyone’ can step in and pick up a social role held, previously, by someone else. We might work in a factory, or as a train driver, a civil servant etc., live and shop in a town, drink in a local bar, watch films and TV, talk about these with our friends, and so on, and in being that way, our lives are largely interchangeable with other peoples’. We do things because that is how things are done around here – this is to live in ‘inauthenticity’. Now if we are to get by successfully in a society, much of our lives will have to be lived this way. We do things simply because that is how things are done around here – think of solving co-ordination problems (i.e. problems that have no ‘correct’ solution, but where it matters that we all behave in a co-ordinated way) such as which side of the road we ride on. In the United Kingdom one rides on the left, in the United States one rides on the right, simply because everyone else does the same thing. A world in which each person makes an ‘authentic’ decision each morning about which side of the road they will ride or drive on that day would be completely dysfunctional. When we have children, one of our key ambitions is, or should be, to socialise them, to teach them how things are done around here, how to integrate with a pre-existing social and cultural world. Unsocialised children tend to not fare well. So much of our lives will be, for all of us, inauthentic in this sense; there is no choice to be made between leading a fully authentic or fully inauthentic life. What, however, we might be able to achieve, are moments of authenticity, moments of ownership of our own lives, in the midst of this inauthenticity.
What might that mean? To live authentically, even for a while, is to take ownership of, or authorship of, one’s mortal life. To live autobiographically rather than biographically, to live according to our own script, and not live a script written for us elsewhere. One key to achieving this, against the grain of the life of the ‘Anyone’ or ‘Das Man’, is to grasp hold of, and openly confront, our own mortality, to experience what Heidegger called ‘being-toward-death’. In relation to motorcycling, to talk of ‘being-toward-death’ is not to resurrect the hackneyed old pop psychology trope that bikers have a not-very-sublimated death wish, instantiated in the world through their love of risk and danger. I am sure every rider has had that reaction at some point, usually from non-riders. One colleague of mine described motorcycling as ‘long-format suicide’, which, while hopefully inaccurate, is at least a nice turn of phrase. Empirical survey work with motorcyclists in the UK, by Broughton and Walker, has shown that the risk appetite profiles of motorcycle riders are actually pretty average, and what motivates most riders to ride is not an inflated love of risk, but the desire to master a complex and challenging set of skills.
Being-toward-death then, is not an account of a sublimated death drive, but the desire to live a life in full consciousness of our own mortality. It is not just that every life must have an end, but rather what it means to live one’s life in full knowledge of that end. In a world where there are myriad distractions designed to entertain, amuse, and divert us from thinking about the human condition, we are not encouraged to dwell on mortal questions. The recent British film Living takes on exactly this phenomenon – what difference does it make to a life when a terminal cancer diagnosis comes, and mortality can no longer be sublimated in the everyday routines of a civil servant’s life?
The genre of works that discuss the uniqueness of the experience of riding a motorcycle is, I am sure, familiar to readers of this journal. I want here to review extracts from three of these works that discuss, in one way or another, the authenticity of that experience. I will begin with probably the best-known, a passage from Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance:
In a car you’re always in a compartment, and because you’re used to it you don’t realise that through the car windscreen everything is just more TV. You’re a passive observer and it is all moving by you boringly in a frame. On a cycle the frame is gone. You’re completely in contact with it all. You’re in the scene, not just watching it anymore, and the sense of presence is overwhelming. That concrete whizzing by five inches below your feet is the real thing.
We have here the notion of that connection with the environment, of the tarmac below our feet being ‘the real [we might say authentic] thing’. This provides one illustration of how riding a motorcycle brings us back to a moment of authentic existence. Of course, it is not only riding that can do this – driving a physical car is unlike ‘driving’ a car in, say, a video game. If we make a driving error, that can have very real consequences, and as Mark Wrathall notes in his primer on Heidegger, ‘When I am driving my car on Highway 89, there is an ever-present possibility that another vehicle will collide with me.’ This possibility is ‘present’ to me in that context, as it affects my behaviour as a driver (Wrathall, 2005, p.68). Pirsig’s point is that this possibility is much more intensely ‘present’ on a motorcycle. The car still gives the impression that life outside passes by on a screen, similar to a television, and in a modern car one is surrounded by a rigid shell, air bags, crumple zones and the like, all designed with driver safety and survival in mind. On a motorcycle, even with a visor down, one is immersed in that environment, it fills the rider with a ‘sense of presence’, and as a vulnerable road user, if you hit that concrete five inches below your feet, you will have a deeply unpleasant experience of the ‘real thing’.
