The Road to Nowhere
Draft paper presented to Sydney Lacan Seminar, 17.11.07
The relations between this Homo psychologicus and the machines he uses are very striking, and this is especially so in the case of the motor-car. We get the impression that his relationship to this machine is so very intimate that it is almost as if the two were actually conjoined – its mechanical defects and breakdowns often parallel his neurotic symptoms. Its emotional significance for him comes from the fact that it exteriorizes the protective shell of his ego, as well as the failure of his virility.
(Lacan 1953: 17)
The idea for this paper developed rather mysteriously one night. I was riding my bike to my monthly Lacan seminar. As I speed down the hill an old silver Mercedes came up behind me and the driver started honking his horn. I was cycling at around 40km and hour, ten kilometres and hour less that the speed limit. As I rode, I pointed down to the painted image of the bicycle that was in the middle of the road. Despite this, the motorist continued to honk at me and drive right behind me in an aggressive manner. Eventually he speed past me. When I arrived at the seminar that night, I told my colleagues about this experience of road rage. I then joked with them about how I wanted to write a paper on the psychopathologies of motoring. As a former urban planner and something of a cycling advocate, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about cars and roads, and I’ve my fair share of run-ins with angry motorists. However, when proposing the idea for this paper, I was surprised that my Lacanian colleagues would take me up on it. What could Lacan have to say about motoring? Yet, when I started looking through Lacan’s seminars I was also pleased to find that Lacan spent some time talking about roads and highways. However, as a novice reader of Lacan, I have not attempted to give a theoretically sophisticated account of these seminars. Rather, I have attempted to develop a few loose observations about how we may think about automobiles and roads via the detours of psychoanalysis and popular culture.
The Age of the Automobile
From the etymology, an ‘automobile’ is a machine that provides self-directed mobility. The development of the automobile proved revolutionary in the late nineteenth century, as it provided a means of independent transportation that was neither limited by the use of horses nor the construction of railway lines. However, what is most remarkable about the automobile is that despite being so commonplace in our society, its history is relatively short (indeed, no older than psychoanalysis). While the earliest experiments involving steam powered vehicles can be traced back as early as the 1860s, it was only in the 1890s that people began making the first petrol powered automobiles. At the turn of the century, automobiles were a craze for the well to do. Taken as a hobby for wealthy businessmen, the first automobile clubs developed in Europe and America primarily for the purposes pleasure such as recreational touring and car racing. However, during the course of the twentieth century, the automobile would quickly change from being a privileged commodity to an object of mass appeal and mass consumption.
In the last hundred years, it is estimated that over one billion cars have been manufactured (Urry 2005). The effects of automobiles would alter life in the most profound ways. The automobile would change our conceptions of time, space and subjectivity. In affluent societies, the automobile has become essential for both work and leisure. The automobile has made it increasingly possible for us ‘take our own roads’ in life. In this sense, the automobile encompasses many of the liberal values of freedom and individuality. The automobile has changed the surface of the earth through the development of highways and roads. This interconnecting of places has deeply affected many traditional forms of social, cultural and economic interaction. The automobile has made it possible for many people to adopt new forms of suburban life and to participate car based consumption. Not only have automobiles generated new freedoms to move to different places, they have also changed our understanding of ‘place’ though the production of autoscapes (Auge 1995). For instance, it is estimated that within the city of Los Angeles, approximately one half of all space is dedicated to car-based activities. We live in what the sociologist John Urry (2005) has called ‘societies of automobility’. For most of us, our patterns of everyday life are totally dependent on us being car drivers. For instance, in an automotive society such as Australia, it is estimated that 78% of persons over the age of 18 use a private motor vehicle as their primary mode of transport (ABS 2003). Typically, those who are without automobility are often the most marginalised member of our society, including the young, the old and the poor.
The development of the automobile has radically changed contemporary societies, however these effects would have eluded the founded of psychoanalysis. As we know from many of his writings, Freud was a man who caught trains; indeed he held a phobia of catching trains (Berger 2000: 156). However, during the last decades of Freud’s life, modern societies would increasingly become automotive societies. However, when Lacan began his psychoanalytic seminars, the ‘Golden Age’ of the automobile had truly begun. Lacan often refers to the road, the highway, and detours within his psychoanalytic theory (Lacan 1988:80-81, 232; 1993: 290-294). Furthermore, unlike many other ‘post-Freudian’ thinkers, Lacan was also concerned with another kind of ‘drive’ – the Freudian drive – that he regarded as a fundamental concept [Grudbegriff] of psychoanalysis (Lacan 1981: 162). These distinct vantage points suggest that Lacan could engender an more considered analysis of automobility. More generally, Todd McGowen (2004:2) has argued that Lacan’s interest in desire and pleasure makes him an exemplary theorist of modern consumer cultures in which one’s ‘only duty seems to consist in enjoying oneself as much as possible’.
