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Auto Couture : Thinking the Car in Post-War France
David Inglis Theory Culture Society 2004 21: 197 DOI: 10.1177/0263276404046067 The online version of this article can be found at:

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Auto Couture
Thinking the Car in Post-war France

David Inglis


NE OF the aims of this special issue of Theory, Culture & Society is to redress one of the odder lacunae in the contemporary social sciences, namely the relative neglect of the motor car as an object of analysis and scrutiny (Hawkins, 1986). Occasional scholars such as Paul Virilio (e.g. 1986 [1977]) have drawn social theoretical attention to the roles played by modes of transportation in general, and automotive forms in particular, in the creation and maintenance of patterns of social organization.1 Yet it nonetheless remains the case that the automobile has not received due attention from thinkers who wish to comprehend the contours of contemporary societies. As Sheller and Urry (2000) argue, this is a particularly curious state of affairs, in part because automobile technologies have been profoundly involved throughout the 20th century in shaping and reshaping urban and non-urban spaces, ways of thinking and being, and modes of social interaction. In this article, I intend to draw the attention of those interested in putting the automobile into the centre of social theoretical analyses, to the ideas of certain French authors who were concerned to understand the significance of the car in the social conditions they experienced. The authors that I examine made their contributions to French intellectual life in general, and the understanding of automobile culture in particular, in the post-war period. I will focus on the period roughly spanning 1950–75, partly for reasons of space but also, and more importantly, because there was a particularly rich vein of thinking about the car at this time that can be tapped by the present-day analyst. Although intellectuals living in pre-war France also gave some attention to automotive issues, as we will see briefly below, it was only really within the conditions of the post-war consumerist boom of the mid-1950s and after that the privately owned car became both a ubiquitous sight on French roads, an object that was within the financial

Ⅲ Theory, Culture & Society 2004 (SAGE, London, Thousand Oaks and New Delhi), Vol. 21(4/5): 197–219 DOI: 10.1177/0263276404046067

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Henri Lefebvre and André Gorz to the apparent destruction of French physical spaces by the construction of the networks of concrete and asphalt that the car requires for its functioning. therefore. being seen variously as a Trojan horse of Americanization or something that could quite comfortably fit into everyday French at UNIV OF ILLINOIS URBANA on August 20. Third and finally. and a source of concern and interest for writers. I wish to draw together those ideas. film-makers and other members of the intelligentsia. to the ways in which the ideas and perspectives set out here may continue to be of use to authors who wish to grasp the implications of the car in the workings of society in the present day. as this theme was pursued in the semiotic writings of Roland Barthes and the young Jean Baudrillard. and because the car figured as a contested technology in the period I am dealing with. presenting what are rather scattered writings by a variety of different authors in a synoptic fashion. where appropriate.198 Theory. that this exercise has been carried out in an English-language publication. Because mass motor transportation came later to France than it did to the United States. This is the first time. examining briefly in an empirical vein the rise of the French car industry and noting the enthusiastic embracing of the automobile by the modernist architect Le Corbusier. such as conspicuous consumption and competitions for social status. Next I will turn to investigate the primarily hostile response of leftist thinkers such as Guy Debord. As I believe will be apparent from my analysis of post-war French contributions to the comprehension of an ‘automobilic society’. My specific purposes in this article are threefold.sagepub. I would like to draw attention. This article is intended as a contribution to identifying a corpus of ‘classic writings’ on this topic. and the aggressive behaviours fostered by a highly individualistic Downloaded from tcs. I wish to provide a succinct socio-cultural history of the development of car culture in post-war France. French intellectuals were in many cases highly attuned towards seeking to understand what the car’s impacts would be on social and cultural conditions. Culture & Society 21(4/5) purview of the broad mass of the population. many of the ideas on display here remain of great interest to social theorists. I intend to make accessible to the Anglophone reader many of the interesting perspectives on car culture developed by French thinkers in the period under scrutiny. I will first set out the historical background to the development of postwar automotive conditions in France. French authors of the post-war period can be seen as foundational figures in the development of theories as to the dynamics of car culture. First. I will then consider the ways in which the car figured as the embodiment of spectacular forms of display. as far as I am aware. Second. upon which contemporary thinkers might usefully draw. 2011 . In some senses. The ideas we will deal with in this article were fuelled by intellectuals’ interest in what France might look like under the aegis of the automobile. In this way. After that I will turn to consider how certain French thinkers related the car to certain wider social dynamics. the ground out of which sprang the ideas as to the significance of the automobile developed by different intellectuals in the period.

the large car plants of the companies above became notorious for industrial militancy amongst the workforce. 1987). Although relatively high prices meant that private cars were in the interwar period restricted to the well-to-do middle classes. by the early 1930s there was already a fairly large number of car dealers in most large urban areas (Fridenson. who took the lead in further developing these designs and making them commercially viable (Laux. Kuisel. Finally. 1972). One reason for this was that the wartime economy’s need for motor transport had transformed car manufacturing from a primarily small-scale.Inglis – Auto Couture 199 and competitive society. France was a world-leader in car design and production. André Citroën consciously presented himself as the French Henry Ford. Aided by the good condition of French roads and the wide availability of petrol throughout the country. such as the bicycle manufacturer Armand Peugeot. which has brought with it its own particular rituals and idiosyncratic forms of social at UNIV OF ILLINOIS URBANA on August 20. mass production enterprise (Fridenson. I will see how it was possible by the later 1960s onwards for certain French thinkers to view the car as an integral part of everyday life. 1987). Conversely.000 in 1900 (Barker. the number of automotive vehicles in France rose from 300 in 1895 to more than 14. Although after this time the absolute numbers of automobiles on the road in both the United States and Great Britain were greater than in France. The success of a voiture sans chevaux built by the French firm Panhard and Levassor in covering the 730 miles between Paris and Bordeaux and back again in only 52 hours. Enter the Auto At the very beginning of the automobile age. In the inter-war years. Mothé. 1981). One of the first fully fledged automobile races in the world took place between Paris and Bordeaux in 1895. 1965). This process developed quite quickly throughout the 1890s. 1976). announced to the world that the automobile was no longer just an experimental device but a fully operational form of transport with huge potential to change the ways people and goods could be transported. bringing the benefits of American-style management to the production process (Schweitzer. Peugeot and Citroën all having become major employers at this time. I will conclude by drawing out the continuing relevance of aspects of these various perspectives for contemporary endeavours to ‘think the car’.sagepub. it was French entrepreneurs. partially artisanal form of production to a large-scale. tourist guides (like the one produced by the tyre company Michelin). and maps aimed specifically at drivers (Fridenson. 1989. 1982). Although the very first motorized vehicles had been developed in Germany in the late 1880s. nonetheless car manufacture had became an important part of the French economy in the years around the First World War. the manufacturers Renault. a reputation that persisted for at least another 50 years (e. 2011 .g. Downloaded from tcs. Another indication of the increasing ubiquity of the car among upper levels of the bourgeoisie in the period between the wars was the rapid growth of motoring publications such as magazines.

