Aug 17 2016

That New Car Smell: Autonomy & Automation

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That New Car Smell: Autonomy & Automation

Whether or not civilization collapses following the election this November, are we not on the cusp of a new epoch in travel? For in the Valley of the Silicon Kings and Queens and TransRegents, Google, Apple and Tesla have all doubled down on automotive innovation, while in the Far East Uber courts China. Down in weird Austin, Lord British is busy thinking way outside the ballpark with his “pod” transport system, while New Jersey considers outlawing drivers from drinking coffee.

Let’s jump in the time machine:

When I hear the iron horse make the hills echo with his snort like thunder, shaking the earth with his feet, and breathing fire and smoke from his nostrils (what kind of winged horse or fiery dragon they will put into the new Mythology I don’t know), it seems as if the earth had got a race now worthy to inhabit it.

––Thoreau, Walden (1854), Ch. IV

Surreys rumbled lightly by, with the plod-plod of honest old horses, and frequently there was the glitter of whizzing spokes from a runabout or a sporting buggy, and the sharp, decisive hoof-beats of a trotter. Then, like a cowboy shooting up a peaceful camp, a frantic devil would hurtle out of the distance, bellowing, exhaust racketing like a machine gun gone amuck—and at these horrid sounds the surreys and buggies would hug the curbstone, and the bicycles scatter to cover, cursing; while children rushed from the sidewalks to drag pet dogs from the street. The thing would roar by, leaving a long wake of turbulence; then the indignant street would quiet down for a few minutes—till another came.

––Booth Tarkington, The Magnificent Ambersons (1918), Ch. XVIII

Folks, the interurban ain’t coming back, and ride-sharing essentially streamlines new efficiencies on an old system, but why must we continue to tolerate the flood of false hope—perhaps what Thoreau meant by “new Mythology”––of hyper speed locomotion, whether in the guise of California’s bullet train or the Texas Central Railway? (And can we retire the word “boondoggle” for at least the next decade, or better yet, put it out to pasture altogether?)

Once upon a time cultural conservatives, even fictitious ones like Congressman George Amberson, thought cars were a temporary novelty:

[Eugene Morgan] will soon begin to build his factory here for the manufacture of automobiles, which he says is a term he prefers to “horseless carriages.” Your Uncle George told me he would like to invest in this factory, as George thinks there is a future for automobiles; perhaps not for general use, but as an interesting novelty, which people with sufficient means would like to own for their amusement and the sake of variety. (The Magnificent Ambersons, Ch. X)

But will further automation of the automobile be mistaken by cultural progressives as improvement rather than impediment? For as geographer Yi-Fu Tuan points out in his contribution to Why Place Matters(2014), the American driver’s license is one of our primary valves for unleashing our self-reliance:

The closest thing Americans have to an identity card is their driver’s license—a card that gives them license to drive into the blue yonder and there discover who they are and can be.

Stability can be found amid the chaos of such mapless journeys. As Wendell Pierce, best known from HBO’s The Wire, put it in his memoir about the recovery and renewal of post-Katrina New Orleans The Wind in the Reeds (2015):

My father’s mantra kept going through my head, strengthening my resolve: “You can’t get lost in America.” (pp. 126, 239)

So even before GPS apps became widespread, there existed possibilities that not all who drove (or wandered) would get lost, and this, Pierce points out, is one reason why, particularly for his father:

You can take the man out of the segregated South, but you can’t take the segregated South out of the man. (p. 51)

Yes, we travel. As Thoreau says, we “make haste past those houses” and accumulate experiences of multiple places, so much so that now we have Shakespeare’s “rich eyes and poor hands.” Nonetheless, we refuse to stand still:

Eastward I go only by force; but westward I go free…. eastward to realize history, and study the works of art and literature…. westward as into the future, with a spirit of enterprise and adventure…. The West of which I speak is but another name for the Wild; and what I have been preparing to say is, that in Wildness is the preservation of the world. (Thoreau, “Walking,” The Atlantic, May 1862)

We are born to be wild. So let us get our “motors running and head out on the highway.”


May 27 2016

Cards and Cars in Paris and New Orleans

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Cards and Cars in Paris and New Orleans

I recently finished Wendell Pierce’s moving memoir of Katrina and New Orleans, The Wind in the Reeds (2015) and intend to soon blog about it in more detail. But already passages from Pierce as well as from Houellebecq’s Submission (2015) concerning the differences in mobility and mentality for Americans and Europeans has set my mind a pondering…. trying to stitch together meaning of previous thoughts on trials and travel….

JAQUES: It is a melancholy of mine own, compounded of many simples, extracted from many objects, and indeed the sundry’s contemplation of my travels, in which my often rumination wraps me m a most humorous sadness.

ROSALIND: A traveller! By my faith, you have great reason to be sad: I fear you have sold your own lands to see other men’s; then, to have seen much and to have nothing, is to have rich eyes and poor hands.

JAQUES: Yes, I have gained my experience.

ROSALIND: And your experience makes you sad: I had rather have a fool to make me merry than experience to make me sad; and to travel for it too!

–Shakespeare[1]

 The closest thing Americans have to an identity card is their driver’s license—a card that gives them license to drive into the blue yonder and there discover who they are and can be.

–Yi-Fu Tuan[2]

My father’s mantra kept going through my head, strengthening my resolve: “You can’t get lost in America.”

–Wendell Pierce[3]

No one could have appreciated that generosity more than I did, as I received my rations of celery remoulade and cod purce, each in its little compartment of the metal hospital tray issued by the Bullier student cafeteria (whose unfortunate patrons clearly had nowhere else to go, and had obviously been kicked out of all the acceptable student cafeterias, but who still had their student IDs––you couldn’t take away their student IDs), and I thought of Huysman’s epithets—the woebegone cheese, the grievous sole—and imagined what he might make of those metal cells, which he’d never known, and I felt a little bit less unhappy, a little bit less alone, in the Bullier student cafeteria.

