Shift Happens: Power to the Pedals

Those disgruntled with our current “technopoly,” as Neil Postman famously called it, often argue for returning to a simpler time. This is, of course, impossible, as even their visions of simpler times include technology. For example, in The Nature of Technology (Free Press, 2009), Brian Arthur envisions a world where all of our modern technologies disappear, yet we’d still be left with some. He writes, “We would still have watermills, and foundries, and oxcarts; and course linens, and hooded cloaks, and sophisticated techniques for building cathedrals. But we would once again be medieval” (p. 10). As ludicrous as such an argument appears, I would like to return to a time that never happened, an alternate universe where bicycles dominated the roads, as well as the construction and spread thereof. I’m not alone in this fantasy. Many of us take to the streets on two wheels instead of four, and movements like Critical Mass try to take them over completely on a regular basis.

Critical Mass Chicago, 2007.

The freedom to make and remake our cities and ourselves is… one of the most precious yet most neglected of our human rights.
— David Harvey

For the uninitiated, Critical Mass is a monthly ride aimed at taking back the streets from cars, demonstrating the presence of bicycles, and reminding everyone that they’re on the road, too. The event is known for blocking thoroughfares, pissing off motorists, and regular arrests. Shift Happens: Critical Mass at 20 (Full Enjoyment, 2012), edited by Chris Carlsson, LisaRuth Elliott, and Adriana Camarena, is a twenty-year, global retrospective of the trials and triumphs of Critical Mass. It’s a monthly revolution that will start its third decade this week. The scope of these essays is as global as the movement, from Budapest to Berkeley and Paris to Ponce, and its birthplace in San Francisco, as well as from my beloved Portland to my current Chicago.

Strangely, the recent economic downturn might be a great opportunity. Sustainability, public transport, and bike lanes aren’t scoffed at anymore. — David Byrne, Bicycle Diaries

For a look at the social forces that created the bicycle as opposed to the ones it has created, it gets no better than The Social Construction of Technological Systems: New Directions in the Sociology and History of Technology (The MIT Press, 2012), edited by by Wiebe E. Bijker, Thomas P. Hughes, and Trevor Pinch. I first encountered this volume — and its use of the bicycle as an astute example of technological change (in Pinch and Bijker’s essay “The Social Construction of Facts and Artifacts: Or How the Sociology of Science and the Sociology of Technology Might Benefit Each Other”) — in Andrew Feenberg‘s “Philosophy of Technology” class at San Diego State. It has since been treated to a much-deserved anniversary edition (the original version hit shelves in 1987). This collection established the approach of the social construction of technology (SCOT) as a viable methodology, and it’s not all about bicycles: eighteenth-century cooking stoves, twentieth-century missile systems, and thirteenth-century galleys get their due. The aforementioned chapter on the social construction of bicycles is still my favorite though.

Also, Bijker’s own Of Bicycles, Bakelites, and Bulbs: Toward a Theory of Sociotechnical Change (The MIT Press, 1997) is another interesting set of explorations and applications of this approach to these themes.

The mere fact of riding a bicycle is not in itself sinful, and if it is the only means of reaching the church on a Sunday, it may be excusable. — 1885 reply to a letter from a young lady

If you’re looking for more focus on the bike itself, rather than its urban and sociological implications, there’s Bicycling Science (The MIT Press, 2004), by David Gordon Wilson, which is now on its third edition (its original having come out in 1982). This book has everything to do with human-powered wheeled vehicles — bicycles in the broadest sense of the term: from the general (e.g., basic concepts of human power, the history of the bicycle, etc.) to the specific (e.g., physics, aerodynamics, bearings, materials, braking, steering, etc.), and the weird and the future of bicycles. If you’re looking for the mechanical minutia of bicycles, Bicycling Science is likely to be the only book you need.

I’m admittedly biased, but I think the bicycle is one of the greatest inventions in the history of technology. I’ve been riding one since the age of four, and they’ve been my primary means of transportation for the past fifteen years. If you don’t ride a bike regularly, give it one shot. Bicycles are fun, and that one ride might be the door to a whole new world. These three books go a long way to covering both the history of that world and its implications in the twenty-first century. On the eve of the twentieth anniversary of Critical Mass, do yourself a favor, and, in the words of Mike Daily, ride first, read later.


Arthur, Brian. (2009). The Nature of Technology: What It Is and How It Evolves. New York: Free Press.

Bijker, Wiebe E. (1997). Of Bicycles, Bakelites, and Bulbs: Toward a Theory of Sociotechnical Change. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Bijker, Wiebe E. , Hughes, Thomas P., & Pinch, Trevor. (2012). The Social Construction of Technological Systems: New Directions in the Sociology and History of Technology. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Byrne, David. (2009). Bicycle Diaries. New York: Viking.

Carlsson, Chris, Elliott, LisaRuth, & Camarena, Adriana (eds.). (2012). Shift Happens: Critical Mass at 20. San Francisco: Full Enjoyment.

Harvey, David. (2008, September/October). The Right to the City. New Left Review, 53.

Wilson, David Gordon. (2004). Bicycling Science. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Woodforde, J. (1970). The Story of the Bicycle. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.


Revealing Poetry: The Art of Erasure

Maybe it’s apt that I don’t remember, but I somehow came across Tom Phillips‘ “treated Victorian novel,” A Humument (Tetrad Press, 1970), nearly a decade ago at San Diego State University. Phillips took William Mallock’s A Human Document (Cassell Publishing, 1892) and obscured words on every page, leaving a few here and there to tell a new story. It’s part painting, part drawing, part collage, part poetic cut-up, and all weirdly, intriguingly unique (You can view full pages from the book at its website).

