Apr 18, 2013

On The Road With Number 1: A Map of Harley-Davidson's Mythic America

Feature article 
by Jeffrey Fereday
The amazing recovery of Harley-Davidson as corporate enterprise and cultural phenomenon, from a state of near-bankruptcy in the '70s to a situation where demand outstrips supply in the midst of the '90s global recession, has brought would-be benchmarkers clamouring to its corporate gates. Harley-Davidson makes an ideal vehicle for investigation here of aspects of cultural difference in an art critical context, because as a generative model within popular culture mythology its social value is contingent upon active and specific engagement with existent ideological structures.
There is a story I once heard about the famous Spanish equestrian riding school in Vienna whose practice it was to send its throughbred yearlings to the mountains of Yugoslavia, where for a year they would run wild before returning to a strict regime of training and enstablement at the school. Without this experience of being a horse, it was found that an animal's temperament would grow increasingly despondent, lethargic, and cranky in its later life of emburdened performance and subjugation, of work and otherwise boredom. With the experience of this secondment, however, the animal would stand in its stall after its work, staring out beyond its confinement, and 'dream' of when it was a horse.

This may seem a tangental introduction to a text which itself bears seemingly peripheral relation to the topic of cultural difference, but it strikes resonance with Western construction of youth culture. Adolescence as a time of free rein whose expression of vanities, uncertainties, and identity entertainments serve not only as prime profit targets, but also as dreamscape storehouse and sensational scapegoat/alibi/distraction for the deep boredom of contemporary life and adult leisure.

Within its post-functional condition as leisure, motorcycling is fixed in the schema of youth culture to a value of perpetuated adolescence, a simplistically individualist, self-destructive, self-defeating rebellion-gesture. The cult of Harley-Davidson stakes claim upon the hard-edged frontier of this territory. It is a frontier of contradictions – an invocation of individualism through subcultural conformities which offer transcendence through obselete machinery, which describe a cultural landscape in daydream vistas, which stare out beyond the grind of the kicking stall to a time of received fictions, running wild in a global America as real as a Marlboro ad.

There is no question that Harley-Davidson is one of the most enduring cultural artefacts of this century. A proud anachronism, in 1992 it retains essential likeness to its original design parameters of 1909 – a big-capacity, low-stressed 45-degree V-configuration twin-cylinder engine. Great store is placed upon continuity of traditions but there is another, equally significant, process which has informed the evolution of Harley design - the inclusion of customer initiative within the factory design practice. More so than any other motorcycle, and possibly any mass-market product I could imagine, the Harley's design is inextricably identified with the popular culture of its user base, and vice versa. It has a broad demographic sweep of product identification that is almost Coca-Colic, yet Harley's consumer culture maintains fanatical enthusiast devotion to both this tradition and its own outlaw mythology. Harley-Davidson is recurrent subject of a proliferative image bank which establishes its presence as a cultural icon par excellence. To change its basic style would be to place the precepts of Harley's popular appeal in complete jeopardy.  

The relationship between the Harley-Davidson company and its enthusiast consumer base has not always been so happily symbiotic. Historically H-D distanced itself from the 'outlaw' element of the subculture, placing its efforts of publicity into image affilliation with traditional patriotic values and dominance of American motorcycle competition – that is, legitimation via official, regulated activity rather than the 'unofficial' culture of its users.

Perhaps the most strained moment in this relationship between authorised culture its clash with its unofficial user constituency occurred as a result of events in the Californian town of Hollister on the 4th of July weekend in 1947, when a group of bikers ran amok. The incident captured the public imagination, an example of anarchic un-American activity on Independence Day. However, the agency by which the Hollister incident was transformed from a provincial moment of over-lubricated hooliganism to a decisive moment of ideological clarity was its representation to mainstream America via Laslo Benedek's movie, The Wild One (1953). This film is of critical interest because for the first time in mass culture it articulated the position of the motorcycle as Other to mainstream American culture, and in its loaded conjuncture of psychosexual and ideological values, it defined motorcycling as social aberration.

