I've got a feel for my automobile

We're on the road to nowhere - and that's an integral part of the fascination and fantasy that the motor car inspires as a vital, and deadly, icon of 20th-century culture. By Alix Sharkey
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The Independent Culture
"We gotta go and never stop going till we get there."

"Where we going man?"

"I don't know but we gotta go."

Jack Kerouac, "On the Road"

JACK KEROUAC clocked up most of his considerable mileage as a hitch- hiker rather than a driver, but this fragment from his ground-breaking 1957 novel encapsulates our paradoxical relationship with the motor car. We are motion junkies, addicted to speed. On and on we drive, into an unforeseeable future. We don't know why, but we just can't stop.

In reality, of course, we should hit the brakes. The evidence is all around us. It doesn't take more than a moment's reflection to arrive at the conclusion that the car, which liberated us and gave us previously unimaginable levels of individual freedom to navigate and explore the world, is now constricting and confining us, and threatening to destroy the very environment it was so instrumental in creating. Which is why we are urged not to drive today, the first phase in an extended campaign by the anti-car lobby to change the way we think about cars, roads and driving.

Like everyone else, I am aware of the problems that cars cause. I live in the eye of the storm. My local paper carried a front-page memento mori this week, devoted to dangerous levels of traffic pollution in my inner-London borough, bringing news of increased emissions of "fine particulates" and dioxides of nitrogen and sulphur. If anyone has a right to feel outraged, to curse drivers and manufacturers, it is surely a car-less citizen like myself. Most of the people stuck in traffic in London's Euston Road, just 200 yards from my flat - polluting my air - don't even live in my city. They're from those suburban areas whose very existence was made possible by the motor car.

The car's role in shaping 20th-century popular culture is inestimable. At the roots of rock'n'roll are Chuck Berry's paeans to Route 66 and the joys of riding along in an automobile. Could Chuck have written great songs about cycling, windsurfing or in-line skating? Perhaps. Would they have inspired the Beatles and the Stones to emulate him? No chance. Similarly, today's electronic dance music, whether jungle, breakbeat, hip-hop or techno, can be traced back through Afrika Bambaataa to Kraftwerk's hymnal Autobahn - a record celebrating the mindless joy of cruising down German motorways.

The history of the 20th century has been dominated by the Four Great Screens - cinema, TV, the computer and, perhaps most important of all, the windscreen. As the poet Jean Baudrillard pointed out, the car has radically changed the way we perceive space and time. The future lies ahead, with time flowing past us as we motor forward - the weeks, months and years flashing past like so many signposts, lampposts and intersections.

The car, and the seductive illusion of freedom it offers, have been at the heart of 20th-century art ever since the Italian futurists first developed a passion for "the violence of speed" - a focus that reached an apt climax with Warhol's detached, eerie screenprints of road wrecks. Hollywood was surprisingly slow to exploit the cinematic potential of the car, especially given the dramatic deaths of Jayne Mansfield and James Dean. The "road movie" didn't take on a recognisable form until the early Seventies, and the car chase, a staple scene of contemporary action movies, was only really defined in 1968's Bullitt.

Leaving aside the boy-racer genre, road movies have consistently helped to define emergent social trends, from the speed-freak nihilism of Vanishing Point to the suicidal sisterhood of Thelma and Louise. Along the way, we've had supernatural highway encounters in Duel and the something-under- the-bonnet menace of Christine - movies with evil, anthropomorphised vehicles, driving machines with minds of their own which turn against their human masters. The Cars That Ate Paris shunts this notion to its logical conclusion, with the motor vehicle as blood-sucking vampire.

But our love-hate relationship with the car is more complex and convoluted than we may at first imagine. For instance, Kerouac's road novel inspired a generation to quit their colleges and jobs, to drop out, "go beat", and hitch their way along America's highways. And that radical, anti-materialist take on the pioneer spirit was a catalyst for the hippy movement, anti- Vietnam marches, and the eventual formation of a non-sexist, anti-racist, anti-imperialist counter-culture that insisted on civil liberties. Before denouncing the evils of motoring, we may recall that the physical freedom afforded by the motor car in the Fifties has been transmuted into the ideological freedom of the Nineties. It is ironic indeed that the rhetoric of personal liberty used against car culture today finds a distant echo in Kerouac's fascination with Detroit engineering and America's endless two-lane black-top.

We have fetishised the car. It represents sex, freedom and, most important of all, a kind of communion with ourselves. What was once a mere means of transport is now a form of meditation. Locked and belted into the adjustable seats of our capsules, we listen to our favourite music, control the air temperature and manipulate our little ego bubble through the world around us, while maintaining an illusion of separation.

To drive on an unrestricted road is to experience a condition that involves us fully, but without thought: "a spectacular form of amnesia", according to Jean Baudrillard. Our bodies make repetitive actions with minute variations - shifting gears, indicating, braking - in a kind of thought-free but nonetheless sentient engagement. We drift off while remaining fixated by the image, with the flatness of the world framed by the windscreen. Maximum movement with minimal effort, psychological absorption without rational involvement. No wonder we are so reluctant to surrender our means of entering this euphoric condition.

The blissful addictiveness of motoring leads to our most deep-rooted illusion, the idea that You Are What You Drive. This is so widespread that we now often confuse car ownership with citizenship, as Virginia Bottomley did a couple of years ago. The then Health Secretary was involved in a radio discussion about organ donor cards. "We should all carry them," opined Mrs Bottomley. "After all, we all carry driving licences." In fact, more than half of all British women don't have driving licences, as her detractors were quick to point out.

But politicians continue to play the same game. In her book The Estate We're In (published by Indigo), Nicola Baird points out that defining people by car ownership, and tailoring the message accordingly, was also at the heart of New Labour's successful election strategy. "The Walworth Road campaigners ... broke down the electorate into votes behind the wheel: writing off Rolls-Royce men as Tory, Lada owners as Lib-Dem and Citroen 2CV drivers as Greens. This left New Labour to concentrate on winning the confidence of everyone else, from Sierra and top Mondeo owners to `Galaxy Man' execs with their new multi-purpose vehicles."

For many people, cars are more than just status symbols - they are proof of existence. If there is a consistent message to be construed from all the startling, seductive imagery that car advertising has pillaged recently from contemporary art and dance music video, it is that cars no longer reflect our personalities - they are our personalities. Only cars, it seems, exhibit human qualities.

This is the unmistakable subtext of a recent TV commercial, where a square- jawed type reclines in the back of a gleaming silver pod, watching impassively as a Manhattan backdrop is distorted into bizarre shapes, and Iggy Pop sings "Get into the car/You'll be the passenger/We'll ride through the city tonight/We'll see the city's ripped backsides." As the car glides majestically across the Brooklyn Bridge, finally escaping all those low- life pedestrians, skateboarders and cyclists, we notice there is no driver. The promise is obvious - while the machine takes charge of a freakish environment, the driver/passenger can lose himself in ecstatic contemplation of his own perfection, a perfection paradoxically manifested by his absence at the controls.

The reality, of course, is closer to the gushing tailpipes backed up along the Euston Road. But until we create more exciting metaphors and myths for freedom, we're stuck with the only slogan in town. So excuse me, I gotta go now. Gotta go and never stop until I get there. Or until we all run out of road. Happy motoring!