Of bicycles and teleological thinking

There’s no sense in rushing to do something if you’re gonna be a dick about it. A truth that may be phrased many ways: the ends don’t justify the means. it’s about the process. We made it to the movie on time, dad, sure, but for what, dad, for what—we are on time and all of us miserable? There’s no sense in rushing to do something if you’re gonna be a dick about it.

For example, why rush to the movie theater when doing so makes the human communion in the car tense, and the remainder of the shared experience takes place on a 2-D dreamscape that unites you only in that you are both looking at it. And this is the only time you have to share with each other because you have to work so hard to afford the car that can take you to the movie theater, and you only need the car so you can afford the nice big house slightly out of town. What is the end game?

It can be equally difficult to abandon teleological thinking—considering actions in terms of their contribution to a, hopefully, positive end—and commit yourself to processes. This is because this country makes you feel crazy for not fixating on that end game, instead deciding to play with what is already in front of you.

Let’s consider a hypothetical month somewhere between 1945 and some arbitrary August of the near future. A hypothetical human is dropped in a semi-urban area somewhere this side of not-America and given two options:

1. You can have someplace to sleep for this month, you can have a bicycle, $20 bucks, and the opportunity to do odd jobs for other folks, and otherwise volunteer your passions to the community.

or

2. You can work 40 hours a week in order to perpetuate a system that does not benefit you, and, even if did, might destroy your soul, but, by the end of the month, you are on your way to owning a car. They’ll even let you drive the car sooner if you wanna pay more for it and wait a little longer to actually own it.

Naturally this is a cartoonish rendering of choice in this country. The former lies somewhere between a hippie utopia and a naive comprehension of what it is to be homeless, without means, and unemployed. The latter sounds like a teenager describing adulthood after reading Marx for the first time right after Catcher in the Rye.

But—just stick with me for a second—what if your life didn’t really matter? What if the only final meaning that your existence held was how nice you were to others and how little you contributed to the obliteration of the world’s natural resources? In this month you were in this place, in one situation you were outside all day, following your momentary whims, pedaling uphill and coasting down, meeting people, talking about what’s there right in front of you, collecting objects left at the curb left by folks in such a hurry to make and spend money that they forgot they already had a usable version of the object they just bought. In the other situation you find out the quickest route to work—the least scenic, the highest speed limit, the least bikes—because you go there in a rush, postponing your departure as long as you can. You burn more gas because you are late, braking harder at the stop lights you accelerated into.

This dialectic lends much to the great former fixture of Portland’s unique literary culture: Pete Jordan. In Dishwasher he lyricizes the beauty of picking up the coins dropped on the sidewalk by folks in a rush to earn whole dollars in a minute. Why rush into bourgeois society’s celebration of disconnection in order to earn a dollar in a minute when you could walk around a beautiful place all day and perhaps pick up a dollar in coins? Why indeed. I will remind you that the only logical end game to teleological thinking is the destruction of the very ecosystems that one day long ago had the misfortune of birthing human consciousness.

Dishwasher catalogues a man’s quest to devote himself to process. He washes dishes not to one day have washed all the dishes and finished—he does it to close the circle of culinary value. Farmers have value in the creation of food, cooks have value in the preparation of food, servers have value in the presentation of the food. Food is then consumed and the story is over. Some poor sap has to come in when everybody and their fancy clothes are gone and set everything back to normal, the bottom of a hierarchical system, a pawn who might reach the other end of the board, become queen, and achieve the end game s/he’s told is the point. To choose to do the dishes becomes a revolutionary act that empowers those at the bottom to say, I refuse the inferiority that you claim to be inherent in this task. I am choosing to do it in order to restore wholeness to the process, for those who disrespect dishwashing are truly the ones without dignity.

The mind becomes liberated by the body that acts not to fulfill the ego but to celebrate the dedication to a task. Perhaps by some miracle, restoring dignity to dishwashing in this way makes the experience of dining about the unity of all humans taking turns to work together and nourish each other. Perhaps the commerce of it, the imposed hierarchies, the feelings of inferiority, a slight leg up and shitting on the guy who took over your last position—perhaps all that can be diffused. Maybe in that moment food becomes love, a baby is born and the future turns a little brighter.