It is of some significance that Brando's motorcycle was not a Harley-Davidson, but rather a customised British sports twin. In the early '50s, Harley's dominance of both motorcycle competition and sales became under serious threat from English bikes, such as Triumph and Norton; this production decision, to put Brando on a Matchless, was strategic in distancing the visible protagonist from the 'true' American values connected with Harley-Davidson. The use of a Harley by Marvin's character was less visible in the narrative, but the bike itself was clearly a 'custom' special, suggesting an ambivalent association with the official Harley-Davidson orthodoxy. It is interesting that most people associate Brando with Harley-Davidson when remembering the movie.

It is ironic that it was this picture, which so clearly articulated a paternal American ideology in the tradition of the Western filmic model and which situated the 'outlaw' manifestation as either the youthful rebellion of the prodigal (as embodied in Brando's Johnny Reb persona) or as dispossessed, uncivilised, un-American hedonistic criminality (as in the persona of Lee Marvin's outlaw), that led indirectly and many years later to Harley-Davidson's accommodation of its wayward user base within the material configuration of its product design. For while Harley sought corporate distance from the outlaw affilliation, both the subculture and mainstream America lapped it up.

There is a scene early in The Wild One where the Black Rebels MC visits the official bike races, an arena where the wild energy of the motorcycle is controlled – bound as it were to a course – by the regulated convention of the sporting contest. The big event is treated to the prankish scorn of the Rebs, ending in out-of-town orders from the local sherriff after some rebel clown nicked a trophy and another unofficially joined the race, causing an accident. [The stolen trophy, Second Prize, is strapped onto Johnny's handlebars for later narrative and thematic employment.] The scene describes a conflict of leisure/lifestyle aspirations – the Black Rebels' directionless, freeranging fun is portrayed as the antisocial negation of socially acceptable, structured leisure activity based upon legitimate competition. It inhabits a moment of cultural schism: as applied technology, the motorcycle's function as transport had become extraneous to the imperatives of the wider social program of expanded mass consumption and the car-sized family unit, except where profitably reconstituted as surplus, as leisure device. However the threat of its use for unregulated mobility remained, as ideological side-effect attendant upon this obselete technology. The scene also identified a parallel situation in the social body: the dominant culture of conformist consumerism carried the threat of counter-cultural current from within, the underside to its order, that which it would deny or suppress. The postwar disgruntlement which gave rise to counter-cultural Americas – outlaw bike clubs, beat poets, abstract expressionists, bebop jazz, rock'n'roll, drug culture, and so on  – personnified the rejection of new social rigidity in favour of improvisational forms which often arose  from working-class or lower-middle-class origins and various racial constituencies.

The enduring potency of The Wild One's depiction of motorcycling's social menace has informed subsequent development of motorcycling subculture, and especially that involving Harley-Davidson. Its allegorical use of the Western genre, and the fascination and attraction of anti-hero youth culture run awry, transcended the film's narrative resolution where futile rebellion succumbs to the America of law and order, and instead served to popularise the growth of outlaw bike cults. The use of the Western form and generic motifs added to the apparent authenticity of bike culture as a continuity of American tradition: it articulated the place of the motorcycle as iron horse, and herein overtly engaged aspects of Harley-Davidson's design which had previously existed as subliminal. Western imagery abounds in the design of Harley's iron horse – buckhorn handlebars, seats styled closely upon the leather horse saddle, leather saddlebags with decorative studs and fringes – as well as biker dress codes, which refashion the outlaw cowboy denim, leather, and bandana convention.

By the late 1940s, the Harley-Davidson design had arguably reached its nadir – the late knucklehead-engine models represented the full expression of the design's development, its most favourable relationship to comparable technology, and its stylistic pinnacle. From that point on, the refinement of the design would become increasingly incongruous to motorcycle development elsewhere, and its stylistic initiative would increasingly quote upon its tradition whilst becoming more visibly affected in its interraction with, and absorption of, extrinsic social meanings. Aside from tuning for improved performance, the main customising (ie. customer modification) activity amongst Harley's clientele up to the early '50s had involved stripping or cutting down the excess fittings from the heavyweight factory stock machines, or making functional modification to suit personal preference. After The Wild One achieved popular currency, customisers increasingly modified their machines to personalise the style of their individual machine, to effect style for sake of style. Gradually Harley began to assimilate these stylistic trends into the factory models, and increasingly the significance of style became fundamental to Harley-Davidson's cultural commodity.

