Sunday, July 13, 2008

Cycling in the rain; or, defying the cultural logic of Late Capitalism


Friday evening, I had my biking all planned for the next morning: a trip downtown to the Farmers' Market and thence to Bicycle X-Change on West Douglas to buy a set of hex wrenches for my bike (I should have thought of this back on that heady day when I bought the bike, I know), and maybe even a trip over to the art museum (Saturdays are free admission). But. As I begin writing this, it's early sunrise on Saturday and it's pouring down rain: there's thunder and lightning, and--continuing this getting religion metaphor--my fledgling faith is being sorely tested as we speak. Stay in and say The hell with it, or saddle up and say The hell with it? Or triangulate the matter and blog about it?

Heh. You lucky people.

Earlier this week I rode a fair distance in a moderate, steady rain (I wore a windbreaker but no poncho) and, aside from being absolutely soaked through didn't mind that at all (I was concerned about wet brakes, but that wasn't a problem). But this . . .

Prior to today, my thinking about how weather would affect my cycling was chiefly confined to the winter. There will be a fair number of days from November through early March where cycling will be just too cold and/or too risky an option. But I frankly hadn't thought through the equally-basic truth of Wichita weather that the summer is extremely changeable. Thunderstorms usually pop up in the afternoon and evening, but since (for now) I don't plan to ride at night, those didn't worry me too much. What I hadn't thought through was the psychological impact on me of such things as trying to pedal head-on into a steady 20 mph wind (no freakish thing in Wichita) or, this morning, looking forward to some morning cycling only to wake up to a downpour like this.

To the dedicated cyclist, as to the farmer in his/her way, weather--Nature, more generally--matters. That would seem to be so obvious as to go without saying, except that for the past long century or so Western culture has been resolute in doing what it can to render Nature into something of no consequence. That's the source of the discontent (in a Jamesonian spin on Freud's sense of the word) I feel this morning: Nature is Mattering in a most hellacious way this morning, and I don't want it to.

Here's Fredric Jameson himself to explain what I mean by that:
In modernism, . . . some residual zones of "nature" or "being," of the old, the older, the archaic, still subsist; culture can still do something to that nature and work at transforming that "referent." Postmodernism is what you have when the modernization process is complete and nature is gone for good. It is a more fully human world than the older one, but one in which "culture" has become a veritable "second nature." Indeed, what happened to culture may well be one of the more important clues for tracking the postmodern: an immense dilation of its sphere (the sphere of commodities), an immense and historically original acculturation of the Real[.]. . . . So in postmodern culture, "culture" has become a product in its own right; the market has become a substitute for itself and fully as much a commodity as any of the items it includes within itself: modernism was still minimally and tendentially the critique of the commodity and the effort to make it transcend itself. Postmodernism is the consumption of sheer commodification as a process. (Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, pp. ix-x)
All this is a long way of getting to something that I came to realize this morning: that resistance I was feeling to saddling up and saying To hell with it was both a reminder of the truth of Jameson's argument regarding Nature's having been refined out of existence (that was the "resistance" part) and, on the other, my recognition that cycling repudiates that very argument. Nature matters after all. Or again, depending on whether you think of cycling as a return to some simpler, more elemental way of performing a job of work, or as an implicit critique of The Way Things Are.

Or perhaps, just perhaps, cycling does both.

Because Nature matters to cyclists, they become different sorts of consumers of their world. Topography and weather and their bodies' and bicycles' needs, not fantasy, shape their choices--indeed, those factors reacquire an immediacy that, Jameson argues, postmodern culture had assumed for them. The local and immediate are what catch and hold their attention. Theirs are pragmatic sorts of choices, and being compelled to make such choices has a way of revealing just how superfluous and self-indulgent most people's choices are. This, of course, is something the vast majority of manufacturers, marketers and merchants would prefer we not dwell on too thoughtfully or for too long.

I'm not arguing that serious cycling is at its heart anti-capitalist but, rather, that it goes against the grain of how consumerism has come to shape our thinking about wants and needs and how to meet them. It thus opens up a space for the individual to see him- or herself relative to those dynamics and respond with a bit more autonomy than s/he might otherwise have.