*        *         *

At some point in the last few months I learned the etymology of the word “pioneer.”

This is a little disconcerting for somebody from the west coast of these United States. We celebrate ourselves and our ancestors for our “pioneer spirit,” the gumption that brought us out to these new lands to reform the terrain in our own image. We are unique. We take the road less traveled. We blaze our own trail. We boldly went where no man (in the racist formulations of our ancestors) went before. In the context of imperialist advance on unsuspecting lands and peoples, and ultimate conquest and possession of those lands and obliteration of those peoples, however, being the first person is not something necessarily to be celebrated. You die first and those who follow go a little further until the east-coast end game of turning the westward experience into more capital for these United States. Once enough trees have been cleared and enough infrastructure spawned from these raw materials, the wealthy can move on in an take their places in the grandest structures to be erected.

The pioneer is as much of a resource as the tree s/he chopped down. It’s weird to think about that and look at Ol’ Glory. You might be in the largest state in this country and be represented by a little white star that occupies less than 1% of the goddamn flag. Meanwhile Rhode Island has a stripe stretching across 1/13th of the thing’s area, AND a star to boot. It’s weird to think that on the whole people that got rich in the gold rush were the ones who didn’t go rushing into the mountains. They were the ones who set up stores and bakeries and infrastructure for the lunatic hordes of wealth seekers flooding into San Francisco Bay or scraping their way across the Sierra Nevada. It’s weird to think about all this because mainstream culture is produced elsewhere. It doesn’t want us to think about it. New York needs us to hustle for its bottom line. Los Angeles needs us to buy its perverse televisual refraction of that narrative. They build fake New York City streets and fill them with ex-New Yorkers who then pretend to be themselves living in New York.

If you had the choice between a parasitic relationship with the earth or a symbiotic relationship with that parasite which would you choose?

*       *       *

Pete Jordan didn’t in the (present) end professionally wash dishes in all fifty states. He went to Amsterdam to study urban planning and Dutch. Then he wrote a book about the history of bicycles in Amsterdam called In the City of Bikes. Much like Dishwasher, the end product of his decade-long ‘zine/dishwashing practice, it combines quirky and unexpected primary historical sources with his lovable first-person narrative, the man on the street living in a world full of clues. In Dishwasher he combined the history of labor struggle in America—its triumphs and squandered legacy—with his story of couchsurfing and minimum wage. In the City of Bikes takes the cream of an infinite crop of first-person accounts of when the history of the bike collided with the history of Amsterdam, describing the symbiosis between the two. Most poignantly Jordan evokes the parasite of Nazism on his host city. The Dutch made daily choices. The smart one was to join the parasite by collaborating with it. The human choice was to resist and do so by surviving. The Nuremberg Trials validated the remaining humans, and taught everyone else the logic of teleological thinking.

Logocentrism is another word for the same thing: structure and order are privileged in a binary that excludes ambiguity, process, and incompleteness. Instead of seeing things as they are, emphasis on logos and telos imposes human consciousness on reality and perverts it. Nazi categorization of breathing human existence was not overturned by a horrified world. We just put Naziism in a new category and we labeled that category “bad,” and we proceeded to turn Germany into an unnatural binary. A wall was literally built dividing Berlin in half. One half of those in power called the other half swine with an arbitrary C word in front of it.

*      *      *

Riding and maintaining a bicycle has no end point. You could perpetually pedal and coast, forever. You could work on bikes for years and still encounter a part you didn’t know was ever manufactured. You don’t become an expert as you continue to work on bikes. You become humble, amazed at the variety of manufacturers, parts, the infinite way that everything may be combined. If you attempt to bring your ego into a tricky bike fix you will only find frustration.

Writing an accessible straight-forward narrative published by Harper-Perennial would seem to contradict Jordan’s projects, his anti-authoritarian message, his humility, his love of the little guy. The man who let his friend go on Letterman in his place as a huge practical joke on the New York monopoly of American experience is now writing a book that helps keep the lights on in a Manhattan skyscraper. I first heard Jordan on the great narrative coup for the masses that live somewhere between New York and Los Angeles—WBEZ Chicago’s This American Life. The show relocated to New York in 2006.

