Monday, November 24, 2008

Me, Myself and My Car

JN201 Fall 2008

In a crowded market square in India, a young man sits under a tree and eyes his car in the fading dusk. He then gets into the driver’s seat, puts the car into gear and drives it straight into a wall. With a devilish grin, he shifts into reverse and drives the car full forced into an opposing wall.

Next, he sits an elephant down on the front hood of the car, flattening it and crushing the headlights. He produces a sledge hammer and starts pounding the car’s body. Then came a hammer and chisel. The glow of a blow torch accompanies him into the night.

Dawn saw him, again, looking at his car. He holds a magazine centerfold up at an arm’s length, compares it to the car and smiles with satisfaction. Later in the evening, he drives the car down the street, windows down and radio blaring. He eyes a beautiful lady by the road who returned his advances with a seductive glance.

This is the commercial for the Supermini Peugeot 206, released in 1998. The young man was trying to mould his old model Ford into the newly released model that he saw in the magazine centrefold.

The jocular portrayal of this young man’s obsession in acquiring the new Peugeot 206 - by hook or by crook - is novel. However, the obsession itself depicts society’s attachment to automobile that, according to Dr. Ken Paradis, verges on the ridiculous.

An English professor at Wilfrid Laurier University, Dr. Paradis deals with the way cars are ‘fetishized’ through popular media in some of his lectures. ‘Basically a car is just a piece of metal that gets you from place to place,’ he says, ‘it’s popular culture that layers these values on them.’

He says, ‘Popular culture is about making images seem valuable…and cars are a primary part of [that].’ According to him, the way cars are portrayed gives people the false sense that they can express themselves through their cars, attributing to the cars a ‘fetish value’.

So, what triggered this bond between cars and their owners? According to Dr. Paradis, it’s an historical factor. ‘Prior to the 1940’s, almost all of built environment in North America is walkable,’ he says. Now, however, one needs a car in order to move around, ‘especially,’ adds Dr. Paradis, ‘in the suburbs.’

When a car is a necessity, not owning one indicates that you can’t afford one, and therefore ownership of a car symbolizes income status. According to Dr. Paradis, this is how the car acquired it’s ‘status value’.

Dr. Chris Alksnis, a professor of psychology at Wilfrid Laurier University, agrees that the economy has allowed for this attachment to develop into an obsession. According to her, continued dependence on the car as a mode of transportation has led people to see it as an extension of their personality. However, Dr. Alksnis feels that it is quite natural for people to channel their personalities through their cars. ‘People want to say something about themselves [and] it’s not unnatural to do that,’ she adds, ‘we express ourselves…by the way we dress, the cars we drive.’

Elwood Phillips claims his attachment to his car has a lot to do with nostalgia. ‘I’ve been in cars all my life,’ he declares proudly. As President of the Brantford Kinsman Club, Mr. Phillips organizes the club’s Annual Car Show. He fondly recalls acquiring his first car, a 1932 Ford Coupe, at the age of 14. ‘I used to go all over the country, I used to have a lot of fun with that car,’ he says.

Mr. Phillips now drives a Ford Ranger, ‘It’s my baby,’ he adds. Newer car models, according to Mr. Phillips, are not as easy to customize as old car models - a detriment to him because he says, ‘I like to see customized cars that have been chopped up and channelled.’

Although an avid car enthusiast himself, Mr. Phillips feels that the line between passion and a ridiculous obsession with cars has a fiscal value. In customizing a car, he says, ‘A reasonable amount would be around $10,000 US,’ but he adds, ‘It all depends on how far a person wants to go.’

Despite his affection for his ’32 Ford Coupe, he later traded the car in for a 1957 Ford Racer. When asked about how he was able to dispose of something so sentimentally significant to him, Mr. Phillips explains simply, ‘I had to, I wanted a [Ford] racer.’

Mr. Phillips’ attitude correlates with Dr. Paradis’s observation on the influence of consumer culture towards our behaviour. ‘What we’ve gained is a sense of individual self-definition,’ he says, ‘[where] every individual needs to tell the world who they are by buying things.’

Mr. Phillips‘s view on the matter echoes Dr. Paradis‘s, albeit in much simpler terms; ‘It’s an expression of you; you get known for your style and what you’ve done to your car.’

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