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If the automobile industry spends more than twice as much for advertising as the next industry on the list, we might well conclude that the car is at least as much of an ideological menace as it is a physical one.
The havoc the automobile wreaks as a more or less controlled killing machine is so theatrically excessive that its putative mandate, moving folks from A to B, takes a back seat to its ghost task of culling. Few people get up in the morning thinking they’d like to go cancer up some cyclists, splatter some neighbors’ children, or dronefuck the weddings of people in distant lands who wear funny headgear. They have to be enticed into it. Enter ideology and its various manservants: advertising, lobbying, education?a list rather more extensive than we could exhaust here.
Cars. Aren’t they something? Sexy contours of plastiform into which we shoehorn our woe and manflesh. Aren’t they always swinging towards us in some advertisement, women’s legs springing out of their doors like kickstands supporting some impossibly perilous venture? And isn’t the crash our most vibrant ritual as a culture, bringing us together, really together, extruding our flesh through our carapaces and mingling us joint and sinew and blood?
As you might imagine, we here at the always ungoogleable City Without Cars and its related disorganizations were in fine fettle the other evening for going off to the campus to hear Montrealers Bianca Mugyenyi and Yves Engler tell us about their Stop Signs (Cars and Capitalism) book and its accompanying psychogeographical quest: to get around the continent on a road trip without an automobile. Get in on the action while you can with their promo tour this month. For my part, I hardly heckled anyone during the whole evening. I was diverted by the blond in back who said she needed a car to get between university teaching gigs, and who said she’d also been known to live in her van, though she was beautiful enough to call the claim into question. I went back to investigate. She told me stories about portapotties flying at her windshield and, more in tune with my wild mood, about her man’s ex who’s worth a million dollars but still sucks bloodcash out of the man (in capitalist terms, out of the shared man). She talked, and poems of shares and stocks and stockings seethed in my brainpan. Funny how I started out thinking about cars and I ended up in capital, like the thing the punishment’s named after. All I wanted was beauty and truth. And now look.
The bit about the automobile industry spending twice as much on advertising as the next industry I got from Yves Engler, and from Bianca Mugyenyi the fact that April 1st is auto freedom day (a phrase that hardly needs more capitalization), the point at which the average American can start paying himself or his banker instead of his car. And so on. For every new vehicle sold, $630’s spent on advertising, I hear in the talk and find in the book. Between 2002 and 2006, 474 U.S. children died after being backed over by a car. Each fact more astonishing and appalling than the last. Do we read these things, hear these talks, for their freak value, to assure ourselves that everything’s okay in the sense that our hunch that everyone’s crazy can be verified with data? Mugyenyi and Engler’ve got the data, that’s for sure. A third to a half of all city space is associated with parking. For an entire year men with smashing equipment have been abandoning all hope in the parking garage across the street from my house, working Frodo’s hours with Sisyphean hopes, merely to enhance the parking experience. Mugyenyi and Engler put the data-name to that caper.
Mugyenyi’s story of how in high school the competition for how hot you were was correlated to what you drove?Jaguar was the hottest?brings the war home and leaves me flopping between bathos and pathos. And thinking about women, and what they want us to drive.
According to one study, half the energy a car uses is in its production and destruction phases. If so, then bully for CP’s own Cockburn, not to mention my dad, who drive the old classics. My dad’s Chevy Caprice V8 comes and urinates Texas tea all over our front stones every summer, yet apparently my dad’s still beating out these twerps with Smart Cars.
Oh, what can I tell you that’s not everything, that’s not carry me away to Babylon and require of us a song? Those scumbags at McMaster University near here have a sixty million dollar contract with GM, Yves tells us. Of course they do. Didn’t you almost know that already? Was there something about all my years of losing heart in the university that my longtime readers missed, some paycheck that didn’t seep blood and shit all over me as I tried to cash it? “Get a job,” my friend at McMaster said to me once, pocketing his early tenure letter to his right haunch with a deftness that left me alone. And now my nephew’s dead and under the sod and what the fuck is all our striving for? Some Crown Victoria crowns them and bears them all away. And there is nothing more to say. And then our women lose heart, too, and we fault them hardly at all for we know of their pain, know how they were formed in capital and for fleshing out the scrub side of Subarus, and how they too have had dreams and yet here’s capital looming and grinding like a glacier. Selah.
Stop Signs is more than the sum of its impressive array of facts. It’s a journey, a tale, a wallow, and it has its poetry and pleasures. When I was the age of Mugyenyi and Engler, I lived out there on the roads of America, back in the days when you could travel on your thumb like a witch on a stick, and it’s a delight to see these two in the book out and about with just a bit of grit. Mugyenyi brings a Ugandan anthropological accent to Peoria and points south, but my favorite so far is Engler’s astonished and wide-eyed consideration of a true bit of Americana: a five-pound pie available at Walmart. No one’s going to buy one of those without a car, he points out.
At one point in the evening, Engler made the point that the two billion people who don’t drive, the people at the very bottom, have different interests than those who do. I couldn’t help but wonder how many of those of us who are the three billion who don’t vote, who don’t stroke the system by telling it how important it is, are also in that two billion. Also?let me know when this gets too insistent?what part our women play in all this. Well, Sven diagrams have always seemed a little sexy to me, if you’ll excuse a little necessary obliqueness.
I’ll be bringing you bits and quotes from Stop Signs in the next few months, so we don’t have to rush here to cram it all in. Good stuff. Buy it, steal it, or?as I did?beg for it.
David Ker Thomson’s got Stop Signs on his bedside table. Bianca Mugyenyi and Yves Engler, Stop Signs: Cars and Capitalism on the Road to Economic, Social, and Economic Decay (Red Publishing, 2011). Mugyenyi and Engler’ll be in New York this weekend. Check out the full U.S. tour here.