Hog Wild!

The field of motorcycle studies has its own journal. Scott McLemee goes riding with the Footnote Gang.

May 31, 2006

It’s an armada of motorcycles, thousands of them, the mufflers removed from every one, it seems, so a low steady cyclical growl floats over the whole city -- and from the horizon, for the bikers are across the river as well, in the neighborhood close to Arlington National Cemetery, which is the magnet pulling all this metal to Washington, D.C. each year during Memorial Day weekend. It’s called Rolling Thunder (which was also, not so coincidentally, the name of a bombing campaign during the Vietnam war).  

The usual tourists wander around, of course, taking the usual pictures of the usual monuments. But more awe-inspiring is the temporary installation of artwork on the streets downtown. There are long rows of parked motorbikes, customized to the point of mutation, parked at angles that seem like a temptation to gravity and the domino effect. The place is full of sweaty, beer-swilling, heavily tattooed bikers. And you should see their husbands.

Okay, now, see, there are the stereotypes again.... I really should know better -- having just discovered a new online publication called the International Journal of Motorcycle Studies. It came to my attention thanks to Political Theory Daily Review, itself an incomparable and altogether indispensable website. (For more on it, see this article.) Four issues of IJMS have appeared so far. The next is due in July.

The title might sound tongue-in-cheek. The contents most assuredly are not. The ratio of substantial, intelligent articles to resume-padding chuff would be creditable for a print-format scholarly journal -- let alone one that exists entirely online, available to readers free. I expected numerous citations of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig’s quasi-autobiographical novel -- in which riding cross-country cures the narrator of the nervous breakdown he suffered as a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Chicago. But such references are mercifully scarce. The reader is more likely to come across an allusion to Donna Haraway’s agenda-setting theoretical work on the cyborg (no longer a sci-fi concept, but rather something like a metaphor for the way we live now, in a world where human beings increasingly become the missing link between monkey and machine).

There is something rather cyborgic about academic/biker hybridity itself. In the contributors' notes, an author will usually list not only scholarly credentials but also the make of his or her ride.

The emphasis of the journal's articles, which are peer-reviewed, falls mainly on the social and cultural dimension of motorcycling, rather than its mechanics. Some of the best papers explore the history of bike clubs over the past century.

Or longer, actually. The Federation of American Motorcyclists, formed in 1903, emerged as a umbrella organization to incorporate enthusiasts from already established clubs, according to an interesting (and lovingly researched) study by William L. Dulaney, a visiting assistant professor of communication at Western Carolina University.

Dulaney does not reveal the make of his motorcycle, but he spent 10 years riding with an “outlaw” club. You picture him lecturing with a pool cue in his hand, using it to point to the chalkboard and to menace students (perhaps to their pedagogical benefit).

In this context, however, the term “outlaw” has a particular meaning that does not necessarily connote violence. An outlaw club is simply one that has refused the Foucaultian regime of subjective normalization imposed by the American Motorcyclist Association. They are not (necessarily) criminal -- just sensitive to bureaucracy.

By the Great Depression, Dulaney notes, many clubs had embraced the “enduring biker pastime” of “the massive consumption of alcohol and general good-natured debauchery.” (It’s so important to have traditions.) In 1947, the AMA leadership denounced certain exceptionally wild clubs -- for example, the Pissed Off Bastards of Bloomington -- in the name of the 99 percent of motorcycling enthusiasts who were clean-cut, law-abiding citizens. In defiance, some outlaw clubs accepted the label “one-percenters,” incorporating the symbol “1%” (inscribed within a diamond) into their club logos.

All one-percenters are outlaws. But not all outlaws are one percenters. Nor (archetypal imagery notwithstanding) do cycle clubs primarily attract Y-chromosome Caucasian lumpen roustabouts. The Motor Maids, the first all-female club, received an AMA charter in 1941 (and thus are not outlaws). Now in their 76th year, they still ride. And as another paper notes, there are also fundamentalist Christian clubs, and gay clubs, and ethnicity-based groups like the Ebony Angels and the New York club called the Sons of David. Some biker organizations are serious about maintaining sobriety, just as much as the Hells Angels are committed to avoiding it.

To learn more about the Footnote Gang (or whatever the group was that got IJMS started) I contacted Suzanne Ferriss, one of the managing editors. She is a professor of English at Nova Southeastern University, in Fort Lauderdale, and among other things the co-author of A Handbook of Literary Feminisms (Oxford University Press, 2002).

The timing of the telephone interview seemed appropriate. As Ferriss explained how academic-biker culture acquired its own journal, the distant rumble of Rolling Thunder came in through the window of my study.

It all started about six years ago, Ferriss said, in the wake of a series of panels at regional meetings of the Popular Culture Association. (It might be worth interrupting her narrative to give some background: Founded in the late 1960s, the association predates much of what is now called “cultural studies,” a field that only began to establish itself in American academic life about 20 years ago. The PCA’s own internal culture and outlook have always been far more populist than theoreticist. Not that its members are averse to analysis. But the PCA’s flagship publication, Journal of Popular Culture, tends to resemble a smart fanzine more than it does, say, a special issue of Diacritics devoted to "Six Feet Under.")

Anyway, to continue: People involved in the PCA sessions began working on an edited collection of papers. The volume was accepted by the University of Wisconsin Press, only to become a casualty of budget cuts. (The editors are looking for a new publisher.) But by then a network of scholars interested in motorcycle culture was taking shape.

