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Technology and Culture 43.3 (2002) 636-637
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Car Cultures. Edited by Daniel Miller. Oxford: Berg, 2001; distributed by New York University Press. Pp. xiv+250. $23.
This collection of ten essays in Berg's Materializing Culture series is framed by Daniel Miller as an attempt "to turn the study of cars into [the study] of car cultures" (p. 30). Following Miller's introductory essay, "Driven Societies," each of the other essays focuses on a particular aspect of contemporary car usage. While the collection is not historical, historians of technology interested in the use, consumption, modification, and meaning of technological artifacts will find this volume engaging and provocative.
The cultural and geographic settings of the studies in Car Cultures range from black motorists in the United States to rebellious youth in Sweden, from long-distance taxi driving in Ghana to private car use on the Pitjanjatjara Lands of Southern Australia. The authors employ diverse methods, objectives, and scholarly styles taken from anthropology, sociology, material culture studies, and public policy studies. Miller's introduction does an admirable job of tying this diverse collection together into a somewhat coherent whole, which is intended to serve as an indictment of extant scholarship on automobiles and an exemplar of a new kind of scholarship. He envisions the study of car cultures as the study of "entailments," or the full range and variety of material, social, political, cultural, and personal contexts that accompany automobility and in turn help define the artifact and experience of the car.
Among the contributors to this volume, only Mike Michael, in "The Invisible Car: The Cultural Purification of Road Rage," seems to be aware of the contributions historians of technology have made to the study of such "entailments" of a host of technologies, including cars. Nevertheless, a number of the essays should prove important contributions to a shared literature.
Most provocative, perhaps, is Paul Gilroy's "Driving While Black." Gilroy seeks in part to understand why African-Americans account for 30 percent of the American car-buying public yet comprise only 12 percent of the population. He speculates that their "histories of confinement and coerced labour must have given them additional receptivity to the pleasures of auto-autonomy as a means of escape, transcendence and perhaps even resistance" (p. 84). Yet cars have also posed fundamental problems for African-American communities, as they allowed whites increasingly to avoid social contact, and as city streets were vacated, neighborhoods divided, and communities dispersed.
Gilroy laments the loss of a critical perspective on auto-citizenship once evident in dissenting black music culture and black politics, but notes that some contemporary blacks' race-coded customizing of cars through flashy wheels and high-end audio "may on some level be gesturing their anti-discipline [End Page 636] to power even as the whirlpool of consumerism sucks them in" (p. 98). (Michael Bull's essay, "Soundscapes of the Car: A Critical Study of Automobile Habitation," pairs nicely with Gilroy's in this respect.) In broad strokes Gilroy sketches out a perspective on black motoring that cries out for more empirical research and articulation.
Highlighting neglected aspects of technology in a neglected locale, Jojada Verrips and Birgit Meyer's essay, "Kwaku's Car: The Struggles and Stories of a Ghanaian Long-Distance Taxi-Driver," looks at the confluence of car maintenance and religion in Ghana. En route to more conventional ethnographic research, Verrips and Meyer stumbled upon and were fascinated (in a way that perhaps only academics can be) by the mechanical ingenuity and resourcefulness of a young taxi driver. Their resulting essay examines "why and how cars in Ghana are culturally redefined, or, as Ghanaians put it, 'tropicalized', or 'adjusted'" bureaucratically, spiritually, and mechanically. They note the importance of body-based mechanical knowledge and bricoleur-like creativity, which compensate for a lack of sophisticated tools and replacement parts and keep cars "in the system for periods Westerners usually deem technically impossible" (p. 159). Verrips and Meyer then tie these technical interventions into the web of Ghanaian religious beliefs and practices, showing the role both aspects play in keeping...