Book Review: The Bicycle: Towards a Global History
The Bicycle: Towards a Global History, Smethurst, P, UK, Palgrave Macmillan (First Published 2015) pp-194
ISBN: 9781137499493 (Hardback) Price: $110
Paul Smethurst’s The Bicycle: Towards a Global History usefully supplements existing postcolonial accounts of human-machine encounters during the 19th. and 20th. Centuries (Anderson 1983; Agular 2011; Bonea 2016) and how these shaped and inflected ideas of nationhood, modernity, and European colonialism. Smethurst’s rigorous mapping of the history of the modern-day bicycle in the “western countries” of UK, France, and Germany as well as the bicycle’s changing socio-political significance in countries of the Global North and South allows this study to be both interdisciplinary and transnational in scope and readership. In addition, the interspersing of the historical-cultural-sociological narrative with poster art, magazine advertisements and cartoon strips, photographs, and close readings of literary narratives on the bicycle offers a rich, multimodal interface that engrosses the reader from beginning to end.
The Bicycle opens with an introductory overview of the bicycle’s trajectory in human history – as a sign of promising new times ahead (19th. C), enabling class and gender transgressions (late 19th. – early 20th. C), functioning as a nostalgic reminder of the good, old days in the face of the two world wars, and as central to the green movement and counterculture in the 21st. C. Smethurst underlines his objective upfront: “explor[ing] the shifting cultural meanings of the bicycle, particularly in [how it was crucial] in transitions to social modernity in different parts of the world.” (8). In the process, he carefully registers and attends to the simultaneous dual processes that shaped “modernity” – technological and scientific advances that made possible new machines and modes of transport, new dreams and possibilities for humans and the changing philosophies and ideas about human potential that made people seek out new, self-determined futures.
The story of which of the two came first often devolves into the hen and egg story. However, Smethurst salvages both forces here by deftly interweaving details of the bicycle’s invention, production processes, socio-economic impacts, and public reception with sustained cultural analyses of the bicycle as a “prosthetic appendage […] that formed a unity with the human frame and extended its energy most efficiently” (61), “hyphenating the body with the material world” (103), and bicycling as “a dynamic [experience] opening out of mental space along the continuum of the road produc[ing] an ever-changing heterotopia (75). In this, he not only engages with key thinkers of the modern and postmodern age including Jean Baudrillard and Michelle Foucault but also delves into representations of the experience of bicycling in important literary works by the likes of H.G. Wells (The Wheels of Chance, 1896), Edward Thomas (In Pursuit of Spring, 1914), and Jerome K. Jerome (Three Men on the Bummel, 1900). This serves the book well allowing for a multivalent yet focused enquiry into the story of the bicycle. It contributes to the volume’s accessibility and appeal not just across a range of academic disciplines but also for a non-academic (intellectual) audience. The latter is no mean feat given the breadth and depth of Smethurst’s study.
In chapter one titled “Invention: The Technical Evolution of the Modern Bicycle,” Smethurst delves into the structural and conceptual predecessors of the bicycle: the German-made hobby horse (1817-1820) that required the rider to use her feet to drag it along, the French velocipedes (1865-1870) featuring a large front wheel and a much smaller back wheel, and the tricycle (1870s) which enjoyed only a decade of popularity in England. The author debunks the theory of the hobby horse as the first prototype of the modern-day bicycle. He posits that while the two might look similar, the former was more of a “running machine […] propelled by ‘footing’ rather than ‘bicycling’” (13). “Invention” also speaks to the prohibitive costs, limited production, safety concerns, and legislative hurdles that relegated these early machines to the realm of elite fashion and spectacular entertainment for the upper classes. It was only with metallurgical advances, the development of a safer design, and the ability for mass production in factories that the first real prototype of the bicycle, the safety bicycle (1885), gained popularity amongst the middle and working classes in Western countries.
A key observation Smethurst makes is how bicycles enable people to interact with new people outside their parish and explore more of their own country. This strengthens the sense of nationhood and national pride thereby bolstering validations of the “white man’s burden” (Kipling) in colonial centers such as England and France which have already built up wealthy and expanding Empires by this point. Herein, The Bicycle functions as a critical supplement to key works in postcolonial studies such as Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Community: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, wherein Anderson investigates the role of the printing press and increased literacy as instrumental to formulations of national identity and nationalism in America and Europe.
The second chapter, “Mobility: The Practical and Cultural Impact of Bicycling in the West,” offers a complex argument about how the bicycle offers radical transformative potential vis-à-vis hegemonic gendered and class structures governing “western” society at this point but then ends up engendering only a limited form of liberal politics. Although “Bicycle mobility brought both men and women of the same class into closer proximity, and it did occasionally allow the separate spheres of class to intersect” (70), the industry continued to participate in the commodity fetishization culture of capitalism while advertising campaigns featured highly sexualized images of women “scantily clad nymphs” and “leggy film stars” (96) to increase sales. Moreover, in the face of the violence, bloodshed, and insecurities of World War I, the bicycle reverted to being a conservative symbol of a stable, ordered society, domestic harmony, and economic security.