“We had a list of about 300 people who’d been involved in the PCA panels,” says Ferris, “or who had expressed interest.” A core group of volunteers wanted to work on a journal, and Ferriss’s institution, Nova Southeastern University, was willing to host it online. The editorial board of six scholars reflected the sense that the journal should be international in scope: it had two members each from Britain, Canada, and the United States.

The editorial board also has an honorary member, best known as Sputnik -- an activist prominent in the struggle against helmet laws. “The journal doesn’t have a position on that or any other political issue,” Ferriss told me. However, Sputnik’s advisory role lends the whole enterprise “biker cred.” As publisher of Texas Road Warrior Motorcycle Magazine, he is, as the saying goes, an organic intellectual.

IJMS also has an audience in the motorcycle industry itself. For example, it is read by the professional historians who work for particular companies.  “We knew this was a subject that had a wider readership,” she said, “and that the journal would not just be of interest to academics.”

The first issue went up in March 2005. Since then, several editors and contributors have also had work in the anthology Harley-Davidson and Philosophy, published this year by Open Court. It’s an interesting collection, if by no means exhaustive. (The papers scarcely more than namecheck Gilles Deleuze, for example, even though his concepts of deterritorialization, nomadology, and “line of flight” seem quite biker-friendly.) But the paper by Bernard E. Rollins, a professor of philosophy and biomedical sciences at Colorado State University, certainly has a great title: “ ‘It’s My Own Damned Head’: Ethics, Freedom, and Helmet Laws.”

In November, IJMS will publish a special issue on motorcycle rights and regulations. (One senses a recurrent theme here.) And the July issue will treat questions concerning teaching and research in motorcycle studies.

Ferriss kindly allowed me an early look at some of the forthcoming papers, including a couple of bibliographical essays that make clear just how large and various the pool of texts really is. The literature on motorcycle travel begins no later than 1915, with W.H.L. Watson’s Adventures of a Dispatch Rider, though there are striking manifestations of a biker sensibility already present, in unambiguous form, in Filippo Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto of 1909: “We declare that the splendor of the world has already been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed.... Time and Space died yesterday.” (You can read the whole thing here. )

Among recent titles, there seems to be particular excitement about Riding With Rilke: Reflections on Motorcycles and Books by Ted Bishop, an English professor at the University of Alberta. Published last year by Penguin Canada, it will be distributed in the U.S. by W.W. Norton starting this fall. The next issue of the journal will have an essay by Bishop discussing the overlap in sensibility between motorcycle collectors and bibliophiles.

The July issue will also run an appealing article by Katherine Sutherland about how she pulled together a course called “Motorcycles, Speed, and Literature” on very short notice. When two professors were suddenly unavailable for the semester, she offered, to her colleagues’ great relief, “to throw together something on mumble mumble and literature.” (Sutherland is an associate professor of English at Thompson Rivers University, in British Columbia.) “Situations of extreme panic planning,” she notes, “are commonplace in university settings.”

In two months, she pulled together a syllabus that included Heidegger’s analysis of death and authenticity, The Futurist Manifesto, Hunter S. Thompson’s book about the Hells Angels, and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. (The latter title was only added, she says, “because I felt I really had to,” although she admits dreading the thought of having to reread it.)

Sutherland broke the material into three segments, “beginning with texts featuring the classic hero figure and the quest motif, followed by those centered on the existentialist anti-hero, and concluding with the most recent works, which featured cyborgs, or complex fusions of machine and body.”

In hindsight, the experience of prepping for and teaching the course followed a similar triadic rhythm: “There was the modestly heroic effort to get the course mounted,” she writes, “followed by some moments of crisis always present the first time a course is offered, but particularly so in this case; and finally, there were some examples of real, cybernetic intersections between minds and machines.”

Reading articles from the journal, I felt a degree of vicarious enthusiasm. This came as a surprise, given that motorcycling has never interested me, which is probably a good thing, public safety-wise. (There are grounds for wondering if I possess a center of gravity.) Over the weekend, my wife and I ventured out into the fumes and the roar in downtown Washington -- taking in the spectacle, and occasionally snapping digital photographs of striking bits of biker semiosis.

There was, for example, the helmet on the back of one chopper, where it sat unattended yet presumably safe -- in keeping, no doubt, with a strictly enforced honor system. Nearly every available inch of the helmet’s surface had some slogan on it. “Depression is just anger without enthusiasm,” read one sticker. Which after all is pretty much Freud’s “Mourning and Melancholia” boiled down to one sentence.

I was looking around for something marked with a diamond and “1%” when my wife asked, “Does that journal you were talking about publish fiction?”

“Probably not,” I said, “since it’s scholarly rather than literary. If an author published a novel about the biking subculture they’d probably run something on it, sooner or later. Why?”

“Did you notice the couple back there?” she asked.

My people-watching skills need honing. “Nope.”

“Well,” she said, “the guy definitely looked like a biker from central casting. He had the leather vest and tattoos and everything. But his girlfriend wasn’t like that at all. She was completely the opposite.”

“Suzy Suburb?”

“Exactly. She was digging around in that storage thing at the back of the motorcycle. He stood there looking kind of embarrassed. It seems like there would be a short story in that somewhere.”

Maybe so. Perhaps one with a twist ending. After all, it might be her bike.


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