Introduction: Mediating Urban Automobility

Dallas’s cathedral of the car – the High Five Interchange, 2007. (Photo by author.)
In his introduction to the dossier, Cortland Rankin considers the roles media has played in reflecting, interpreting, and shaping the relationship between automobility and urbanism.
[Ed. note: this article is part of a dossier on Mediating Urban Automobility.]

Cars are, by and large, selfish things. They require vast stretches of space completely disproportionate to their size to operate. They isolate drivers and passengers alike from other people and their surrounding environment. Their marketing feeds and feeds on egotistic desires for speed, comfort, beauty, and status. And most of them still consume nonrenewable resources and pollute at an alarming rate. So perhaps the reader will forgive the following recounting of the initial inspiration for this dossier for being slightly self-indulgent.

The seeds of my interest in urban automobility were planted years ago when I decided one summer evening to photograph the High Five Interchange in my hometown of Dallas, Texas. Enshrining the “everything is bigger in Texas” stereotype in concrete and rebar, this five-level stack interchange built between 2002–2005 is intimidatingly large by any measure. Connecting two of the busiest freeways in North Texas, the east-west bound LBJ Freeway (I-635) and north-south bound Central Expressway (US 75), the High Five includes five flyover ramps, the tallest of which sends motorists almost literally flying 100 feet above ground level. Including the six lanes of Central Expressway sunken below grade, the interchange is as high as a twelve-story building, spans 3.4 miles to the east and west and 2.4 miles north and south, contains 43 bridges and 710 columns, and adds an additional 60 miles of highway to the North Dallas landscape. Undaunted by and perhaps somewhat naïve about the potential challenges of photographing such a behemoth, I parked along a frontage road and made my way out to one of the High Five’s grassy embankments with my digital SLR camera and tripod in tow (watch out for fire ants). I’d driven or been driven along Dallas’s highways all my life, but up to this point had never intentionally ventured out into such an automotive landscape as a pedestrian, probably for obvious reasons. But standing there along the High Five, I realized something (in addition to how much fire ant bites hurt). Up to this point I’d never really thought of Dallas as a city in the sense that Chicago or New York were cities in part because it lacked the population density, bustling pedestrian life, and busy downtown that I considered essential hallmarks of the centripetal urbanism embodied by those metropolises. And truly it’s nothing like those cities in significant ways. I understood conceptually that there were other forms of urbanism, of course, and that Dallas was simply a different kind of city, one that, like many Sun Belt cities, grew up with and around the car. But I suppose that knowledge just hadn’t fully clicked yet. It wasn’t until I was standing, camera in hand, amidst this cathedral of the car that I came to understand that a highway like this was not just a road in the city, it was the city in a very real way — a sublime metonym for Dallas if there ever was one. What’s most relevant about this story for this dossier is that my personal insight about the relationship between urbanism and automobility came to me via a form of mediation: the camera. For it is often only through some form of mediation that we can begin to tease out the threads of something as ubiquitous as the automobile that has been so thoroughly woven into the fabric of everyday urban life.

The car in its classic incarnation as a wheeled, driver-controlled vehicle powered by an internal combustion engine has been around for almost 140 years. During that time it’s fair to say that the car has come to symbolize many things in many different geographical, cultural, and historical contexts, some of which exist in paradoxical tension. In the United States, to take but one example, the car has been a symbol of technological progress and industrial might, but also one closely affiliated with collective notions of labor. It has been an icon of social mobility, status, and prosperity, but it can also suggest aimlessness and precarity. The car has been an important marker of personal freedom, individualism, and cultural identity, but is also the pinnacle of mass-produced, mass-marketed consumer culture. It allows us to travel the world with unparalleled ease, but also isolates us from our surroundings and has done perhaps irreparable harm to our environment. As the subtitle to Bryan Appleyard’s recent book The Car suggests, it is not too much of a stretch to say that the car is “the machine that made the modern world.”1Bryan Appleyard, The Car: The Rise and Fall of the Machine that Made the Modern World (New York: Pegasus Books, 2022). Taking heed of Appleyard’s assertion that both driver-controlled and gasoline-powered cars seem increasingly due to be supplanted by autonomous and electric vehicles, it seems a prudent moment to once again take stock of the far-reaching transformations ushered in by the age of the car.

Front and center in this dossier is the car’s frequently contentious relationship with the city. It is hard to overstate the impact of the automobile on cities (broadly defined to include urban, suburban, and exurban areas). Just look around and the physical manifestations of automotive culture are immediately apparent. There are the cars themselves, of course, but there are also the streets, highways, bridges, tunnels, parking lots, gas stations, traffic lights, strip malls, fast-food restaurants, motels, etc. that accompany them. From enabling new modes of moving through and inhabiting space to prompting the reorganization of entire metropolitan regions to remaking entire economies and even revolutionizing the very perception of time and space, cars have indelibly altered urban life in all its forms. To best appreciate the magnitude of these changes over a century in the making, it’s useful to understand the car not in isolation, but as the nexus of an assemblage of social, economic, political, cultural, geographical, and technical systems. The term “automobility” suggested by sociologist John Urry, among others, provides a useful conceptual framework for approaching the sprawling web of interdependent actors, processes, and phenomena that supports and is in turn enabled by the automobile. A special issue on “Automobilities” published in Theory, Culture & Society in 2004 and edited by Urry, Mike Featherstone, and Nigel Thrift has served as a veritable “big bang” moment that has spawned an impressive array of scholarship on the subject to date.2John Urry, Mike Featherstone, and Nigel Thrift, eds., “Automobilities,” Theory, Culture & Society 21, nos. 4–5 (2004). As was the case with that issue, the multifaceted nature of both the concept and phenomena of automobility lends itself particularly well to the format of an edited collection of essays with different focuses and methodologies. Such is the case with the dossier before you as well.