A confluence of several factors ensured that the production of private cars far exceeded the amount produced annually before the war. Instead of being appalled by this prospect. As he put at UNIV OF ILLINOIS URBANA on August 20. traffic. Such processes were aided by the fact that the Renault company was nationalized. a glass and concrete Paris of the future characterized by high-rise towers. Taking a stroll along the boulevards one summer evening. France underwent a series of major socio-cultural and socio-economic changes. but the rapture of power. and the opening of frontiers for international exchange and decolonization. his perambulations were curtailed by the sheer density and noise of the traffic. (1971 [1924]: 3)2 As Marshall Berman (1993: 167) puts it. . aerial highways and subterranean garages. . . He says that he had come to see a new purpose in his life: . 1984). going at all speeds. Initially disoriented and dismayed. one aspect of which was to create automotive conditions analogous to those that pertained in the USA. The simple and ingenuous pleasure of being in the centre of so much power. To leave your house meant that once you had crossed the threshold you were a possible sacrifice to death in the shape of innumerable motors’ (Le Corbusier. Downloaded from tcs. dating from 1924. he came to believe that humankind not only had to come to terms with it.sagepub. The automobile driver becomes the quintessential figure of a brave new world characterized by rationality. partly as a result of the collaborationist stance of some of its senior executives during the Occupation (Jones. The French state embarked upon a series of large-scale measures to ‘modernize’ the economy. ‘the fury of traffic grew. Culture & Society 21(4/5) The dramatic impact the automobile could have on the thinking of intellectuals at this period is vividly demonstrated in Le Corbusier’s (1971) modernist manifesto L’Urbanisme. but also had to embrace it. new capitalistic ways of production. through creating new ideals of beauty that were congruent with a world of concrete highways and speeding vehicles. an enthusiastic rapture filled me. Le Corbusier says that he quickly came to realize that this situation. Motors in all directions. As Gauron (1983: 96) puts it. so much speed. on Le Corbusier’s view at this period. technology and speed. characterized by the omnipresence of the automobile. rapid urbanization. Not the rapture of the shining coachwork under the gleaming lights. by the late 1950s.’4 The car was profoundly implicated in a number of these wide-ranging social changes. .3 In the years after the Second World War. Here he set out a prospectus of a new urban utopia. The manifesto is prefaced by a parable about how he personally came to realize the beauty of this vision. 1971 [1924]: 3). the ‘man in the street will incorporate himself into the new power [of traffic. shopping centres. I was assisting at the titanic reawakening of a comparatively new phenomenon . ‘French society had been shaken profoundly by strong demographic growth. and thus of the future as a whole] by becoming the man in the car’. I was overwhelmed. 2011 . was thoroughly emblematic of the future.200 Theory.

It was these middle-income white-collar workers who were the particular avatars of the burgeoning consumer economy. Thus Renault focused on the economy market. Car ownership was particularly high amongst the new class of ‘cadres’. Auto-spectacle In the relatively short span of time between 1945 and the mid-1960s. plus the smaller companies Simca and Panhard.Inglis – Auto Couture 201 The three larger car manufacturers. 1987). and on radio and the new medium of television (Fridenson. although France had lagged behind other western European countries in terms of private car ownership in the early 1950s. ubiquity of the car that meant that it took ‘centre stage in cultural debate’ in France from the early 1950s onwards (Ross. building the relatively inexpensive 4CV from 1946 onwards and the R4 from 1961.5 It was more the symbolic. producing the popular 203 model from 1949 onwards. and in so doing further to stimulate its development. only food rivalled the automobile as a vehicle for reflections by the French upon the nature of their country in the present day. and the intelligentsia in particular. unlike in the USA. it also produced the iconic at UNIV OF ILLINOIS URBANA on August 20. and its likely future under conditions of American-influenced consumerism. 1987: 134). in which automobiles and household goods such as refrigerators were increasingly sold as essentials of life. This partly state-encouraged development and segmentation of the market had the effect of encouraging substantial numbers of upper workingand lower middle-class people to enter into the condition of car ownership from the mid-1950s onwards. were highly reflexively conscious of the roles played by the automobiles in society in part because.. 1996: 23. While Citroën primarily was oriented towards the more luxury end of the market. As a result of these various developments. especially amongst lower socio-economic groups. 2001). 2011 .sagepub. see also Bardou et al. the private car had turned from being a preserve of the upper middle classes to occupying an increasingly central position in the life of all social classes. 1982). Citroën and Peugeot. namely Renault. the middle-ranking personnel who managed technocratic enterprises in both the public and private sectors (Boltanski. Although by this time most French people still did not actually own a car. were encouraged by the government each to target different sectors of the car market. the automobile at first tended to be perceived by both intellectual and other Downloaded from tcs. Peugeot cars were pitched at middle-market range.6 The French in general. Despite its increasing symbolic omnipresence in French society. 1981). rather than as yet directly physical.7 As the literary scholar Roland Barthes (2002 [1963]) noted in 1963. which was at first aimed at farmers but soon became a popular choice among young people and bohemians (Dauncey. nonetheless drivers and non-drivers alike were subjected to the constant publicity for automobiles to be found in newspapers and magazines. the rise of the car was not taken for granted or seen necessarily to be a harbinger of the benefits of scientific and technological modernity. by the mid-1960s France was as motorized as any other western European country (Fridenson.

