Thursday, August 26, 2010

Background Thoughts for an (eventually more personal and poetic) Aesthetics of Motorcycling

I'm leaving these notes posted here, to motivate me to get back to them and do some conceptual and literary editing. But you might want to skep past this post for the time being....

An aesthetics of motorcycling concerns the sensual experience of motorcycling – motorcycling as experienced through the senses. More specifically, it is about pleasing or meaningful sensory experiences. The sights, sounds, the feel, smells, the touch; as well as the internal sensations drawing on imagination, emotion, and physiological sensations like the arousal of adrenalin.

Aesthetics usually focuses on understanding our experience of artworks – manufactured pieces created with the intention of pleasing us or conveying some meaningful experience. But its object can also be the world at large, the world in and through which we exist. This is not a particular object among others, but rather the very environment and outward conditions of our existence. This is an environment both constructed by humans and also natural and prior to them. Often it is a mix of both – for example the humanised landscape of wheat fields bordering bushland. And in both cases we are speaking, with regard to perception, of objects that are objective and prior to any individual, as well as constructed by them.

Artworks, as contrasted to the environmental aesthetic objects of motorcycling, are mostly discrete, self-contained, stable. And the frame of reference for viewing them is often likewise: whether it is a film or a sculpture, you stand or sit, or walk about the object from somewhat controlled distances and angles. If the artwork is music, it is a pre-recorded package – the same every time – or is rehearsed and carefully balanced and directed toward the ear in a carefully designed space by sound-desk mixers. In artworks one particular sense is engaged, or at most two – usually sight and / or hearing. The same is true to a degree with the stationary motorcycle as an aesthetic object. Manufacturers are aware of this, and so the design of a motorcycle is not purely functional, especial when it comes to this object as seen from a distance: in that case the machine is designed to be attractive in a way which elicits desire resulting in purchase. But I am concerned moreso with an aesthetics of motorcycling, than with motorcycles. It is an aesthetics of a verb, not a noun; it is about the act and experience of riding a motorcycle through space.

The experience of motorcycling is not, by contrast, stable, discrete, or self-contained. Instead the appreciator is immersed in the aesthetic object – the world through which he moves - surrounded in every way and moving in and through it. There are no pre-ordained and static distance or perspective, because the rider/appreciator is moving constantly and so these are changing constantly. All the senses are engaged: the vision of the road and bushland unfolding; the sound of the motorcycle engaging with and moving through the space; the smell and taste of the air; the feel of the sun, the motion-filled air, the wind and rain, the cold and heat, the pulsing motorcycling beneath oneself, and the forces of physics as you lean through the corners and slide on greasy bitumen. The experience is unlimited, open, unpredictable.

The aesthetic object of motorcycling is not something designed, not something created to instantiate an idea and a relatively fixed meaning, as is the case in artwork creation. We are not interested in the author’s intentions, because there is no intentional author. And so the motorcyclist’s appreciation must be achieved without the aid of interpretations of intention, without a tradition defining the creation of the object, without intentional frameworks. The world just is. As Camus said of the Algerian desert: there is nothing on which to hang an interpretation, philosophy, or religion; there is only wind and heat and stars. The creative task of finding words and giving meaning to the aesthetic experience is largely the responsibility of the motorcyclist, to a degree that never burdens the appreciator of an artwork.

Such appreciation, because it is grounded in a total, multi-sensory immersion in the object, requires a phenomenological spirit: there is no fundamental and basic split between subject and object; and the appreciator has the task of opening their awareness up and maintaining that awareness so as not to become deaf to their own experience.

But the appreciator must also be aware of the basic mood of their own being which informs their experience. This mood might be a feeling of being at home in that environment through which they ride, or at danger in that environment, and might find its source in a deeper mood of say, anxiety, or peace, within the person which permeates their life outside of motorcycling. The world becomes present to us in different ways depending on the basic mood out of which we live in and perceive the world. It is the mode of our engagement with the world. It is also influenced by the world – as when one feels unsafe on an isolated road at dusk, after almost hitting a kangaroo, and so perceives the landscape differently, more coldly.

All this is not to reduce the experience of motorcycling to the unintentional whim of the motorcyclist. Awareness of the world – or rather, aesthetic attention to the world of motorcycling experience – is a task involving something toward which we need to struggle and rise. Attention reveals things, and that revelation sets standards. For one thing it shows that we can fail to attend. It also shows that there is ‘something out there’ to see beyond what little might be seen in a trivial or lazy glance. There are also traditions of seeing that we can draw on – learning how to notice, learning to see.

For some people aesthetic appreciation when motorcycling is purely intuitive and sensory: a morning paddock stretches out to one’s side, a pleasant mix of green herb and brown earth. To another, the aesthetic experience is informed by a cognitive aspect also: the colour of the grass and the earth revealed by its patchiness point to a farm suffering the soil deficiencies of that area. That is not just information, it can inform the aesthetic experience, giving the vision poignancy, sadness, and a kind of beauty in the acknowledgement of the farmer’s hope and resilience, and in pity for a wounded environment. The aesthetic experience of the world in motorcycling is both sensory and cognitive, a matter both of feeling and understanding. Both sensation and meaning.

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