Phillips claims that he picked A Human Document because of its price-point (“no more than three pence,” he said), but Mallock’s “novel” is oddly suited for Phillips’ repurposing. The original novel is a scrapbook of sorts of journal entries, correspondence, and other ephemera left behind by two deceased lovers. Mallock wrote of these scraps in his introduction that “as they stand they are not a story in any literary sense; though they enable us, or rather force us, to construct one out of them for ourselves” (p. 8). N. Katherine Hayles (2002) characterizes this introduction as “uncannily anticipating contemporary descriptions of hypertext narrative” (p. 78).

Tom Phillips is not the only nor the first to do such a work. According to Wikipedia,

Several contemporary writer/artists have used this form to good effect. Doris Cross appears to have been among the earliest to utilize this technique, beginning in 1965 with her “Dictionary Columns” book art. d.a. levy also worked in this mode at about the same time. Ronald Johnson’s Radi Os is a long poem deconstructed from the text of Milton’s Paradise Lost. Tom Phillips’ A Humument is a major work of book art and found poetry deconstructed from a Victorian novel. Similarly, Jesse Glass’ Mans Wows (1981), is a series of poems and performance pieces mined from John George Hohman’s book of charms and healings Pow Wows, or The Long Lost Friend. Jen Bervin’s Nets is an erasure of Shakespeare’s sonnets. Janet Holmes’s The ms of my kin (2009) erases the poems of Emily Dickinson written in 1861-62, the first few years of the Civil War, to discuss the more contemporary Iraq War.

@shaviro At St Marks bookstore. Realized that I no longer fetishize books as objects in the slightest (which I used to do). Prefer etexts now. (Tweeted August 24th, 2012)

The move to digital texts, which is gaining more and more zeal by the day, has put the not only the fetishization of books as objects in jeopardy but also seemingly the want or need for them at all. It’s not that repurposed books are a last-gasp marketing ploy by the publishing industry—like pretty CD packages with bonus DVDs or 3D movies are—but that there is a reason to fetishize them. As Jonathan Safran Foer (see below) put it, “When a book remembers, we remember. It reminds you that you have a body. So many of the things we may think of as burdensome are actually the things that make us more human.”

Books are only metaphors of the body. — Michel de Certeau

With that said, Austin Kleon stole like an artist and created a best-seller using only markers and copies of The New York Times. His Newspaper Blackout (Harper Perennial, 2010) takes Tom Phillips’ methodology to its basic tenet: poetry as erasure.

“How to Learn About Girls” from Newspaper Blackout.

Taking a step up instead of down, Jonathan Safran Foer opted for literal subtraction, creating a textual sculpture. Foer treated his favorite novel, The Street of Crocodiles by Bruno Schulz (Penguin, 1963), by cutting out words, creating Tree of Codes (Visual Editions, 2010).

The book as conceptual art: Jonathan Safran Foer’s Tree of Codes.

Giving due credit to his forebears, Foer told The New York Times, “It was hardly an original idea: it’s a technique that has, in different ways, been practiced for as long as there has been writing — perhaps most brilliantly by Tom Phillips in his magnum opus, A Humument. But I was more interested in subtracting than adding, and also in creating a book with a three-dimensional life. On the brink of the end of paper, I was attracted to the idea of a book that can’t forget it has a body.” Foer also acknowledges the project’s constraints as well as the power of his source material, adding,

Working on this book was extraordinarily difficult. Unlike novel writing, which is the quintessence of freedom, here I had my hands tightly bound. Of course 100 people would have come up with 100 different books using this same process of carving, but every choice I made was dependent on a choice Schulz had made. On top of which, so many of Schulz’s sentences feel elemental, unbreakdownable. And his writing is so unbelievably good, so much better than anything that could conceivably be done with it, that my first instinct was always to leave it alone.

For about a year I also had a printed manuscript of The Street of Crocodiles with me, along with a highlighter and a red pen. The story of Tree of Codes is continuous across pages, but I approached the project one page at a time: looking for promising words or phrases (they’re all promising), trying to involve and connect what had become my characters. My first several drafts read more like concrete poetry, and I hated them.

As opposed to the anyone-can-do-it tack of Kleon, Foer took the tools and text at hand and made something truly new. Like A Humument before it, Tree of Codes is a unique object worthy of thoughtful consideration. As DJ Scratch once said, “The reason we respect something as an art is because it’s hard as fuck to do.” Taking elements of others’ work and making it your own is one thing. Taking the whole damn thing and completely transforming it into something else is art.


Here’s the making-of video for Tree of Codes [runtime: 3:34]:



de Certeau, Michel. (1984). The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Foer, Jonathan Safran. (2010). Tree of Codes. London: Visual Editions.

Hayles, N. Katherine. (2002). Writing Machines. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Heller, Steven. (2010, November 24). “Jonathan Safran Foer’s Book as Art Object.” The New York Times.

Kleon, Austin. (2010). Newspaper Blackout. New York: Harper Perennial.

Mallock, William. (1892). A Human Document. New York: Cassell Publishing.

Phillips, Tom. (1970). A Humument. London: Tetrad Press.

Wagner, Heather. (2010, November 10). “Jonathan Safran Foer Talks Tree of Codes and Conceptual Art”. VF Daily.