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Car Crash Culture
Mikita Brottman, ed.
New York: Palgrave, 2001.
$19.95, 356 pages, ISBN 0312240384.

Wendy O’Brien
Central Queensland University

Mikita Brottman’s edited collection of essays entitled Car Crash Culture might have been more appropriately entitled Car Crash Conspiracies. One of the five major parts of the collection is devoted to car crash conspiracies, yet there is a conspiratorial theme that runs throughout the entire volume. Ultimately it is this emphasis on conspiracy, causality and the corollary of crash/crime prevention that marks the limitations of Brottman’s collection, despite the inclusion of several scholarly and inspired pieces theorising the cultural significance of the automobile and the modern “horror” of the car crash.

Part one of the volume is entitled “Car Crash Contemplations” and offers a largely anecdotal and reflective series of musings loosely related to the car crash “experience”. Underground figure Kenneth Anger’s brief chapter sets the experiential tone for this part, offering a short tribute piece on his personal attachment to the romanticised deaths of James Dean and movie matinee idol Tom Mix. This emotional investment in the celebrity crash permeates the volume, ranging from articles that offer a scholarly critique of this phenomenon to those that are sentimental and appropriative in their vicarious identification. This uneven style is something that Brottman acknowledges in her introduction, insisting that “this unsettling mixture of voices forces us to question the culturally accepted ways in which we have become accustomed to discussing the car crash” [xxxviii]. The power that these diverse voices have in challenging assumptions is overstated here I think, but the collection certainly does offer an eclectic assemblage of writings. For instance, in Chapter 18 Brottman and Sharrett provide a useful cultural critique of the motivations for obsessive interest in the celebrity crash citing this as “one of the most horrifying and fascinating taboos that can be transgressed in our time” [207]. In Chapter 16, however, McElwain-Brown investigates the various conspiracies regarding JFK’s assassination, but ultimately sentimentalises a stake in celebrity death with the emotive plea; “some of us cannot forget” [185].

Of part one, there are two articles that are notable. Eric Laurier’s “This Wreckless Landscape” explores driving as a rite of passage for boys, citing the car as a “space of patriarchal intimacy” [26]. In his article, “Jump on In, You’re in Safe Hands”, Howard Lake uses the metaphor of the deity to analyse the way in which commercials for motor vehicles represent the driver as Supreme Being:

In car advertising, words like “comfort,” “ease,” “power,” “freedom,” and “control” all allude to the act of driving as a transcendental process toward existential perfection, with body and machine operating in a techno-physiological harmony that reaches far beyond the mere sublime. [47]

This is not the only instance of driver deification in the collection though; in “Car Crash Crucifixion Culture” Julian Darius provides a thoughtful and persuasive comment on the cult of the celebrity, citing the deified celebrity death as “an attempt to replace the absent crucifixion” [317].

Other chapters in part one offer lyrical and lurid memories of car accidents. In “Strangers in the Night: A Memory”, William Luhr offers a brief recollection of his attendance at a hit and run accident, emphasising the strangeness of the car crash in violently uniting strangers in a carnal confrontation. The descriptive nature of this piece is also evident in Adam Parfrey’s recollection of an out of body experience following a car crash in “Existential Reality on Powell Boulevard.” These experiential accounts, while perhaps interesting in a vicarious way, offer little to the scholarship on the cultural significance of the car crash.

