A Conversation with a Bicycle: A Cultural History of Collision Between Humans and Machines
Abstract & Introduction
05 May 2017 • introduction / literature / machines / cultural history

In 1967, in the novel The Third Policeman, the author Flann O’Brien wrote more concisely, wittily, and terrifyingly than many current commentators on the physical and psychological consequences of technological progression. In the narrator’s relationship with a bicycle, he begins a journey through landscapes which he considers to be available only to human beings, and in so doing, he reassesses what it is to be human, alive, and free. It becomes clear that the bicycle is both a machine of liberation, and of damnation.

This text charts a cultural history of this phenomenon of collision in humans’ relationships with machines. Each of the four chapters — Sex, Humour, Work, Death — begins with a premise set out in The Third Policeman in the characters’ relationships with machines, in order to investigate this collision in the context of these four subjects. This theme will then be taken forward to investigate other instances in literary texts, screen texts, recent history, and arts and culture, in which humans and machines have met, collided, merged, spiralled together, repelled one another, imploded, or proved impossible to reconcile.

Only one of the four chapters is presented here — Sex — and it is split into two parts. Part I pertains to robots, simulacra, and the limits of the body; Part II looks at space.

* * *

A journey is an hallucination. There is only a starting point, a destination, and between them: a succession of infinite static rests. The space between is pregnant with a further series of infinite static rests, and so it goes on. De Selby, the fictional nincompoop thinker in Flann O’Brien’s novel The Third Policeman (1967), looks upon reality with a lens hewn from magic and paradox, and his borderless theory of motion echoes through the borderless universe of the novel.1 In O’Brien’s world there exists a trunk of such impeccable craftsmanship that like a matryoshka doll, it houses smaller and smaller versions of itself until the trunks become invisible; there is mention of a body which houses a soul, which has a soul of its own, which thereafter holds another, until the very notion of an individual is impossible to behold; and there is the phenomenon that human beings become their bicycles when bumps in the road force an exchange of Omnium, the universal ether-like substance, between the two bodies. O’Brien in The Third Policeman makes horizons bleed so that one reconsiders whether the sea meets the sky at all; he makes battlegrounds of time and space.

This moment of collision which O’Brien builds into life and death, mind and soul, language and nonsense, individual and collective, nature and culture, man and machine, is crystallised in the symbol of the bicycle. The bicycle is a rich and varied symbol, a ’floating signifier’ which historically engenders many liberatory possibilities.2 The simplest freedom is geographical: one can travel further distances at greater speeds than on-foot, exposed to the elements, using the power in one’s body to move in nearly any direction, unlike on, say, the tyrannical grooves of a railroad. But O’Brien treats the bicycle as a vehicle of ontological freedom, too — as a technological counterpoint to the human being — and in the process, he draws a line where the boundary or the interaction between the two might be, and smudges it with his sleeve.

His line runs through constituencies considered to be owned exclusively by human beings — the enjoyment of sex, the creation of jokes, idiosyncratic uses of language, day-to-day labour, and knowledge of death — and by using the symbol of O’Brien’s bicycle as a starting point, this text seeks to chart a cultural history of other instances of collision between humans and machines in these humanest of landscapes.

Technology suggests absence or loss inasmuch as its purpose is to plug gaps in the capacities of human beings. In The Third Policeman, bicycles are not so much, as Sigmund Freud wrote in Civilisation and its Discontents, prostheses of (godlike) human beings, but are themselves living beings — of the same stuff as their human counterparts. As the technology affects and infects the characters, as they become more bike-like, bicycles correspondingly become ‘half-human […] half-partaking of humanity’.3 In customary circumlocuitous style, O’Brien locates within moments of loss at the meeting point between humans and machines, a strange sense of liberation. The only love story in the novel is between the narrator and the female bicycle he steals. ‘How can I convey the perfection of my comfort on the bicycle’, he swoons, ‘the completeness of my union with her, the sweet responses she gave me at every particle of her frame?’ He feels ‘that [he] had known her for many years and that she had known [him] and that [they] understood each other utterly’.4 It is in these moments of contact with the bicycle that the narrator feels he is at last free, to escape the circular madness that is the mysterious police barracks and his charge of hanging. Whether he is or not is another matter.

