COVID-19 HAS killed over 1.5 million people worldwide, crippled huge segments of the economy and made fear for our individual safety a nagging concern. Masks and disinfectants promise to keep us safe, along with social distancing carried to the extent of extended lockdowns.
These extended lockdowns, in one form or another, are accepted and justified for reasons of public health. But be that as it may, the unprecedented limits put on human mobility in the pivotal year of 2020 brings to mind how much the exercise of power presupposes control over the movements of individuals.
The essence of a prison cell are the four walls, the ceiling, the floor, the locked door, and the prison term. Confinement. Incarceration. Captivity. In space and in time.
Domestic violence would not be such a scourge if the victimised spouse is physically and economically free to leave the torture chamber that her home has become. No one can be bullied who is able to escape the physical presence of his aggressor. Without border guards, state power would quickly become irrelevant.
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The Sacred Rite of Leaving
Therein lies the reason why transport vehicles, from skateboards to spaceships, connote freedom. Nay, even basic walking – or crawling if you are a baby – implies freedom by that same solid logic.
The “Safety bicycle”, a foot-powered pneumatic-tyred vehicle, appeared in the late 1880s. It quickly became a popular item, and helped the emergent modern woman imagine an escape from the vigilance of chaperones and the harnesses of male dominance. The long-term consequences of that thought are hard to overestimate.
When a teenager, I owned a big old and heavy motorcycle, and would swish down the roads of Penang... It was a different kind of freedom, but one of ambition. I was going somewhere, in style and at high speed.
The motorcycle, as much a creation of the age of metal and mass production as the bicycle, became popularly available just as the 20th century began. This clearly more daring machine is associated in the popular imagination today with maleness – indeed, with male defiance and youthful daredevilry, while the bicycle is a “safe” vehicle useful to people who are not in a hurry.
The bicycle is manpowered, and the cyclist in cruising through the world, assumes independence, his time is his own and no persistent demon is on his tail or in his head. Moving at super speed on the borrowed power of diesel, petrol, or electricity, as one does when riding a horse-powered motorcycle, suggests being pursued, being in a hurry, and being irresponsible.
A bicycle to my mind, therefore, is more obviously a liberating medium. It encourages a “here and now” outlook while the motorcycle, due to its extra-human speediness, invokes distance that needs to be traversed. One is placed in transit, as the world zooms by in a blur; and one has a destination to reach. Destinations especially distant ones, by definition lie in the future, not here and now.
From Cruising to Rushing
Some of my happiest days were spent riding an old gearless bicycle on the broad and level roads of Beijing before cars and capitalism took over in that sprawling village with millions of inhabitants. This was in 1989-90. With really nowhere to go, a bicycle ride could be done for its own sake, and that provided a time for contemplation, a moment of freedom, a slow act of leaving. A bicycle can be considered as simply a walk on wheels, an effective way to move around without losing touch with one’s surroundings.
But enough idealising the value of unperturbed moments….
When a teenager, I owned a big old and heavy motorcycle, and would swish down the roads of Penang, which were relatively uncrowded back then. This was in 1974-75. It was a different kind of freedom, but one of ambition. I was going somewhere, in style and at high speed. The world swished by though, not properly noticed.
What happens if I compare the motorcycle to that other dominant machine of the modern age, the automobile? A motorcycle is definitely more maneuverable. Also, one is not anonymised within the cage that the car is, removed from the world. If I add on the airplane to this series of vehicles, and consider how impersonalised, regulated, and immobile a passage on a plane is, there is an inverse correlation here that Covid-19 and the limiting of mobility make obvious, a comment on how modern man has lost appreciation of the importance of his right to leave, to walk away, and to simply walk; and is infatuated by engine propelled travel.
The faster we move, the less freedom we are able to experience, and the less our sense of connectedness to the world and to the moment.