Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Difference, repetition, and encountering the bicycle

Thinking today about the problems of difference and repetition as I rode.  A similar Westerly loop to the one I did last week, except shorter, on South River Road instead of looping all the way out to Jefferson.  The bike felt great on the way north along the river, fast and comfy even over the broken pavement.  It was sunny and clear, and one of the warmer rides I've taken recently--knee warmers, no shoe covers or gloves, and a regular cycling cap instead of the warm beanie.  In general I was out enjoying the brightness and the chance to ride. 

Coming back south from downtown along the river, things started to cloud up--chance of rain tomorrow--and along with them, a bit of discomfort for me; buzzy hands, felt a bit more like I was holding myself up with my arms.  I thought about how I was pedaling; did I have a tailwind, and was I soft pedaling?  How was I sitting on the seat? Could I move my weight back?  Would things be different with gears?  Different handlebars with a broader platform behind the hoods?  These were the questions as I rode home. 

Reading Harman yesterday, in his synthesis of DeLanda, touching on the problem of difference and repetition being one of the key features of a speculative philosophy for him.  Also thinking back to Steven Shaviro's reading of Whitehead.  Without delving into detail on each of these thinker's particular approach to the problem, in general they all help me to ask to use the example of today's ride: was the bike I was riding back down the river the same bike I had ridden north?  Was it the same bike that I had ridden last week? 

This is not to say that some nefarious party had somehow switched bikes on me in the middle of my ride; I did stop to put some air in my rear tire near the turn around point, but I'm pretty sure my bike didn't leave my sight as I did so.  Nor am I saying that somehow something got out of whack and components shifted on me enough to notice, although my seatpost has slipped a couple of millimeters.  No, instead, thinking about my riding through object-oriented realism, it helps to remember that I cannot simply encounter the bicycle as the same each and every time I ride it, no matter how much I make sure that its components are secure and its setup remains constant. 

Most concretely, asking the question of the northbound bike being different than the southbound bike helps to draw my attention to the fact that I no matter how much I obsess about the bicycle and little else, I cannot but experience the bicycle as a member of a complex assemblage.  It is most basically an assemblage of me, the bicycle, and the road; more complexly, as Donna Haraway would be quick to point out, I myself am a cyborg assemblage of brain, skeleton, muscle tissues, gut bacteria, the meat of the turkey I ate for lunch, lycra and polyester clothing, with a head encased in protective sytrofoam and plastic.  The road is not simply an empty, featureless background container--no matter how boring the riding can be on the flat roads around here--but a constantly varying surface, a non-direct path between infinite points that is constantly changing direction, blown by winds of varying direction and intensity.  I can only experience the bicycle as a part of the assemblage of all of these things and more--I haven't even touched on the pyschological, social, and historical assemblages that are also part of the riding experience for me. 

So of course, the bicycle that I rode south is a different bicycle (for me) than the bicycle I rode north.  No matter what consistency it appeared to have to me, it was a part of a different assemblage as I rode, and since I can only experience it through these assemblages, I must let go of the idea that I can have a bicycle that feels like the same thing always in every assemblage of road, wind, and physio-mental state.  Following Harman, if I approach riding as a speculative realist, a ride is always a question, always a becoming-moving of me and the bicycle in ways that I may think that I can can anticipate but may, as I said previously, surprise me. 

I guess this isn't that different than what I said in my previous post but it helps me to think about my approaches to bike fit.  Bike fit can't be about finding the one assemblage of handlebar, saddle, and pedal position that "works" for one, because one is always many (to pull from Deleuze and Guattari).  Instead, I find myself drawn to setups that acknowledge the multiplicity of pedaling; that sometimes I'll be weighting my hands and soft pedaling (esp. on a fixed gear), sometimes I'll be pedaling hard but riding lightly on my hands.  Sometimes I'll want to sit up, sometimes I'll want to stretch out.  In the one case, I like the fact that the parallel-bend drop bars I plan to fit on the Casseroll road bike anticipates this with a larger number of positions where I can support my whole palm than the more contemporary "ergo" bend bars I have on there now.  In another case, I think of the bike I'm planning to build up that will focus mostly on comfort, with high bars and probably the thick, cushy BMX grips I like on upright bars, such that comfort becomes a greater possibility in a higher number of the possible assemblages, esp. the assemblages that I encounter, embody, enact in my everyday riding.  

