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  • Vehicles: Cars, Canoes, and Other Metaphors of Moral Imagination ed. by David Lipset and Richard Handler
  • Sunny Stalter-Pace (bio)
Vehicles: Cars, Canoes, and Other Metaphors of Moral Imagination. Edited by David Lipset and Richard Handler. New York: Berghahn Books, 2014. Pp. 214. $95.

In his 1936 work The Philosophy of Rhetoric, I. A. Richards divides the concept of the metaphor into two component parts, the tenor and the vehicle. The former is the thing described through the figure of speech, while the latter is the image doing the work of illustration: if I say “My Scion is a workhorse,” my car is the tenor and “workhorse” is the vehicle. The figure of speech traces a path between the machine and equine realms, starting the listener in one place and taking her somewhere else. A metaphor, then, can be understood as a kind of a symbolic transportation technology. [End Page 286]

This proposition underpins David Lipset and Richard Handler’s edited collection Vehicles: Cars, Canoes, and Other Metaphors of Moral Imagination. Vehicles, Lipset argues in his introduction, are particularly useful sites for cultures “to imagine the social, and in particular to imagine its movement across and askew moral boundaries” (p. 2). The book’s eight chapters use ethnographic and textual analysis to understand the symbolic role of vehicles as imagined extensions of gender identity, connections to their community, and links to the nation and to the past.

Many of the essays’ arguments illustrate the reciprocity between tenor and vehicle: if a culture imagines a car to have horselike characteristics, it often imagines horses in carlike ways as well. This strategy is explored most thoroughly in the book’s first section “Persons as Vehicles,” which features essays by the collection’s two editors. Lipset considers the role of the canoe in the Murik culture of Papua New Guinea as a central metaphor of embodiment: as the canoe carries a person on the water, a man’s body conveys his soul. Handler begins by discussing the vehicular conception of person-hood in the work of influential sociologist Erving Goffman. He uses that conceptual framework to detail the changing relationship between drivers and pedestrians as imagined in road safety manuals.

In the second section, two essays consider the way that vehicles help different cultures think through gender and space. Kent Wayland reflects on the gendered language use of pilots and mechanics restoring World War II planes. The planes are feminized and sexualized, and this discourse is used as a way of insisting that that hangar space is a heterosexual man’s domain much as the theater of war was. Joshua Hotaka Roth unpacks the many binaries that structure Japanese driving culture, from the types of cars men and women drive, to the way they drive, to the kinds of spaces they move through. These essays were most interesting when they offered examples that complicated the binaries—a plane named after a mother, a woman who drove aggressively—that were clearly more comforting to the drivers and tinkerers who served as their informants.

The third section of Vehicles includes four essays considering the relationship between nationality and nostalgia. Not surprisingly, the car is the most-mentioned vehicle here, with varied meanings deeply embedded in the particularities of specific national and subcultural identities. Marko Živković shows how the Fića automobile evokes a complex and bittersweet nostalgia in former Yugoslavs. Beth E. Notar uses interviews and political cartoons to flesh out her history of the automobile as a vehicle of Chinese Communist Party corruption. Ben Chappell considers the aesthetics of lowrider cars as they engage in an ambivalent dialogue with Mexican-American barrio culture and the broader cultural norms of the United States. Mark Auslander’s chapter analyzes the complex role of a Lincoln Town Car in a lynching re-enactment. This car “functions as a highly evocative sign vehicle, ‘bridging’ different temporal epochs, from slavery [End Page 287] time, to Jim Crow, to the present day” (p. 189). In fact, all of the cars in this section do similar work, bridging past and present by evoking firsthand memories and shared communal experiences.

The essays here offer fresh perspectives on the social role...


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pp. 286-288
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