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6 may 2017
Gregory Votolato's Car, unlike other texts in the Reaktion Objekt series like School and Bridge, doesn't have much of a focus. It is meant to inform the reader about nearly every possible cultural connection people have established with cars. It would be a good textbook for a basic course in automotive history.
Though I suppose there is one big, if very general idea in Car: cars are really important to people, and we establish deep emotional connections with them. My cars in 30 years of driving – all Hondas, most of them Civic hatchbacks – have frequently had names as well as license numbers. I am sentimentally attached to my current 18-year-old "Carrito" – a car that, I suppose, would be old enough to drive if it could be retrofitted with autonomous technology.
Cars, Votolato notes, can be living spaces, even "carapaces": shells, second skins. Though mass-produced, they remain infinitely customizable. We relate to the world through the controls of a car. How many times have you heard someone say "I rolled down my window": as if humans came equipped with windows. The freedom provided by mass, individual, privately-owned transport has enabled the pursuit of happiness ever since Bertha Benz, in 1888, set off in the car that her husband Carl had just invented, and went to visit her mother 100 kilometers away.
In a Faustian bargain, cars have also distorted the fabric of urban life, polluted the air, cast off billions of discarded tires, and gotten humanity addicted to fossil fuels. Nothing comes free, I guess. The present, with all its pains, is unimaginable without automobiles. The future continues to be centered around them, though increasingly they will be driving themselves, and they may not take quite the shapes or speeds we've long associated with them.
Much of Car is taken up with elaborate lists of design innovations. Votolato critiques auto design from a cultural-studies perspective, but he also lets himself just plain marvel over really cool shapes. The car is distinctly a medium where form and function really do converge. The most iconic auto designs are also the most relentlessly practical: the Ford Model T, the VW Bug, the Citroën 2CV, the Checker cab. But Votolato is also interested in high-end, artisanal designs, and the automobile as speculative work of art. He catalogues how cars have transformed their "habitats": the factory, the showroom, the road, the parking facility, the driveway, garage, and carport.
If I've painted Car as an ambivalent book, I reckon it's because cars are an ambiguous topic. Everyone has a love-hate relationship with cars, in the forms of anonymous "traffic" and their own beloved personal vehicles. You are what you drive, for better or worse. In between paragraphs of this review, I walked two blocks to my neighborhood elementary school to vote in a municipal election. Some canvassers out in front of the polls were amazed to see me walking down the street. "You didn't drive?" they asked me. "It's 70 degrees and sunny," I said, "and I live two blocks away." They could barely believe it. Without my Carrito, I seemed to be only half a person.
Votolato, Gregory. Car. London: Reaktion, 2015.