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In Praise of the Bicycle, by Marc Augé

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Cycling past Notre Dame Cathedral
Riding past Notre Dame Cathedral on one of Paris’s “car free” days
Eric Feferberg / AFP / Getty

Title: In Praise of the Bicycle
Author: Marc Augé (illustrated by Philip Waechter, translated by Teresa Lavender Fagan)
Publisher: Reaktion Books
Year: 2019 (originally published in French in 2008 as Elogé de la bicyclette)
Pages: 93
Order: Reaktion (UK) / University of Chicago Press (US)
What it is: A book about nostalgia and hope
Strengths: Eloquence
Weaknesses: Illustrations

At the heart of Marc Augé’s elegant and eloquent memoir-cum-manifesto is the notion of a shared past. Augé, a French anthropologist with a particular interest in modern cities, is of that generation of French men who came of age in the years after the end of the Occupation:

“Emerging from the worst atrocities in history, in the aftermath of the first atomic bombings, and just before what would be called the balance of terror, in a Europe that in many respects had not fully emerged from the nineteenth century, the need to truly live was being expressed like never before.”

That need, it found one form of expression in the bicycle. From Vittorio De Sica to Jacques Tati, from Fausto Coppi to Jean Robic, cycling allowed young French men like Augé to truly live. From Paul Fournel to Caroline Vermalle, we’ve seen time and again on the Café Bookshelf the role cycling played in French society and culture, the manner in which the fête de juillet that is the Tour de France – that place where sport and spectacle conjoin to create something that is part of the collective consciousness – brought people together. For Augé, his vision of this shared memory is captured in the way he describes the past: he can reference without the need for elaboration things such as “Coppi and Bartali passing their water bottles back and forth during a terrible stage in the Pyrenees; Coppi, showing great chivalry, letting Bartali win the stage that fell on his 35th birthday”. It is such economy in the telling that allows this slim volume – 93 pages, including a dozen illustrations – to pack in so much.

Today, the golden age of cycling that Augé grew up in has lost its lustre. Cycling lost its place in a society that was no longer seeking to escape the clutches of the nineteenth century but was instead rushing headlong into the embrace of the twenty-first: “the bicycle”, Augé writes, “no longer has the same role in the popular segments of society, and the sport of cycling, despite the amazing and intelligent contributions of television, contributes less and less to feeding the geographical, national and political imagery.”

The bicycle, once beloved by the futurists, stopped being modern. A century and more ago HG Wells had imagined a utopia which today we remember only for the claim that cycle tracks would abound in it. There was, of course, a lot more to it than that, his city of tomorrow was one that embraced all forms of transport. Wells also imagined a World State, as did Aldous Huxley three decades later when he dreamed A Brave New World into being. But Huxley, his utopia was in thrall to the motor car, its calendar was split into the time before and the time after the invention of Henry Ford’s Model T. Huxley’s utopia was a world in which bicycles were not to be seen. By the 1990s, it was possible to believe that Huxley was more right than he was wrong, the networks of communication that in the 1960s allowed Marshall McLuhan to imagine the world a global village had, Paul Virilio told us, created a virtual meta-city, a city of cities, the cities themselves reduced to boroughs of the meta-city. Globalisation had brought into being a new world.

The meta-city is where Augé comes back into this:

“The ability to easily enter into and depart from a city is the number one imperative, as if the balance of the city rested on its external counterweights. The city is becoming decentred the way homes are decentred with televisions and computers, and the way individuals have been decentred ever since their mobile phones became both computers and televisions. The urban extends everywhere, but we have lost the city, and we are losing sight of ourselves.”

Augé’s role as an anthropologist needs to be restated here. It is easy to imagine his take on the modern city as coming from an old man – he’s in his eighties now, was in his seventies when this was written – but there is more to it than that. Augé started out writing about tribes in West Africa before turning his gaze to modern life in European cities. In the 1990s he achieved a degree of fame when he coined the term non-place to describe modern urban structures such as hotels and airports. From an anthropological point of view, he argued, they lack a sense of place, a sense of history, a sense of identity. These are the issues that matter to Augé, personally and professionally.

Are Augé’s words about the impact of technology any the less fogyish in their appearance? Is the technology that McLuhan thought brought the world together today pulling cities apart? In Augé’s view, the social relationships that define a city are being destroyed, our conversations today, he argues, are with “invisible interlocutors on their respective mobile phones. The streets, the cafés, the subways and buses today are filled with ghosts that constantly intrude into the lives of those they haunt; they keep them at a distance and prevent them from either looking at the scenery or getting to know their flesh-and-blood neighbours.”

It’s all rather dystopian, isn’t it, all a bit Black Mirror? Well, actually, In Praise of the Bicycle couldn’t be further from the future imagined by Charlie Brooker and Annabel Jones. Augé believes that the city can be reclaimed. Like Wells before him, Augé imagines a utopia in which bicycles abound. But in his city of tomorrow – Paris, thirty years from now – they are not confined to bicycle tracks. Public transport – buses, trams, taxis – have dedicated lanes on Paris’s streets, the rest of the road belongs to bicycles of all variety: recumbents, cargo bikes, bicycles with big wheels, bicycles with little wheels, tandem bicycles, triplets, pedicabs, and more.

In Augé’s utopia, bicycles have brought people together the way they have always brought people together, the way they brought his generation together: they create shared histories and mythologies, they create moments in which people interact. In Augé’s utopia, bicycles can turn cities into “lands of adventure or, at the very least, of journeys.”

Where does the journey toward utopia begin? It begins with one urban planner in one city implementing one simple initiative that enables one city resident to take their first pedal stroke. From there, it snowballs, chaos theory and butterflies giving rise to the pedal stroke effect.

We can all dream a bright new tomorrow. We can all dream up fan-fic filled manifestos for a two-wheeled future that bring out the smugness in a certain class of cyclist and do nothing to win over motorists. Augé’s vision of tomorrow differs, though, in that his future is already happening. That one simple initiative has already happened and the rest is down to the pedal stroke effect. The initiative? Vélib’. Here, for once, we actually benefit from a book taking so long to be made available to an English-speaking audience. When Augé originally published Elogé de la bicyclette in 2008 Vélib’ was in its infancy. A decade on, the concept has spread to the boroughs of our modern meta-city: New York, London, Paris, Munich, they – and many more cities – have all got bike sharing schemes.

In Augé’s youth, the bicycle was about discovering yourself, discovering your locale, discovering others. It still is, he contends:

“Look in the streets at those who have recently been converted to cycling. They talk to each other (about their route, the landscape, the weather) or ride along silently, but are never (or almost never) on their phones. The sight they offer is the exact opposite of the classic scene we witness daily these days on the terrace of any café: that of two people sitting at the same table but having lengthy conversations with invisible interlocutors on their respective mobile phones.”

For Augé, the bicycle can be a counterweight to technology’s black mirror by offering a window on the world. And in so doing, maybe cycling can play its role in rescuing the modern meta-city. The glue that bonded Augé’s generation together is already a part of the social cohesion that is reshaping an atomised world. Augé’s personal vision of utopia may never come to pass – elements of it are about recreating the myths of the past – but dreaming of the future isn’t what In Praise of the Bicycle is really about. A decade on from its writing, we can now see that In Praise of the Bicycle is about a future shared, a tomorrow becoming real today.

In Praise of the Bicycle, by Marc Augé
In Praise of the Bicycle, by Marc Augé, illustrated by Philip Waechter and translated by Teresa Lavender Fagan, is published in the UK by Reaktion Books