in that its smooth lines and sleek façade are suggestive of an object that has not been made by human hands. Instead. the arrival of a new green and pink Chevrolet is initially ‘treated by the camera as a fantastic and singular visitation’ from out of the blue (Ross. an object is the best messenger of a world above that of nature: one can easily see in an object at once a perfection and an absence of origin’ (1993 [1957]: 88). Culture & Society 21(4/5) social groups as something of an alien object. Jean Baudrillard developed the vein of semiotic analysis of automobile design first indicated by Barthes. which was not fully integrated into quotidian existence in the way it was in the USA. ‘It is obvious that the new Citroen has fallen from the sky inasmuch as it appears at first sight as a superlative object .com at UNIV OF ILLINOIS URBANA on August 20. automobile design is one of the most supreme expressions of the fetishism of commodities. 1996: 31). . In a striking newspaper piece from the mid-1950s that later became part of the collection Mythologies. shining automobile is like a visitor from another world is reflected in one of the most famous accounts of the car’s role as a distillation of wider socio-cultural currents. that as yet ‘we lack the vocabulary to name them all’. in that Baudrillard (1996 [1968]: 3) says apropos of all the various goods that now crowded modern French interiors. a Platonic realm of pure forms where harmonious geometry reigns supreme. and consumed in image if not in usage by a whole population which appropriates them as a purely magical object. For example. in Jacques Tati’s 1958 film Mon Oncle. For Barthes. the form of the DS suggests a world beyond human frailty. a satire on the then-current vogue for modernist interior design and households oriented around les gadgets. what messages are inscribed into its very form.sagepub. conceived with passion by unknown artists. whereby the prosaic conditions of exploitative production are transmogrified into the supernatural arena of streamlined impeccability. Intended to provide a taxonomy of everyday objects such as furniture and household items. a period by which the car had come to figure as a much more prosaic object in everyday life in France.202 Theory. with all the imperfections and flaws that hand-production suggests. Barthes (1993 [1957]: 88) reflects on the display at a car fair of the new Citroën DS (Déesse – ‘the goddess’). 2011 . The ‘magical’ nature of the DS makes it the modern equivalent of a religious conception of perfection. In the late 1960s. his book Le Système des objets (1996 [1968]) reflects the great strides that consumer capitalism had made in France since the war. . He remarks that: I think that cars today are almost the exact equivalent of the great Gothic cathedrals: I mean the supreme creation of an era. Baudrillard devotes a part of the book to the discussion of the significance of the automobile in contemporary French Downloaded from tcs. The idea that the brand-new. in that it is a fetish which disguises the conditions of its own genesis. The point Barthes is making here echoes that of Marx – the commodity form has theological elements about it. The spiritual elements of the DS rest in its design. Barthes is concerned to develop a semiotic reading of what the car signifies.

and rendered into a purely abstract and artificial series of signifiers as to sleek movement through space. measureless speed. in favour of a wholly man-made context in which natural phenomena only appear as stylized parodies. A fetishization of speed is carried out by the material signifier of tail-fins which paradoxically reduce the technical efficiency of the car. symbols which have lost all touch with an exterior reality they purport to represent. Baudrillard’s discussion of tail-fins indicates that natural objects like birds’ and sharks’ fins are appropriated into the design of cars. A curious logic is at work here. and which obliterate. for ‘the car’s fins became the sign of victory over space’.sagepub. replaced by a self-consciously artificial imaginary which has the automobile at its centre as the symbolic quintessence of dynamic force. In this fashion. They suggested a miraculous automatism. in like fashion to Barthes’ ideas in Mythologies (e. then. Here we have an early indication of Baudrillard’s central thematic preoccupation.Inglis – Auto Couture 203 social life. The aesthetic elements in movement come to be associated less with the organic body of the animal. The feature of (primarily American) cars that particularly captures Baudrillard’s attention is the phenomenon of tail-fins. regarding the car as now just as important to the average consumer-citizen as was the at UNIV OF ILLINOIS URBANA on August 20. ‘nature’. Like Barthes. because they bore no direct relationship to that victory [and] indeed if anything they ran counter to it. 1993 [1957]: 54) to the effect that French life is increasingly being colonized by objects and systems of signs which bear no correspondence to. more apparently ‘natural’. yet ‘they were purely a sign. and which thus come to signify only themselves and their kind (Baudrillard. tending as they did to make vehicles both heavier and more cumbersome’ (1996 [1968]: 59). but also to an auto-referential symbolic form that creates its own universe of meaning at the expense of the functioning of other. 1996 [1968]: 59). nothing more than itself as victorious function’ (Baudrillard.g. other thinkers on the left who sought to Downloaded from tcs. semantic systems. Baudrillard sees in car design elements of a theological discourse as to sublimity and purity. Tail-fins therefore were signifiers not of ‘real speed. The implication of Baudrillard’s comments on car design is that the prefix ‘auto’ in the word ‘automobile’ points not only to a vehicle that ‘moves itself’. the car-commodity plays a part in destroying an older and more apparently ‘natural’ environment.8 The irony of the tailfin is that ‘scarcely had [the car] emancipated itself from the forms of earlier kinds of vehicle than the automobile-object began connoting nothing more than the result so achieved – that is to say. a sort of grace’ (1996 [1968]: 59). To Hell on the Highway While semioticians like Barthes and Baudrillard grappled with the signifying potency of the automobile. Also. but of a sublime. 1983). and more with the inorganic body of the auto. In this way. and in so doing are de-natured. namely the construction and operation of a society based around simulacra. the ‘natural’ is more and more processed out of existence. which in turn presents itself as a perfected form superior to ‘mere’ nature. 2011 .

in the context of a society increasingly programmed by the state around the needs of capital.204 Theory. As Debord saw it. the automobile seemed to be a very potent symbol of the destructive effects of stateled modernization processes (Mathy. 1992). a group of ultra-leftist intellectuals and artists formed in the late 1950s who sought to develop Marx’s analysis of commodity fetishism in such a way that it could come to grasp the novel elements in consumerist society that had arisen in the post-war period (Plant. began from the late 1950s onwards to think about the car in terms of its role as the ‘supreme good of an alienated life’ (Debord. On the one hand. somewhat more subterranean. Guy Debord. 2011 . While upper workingclass and lower middle-class people had tended to see the ownership of an automobile as a means to augmenting their lives. 1971 [1968]: 67). One of the key figures in this group. of what Alain Touraine (1971) called the ‘programmed society’. a development that the left looked at with some trepidation. expressed the views of many intellectuals on the left: ‘the motor-car is the epitome of “objects”. ‘nothing can beat the motor-car’ for reinforcing the worst and most reactionary habits and practices (1971 [1968]: 100). Rigby. car usage had quite another. From this point of view. In the short article entitled ‘Theses on Traffic’. Debord identified what he took to be the central contradiction that lay at the heart of automotive culture. for instance. 1971 [1968]: 104). By having to expend time getting to and from work by car. through facilitating trips to places of recreation during their leisure hours. For many of these leftist at UNIV OF ILLINOIS URBANA on August 20. the car had come to figure as ‘the most notable material symbol of the notion of happiness that developed capitalism tends to spread’ throughout modern societies (1989 [1959]: 56). The auto seemed to be both one of the prime symbols. the Leading-Object’. Yet on the other hand.sagepub. the car had played a very important role in augmenting Downloaded from tcs. Culture & Society 21(4/5) reconfigure Marxian models of social critique for a consumerist age began to deal critically with the car as it became more and more ingrained into the fabric of French social life. and having to suffer the miseries concomitant with increasing congestion of the roads as more and more people took to this form of transport. In a situation where fetishized objects were taken to fulfil the ‘false needs’ inculcated into individuals by consumer capitalism. the car operates as a means of further developing the extent of the exploitation of the labouring masses. the auto was seen to take ‘place of honour in the system of substitutes’ for authentic pleasures (Lefebvre. Henri Lefebvre (1971 [1968]: 100). The car seemed to herald the construction of a ‘French high-road to Americanization’ (Lefebvre. One of the leading leftist thinkers of the era. 1991). the distillation and apotheosis of the consumerist mentality that seemed rapidly to be engulfing French society from the 1950s onwards. and one of the central guarantors. 1993. a social order dominated by the twin factors of a technocratic state and an all-encompassing consumerism. which he wrote in 1959. 1989 [1959]: 56). the worker ended up paradoxically giving a greater proportion of his or her day over to work-related activities. effect. One version of this critique of the car can be found in the ideas of the Situationist International.