The faster you ride, the more closed the circuit becomes, deleting everything but this second and the next, which are hurriedly merging. Having no past to regret, and no future to await, the rider feels free. […] The curves play games with the rider, and the rider is lost in the concentration it takes to match wits with an impressive opponent. How fast to enter this turn? The fact that you can be so sadly mistaken is what gives the right choice its sweet taste. (Pierson, 1997).
In this extract from Pierson, we get that sense of motorcycling as a ‘flow activity’, as conceptualised in the work of Csikszentmihalyi (1990), one that, again, is said to completely absorb our senses, so that we are, as it were, entirely present in the present. Pierson also reminds us that this activity is a high-stakes one, that making a mistake on a bend can lead to very bad consequences. That, in a sense, is the whole point, and it is picked up again in this next quote:
I was riding to the limit of my ability, one tiny error of judgement could have brought catastrophe and the ensuing sickening crunching noise followed by the silence and the stillness before the pain would start to rise and rise. But these thoughts only made me want to ride faster, hooked on the sensation of being on the edge, a delicious glimpse of utter freedom, total peace (Carter, 2012).
As well as reminding us of the high-stakes game, Carter also points to the feelings of exhilaration that can accompany a successful manoeuvre, the hook of the ‘delicious glimpse of utter freedom’. After the risk has been faced and overcome, we get a moment of ‘total peace’, at least until the next bend looms…
All of these extracts hint, or more than hint, at a connection between motorcycle riding and authentic experience, the sense of immersion in the environment, the overwhelming sense of presence, the satisfying sensation of making the right choice when one’s life, literally, depends upon it, and the psychological ‘hook’ of life lived ‘on the edge’. Each of these sensations connects with existentialist accounts of what it means to achieve moments of authenticity in human life, in other words they connect with Sartre’s claim that ‘there is no reality except in action’.
Research in the UK demonstrates that the chances of being killed, or seriously injured, once you are involved in a road traffic accident are around 40 times higher for the rider of a powered two-wheeler than for a car or van driver (Brake.org). Yet, despite these odds, millions still choose to ride. A tiny minority of road users, for sure (only 0.86% of UK road journeys, for example, are by motorcycle (UK Department for Transport, 2023)) but riders still number in the millions. This is true even in developed nations, where (unlike in some developing countries) motorcycles are largely seen as an optional, ‘hobbyist’ mode of transport, rather than as something essential because affordable.
Why, despite those odds, do motorcyclists ride? I believe that all riders are aware of this heightened risk – one understands that motorcyclists are vulnerable road users, uncaged, and so more likely to die in a road accident than any car driver. We know this, and yet we still ride, and evidence appears to show that we do it because we want to get to grips with a complex and highly demanding set of skills that are necessary in an existentially risky situation. This brings us back to our quotes. Having an overwhelming sense of one’s presence in, not view of, a landscape. To see the ‘real’ tarmac whizzing past five inches below our feet. To know that our life depends on our making good choices, that we need to be alert, to have all our senses attuned to what we are doing, to be hooked on that sense of ‘living on the edge.’ These are examples, I would contend, of what existentialists mean when they implore us to live a fully human life; they are examples of ‘being-towards-death’ in that positive sense of taking ownership of our lives and our choices, to know that the continuation of our life story depends on the choices that we make, right in the here and now. It embodies what it means to consciously live a mortal life, to be fully immersed in a high-takes activity. And, I would contend, there is something of value in that. Motorcycling offers up opportunities, no more than that, to live in existential authenticity, opportunities which may be increasingly hard to come by as our social world becomes, as Matthew Crawford has written, more controlled and risk-averse. Moreover, the ride is an inherently individualised and personal experience. Even if we are riding as a group, or under instruction, finding that right pathway around a bend is still always going to be down to ourselves and our own judgement – one cannot ride as ‘das Man’.
