Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Autonomobility

In yesterday’s blog I referred to Georges Bataille’s notion of “expenditure,” exploring the implications of Bataille’s observation that human cultures engage in wasteful, non-productive expenditure, performing unacknowledged sacrifices to shared cultural values that are nonetheless ignored, degraded, or repressed. As an example of this repressed loss and wasteful expenditure, consider the roughly 43,000 deaths, referred to as “accidents,” that occur each year on American highways—unacknowledged sacrifices to the freedom of the highway, to the deeply held value Americans call the open road. According to statistics available through the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), traffic deaths on national highways are remarkably consistent from year to year. According to the NHTSA, for the years 2002-2006, fatalities on American highways were as follows:

2006: 42,642
2005: 43,510
2004: 42,836
2003: 42,884
2002: 43,005
Average for period 2002-06: 42,975

A remarkably stable statistical figure (and hence not subject to huge fluctuation—the range from highest to lowest over the five-year period listed above is only 868) Americans are content to sacrifice 43,000 people a year in order to maintain the value that Gregory Ulmer, in his article “Abject Monumentality” (Lusitania 1, 1993) describes as “the ability to go anywhere, anytime.” He goes on to say that this cultural value, to go where we want, when we want, at anytime we want, is what we

actually believe in and are willing to die for. As such, it provides the basis for coherence in the community, and is a secularized equivalent of the roughly 5,000 individuals who were sacrificed at the wedding of the Aztec leader, Moctezuma in [the fifteenth-century]. (“Abject Monumentality” 11)

Although called “traffic accidents,” these deaths are hardly anomalous. The harsh fact is, 43,000 Americans are born each year condemned to inherit an accursed share, destined to die in honor of the value that Katie Mills, in her book The Road Story and the Rebel (Southern Illinois University Press, 2006) calls the deeply held American value of “automobility,” a value that I prefer to name by the neologism autonomobility, a portmanteau containing the words “automobile,” “autonomy,” and “mobility.”

As a follow-up to yesterday’s blog, consider the deaths of popular musicians that have occurred by means of the automobile—Johnny Horton, Harry Chapin, Eddie Cochran, Marc Bolan (T. Rex)—and those whose careers were irreparably damaged because of a car crash, for instance, Carl Perkins, Gene Vincent, and Allen Collins (guitarist for Lynyrd Skynyrd) to name a few (and although she died in plane crash, Patsy Cline was earlier severely injured in a car crash, forcing her to wear a wig low on her forehead to cover the huge scar caused by her head slamming into the windshield). The picture above is a photo taken at the scene of James Dean’s fatal car crash in 1955, but one should also consider the deaths of Judy Tyler (Elvis’s co-star in Jailhouse Rock), Soledad Miranda, Princess Diana, Princess Grace (Grace Kelly), Jayne Mansfield, Lisa Lopes, Albert Camus, Jackson Pollock, Margaret Mitchell, Isadora Duncan, Sam Kinison, author David Halberstam, race car driver Dale Earnhardt, Sr., and General George S. Patton. All of these individuals, although celebrities, died in honor of the deeply held value we believe in, that of autonomobility. We should not degrade their deaths by calling them "accidents," but rather sacrifices in honor of a way of life.

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