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Republic of Drivers: A Cultural History of Automobility in America (review)

From: Technology and Culture
Volume 51, Number 1, January 2010
pp. 263-265 | 10.1353/tech.0.0411

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In Republic of Drivers, Cotten Seiler has delivered a perceptive, wide-ranging, and theoretically sophisticated cultural history of what he calls automobility. Focusing on the period between the establishment of the first American automobile manufacturer and the creation of the interstate highway system, Seiler explores how "a highly specific conception of what it means to be modern and free" came to be so closely associated with the act of driving (p. 2). Drawing on a vast academic literature and a diverse set of cultural texts, he argues that automobility—and particularly the ideas of freedom and autonomy that it embodied—provided a crucial salve for the nation's "narrative of selfhood" during moments when ideas about American individualism were in crisis (p. 3).

Seiler's approach is selective rather than comprehensive, and he structures his book around two distinct periods. The first two chapters examine the "crisis of Republican selfhood" (p. 17) that occurred from 1895 to 1929, when the rise of Frederick Winslow Taylor's principles of scientific management created knotty problems for traditional ideas about the autonomy of white men's work. In this context, workers seeking a new sense of self-worth could escape the indignities of the Taylorized workplace through commodified leisure and a host of new consumer goods, the most extravagant and iconic of which was the automobile.

Nothing, Seiler argues, reinforced the idea of autonomous mastery and control more than the automobile, which American popular culture celebrated as "a force-multiplier of the self, facilitator of a gratifying, thrilling transgression, and a fosterer of self-control" (p. 45), and which appealed to men and women alike. But Seiler argues that the chimera of independence offered by automobiles was more than offset by the opportunities that automobility created for increased surveillance, regulation, and control by the state.

The final three chapters focus on the 1950s, when various thinkers wrestled with troublesome new anxieties about the self, which emerged out of the cold war's rhetorical emphasis on a fight to the death between American "freedom" and the Soviet "collective." In this context, Seiler suggests, the interstate highway act of 1956 was at once both a masterful piece of propaganda for the "American way" and a significant expansion of the federal government's ability to oversee and regulate its citizens' lives. Likewise, the experiences of African-American drivers—who had to rely on specialized travel guides to locate "hospitable roadside lodging, restaurants, and mechanical assistance" (p. 106)—exposed glaring inconsistencies in the rhetorical emphases on the "freedom" of the open road and the potentially transgressive act of driving. Seiler traces these same inconsistencies in the work of the era's highway administrators, who used driving education materials and highly engineered landscapes to encourage, as Seiler puts it, "the capacities of the citizen-driver to govern himself" (p. 133).

Unfortunately, despite its significant insights and broad cross-disciplinary research, this book is unlikely to reach much of an audience beyond scholars in American studies and cultural history. Seiler's writing is a strangemix—lively and engaging prose here, dense and impenetrable academese there—with the result that those who are not well-versed in the theories, ideas, and academic literatures that he draws on seem unlikely to make it much past the book's introduction. Seiler explains "automobility," for example, which is perhaps the single most important term in his book, by referencing "its historicity and its multiple, heterogeneous, intersecting components," and by suggesting "that we comprehend automobility as what Michel Foucault called a dispositif—a concept somewhat impoverished by its English translation to 'formation,' 'grid of intelligibility,' or, the term I will use, 'apparatus'" (p. 5). Republic of Drivers is not, in other words, a casual read, but, for those who are willing and able to make their way through this sort of writing, Seiler makes several incisive and interesting contributions to the existing scholarship on the cultural history of the automobile.

Christopher Wells  

Dr. Wells, assistant professor of environmental studies at Macalester College, is working on a book titled Car Country: Automobiles, Roads, and the Origins of Car-Dependent Landscapes in the United States.

Copyright © 2010 The Society for the History of Technology
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