Mobility without Mayhem
By Jeremy Packer
Duke University Press, 349 pp.
In Mobility Without Mayhem: Safety, Cars, and Citizenship, Jeremy Packer takes his methodological cue from the late French theorist Jean Baudrillard, who in his 1986 travelogue, America, memorably claimed, "All you need to know about American society can be gleaned from an anthropology of its driving behavior. That behavior tells you much more than you could ever learn from its political ideas. Drive ten thousand miles across America and you will know more about the country than all the institutes of sociology and political science put together."
Packer, a communications professor at N.C. State University, says that Baudrillard's bold assertion is mostly right—but rather than focus on material cultural objects like car brands, highway signs and rest-stop designs, as Baudrillard did, Packer believes our attention is better directed at the laws, technologies and cultural tropes that have been used to regulate our automobile society. Packer's book explores some of our most recognizable stereotypical figurations—"the woman driver," "the motorcyclist," "driving while black," "road rage"—and uses these characters to retell the story of 20th-century America through the lens of the perpetual struggle between individual and community.
Mobility Without Mayhem is at its best laying out the contradictions and dualities that accompany the entry of these figures into the cultural zeitgeist. Thus, in the 1950s, we find the female driver suddenly becoming important as the embodiment of the new, suburban American dream: The "two-car family" becomes a symbol of material wealth and prosperity, and the shopping trips of the housewife are asserted as a "means of escaping domestic entrapment." In the same instant, however, we see a marked re-emergence of anxiety over the imagined inability of women to drive as safely as men—despite ample studies proving that, if anything, the opposite is true—reflecting a larger cultural anxiety over the slow loosening of strict gender roles.
Youthful drivers, too, face a paradoxical dual identity when represented in the culture at large. On the one hand the teenager's first car is celebrated both as a long-awaited passage to adulthood and as a vision of the liberatory ecstasy of the open road. On the other, youthful drivers and the cars they pilot are seen as leading to dangerous outlaw activities, to "too much" freedom: drag racing, drunk driving and heavy petting on Lover's Lane—the world depicted in such monuments to the youth culture of that era as The Wild One and Rebel Without a Cause.
One of the more interesting dualities comes in Packer's examination of the popularity of the Cadillac in African-American communities during this middle part of the 20th century. Packer points to a Ralph Ellison story, "Cadillac Flambé," which makes the point that the Cadillac—originally signifying economic prosperity in the black community, and the ability to succeed in a society so stacked against you—switches its valence as it becomes predominantly associated with African Americans. Rather than a sign of African-American success, the Cadillac becomes instead what a character in Ellison's story calls a "coon cage." The realization that his Cadillac actually signifies his own entrapment by white power causes Ellison's main character to set his car on fire on a racist senator's lawn. Packer finds example after example of this sort of contradiction in the cultural imagination of the Cadillac, which is at once a "weapon in the war for racial equality" and a manifestation of the very racial oppression its purchase was meant to destroy.
Other figurations are significantly less dualistic. The hitchhiker, once a nice, safe college student or serviceman returning home for the holidays, takes on a decidedly sinister connotation after a number of hitchhiker-themed slasher films in the 1950s. Now every hitchhiker is a psychopath—or, worse, a hippie—and a singular manifestation of the freedom of the open road is lost forever to paranoia and the American mania for safety. The assumption today is that if you don't own a car, there must be something wrong with you.
Packer's study of the cultural anxieties surrounding the automobile and the attempts to regulate this space (always in the name of "safety") is quite exhaustive, but by the end of the book I couldn't help feeling as though certain important questions had gone unanswered, and even unasked. Why, for instance, did America build its intricate network of suburbs and highways in the first place? Why did the widespread and affordable mass transportation of the 19th and early 20th centuries fizzle and die in the face of the automobile, and how did the suburban home come to be seen as the fullest expression of "the American dream"? Packer may have seen these sorts of question as outside the scope of his book, but I see them as central—without knowing how and why the suburbs came to be, nothing that follows can be understood.
Likewise, Packer pays far too little attention to contemporary environmental dialogues surrounding the automobile, particularly those concerning gas mileage standards, hybrids and SUVs. A struggle very similar to others Packer identifies in the book is raging right now across America over the practical and ethical limits of the consumption-oriented lifestyle we have embraced, and it is centered in any number of ways on the automobile—precisely, as Packer lays out, because the automobile is so integral to Americans' sense of national identity.
To his credit, Packer does not ignore this issue entirely: He raises it very briefly at the end of an otherwise unrelated chapter on road rage, only to declare the debate "beyond this author." But this is, unquestionably, a cop-out; the subject demands, at the very least, its own chapter in this story. In few other places in contemporary American society do we find the dual rhetoric of "safety" and "citizenship" clashing so violently as in the debate over the environmental impact of our car-fueled consumer culture—and to leave this monumental question out, it seems to me, is to leave an otherwise very interesting book unfinished and incomplete.