issue 195 - May 1989
Illustration: Jackie Morris
The Fantasy Machine
The car is one of the central cultural symbols of the twentieth century rich with meaning
and rife with contradiction. Jeremiah Creedon explains our irrational attachment.
Ancient peoples would have found the moment incredible - and future peoples may reflect on it someday with curious amusement. My own reactions fell somewhere in between.
I was in the Minneapolis Metrodome, a stadium covered with an immense Teflon bubble. Around 25,000 of us were waiting for the start of an auto spectacular, a combustion-era cross between gladiator games and the travelling big-top circus. The first event was scheduled to be a cavalcade of 'Monster Trucks'. A dozen giant engines suddenly shook the place with a thunderous noise. And there they were: balloon-tired, chrome-glittered mutant motor vehicles lumbering in low-low gear around the stadium floor. They circled once - a teaser lap before their later return in the evening's battle royal.
The crowd still had a few hours to enjoy various other contests between the automotive kingdom's lesser species. At some point in the evening, I noticed a blue cloud of exhaust hanging over the field, a smog layer trapped beneath the dome. Such spectacles are said to reveal a lot about a culture's preoccupations and I could see why. Here was a perfect microcosm of a world transfixed by the very machines that were suffocating it.
It doesn't take a communications theorist or an ad-maker to understand the idea that common objects can also be cultural symbols. Many people have at least some awareness that simple things often acquire complex meanings, untold associations that spring to mind when one gazes on them. The way Western culture views the car is a good example. Few objects could be more commonplace. At the same time, no other human tool is so often and so variously idealized in the modern imagination.
Some would say the car's dual identity points to an intriguing paradox. Those who are more hostile toward the device might argue it epitomizes a schizoid split in the character of today's society. Oddly though, almost everyone is willing to accept this contradiction. Even those who realize that cars are a serious problem still usually resign themselves to driving them. They may see no alternative. One of the car's most dramatic effects on urban planning has been to render itself indispensable.
The car is the standard unit of scale and motion upon which most North American cities have been built during this century. No one knows this better than the chronic pedestrians, who can only conclude that the urban center has been designed to make their lives difficult. And if the big cities are often frustrating to the walker, the plains of suburban sprawl around them are simply uncrossable.
The assumption now is that cars are 'natural' while man on foot is not. In regions that have fallen completely to the car ethos, like Southern California, walking may even be considered a crime. This bias became an issue in the early 1980s with the case of Edward Lawson, also known as the 'California Walkman'. Lawson, a black, had what Newsweek magazine called 'an unusual hairstyle and an unusual habit - he walks everywhere he goes, even in white neighborhoods'. Questioned several times by the police, Lawson refused to give his name and was thrown in jail. The US Supreme Court finally declared the law on which he was arrested as too ambiguous. And Lawson walked.
Cars have no doubt changed the nature of human interaction. Even more dramatic is their influence on the nature of Nature itself. The car is emblematic of the human enterprise that is killing off so many species today. Many scientists say that 'biological diversity' is declining at a dangerous rate. Meanwhile, the artificial diversity of the machine explodes as we humans repopulate the depleted biosphere with creatures of our own invention. There are less than a thousand Siberian tigers alive today, and some 660 of them are in zoos.1 There are around 400 million motor vehicles.
It is ironic that big cats and other animals are so often evoked to sell cars. Others have noted how cars often resemble animals in their design, a likeness that according to cultural critic Andrew Wernick has traditionally accounted for a large part of the car's appeal. However, in recent years, says Wernick 'the beast theme has been domesticated'.2 The animal image of the car has been overlayered with new associations - cars are also spaceships, genderless objects of sexual desire and 'cyborg-like extensions of their own drivers'.
Our effortless ability to entertain such contrary notions, often at the same time, is telling in itself. The car seems to have driven itself below the level where logical agreement really matters. It has reached the place of myth. In this sense, the car's deep appeal is both remarkable and frightening, for it implies that the car explosion will be difficult to control through rational legal reform.
The specious arguments we use to defend the car do suggest that our attachment to it is irrational. For instance, the car is often said to symbolize individual freedom. But is this freedom real? In Western countries, the car may have played an historic role in opening economic frontiers thus raising the general living standard.3 But today, the car's link to freedom and self-realization is an illusion.
One could argue just as easily that cars have helped to make modern life less free. Car payments, insurance costs, repair bills and other expenses often enslave us to our cars as much as they are enslaved to us. The automotive economy can be a treadmill, with many people spending hours in the car on their way to work and hours at work just paying for their cars.
People who lead simpler lives can make better use of their time. Before their own cultural patterns were disrupted, the Australian Aborigines spent perhaps three hours a day providing their basic needs. Without any firm figures, I would guess the average North American, because of the car, spends quite a bit more.
If so, then the sense of freedom associated with the car may be a compensating daydream. In lives that are fully regimented by work and other social agencies, there's less time these days to get away - and fewer places to go when the chance arises, since many commuters live in areas that are built to discourage even a simple stroll.
In a car-based culture, the car becomes the rare place where one can be alone - a fact that may partially explain why car pools and public transit are less popular than they ought to be. The freedom in a car is relative to the entrapment that many feel most everywhere else.
Daily life yields much evidence that cars are indeed private fantasy chambers. A sideward glance at any stoplight is apt to fall on a solitary driver lost in mumbling bemusement - or in mute trance. I have resolved to change my life many times in a car. That I have seldom followed through is proof enough for me that time in the car can be a dream state where one's sense of power and discipline are exaggerated. The oil crisis in the 1970s flushed out a hidden subculture of people who had been using 'auto therapy' to maintain their mental health. Several psychologists reported that case numbers were growing at the time in step with rising gasoline prices. People who could no longer afford to bliss themselves with the late-night mantra of road hum were turning, reluctantly, to official healers.
