|image courtesy Anthony Marcellini
Yeah…Detroit made cars. And cars made America.
- Bob Dylan1
It is late afternoon. I leave my studio in Detroit and begin to drive north on Mound Road towards home. There is a faster way but I am drawn to reroute my journey along this street, which follows miles of automobile factories: The Chrysler Warren Truck Assembly Plant, Warren Stamping and Warren Transmission. I pass the factories as hundreds of autoworkers carrying red and white lunch boxes cross the road to work the b shift, 4:30pm - 3:30am. I become suddenly overwhelmed with emotions I cannot place.
I initially thought it was sympathy for the workers who work throughout the night. But it is more than that. Although I have compassion for the hours, the low wages and the increasing precarity of factory labor, my emotions are caused by something larger. It is more overwhelming than sadness, akin to a sublime feeling, because with sympathy is also dread.
It is a seeping awareness of an institution so big, with a market demand so large, to require two shifts. It is a sudden recognition of an industry with roots extending out to five other equally colossal factories in Detroit, to hundreds of factories and sub-factories stretching through the country, and coursing across oceans to cities around the world. It is a moment of awareness at the millions who depend on and take pride in this industry. It is a jolt from the unfathomable force of energy which this industry puts in motion, in manpower, electricity and natural resources, to produce millions upon millions of cars: gasoline ignites, creating a cycle of explosions one hundred times per minute, propelling high precision pistons, moving lubricated crankshafts, driving chains, spinning axels, the four wheels of my car turn. But above all it is the awareness of a behemoth in decline.
For Immanuel Kant, a sublime feeling is produced in response to the power of nature; it is a pleasurable fear of nature’s limitlessness.2 It should be noted Kant subscribes the sublime to nature because he is writing before industrialization. The world wars changed our understanding of the manmade, of terror and, thus, the sublime. Key to Kant’s conception is the separation from nature this feeling produces. Recognizing the sublime feeling and its cause allows man to assert his dominion over nature. In man’s recognition of his impotence he also recognizes his awareness of it; he does not run away from the sublime object but confronts it and conquers his fear.3 For Kant this represents a clear separation of the mind from the body, and a division between the human and nature.
While passing the automotive factories I was reminded of a similar feeling last summer during a trip to the beach on the Gulf of Mexico in Texas. Driving south towards the ocean, we accidentally took the not-so-scenic route and I felt the same overwhelming emotion as we passed the Dow Chemical plant and several oil refineries (both close cousins of the automobile). Over a bridge, onto the island, and then to the beach, one could almost ignore the industry, even though it was less than two miles away and an oilrig marred the clean line of the oceans’ horizon. At first the proximity of Dow Chemical, the refineries and their pollution was unnerving, but I thought, perhaps this need for distance is the problem. Our mental separation of the manmade factory from the natural beach supports a separation between work and leisure. This allows for excesses in both directions; we can pollute the environment as long as it is part of the sphere of work and not our leisure space.
Perhaps the sublime feeling when associated with manmade industry in its magnitude, pervasiveness and tendency towards disorder, in opposition to Kant’s sublime, does not reassert but rather shatters the divisions between man and nature. The beach and the factory dissolve into one thing; it is all human culture. In other words, the beach is as manmade as the factory, the jungle or a waste dump. Human culture must begin to conceive of itself as one and the same as nature or risk eradicating all nature including us.4
The twentieth-century philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard describes the sublime feeling as a combination of pleasure and pain, a kind of trembling both attractive and repulsive that both inhibits and excites.5 For Lyotard the sublime is something larger than the mind can process, and therefore formless. It is a terror because it exists yet cannot be constituted or realized in the mind.6
The automobile industry contains a similar formlessness and contradiction for it is equal parts enticing and horrifying, yet impossible to fully grasp in its systemic magnitude. We celebrate the freedom of the road of being able to drive anywhere anytime, the great beauty in the precision and craftsmanship, and the pleasure in the rumble of a powerful engine propelling us over 1/5 the speed of sound. Yet this stands in stark contrast to the wastefulness, the forced obsolescence, the fuel consumption, the pollution, the urban sprawl, and recklessness the automobile engenders. Like most powerful technology it is equal parts tool, toy and weapon. Sometimes it seems we are to cars like young children to firecrackers, playing as quickly, as gainfully and carelessly as possible, making the most of them before the adults come to take them away.
