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A love of speed

Nikolaos Christakis, author of «Motorcycles: Risk and Ritual» (recently published by Futura) is assistant professor in social psychology at Panteion University. He not only drives a motorcycle but carries out research into the medium as a means of seeking speed, and as a symbol.. Why do you love speed? Speed reflects an anthropological need for control over one’s space and time and therefore the acquisition of power and immortality. These quests are linked to sacred forces outside the usual concept of things, in a supernatural, ecstatic area filled with the promise of being all-powerful, but also with inherent dangers for anyone who makes mistakes. A driver must be absolutely focused, displaying a «protective skin» that allows him to separate risk from gratuitous thrills, thereby achieving that hedonistic feeling of losing oneself, the «process of extremes» and «hedonistic panic» that characterizes vertigo, according to Roger Caillois. What is the relationship between motorcyclists and the motorcycle as an object? As a consumer product, the motorcycle is part of the panoply of personal style and above all a means of differentiating oneself from drivers of other means of transport such as cars, as well as from other kinds of two-wheel vehicles. However, the motorcycle is also a ritualistic object that incarnates primeval dreams of power and control. It constitutes an object of worship in a double sense: as a symbolic key to other levels of consciousness, and as an object of narcissistic investment which will be seen as an extension of one’s physical and mental abilities and therefore as an improvement, a heroic version of oneself. Why does modern man worship danger, judging from the trend toward extreme sports? People – and not only people – are always negotiating with the forces that govern the movements of the universe in order to reduce the anxiety engendered by an environment that is not always comfortable. This is the basis of religion, science and magic, all of which deal with the boundaries between the known and the unknown, and are therefore areas of risk. In reality, technology has always created as many problems as it has solved, particularly today, when technology often operates in a vacuum, in an environment of weakened systems of meaning and control, when public debate constructs permanent, catastrophic uncertainties and we all live in an uncertain «environment of risk.» Personal involvement in dangerous behavior is a playful and illogical response to these inadequate symbolic surroundings and to the feeling of powerlessness on the part of the individual who is faced with an all-powerful society that officially promotes predictions and security. Seeking to control an extreme situation and to confront death, the individual constructs and explores his own personal boundaries. Even if it is carried out in a group, risk-taking is an individualistic, ritualistic way of uplifting oneself and of giving meaning to one’s existence. That is why one cannot fully understand its extent without taking personal sensibilities and experience into consideration along with the anthropological and social framework.