Sunday, May 31, 2009

Critical Mass

Those of you reading in Seattle are likely aware of Friday's Critical Mass (CM) ride, or have at least heard of the rides, which occur in cities around the world. As a part-time bicycle commuter, I am enamored by CM both because I am tired of seeing cyclists banished to the edges of roads and, of course, because it looks like fun. I also have a soft spot for any sort of event that involves crowds of people taking action in the street.

Imagine my disappointment when I came across a post on SLOG about the event and started reading through the 200+ comments, most of which were penned by cyclists who disapprove of the event or by other (driving and non-driving) citizens that find it ludicrous and hope for cars to crash into the mass of riders. While there is, of course, no editorial control over the comments section, I'm troubled by both the backlash that such a "revolutionary" (this word is meant in a positive sense, whether or not you interpret it as such) event creates and the cavalier attitude towards loss of human life.

The disapproving cyclists have a point: the event is disruptive and is planned to interfere with the maximum amount of traffic, thereby infuriating the maximum number of drivers and possibly working against bicycle advocacy. Conversely, the road rage-esque rants from many of the other commenters are, in my opinion, founded on nothing but acceptance of our "modern" autocentric "culture" and spite directed at bike-riding hipsters: I'm not sure which disturbs me more. And these reactions shouldn't surprise me: in writing about the Protestant Reformation (revolution) in 16th Century, Jacques Barzun notes that during such times "manners are flouted and customs broken. Foul language and direct insult become normal..." So the comment section on the Stranger's blog is not unlike 16th Century Germany in this respect. No surprise there, though I always have higher hopes for the people of this city.

And in the defense of all CM critics, I must admit that I think Critical Mass took it too far by riding onto the viaduct. Their cause is supposedly to gain safe access to the streets. Bicycles have no business on the viaduct and, while this move certainly garnered them some attention, it also made them look like a bunch of outlaws (but it still looked fun).

The real reason for this post is that I want to explore the concept of CM for a minute. Though there are many threads one could follow in trying to do this, I think revisiting what Jean Baudrillard wrote in his essay The Beaubourg Effect applies nicely to this situation.

Take the street grid -- packed with cars moving to and fro -- as a fluid flow or wave (as transportation engineers do when they design signal timing) as our Beaubourg (at least the real Beaubourg circulates humans in their true form rather than encapsulated in automobiles): rather than itching to see every last cultural artifact, the drivers strive to navigate the city in complete unimpeded freedom: to and from work, to and from daycare or school, to the supermarket, the bank, the mall -- any one or combination of "an incessant circulation of choices," as Baudrillard writes -- insatiably.

Whereas in Baudrillard this build up of motion and energy (violence) itself would become the force that "make(s) Beaubourg bend!," in the case of CM it is a splinter group -- a group trying to navigate the flow, to participate, but being bullied and ignored and tread upon -- that leads to the (Baudrillard's celebrated/many people's feared) implosion. One comment on SLOG compared CM to riots in Compton, which are a perfect example of implosion due to tension and anger. CM is the same urban reality: a concentration of human energy, connecting via shared interests and/or frustrations and acting in a manner that seems appropriate.

Whether or not it is right, smart, legal (freedom of public assembly?), safe, or effective seems to be a moot point. The point I see is that it is happening and I predict (and hope) that the internet serves as a tool to promote such action (assuming that it is toward positive ends, like infrastructure for cyclists). But judging by the SLOG comments, I'm afraid that an implosion among the drivers is a-brewing, and that is a frightening possibility, but an unsurprising one that appears to be a natural response to CM itself.

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