Sunday, July 13, 2008

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

(Cross-posted at Cycling in Wichita)

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.


May said...

Wise choice: experience teaches that heavy rain doesn't last forever.

By the way, how were you able to split the post in two parts, "summary" and "read more"? I tried with the old blogger and wasn't able to do it.

John B. said...

Thanks for dropping by. What you say about the rain is especially true in Kansas.

The peekaboo thing is a template hack; here is the link.

Russell Arben Fox said...

John, this is simply delightfully written post. I love how you are able to weave thoughtfully together such apparently disparate concerns, artfully showing the connecting between them on the level of ideas and ordinary life. I wish I were as skilled; most of my long posts seem to me, in retrospect, to come off rather rambling in tone. You're better at this than me.

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.

A wise and important point. No, cycling--or gardening, or buying your vegetables at a CSA, or using FreeCycle or whatever--does not necessarily imply taking an anti-capitalist stand. But it does imply at least a small stand against commodification, a small acknowledgement that maybe we, as agents, ought sometimes to bend ourselves to still-existing nature, rather than trusting to the extensively manufactured cultural of consumption all around us to provide what we need.

May said...

Thank you, John.

John B. said...

Thank you for these very kind words. I don't know how true they in fact are, but I'm flattered to be their recipient--especially when they come from someone I regard as pretty darned sharp. For me, if an idea doesn't in some way make sense of what we see around us, I don't have much use for it.

You can imagine that graduate study in English during the theory war days was pretty frustrating for me a fair amount of the time--much of it was about staking out and defending turf against real and created rivals and not about saying something substantive about the world the rest of us live in. I'm no Marxist, but anyone who's visited a shopping mall can instantly understand what Jameson is saying about culture's having become about itself. One can see the truth in that observation and also, I'd hope, see that that truth isn't a happy one. Cue your phrase "a small stand against commodification."

John B. said...

I'm no Marxist, but anyone who's visited a shopping mall . . .

"or a grocery store," as Don DeLillo makes so unmistakably clear in White Noise--and, of course, as Russell does in the post I linked to.

R. Sherman said...

I'm sitting here at my office waiting for our cleaning service to vacate the back parking lot so my daughter can get some driving practice in.


Anyway, I'm going to revisit this and comment, when I've had a chance to digest this in detail.