As a scholar of the aforementioned fruitcake de Selby, our narrator discusses one of his theories: that ‘gravitation was the “jailer” of humanity, keeping it on the one-dimensional line of oblivion’. He adds that the ultimate freedom lies ‘in the upward direction’.5 We later learn that our narrator is damned to tread this line of oblivion forever, as he is dead, and tormented for his murderous crimes. The upward direction — weightless space, or the spirit realm — is available to the bicycle in Roland Barthes’s Le Tour de France Comme Épopée [The Tour de France as Epic] (1957) in which he describes Mont Vertoux as an adversary which demands sacrifice, in order that heroes on bicycles might banish gravity with their god-given athleticism. The human-bicycle then leaves the earth ‘to the unknown stars’.

If in Barthes, the bicycle transports one to space, then with another French author Alfred Jarry it transports one through time. In How to Construct a Time Machine (1899), Jarry imagines a machine that would isolate one from time, so that any moment in the past or the future might be visited.6 His instructions for the machine feature ‘an ebony frame, similar to the steel frame of a bicycle’  — a glaring anachronism in such a creation, but one which baits curiosity through the juxtaposing of the familiar with the wondrous, with a picture of an immanent human operator, sat, perhaps pedalling, hunched mantis-like over handlebars. The bicycle, far from an arbitrary mechanism, always predetermines a human being in the pedals.

Outside of time and space, the bicycle also transports one to heaven. After a puncture owing to a crown of thorns, Jesus Christ drags his cross-framed bicycle on his shoulders in Jarry’s satire of the inaugural Tour de France in 1903: The Passion Considered as an Uphill Bicycle Race (1903). The race was described in the newspaper L’Auto as ‘la plus grande épreuve cyclists du monde entier [the biggest cycling challenge in the whole world]’.7 Jarry conflates the punishing physical requirements of cycling, with that of brutal, mythical capital punishment; and a frame for streamlined speed, with the symbol of vicarious redemption — in the process, he imbues the meeting point between the human and the bicycle with messianic furore. J. G. Ballard wrote The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race (1970) in mechanised homage to this text.8

Jarry, Barthes, and O’Brien all utilise the synergy between the human being and bicycle as a symbol of transcendence: scientific, metaphysical, spiritual. But what about now? Are these ideas as attributed to the humble bicycle as easily attributable to far more contemporary and complex machines and technologies? The vast virtual space in the ramified network of the internet, for instance, or the timebending possibilities of space vessels in interstellar travel; the turbulent and contested birth of artificial intelligence? Are the half-human, half-bicycle characters in The Third Policeman living (or undead) embodiments of Herbert Marcuse’s dialectical warning in his seminal One-Dimensional Man (1964): that ‘the liberating force of technology — the instrumentalization of things — turns into a fetter of liberation; the instrumentalization of man’?9

The Third Policeman is simultaneously one of the funniest and most unsettling books I have ever read. Much can be learned from the pastel pell-mell terror of O’Brien’s absurdity, in his delirious conversations with the bicycle, in his cyclical constructions of time and space. Influenced by his characterising of the bicycle, and what this characterisation might tell us about human beings’ reliance, obsession, and repulsion with machines and technology, this text charts a cultural history of other instances of collision between humans and machines divided into themes brought up in The Third Policeman — sex, humour and language, work, and death.

* * *

Each chapter will begin with a premise set out in Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman with his treatment of the characters’ relationships with a bicycle. Allowing for moments of slippage between fiction and non-fiction, that theme will then be taken forward to investigate other instances in literary texts, screen texts, recent history, and arts and culture, in which humans and machines have met, collided, merged, spiralled together, repelled one another, imploded, or proved impossible to reconcile.

Chapter 1

In this chapter, I attend to moments of collision between humans and machines in the context of love, sex, reproduction, germination, and birth. This chapter is split into two parts.

Part I

‘It seemed ineffably female and fastidious,
posing there like a mannequin rather than leaning idly like a loafer against the wall’

In the narrator’s first meeting with the Sergeant’s bicycle, he not only immediately attributes her a gender, but sees in her posture a pseudo-humanness, a bewitching familiarity. Beginning with this relationship, Part I pertains to robots, simulacra, and the limits of the human body.

