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Response to Review no. 748

I would like to express my thanks to Sean O’Connell for this generous and thoughtful review of Eat My Dust: Early Women Motorists. Most particularly I thank him for his account of the theoretical framing of my book. O’Connell’s work on gender and automobiles in Britain, notably The Car in British Society: Class, Gender and Motoring, 1896–1939 and his ‘Gender and the Car in Inter-War Britain’, provided a key theoretical and empirical foundation for my study of women motorists in Britain.(1)

Ten years ago O’Connell declared that the consumption of the car and its social and cultural impact on British society had not been systematically explored – and I would add that was true of most national contexts beyond the USA. Since then there has been a welcome increase in studies of automobiles and the ways they have been incorporated into human life, to which my book is one contribution. Much of that work has been inspired by the new field of mobility studies, largely led by British and European social scientists, which has its own dedicated journals and a growing publication list.(2) The ‘mobility turn’ has been enlivened by an intellectual framework that fosters a theoretically reflexive and multidisciplinary analysis of the movement of people, objects and ideas across global networks. Increasingly, an eclectic range of scholars – historians, sociologists, environmentalists, psychologists, political scientists, artists, town planners, anthropologists, geographers, cultural theorists and transportation engineers – are conducting transnational conversations about the ways that automobiles and humans have been socially produced in relation to each other.

Yet, given the tremendous importance of the automobile over the last century and the evidence that they have come to pose a serious threat to sustainable life on the planet, there is still much work to be done on the histories of car cultures and their place in contemporary human experience. Certainly automobiles are at least as important as cinema, but while most Humanities faculties teach cinema studies, how many offer automobility or mobility studies more generally?

As technological objects, cars have changed remarkably little over the past 100 years. Their mechanical sophistication has increased tremendously and their design and styling have been constantly renewed but the fundamentals remain much the same. Like most cars at the beginning of the 20th century, contemporary cars still have four wheels and an internal combustion engine. They still require a driver who controls pedals, levers and a steering wheel and they still discharge poisonous gases into the air we all breathe. If what constitutes a car has been relatively stable for the past century, however, the place of cars in everyday life certainly has not. Once pleasure vehicles for a lucky few, cars are now the ubiquitous background to our daily routines. Still fun on occasion but more often mundane and occasionally infuriating, for a growing number of people across the world, cars have become the ordinary, almost invisible, platform of our lives.

More than just move us around, cars do much cultural work. They have given shape to our personal biographies – from memories of family holidays or the joy of our first car, to the life-altering trauma of a crash. The very nuts and bolts of their material form resonate with axes of difference, such as generation, class, race and gender. The history of our expanding car dependence is inscribed on urban and rural landscapes. Car production is taken as a measure of national maturity and from wars in the Middle East to border disputes in Eastern Europe, our reliance on cars increasingly underpins the geopolitical realities of our time. As any road movie director knows, cars – with their reach from the intimate to the global – are evocative vehicles for telling stories about ourselves, our society, and the times in which we live.

The challenge for critical analysis of cars in social life is to make new connections between the layered meanings of car cultures – from the car as an object of personal consumption, to the implications of automobility in reordering physical places and social relations on a global scale. Our task is to better think about the ways that cars and people are constituted as things-in-relation. We are familiar with arguments about cars as status symbols, as emblems of masculinity and femininity, or as conferring the gift of freedom, because they are the images automobile manufactures and their advertising agents put out daily. We also know that our dependence on cars is an environmental problem, even a global disaster in the making. But the big challenge to imagining livable futures as automobile citizens is to think outside of that unproductive opposition of cars as a great gift or a great problem.

We need more finely grained empirical research and dynamic theoretical approaches to understand the part automobiles have played shaping the structures and rhythms of social life – from the personal to the national and the global. And we need a great deal more systematic work to help us understand the subtle ways in which cars have worked to enforce particular kinds of social relations and material environments.

Why then are there so few schools of automobility? Are cars are so fully absorbed into our daily routines that they are easily ignored? Perhaps scholarly analysis has been inhibited by the troubling contradictions of our dependence on a technology that is simultaneously so enabling, destructive, pleasurable, infuriating and mundane. Is it possible that cars have been overlooked because many academics are inclined to adopt a negative stance towards them? What is clear, as O’Connell has consistently exhorted, is that cars and the ways they have been absorbed into social life deserve a great deal more attention from social and cultural historians than they so far have received. I look forward to an explosion of studies to fill that gap.

Finally, in answer to O’Connell’s question of precisely how I have measured the increase in pressure against women drivers in the immediate post-Second World War years, I have to say that it is my overwhelming impression from reading motoring journals and the popular press of the period. Right now I am working on a project that attempts to tease out some of the complexities of that raw observation by exploring the ways that contestations over new forms of subjectivity and conceptions of modern citizenship were enacted through the prized activity of driving, in the specific conditions of 1950s Australia when US style mass automobility was first beginning to take off.

Notes

  1. Sean O’Connell, The Car in British Society: Class, Gender and Motoring, 1896–1939 (Manchester, 1999), and Sean O’Connell, ‘Gender and the car in inter-War Britain’ in Gender and Material Culture in Historical Perspective, ed. Moira Donald and Linda Hurcombe (London, 2000), pp. 175–91.Back to (1)
  2. Some key publications have been John Urry, Sociology Beyond Societies: Mobilities for the Twenty-First Century (London and New York, 1999); Automobilities, ed. Mike Featherstone, Nigel Thrift and John Urry (London, 2005); Tim Cresswell, On the Move: Mobility in the Modern Western World (New York and London, 2006). The major journal is Mobilities, of the Taylor and Francis Group. See also T2M, the recently formed association for mobility historians, <Back to (2)