Peter Dahlgren

The Automobile

Professor of Media and Communication, Lund University

Today it is utterly impossible to imagine modern society without the automobile. It first appeared at the end of the 19th century, and already by the end of the 1920s its impact on society and culture had ushered us into a new historical reality.

If the functioning automobile was first developed in Europe, it was in the US, with the famous mass production of Ford, that the automobile – the car – first became a widespread and inseparable feature of modern life. Its growing accessibility to many sectors in American society had a democratic aura about it; the car became symbolically connected with notions of citizenship and belonging. By owning a car, one had ‘arrived’, so to speak.

Making automobiles accessible to less privileged social groups took longer in other countries, and the car till remains an elite consumer item in many parts of the world today. However, by the latter half of the 20th century, in the US, Europe, and increasingly in other parts of the world, the activity of driving had become a part of a global way of life.

This technological innovation quickly transformed the logistics of transportation and mobility, impacting on our conceptions of space and distance. The automobile accelerated the expansion of urban areas and the emergence of outlying suburbs. Vacations and tourism, as well as leisure time generally, became more car-based; motels became a booming industry. Drive-in fast food restaurants, drive-in movies, drive-in banking all exemplify the car ‘society’.  If the original car radio could modestly connect the driver to the world by receiving broadcasts, today’s car is a mobile, interactive digital media environment.

The automobile became a catalyst for cultural changes as well. Not least, the car and the act of driving became important elements in people’s identities, as extensions of the self. The automobile took on a symbolic role: it conveys status and says something about the owner. If many people can buy cars, not all people could buy just any car, and certain (usually more expensive) makes became markers of distinction, according more status to the owner.

Deemed essential to the lifestyle of modernity, the automobile from the beginning became a powerful icon of freedom. The notion of freedom here is obviously expansive given the mobility the car offers, yet it is also an encapsulated and privatised freedom, due the physical reality of the automobile. It is a version of freedom that strongly connects to individualism and consumption. Indeed, the automobile is probably the most emblematic manifestation of modern individualism.

The link between individual freedom and the car has been – and continues to be – celebrated in popular culture. We find in literature, film (the ‘road movie’ is a classic genre) and in in music constant referencing to our lives with the car. Popular song has been a fertile terrain here, with the lyrics of Chuck Berry, the Beach Boys, and Bruce Springsteen being but three examples. Car ads on television accentuate this dream of individual freedom: there is never another car other than the advertised one visible on the roads in the ads – denying of course the realities of traffic congestion today.

Certainly a key theme of the cultural significance of the automobile has to do with gender. The robustly masculine image of automobile has been with us from the beginning, but the car has also been a very important factor in enhancing the lives of women. It has rightly been perceived as a liberating catalyst for women’s spatial and social mobility, both in rural and urban settings. This liberatory dimension has not surprisingly at times also been seen as a threat from patriarchic perspectives. Jokes about ‘women drivers’ are still very much with us – even while the statistics of traffic accidents show that women do better behind the wheel than men.

A major source of anxiety from the start has been the opportunity for sexual activity that the automobile facilitates. Some social historians even claim that one of the most significant consequences of the automobile has been precisely on patterns of courtship. Prior to the car, the spaces for privacy for unwed lovers was quite constricted. The car offered easy mobility beyond prying eyes, and a degree of comfort in the back seat – features that evoked concern among religious and civic defenders of morality, as well as among parents.

The sexually charged aura of the car is captured in the practices of ‘cruising’ and ‘pick-ups’. This certainly links with male visions of freedom and empowerment. In music, sexual metaphors about cars abound, especially in many blues and rock lyrics. Chuck Berry sang, with wry smile, that that he wanted ‘ a full roll away bed, in my back seat’. In the popular imagination the car remains very much a vehicle associated with erotic pleasure.

If the car serves as a compelling evocative icon of personal freedom, it also operates as a signifier of our collective sense of modernity and progress; the automobile is one of the most powerful symbols of the modern age. These utopian conceptions have long promised a future that will be continually enhanced through better science and technology – and more speed. This has been a part of the modernist narrative. Yet, while this position has certainly enjoyed credibility, there has always been a parallel narrative, one often marginalised, yet nonetheless insistent.

From the social dislocations of the first Industrial Revolution, to images of science as a Faustian bargain, to today’s anxieties about genetic manipulation and internet surveillance, the linear conception of progress through technology faces contentious counterpoints; it has a dark, problematic underside.  In particular, for the car, the tensions between ever-growing fossil fuel based production and consumption on the one hand, and a sustainable environment on the other, are becoming acute.

There is a sense of twilight in this form of civilisation, and we are seeing the need to reconstruct its very foundations. The automobile is positioned at the centre of these force-fields between our confident dreams and our real uncertainties. The contemporary ambivalence of the car, and of modernity more broadly, should not funnel us into resignation or capitulation, but rather into creative confrontation with a future that is not pre-determined. New growth must inevitably pass through the decay of the old.

Terje Risberg’s images of deteriorating cars are set against an encroaching and still powerful nature. There is a profound silence in these automobile graveyards; one that is in keeping with feelings of sorrow and loss. Yet, remembrance of the past compels us to reflect on the future; we are forced to consider what the best ways forward are. Our private experiences are collectively joined to historical processes, and Terje Risberg challenges us to link our memories of cars with contemplation about our shared futures.