Friday, March 26, 2010

Vanishing Point

In Modern Arms and Free Men (1949), Cold War technocrat Vannevar Bush describes approvingly how U.S. car and ham radio subcultures meant that “[e]very corner garage, every radio club, was a sort of center of training, training that could be easily transformed in a short time, when the test came, into the ability to operate the complex implements of war” (20). This description, while referring to the pre-World War II generation, is even more pertinent post-war, especially with regards to the matrix of interrelated subcultures that flourished along the west coast during the 1950s and 1960s: the technological avant-garde vernacular of hot rod and biker groups “chopping” factory-produced vehicles into individualized mutations of lurid self-realization, independent radio DJs providing slang-encoded communications and self-reflexive commentary (Davis 1998: 65-6; Hickey 1997: 61; Miller 1999: 33).

As with Bush’s observation of an earlier era, this street-level expertise, put to the service of adapting fordist methods of production to an aesthetic of individual display, is easily converted back into the operation of the machinery of war, the exploitation of the masses’ “aptitude for movement as a social solution” as Virilio calls it (1986: 28). Such a view is, by the early 1970s, vividly interrogated in a number of elegiac New Hollywood productions, especially in George Lucas’ American Graffiti (1973). Lucas makes sure the interrelationship between California car culture and war is not missed by ending his film with information about what happened to his protagonists: one dies in a car crash, another is missing in action, another is a writer living in Canada, clearly one of the thousands who crossed the border to escape the draft (Miller 1999: 87-89). Vanishing Point doesn’t traffic in Lucas’s nostalgia for innocent times – the theatrical trailer for American Graffiti asks “Where were you in ‘62?” and a palpable sense of loss saturates that film – but there is a similar scrutiny of the destructive temporal accident seen to be somehow at the core of the American automobile.

  • Bush, V. 1949. Modern Arms and Free Men: A Discussion of the Role of Science in Preserving Democracy. New York: Simon & Schuster.
  • Davis, M. 1998. City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles. London: Pimlico.
  • Hickey, D. 1997. Air Guitar: Essays on Art and Democracy. Los Angeles: Art Issues Press.
  • Miller, S.P. 1999. The Seventies Now: Culture as Surveillance. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.
  • Virilio, P. 1986. Speed and Politics, trans. by Mark Polizzotti. New York: Semiotext(e).

This is a modified extract from John Beck, ‘Resistance Becomes Ballistic: Vanishing Point and the End of the Road,’ Cultural Politics 3.1 (2007): 35 -50.