In Bob Dylan’s most recent (and much maligned) car commercial7, he relates a kind of allegory about Chrysler cars and America. Beginning with the aphoristic question, “Is there anything more American than America?”8 he continues to make claims on America’s close relationship to the automobile and our faith in its power. At the commercials midpoint he makes what for me is its key statement. Beginning with a hesitant “Yeah” he pauses then follows with a resolute, “Detroit made cars and cars made America.”9 Putting aside the fact that Chrysler is owned by an Italian/Dutch company, the statement’s wavering resoluteness, made more pronounced in its past tense, suggests a kind of truth about the current condition of America’s relationship with the car. Although in the past it may have been America’s lifeblood, we are not so sure our future lies with the automobile.
Before moving to Detroit I had not owned a car for almost 10 years, and now like most Americans I am half of a two-car family. Despite my appreciation at being able to own a car, I have a somewhat antagonistic relationship with them. This is difficult to bear within Detroit where cars are pivotal to its history and economy. I am continually overwhelmed by the power, pervasiveness and grip of this industry that gave the city its identity, its topography, and once its great wealth. It seems an unstoppable and unwavering force. Even when it dies it is resurrected and barrels forward, though not without scars. Factories continue to roll cars off the assembly line onto crumbling, potholed and unpainted streets, ground down to the bricks beneath them, and onto highways and overpasses where bridges collapse or are on the brink. The embodiment of precision craftsmanship rolls over the embodiment of neglect and systemic breakdown. Should this not signal a problem; can one system exist without the full functioning of the other?
What is really taking place in my sublime emotional reaction is a bit of nostalgia , but moreover a lingering feeling that this situation is untenable. The automotive industry, its ethos of size and power, and our deference to the values of the zoom, the roar, and the thrust,10 is breaking down. Sure, the industry is on the mend from where it was five years ago, perhaps even fifteen, and there are certainly more electric cars, hybrids and fuel-efficient vehicles, but the old factories, the infrastructure and our faith in the automobile, have cracks at the seams. Look at the streets, climate change, reurbanization or the dwindling numbers of car drivers. But if this is the beginning of a breakdown, and not just an antagonistic delusion on my part, it may be a good thing. Although it is scary in its uncertainty (we can’t know the outcome), it suggests we are beginning to examine what exactly cars are and what we/they have done to Detroit and to America. And perhaps we are starting to plan other ways of existing rather than simply roll forward, business-as-usual.
As I sit in my car on Mound Road next to these factories I ask myself can an object or a system be ungraspable yet visibly starting to fall to pieces? Can it be simultaneously sublime yet also untenable? Although we have launched the system into being, has it become sublime and unconquerable, because in its collapse, it has moved beyond our control? Is such an experience the feeling of the fractured sublime?
1 Is there anything more American than America?
Cause you can’t import original.
You can’t fake true cool.
You can’t duplicate legacy.
Because what Detroit created was a first
and became an inspiration to the… rest of the world.
Yeah…Detroit made cars. And cars made America.
Making the best, making the finest, takes conviction.
And you can’t import, the heart and soul, of every man and woman working on the line.
You can search the world over for the finer things,
but you won’t find a match for the American road
and the creatures that live on it.
Because we believe in the zoom,
and the roar, and the thrust.
And when it’s made here, it’s made with the one thing
you can’t import from anywhere else. American…Pride.
So let Germany brew your beer,
Let Switzerland make your watch,
Let Asia assemble your phone.
We…will build…your car.
Narration from Bob Dylan’s Chrysler car commercial aired during the 2014 Super Bowl, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KlSn8Isv-3M
2 Kant, Immanuel. The Critique of Judgment. Part I: Critique of Aesthetic Judgment. Translation by James Creed Meredith. New York City: Digireads.com. 2006: pp. 52-54 and 62-64.
4 For more on human centered view of the world see, Zalasiewicz, J. et al. "Are we now living in the Anthropocene". GSA Today 18 2. 2008: pp. 4 - 8.
5 Lyotard, Jean-François. Heidegger and “the jews”. Translation by Andreas Michel and Mark Roberts with an introduction by David Carroll. University of Minnesota Press: Minneapolis.1988: p. 32.
7 It is actually his second car commercial, the first being a Mad-Maxian 2007 Cadillac Escalade Commercial. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9X3Bcmf3ckQ
8 Bob Dylan’s Chrysler car commercial aired during the 2014 Super Bowl https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KlSn8Isv-3M