. Lefebvre (1971 [1968]: 101) argues that the ‘disintegration of city life’ in its more communal forms (meeting-halls. Similar sorts of ideas as to the spaces created by large-scale automobile use were put forward by Henri Lefebvre at around the same period (Gardiner. argues Lefebvre (1993 [1974]: 313). . Under contemporary social conditions. and the cocooning of individual motorists within their own privatized vehicular spaces. . and widely taken to be prophetic of. For Lefebvre (here drawing on the ideas as to different species of spaces developed by Maurice Merleau-Ponty [1996 (1945)]). Echoing the views of Debord. it functioned as a Trojan horse in the service of the exploiting classes. a form of transportation that was represented to workers as a boon for leisure purposes was actually a disguised vehicle of further extraction of time and effort in the interests of the economically dominant. published just before. the construction of autoroutes through cities. over the ‘lived spaces’ of community-based association. The inner city comes more and more to be characterized by ‘commercial centres packed tight with commodities. .com at UNIV OF ILLINOIS URBANA on August 20. public parks. In this context. From this perspective. money and cars’ (Lefebvre. among other things. ‘traffic circulation [has come to be] one of the main functions of a society and. Consequently. Debord argues that the car is complicit in all that is becoming disastrously wrong with contemporary France. streets and roadways’ over all other considerations (Lefebvre 1971 [1968]: 100). for it is characterized by the deadening rationality of geometrically ordered space: Downloaded from tcs. From this perspective. for ‘giant shopping centres created ex nihilo and surrounded by acres of parking space . ‘space is conceived in terms of motoring needs and traffic problems’ only. . . 1993 [1974]: 50). these temples of frenetic consumption’ are moral and spiritual wastelands. the car driver’s experience of the cityscape loses the richness and multidimensionality open to the stroller. involves the priority of parking spaces . 2011 . the upheavals of May 1968. Within such urban conditions. is a surplus labour which correspondingly reduces the amount of “free” time’ available to the driver (1989 [1959]: 56). a central fact of French modernity in the 1960s and 1970s was the car’s colonization of everyday life. etc. Within the geometric spatial imaginary. as such. automobile use had come to reconfigure very profoundly many aspects of how life is lived.) derives from these being swept away by.Inglis – Auto Couture 205 processes of extraction of surplus value from workers in ways Marx could not have fully anticipated: ‘commuting time . this is a triumph of the ‘geometric space’ favoured by technocratic public servants working hand in glove with car manufacturers. For Lefebvre.sagepub. Debord took the car to task in analogous ways in his book La Société du spectacle (1995 [1967]). when the car was used for commuting. market-places. where the only values to be found are expressed in the facile tag-lines and jingles of advertising executives (1995 [1967]: 123). the enlarging of existing city streets to meet the needs of increased motor traffic. 2000).

This is the same conclusion reached by JeanLuc Godard in his film Week-end. . a reduction of tree-lined streets. Modern urban society is represented. as well as those of Debord (and. the driver is concerned only with steering himself to his destination. Baudrillard (1994 [1986]) makes the point of the car’s usurpation of older urban spaces (in this case.9 Clearly. . those of Los Angeles) in this way: the ‘city was here before the freeway system. green spaces. no doubt. . . facility [and so on]. 1993 [1974]: 359). stripping away its relief and its historicity’. . . From this perspective. for leftist intellectuals of this period. mechanized and technicized. Lefebvre regards the re-creation of space in the present day as a situation whereby the city tends to get ‘sliced up. the ennui of commuting. . in a way. the ring-road Downloaded from tcs. This conquest of physical space by the car could be seen as the apotheosis of Americanization processes. making the same sort of point. has been swallowed up by the car-park. which once was an adjunct of the urban environment. readability.206 Theory. to an image. . Pursuing these themes in writings from the early 1970s. and parks and gardens’ (Lefebvre. dating from 1967. as a gridlocked hell of jammed traffic. Culture & Society 21(4/5) . Volume leaves the field to surface. in the guise of the farms and marketplaces of an older. on which it imposes its laws. Writing this time in the 1980s. the car. As Baudrillard (1996 [1968]: 66) put it. but it now looks as though the metropolis has actually been built round this arterial network’. more bucolic France. On the nightmarish view held by Lefebvre in the early 1970s. Today the greater part of everyday life is accompanied by the noise of engines’ (1971 [1968]: 101). The implication of these ideas of Lefebvre. and in looking about sees only what he needs to for that purpose. is that ‘Nature’. . by the ‘proliferation of fast roads and of places to park and garage cars. which is shared by Lefebvre. degraded and eventually destroyed’. The conclusion Lefebvre draws in his work of this period is that increasingly ‘it is almost as though automobiles and motorways occupied the entirety of space’ (1993 [1974]: 374). conquered everyday at UNIV OF ILLINOIS URBANA on August 20. . and their corollary. exhaust fumes and bloody highway accidents. in a bravura 8-minute long single take.sagepub. 2011 . . those of Barthes and Baudrillard too). ‘the motor-car has . the car had come to signify a malaise into which France had been brought by the combined forces of technocratic state modernization. [Thus] space appears solely in its reduced forms. and any overall view surrenders to visual signals spaced out along fixed trajectories already laid down in the ‘plan’. the car has the capacity to transfigure space and time in such a way that the world is reduced to ‘two-dimensionality. . misguided industrialization and thoughtless consumerism. which has been . he thus perceives only his route. has come to be not only its defining feature but also its master. and he sees it from one angle only – that of its functionality: speed. whereby the French urban environment came more and more to resemble the concrete and asphalt landscape of large American conurbations.

