Feel the slow. Imagining biketopias

Popan, Cosmin (2017) Feel the slow. Imagining biketopias. In: Scientists for Cycling Colloquium, 2017-06-12.

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In this presentation I argue that the sensescapes of cycling are an essential aspect upon which a future bicycle system can build its mass appeal in the broader quest to reverse the hegemony exerted today by the system of automobility (Urry 2004). The highly embodied perception of the urban environment that cycling affords to its practitioners is generative of an experience of being-in-the-world through movement (Merleau-Ponty 1958) which is more enhancing of the human beingness than that of moving within the cocooned and numbing space of the motorcar. Drawing from auto-ethnographic accounts of my cycling in variously more or less car-dominated urban environments in Central London and Lancaster, UK, as well as from biographical data of my own cycling enskilment, I reflect on the contested nature of the slow and sometimes painful development of sensory tolerances. Looking, hearing, the acute sensations of pain, the tiresome ones of feeling too cold or too hot, or even the imperceptible ones of equilibrium constantly come to the fore to articulate my own cycling sensescapes. Yet, they cannot be easily separated from one another, this 'being-in-the-world' requires actually that the whole body is engaged in perception, rather than just a series of individual senses. Latent senses, long-forgotten in the comfortable space of the automobile, come to life, disobedient as they are, once I mount the bike saddle. Building sensory tolerances to deal with such indisciplined stimuli is part and parcel of an appreciation of human flourishing that is radically different from the prevalent contemporary ideas of excessive bodily comfort. Consider pain, for example, in this auto-ethnographic account of my cycling in London: Now my left foot is on the kerb, yellow and now green, here I start again [Roaring cars around]. A cyclist in front of me, I'll overtake him probably, raising from the saddle now, two strong pedal strokes, a brief twinge in the calf muscles [Roaring cars], I'm still behind the lazy cyclist, green light ahead. We both pass by a girl on a Boris bike who's pretty slow. And another one who signals a left turn. I stay on the first lane, stopping at the red light again, brakes, foot on the … not on the ground as it turns yellow and green, and I overtake, I overtake the lazy cyclist in front of me. I raise again from the saddle, pedal fast now so others won't catch me. I can still feel the back pain I have from an older accident, it's not very acute though. I can feel the sweat now on my chest, beads of sweat dripping down the abdomen. (Field notes from 2 bicycle rides in London, on 19 January 2015 and 6 March 2015) Some bursts of mild pain are unavoidable in everyday cycling, resulting in physical side effects, ranging from heating the body, to sweating, to accelerated heartbeats and breathing, to increased amount of saliva in the mouth. Nevertheless, in modernity pain has been institutionalised and turned into a domain of expertise belonging almost exclusively to medicine, generating a cultural fear of pain (Cook 2000). An alternative perspective, one that reframes the meaning of pain, may be proposed instead: living with pain as part of one's becoming, learning its rules and warnings, even indulging in it are possible and they require an utopian ontology which questions both the nature and the culture of pain. Slowing down becomes then an effort, an accomplishment; slow-as-affect appears visible 'in the form of mobility practices and experiences that directly show the physical work, the struggle, and the fatigue of the movement' (Vannini 2013:122). Enduring the pain as one cycles, as well as recovering from the sometimes mild, sometimes severe, pain of cycling involves a particular form of slowing down, one which rejects notions of instant gratification. A distinctive form of well-being is produced, one which is not likely to be hedonic, but eudaimonic. Developing sensory tolerances as one cycles can be interpreted as a particular normative idea of what constitutes human flourishing. Getting used to the wind blown in the face, mastering the fleeting sense of equilibrium on a bike or, as I have just shown, domesticating the bursts of pain in the legs are not only reminders that one's body is alive. They also redefine what flourishing represents for humans, both in relation to their physical being in the world and to the social interactions they engage in during mundane urban mobilities. By investigating the sensescapes of cycling and the slow articulation of sensory tolerances I propose the use of utopianism as a method (Levitas 2013) to imagine better societies where cycling is no longer marginal. In its ontological mode, speaking at the level of individual experience, utopia as method goes beyond simply asking how might the social institutions look like in a post-car future. It aims as well to show that humans have themselves the capacity to redefine the nature of their everyday mobilities. Away from fast, utilitarian and growth oriented transportation, and towards slower, more simple and more convivial forms of mobilities.

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Contribution to Conference (Paper)
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Scientists for Cycling Colloquium
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20 Feb 2018 18:26
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22 Nov 2022 14:25