It’s a paradox to think about disseminating non-teleological thinking. If things simply perpetually and ambiguously are, then to put them into a form that categorizes and privileges that fluidity simultaneously betrays it. Completing Dishwasher or In the City of Bikes is complicated because its lessons of subverting authority, surviving off the waste of the bourgeoisie, questioning positions of power, etc. are themselves subverted by the authority, position of power, and checks made out by Harper-Perennial, HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, NY, New York 10022.

A perennial, of course, is a flower, which, in the end, dies. Harper-Perennial is a publishing dinosaur that, in its own estimation, and that of its investors, will never die. A corporation, after all, has the ungodly double benefit of personhood and immortality.

Writing is like working on bikes is like hiking up and down a hill is like anything worthwhile: its own reward. You get as much out of it as you put in. Every overhaul you complete does not complete the bike—it sustains the bike which in turn trains you do it with a little more ease, grace and speed the next time. Walking through your local park sustains the both of you. Writing keeps your mind thinking, playing with ideas, and empowered to respond to the privileged modes of writing that compose everything from ad copy to the State of the Union Address, not to any real effect, just for its own sake.

It would be nice to think that Jordan’s message transcends the modes of production that give us access to it. Readers who might not be otherwise are exposed to the revolutionary message that your existence need not prey upon the remains of dinosaurs and transform city space into a deadly automobile-dominated space.

If the message is that existence is social and improved when the barriers between us are minimized, the New York-originated mass market paperback betrays that message. Isn’t that why Jordan wrote ‘zines to begin with? Perhaps he’s not describing human ecology at all. Maybe he just wants to get his point across, and is impatient to do so?

Consider the following scene, in which Jordan finds himself at a May 4th Remembrance Day gathering:

One of the bike couriers saw me standing alone and without a beer. He held out a Grolsch to me and asked if I was a courier.

“No,” I told him as I accepted the beer. “I just like biking.”

He pointed at the small monument for Annick van Hardeveld and said, “Yeah, she was killed on her bike while delivering newspapers.”

“Actually,” I said, “she was delivering a message.”

The courier grimaced and shook his head. It was a familiar look, one I’d received often from other Dutch people while discussing historical events of their country. When speaking Dutch the words fumble from my mouth in a way that only discredits whatever I’m saying. To ensure that my comment wasn’t lost in translation, I said in English, “She wasn’t delivering newspapers.”

The courier shook his head and then called over another courier standing nearby. The first asked the second, “Annick was killed while delivering newspapers, right?” The second courier gulped his beer, then replied, “Yeah, that’s right.”

“Ja,” a third chimed in, “delivering illegal newspapers for the resistance.”

Our narrator is at this point super upset. This white, minor celebrity American man knows better about the history of the people he stands among, in their own city and before he can correct them, the two minutes of silence began. The reader is blessed with the real, objective details of the newspaper-less ride to convey a verbal message, while the Dutch stand honoring the humanity of the situation. Instead of dwelling in this meaningful moment and communing with these people, one of whom just gave him a beer, Jordan passes the minutes, “eager to explain all this to the courier.” It might occur to him that he is one in a long line of white American men standing in places that don’t pertain to them, convinced that he knows better. Sure, accurate, objective accounts of history are destined to provide a less manipulative narrative of a nation’s identity. However, the Dutch, like so many occupied nations in recent history, are not looking for more foreigners, much less Americans, to tell them how conceptualize the horrors of that occupation.

But when the two minutes expired, a couple of messengers used bike innertubes to strap white roses to the sides of the monument. A white ribbon that accompanied the flowers read, “We shall never forget.” This struck me as odd. How could the couriers forget when they hadn’t known in the first place?

Did Jordan forget how humility, openness, and ambiguity are inherent in process, non-teleogical thinking and their subversion of the ever-growing, ever-profitable means of mediating communication between humans. Perhaps he never knew in the first place.

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One thought on “Of bicycles and teleological thinking

  1. Pingback: Not in the city of bikes with Pete Jordan—Portland, Amsterdam, and bikeability | the van duzer corridor

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