Thursday, November 20, 2008

Mitt Romney and Automobility

In a recent op-ed in the New York Times Mitt Romney argues that the only way for the U.S. automotive industry to succeed is to “let Detroit go Bankrupt.” At one point, Romney quips, “I love cars, American cars.” This facile claim strikes me as both sympathetically banal as well as a blunt expression of exactly what Karl Marx would have described as the “fetishism” of commodities: as if cars have their own social life, as if cars care whether or not Mitt Romney “loves” them. It is noteworthy that Romney does not say that he loves the people who design or build cars; he loves the cars themselves. (This is mindful of John McCain’s remark in the final Presidential debate to the effect of “Americans are the best workers in the world!” The people known as “Americans” are, in this schema, recognizable by their labor before their humanity or other characteristics—work takes on a special quality, somehow constitutive in its own right.)

Romney’s declaration of auto-mobile-love also completely ignores a much more critical reality: cars are simply not a sustainable means (neither sociologically nor ecologically) for humans to transport themselves around this planet. Certainly, I understand that humans are very attached to cars in current practices of everyday life—and I also accept that many people do have the capacity to love the cars in which they spend countless hours commuting, running errands, or joy riding. However, we have to become aware of the reality that “automobility”—a term that means both self-directed mobility as well as dependence on external technologies for motion—is a phenomenon that is dated, and likely nearing its end. Cars cut up the world in ways that delimit perspective and cultivate solipsism, even while they seem to promise precisely the opposite. (Nabokov captures this brilliantly in his masterpiece Lolita.) Automobility, or “the entire gamut of practices that foster car culture,” relies on a host of twentieth-century conditions that are now exhausted and outdated. We need to get over the fetishism of cars and work to rigorously imagine new possibilities for how humans might inhabit and move around the planet. I am not sure what these new possibilities for mobility might be—indeed, they reside in the Derridean realm of a “future-to-come.” Yet this need not be a utopia; it might simply be a more consciously—and conscientiously—integrated network of transportation routes and rituals. The opening to this future exists. But humans have to be open to this possible future. Loving cars is not an open sentiment, as much as it may be deployed as such.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Annie Proulx's "The Hellhole": A New Media Approach

In thinking about how to teach fiction through an integrated new media approach, I wish to explore a theory for "digital mapping." I am using the term "digital mapping" in a geographic sense as well as in a more metaphoric, networked sense.

Annie Proulx's story "The Hellhole" (from her collection Bad Dirt, 2004) considers rugged landscape as both a fictive and a geologic terrain. In the spirit of Hawthorne, Proulx concocts a magically dark tale about the metaphysical niceties of public space and the everyday ethics of hunting. The main character is Creel Zmundzinski, a Fish and Game warden in Elk Tooth, Wyoming. Creel discovers a certain thermal feature near a turnout that will swallow poachers whole, if he catches them in the act of brutal animal slaughter and then leads them to the sinkhole. But when this morally charged topography becomes overused, its secret is unknowingly paved over by the Forest Service.

Where is this mythical space, and how might it align with a real place? Google Maps to the rescue. There appears to be no actual town called "Elk Tooth"— however, the corresponding Google search culls hits for several websites where one can purchase "elk ivory jewelry." As one site informs its readers/consumers: "The Jensen Family's strong belief in western values led us to exclusively offer our Elk Ivory Jewelry. Elk teeth may appear to be teeth, but are actually the remains of prehistoric tusk, which is ivory." Two Google clicks from the fictitious Elk Tooth, and one finds oneself in an ambiguous (yet real) thicket of rhetoric concerning "western values," prehistory, and the commodification of animal parts in a global (and virtual) marketplace. It is worth noting that in Proulx's story, Creel's drinking buddy and Forest Service pal is named "Plato Bucklew." How did we get from Plato's cave to Elk Tooth, Wyoming? Western values, indeed.

This is one mere path across the digitally mappable contours of Proulx's story "The Hellhole." One can imagine an entire class structured around small group work in which students map the narrative using online materials and then present their findings in multimedia essays at the end of class. For instance, one group of students might explore the ecology of Wyoming's thermal features and provide images to supplement the textual descriptions of a steaming, burbling earth. This online activity, though, should not be thought of as an end in and of itself, but always as a way to analyze how associative links are made in prose and on the internet, and where these two medial networks intersect, overlap, clash, or diverge entirely. What makes a story a text? What can a text make of the internet?