therefore.’. what Lefebvre had in mind was the various signifying systems that codify the arrangement of cars on highways. abstract condition of supermodernity. The nature of ‘driverly’ perception. is that it potentially gets to ‘experience’ large chunks of geography only as a series of abstract signs that flash by intermittently. such analyses of the spaces of driving arguably remain relevant today in that they have been usefully developed in recent years. according to Lefebvre and other contemporaneous French thinkers. de-historicized. This leads us to consider the ways in which. thus for the sake of speed depriving the driver of experiencing those places first-hand. 2004). 100). Like the airline passenger. Yet at the same time. 2011 . On the one hand. In the present day. all of these indicating an obliterating Americanization of French physical space. the motorway driver has been allowed to cover great distances at the expense of having anything other than a highly mediated engagement with any specific place on his or her travels. In the part of his book Everyday Life in the Modern World (1971 [1968]) devoted to automotive culture. it would be a very easy matter merely to write off the ideas of Lefebvre set out above as embodying a conservative lament for a fictitious golden age of sociability. etc. Lefebvre argues that in contemporary France ‘the motor-car’s roles are legion’. we began to trace out the contours of accounts of the nature of the experiences involved in automotive transportation. The latter gives an account of the ‘non-places’ characteristic of the social configuration he dubs ‘supermodernity’. Space becomes flattened out and abstracted to a high degree. geometricized. for functional reasons. and specificities and localities are traduced and rendered into ciphers in the gliding monotony of the highway.sagepub. For Augé (1995) the driver cruising through France on the main autoroutes experiences a means of perception highly characteristic of the de-natured. see Merriman. such as airport waiting lounges and the interiors of jumbo jets. and it makes comments on them’ (1995: 97.Inglis – Auto Couture 207 and the out-of-town mall. . Augé concludes that ‘motorway travel is . geometrically ordered Gesellschaft. by the ethnologist Marc Augé. advertisements. However. a Gemeinschaft of lived spaces ruined by the dynamics of an automobilepowered. doubly remarkable: it avoids. the major arterial networks tend to bypass most cities and towns. and nothing is known of them beyond that. . In terms of the latter factor. such places merely become ‘names on a map’. the car has come to alter the experienced world of the people who have come to rely upon it. the network of autoroute road signs is at pains to point out ‘historical sites’ and ‘places of interest’. for it ‘directs behaviour in various spheres from economics to speech’ (1971 [1968]: 103. journalistic or literary tracts. not just the Highway Code – ‘the epitome of compulsive sub-codes disguising by their self-importance our society’s lack of directive’ – but also other forms of discourse ‘such as legal. Given the Downloaded from at UNIV OF ILLINOIS URBANA on August 20. Cars and Contempt In the above. in more ‘neutral’ and ‘anthropological’ ways. all the principal places to which it takes us.

a denizen from the land of make-believe . is all that remains of everyday life. tucked away in its shell. The car is a status symbol. Lefebvre argues that the car has come to figure as a central nexus of commodity consumption. (1971 [1968]: 102–3)10 Lefebvre points out the intimate connections between type of car owned and social status. less powerful or less technologically advanced car than oneself. 2011 . an Downloaded from tcs. the highway is based around the orderly flow of traffic.sagepub. that has become important for a driver’s sense of self-worth. Echoing Barthes. it is consumed as a sign in addition to its practical use. Lefebvre notes that the car ‘has not only produced a system of communication’ dedicated to itself. power. further developing the ramifications that this system has had for what people think is important in their lives. for the motor-car with its retinue of wounded and dead. such that the person who drives a modest vehicle can be regarded with contempt by the driver of a more symbolically potent model. from the documents of traffic law to glossy magazines devoted to the latest automotive models. . its trail of blood. . ‘but also organisms and institutions that use it and that it uses’ (1971 [1968]: 103). ‘psychosis’ that is peculiar to the motorist. such conditions contribute to the disintegration of city life and foster a . each element enclosed in its own compartment. in a social context where ‘true’ individuality is increasingly stymied (Lefebvre. it is something magic. thus constituting a striking example of simultaneity without exchange. the motorist is caught in a curious paradox. and is thus a vital means of ensuring the continuity of regulated forms of everyday practice. On this account. or how it at UNIV OF ILLINOIS URBANA on August 20. While the car is the commodity par excellence. As a result of this exponential growth in cultural and institutional forms pertaining to the car. One can look down with disdain on the person who has a less stylish. nonetheless it creates its own illusions of ‘freedom’.208 Theory.11 It is not just the particular model of the car. created by the nature of the car itself: Motorized traffic enables people and objects to congregate and mix without meeting. according to Lefebvre the latter had come to colonize more and more areas of everyday life in contemporary France. 1971 [1968]: 102). rather. Culture & Society 21(4/5) proliferation from the 1950s onwards of texts relating to automobile transport. it symbolizes happiness and procures happiness by symbols. the fetishized idea of ‘performance’ has arisen as a way in which individuals seek to gain some individuality for themselves by reference to the power and handling capacities of their vehicles. its paltry ration of excitement and hazard. For Lefebvre (1971 [1968]: 101). . authority and speed. One’s social standing in the eyes of others is strongly bound up with what sort of car one possesses. it stands for comfort. . The perceived inferiority of the car becomes mentally transferred to its driver. on the other hand the real but limited and pre-established dangers do not prevent most people from ‘taking risks’.

1975).) While the Althusserian elements in such analysis render it a little crude (‘bourgeois ideology’ is seen directly to produce particular everyday practices. risk and significance’ in an administered society (1971 [1968]: 103). with France having the highest number of road deaths out of all West European countries consistently year after year.Inglis – Auto Couture 209 analogy to the ordered flow of commodities in an economy based around constant consumption. put the same point in these terms: . the car has come to occupy a somewhat ambiguous position in modern life. The dangerous nature of driving was the result of races between drivers who sought to ‘maximize their gains in space. What lies at the back of Lefebvre’s analysis here is the internationally recognized notoriety of French driving conditions in the 1960s and 1970s. said an East German friend as he gazed in horror at his first Paris rush-hour. the political analyst André Gorz. if only mostly fleetingly and in its interstices. On a Monday. competitive egotism of the driver symbolically murdering the ‘idiots’ obstructing his headlong passage through the traffic represents the flowering of a universally bourgeois at UNIV OF ILLINOIS URBANA on August 20. an aggressively acquisitive society breeds certain styles of everyday practice. in that it ‘is a condensation of all the attempts to evade [forms of] everyday life’ that are more and more regulated. 1996: 61). Nonetheless. 2011 . Yet the advertising mechanisms that help maintain the flow of consumption often draw upon images of individualized freedom.12 The issue of the often aggressive individuality of (primarily male) drivers was taken up in the mid-1970s by the sociologist Luc Boltanski.sagepub. This helps to stimulate disorder and anarchy in the traffic system. because it has been defined as the last refuge of ‘hazard. nonetheless it remains useful today for focusing attention on the wider socio-cultural contexts which produce such phenomena as ‘road rage’ and other forms of violence on the highways. and upward social mobility. mass motoring produces an absolute triumph of bourgeois ideology on the level of daily practice by creating and nourishing within the individual the illusion that he [sic] can prevail and advance himself at everyone’s expense. writing under the nom de plume Michel Bosquet (1977 [1973]: 21). which would be equivalent to maximizing their profits in time’ (Ross. (‘You’ll never forge socialism with these people’. The brutal. flight and speed to sell the latest auto models. . The factors that lie behind the actions of the driver who sees red vis-à-vis other motorists to the point of deliberately Downloaded from tcs. At around the same period. From this viewpoint. notable among which is a bellicose driving style. newspapers would have a special section devoted to the prior weekend’s death toll on the roads (Vallin and Chesnais. . in this case competitive and belligerent driving). Boltanski (1975) discussed the phenomenon of drivers engaged in competition with others on the road as an expression of the culture of competitive individualism fostered by a class society organized around accumulation of private wealth and consumer goods.

