Vehicles of Dissatisfaction

Jonathan Dollimore

  • Autopia: Cars and Culture edited by Peter Wollen and Joe Kerr
    Reaktion, 400 pp, £25.00, November 2002, ISBN 1 86189 132 6

Gridlock is a great leveller. It immobilises the fastest roadster as surely as the slowest truck. It reminds us that the car is an indispensable part of what we are, but also a threat to us. Without it we couldn’t live at the pace we do; with it we’re grinding to a halt. Once the symbol and instrument of progress, now it drives us to gridlock and road rage.

Last year’s announcement that Vauxhall Motors was ending car production at Luton and Dunstable took me back to starting work as an apprentice in that factory in 1963. It was noisy, hot and vast – so vast I often got lost and was reprimanded for skiving off. I still have dreams in which I’m anxiously trying to get back to my work station. In these dreams time goes by too fast; in reality it went agonisingly slowly. It would be exaggerating to describe the factory as Dickensian, but it was closer to the factories of his time than to those of today. There’s a passage in Hard Times which still makes me shudder: ‘There was a stifling smell of hot oil everywhere. The steam engines shone with it, the dresses of the Hands were soiled with it, the mills … oozed and trickled it … And their inhabitants, wasting with heat, toiled languidly.’ Machine oil attached to everything. And it was enervating, just like the heat from the machinery, heat which the oil seemed to permeate and make heavier; the sun, too, scorched more fiercely for shining through skylights stained yellow by oil. Oil is used to reduce friction, but in that factory it made everything harder.

I’d gone to the factory from a secondary modern school, where we were told that we were practical types who would keep the country going, in contrast to our grammar school counterparts who were brainy but useless. We embraced this ideological rationalisation of the school system, and our disadvantaged position within it. But we were proud of our practical skills, and to this day I feel some contempt for those who make a virtue of being hopelessly impractical (working in a university I meet quite a few). Because apprentices in the car factories of the early 1960s were employed mainly as cheap labour, we were taught few skills. What we did learn we learned outside the factory, from the evening and weekend culture of the motorbike and car. We bought second-hand, and we stripped and rebuilt, earnestly acquiring the skills of the mechanic and the engineer. Work in the factory, on the other hand, was repetitive and boring, so that this other culture was both consequence and compensation; an escape from the industry of which it was also a spin-off. That’s why it’s disappearing as the manufacturing industry dies, and why it’s regrettable that Autopia, whose subtitle is ‘Cars and Culture’, actively excludes it. Its blurb announces proudly that this collection was not written by anoraks, by ‘car buffs or technical enthusiasts’. It’s a book that could only have been written in the wake of the industry’s decline.

In the culture I’m describing, skills and values grew from oppressive social realities, partly reinforcing and partly compensating for them. Today these skills are derided even as they disappear. Thom Gunn once wrote a poem celebrating them called ‘All do not all things well’ – it’s not mentioned in Autopia – which describes two ‘auto freaks’ from the American underclass who dismantle cars on driveways. Neighbours who disapprove of the mess get them evicted. Gunn regrets their going:

Certainly not ambitious,
Perhaps not intelligent
Unless about a car,
Their work one thing they knew
They could for certain do
With a disinterest
And passionate expertise
To which they gave their best
Desires and energies.
Such oily handed zest
Bypassed the self like love.

But the factory, and the soul-destroying drudgery of assembly line work, was the fate of most. Autopia doesn’t adequately address this, either. There is a report from the assembly line, but it’s written by a student of technology, Dirk Leach, adept at mediating his experience of ‘nihilism’ thanks to a careful reading of Heidegger in his tea breaks: ‘About the empty plenitude that I found surrounding me as I worked . . . Heidegger had much to say.’ Realising that if he stayed too long in the factory it would destroy his ability to write, Leach remarks that ‘Heidegger . . . identified this situation as a dying of the critical capacity.’ Now I know.

For many, transport is the chief modern crisis. A lorry driver blocks the Blackwall Tunnel and 250,000 vehicles are jammed across 16 square miles of London. Police won’t release the driver’s name, fearing for his safety. We can’t speed up the flow of urban traffic – more roads produce more cars, and congestion soon becomes as bad as it was before. Ian Parker describes in Autopia how a signal engineer got vehicles flowing again at the Hanger Lane gyratory system in London by finding seven ‘spare’ seconds in a nearby set of traffic lights. When this time was redistributed between other lights, the traffic in the system – around eight thousand vehicles an hour – flowed better, but only for a while. Relentlessly, extra traffic arrived to fill the gaps. The most obvious alternative – restricting vehicle access to city centres – means that the remaining traffic will move more quickly, but in doing so will kill more people (95 per cent of pedestrians survive 20 mph impacts; only 15 per cent survive those at 40 mph). So, it’s far better to go with the flow, or rather the crawl. Sandy McCreery argues in Autopia that traffic congestion, far from being a symptom of urban disease and social meltdown, is a mark of robust urban health: congestion promotes contemplation of our surroundings and takes us out of the race; it provides a ‘shared experience’, and thereby fulfils the essential task of the city.

