An Extremely Complicated Phenomenon of a Very Brief Duration Ending in Destruction: The 20th Century as Slow-motion Car Crash

Essay by Mark Dery for "TechnoMorphica," 1997.

An Extremely Complicated Phenomenon of a Very Brief Duration Ending in Destruction: The 20th Century as Slow-motion Car Crash

TechnoMorphica 1997

"An extremely complicated phenomenon of a very brief duration ending in destruction": The 20th century as slow-motion car crash 1


1. D.M. Severy, quoted in Jacob Kulowski, "Crash Injuries: The Integrated Medical Aspects of Automobile Injuries and Deaths," Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas, 1960, p. vii. 


The millennium is upon us – or, rather, the Millennia, an orthographically challenged but determinedly futuristic new Mazda luxury sedan "so advanced, it required a whole factory." 2 


2. Mazda ad, 1994. 


Print ads for the Millennia harness the snob appeal that is a mainstay of luxury car advertising to Sharper Image technobabble – a tacit acknowledgement of the cyborging of the automobile in recent years, as electronic components have infiltrated braking, steering, and suspension systems.


The automobile industry is maneuvering onto the Bridge to the 21st Century, both literally and figuratively. Rockwell International is developing a "smart car of the future" which navigates by means of a satellite network known as the global positioning system, verbally instructing its driver to "turn left" or "turn right" at appropriate junctures. 3 


3. Calvin Sims, "Putting Space-Age Expertise in the Driver's Seat," The New York Times, May 1, 1994, p. F7. 


Meanwhile, car advertisers have expanded their target demographic to include the gadget-happy nerdeoisie who just can't live without that $48,000 infrared digital camera in Wired's "Fetish" column. A 1993 ad touted the Mazda 929 as "a luxury sedan that thinks like a human – thanks to its advanced 'fuzzy logic' computer," which automatically adjusted cruise control, air conditioning, and ventilation.


The whole of our transition from the Machine Age to the Information Society is writ small in this leap in vehicular evolution. With their microchip implants and post-Modern streamlining, today's RoboCars invoke a sleek, technocratic Tomorrow. At the same time, they embody our growing sense of incompetence, perhaps even irrelevance, in a world overrun by gadgets whose invisibly small, infinitely complex workings have rendered them more or less inscrutable to most of us. "Twenty-five or thirty years ago, when a car broke down, the driver got out, opened the hood, and tried to figure out what had broken and if it could be fixed," notes Gary Chapman. But "no amount of tinkering – will reveal the secrets of a Mercedes Benz 500SL, for example, which reportedly operates with no less than eighteen microprocessors." 4


4. Gary Chapman, "Taming the Computer in Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture," Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1994, p. 307. 


Drawing on a tradition of four-wheeled futurism that is as old as the spaceship tailfins of the '50s and as recent as the 1997 Acura NSK, whose "sweeping lines and forward-poised cockpit" were inspired by the F-16 jet fighter, recent ads have taken the automotive sublime beyond rocket science, into millennial warp drive. In magazine ads, the Toyota Avalon sails through Sistine Chapel clouds, over the tagline, "Experience the tranquillity" – a somewhat ominous enticement, given that the Avalon of Arthurian legend is a hereafter for fallen heroes. But despite the ministrations of overworked ad agencies, the automobile remains a supreme anachronism – a metal box on wheels, propelled by an engine that guzzles fossil fuels and spews out toxic effluvia. In an age consecrated to escape velocity, when scientists have already begun to chafe at the speed-of-light barrier that limits the millions of operations per second a computer can perform, the near-permanent congestion around many big cities dramatizes the contrast between data traffic streaking along the Information Superhighway and rush-hour traffic crawling along real-world freeways. "To the telematic nomad, a car is pure nostalgia, a sign of lost time," argues Marshall Blonsky, improvising in the key of Baudrillard. 5 


5. Marshall Blonsky, "American Mythologies," New York/Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1992, p. 27. 


At a time when cell phones, laptops, and the wiring of the world have made a mockery of time and geography, the automobile is a nagging reminder that we still haven't figured out how to zap our Darwinian luggage, the body, from here to there, as in Star Trek's transporter. The car is a Second Wave totem: ever-present reminder of the assembly line that made industrial modernity possible, Ur-commodity at the heart of post-war consumer culture, essential ingredient in the rise of suburbia and the dereliction of the nation's inner cities, prime mover behind the paving and strip-malling of America. "The road is now like television, violent and tawdry," writes James Howard Kunstler in The Geography of Nowhere. "The landscape it runs through is littered with cartoon buildings and commercial messages – There is little sense of having arrived anywhere, because everyplace looks like noplace in particular." 6


6. James Howard Kunstler, "The Geography of Nowhere," New York, Simon & Schuster, 1993, p. 131. 


The car – specifically, American consumers' insistence on cheap, plentiful gas – was a primary impetus behind the Persian Gulf War of 1991, a self-evident truth acknowledged at both extremes of the political spectrum, in Jello Biafra's rabble-rousing punk rock song, "Die for Oil, Sucker," and in a pugnacious T-shirt popular with the pro-war faction, which read: "Kick their ass, take their gas." 