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Back-to-Back Bike Rides and Speculative Surprise

A good day, productive school-wise morning and then a couple of short spins; first on the Trek 520 leather saddle technology demonstrater, and then the "slackest road bike in the world" Salsa Casseroll.  I really believe that these kind of short, back to back comparsion rides are really important for keeping things in perspective.  Once again, all of my over-thought comparisons between the Casseroll and the Trek seemed much less drastic upon actually riding, and my immediate sensation was that I preferred the Casseroll, again.  Yes, it is a bit more stretched out, but I'm beginning to think the amount of stretch i'm feeling is less important to me than being well-balanced weight wise.  At least, I've come to understand these two variables as distinct things, and can recognize how a bike might be well balanced but stretched out vs. a bike that could exert little or no stretch on the rider but be badly balanced in terms of center of gravity.  I was also noticing today how pedaling and cadence affected how I was sitting on the bicycle, with often times my weight moving more onto my seat and hands when I was coasting or when, on the fixed gear Casseroll, I was more being pushed along by the pedals rather than actively powering along.  I predict that putting gears on the Casseroll might result in the overall sensation of being lighter on the hands, since i can always shift up to maintain pedaling pressure.  Also suggests that optimum or favorite fixed gear fit might be something distinct from optimum/favored gearie fit, so I'm looking forward to trying out some a different type of set-up with the Quickbeam.  Here's to having more different bicycles that I can ride back-to-back like this, and maintain this fresh sense of comparison!

All of this is stewing well in my mind with my recent readings of Graham Harman's Speculative Realism.  I keep thinking about the constant back-and-forth he talks about between "Tool-being," that is the holistic, networked, ephemeral life of things beyond immediate human perception, and what he calls the "as-structure," our concrete experience of reality objectified--i.e. our ability to recognize the hammer as a hammer--which is necessarily always partial, incomplete, and temporary.  Thus a person can be both a realist, that is, to believe in the concrete qualities of things in the world, and be speculative, that is to me at least, to recognize that our ability to recognize things will always been exceeded by the reality of the thing; that is, reality will always have the ability to surprise us.  This speculative form of realism or materialism dovetails nicely with Bruno Latour's actor-network theory and its ontologically similar human and non-human actors, because even quarks or metal tubes will have a reality that exceeds our ability to know their future, and thus have to be considered as capable of acting as we draw the networks of action in the world.

When it comes to bicycles, for me, I obviously spend a lot of time thinking about bicycles in the "as" structure.  For instance, thinking about how top tube length and seat tube angle affect my center of gravity "as" a way to think about how comfortable my bike, or some yet-to-be theoretical bike, can be. For the past few years, I've been trying to keep very clear notions of my bicycles "as" something, as the one that fit me the best, as the best commuter, as the bike that I would always want to ride.  This is kind of unfair when it comes to bicycles in their reality, because this reality, a world which includes my brain and my body and the way that I feel that morning and the terrain through which I am riding them, is always going to exceed my ability to conceive of them in the "as" structure. Even if the world only included me and my bicycles, they would still have the ability to exceed whatever understanding I had of them "as bicycles." 

This may sound very technical and theoretical but the point that I'm coming to is this: I'm coming to appreciate and value the way that my bicycles, each and every one of them, can surprise me, both pleasantly and unpleasantly.  Of course, I'm always going to want to understand these surprises more--anybody who concerns themselves with high-quality tools does, I think--but I'm realizing that there will always be a reality to them beyond what knowledge I have of them makes me hopeful.