Those who blame governments for not sorting out the transport problem assume it’s a correctible error of advanced capitalism. But perhaps it isn’t. Capitalism’s capacity for movement, expansion and creation is seemingly as inexhaustible as its tendency to destroy, damage and pollute. Yet the spiral of creation and destruction must have a limit, if only because resources and space are finite: not long ago the London rush hour lasted from about 4 p.m. to 6 p.m.; now it lasts from 3.30 p.m. to 8 p.m. Ken Livingstone’s political future depends on the success of congestion charging in Central London: and at the next election the fate of the Government will be decided, at least in part, by its perceived failure to sort out transport. The recent decision to embark on a huge road-building programme, a reversal of earlier Labour policy, seems unlikely to make much difference to journey times. It’s a real problem for governments: so far even the rich haven’t been able to buy their way out of a traffic jam. This may change – we might yet see bus lanes redesignated as toll lanes.

The contributors to Autopia grapple with these problems, but for the most part not very energetically. Allen Samuels tells us that the car ‘like all epochal icons . . . does not mean one thing, but many things’. In that sense it is an ‘empty sign. It is a vacuum. We fill it with meaning.’ Some of the contributions to Autopia suggest that any meaning will do; cultural critique tends to become vacuous without sufficient engagement with the real. In the case of the car, the real is found in the remarkable and often brutal history of its production, including the highways and the cities built for and destroyed by it. The best essays in Autopia are those which engage with this history.

Joe Kerr does well with the story of Detroit. I doubt even Marx could have envisaged the speed at which the capitalist wheel of fortune moved in this instance. At its height, Detroit was regarded proudly by some as the nation’s surrogate capital. In 1955, nine million cars were produced there (in the same year Japan produced 20,000). But its decline was rapid and, initially at least, a result of the continuing success of the car industry: the city died because production sprawled outwards. As Motor City became Murder City (there were 714 homicides in 1974), it was torn apart by race riots. Things got even worse as the car industry declined, and now Detroit is a landscape of abandoned and decaying factories so spectacular that a website is devoted to it (‘The Fabulous Ruins of Detroit’ at www.detroityes.com).

Hitler had a photo of Henry Ford on his office wall; some people attribute the industrial systems of the death camps to Ford’s influence. In 1957 the GM President declared: ‘What’s good for General Motors is good for America, and vice versa.’ The postwar scheme to span the US with concrete was officially known as the National System of Interstate and Defense Highways: open roads would facilitate evacuation in the event of nuclear and/or Communist attack. Many people complained about the ugly ribbon development that came with the roads; for Victor Gruen, the billboards, gas stations, motels, car lots, shanties and wayside stores that sprang up represented mankind at his most vulgar. His answer was the shopping mall.

In a section reprinted here from All that is solid melts into air (1982), Marshall Berman describes the building of the expressway through the Bronx in the 1950s, and the consequent destruction of the borough. Directed by the infamous city planner Robert Moses, the Cross-Bronx Expressway cut through a dozen densely populated neighbourhoods, and around 60,000 people lost their homes, including Berman. He was appalled by the destruction, but because the idea of progress was so deeply rooted in his and the American psyche, he also found it irresistible: ‘How many of the Jews of the Bronx, hotbed of every form of radicalism, were willing to fight for the sanctity of “things as they are”? Moses was destroying our world, yet he seemed to be working in the name of values we ourselves embraced.’

Berman sees this kind of grief as endemic to modern life: ‘So often the price of ongoing and expanding modernity is the destruction not merely of “tradition” and “premodern” institutions and environments but – and here is the real tragedy – of everything most vital and beautiful in the modern world itself.’ The ten-year construction/ destruction of the Bronx was only the beginning of its long-term ruin. This story is repeated internationally. Donald Riche tell us that in Japan the growth of the automobile led to a level of destruction of the environment previously achieved only by earthquakes and war, and a ‘degradation’ of traditional attitudes and virtues; Geremie Barmé writes of 94,000 road fatalities in China in 2000 alone.

