Motorcycles. What do they mean to those that ride them?
Welcome to anthromoto, an ongoing research project of British motorcycle culture. Please look through the site and learn more about my research which combines academic study with photography to document the human-motorbike relationship.
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Motorbikes first appeared in my life in the late 1980’s where as a kid, keeping vertical on a bike was a bit of a challenge and I bear the scars to prove that motorcycles don't keep themselves upright!
Fast-forward almost three decades and I now ride a Suzuki GSX-R 750 (and I’ve also learnt that motorcycles are far too expensive to drop). Motorbikes are my passion and I combine my love for this incredible machine with a desire to contribute to our motorcycle cultural knowledge and heritage.
In contrast, for the past 13 years of my life I’ve been working with animals which at first glance may seem far-removed from the study of motorcycle culture, but in both cases the focus lies in the relationship between human beings and something ‘other’, what- or whoever that ‘other’ may be. Machines are inextricably linked to many of our human cultures in some of the same ways that non-human animals are – they are subjects of servitude, are exposed to ongoing modification and refinement according to human needs and desires and we use machine and animal alike as objects of ritual and reflected social power. The motorcycle, at least in many ‘Western’ contexts has an affinity for significant symbolic interpretation and myth-making. It is this myth-making that fascinates me, and in turn, whilst reflecting on the nature of this engaging machine, the motorbike has become a personal metaphor for overcoming myself.
I live in North Yorkshire, England, and my other academic interests are in the anthropology of religion, material culture, photography and women’s studies. I’m a Fellow of the Royal Anthropological Institute in London.
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I recently learnt from Guy Martin's autobiography that he became a more skeptical person as a result of being exposed to some of the ideas in George Orwell’s book, 1984. Orwellian dystopia aside, I think he’s right to suggest that some books really do change you. My own life took a change in direction after reading Bernt Spiegel’s (1999) comprehensive and almost mystical text The Upper Half of the Motorcycle. I first came across the book in 2012 whilst researching background literature on Indian religions. At the time, I was immersed in post-graduate fieldwork with Jain religious communities in Manchester and whilst browsing the ‘religion and spirituality’ section of a local second-hand bookstore I noticed a tattered copy of Spiegel’s book. It piqued my interest and although I didn’t buy it there and then, I noted the title and then, perhaps naively, replaced it back in the ‘transport’ section of the shop.
Naïve is probably the correct word to use here. Spiegel’s book isn’t simply a practical manual on how to operate a two-wheeled machine, but it considers the more metaphysical aspects of riding in relation to the science and psychology of operating a motorcycle. As luck would have it, it was a book in the right place at the right time because its contents have influenced my way of thinking about motorcycles ever since. An initial glance at the academic studies that have been carried out within ‘Western’ bike cultures have largely portrayed motorcycle and other PTW (powered two-wheelers) users in terms of a peculiar subcultural group (such as the Mods and Rockers), or as criminally deviant, especially in America (If academic literature is your thing then please drop me a line for further reading references). There are some notable exceptions – one example is Suzanne McDonald-Walker’s (2000) ethnography of the politics of British motorcycling advocacy (Bikers: Culture, Politics and Power) – but on the whole the lives and culture of ‘everyday’ motorcyclists and their relationships with their machines remains relatively unarticulated. It is this gap in our knowledge that this project hopes to address.
Anthropology is the study of human cultures and up until the turn of this century there had only been a handful of anthropology studies looking at motorcyclists - who they are, why and where they ride and the beliefs and rituals associated with their motorcycling. However since that time, the consideration of motorcycling as a valid object of research has increased and journal articles have started to blossom on the academic scene (in no small part due to the significant contribution of the International Journal of Motorcycle Studies amongst others). Motorbikes are technical machines through which human beings negotiate time, speed, place and metaphor. Despite an earlier idea from influential nineteenth century anthropologists such as E. B. Tylor and Auguste Comte that as ‘Western’ societies become more ‘rational’ they will do away with religious or magical practices, superstitious and ritualistic behaviour certainly seem to be apparent in motorcycle contexts (for example you only have to put ‘Valentino Rossi pre-race ritual’ in a decent search engine to see what I mean by this). My own passions are two-fold: I'm interested in understanding how the traditional boundary between what we consider an object (the machine) and the subject (the rider) becomes blurred when humans connect with motorcycles, and its consequent physical and symbolic expression in our cultures. Secondly, how do riders think through the risk involved in riding? Can it be that some motorcyclists when riding negate the risk by finding what has been termed a form of Deus in machina (Stollow, 2012) or God in the machine?
In late 2018 I will begin shooting for my first photographic project entitled 'Gixxers of England' which will be a celebration of a bike close to my heart - the iconic Suzuki Gsxr motorcycle. I'm also currently working on two articles - one concerning machine animism and the other an exploration of roadside motorcycle memorials in Yorkshire. Please bookmark the site and check back in regularly for updates and further news or follow me on Facebook by clicking on the link at the top of the page.
If you feel able in any way to help the research, or would like to know more about it, please contact me: firstname.lastname@example.org