There has been no shortage of scholarly work on automobility over the past two decades, but of chief concern in this dossier are the roles media has played in reflecting, interpreting, and shaping the relationship between automobility and urbanism. Various forms of popular audiovisual media, from film, television, advertising, and video games to the more instrumental forms media technologies now embedded in motor vehicles can be crucial components in systems of automobility. Parsing media’s place in that dynamic is the overarching purpose of this dossier.

The ten articles assembled here collectively illustrate the enduring richness of the field. They assess different types of media, different genres, and different aspects of automobility from various historical and cultural contexts. Nonetheless, there are common throughlines that form productive echoes and connections across works. The first two articles in the dossier explore postwar American automobility through the lens of film noir and neo-noir. In “The Nest in the Shell: Postwar Automobility and Film Noir Cars,” Michael Stock develops a phenomenology of automobility via Gaston Bachelard’s work on the home and in turn deploys that model in a study of how automobility is used to destabilize the family home and the built environment more generally in film noirs like Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, 1944), The Postman Always Rings Twice (Tay Garnett, 1946), and They Live By Night (Nicholas Ray, 1948), among others. Judith Nicholson picks up the noir thread in “Automobilities in Walter Mosley’s Detective Fiction on Film,” but turns our focus to African American automobilities and explores the phenomenon of “Driving (as well as walking and passengering) While Black” in the Los Angeles-set film and television adaptations of Walter Mosley’s detective fiction, particularly the neo-noirs Devil in a Blue Dress (film adaptation 1995, dir. Carl Franklin) and Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned (HBO adaptation 1998, dir. Michael Apted).

The following three articles look beyond the feature film in exploring the automotive cultures of particular cities. For example, my own contribution to the dossier, “City of New York, No Parking Anytime: The City and the Car in Postwar City Symphony Films,” examines the fraught relationship between New York City and the car through the lens of three postwar city symphony films, including Highway (Hilary Harris, 1958), Go! Go! Go! (Marie Menken, 1962–64), and Doldrums (Rudy Burckhardt, 1972). Erik Florin Persson and Per Vesterlund analyze understudied Swedish commissioned films and TV dramas of the 1960s in their investigation of representations of urban automobility in cities including Stockholm and Gothenburg in “Stuck in traffic: Car-centric urbanism, city planning and the welfare state in Swedish commissioned films and TV-drama from the 1960s.” Taking full advantage of Mediapolis’s status as an online journal is Jemma Saunders’s “Screen Journeys through Birmingham: the City, the Car and the Canal,” a video essay that surveys and critiques the legacy of automotive culture in the primarily televisual imaginary of Birmingham, England.

The next three articles each deal in some way with the relationship between automobility and social mobility. In “The Rise of the Commuter Class: Postindustrialism, Expressways, and Chicago teen films of the 1980s,” Michael D. Dwyer examines two teen comedies, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (John Hughes, 1986) and Adventures in Babysitting (Chris Columbus, 1987), as commuter narratives that imagine Chicago as a postindustrial playground for the privileged. By contrast, Danielle Childs’s “Motels, Automobility, and Social Immobility in American Cinema” explores the transformation of the motel in American cinema from a temporary pit stop to a purgatorial zone epitomizing marginalization and social immobility in post-recession films like American Honey (Andrea Arnold, 2016) and The Florida Project (Sean Baker, 2017). And finally, Lu Zeng untangles the complex interplay between gender, family, and automobility in contemporary Chinese urban dramas like Modern Marriage (2022) and Lady’s Character (2023) in her article “Cars, Careers, and Care: Automobility and Women’s Dilemmas in Chinese Urban TV Dramas.”

The last two installments of the dossier foreground new aesthetic and technological approaches to recalibrating perceptions of automobility. In “Hitching a Ride: Vehicular Travel in One-Take Films,” Jack O’Dwyer theorizes the role of automobility in one-take films like The Sad Smell of Flesh (Cristóbal Arteaga, 2013), Blind Spot (Tuva Novotny, 2018), and Joyful Mystery (Don Palathara, 2020). In closing, Melanie Wilmink turns her gaze to the future in “Vehicle for Imagination: Art and Mobility Technology in South Korea,” which explores the confluence of art, industry, and technology in the artwork coming out of Hyundai’s Zer01ne, a Seoul-based artist residency that reimagines the basic tenets of automobility.

Standing alongside the High Five with my camera that day in Dallas led to another realization – that this massive structure, to say nothing of the network of social, political, economic, and technological forces that sustain it, is impossible to image from a single viewpoint. Rather, only through multiple, unique, and simultaneous perspectives can we begin to comprehend the relationship between urbanity and automobility enshrined in kinetic assemblages of concrete, steel, glass, rubber, oil, and gas such as this. It is my hope that this dossier offers some of those viewpoints.

 

Notes

Notes
1 Bryan Appleyard, The Car: The Rise and Fall of the Machine that Made the Modern World (New York: Pegasus Books, 2022).
2 John Urry, Mike Featherstone, and Nigel Thrift, eds., “Automobilities,” Theory, Culture & Society 21, nos. 4–5 (2004).
Rankin, Cortland. "Mediating Urban Automobility Dossier Introduction". Title.” Mediapolis: A Journal of Cities and Culture 8, no. 3 (September 2023).
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