Sunday, 19 July 2009

Diogenes the Hells Angel

Diogenes was a rebel against authority who lived the simple life. He would have shunned gangs or other combinations that protect the individual at some loss of liberty. Were motorcycles around in his time he would have had nothing to do with being a gang member, he was not that type of “outlaw” but maybe he would have valued the independence and mobility achieved by a single machine, and of living life “on the edge”.

Yet even in his rebellion he would have been aware that that very quality, of outstripping the herd, is a manufactured image, a line designed to sell motorcycles as a commodity.

You may remember the VeloSolex lightweight bicycle that Frenchmen ride with a small motor above the front wheel. It was a post World War Two vehicle that young and old could ride without any formality offering both fun and freedom. But that was about the limit of its possibilities. It could hardly be seen as a fetish commodity.

If you go to YouTube and enter Mr Bean and VeloSolex you will get a sketch that embraces this stereotype with affection. Yet the advertising for the VeloSolex for those who wish to search google images is an extraordinary mismatch of sexy long legged models astride this bicycle. The reason is that sex, like rebellion, sells products like no other motif can.

The long legs give a clue, for elongating the leg of a model by artifice or unconscious selection of the longest legged candidate is a deliberate evocation of a female’s sudden spurt of growth a purbety…something that is hard wired into the perceptions of both male and female alike. The 50’s artist Vargas made a good living exaggerating the legs of the models he painted for this very good reason.

Now Diogenes was famous for ‘accentuating the negative’, for cynicism is nearer the end of the continuum named “hostility” than the opposite one, “friendliness”. But here we have a product and an industry, ‘accentuating the positive’ as if life itself was dependent upon this perception. And that is the clue, for the life of the product, its conception, its existence, its survival depends upon it falling upon that continuum nearer the end of ‘friendliness’. And what better proponent for “friendliness” is there than the powerful and emotive syncretism that is sex. So powerful is this motif that the alternate “handle” of rebelliousness has by and large failed to survive as well as a meme.

We all remember motorcycle rebel Marlon Brando in the film “The Wild One” which worried our mentors so much that it was banned for 15 years in the UK. Or we may have enjoyed the bad boy image of the anti-hero in Richard Thompson’s song the 1952 Vincent Black Lightning (listen to the Reina Collin’s version). More likely though we will have remembered then for their positive associations. In the case of the song it would be the combination of a red haired girl and her black leathers. You can find a version in the podcast section of

What endures here is a manufactured lack of restraint in ‘positive’ matters such as celebrating friendliness, attraction (and by association sex), rather than remembering the ‘negative’ also there in some rebellion or hostility to other social norms.

In other words, a life affirming film, song or story will usually triumph over anything that casts a shadow over our or others passing. Diogenes the cynic would have found this association with motorcycles, if such existed in his day, as problematic.

But in advertising appealing to one emotion is never enough. A tension if it can be created between opposites will get twice as much attention. So we as spectators, as consumers, have the same problem as Diogenes would have had.

What was his answer? To carry a big stick. Would he have thrown it into the spokes of any passing motorcycle that annoyed him? I do not think so. He would not have been angry at some insouisiant youth vacillating between a faux rebellion and some manufactured attraction. Diogenes would have instead lamented that the youth of his day could so easily be sold someone else’s dream instead of doing something significant.

The answer may not be to be cynical, as Diogenes was, shunning the complexities of his time. That continuum, from hostility to, shall we say, friendliness is also one from the conservation of energy to one of expending it. A doctor would recognise this is the world of the bi-polar or manic-depressive.

Nearly a couple of years ago after reading a book called The Hypomanic Edge I suggested Diogenes may have been a hypomanic. See it here (cut and paste)

Now I am beginning to wonder if he was a manic-depressive. Strangely this cynical perspective of hostility and negativity seems to be an evolutionary survival. Why is this? One would expect the likes of Diogenes to die out in evolutionary terms, never mind in terms of their ideas. Just as you might expect the motorcycle industry to ‘loose’ the negative bad boy associations of motorcycling. For the price of that is marginalisation and legislation to outlaw a threat to civilised society. Certainly the author of The Hypomanic Edge regards the manic or ‘positive’ behaviours at that end of the continuum to be the reason that condition persists in the world. Such people have energy and can succeed when others at the hostile pole conserve rather than express their anger in a barrel.

So do we need Diogenes? Well, next time some manic motorcyclist cuts you up imagining himself some angel of darkness or lusty rebel, think that there needs to be a counterbalance. And that is the legislators, the policemen and the cynics that refuse to fall for the line the motorcyclist is taking. Society is a spectacle. We cannot all go around in rose tinted glasses. A Diogenes has a duty not to retreat from the world but to point out the myths the rest of us slavishly follow. And that includes himself.