The Car as signifier
Automobiles are fascinating objects because of their intimacy with subjectivity. In a most banal way, it is worth noting that in most industrialised societies, it is the driver’s license that functions as our primary source of identification. The drivers licence is not only a marker of automobility it also functions as a more general signifier of a freedom and adulthood. According to the philosopher, Jean Baudrillard (1996:67) ‘the car… [is] endowed with a formal freedom of great intensity’. To this extent, the car materialises newfound freedoms. By allowing for greater mobility and control over the environment, the car can signify a movement away from the home-space, and thus it breaks the spatial/maternal relationship between the home and parental control. The car allows one to choose one’s own roads in life, to become a subject, to experience different places, and to be with different people. For such reasons, the car has developed an almost mythical quality within popular culture. In cinema, cars have a privileged position within the cinematic imagination. Indeed, the ‘road movie’ has become an established genre in itself. In literature, novels such as Kerouac’s On the Road present the act of driving across America as the quintessential freedom of the counter-cultural generation. Furthermore, songs about roads, cars and highways have become celebrated themes within popular music. Some of the most well known songs include Willie Nelson’s ‘On the Road Again’, John Denver’s ‘Take Me Home, Country Roads’, and the Beatles ‘Drive my car’.
Cars not only signify a certain desire to be mobile, they're also an important as a particular space of personal privacy. The car can be like a first ‘home’, in that it gives one a taste for a more exclusive privacy in their life. It is perhaps, unsurprising that automobility is also connected with nascent sexuality. The car has become a valorised site of privacy and the sexual encounter. Consider, for instance they lyrics of The Beatles’ ‘Back seat of my car’:
Speed along the highway, honey I want it my way…But listen to her daddy's song, makin' love is wrong Were just busy ridin', sitting [in]the back seat of my car
Cars are places for romantic interludes and sexual adventures. The legally age to drive usual occurs at roughly the same time as one is legally allowed to have sex. Hence, sex and driving have become two of the way to identify as fully realised subjects. This, of course is the central theme of the popular musical and film Grease (Paramount Pictures, 1978). Set in the idyllic America of the 1950s, the film focuses on the lives to two groups of late adolescents. A gang of guys called the T-Birds and their friends the Pink Ladies. The film focuses on the relationship between Danny Zuko and Sandra Dee as they negotiate the complex landscape of love, dating and sexual relations. Interestingly, within the film, the places of social interaction that are outside of Rydell Highschool, are almost exclusively within the autoscapes of the Frosty Palace Burger shop, the Drive-in Theatre and the illicit car racing street known as the Thunder Road. For the young men in the film, driving a car is a means to identify as powerful and sexual subjects. Hence, in the famous musical scene – ‘Grease lightning’ – we find that the car is rather amusingly positioned as a fantasy object of sexual enjoyment.
Why this car is automatic
Why it's grease lightning (Grease lightning)
We'll get some overhead lifters
and some four barrel quads, oh yeah
(Keep talking whoa keep talking)
A fuel injection cut-off and chrome plated rods, oh yeah
(I'll get the money I'll kill to get the money)
With a four speed on the floor they'll be waiting
at the door You know that ain't no shit we'll be getting lots of tit
In Grease Lightning
Go, go, go, go, go, go, go, go, go, go
Go grease lightning you're burning up the quarter mile
(Grease lightning go grease lightning)
Go grease lightning you're coasting through the heat lap
trial You are supreme the chicks'll cream for grease lightning
Go, go, go, go, go, go, go, go, go, go
Purple French tail lights and thirty inch fins, oh yeah
A Palomino dashboard and duel muffler twins, oh
yeah With new pistons, plugs, and shocks I can get off my rocks
You know that I ain't bragging she's a real pussy wagon
For these young men, the ‘Grease lighting’ functions as an ‘object cause’ of desire. Irrespective of how the car may appear in its fragmented actuality, the car stands in as the as the most desirable of all objects. It is perhaps with some irony however, that the T-birds obsession with cars appears to have a negative effect on women. As the character of Rizz says to Sandra: ‘Unless you’ve got wheels and a motor, they won’t even know that you exist’. From films such as Grease, we can see how automobiles have become essential agents in enacting a certain form autonomy and masculinity. According to Sheller (2003:5);
Cars enter into a libidinal economy as objects of desire to be collected… washed and worshipped. Whether phallic or feminised, the car materialises personality in the ego-formations of the drive as a competent, powerful, able, and sexually desirable.