Authenticity in appearance, style, design, and the field of meanings which a commodity accummulates and through which it evolves is of crucial importance to retro styling and the nostalgia industry in general. Authenticity in Harley-Davidson is exceptional because the nostalgia it contemporarily manufactures is both self-referential – simulating its historical design styles – as well as referential to the style traditions of its consumer culture. An example of the currency of self-referential reiteration of historical design is the recent re-introduction of the 'springer' fork design, which appeared on the first Harley V-twin of 1909; another is the 'Softail' back end, which is styled to resemble the unsprung 'hardtail' frames of pre-WWII design practice. The stripped-down 'dresser' models, along with the chopper-inspired Low Rider and no-frills Superglide style models, are examples of customer initiatives finding their way to factory orthodoxy as standard-model design styles – 'factory customs'. The extent of this colonisation of custom initiative is exemplified in the official Harley-Davidson genuine accessories catalogue, a glossy compendium of authorised individual-style options.

The currency and apparent authenticity of Harley style is also connected to a broader field of American popular culture in a cross-referential relationship. A Harley motorcycle strategically placed in an advertisement can lend desirably hip association to the image and commodity styling of such mundane products as fashion jeans, cigarettes, booze, fast food, teen popmusic idols, or male perfume. Association with such ephemera serves to strengthen the idea of Harley-Davidson's timeless solidity, rather than diminishing its cultural value.

In a world of genuine inauthenticities, Harley-Davidson has the aura of the real thing. There is a quality of other-worldliness to its presence that is palpable. Against the smooth, seamless hyper-performance of contemporary motorcycles, the Harley is a proud anachronism of uncompromising hard-core character, overwhelming in its ambience. It shakes like motorbikes used to, has a fat low-rpm torque band, and makes one hellish noise.

As you straddle the bike, in laid-back demeanour as opposed to the forward-lean edgy attitude of the modern motorcycle ride position, you assume a definite position. You are present, vicarious witness to one's own presence; self-consciously you inhabit a view of oneself as participant/observer, a place anticipated by the enveloping ambience of the machine and its specific qualities of performance. You act as audience to its performance, take on its characteristics, assume its persona. Pulling clenched-fisted on the throttle a Harley punches forward with an abrupt explosion of staggered shotgun-blast exhaust (deep-timbred bass note, no high-pitched little-bike wailing) – a blunt hello to your cool farewell. You are constantly conspicuous, voyeur to your own visibility, the connoisseur of your own conspicuous consumption of, and within, the bike's auratic realm. You not only project image, you ride it.

It would be impossible to do or imagine otherwise, for image is both integral to the design and performance of the bike, and to the space of social reception it inhabits. Consider the machismo value of the Harley's engine (and by process of extrapolation, the culture of its use) in relation to its design. For years Harley boasted the biggest, most muscular engine in motorcycling – a throbbing apparatus whose exposed goods were proudly and prominently displayed, its various attachments and constituent parts adorning the engine as barbarian jewellery, subject to specific fetishisations. Unlike the trend to sublimate and enclose the modern motorcycle engine beneath emasculating bodywork, Harley has exploited the display of its major asset. While motorcycles are often referred to in the feminine, I have not heard of Harley engines being spoken of in this way. Its presence is so completely understood as naturally engendered within the masculine that it goes without saying, or is spoken around – 'the donk', 'it's got grunt', 'it's got balls', and so on. Within the collective psychology of motorcycling, Harley is regarded with a respectful fascination not dissimilar to the status granted an early-maturer in a schoolboy shower-room.

One could take this matter of engenderedness further, and ask what attributes of masculinity the Harley supports? The originary basis of Harley's longitudinal V-twin suggests a continuity of traditional values – and its rudimentary nature is aligned with basic, functional simplicity rather than complication or sophistication, an engine which represents a time when men were men. Its materiality and its performance are associated with hard-working ruggedness and reliable muscularity. Its temperament is individual, characterised by strength, solidity, and capacity to haul a tough load. Its two massive pistons punch out a throaty baritone whose intensity rises assertively to an aggressive bellow when provoked or given its head; its voice speaks loud and clear, unable to be ignored. The masculinity Harley-Davidson evokes is coarsely identified as working-class hero of the lost frontier. Its values are reactive against contemporary assertions of masculine sensitivity, evoking a more visceral, fundamental masculinity uncompromised by the social disintegration of a traditionally conditioned heterosexual male identity. This condition not only reflects the bike's traditional demographic appeal, but suggests something of its contemporary constituency, and its increasing appeal amongst the city 'suits'. As a former bike press colleague once wrote, Harley-Davidson is "like a tattoo you can take off."