There's a tie between this freedom-fantasy machine and the 'getaway car relied on by criminals in the early mobster films and elsewhere in popular narrative. By the 1950s, with Jack Kerouac's On The Road, escape by car was an option for nonconformists as well as outlaws, thus reiterating the link between them in the public mind. Since then, the car has been the narrative engine in countless novels and movies. All of them play upon the recognition that flight in the car - mental or other-wise - is a form of social rebellion, however harmless.
This benign compensation for our discontent turns malignant in its most bizarre expression: the roving serial killers of the late 1970s and 1980s. Almost as notorious in the US as Ted Bundy is the Volkswagen 'bug' in which he hunted down his victims, and similar cases abound. Writer Thomas Harris has explored this motif - the lone killer on wheels - in his compelling popular novels.4 Through them, riveted by the mystique of the sociopath, readers can witness their own thoughts of car-enabled self-realization taken to their pathological extremes.
Few believe that a killer's car is inherently evil. Tools have no mind of their own, or do they? The usual attack on the car often contains a deep antipathy of the object itself. This view reinforces the idea that we look on cars as surrogate life forms worthy of hatred as well as love.
Thus critics of the car become as irrational as those who defend it. They overlook a truth that must be confronted before the car problem can be solved. People like cars and even need them in a sense beyond their use as transport. On a global scale the car is a destructive force that threatens to sever our last ties with the natural world. But individually the car provides what this denatured world can no longer give: sensual and psychological gratification. The car speaks to certain human needs that modern life cannot otherwise answer.
That we have put our hope in this ersatz nature was clear enough in the smoggy microcosm of the Monster Trucks. Throughout the spectacle, I found myself watching the people on the edge of the spotlight, those tending to their vehicles with such pride and familiarity. It reminded me of the unsentimental and yet intimate way a dairy farmer might relate to his cows, or a nomadic Saharan to his camels. The cars provided them with a sense of purpose and a calendar to live by, and I could envy that a bit.
But what a strange beast we urban nomads have chosen as our own. It brings to mind those experiments where orphaned monkeys, in lieu of real mothers, have settled for rags and wire wound around a ticking clock. A mechanical mom is apparently better than none. We must look beyond the car into the artificial heart of modem society if we are to save ourselves from an object that is but a projection of our own unsatisfied desires.
Jeremiah Creedon is a writer living in Minneapolis.
1 Tigers of the World: the Biology, Biopolitics, Managementand Conservation of an Endangered Species, Noyes Publications, 1987.
2 Wernick's essay appears in Cultural Politics in Contemporary America, Routledge Press, 1989, ed Ian Angus and Sut JhaIIy.
3 See various studies in The Economic and Social Effects of the Spread of Motor Vehicles, Macmillan Press, 1987.
4 tor instance, The Silence of the Lambs, St Martin Press, 1988.
Friday night burnout
Rick started work at 16. And in the three years since then he has owned five cars. Two were stolen and stripped (Australia has the highest rate of car theft in the world). One was written off after a drinking binge with his mates. Rick is well-implanted within the statistical 'high-risk under-25s'. Last year, car accidents and injuries cost Australians almost $6,000 million. Almost 3,000 people were killed, and more than 29,000 were injured.
Even though he'd upgraded each machine, Rick had also lost financially on each deal. He kept the car - and the repayments - even when unemployed for six months. 'I spend around a third of my pay on my car, and I still owe almost $6,000.'
Rick calls his car a 'mean-looking custom V8', a phrase which his insurance company translates as 'high risk'. It also makes him a sure target for the highway patrol. 'All the guys at work drive hot cars. There's a regular burnout on Friday nights.'
And Rick's convinced that the girls love it too. 'A lot of them wouldn't go out with you if you were driving a pram or a shopping trolley.'
Rick is a skillful driver, probably more skillful than he is with the machinery at work. And there's the additional benefit of not having a factory supervisor to tell him when he's made an error. The feeling of control both excites and frees him. Driving and cornering quickly - especially with passengers - gives him a thrill. His car has a loud exhaust cackle almost as deafening as the factory where he works, but totally within his control. And of course he's got a car stereo that likewise could deafen. Not surprisingly, his usual way of driving is 'windows down'. Rick isn't easily amused. But he says with a smile 'I turn heads. Yeah, I know that.'
Sharon bought her wheels of independence when she was 17 and still at school. 'I couldn't afford to move out of home, but a car's the next best thing.' She drives a small, bright-yellow two-door which is kept tidier than her room but demands a good deal more pocket money. 'I couldn't survive without a car. I don't want to be depending on guys for lifts. I don't want to give them that advantage.'
'All my friends have cars and mine's probably the cheapest.' Sharon's two brothers also have their own cars, but she doesn't see much point in sharing. That'd be like wearing hand-me-downs or eating leftovers all the time. There's no way I could do that and still save face with my friends.'
Kevin has just enrolled in an accountancy course at college. He bought an imported sports coupe on credit (with a little help from his parents) - a car costing twice his probable starting salary. 'I'll need it for work,' he says bluntly. 'It's not a luxury. I need an impressive-looking car to impress potential employers.' Riding in Kevin's car is about as quiet as the office he one day hopes to call his own. There is an air of silent efficiency and of luxury, an image he's happy to display. He's impressed by the digital-readout dashboard.
Kevin wouldn't dare drive a V8 or a family sedan, and thinks the concept of car-pooling 'bizarre'. And in the eyes of his peers, a small four-cylinder would be 'effeminate'.
George Fisher writes for the NI from Sydney.