Over at In Medias Res, my friend and fellow Wichitan (and cyclist and thinking-locally advocate) Russell Arben Fox has been thinking recently about late capitalism's effects on food production and has a typically rich and meaty post up on the subject. I encourage you to read the whole post, but it's in the paragraph below, a critique of a comment in an interview made by Michael Pollan, best-known for his book The Omnivore's Dilemma, that Russell makes a distinction that gets at the sort of autonomy that I mean above:
There is much wisdom in that passage, with its invocation of Burke's "little platoons" and its slam on Friedman's "flat," globalized economy. It is properly suspicious of corporations and respectful of localist "economies of place." So what's the problem? Nothing really...except that, in the end, it seems to posit the revival of such localism in terms of "resistance" to a government invariably corrupted by various industrial and "expert" interests. The goal is local "autonomy," which--unless one wishes to get all philosophical and argue over different interpretations of Kant--is, politically at least, another way of saying local "independence." And I've nothing against independence. But an independence that does not address how that locality is not just supposed to become free, but also how it is to be sovereign--that is, able to establish itself, govern itself, exercise authority over its place and build something lasting there--is not really going to be able to pull off the kind of cultural transformation John [Schwenkler, in an article here advocating that "renewing the culinary culture should be a conservative cause"] wants to see happen. He speaks, to be sure, of nurturing self-government, but also of resisting government--which is sometimes necessary, but which also leaves the door open to libertarian assumptions that I do not think are helpful to his--to our--cause. (Russell's italics)
In the comments section for Russell's post, I noted that it seemed to me that his distinction between independence and sovereignty could be extended by analogy to discussion of neighborhoods
in urban areas that themselves are diverse economies in miniature--here in Wichita, for example, I have in mind the Delano District, which lacks only (and thus could use) one of those small "corner" grocery stores (not a convenience store, and not some fru-fru gourmet food store) to achieve a kind of economic sovereignty relative to Wichita. Compare Delano, though, to the Hispanic/Asian neighborhoods just to the north of downtown Wichita, which have numerous "corner" stores of just this sort.
I went on to mention that, at least in those cities I'm most familiar with that are encouraging people to move into urban centers to live, developers are building shops and restaurants like crazy . . . but no corner grocery stores. The effect is something like a bedroom community turned inside-out: now, people have to leave the neighborhood not to work but to buy food to prepare and eat.

No: cycling can't make corner markets appear in a neighborhood. But I think that cyclists, by being alert to and patronizing their neighborhoods' products and services, can play a role in affirming the community as a place unto itself, with a measure of (economic) sovereignty relative to the city that surrounds it. To tar with a broad brush: cars encourage us to leave the immediate area, to perhaps even see that space as in some way lacking, and don't encourage us to get to know the neighbors--they insulate us from a community's "weather," from its nature. Bicycles encourage their riders to take stock of that same area's resources and, at least in my own brief experience as a cyclist, to see it as richer than they once thought it to be. Far from being "flat" economically, the business topography of healthy communities is varied and often surprising.

As it turned out, the rain let up enough that morning that I was able to run my errands without feeling as though I was riding through a car wash. At the bike shop, when the clerk saw the hex tool set I'd selected, he said, "Oh--we have a less-expensive one over here." He walked over to the display rack to find it, gave it to me, rang up the sale, and I went out to my bike to tighten up some bolts. He was happy, and I was happy. And I'll be sure to go back.

9 comments:

bicycleptic said...

I can give a bit of advicxazige I learned the hard way many years ago. If you are out and get caught in the rain do not stop until you are done. Once you are wet do not stop and dry off and then try to finish the ride. Once you ride for ten minutes in the rain especially on a warm day like last Saturday it will begin to feel good. However, if you stop and dry off and then go back out into the rain it will chill you to the bone.

John B. said...