Although in Madison Avenue myth it sings the song of the open road, conjuring all-American visions of unbounded freedom and ceaseless progress, the automobile has in truth been an implacable foe of progress in the broadest social sense. In its "Futurama" exhibit at the 1939 World's Fair, General Motors supplanted the monorails of pulp SF with teardrop-shaped cars that zipped along fourteen-lane expressways – a science-fiction echo of its covert campaign, then well underway, to derail mass transportation by buying up streetcar lines and scrapping them. 


That said, we can also read the car not as some Second Wave holdover but as a premonition of the slow-motion collision of biology and technology that began with the Industrial Revolution and accelerated with the Information Age (transistor, integrated circuit, microchip, network), skidding out of control in the wired '90s. Now, the point of impact, in which organic and synthetic meet (at least metaphorically, though increasingly literally, in genetic engineering and bionic medicine), seems only split-seconds away. In retrospect, the car seems a likely candidate for the bifurcation between the born and the Borged, a dim presentiment of myoelectric prostheses, teleoperation, and the Holy Grail of cyberpunk SF, the brain jack that would dissolve the membrane between mind and machine altogether.


"When driving a car, one's nervous system becomes linked with the vehicle," writes David Paul in his 1987 essay, "Man a Machine." To Paul, "the car is the driver's body and is directly controlled by the driver's brain and central nervous system. The driver "feels" other objects external to the vehicle and judges distances from the car in a manner crudely analogous to the operations involved in judging one's environment from the physical body – A little over a decade ago, there was talk of an experimental automobile braking system which was to be engaged by simply lifting an eyebrow [–] We appear to be approaching a time when "willing" a machine into action will be relatively common." 7


7. David Paul, "Man a Machine, in Apocalypse Culture," edition Adam Parfrey, New York, Amok Press, 1987, p. 169.


Paul isn't the only one to note the cyborgian nature of car and driver, a relationship immortalized in Enzo Ferrari's maxim that "between human and machine there exists a perfect equation: fifty per cent machine and fifty per cent human." 8 


8. Stephen Bayley, "Sex, Drink and Fast Cars," New York, Pantheon, 1986, p. 34. 


Here is professional driver Lyn St. James on her relationship to her racecar: "You're strapped in so tightly that you end up wearing it. You become one with the car – This is where – I'm in my most powerful form." 9 


9. Jill Lieber, "A Road Less Taken," in Sports Illustrated, May 3, 1993, p. 55. 


Jacques Villeneuve, who won the 1995 Indy 500 in a sensor-studded, microprocessor-enhanced machine that looks more like a cruise missile than a car, seconds her emotion: "You forget that it's a separate thing. You feel everything. You feel what is happening to the car through the steering wheel, your hands, your feet, your butt, and your back [–] Once you get used to it, it feels natural – like walking – " 10 


10. Todd Lappin, "The Ultimate Man-Machine Interface," in Wired, October, 1995, p. 130. 


Even at a mere 110 miles per hour – a veritable crawl compared to the 220-plus speeds clocked by Villeneuve – the car columnist Lesley Hazleton bonded with her Porsche 911: "It was as though I became the car, or the car became me – Road, driver, and machine were blended into a single entity, an unholy union of asphalt and steel and flesh." 11 


11. Lesley Hazleton, "Confessions of a Fast Woman," excerpted in American Way, December 15, 1992, p. 22. 


Ostensibly, Hazleton's "unholy union" will become an everyday reality when Paul's cortex-to-computer link makes drivers like Cowboy – the cyborged road warrior in Walter Jon Williams's SF novel "Hardwired" – a fixture of Tomorrowland's fourteen-lane expressways. For the foreseeable future, however, the Futurist poet F.T. Marinetti's fist-banging declaration that "we will conquer the seemingly unconquerable hostility that separates our human flesh from the metal of motors" remains a posthumanist pipe dream. 12 


12. Quoted by James Mackintosh in "An Ode to Cyborgs," Adbusters, Volume 2, Number 2, Summer/Fall 1992, p. 12. 


The tension generated by this seemingly unresolvable situation seeks release in the car crash, in which human and machine are conjoined, once and for all.


Intriguingly, Jacob Kulowski's 1960 study "Crash Injuries: The Integrated Medical Aspects of Automobile Injuries and Deaths" is tinged with the influence of cybernetics and human engineering, both of which are concerned, to varying degrees, with optimizing the human-machine interface. "I believe it to be true that crash-impact engineering" – elsewhere defined as "the distinctive art of delethalizing automobiles" – "is a mirror image of human engineering," writes Kulowski, who calls human engineering "the field of activities wherein special emphasis is placed on determining optimum mode of interaction between human and machine systems of which he is a part." 13 (italics M.D.) 