The fastidiousness of the bicycle is not contradicted by her posing; rather, it is this perspicacious attention to detail that precedes her inviting positioning. Her mimicry, when realised, amounts to an ability to pretend. Using the motif of the heart to represent love and empathy, I look at moments in science fiction in which the perceived coldness of robots is not found in their inability to feel, but in their abilities to manipulate and seduce vulnerable human beings. Moving from the vulnerable to the lonely, I then look at the figure of the isolated male inventor and explorer in H. G. Wells’s The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896) and Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1870), and at their efforts to build and create their own contained moral universes around or inside their specialised machines. As Verne uses the whirlpool to symbolise a portal between worlds, I compare the motif of the spiral’s associations with the material properties of water and electronics, the creation and maintenance of life, and the social usefulness of the metaphors of the flow, merging, and flux.

The dynamism of the bicycle’s ‘posing’ like a mannequin is captured and delimited in her frame. The Surrealists used mannequins and dolls to represent the automism of the unconscious, and as a symbol of the unbounded id. But with the perverse ability to take apart and reassemble mannequins, dolls, creatures, and automata, the creator can build a body as he or she desires. I look at the Pygmalion compulsion to sex (in both the senses of gendering and eroticising) machines, and the idea of a profane birth into bondage.

Part II

‘My position was completely horizontal, ponderous, absolute and incontrovertible.
United with the bed I became momentous and planetary’

To demonstrate the intractability of eternity, O’Brien makes frequent allusions to the vastness of space and the infinitesimal smallness of the atomic. In the narrator’s brief union with a bedstead, O’Brien tethers the cosmic to the orgasmic, as the narrator is transported across mighty distances in pleasure. It is this uneasy meeting — between humans, machines, sex, and space — which Part II explores.

In the narrator’s ‘becoming planetary’ is a moment of verbal and imaginary euphemism, which occurs rather frequently within the supposedly sexless realm of space and space machines. This part begins with the  notion that although space is presented by NASA as a sexless vacuum, as metaphors, sex and love creep into its every echelon. Then, with the prospect of colonising other planets close at hand, what would be the  ethical implications of sex and birth in space?

These are questions of sex in space as facilitated by machines, but the machines themselves are also sexed and mystified. I look at Virgin Galactic’s trajectory into commercial space travel as an example of the usefulness of eroticizing and glamorizing machines, despite facing tragic adversity. The uterine obligations of spaceships and spacesuits constitute temporary biospheres, and thus the hatch and the airlock become the most prominent interfaces between a safe environment and a hazardous one. With this in mind, I look at the use of the spacesuit and the airlock in the films Alien (1979) and Aliens (1986), as symbols in a complex reproductive allegory, and as interesting accoutrements to a female lead character in a science fiction narrative. Then, looking at Norman Mailer’s book A Fire on the Moon (1969), I analyse his conception of the psychology of machines.


[1] Flann O’Brien, The Third Policeman, (Dublin: Dalkey Archive Press, 1967; repr. London: Harper Perennial, 2007).
[2] Jeremy Withers and Daniel P. Shea, ‘The Bicycle as Rolling Signifier’ in Culture on Two Wheels: The Bicycle in Literature & Film, ed. Jeremy Withers and Daniel P. Shea, (University of Nebraska Press: 2016), p. 2.
[3] Flann O’Brien, The Third Policeman, p. 88.
[4] Flann O’Brien, The Third Policeman, p. 173.
[5] Flann O’Brien, The Third Policeman, p. 98.
[6] Alfred Jarry, How to Construct a Time Machine, trans. Roger Shattuck, (1899), online, [accessed 05 March 2017]
[7] Alfred Jarry, Selected Works of Alfred Jarry, (Grove Press, 1965), p. 122.
[8] J. G. Ballard, ‘The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race’ in The Atrocity Exhibition, (Great Britain: Panther Books, 1972; repr. Great Britain: Flamingo Modern Classic, 2001), pp. 295–300.
[9] Herbert Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society, (United States: Beacon Press, 1964), p. 163.