Bicycleptic,
Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

Re your advice: Commuterdude mentions that very piece of advice in this long and very informative post on commuting in the rain. Anyone wanting advice on gear, Do's and Don'ts, etc., will learn much from it.

Anonymous said...

"Because Nature matters to cyclists, they become different sorts of consumers of their world."

How does one function as a "consumer" of the weather?

Methinks the gentleman has been commodified too much.

Perhaps since you have written that you have given some thought to that vile little word, what it means, what it implies and how the hell it managed to creep into the very heart of your personal lexicon as a synonym for all sorts of words which it is in no way synonymous with.

If not, you should.

John B. said...

Anon., thanks for stopping by and commenting.

I think you misread the passage you're quoting from. Here is most of that paragraph:

Because Nature matters to cyclists, they become different sorts of consumers of their world. Topography and weather and their bodies' and bicycles' needs, not fantasy, shape their choices--indeed, those factors reacquire an immediacy that, Jameson argues, postmodern culture had assumed for them. The local and immediate are what catch and hold their attention. Theirs are pragmatic sorts of choices, and being compelled to make such choices has a way of revealing just how superfluous and self-indulgent most people's choices are.

As you can see, what I'm saying is that for cyclists, weather, among other factors that postmodern culture (according to Jameson) has rendered inconsequential, affects the choices they make as consumers. Having said all this, I'm not at all contesting your statement that the insidiousness of consumerism is such that we can be blind to how it shapes our decisions as consumers. That is in fact precisely what this post seeks to expose via a discussion of how cycling alters our perspective of the place we inhabit and move about in. All I'm contesting is your suggestion that my post also falls prey to that insidiousness.

Anonymous said...

"I think you misread the passage you're quoting from."

No, not really misread, but somewhat willfully read selectively.

"All I'm contesting is your suggestion that my post also falls prey to that insidiousness."

And yet your response is full of that word. I remember a time when it did not exist in the common vernacular; and there is no reason it should. It is an abstract term belonging to certain abstract systems of modeling.

All I am contesting is your use of that word. Consumers do not make decisions, people do, and its use by The People is self denigrating.

And many of the choices they make to which that word is now applied are not even consumption. One cannot, for instance, consume music. The word does not mean "spend money on."

This is not to say that it does not have a legitimate place in the sort of issues you are discussing, but it must be used with great care. It is a dangerous word.

Otherwise I (a transportation cyclist by choice for many years who finds himself somewhat amused by your discovery of rain) am certainly in great sympathy with your general point, having made it often myself and awhile ago somewhat shocked a research psychologist trying to examine how marketing campaigns affect my day to day buying decisions by pointing out that I hadn't actually bought ANYTHING in about three months.

I rather suspect I would enjoy an afternoon on the porch with you, the proper place for a discussion of this sort.

John B. said...

Anon.,
Apologies for not responding earlier.

Re your comments about "consumer": I take your point; I'm guilty of not taking the time to examine the word itself more closely. It was at hand--which is precisely the problem, isn't it?

I'm also glad to hear you take my point. Thanks for coming by; you're welcome any time . . . which would be true even if you had not taken my point.

Anonymous said...

". . . even if you had not taken my point."

The best porch discussions between friends always begin when one of them hazards a "Nope."

Trevor-Peter said...

That would seem to be so obvious as to go without saying, except that for the past long century or so Western culture has been resolute in doing what it can to render Nature into something of no consequence.

I couldn't agree more with this specific sentiment or the overall thrust of this post. My initial reflections on weather, nature, and our present mode of existence actually pre-date my bike-commuting. But slower modes of travel like walking and biking certainly give you a different perspective on your local environment and travel. I find that it mostly breeds frustration that I live in such a car-oriented community, but I keep telling myself that it will never change unless someone makes the effort now.

You have a lot of good thoughts here--looks like I might have to add another blog to my reader :-)

John B. said...

Trevor-Peter,
I'm sorry I hadn't seen your comment till just now; I've had troubles with my comments widget. Thank you for the very kind words, and I hope you don't come to regret your expressed impulse to return from time to time.