13. Kulowski, "Crash Injuries," ibid., pp. xxi, xix, xx. 


The phrase is instructive, presuming as it does that the human is an organic component in a larger technological system – the proverbial "cog in the machine" – rather than a co-evolutionary factor in an environment that is equal parts organism and mechanism. Tellingly, "Crash Injuries" is shadowed by vague forebodings about the fate of the human in an ever more technological landscape, betrayed in Kulowski's tragicomic observation that the "mechanical efficiency of the human body is a refreshing commentary on human's mechanical efficiency and its supremacy over at least some elements of the mechanical environment." 14 


14. Kulowski, "Crash Injuries," ibid., p. 14. 


Elsewhere, he notes that "the epidemic frequency of these accidental injuries and deaths is thought to derive from – stress-strain patterns of behavior peculiar to the age of power and speed in which we live, work and play." 15


15. Kulowski, ibid., p. vii. 


In mythic terms, the car crash – memorably defined by one of Kulowski's sources as "an extremely complicated phenomenon of a very brief duration ending in destruction" – is at once a precognitive dream of our fusion with our machines and a ritualized enactment of the moment when we lose control of them. The escalating number of fiery rollovers, head-on collisions, and multiple-car pileups in action movies in the "Die Hard" and "Speed" molds is obviously a bottom-line concession to the Lowest Common Denominator in a culture afflicted with Attention-Deficit Disorder. But on the more profound level of science-fiction myth, the liberation of special effects from what McLuhan might call the "Gutenbergian" constraints of narratives rooted in human psychology suggests the first stirrings of sedition in the technosphere – the machinic phylum's dream of taking the human out of the loop altogether.


Ironically, the car crash (again, considered mythically, as opposed to matter-of-factually) also recalls us to our humanity. Deadened and decentered by the ceaseless shocks and jolts of consumer culture and the mass media, more and more of us have come to resemble crash test dummies, existentially speaking. In this light, the crash functions as a bracing blow that re-connects us with a material reality that seems to be receding in the cultural rear-view mirror as we spend more and more time on the other side of the computer screen. In Ballard's novel Crash, the narrator confides that the collision in which he killed another driver was "the only real experience I had been through for years. For the first time I was in physical confrontation with my own body, an inexhaustible encyclopaedia of pains and discharges, with the hostile gaze of other people, and with the fact of the dead human." 16


16. J.G. Ballard, "Crash," New York, Vintage Books, 1985, p. 39. 


Inspired in part by "Crash Injuries," "Crash" is among other things a science-fiction response to what the author calls "the most terrifying casualty of the 20th century: the death of affect." In the detached, exact language of the forensic pathologist and the engineer, Ballard shadows forth a "sexuality born from a perverse technology," a new entry for Krafft-Ebing's "Psychopathia Sexualis" written in the sado-mechanical mutilations of Crash's protagonists, "her uterus pierced by the heraldic beak of the manufacturer's medallion, his semen emptying across the luminescent dials that registered forever the last temperature and fuel levels of the engine." 17


17. Ballard, "Crash," ibid., p. 8.


Violent and passionless, beyond ego psychology or social mores, it is a posthuman sexuality "without referentiality and without limits," as Jean Baudrillard puts it in his essay on "Crash." 18 


18. Jean Baudrillard, "Two Essays," in Science-Fiction Studies, 55, Volume 18, Part 3, November, 1991, p. 313. 


Alienated from a body that seems, more and more, like a preindustrial artifact, this new sexuality fetishizes urban desolation, televised disasters, celebrities, and commodities, above all the automobile.


In "Crash," sex happens almost entirely in cars; removed from that context, it loses its appeal. The body is erotic only when it intersects with technology or the built environment, either literally (punctured by door handles, impaled on steering-columns) or figuratively ("the untouched, rectilinear volumes of this building fused in my mind with the contours of her calves and thighs pressed against the vinyl seating"). 19 


19. Ballard, "Crash," ibid., p. 74. 


Here, as in SF films such as "2001" and "Blade Runner," humans are dispassionate mannequins while the technology around them is disconcertingly anthropomorphic: the "grotesque overhang of an instrument panel forced on to a driver's crotch" in an accident conjures a "calibrated act of machine fellatio," while the "elegant aluminized air-vents" in a hospital "beckon as invitingly as the warmest organic orifice." 20 


20. Ballard, ibid., pp. 12, 41. 


In the depraved geometry of "Crash," semen and engine coolant, crotches and chromium instrument heads are congruent. "I believe that organic sex, body against body, skin area against skin area, is becoming no longer possible," said Ballard, in a 1970 interview, "simply because if anything is to have any meaning for us it must take place in terms of the values and experiences of the media landscape." 21 


21. Quoted in Re/Search 8/9: J.G. Ballard, edition Vale and Andrea Juno, San Francisco, Re/Search Publishing, 1984, p. 157. 