I should conclude by considering some potential problems with this argument, and I want to be clear about a few things for which I am not arguing. I am not arguing that motorcyclists lead more authentic lives than other people, tout court. Motorcycling offers as much opportunity for inauthenticity as any other sphere of life. It offers dress-codes, behavioural pathways, and language games that we can follow simply because we want to ‘fit in’ with our chosen biker tribe. Nor am I arguing that those who might achieve moments of existential authenticity are thereby more moral, or more autonomous, or lead more praiseworthy lives, than other people. Authenticity is just that, and not other things besides. There may be reasons to think, as Simone de Beauvoir did, that authenticity provides some kind of ground for a reciprocal form of morality, but there is no space to explore that here.
We should also consider Theodore Adorno’s warning, in the wake of the Nazi regime and Heidegger’s flirtation with it, about the ‘jargon of authenticity’. As a Frankfurt School Marxist, Adorno of course believed that there were objective and structural reasons, in capitalist society, for alienation, and that such alienation could not be overcome through any kind of subjective reflex, through ‘commitment’, or ‘being-toward-death’ or any of the other ‘jargon’ phrases that existentialists have come up with. Only changes to the objective relations of production could reunite humankind with their objective mode of species being. Critiques such as this rest on the view that only comprehensive, structural socio-economic change can allow people to lead fully human lives. If one questions those presuppositions, however, then the exploration of ways in which we might get to lead such lives in our existing societies become both more interesting and far more urgent. How do we achieve, or at least approach, a fully human life despite the bureaucratic, industrial institutional landscape in which we find ourselves?
My argument then is actually rather modest, but I think not without import. Accounts of why we ride often come back to this sense of the experience being ‘real’, in some hard-to-define way. Riders report that on a bike they feel ‘fully alive’ in a way that stands in contrast to most other areas of human activity. The process of becoming a competent motorcycle rider is one with relatively high stakes, and the combination of both making good progress and riding safely demands a complex and multidimensional skill set. As Melanie Holbrook Pierson reminds us, the costs of getting things wrong can be high. But that is, as she says, also what gives success its sweet taste, and this, in turn, gives us a glimpse of existential authenticity on a motorcycle.
Adorno, T. (1973) The Jargon of Authenticity London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Broughton, P and Walker, L. (2009). Motorcycling and Leisure: Understanding the Recreational PTW Rider London: CRC Press.
Carter, M. (2012) ‘Uneasy Rider’ in Bradford, N. (Ed.) Sons of Thunder. Writing from the Fast Lane: A Motorcycling Anthology, pp.167-179.
Csikszentmihalyi, M., (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. London: Harpercollins.
Crawford, M. (2020) Why We Drive: On Freedom, Risk, and Taking Back Control London: The Bodley Head.
De Beauvoir, S. (2018) The Ethics of Ambiguity New York: Open Road Media .
Department for Transport (UK) (2023) Road Traffic Estimates in Great Britain, 2022: Headline Statistics https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/road-traffic-estimates-in-great-britain-2022/road-traffic-estimates-in-great-britain-2022-headline-statistics (accessed 5th October 2023).
Heidegger, M. (1962) Being and Time New York: Harper & Row .
Holbrook Pierson, M. (1997) The Perfect Vehicle London: Granta Books.
Pirsig, R. (1974) Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values New York: William Morrow & Co.
Sartre, J-P. (1965) ‘The Humanism of Existentialism’ in Sartre, J-P., Essays in Existentialism Secaucus, NJ: Citadel Press, pp.31-62. Quote from p.47.
Umbach, M & M. Humphrey (2018) Authenticity: The Cultural History of a Political Concept London: Palgrave Macmillan.
Wrathall, M. (2005) How to Read Heidegger London: Granta Books.
Mathew Humphrey is a Professor of Political Theory at the University of Nottingham, UK, and in what feels like an alternative life used to be a train driver/locomotive engineer. His main research interest is in political ideology and is currently Editor of the Journal of Political Ideologies. He also has an interest in the politics of motorcycling and riders’ rights, and has an article on the UK riders’ rights movement in Volume 18 of IJMS. He has been riding, more on than off, from the age of 16, when he got his hands on an old Mobylette V40 that just about ran.