Indeed the concept of the car being a phallic ‘hotrod’ illustrates the most literal conception of the car as source of auto-erotic pleasure. The feminised construction of the car as a ‘she’ suggests that the car is personified as an ideal partner – a fantasy women [La Femme] – who gives man semblances of phallic completion.
Immobility as symbolic castration
For many people (especially young men), a lack of ‘automobility’ can be equated with a kind of ‘symbolic castration’. A loss of automobility can be deeply traumatic in as much as it excludes one from participating in the dominant modalities of car-based ways of life. Immobility can be likened to being a fragmented subject. For instance, when Lacan describes the emergence of subjectivity in the mirror-stage, the subject is caught between having an initial sense of mastery while also being ‘sunk in motor incapacity and nursling dependence’ (Lacan 1977:2). From this well known phrase, we can see that there something about a sense of motor capacity, voluntary movement and independence that is associated with the scripting of subjectivity. Hence, at the cultural level, we could argue that the car is a cherished object precisely because it appeals to our desire for motor capacity, voluntary movement and mastery. Like the excited child who walks for the first time, the adolescent driver also finds joy in the initial act of driving, which allows him/herself to experience the world anew. Therefore, it is perhaps this deeply affective dimension of driving that appeals to our conception of subjectivity. Furthermore, despite more knowledge of the vicissitudes of auto-based societies (oil wars, climate change, pollution), we remain deeply attached to cars.
From a psychoanalytic perspective, we may argue that the motorcar has become our primary symbol of subjectivity because it provides us with a sense of mastery as well as being symbolically coded as an object that represents maturity and sexual desirability. For instance, it is not a coincidence that a lack of automobility was constructed as a subplot within the film 40 year old virgin. In this film, we meet Andy Stitzer who is an eccentric. From the opening scene of the film, we come to learn that Andy’s main interest include collecting toy action figures, video games and riding his bicycle.
Opening scene: [Andy walks out of his apartment with his bicycle on his way to work. He begins a conversation with his elderly neighbours, 1:50mins] Joe: Hey Andy, what’s up dude
Andy: Hey Joe, hey Sarah, how ya doing
Joe: When you gonna get a car?
Andy: Hey, why don’t you get a car?
Joe: I can’t afford it
Andy: Ha…, So are we still on for Survivor tomorrow night?
Joe: Sure are.
Andy: Ok. I’ll see you at 7.
[Andy leaves on his bike, Joe turns to Sarah]
Joe: Man, that boy needs to get laid.
Sarah: Tell me something I didn’t already know.
Despite appearing just a little odd, what we come to learn in the film is that Andy is a 40 year old virgin. Andy’s pleasures in life (toys, computer games, and bicycles) could be regarded as a form of infantile sexuality. It is almost as though Andy has never been castrated or had to struggle to identify as a sexed being. That is of course, until his workmates find out his secrete, much to his humiliation. The drama of the film progresses as Andy struggles to change and finally meet women. This involves a process of re-education whereby his friends have to teach him about what women expects to see in a man. This includes getting rid of his infantile habits such as playing with toys and riding his bicycle. For instance, in the scene in which Andy invites Trish on a date, we can see how a lack of automobility is embarrassingly tied to his sense of inadequacy as a masculine subject.
[Andy calls Trish on the phone: 105:54mins]
Andy: Hi, is that Trish?
Andy: [bumbling] Hey, hi, hello, is that Trish?
Trish: [concerned] Whose calling please?
Andy: This is Andy.
Trish: Oh, hi Andy, how you doing?
Andy: I’m doing great… I also was just calling to call and see what night you want to go out?
Trish: I’m actually free tonight.
Andy: [bumbling] Arhh, I was thinking may be this weekend, but that good. Ok.
Trish: Oh great. Ok what time do you wanna pick me up?
Andy: [bumbling] Arhhh, arhh… lets see,
um…that’s actually kind of a problem because I ride a bike
Trish: That cool,are you kidding me, I love getting on the back of a motorcycle, my boyfriend in collage drove a motorcycle, so..
Andy: Yeah, I bet that was cool, I ride a bike… [stutter] bike… bicycle.
Trish: [Surprised] Ohh…
Later in the film, Andy enters into a relationship with Trish and he also learns to drive a car. In doing so, he appears to be identifying as a more mature, ‘masculine’ and desirable subject.
While the relationship between cars and of phallic signification may seem a little too obvious and overstated, we can also see that cars dwell within different social imaginaries and complex economies of desire. The immense diversity of automotive manufacturing means that cars can provide different subjects with a multitude of symbolic identifications. For instance, recently I came across this advertisement for the Land Rover Discovery 3 Four Wheel Drive.