"Crash" refracts human psychology through the fractured windshield of postmodern culture, with its flattened affect, celebrity worship, obsessive documentation of every lived moment, and psychotic confusion of subjective experience and filmic fiction. Like David Cronenberg's "Videodrome," Don DeLillo's "White Noise," and Ballard's own "Atrocity Exhibition," the novel represents a poetic attempt to psychoanalyse the cybernetic subjectivity borne of the late 20th century – a century characterized by speed and sensory overload, by the supersession of embodied experience by media simulation, and by the over-arching dynamics of disembodiment and dematerialization. Ballard has long maintained that the psychology of the mainstream novel – introspective and solipsistic, an artifact of the book – is a remnant of the 19th century, and that science fiction is the only literature capable of making sense of the moment we live in. It is a moment whose psychological torque is centripetal, not centrifugal – a moment where "social relationships are no longer as important as the individual's relationship with the technological landscape," which is another way of saying that interpersonal psychology has been displaced by a new, cyborgian psychology: the feedback loop between human and machine. 22 


22. J.G. Ballard, "A User's Guide to the Millennium," New York, Picador USA, 1996, p. 205. 


As "Crash" brilliantly illustrates, the relationship between car and driver offers a convenient metaphor for our present psychological (and, increasingly, physiological) symbiosis with our machines. Moreover, the image of freeway drivers jockeying for position, each sealed in his or her climate-controlled conveyance, reminds us of the increasingly atomized nature of our society, where many among the growing ranks of the self-employed live wired lives straight out of The Net, communing virtually while physically isolated in their electronic cocoons. But, as argued earlier, the car-driver relationship is more than a handy metaphor; it is an ubiquitous example, hidden in plain sight, of our everyday psychological symbiosis with our machines. Incredibly, over a century after the invention of the automobile, we have little, to my knowledge, in the way of systematic studies and rigorous analysis of the relationship between driver and car, or driver and driver: Do other drivers subconsciously perceive our grilles and headlights as our faces– Is being cut off in traffic synonymous with having one's body space invaded, and is a fender- bender unconsciously understood as an assault on one's metallized body– Most importantly, what is the precise psychological mechanism that enables us to "feel" the boundaries of our cars when negotiating tricky maneuvers such as parallel parking– This last question goes to the heart of human-machine interaction. Describing the eerie sensation of "telepresence" experienced when operating a rocket launcher with the aid of virtual-reality goggles that give the operator a weapon's-eye view of the target, machine artist Mark Pauline noted, "The depth perception is incredible, and once you get all the little adjustments right, you just sink into it. You start to imagine your body in different ways just like you do when you're in an isolation tank; it becomes transparent, really, because of the comfort level, which is the key feature in any of these input devices. Once you achieve transparency, interesting things start to occur. It doesn't take much, because the mind is looking for these things, actively trying to meld with anything." 23 


23. "Deus ex Machina," Manuel DeLanda and Mark Pauline interview, 21. C, 3, 1995, p. 52. 


Understanding the phenomena Pauline describes – the seeming mutability of the body image in the mind's eye, our eagerness to project ourselves into our technological interfaces (amply evidenced in the widespread experience of electronic bulletin boards as "places") – will yield a skeleton key to the emerging psychology of the Information Age. We've caught fleeting glimpses of the cybernetic self in McLuhan's "Understanding Media" and Sherry Turkle's "Life on the Screen"; in Fredric Jameson's visions of the "psychic fragmentation," decentering, and death of the subject in "Postmodernism"; and in Scott Bukatman's "Terminal Identity" ("an unmistakably doubled articulation in which we find both the end of the subject and a new subjectivity constructed at the computer station or television screen"). 24 But sustained scrutiny is imperative if we're going to understand the cultural g-force warping and buckling the closed, coherent psyche of humanism and scientific rationalism. 


24. Scott Bukatman, "Terminal Identity The Virtual Subject in Postmodern Science Fiction," Durham, NC, Duke University Press, 1993, p. 9. 


Since few of us use teleoperated rocket-launchers, the car-driver relationship suggests itself as a more suitable locus of inquiry. Obviously, the psychosexual subtext of automobile design and advertising has been exhaustively mined, but that's only the most salient aspect of a territory that has lain largely hidden from view, until now. Here, one of the great remaining terra incognitas of inner space awaits the Sigmund Freud of the driver's-side air bag and the C.G. Jung of the anti-locking brake.


© 1997 Mark Dery / V2_

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