An Epistemic Taxonomy of Bicycles

The notion of metamodernism is embedded in a larger progression of what, borrowing from Foucault, we refer to as epistemes:  Tradition, Modern, Postmodern and, the new addition, Metamodern. We offered our nutshell way of defining these epistemes in this blog’s introductory post. Now we will walk you through the epistemes, again, this time in a discussion of bicycles, as they developed in the US (there may be differences elsewhere).

Traditional Bicycles: The old goofy-looking bikes with different-sized wheels your great-grandfather rode, the old Schwinn or Huffy with a banana seat that you or your aunt rode as a kid, etc. Traditional refers to culture that builds, unquestioningly, on that which came before.

(“Tradition” generally refers to cultural patterns that have been around for hundreds or even thousands of years. Applying the concept of tradition to bicycles is a bit awkward because they became popular about 150 years ago, and in the grand scheme of things, the very introduction of bicycle technology, even in its simplest form, was a part of the general modernist technological transformation of society. That said, for the purposes of this discussion, we are identifying as traditional the period before the 1970s explosion of enhanced gear-changing, braking, lighter frames, aerodynamic design, and specialization.)

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Modernist Bicycles: Every technologically-improved, more streamlined, faster, more efficient, or specialized bike: 10-speeds, 21-speeds, mountain bikes, recumbents, as well as the helmets and the slick, shiny clothing that go with that culture. Modernism is preoccupied with employing science and rationality to break from tradition in order to arrive at an ideal state of truth (in the arts and philosophy) or efficiency (in the realms of material products and design.)

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Postmodern Bicycles:  Fixies – those bikes that bike messengers, punk rockers, and other hipsters ride that have one fixed gear and often no hand breaks. Postmodernismchallenges the modernist assumption that technological advance is always an improvement, or that an increase in options is an increase in freedom, and is mistrustful of “bourgeois” comfort.

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Metamodern BicyclesCommuter Bikes where you sit up straight and that emphasize comfort and stability over speed or looking cool. Bikes for “the rest of us” who aren’t part of a sport (modernist) culture or a subversive (postmodern) sub-culture. Bikes designed for carrying kid passengers. Bikes meant for everyday people to pleasantly get where they are going. Bikes that utilize the current technology, not to increase efficiency, but rather to enhance the overall experience of the rider.

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Proto-metamodern BicyclesBeach Cruiser Revival. In the 1990s there was a revival of the Beach Cruiser, which, when it originally surfaced in the 1950s (or possibly earlier) would have been an example of a traditional bike. This was a single-speed bike with a very heavy frame and wide, balloon-like tires, best suited for riding in flat areas. The return of this style of bike in the 1990s had postmodern motives, in the sense that they were rejecting modernist high-tech bicycle developments. We’re calling the Beach Cruiser Revival “proto-metamodern” because there was also a sense of cheeky *fun* involved, but without the full-blown metamodern transcendence of irony, nor acceptance of the need to be  pragmatic, as evidenced in the Commuter Bike movement.

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Obviously we have not said all there is to say about bicycles and epistemes. And, rather ironically, it is a modernist tendency that makes us want to try to fit everything into neat corresondences. The postmodernists are the ones who are savvy about the limitations of this kind of structuralist project. And if there’s a metamodern approach, perhaps it is to find pattern and meaning where it can be found, while acknowledging and embracing the ambiguities and chaos around the edges.

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