This is one of the richest chapters in the book given the plethora and diversity of cultural narratives Smethurst draws upon to make his point. It draws on cartoon strips from periodicals and magazines, novels, plays, and memoirs, magazines like Mr. Punch and The Lady Cyclist, pamphlets on bicycling for women by both suffragettes like Frances Willard and bicycle manufacturers like BSA. Smethurst’s sustained analysis of each of these sources and often engaging them in conversation with each other impresses upon readers a nuanced sociological narrative of the bicycle vis-à-vis its countercultural and transformative potentials.
Chapter three offers a formidable challenge as Smethurst takes on the history of how the bicycle was “diffused” (105) and received in China, Japan, and the European colonies of Asia and Africa. But he admirably tackles the wealth of information he unearths on the subject by organizing them via a two-tiered narrative framework – one wherein in China, India, and African countries the bicycle is initially regarded with suspicion, ridiculed, and resisted as an agent of imperialist/foreign cultures. Two, wherein by the middle of the 20th. C. bicycles have become familiar and useful “home-grown everyday object[s]” (105). Here as in the earlier chapters, the author consults both travel accounts by British cyclists Fraser, Howe, and Lunn and local newspapers and magazines from the period such as the Picture Daily and The Chinese Illustrated News. This produces a substantial and rich cross-referenced narrative of colonial encounters at sites of human-machine engagements.
Following the same strategy, the fourth and last chapter of the book ends by attending to current reports and accounts of emergent trends in bicycle cultures across the world: the demand for fashion bikes, the growing popularity of bike-share schemes, and the increasing build-up of discarded bicycle in trash pits in developing countries of the Global south. Smethurst however ends on the hope of a future wherein bicycling will be an easier, empowering, and inclusive experience.
While Smethurst’s critical sensitivity to the “cultural stereotyping” and “racist” (122) bias of his “western” sources (especially British accounts) is appreciable, it would have been useful if he had gestured at some literary, creative, and critical works on the bicycle produced in the non-western countries he explores in the later sections of this volume. It would have encouraged readers to find some of these accounts in the original or in translation and engage in a sustained analysis towards a nuanced narrative of the bicycle’s early life in Asia and Africa “from below”. In other words, this chapter would have gained much from more close readings of the kind Smethurst offers vis-à-vis James Baldwin’s remarks about the Yoruban sculpture, Man with a Bicycle, and Kwame Anthony Appiah’s essay titled “Is the Post- in Postmodernism the Post-in Postcolonial?” (1991) on the same. Given that “modernity” and “modernization” are central to framing the story of the “diffusion” of the bicycle in ex-colonies, chapter three would have benefited most from sustained critical engagements with some key postcolonial works on modernity and the postcolonial experience such as Homi K. Bhabha’s The Location of Culture (1994), Dipesh Chakrabarty’s Provincializing Europe (2000) and Habitations of Modernity: Essays in the Wake of Subaltern Studies (2002) and more recently Marian Aguilar’s Tracking Modernity: India’s Railway and the Culture of Mobility (2011).
These texts challenge an unproblematic understanding of “modernity” and “modernization” as western concepts with fixed structures and trajectories and as always desirable. As Indian historian and anthropologist Saurabh Dube notes in his entry on “Nation and Modernity” in the Sage Handbook of Identities (2010): “modernity and modern-identity are increasingly discussed and debated today as contradictory and contingent processes of culture and power, as chequered and contested histories of meaning and mastery” (137). Also, despite a consistent engagement with visual cultures of the bicycle in the first three chapters of this volume, there is no discussion of the representation of the bicycle in film, both Euro-American and international cinema in the book. Given the dominance of bicycles in films from the beginning of the 1900s to the present – from silent films like Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr. (1924) to Bicycle Thieves (1948) and the Chinese film Beijing Bicycle (2001) to the more recent Saudi Arabian film Wadjda (2012), a film analyses section would have been a useful critical appendage to Smethurst’s socio-cultural mapping of the bicycle’s trajectory in both First and Third world imaginations and public spheres.
However, despite such limitations, The Bicycle provides a timely, useful, and comprehensive account of the bicycle as machine and socio-political signifier across countries and time periods. It not only diversifies and supplements local and national histories, it also suggests important and new directions of research vis-à-vis interactions between humans and non-humans. Another key feature of this project is that it continually invites local micro-histories of the bicycle from different parts of the world to supplement itself. Herein, it imagines itself as a work-in-progress and as always in dialogue with both existing and future works about the bicycle.
This kind of self-awareness and self-reflexivity makes the volume exemplary for two reasons: one, herein Smethurst insists on the urgent necessity of more deep enquiries into the roles of machines and human-object encounters in shaping human history, in engendering colonial and postcolonial experiences, in shaping empowered communities and futures for both humans and planet Earth. Two, in drawing attention to his narrative as limited (despite its extensive coverage of time periods, places, and cultures) he expertly models what a textured, critical-ethical enquiry into human-machine interactions should look like. Thus, The Bicycle calls for and encourages research initiative and a critical consciousness in contemporary audiences; both energies crucial for empowered learning in the face of the current worldwide crises around “alternative facts” and knowledge-production.
Dr. Sreyoshi Sarkar
Ball State University, IN, U.S.A.