In this advertisement, we are introduced to Veronica White, who identifies as a corporate advisor from Monday to Friday and a ‘horse mum’ on weekends. Veronica drives between Sydney and her 100 acre farm in the Southern Highlands. With her, she takes her children Felicity and Elliot and their pony ‘Nugget”. Whether, ironically intended or not, Veronica and her 4WD are framed by a number of floating signifiers that articulate the nature of her life and lifestyle. She’s a ‘no nonsense’, ‘southern highlands’ women who ‘speaks her mind’. She drives ‘3000km a month’ and admires her 4WD for its ‘safe towing’ capacity. According to Veronica “the [Land Rover] Discovery is not a dinky toy 4WD… it’s a real working vehicle… [and] we always feel safe in it…’. Like Veronica’s own complex set of symbolic identifications, the 4WD acts as a master signifier that magically conjoins her diverse identifications. Both she and the car are represented as having phallic power and as well as being maternal and caring. According to the final line of the advisement: [the Land Rover Discovery is] ‘All the cars you need for all the lives you live’. In this sense, Veronica’s subjectivity has been ‘sutured’ into the steel body of the car.
Drive and Jouissance
So far in this paper, I have spoken about how cars may stand-in as powerful signifiers of subjectivity. However, in doing so, I have neglected to mention the ways in which cars may effect the body with particulars type of enjoyment (jouissance). It is important to note that the car is not just an object-thing, but an object that operates or works within a broader circuit of automobility. The car and road system are two different sides of the same coin. At the most basic level, the velocity of driving involves certain forms of pleasure. For instance, it is often through the body of the car, that we come to feel the world in particular ways. The car affects the body through sound, smell and vibration. Moreso, the car engenders a scopic encounter with a landscape and speed that can be a source of visual pleasure (for instance, driving at high speeds can involve a heightened sense of pleasure mixed with fear). As a model of relating to the world, driving can embody a sense of mastery and autonomy over the landscape. Hence, driving, or ‘being driven’ can generate a sense of force and purpose in ones life. Driving, as such, is about more than getting to ones destination. Driving is a pleasure in itself. The connection between movement and pleasure is one that has not been developed that much within psychoanalysis. However, Freud has mentioned in his Three Essays on Sexuality (1905/1977, p121), that movement can produce bodily excitement in both active (romping) as well as passive forms (such as being rocked or railway travel). In relation to the car, the active pleasure of speeding along the open road is one that has been much romanticised with contemporary culture. Conversely, having ones mobility impeded by traffic can generate all sorts of aggression and rage (as I found with my friend in the silver Mercedes).
The relationship between movement and enjoyment is also an important theme within Ridley Scott’s film Thelma and Louise (MGM, 1991). In this film, the main characters, Thelma and Louise, experience their lives as ones involving the domination and control from their unloving husbands. In an attempt to escape this domination, the two decide to have some fun and take a road trip without telling their husbands. Seated within Louise’s most desirable 1966 T-Bird convertible, their movement along the highway signifies a powerful attempt to find freedom and enjoyment by enacting the active position of the driver. However, after Louise shoots a man for attempting to rape Thelma, the film suddenly changes into the genre ‘outlaw’ road movie. Thelma and Louise are not only on the run from their husbands, but the Law in general. The perilous speeds at which they drive across the desert reveal a pleasure that can be found in going beyond the ‘speed limits’ and in attempting to evade the law. When Thelma and Louise are finally trapped by the police at the ‘dead end’ of the road, the two decide not to ‘give up’ but to ‘keep going’ and drive on to their death.
Thelma’s acceleration over the cliff is a strange and climatic moment within the film. Indeed, the drive into the abyss presents us with a pleasure that goes beyond any care for life itself. Perhaps this scene clearly expresses what is at stake in the excessive nature of the Freudian death drive? For Lacan, the death drive is not an innate biological death wish, but a willingness to sacrifice anything and everything for some particular idea or ‘Thing’ that constitutes enjoyment (McGowan 2004:5). The paradoxical nature of the death drive in Thelma and Louise is that the drive to ‘freedom’ finds its conclusion in death.
Whether Thelma and Louise should be regarded as a story of feminist liberation or a pseudo-feminist valorisation of masochism is difficult to answer. However, what interests me about the film is the way it articulates how life is represented in the act of driving and through a passage of detours. According to Lacan, the libidinal drive also undertakes its own adventures along what he calls ‘the roads of life’. However, while the roads of life may lead eventually to death, according to Lacan (1988:2) ‘we cannot find death along any old road’. The drive, as such, is an endless detour that passes along the road to nowhere.
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