Monday, September 8, 2014

Symbolic Reclassification and Transport Vehicles

I have been reading with great fascination the newly published volume, “Vehicles: Cars, Canoes and other Metaphors of Moral Imagination” (edited by David Lipset and Richard Handler, Beghahn, 2014).

 I have an essay in the volume on African American automotive symbolism, concentrating on the Lincoln Town car used on and off since 2005 in an annual lynching reenactment at Moore’s Ford, Georgia.  Other chapters explore Melanesian canoes, reconstructed vintage military aircraft, modern American traffic rules,  East Asian automotive symbolism, Mexican-American low-riders, and so forth.

 A broad argument running through the various essays is that physical vehicles (cars, ships, airplanes, etc.) often function as sign vehicles that are particularly good to think with about the enigmatic moral journeys of persons and communities.  In the volume’s introduction David Lipset suggests that metaphors in general, and metaphors of geospatial movement in particular, often emerge out of lacunae, gulfs, or crises in our moral imagination, generated by ethical or cultural conundrums that do not lend themselves to easy formulations in conventional linguistic terms.  To use a geospatial image, metaphorically-rich vehicles, in effect, help actors “bridge” different levels of domains of experience, including distinct spatio-temporal zones or contrasting moral viewpoints.

The argument could be cast in term of Victor Turner’s well-known framework in his “Planes of Classification in a Ritual of Life and Death” essay (The Ritual Process, 1969).  Highly charged symbolic forms are deployed initially to dramatize the various contradictory poles of the Ndembu social world (most notably the central tension between matrilineal descent and viirlocal residence) and then move participants towards shared images of unification, transcending or redressing (at least within the ritual arena) those pervasive social structural tensions  Perhaps because vehicles so often function as prosthetic extensions of human bodies, and afford so many of the symbolic dichotomies associated with bodily experience (energized/depleted, proceeding/reversing, mobile/immobile, forward/back, inside/outside, above/below, etc.) they often encapsulate, dramatize, or illuminate a great range of human ethical puzzles encountered in our singular and collective “movement” through life and through history.

One such “bridging” process often enabled by vehicles is the moral journey from particularistic to universalizing orientations.  In my essay in the volume, I concentrate on a 1977 Lincoln Town car, repeatedly used by African American reenactors to represent a much older sedan used in a 1946 mass lynching.  The car’s interstitial status, being “old” but not yet entirely antique, is salient to the overall ethical impulse of the reenactment, which highlights the reenactors’ point that racial violence was not limited to the era of  de jure Jim Crow but remains an ever-present threat to persons of color, who are still at times transported to scenes of death or torture in cars or unfairly pulled over for “driving while black.”  Nightmarish scenarios of racialized subjection associated with automobiles were once again highlighted on August 9 in Ferguson, Missouri, when Michael Brown’s death was immediately preceded by his encounter with a police officer behind the wheel of a cruiser. 

In the modern Moore’s Ford lynching reenactment, the notorious mechanical unreliability of the Town Car helps to evoke broader themes of precarity and unpredictability in the lives of African Americans in the rural South. More broadly, the car (not insignificantly ambushed on a bridge crossing the river along which the occupants were brutally murdered by the Klan) comes, over the course of the reenactment, to signify much more general human predicaments, by no means limited to African Americans, of grief and solace, loss and redemption, complicity and the promise of forgiveness, and difference and unity.

Lipset notes in his introduction the extraordinary symbolic density of train cars in representations of the Holocaust. (This motif is brilliantly explored, I might note, by Oren Baruch Stier., in his “Different Trains: Holocaust Artifacts and the Ideologies of Remembrance. “Holocaust and Genocide Studies, Vol. 19, no. 1 (2005): 81-106.)   In this light, it occurs to me that the capacity of a vehicle to foreground the ethical movement from particularism to universalism is highlighted in one of the most famous poetic meditations on the Holocaust, authored by my late cousin Dan Pagis. Entitled  “Lines written in pencil within a sealed railroad car,” the short poem appears to be inspired by Dan’s own experience, when he, his grandparents, and fellow Jews from Radautz, Bukovina, were transported in October 1941 in sealed railroad cars to the killing fields of Transnistria:

