Monday, March 19, 2007

Motoring fantasies and the politics of enjoying the road


Last Saturday was meant to be the beginning of my racing career with the Dulwich Hill Bicycle Club. I was going to be racing in the Heffron Park criteriums but it was rained out. Despite this, I did manage to get a spin with my local bug group. It was our ‘Seniors Week’ ride and although I was seriously lacking in seniority, I couldn’t say no to free coffee and cake at the Adora Chocolate shop. There were about eight of us and during our coffee one passing motorist yelled out: ‘I’m going to slash your fucking tyres’. This was third of a number of interjections that I had experienced in the last week. I raised the question of what motivated such behaviour beyond the simple ‘dickhead factor’. One of the Ashbug member (Leonard) suggested that he thought cyclists had become the new ‘outgroup’ because ‘multiculturalism’ had stopped people from expressing other forms of hatred. Cyclists were soft-targets and they had filled ‘the gap’ as objects of societal hatred. One could believe such a hypothesis if one were to only to read articles in the Daily Telegraph, however my initial thoughts were that this was not the most plausible explanation. Cyclists come in many shapes and sizes and I don’t think of the carbon fibre boys as much of a ‘minority group’. They are unlikely to be subjected to discrimination on the basis of ethnicity, gender, race, class or sexuality. Secondly, I was not of the opinion that multiculturalism had really censored racism, rather, it has just made it more unacceptable in public discourse (think John Brogden’s infamous comments on Helena Carr). However, if we are to compare the fate of the cyclist with certain racist fantasies, I do think we could draw some similarities. Both cyclist and some migrants are objects of fear amongst many people. In drawing these connections, my thinking comes from the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek, who has developed a unique way of analysing racism as a form of psychic fantasy. According to Zizek:

What is therefore at stake in ethnic tensions is always the possession of the national Thing. We always always impute to the “other” an excessive enjoyment: he wants to steal our enjoyment (by ruining our way of life) and/ or he has access to some secrete, perverse enjoyment. In short, what really bothers us about the “other” is the particular way his enjoyment, precisely the surplus, the “excess” that pertains to this way: the smell of “their” food, “their” noisy songs and dances, “their” strange manners, “their” attitude to work. To the racist, the “other” is either a workaholic stealing our jobs or an idler living on our labour, and it is quiet amusing to notice the haste with which one passes from reproaching the other with a refusal to work to reproaching him for the theft of work. ... What we conceal by imputing to the Other the theft of enjoyment is the tramatic fact that we never possessed what was allegedly stolen from us... (Slavoj Zizek, Tarrying with the Negative, Duke: 1993, pp202-3)

Offering a comparative analysis, we could say that for the motorist, the road has become his Thing. For the motorist, the road is a point of identification and source of enjoyment. The cyclist threatens to ‘invade’ and ‘steal’ his precious ‘road-Thing’. The cyclist, as is so often claimed, doesn’t know how to follow the road rules, she doesn’t pay rego etc. The cyclist appears to have a ‘perverse’ way of being on the road that the motorist does not have access to. The cyclist also has the freedom to get around the city with much ease. The cyclist has simply ‘too much enjoyment’ of the road and is envied for this. In contradiction, however, the cyclist may also be seen as the one who doesn’t have enough ‘enjoyment’ of the road, or at least doesn’t know the ‘right way’ to enjoy the road. Rather than joining in with the line of cars and their air-conditioned bliss, the cyclist risks ‘life and limb’ sweating it out just to get around. She is the strange, smelly ‘vegan koala’ who is determined to ride through the heat, rain, and pollution in spite of more comfortable options. The cyclist doesn’t take the easy way. Her strange ways makes the motorist feel uncomfortable and a little paranoid. What is she doing there? Why does she do it? What it is that she really wants? Is she secretly plotting to steal the road from me?

While I don’t know if such comments makes for a very apt comparison with Zizek’s analysis of racist fantasies, I think that a certain hatred of cycling does provide some form of libidinal satisfaction for the motorist would be otherwise be pissed off for being stuck in traffic. The motorist’s fantasy of having exclusive enjoyment of the road provides an imaginary framework whereby the cyclist is positioned as either a troublemaking trickster or a shady road theft. Rather than recognising the cyclist as another legitimate road user, this framework allows motorist deflect any sense of responsibly for being part of the traffic, being part of the problem, or imagining another solution.

1 comment:

Simon Sharwood said...

I got yelled at by hoons a I rode through Wahroonga last Friday. Most unwelcome as I huffed up a large hill in my very unfit state on my heavy MTB.
I shouted back with plenty of expletives, but they were long gone by then ...