Friday, January 11, 2013

Two Cheers for Anarchism and for Cycling, too!

Dario joins us again with a guest post!

I read a book recently that I think might be of interest to some of our Beat Bike Blog readers. Two Cheers for Anarchism: Six Easy Pieces on Autonomy, Dignity, and Meaningful Work and Play (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2012) by James C. Scott, a distinguished Yale anthropologist, is a highly readable and thought provoking reflection on the importance of anarchist thinking in different spheres of life. Although Scott does not discuss cycling culture in his book, many of his points are relevant, especially to cyclists who commute regularly and who are passionate cyclists. So, after briefly summarizing some of the books contents, I'd like to relate it back to cycling and, in particular, to Tony C.'s interesting post about cycling and radical thought (See Dec. 12).

The first part of the title might be slightly misleading for some readers. Two Cheers for Anarchism is not a manifesto for political anarchism as we might think, although Scott does refer back to some of the historic thinkers and movements in his preface. Nor is Scott a crass libertarian, inveighing against big government and taxes and claiming that the free market is the solution to all of our social and economic problems. The second part of his book's title more accurately captures the objects of his reflections: autonomy, dignity, and meaningful work and play. Written in a conversant style and divided into short chapters which he aptly calls fragments, Scott roams freely and widely, moving from topic to topic like a moral essay in the style of Montaigne or of the French philosophes. Among his many topics, he discusses the importance of insubordination in organizations, the pathologies of institutional life, society's bizarre and often unproductive notions of quantity (as opposed to quality), and the importance of breaking rules. I especially enjoyed his fragment (no. 11) in which he describes how in the immediate aftermath of WWII Danish architects designed a playground for children in a public housing project in Emdrup that promoted creativity. Rather than build a conventional playground with swings, seesaws, etc... these Danish planners noticed that children had more fun and were more active when they were simply given the raw building materials to build their own playground. The same kind of creative autonomy can be seen in certain toys of our youth, such as Legos building blocks (and for you older readers, Erector sets). In the same fragment, Scott goes on to explain why Maya Lin's Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C. is such an effective piece of public art: "I believe that a great part of the memorial's symbolic power is its capacity to honor the dead with an openness that allows all visitors to impress on it their own unique meanings, their own histories, their own memories." (p.62) Many of Scott's reflections, such as the two that I just reported, will seem like commonsense to readers, but they aren't any less insightful and truthful. His merit is to have written a cohesive narrative of how basic themes of anarchist thinking are present in our own society and in people who wouldn't see themselves as anarchists.

Passionate and committed cyclists can relate to many of Scott's points and our experience can also enrich some of his reflections. For example, the creative freedom of wandering we've all felt as cyclists. One of my great pleasures is exploring the urban wilderness of Hartford with friends, discovering new paths, stopping to observe vistas of the CT River that are precluded to car drivers, and learning about how much the city has to offer. And think of the qualitative contacts we make daily because we are more exposed to pedestrians and to the environment. I couldn't help thinking about Tony's post, that cycling promotes radical thinking, not necessarily and only in the political connotation of Left wing radicalism. Rather, cycling promotes radical thought in the real sense of the word. It promotes a "rootedness", a qualitatively different experience from the alienation of consumerism. Are all cyclists anarchists therefore? I don't know. I do believe that cycling does promote individual creativity and resourcefulness that seem to be a hallmark of anarchist thinking.

1 comment:

Tony C said...

Very nice post Dario.

Likely we'll end up on a FBI watchlist with Ken K. Radical community oriented rootedness is frowned upon by big brother. We might use less gasoline or, gasp, consume less.

A well used bicycle can be quite a damaging weapon against various entrenched establishments.