Part two of Brottman’s collection offers a pathology of crime, death and injury. Ultimately, the six chapters in this section are case reports, most of which have appeared previously in medical or scientific journals. In “Dragging Deaths: A Case in Point” Jay D. Dix and Stephen Bolesta describe the coronial findings of an autopsy performed on a youth dragged behind a vehicle. Murad and Boddy are similarly evidentiary in their chapter “A Case with Bear Facts”. Tracing the physical evidence following the discovery of a skeleton in a vehicle, Murad and Boddy conclude that the male occupant had been attacked and eaten by a bear. A third case report is offered by J.C. Rupp in “The Love Bug”, recounting the discovery of a naked male’s body tied to a VW. The circumstances of this “case” were reported as unusual autoerotic activity in which the male subject attached himself to the running vehicle with a chain harness and ran behind the car. The chain harness was thought to have become caught in the axel, asphyxiating and subsequently dragging the male subject. These three chapters are direct case reports, and offer no comment on the “culture” of the car crash. Presented as a list of “horrors”, these pieces reinforce the vehicle as a symbol of modern decadence or aberrant behaviour, and this conservative line is only exacerbated by the three remaining articles in this litany of crime. There are two chapters on suicide and homicide, and a third offering a grisly account of the life and crimes of serial killer and necrophile Edmund Emil Kemper III. In all, the articles in this section are related only tangentially to the “car crash”, and the implicit connection between deviance, crime and the automobile is handled in an ostensibly objective yet at times gratuitous manner. In his article on suicide and homicide, John M. MacDonald advocates early intervention and psychological treatment to prevent motor vehicle suicides. The message here is cautionary but consolatory; we (of the responsible road users) can rest at ease as those with the relevant skills construct pathologies of the myriad deviant desires and aberrant behaviours involving motor vehicles. Brottman’s collection could well have been published without the inclusion of this section entitled “Car Crash Crimes”.

The representations of the motor vehicle as a co-conspirator in crime continue in the four chapters comprising Part Three: “Car Crash Conspiracies”. Of these chapters, Philip L. Simpson’s is the best, offering an investigation into the mysteries and manipulations of the deaths of Diana Spencer and Mary Jo Kopechne. Concluding that both women died at the hands of patriarchal privilege, Simpson makes the important argument that the various narratives of conspiracy, victimhood etc. construct the car crash as more than an “accident”. The conspiratorial narratives of martyrs and villains are consolatory or comforting in that they “try to make sense of the senseless and transform something that is ultimately banal into something that is ultimately significant” [139]. Simpson’s critique of this impulse to make order from chaos, to ward off death with categories, patterns and narrative roles is an important contribution to debates regarding the cultural fascination with car crashes and celebrity deaths. This kind of critique is not evident in the other articles in this section, however. In her investigative report on JFK’s assassination, McElwain-Brown foregrounds the vehicle, questioning the lack of damage and the speed with which the vehicle was rebuilt and returned to the road. Implying conspiracy, McElwain-Brown laments the fact that the vehicle was treated as non-evidentiary, and curiously, charges readers to internalise the mystery of the incident and the vehicle in indebtedness to Kennedy: "We have no choice but to allow our lives to be defined by Kennedy’s. It’s the least we can do. Although it has been rebuilt down to everything but its frame, a sense of awe and dread surrounds the limousine in the museum." [185]

The sentimental collective charge issued here exemplifies the kind of “MEmorial” that Gregory Ulmer satirises in his telling critique of the relationship between disaster and community formation. Other articles in this section of the volume are Jerry Glover’s examination of Paul McCartney’s apocryphal car crash, and “Papal Conveyance” wherein David Kerekes examines the cultural significance of the popemobile.

In “Car Crash Cinema”, the fourth section of the volume, J.G. Ballard and David Cronenberg are afforded a mention for their contribution to car crash culture. In “Machine Dreams” Harvey Roy Greenberg provides a largely ambivalent reading of Cronenberg’s film Crash, revealing a conservative longing for Ballard and Catherine’s epiphanic “redemption from their sordid self-absorption” [196]. Although Greenberg argues that the film leaves us “exquisitely suspended between hope and despair, life and death” [197], the descriptions of the sex as “dankly antierotic” and the desire as “stymied”, indicate Greenberg’s preference for the “elusive orgasm attendant upon genuine intimacy” [196].