Here in this box car
I, Eve
mother of Abel
If you see my other son Cain
son of Adam
Tell him that I

The singular box car, within which Dan and his grandparents were imprisoned and transported, comes in the course of the text to signify all the trains in which the Jewish multitudes were transported to the camps. Beyond that, the poem is structured so as to metamorphose the train car into a universal arena of human betrayal, loss, and grief. The fatally enclosed car, inhabited by the Mother of us all, presents in microcosm the universal and foundational scenario of fratricide, east of Eden, staining the First Family and all its descendants.  The phrase through which Cain is referred to,  ben Adam, “Son of Adam,” refers not only to the specific child of the First Man, but to all of humanity. The text simultaneously is painfully truncated (the final word “I” can be read as the final word written by the dying mother)) and circular (the “I” can be read as the start of next iteration of the poem, going back to the beginning, in an eternal cycle).  This poetic circularity perhaps evokes the circular motion and rhythm of train wheels, bearing us all inexorably towards our fate.  WIthin the train that is the eternal tomb (as well, perhaps, an eternal womb), the voice of the Dead is both singular (the solitary mother “Eva”) and multitudinous, speaking for all, from Abel onwards, who died unjustly and unwitnessed. 

As Oren Stier notes in his essay, it is a striking irony that Pagis’ universalizing poem of human cruelty and loss has been re-appropriated into a particularist, nationalist framework at Yad Vashem, where it has become attached to the Moshe Safdie Transport Memorial, consisting of an actual Holocaust-era railcar, positioned on a replicated half-exploded bridge The Safdie installation is usually taken to imply that the necessary telos of Jewish suffering and history is the modern nation-state of Israel.  Thus, the poetic train created by Pagis, a co-founder of Peace Now who was committed to peaceful coexistence among Jews and Palestinians, is transmogrified into a nationalist vehicle in which the terminus of Jewish history is the establishment of a Jewish state. 

This process of ideological repositioning alerts us to another striking aspect of the symbolic work to which transport vehicles may be put: they can be both illuminating and repressive of human memory, in the service of varied political agendas.  In the Vehicles volume, Kent Wayland notes that in lovingly refurbishing vintage World War II combat airplanes (“warbirds”), figured as female objects of desire, airplane restorers are able in most instances to disavow the histories of mass violence and terror in which these vehicles were implicated.  Something comparable seems to be going on in the case analyzed in the volume by Marko Zivkovic, unpacking the modern Serbian nostalgia for the  little Yugoslav Fica car.  As he carefully demonstrates  the constant jury-rigging of these mechanically fickle automobiles, a practice that demands ingenious improvisation and neighborly collaboration, evokes for Serbian raconteurs the lost moral economy of pre-breakup Yugoslavia.  To work or gaze upon a Fica brings a lump in the throat, a longing for a former, idealized “state” of being. In this sense, each act restoring an individual Fica car is generalized, for modern Serbians, to a collective restoration of  shared moral “innocence.”  Although I am not sure if Marko would agree with this line of interpretation, it seems to me that  the Fica could be read as implicated in widespread Serbian glossing over of genocidal violence of the early 1990s. The “little vehicle that makes us cry” in this sense might be seen as a sign-vehicle that displaces or represses full affective responses to Serbian complicity in the war crimes and ethnic cleansing that followed the break-up of Yugoslavia.

In her essay on cars and corruption in contemporary China, Beth Notar unpacks another process of ideological repositioning through transport vehicles. Upwardly mobile Chinese young men at times will playfully refer to driving expensive cars through the phrase, “Let’s go be corrupt.” At one level, the phrase is resonant with the widespread association in contemporary China between cars and the pervasive corruption of the Chinese elite.  At the same time, Notar suggests, the phrase may tend to dilute popular critique of official kleptocracy, implying in effect a common humanity between the upper crust and the aspirant middle class. The road, while a highly marked arena of class differentiation in practice, in such linguistic usages is partially recast as a ludic space of fantasized commonality and shared acquisitiveness.