Women are not included within Harley design, but accommodated as subjugated accessory. With the exception of the touring-orientated Electra Glide series full-dressers, which target an older touring-oriented market in the USA than Harley's factory-custom style bikes and which literally provide armchair seating for the pillion, the passenger accommodation is very much second-best, often a small rectangular pad mounted on the rear fender and called the 'pussy patch' within Harley folklore. The rationale for this design is overtly misogynist – the relationship between the (male) rider and his bike, in extrapolation of the Western steed, is held as the more important, more permanent, and the primary relationship; women come and go, are secondary, dispensible. Further, the female passenger is held to be privileged by her provisional inclusion within the Harley-Davidson cultural experience. Her discomfort of enduring such seating is constructed as part of the price of commitment, while the situation of the female as secondary is taken as standard. Perversely, the coarse vibration which is transmitted through the meagre 'pussy patch' is held to be a turn-on for women (though not, apparently, for male passengers or riders), and if one is not prepared to wear it, well there's no shortage of others who'd clamour for the glamour of being in that position (on a "No Butt, No Putt" agreement). The misogyny of Harley culture sustains a self-replicating situation, perpetuating itself through repeated simulation of its normative imagery. Richard Prince's Gangs series of rephotographs of biker photographs of their girlfriends, which were voluntarily submitted to be published in biker lifestyle magazines, makes an overt conundrum of this representational simulacrum.

The hyperbolic emphasis upon male heterosexual prowess within lifestyle culture surrounding Harley-Davidson is also conspicuous in its homophobic repressions, while within gay leather subcultures the Harley mythology has been successfully inverted. The same attributes of the Harley which bolster the sense of masculine authenticity within straight male ego relations could be taken specifically as gesture, real or ironic, to be reworked in gay culture to a degree of camp (as in play of exaggeration). There is a particular point in the design which engages the moment of homophobia in the act of contradiction, self-denial, repression. This involves the ergonomic situation of the Harley rider. On modern motorcycles, the rider is prone forward – braced against the wind, but poised on top of the motorcycle in an 'active' relationship to the bike. However, on a Harley (which as I have argued, is itself constructed as normatively masculine), the rider lies back with both arms and legs spread forward – an apparently 'passive' or 'receptive' position in relation to the bike.

If the Harley rider is naturally male, so to is he naturally Caucasian. Harley has a substantial export market to Japan, but there is something impossibly incongruous in the image-idea of an Asian person astride a Harley. Firstly the image bank of western-mythology Americana which Harley carries is specifically a white American investment, and secondly, historical anti-Japanese racism has attended upon various moments of Harley culture. From WWII, when US servicemen returned from the Pacific theatre, anti-Japanese sentiment was entrenched, and the most infamous of Harley outlaw clubs, the Hells Angels MC, took its name and founding membership from the bomber corps. More recently, the growth of Japan's industrial and economic strength and its technological developments in motorcycle manufacture has propelled Harley-Davidson towards a persistent anti-Japanese reactivity.

Harley had avoided affilliation with the wayward manifestations of its consumer culture until the 1960s when a gradual, tacit corporate acceptance was catalysed by the inroads which Japanese products had made upon the US domestic market. At the time of the famous "You meet the nicest people on a Honda" marketing campaign in the 1960s. Harley's product and corporate image appeared conservative and dated. Unable to afford to compete with the Japanese on their own terms, Harley realistically analysed its market constituency and broadened its view of 'Harley culture' – its marketing rhetoric continued to push the patriotic tradition (as the authentic all-American motorcycle), but it began to see its association with the bad-ass side of bike culture as a definite asset, a readymade niche market whose cultural identification was precisely the opposite affilliation to that promoted by Honda. Successfully exploiting cultural difference, Harley-Davidson began to represent the authentic all-American motorcycle lifestyle tradition. In The Wild One the readmission of the prodigal son by the benign structure of patriarchal ideology in American society was represented as the salvation of the child. But in this example, it was the apparitional patriarchy (represented by the Harley-Davidson of tradition) that was saved, and only by its last-minute affilliation with the ascendency of the prodigal child (its popular culture).

