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of practices that foster car culture,” relies on a host of twentieth-century conditions that are now exhausted and outdated.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.