localized resistances to it (e. .g. is characteristic of a substantial element of French social thinking from the mid-1970s onwards. a refuge that allows a little recklessness and ‘fun’ to be injected into the otherwise highly regulated life of the commuter. especially given that that form of consumerism often involves deprecation of other people’s choice of car models (Collett and Marsh.g. locales used in ‘unofficial’ ways by particular at UNIV OF ILLINOIS URBANA on August 20. but as also part of a wider socio-cultural order characterized by competitive individualism and selfish consumerism. Yet even in the depths of the most despairing critiques of automotive culture there lay hidden more upbeat accounts of the restructuring of social and spatial relations in the age of the auto.210 Theory. . Lefebvre (1995. His stated concern was with showing the ways in which individuals work within. The privatization that travel undergoes in the car era in fact could be taken to be productive of both aggressive individualism in drivers and the possibility that the car operates as a refuge from an overly administered form of existence. which seeks to locate unexpected pockets of creativity and movement within an apparently wholly administered urban order. driving through red lights). Certainly Lefebvre’s analysis of the encroachment of large-scale motor transport on the fabric of urban France can be seen as a nostalgic hankering after a pre-automobile cityscape. The Quotidian Car Thus far we have examined some of the more gloomy prognoses as to the development of automotive culture in post-war France made by certain intellectuals of the period. 1986). which looks at how such systems are negotiated by particular persons in everyday settings. 2004) was concerned to depict the tempos of city life as following the beats both of officially imposed social order (e. its poverty and fruitfulness’ (1971 [1968]: 13). The aim of Lefebvre’s overall analysis of the conditions of everyday life was to ‘expose its ambiguities – its baseness and exuberance. 1984: xii).sagepub. While ‘places’ are locales where regimes of power inscribe themselves.13 In his analyses of the ‘rhythms’ of city life dating from the later 1970s. This sort of analysis was also developed throughout the 1970s by Michel de Certeau. the effects of policing of the streets) and of unofficial. subvert and connive against systems of regulation and control (de Certeau. A shift from a ‘structuralist’ analytic which stresses the imperatives of systems upon individuals to a ‘post-structuralist’ paradigm. city planners and other such authoritative groups are seen to be: . Thus the focus turns to the ways in which ‘the street geometrically defined by urban planning is transformed into a space by walkers’ (1984: 117). On such a view. Culture & Society 21(4/5) inflicting physical damage on them could be seen not as residing purely in the psyche of the individual alone. 2011 . de Certeau sought to uncover how these can be turned into ‘spaces’. but it can also be seen as an attempt to identify the contradictions in car culture. incapable of imposing the rationality of reinforced concrete on multiple and fluid cultural systems that organize the living space of inner areas Downloaded from tcs.

) and that innervate them with an infinite number of itineraries.sagepub. where through means of bricolage. stairways and the like) or public domains (streets. but one released from the constraints that usually apply to the intimacy of home. but an exceptional one. one endowed with a formal freedom of great intensity . too. [and] a dwelling place’ (1996 [1968]: 69). more gentle sort of individualism.’ (1996 [1968]: 67). allows a at UNIV OF ILLINOIS URBANA on August 20.Thus ‘the car rivals the house as an alternative zone of everyday life: the car. etc. anti-hegemonic practices which render them back into ‘lived spaces’. connotes unfettered individualism. . The ambiguity of the car rests in its simultaneous ability to be both ‘a projectile . is an abode. This is the sort of car that gives one a feeling of being in a space of one’s own. by contrast. which obviously comes to the fore more in some models than others. (The connection between this mentality and Boltanski’s and Gorz’s aggressive individualists is obvious. (de Certeau. unreliable maps and all the other mishaps that exist beyond and in spite of the rationalized system of the contemporary highway (for a more detailed account of the implications of de Certeau’s analysis of car culture. There Barthes argues. The former side of the car. A further element of the car’s appropriation by people in everyday life was first indicated as early as 1963. that the car has become an absolutely ordinary and taken-for-granted element of French life. see Thrift’s article in this volume). in marked contrast to his newspaper piece from the mid-1950s mentioned above. it is a closed realm of intimacy. The spirit of de Certeau’s writings directs our attention not only to ‘unofficial practices’ of driving such as aggressive overtaking and the like pointed to by Lefebvre. The point that both Barthes and Baudrillard each in their own ways want to make is that the interior of the car is a domestic arena infused with Downloaded from tcs. squares. . He identifies the binary opposition that he feels above all others has come to categorize different aspects of the car: the opposition between ‘sporty’ (sportif) and ‘homely’ (domestique).) The more ‘homely’ aspect of the car. even if one has travelled hundreds of miles. a familiar environment over which one has control. in an article by Barthes (2002 [1963]) in the journal Réalités. Once again we see Baudrillard’s (1996 [1968]: 67) writing of the late 1960s echoing Barthes’ ideas. It suggests a cosy cocoon of one’s own. The paradoxical nature of the domestique aspects of the automobile is that ‘it makes it possible to be simultaneously at home and further and further away from home’. the driver being representable as a free spirit breaking away from the rest of the pack. the owner creates his or her own personalized environment by adding extra fittings such as sun-blinds on the rear windows and decorations such as stickers commemorating either places visited or allegiance to a sports team. missed turn-offs. . 2011 .Inglis – Auto Couture 211 (apartments. 1997 [1974]: 133) Thus the ‘geometric’ spaces identified by Lefebvre turn out on de Certeau’s account to be subvertible by unofficial. which is foregrounded most typically in the family saloon or estate. but also to the mundane cases where what should happen does not: late departures. .