Despite new Japanese-inspired production methods, which were implemented post-1981 following management buyback of the private company from the AMF conglomerate, the Harley factory is personalised in enthusiast folklore. There's the sense of handbuilt quality, of workers with leather jackets in the locker room and Hogs in the staff carpark – a kind of bike equivalent of the two-old-dudes-sippin'-Jack Daniels ad. Obviously production is much more sophisticated than that picture, but notwithstanding the enforced drudgery of any mass-production workplace, the perceived enthusiast interest within Harley's production process is reasonably accurate – from assembly line to management, most of the company's workforce are Harley riders, further linking the factory with its enthusiast culture. Possibilities for development of design engineering are delimitated at Harley-Davidson by its historic "why change something that's already right" tradition and the clearly articulated preferences of its enthusiast culture. Its situation is unlike the classic singlular-vision approach to design engineering, as epitomised in its modern moment by Ing. Fabio Taglioni with the single-handed creation of a motorcycle from 'vision' to realisation (the classic Ducati bevel-drive desmodromic V-twin of the 1970s), or Phil Irving's H.R.D.-Vincents (surely the apotheosis of motorcycle design engineering auteurism). It is also antithetical to the Japanese model of design by committee, and where new models are ephemeral moments developed to specific niche-market opportunities. Because its design tradition is essential, both the Harley company and its consumer culture are bound to a state of closure.

Please Consider the values of continuity and authenticity which are attached to Harley and Japanese motorcycle design with respect to cultural difference. The growing popularity of Harley-Davidson in the 1980s was of obvious interest to the Japanese industry – yet Harley's contemporary appeal was in no small way a reaction to the complexity of modern Japanese motorcycles, which many motorcyclists felt had lost touch with motorcycling as a lifestyle. Soon enough the Japanese manufacturers began to build Harley-styled models in a bid to tap this market. Some were reasonable products in their own right, but of course they were never seen in their own right, but always in the shadow of the Harley original. Their appearance was generally held to ridicule amongst the bike population. Here was proof of deep cultural difference materialised at the level of profound superficiality – Japanese commodity production was seen as totally devoid of either originality or 'soul' (the first tapping into an historical slight upon Japan's adept skills in developing/refining existing design ideas, the second reflecting the sanitised performance which contemporary Japanese design engineering had brought upon the motorcycle.) These blatant simulations of established Harley style only affirmed the value of the original, making the process of Harley's own replication of style and mythology opaque. Or did they? One could argue that by appropriating style, and by making style the active ground of comparison, that the opposite occurs – that it points to the like process at work within the originary model – a situation not so unlike Sherrie Levine's dilemma of rephotography.

Among the best-selling motorcycles in Australia this year is a Harley-styled V-twin built by Yamaha. Its engine is a mere 250cc – a girlsbike by comparison with Harley's macho 1340cc. It exists only because of Harley-Davidson, and in many respects its styling job out-Harleys many Harley models. But comparison seems categorically absurd. Its market has little to do with Harley's constituency, being aimed primarily at beginner motorcyclists, although its appeal to this market has a lot to do with the popular visibility of Harley-Davidson as youthculture style symbol. It is bought for exactly what it is, and because what it is resembles a scaled-down Harley. It is low to the ground, and is thus very popular among female motorcyclists. It is considered a stylish transport by young riders of either sex, people who like to look the part, regardless of whether Harley culture has any interest to their lifestyle. As a product, it best describes a style of consumption.

This incommensurabily of style is an exemplary moment of cultural difference, or was, for quite possibly it is a moment passed. Simulation was a 1987 topic. So after cultural difference, what is there? In the artworld, there is Cultural Difference (where cultural difference is capitalised as growth industry, a tickbox on the funding application, something to write plays about, where cultural criticism becomes market research). At large, in the mix, there is cultural intolerance, ignorance, ambivalence, fear, slow assimilation, desperate consumption, desperate assertion, matters of urgency, no shortage of topics – what's new? And in terms of this story, there is cultural difference as subject of a culturalised forgetfulness, a slow normalisation of difference, an absorption of appearances corresponding to a growing unreadability of signs.

© 1992

First published as ‘On the Road With Number 1: A Map of Harley-Davidson's Mythic America', feature article for Agenda special issue (on cultural difference) #28, Summer 1992/3