In one of the stronger articles of the collection, Brottman and Christopher Sharrett also offer a reading of Cronenberg’s film with particular insight to the vicarious involvement in narratives and images of the car crash. The contention here is that Crash “negotiates our ambivalent attitudes toward death and destruction on the roads” [199], and Brottman and Sharrett argue usefully that “our obsession with the automobile is, in fact, an obsession with atrocity and disaster” [201]. Brottman and Sharrett trace the “decline into barbarism” that functions as a metaphor for the malaise of the late stages of capitalism, and echoing Greenberg’s argument, the characters are described as sexually promiscuous but emotionally barren. Ultimately, Brottman and Sharrett describe the apocalyptic Crash as conservative rather than regenerative. Both readings of Crash understate the erotic and theoretical potential of marked, torn and penetrated machine/flesh. A reminder of the technological mediation of our subjectivities, bodies and sex “drives”, Ballard’s novel and Cronenberg’s film expose the fascination with death, carnage, sex and technology that forms the complex and strangely alluring nexus of the car crash.

The final section of the volume, “The Death Drive”, includes articles on the deaths of Jackson Pollock and Albert Camus, addressing the influence that those mythologised deaths have had on the critical reception of each cultural figure. Other chapters are concerned with the significance of car crashes in 1960s pop music, the cultural reliance on ritualised death, and the self-destructive impulse evident in the post-industrial nihilism of daily life. This section of the volume does contain the “culture” of the car crash, with excellent articles by Julian Darius, Gregory Ulmer and Christopher Sharrett.

Throughout the volume the automobile is read, predictably enough, as symbolising freedom, independence, phallic display, technological progress, and wealth. These symbolic understandings of the motor vehicle are certainly not new, but the volume does offer divergent and more interesting theories on the significance of the automobile in modern culture. Read variously as a womb (where passengers are reduced to passive state of infantilism), a witness to trial (in the case of the whitewashed evidence in JFK’s assassination), and an instrument of execution, crucifixion, torture or auto-erotic pleasure, the eclectic approaches of the contributors indicates that the cultural significance of the car cannot be located simply or unequivocally. Despite this diversity of approach, there are overriding threads of argument and methodology in the volume that appropriate the car crash as something. It is in light of this explanatory temptation that I might concur with Royal’s caveat that we should resist interpretations of the car death that are “too intellectually tidy” [286].

Of those chapters that do offer a cultural critique, many suggest that the voyeuristic engagement with vehicular carnage serves to locate the “accident” as a form of order. The consolatory nature of the ritual, the repetition and the familiarity of images of mangled wrecks and the iconic status of the celebrity crash place distance between the reader and vehicular destruction; as a talisman we ward off death with the assurance that car crashes happen to other people. By its own logic then, a reading of the volume caters to our desire for the preventative. The voyeuristic and vicarious celebration of the car crash that takes place in the name of pathological objectivity structures the chaotic and random events of the crash as a series of causal and cautionary factors. If we don’t speed, drive recklessly, drink while driving, or follow through with suicidal impulses we are safe from the horror of the car crash. In this sense, the volume can’t help but perform the function that many of the contributors are at pains to critique. The ritualised experience of the deaths of Others is ultimately reassuring.

Car crash culture might do well to embrace the “crash” of the culture, the random and chaotic destruction of boundaries as discrete objects or subjects collide violently in a destruction/creation of something new. Car crashes are not a conspiracy of the drunk, the maniacal, the patriarchal or the sexually rapacious. To emphasise conspiracy, causality or prevention is to apply a false logic, as Ulmer reminds us, “traffic fatalities are not an anomaly in an otherwise rational order” [336]. Perhaps, as Darius explicates in his excellent article “Car Crash Crucifixion Culture”, all of this is to deny that “the car crash is not only commonplace but also embodies the futility of a death or injury seemingly without point of poignancy” [308].

Despite the phenomenological emphasis, the eclectic mix of pathology, forensics, cultural criticism, psychiatry and legal discourses do offer an interesting, albeit safe, tour through aspects of car crash culture. For those interested in the complex cultural nexus of the car crash, parts of this volume are well worth the ride.

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