–Michel Houellebecq[4]

NOTES

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[1] Shakespeare, As You Like It, IV, i.”

[2] Tuan, Yi-Fu. “Place/Space, Ethnicity/Cosmos: How to be More Fully Human.” Why Place MattersGeography, Identity, and Civic Life in Modern America. Edited by McClay and Ted V. McAllister. NY: New Atlantis Books. 2014. p. 115.

[3] Pierce, Wendell. The Wind in the Reeds: A Storm, a Play, and the City that would not be Broken. NY: Riverhead Books. 2015. pp. 126, 239.

[4] Houellebecq, Michel. Sounmission. (Submission.) Translated by Lorin Stein. NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 2015. p. 6.

 


Feb 3 2016

American Phones, American Cars

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Over at The American Conservative, Rod Dreher responds to the horrors of Virginia with a discussion of how he hasn’t yet let his children have cell phones–which is fine–I wasn’t allowed to watch R-rated movies till high school. Dreher writes:

I don’t have the time or the skills to monitor everything my kids would get into on their smartphones, if they had them, and access to social media. But you know what? Why should I. They are nine and 12 years old. They have no business with smartphones, Instagram accounts, Facebook, Snapchat, and all the rest. They are not ready for those things. I certainly would not have been at that age. You give your kids a smartphone with access to the Internet and social media, you are handing them grenades.

I am curious what sorts of things Dreher’s parents, and people of my grandparents’ generation, would have or actually did ban/abstain/limit/withhold/censor from their own children? Was it the keys to the car? As geographer Yi-Fu Tuan has recently pointed out in Why Place Matters: Geography, Identity, and Civic Life in Modern America (2014):

The closest thing Americans have to an identity card is their driver’s license—a card that gives them license to drive into the blue yonder and there discover who they are and can be.[1]

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NOTES

[1] Tuan, “Place/Space, Ethnicity/Cosmos: How to be More Fully Human” Why Place Matters. Edited by Wilfred M. McClay and Ted V. McAllister. NY: New Atlantis Books. 2014.  p. 115.


Oct 7 2015

Communities Who Bring about Suffering & Loss Will Bear Suffering & Loss

bookbread typewriterSome new notes from Rod Dreher:

Whatever Benedict Option communities end up being as we pass through all this, they are going to have to bear witness to suffering and loss, in a way we [in the West] have not had to do for a great long time.

This may well be true, but it seems to skirt around the possibility that plenty of late 20 and early 21st century Americans were born into religious communities, bore witness to suffering and loss, and endured their own sufferings and losses brought on by that very community, and are now no longer interested in living in or perpetuating that kind of community.

Communities who bring about suffering and loss will bear suffering and loss. In other words, it takes one to know one. Communities are made of individuals who know each other; communitas reaches beyond known individuals, as geographer Yi-Fu Tuan has recently pointed out:

Anthropologist Victor Turner notes a common type of movement in pre-modern times, which he says is from “community” to “communitas.” The movement occurs periodically in response to the needs of economic exchange, but not only that. It is also prompted by the desire of the people in a local community—say, a village—for a larger sense of who they are. That larger sense of self villagers find in the market town—the “communitas” of acquaintances and strangers.*

*“Place/Space, Ethnicity/Cosmos: How to be More Fully Human” in Why Place Matters. Edited by Wilfred M. McClay and Ted V. McAllister. NY: New Atlantis Books. 2014. p. 106

 

 


Aug 17 2015

Muddling through Books with Dreher, Bateson, and Sontag

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Muddling through Books with Dreher, Bateson, and Sontag

Over at The American Conservative Rod Dreher writes:

The older I get, the more appreciation I have for Just Muddling Through as the only realistic solution to anything. It’s not a “solution” at all, but in the absence of a solution, it’s usually the best we can do. Every solution comes with a new set of problems.

I think this is what anthropologist Gregory Bateson was getting at when he said that explorations are self-validating, and therefore, nearly always successful. Or in Bateson’s words, explanation is “the mapping of description onto tautology”–and this is probably also what Thoreau was getting at when he remarked, “whether we travel fast or slow, the track is laid for us.”[1]

But while explorations may be self-validating, our biases, whether in life or art, protect us. As Susan Sontag reminds us:

It will be seen that stylistic decisions, by focusing our attention on some things, are also a narrowing of our attention, a refusal to allow us to see others. But the greater interestingness of one work of art over another does not rest on the greater number of things the stylistic decisions in that work allow us to attend to, but rather on the intensity and authority and wisdom of that attention, however narrow its focus.[2]

 

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[1] Bateson, Mind and NatureA Necessary Unity. NY: Bantam. 1980. p. 139; Bateson, Don D. Jackson, Jay Haley, and John Weakland. “Toward a Theory of Schizophrenia.” Theories of Schizophrenia. Edited by Arnold H. Buss and Edith H. Buss. NY: Atherton Press. 1969. p. 82; Thoreau, Henry David.  Walden: Or Life in the Woods. Boston: Ticknor & Fields. 1854. “Chapter I: On Economy.”

[2] Sontag, “On Style” (1965) in Against Interpretation. NY: Dell. 1969. p. 36; see also Tuan, Yi-Fu. “Place/Space, Ethnicity/Cosmos: How to Be More Fully Human.” Why Place Matters: Geography, Identity, and Civic Life in Modern America. Edited by Wilfred M. McClay and Ted V. McAllister. NY: New Atlantis Books. 2014. pp. 102–19 at 111.