Flink, Sheller & Urry and Walsh: three quick reads on car culture

I’m just starting to compile my research and look for holes, and believe me, there are holes. I’m going to put together a longer list of transportation and culture later on, but in the meantime, here are three pieces on American car culture that provide useful context for bike studies. Forgive my crappy prose – it’s been a long week.

Flink, James J. “Three Stages of American Automobile Consciousness.” American Quarterly 24, no. 4 (October 1972): 451-73: Flink’s by-now classic Marxist interpretation of the influence of the automobile on American society divides automobility into three phases and shows how each contains the seeds of the next. The first phase, from 1910 to World War II, involved the introduction of the car into American society and the reorientation of both landscape and culture to accommodate it; the second, in the 1940s and 1950s, constituted the American love affair with the car, and the third, which started in the late 1950s, has been the disillusionment with the car and its reconfiguration as a problem rather than the best thing ever. Flink’s argument is a little teleological (domination by the motorcar is “inevitable”), but he does compellingly link American ideology in general and individualism in particular with personal mobility.

Sheller, Mimi, and John Urry. “The City and the Car.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 24, no. 4 (2000): 737-57: Sheller and Urry are both UK-based sociologists and both write prolifically about the technological domination of the car. This article contains the clearest synthesis of their arguments that I have found. They argue that although people invented the car, the car has quickly come to dominate all elements of society by orienting “automobility” around itself. Automobility is a complex concept involving manufacturing processes (Fordism, Taylorism), consumption patterns (cars are the second most expensive thing most people will every buy), a machinic complex of roads, motels, parts manufacturers, and other businesses that only exist in the form they do because of cars, overly private mobility, a shaming of other transportation modes, and the exploitation of environmental resources. Having built up and then deconstructed the automobilic monolith, Sheller and Urry propose a solution similar to Mapes’: multimodality and increased flows of information.

Walsh, Margaret. “Gendering Mobility: Women, Work, and Automobility in the United States.” History 93, no. 311 (July 2008): 376-95: Walsh is a UK-based historian of transportation in the US. This article focuses on the historical relationship between women and cars, and as such it provides an incredible amount of background on automobility and social difference. It also provides a possible model for a similar study of bicycles. In addition to tracing women’s use of cars in the US and thus intervening in arguments that posit the car as a masculine vehicle, she situates this relationship in transportation studies (Flink, Rae), feminist studies (“The Cult of True Womanhood”), economics (Cohen, A Consumer’s Republic), and reams of Federal Highway Administration and Census data. This article is amazingly useful just for her methodology and literature alone.

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