if not. Perec (1997 [1974]: 51–2) lists the rigmarole the driver goes through: Ⅵ Ⅵ Ⅵ Ⅵ Ⅵ Ⅵ Ⅵ parks by means of a certain amount of toing and froing switches off the engine withdraws the key. is apparent in the novelist and essayist Georges Perec’s work from the mid-1970s. Culture & Society 21(4/5) the capacity – at least theoretically – to take one wherever one may so desire. Perec’s account of the minutiae of quotidian life dwells in part on the role of the car in everyday existence.212 Theory. 1999). This illustrates the degree to which. reworked and recast to some degree to suit the personalities of its users (Bellos. although the generic modern city is represented as constituted of a never-ending sea of cars. tellingly entitled Trafic (1970). checks that the boot is locked properly checks that the right-hand rear door is locked.14 In Jacques Tati’s final film of note. by the 1960s. 2011 . the idiosyncratic things that their human inhabitants do inside the cars is dwelt upon. For example. but can be seen as part of a more general sensibility characterized by a view of the car as a ‘place of one’s own’. Another set-piece likens the ways the windscreen wipers of particular cars work to the corporeal and personal characteristics of their drivers – the wipers of a fat man’s car move ponderously. there is a celebrated sequence in which the audience gets to watch different drivers stuck in traffic picking their noses.sagepub. For example. while sitting on the outside terrace of a cafe on the junction of the Rue de Bac and Boulevard Saint-Germain. The technology is humanized by Tati in order to emphasize that after purchase. while those of a very aged gentleman do so only with the greatest effort. he commands himself to ‘describe the number of operations the driver of a vehicle is subjected to when he parks merely in order to go and buy a hundred grams of fruit jelly’. recommences the sequence of operations already carried out on the left-hand rear door Downloaded from tcs. setting off a first anti-theft device extricates himself from the vehicle winds up the left-hand front window locks it checks that the left-hand rear door is locked. the car was viewable in France not just as a hostile entity but as much a familiar part of a person’s life as the furniture in their home or the sights of their local neighbourhood. This was not a perspective limited merely to the writings of Barthes and Baudrillard. the car becomes indigenized. if need be. including at UNIV OF ILLINOIS URBANA on August 20.15 The same sort of ‘humanistic’ appraisal of the everyday activities of people. if not: Ⅵ Ⅵ Ⅵ Ⅵ Ⅵ Ⅵ opens it raises the handle inside slams the door checks it’s locked securely circles the car.

whereas those accounts which see the car as a prosaic and ‘homely’ entity date from a period when automobility had become thoroughly woven into the fabric of French quotidian existence. in order both to present them to an Anglophone audience. I have been concerned in this article to set out the range of these responses. odd and rather extraordinary. looks all around him as if to make sure the car is still there and that no-one will come and take it away. as to the car and its possible effects on society. As a result. avatar of Americanization. symbol and agent of reproduction of aggressive individualism. among other things. spectacular commodity. ranging from the most hostile to the most empathetic. as perceived by thinkers of the period. Conclusion This benevolent view of the car’s role in people’s lives put forward in literary terms by Perec and visually dramatized by Tati is a far cry from the often apocalyptic denunciations of car culture formulated by other French intellectuals in the period from the 1950s through to the at UNIV OF ILLINOIS URBANA on August 20. and to pull the different ideas together from their various sources in such a way that otherwise occluded patterns might become visible. and to reflect on the little rituals that make up our quotidian existence both inside the car and without. We have seen that in post-war France. threat to French values and spaces. and were put forward.or herself. on Downloaded from tcs. leaving the reader perhaps with a little jolt of recognition as s/he remembers seeing this done or doing this him. the automobile could variously be regarded as. he is in essence engaged in an ‘anthropological’ de-familiarization of the commonplace. and its impact. A glint of wry humour makes its way into Perec’s account above towards the end. namely post-war France. with the driver being seen to turn to see if his car is actually still where he left it a second before. This fact indicates that French intellectual engagements with the rise and development of mass automobility encompassed a diverse set of different possible responses. in post-war France. His phenomenology of car use asks us to examine closely our own everyday automotive activities. We can identify in broad outline a chronological aspect to these responses: those that regard as the car as a relatively ‘alien’ and unfamiliar object naturally enough date from the period when mass motorization was beginning to develop. a ‘humanized’ object that expresses the individuality of its driver and around which peculiar little rituals had developed. 2011 .Inglis – Auto Couture Ⅵ Ⅵ Ⅵ Ⅵ 213 winds up the right-hand front window shuts the right-hand front door locks it before walking away.sagepub. culture and everyday life. This article has at one level sought to present a succinct history of the development of car culture at a particular time in a particular place. home-from-home and an essential part of everyday life. Perec’s intention is to gaze so hard at the ‘ordinary’ that it stops being prosaic and starts to be seen as peculiar. a very wide variety of interpretations of the car’s socio-cultural significance were possible.

and the specific case of aggressive driving styles. But what could be developed further is a more general Merleau-Pontian account of the dispositions and activities that the whole being of the driver engages in while on the road. Different modes of driving. which is based upon seeing the human being as a confluence of mind and body rather than as an abstract intellect confronting its own inert flesh. I am also particularly struck by the possibility of taking further the ‘phenomenological’ perspectives on automotive experience developed by certain thinkers dealt with above. we might take inspiration from Barthes and Baudrillard to try to understand what the automotive designs that go under the verbal label ‘people carrier’ might tell us about attitudes towards family life held by certain types of driver today. customers. In a similar fashion. This suggestion as to a Merleau-Pontian phenomenology of driverly experience is just one example of how perspectives on the car first developed in post-war France could be developed and extended in the present day as we seek more fully to grasp the fundamental roles the car plays in social orgaization and the life of the individual. Intellectuals of many Downloaded from tcs. could be investigated. for example. be these colleagues. Yet although the ideas we have examined were originally responses to particular sets of socio-cultural conditions. and as indicated above. Perec’s detailed descriptions of what car drivers actually do in their everyday automotive practices is already a useful step in this direction. as could the ways in which the driver ‘lives’ in his or her car. would seek to depict the ways in which the mind and body of the driver are as one when they are involved in the acts that together constitute practical and partially pre-reflective modes of inhabiting the car. A Merleau-Pontian (1996 [1945]) analysis. such as those based on differences in gender socialization. be interesting to carry out empirical research to ascertain whether incidents of ‘road rage’ today tend to occur most frequently among the social group that both Boltanski and Gorz may have had in mind back in the 1970s as the least chivalrous of drivers. whether it is in motion or stationary (Sobchak. whose social position arguably compels them always to be oriented towards ‘putting one over’ on other people.sagepub. an issue that has been taken up more recently by Augé. or other drivers on the roads. nonetheless I believe they possess interest and utility when regarded beyond their original context of production. 1994).214 Theory. Gorz and Boltanski as to linkages between more general cultural patterns of individualism and competitiveness. It would. namely ‘young executives’ of the lower middle class. For example. Lefebvre opened up this perspective in one at UNIV OF ILLINOIS URBANA on August 20. we could today further develop the ideas of analysts such as Lefebvre. But I also have in mind here the potential implicit in Lefebvre’s utilization of Merleau-Pontian phenomenology for the understanding of how drivers experience movement on the road. namely how the geometric spaces of the road are viewed by the car driver. Culture & Society 21(4/5) wider cultural and social dynamics. 2011 .16 The semiotics of car design first pioneered by Barthes and then taken up by Baudrillard I think remains a valuable means of investigating the significance that car designs in the present day may have in wider cultural contexts.