Several essays in the volume call our attention to the gender politics embedded in transport vehicles, which become ‘good to think’ with about gender-based hierarchies and injustice, from multiple, often opposed, perspectives.  Wayland, for example,  situates his readings of eroticized nose cone art on restored military aircraft in terms of present-day gendered contests in American society, all the more so given that the maintenance hanger is nearly always constituted as a homosocial “retreat from women” by the male restorers.  Technological mastery over the restored airplane is part and parcel, Wayland argues, of the male restorers’ hopes and fantasies of a dominant and partially autonomous male sphere of social action. 

In turn, in his overview of gender metaphors and cognitive schemas in contemporary Japanese driving practices,  Joshua Hotaka Roth argues that the structural opposition between male-coded sports cars and female-coded small “K cars” both reinforces conventional gender hierarchies while opening up possible avenues for implicitly critiquing and subverting male ideological dominance.

In light of Wayland and Roth’s pieces, I found myself wondering about the gender politics embedded in the Murik (Papua New Guinea) canoes analyzed by David Lipset in the book’s opening chapter.  Canoes and their symbolic transformations, Lipset demonstrates, are for male Murik deeply embedded in struggles for social and moral mastery over potential human enemies and over other more intangible loci of vulnerability. I would be most interested to learn if Murik women, who evidently also use canoes extensively, experience alternate gendered schemata in these symbolically-elaborate aquatic vehicles. Do they, for example, sense in canoes generative images of generalized reciprocity rather than assertive mastery? Do they ever ridicule male commitments to their canoes?

Richard Handler’s chapter on modern traffic rules calls our attention to the highly political dimensions of seemingly neutral and rationalist modern “rules of the road.”  He concludes the essay with a discussion of the imposition of modern Anglo models of the road in colonial New Guinea, which effectively constituted increasingly segmented social groups arrayed alongside roads through which government cars and commercial vehicles could pass without the mediation of indigenous networks of alliance and kin-based exchange transactions. Most of the essay is devoted to excavating the history of U.S. traffic rules, including the rising hegemony of automobiles over pedestrians within a free market cultural model of the roadway.  Handler notes that the formal co-equality of all motorized vehicles within this system is largely negated or belied  by economic imperatives, in which, among other things, passenger vehicles are nearly always, in practice, subordinated to commercial vehicles, especially tractor-trailers. 

Reading Handler’s essay in conjunction with Ben Chappell’s chapter on the political aesthetics of Mexican American low rider cars, I found myself wondering about the racialized history of North American rules of the road. Chappell argues that the lowrider aesthetic often highlights ambivalence towards mainstream (Anglo-dominated) public space centered on road networks, to which drivers from the urban barrio make claims to, even as they assertively differentiate themselves from a normative middle class Anglo motorized presentation of self. In a similar vein, I note in my chapter that roadways are prime sites of ethical double consciousness for persons of color in the U.S;  roads and motor vehicles have long figured prominently in African American moral imaginations as sites of liberation and terror, celebrated for enabling creative self-refashioning and feared for potential violence at the hands of white authorities and vigilantes in cars or at roadblocks.  As James Loewen exhaustively documents in his book “Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism” (New Press, 2005) well into the 1960s, the roadside frontiers of hundreds (perhaps thousands) of  American towns were marked by signs warning African American motorists not to enter after dark.

Once again, the tragic recent events in Ferguson, Missouri highlight a broader, contested ideological and racialized history swirling around persons, roads and motor vehicles. For all the debated aspects of the narrative, all agree that the white police officer in his cruiser initially ordered the two young African American men off of the street on which they had been walking, that the officer shot Michael Brown repeatedly on the roadway, and that Brown’s bleeding body was left in public view on the road for a considerable period of time. Significantly, mass public protests centered on pedestrians reclaiming the streets of Ferguson (refusing to confine themselves to sidewalks) in the face of militarized police motor vehicles seeking to control the same road surfaces.   Wherever one stands on the specific details of just what happened on this patch of roadway, all seem to find in the shooting and subsequent protests a highly-resonant morality tale of race, power and justice in American society. Once again, a specific transport vehicle and transport zone  (in this instance, the police cruiser driven by the white officer and an associated short stretch of road) have been generalized to macrocosmic dimensions, evoking a collective crisis that haunts our moral imaginations.

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