As anyone who has broken down on the motorway will know, to stand at the side, waiting for rescue, is a revelation. Nothing better conveys the frictional violence of speed. Whatever impression you may get sitting inside a vehicle, cars don’t glide over roads. The sound of rubber on tarmac at speed is a scream which hits your ears a second before the wind turbulence knocks you off balance. And it’s seemingly unending, like the infinitely repeated punishments of hell. Lumps of rubber strew the embankment; bits of metal lie there too, remnants of collision or fatigue, the debris of life in the fast lane.

Autopia takes in motor racing, but only in passing, and only because of the fascination with it of such Hollywood stars as James Dean and Steve McQueen. Racing appears the most absurd outgrowth of our fascination with the car: drivers hurtle around in circles, at the limits of adhesion. Some lose control and end up dead, mutilated or crippled. And yet it’s one of the most fanatically pursued of all sports: at an amateur level, enthusiasts spend everything they have on it, and more. Eric Mottram describes James Dean’s obsession with racing as a morbid complement to his other strange ways – Kenneth Anger described him as a ‘human ashtray’ in his sexual proclivities. Steve McQueen defended his own obsession as ‘without any death wish, like Jimmy Dean’, but Dean claimed of racing that ‘it’s the only time I feel whole’ (nothing perverted or death-wishing there). Morbidity, health and sex don’t even begin, however, to elucidate the human fascination with speed. Racing, at least in part, is about controlling a machine at its and the driver’s limits, limits at which the driver’s sensory awareness must be indescribably acute. If racing is an absurd activity, it is one that demands human skill of breathtaking refinement.

Assessing the importance of the car in modern literature, Allen Samuels mentions the few writers, mostly from the Right (Marinetti and Céline, for instance), who embrace the car as an expression of antihuman excess. But for the majority of writers, the car is the concrete image of the dehumanised, the alienated, the restless, the erosion of the rural – in short, the evils of the modern. Given their animosity to the car, it’s not surprising that such writers delight in having it crash. As image, symbol and plot device, the car smash soon becomes indispensable, from The Wind in the Willows to J.G. Ballard’s Crash. The moment of deep silence after a collision is most powerfully caught on film, but Ilya Ehrenberg recorded it as early as 1929, in a short story called ‘The Birth of the Automobile’: ‘the linnets warbled and the lavender was sweet and fragrant. Car No. 180-74 – iron splinters, glass shards, a lump of warm flesh – lay unstirring beneath the solemn midday sun.’

Kenneth Grahame’s Toad (who survives eight crashes) is a pioneer in another respect: if Samuels is right, he began the long association of cars with sex. In one passage, Toad, fantasising about driving, bends forward over a mock car, ‘making uncouth and ghastly noises, till the climax was reached, when . . . he would lie prostrate . . . apparently completely satisfied for the moment’. Are cars really so sexually alluring? Patrick Keiller suggests a connection between conventional car design (engine at the front driving the rear wheels) and traditional masculinity or heterosexuality, on the one hand, and unconventional design and unconventional sexuality, on the other. Let’s leave to one side his demonstrably false assertion that the conventional design makes for bad handling (on the contrary, it makes for safe and predictable handling). The point is that nothing invites third-rate sex-psychology so much as cars. The most prescient part of Grahame’s passage about Toad is the description of his falling back, ‘apparently completely satisfied for the moment’. Cars may not be sexual surrogates, but they share with sex an inbuilt transience of satisfaction which is only a short step away from displeasure. For all the hype, cars seem much more the source of restless dissatisfaction than of pleasure. Owners of exotic and expensive models rarely keep them long: they tire of them, change them. The car is just one of many ‘desirable’ objects which disappoint desire even as they ensnare and incite it; not the end of dissatisfaction, but its vehicle.

Likewise, maybe travel doesn’t annul disappointment so much as suspend it, giving new meaning to the old saying that it’s better to travel than to arrive. In this volume, Patrick Field quotes George Jones: ‘All my life I’ve been running from something. If only I knew what it was I’d know which direction to go.’ The most eloquent expression of this idea is in David Wojnarowicz’s Close to the Knives (1991): ‘Transition is always a relief. Destination means death to me. If I could figure out a way to remain forever in transition . . . I could remain in a state of perpetual freedom . . . I want to keep breathing and moving until I arrive at a place where motion and strength and relief intersect.’ Wojnarowicz’s meditations on mortality and driving, his evocations of sky, land and cityscapes from within the car and in relation to it, are unequalled. He died in 1992, aged 37. For Wojnarowicz, as for the young of my generation, the car wasn’t a surrogate for sex. It was, however, somewhere to have it, and instrumental in getting it.