The affinities between this position and those of the Italian and Russian Futurist artists working in about the same period are obvious. . of goods). Kristin Ross (1996) shows in some detail the impact that cars in general. 3. collisions’. including France. Likewise. swarming with automobiles. the crime writer Georges Simenon (2003 [1953]) had based a whole novel.Inglis – Auto Couture 215 different hues in post-war France thought that the car was ‘good to think with’. In Robert and Helen Lynd’s (1957 [1929]) classic sociological analysis of ‘Middletown’ Downloaded from tcs. of the later 1950s and early 1960s. the functioning of the Nazi state hinges on its motorization of the German people through mass ownership of a Volkswagen – ‘no more riots.’ 6. no need for much repression. Françoise Sagan’s immensely popular Bonjour tristesse (1955). 7. has a car crash as its central plot device. the American automobile is treated as a fantastic and alien intrusion into quotidian French existence. This optimistic view of the car was an object of satire and scepticism even in the 1920s. a habitable circulation’ (1986 [1977]: 5). Rather. for at UNIV OF ILLINOIS URBANA on August 20. illegal parking. written while he was resident in Paris. The car also made its way into Francophone novels of the period. to empty the streets. the state should be understood as a means of transportive order. 2011 . 1968). 5. 2003). with traffic jams. Ehrenburg (1976 [1929]: 3) noted the ubiquity of advertising for cars in France: ‘The streets of Paris. As relatively early as 1953. For example. The speeding vehicle is seen to be a harbinger of a revolution in thought. 2. For a study of popular cultural representations of cars in America at the same period. Feux rouges (Red Lights) around the American dependence on car transportation and its peculiar effects on the American psyche (Marnham. and American models in particular. In films such as Jacques Demy’s Lola (1960) and Robert Dhéry’s La Belle Americaine (1961). Even as early as the 1920s. For example. it’s enough to promise everyone the highway’ (1986 [1977]: 25). set out in highly caustic ways the negative impacts the car was having on different countries around the world. and revolution. Notes 1. . Quotes from works in French are the present author’s translations. multiple clashes. played in French popular culture. the Russian author Ilya Ehrenburg’s (1976 [1929]) novel The Life of the Automobile. I hope that this article has demonstrated that their ideas as to automobility are good to think with too. 4. see Dettelbach (1976). especially cinema. revolt. American intellectuals were describing the car’s profound transformation of the quotidian aspects of life in the United States.sagepub. Virilio (1986 [1977]: 14) argued in his work from the late 1970s that the modern state is only secondarily the institution whereby one class oppresses all others. the city is primarily ‘a human dwelling-place penetrated by channels of rapid communication . Seeing the urban and political orders as configurations of vehicular movement allows Virilio to characterize human history in terms of differing transport regimes. in that it is essentially a mechanism of ‘highway surveillance’. representation and social practice (see Martin. were covered with posters [advertising automobiles] as cajoling and coddling as the hiss of the nocturnal serpent. which sees social order as contiguous with ‘the control of traffic (of people. All page references are to the French editions. As early as 1929.

from reducing church attendance by facilitating longer-range Sunday pleasure trips to freeing car-driving teenagers from parental scrutiny. The more passive style of American driving. an interesting lacuna in Bourdieu’s account of tastes in cultural objects. Culture & Society 21(4/5) (actually Muncie. namely Paul Virilio (e. For example. 11.’ 10. 16. This is not. at UNIV OF ILLINOIS URBANA on August 20.sagepub. the playing of carnival music is seen to transform a gridlocked roundabout into a funfair carousel.(or super-) modern surface. Yet Tati shows that under the hyper. Barthes (2002 [1963]) in his 1963 article on automobiles denied this point.216 Theory. 15.g. at the symbolic level. 8. One might see this ‘post-Marxist’ turn towards prosaic and everyday forms of ‘resistance’ against sources of official power as a means by which leftist intellectuals could retain their ‘radical’ credentials while giving up on more organized. 13. As Jean Collet (1970: 134) noted in the period immediately after the events. the rhetoric he sometimes puts forward as Downloaded from tcs. group-oriented forms of political struggle in light of the ‘failure’ of the May 1968 events. the car is seen to have had wide-ranging impacts on everyday existence. the smooth flow of traffic ‘is the only real society or warmth here. Although cars feature in Pierre Bourdieu’s (1996 [1979]) analyses of the field of cultural consumption in France in the 1960s and 1970s to a certain extent. not bothering to overtake or cut up other drivers – gives a profound sense of the nature of the American collectivity. As Gartman (1994. in answer to the question as to what factors were changing the community. 2004) points out. arguing that the car had by this time ceased to function as an important status symbol in French cultural life. in contrast to its more aggressive French counterpart. catches Baudrillard’s attention in his travelogue America (1994 [1986]: 53). Indiana). this compulsion – of lemmings plunging suicidally together’. become outmoded by new forms of transportation. in many respects. In Playtime (1967). as symbolized in the car. 2011 . the scholar who today is arguably the main French thinker on issues of ‘mobilities’. Ironically. tail-fins on American cars were probably first derived from the fins of fighter aircraft rather than animals’ fins. metal and the insistent presence of automobiles. 9. could be seen as prophetic of the events of May 1968. ‘The cars that burned in the Ile-de-France of Weekend. most notably Internet forms of communication which allow the individual to move instantaneously through forms of space hitherto unknown. this collective propulsion. at one point in the film. they do not play a very major role. has pronounced that the car has now. with the cars slowly but elegantly turning around like so many hobbyhorses. from Baudrillard’s semiotic anti-humanism. As one respondent put it. The film. to claim that the intellectual dispositions of different authors (and artists) working within this sensibility were wholly congruent with each other. The way in which Americans drive on freeways – cruising along. 12. 2000 [1995]). While Virilio’s ideas in this direction are often very stimulating. Tati’s humanism is of course very far away. In a hyper-individualistic social order. did not wait for another October before setting the torch to other cars. however. filmed in October 1967. Tati places his comic creation Monsieur Hulot in a Le Corbusier-like Paris of chrome. the pulse of human life still continues to beat. with its emphasis on revolutionary violence coming to wreck ordered bourgeois life. ‘I can tell you what’s happening in just four letters: A-U-T-O!’ (1957 [1929]: 251).

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