Pedaling Against the Grain

Joshua Meador/Guardian

Sitting in his office cluttered with piles of old jazz records, dog-eared books, cult films and a pair of dark angel wings, professor Peter John pulls up an e-mail from a former student he hasn’t spoken to for 15 years.

“Is this the Peter John who used to teach at a little CC in an odd little mill town in Western Washington and frequent Ethiopian grunge clubs in Portland?” he reads. “The samba guitar player who swills Jagermeister and loves [the band] darkmotherscream?”

The self-proclaimed anarchist doesn’t run out of quirky pursuits. When John lived in Portland he built a gothic club in his basement. When he taught at the conservative Laurel Columbia College in Washington he was labeled the “antichrist” after inviting a controversial guest lecturer.

Now a cornerstone of Sixth College’s Culture, Art and Technology writing program, John lives and breathes the spirit of rebellion. He can frequently be seen around campus blowing bubbles from a bubble sword and blasting music from a set of speakers mounted atop a bicycle he has dubbed “Frankenbike.”

“It’s just great fun,” John said. “You have a beer, get on the bicycle, play your music and just ride through the day, sometimes into the night, as long as the battery lasts. But not everyone agrees it’s a good thing. Some people complain that you’re playing music in public … like there aren’t other noises in public.”

Frankenbike adventures led to his participation in Critical Mass, a rebellious bike rally held on the last Friday of every month. Bicyclists meet in over 300 cities worldwide, moving in a relatively large pack and intentionally disobeying road rules to make cars aware of cyclists. “Bottling” occurs when bicyclists ride into an intersection for 10 minutes and stop traffic. During a Critical Mass in Portland, Peter John experienced firsthand a backlash of police brutality.

“Part of it might have been the fact that I had my music on my bicycle, but it wasn’t that loud,” John said. “It was a gentle number by the German industrial group Einstürzende Neubauten ‘New Age Ambient Motor Music Machine,’ a beautiful song. But you know the cops don’t really have a sense of humor. These fuckers actually just tackled me, I mean literally tackled me. When there were about 10 of them on me, [they] completely … Tasered me seven times. I was doing nothing against the law. First they took me to the hospital … because they were convinced that I put up such a struggle against them, I was on some sort of PCP. And I said, ‘Take my blood.’ So they tested my blood and they were just so stunned and depressed that there was no alcohol, no drugs, nothing.”

John’s counterculture zeal extends to his notion of education as a liberal pursuit to “maximize the potential for free individuals.” A former biology major at UC Riverside and an alumnus of the UCSD graduate program in history, he believes strongly in a multidisciplinary approach to teaching.

“What artists are doing is the same thing that scientists are doing and vice versa,” John said. “Science is not this straightforward, methodical exercise. It is a lot of failed experiments … it is a lot of imagination. There are innumerable examples of scientists being like these children at play, making things up. It’s a no-holds-barred struggle for knowledge, whether you’re in dance or in poetry or in physics.”

In class, he encourages a Socratic dialogue with up to 180 students. Drawing from readings, YouTube videos, audio clips and PowerPoint slides, John engages in a multi-mediated discussion with students on the meaning of culture, art and technology. His assigned readings encompass everything from classics such as Plato’s “Republic” to radical collective works such as Crimethink’s “Days of War, Nights of Love.” In past lectures, he has applied cultural hegemony to the pop-culture film “Fight Club,” proposed religious symbolism as a technological tool and suggested artistic qualities in Nazi propaganda.

“I don’t think it’s any surprise then that the program is all about ambiguity,” John said. “There aren’t a lot of certainties, and the idea that there are is one of the ideas we have to disabuse them of, and have to have them appreciate that the university is this incessant dialogue about things of which we have no complete knowledge.”

Some students, seeking more tradition and less controversy, think otherwise. One fired-up protester on describes John as a “nutcase” who tries to “engrave evolution on everyone’s brains” and “disses Christianity.” Sixth College professor Linda Strauss told him she saw students praying in groups outside his classroom for the sanctity of his soul. After teaching in many religious schools, John maintains that he does not “diss Christianity,” but only wants to think about religion as a historical phenomenon.

“If you’re trying to rattle cages and shake people up, you’re not expecting them to necessarily love what you’re doing,” John said. “Questioning their orthodoxies, challenging their belief systems — you shouldn’t come out of that experience expecting to be loved."