Friday, April 24
I own a car now, again, which in my teenage years would probably have been a right of passage and in my adult years is proving to be a huge object that I have to be responsible for locating and caring for. No, it is not a Citröen as imagined by an Italian sculptor/indurstrial designer; its really just a Volvo 740 made the year I left grade school. But I understand the sentiment that Barthes relates in his 1957 essay on the neomania of that particularly designed automobile. I realized when I started browsing Craigslist that not only did I need to know that the car would run, but also that I had an underlying expectation of what it would look like and I in it. The process of purchase is pretty painless: meeting with the owner, transferring the appropriate documents, insuring it and driving it away. The choice of what car to do this with is very different. I don't think there is a person in the world who doesn't agonize a little bit over what the signification of this thing that you essentially have to be seen in/with for x amount of years. I would guess that large American-made autos put forth a certain nationalism for some, while economical Japanese autos reflect a progressive practicality. The BMW is a safe, classic luxury vehicle and the Maserati a symbol of youthful virility (usually driven by someone who is neither of those things.) I feel a little ridiculous relating how I labored over what color my used, Craigslist auto would be (both interior and exterior) and what year and make it would be (1990s or 1960s?) My friend Rodrigo even joked that, depending on the vehicle, it might require a new wardrobe (white loafers with no socks if it were from the 1960s.) At any rate, I began to wonder if our heightened visual culture begat the increased use of visual signifiers to replace actual content in our perception of the world. Does it really matter what this vehicle looks like, or am I concerned regarding how the others will read my choice? Technology has become so much an extension of the physical body (cell phones, ipod, etc;) does that mean my car, too? Barthes' essay looks at how the initial change in visual design of machines (like autos) and our use of them has become more an "actualizing through this exorcism the very essence of petit-bourgeois advancement." Very much worth revisiting before you go put on a flowered dress and open the sunroof.