In the early part of the 20th century, the automobile blew people’s minds. In his Futurist Manifesto, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti equated the automobile with the liberation of the human spirit. Hearing the sounds of automobiles beneath his window in 1909, he wrote: “At last mythology and the mystic cult of the ideal have been left behind. We are going to be present at the birth of the centaur and we shall soon see the first angels fly!” Later in the Manifesto, Marinetti proclaims: “We want to sing the man at the wheel, the ideal axis of which crosses the earth, itself hurled along its orbit.”
All of this Futurism ended, unfortunately, in fascism. This was the kind of fascism that wanted to blast the old world into a million smithereens to make way for the new man, hard and steely and worthy of the age of machines. In a Russian variant on the theme, Mayakovsky once wrote:
We will smash the old world
we will thunder
a new myth over the world.
Later, in his own, much different version of fascism, a fascism of resistance to the modern world in the name of a more authentic (poetic, “peasanty”) relationship to the earth, Martin Heidegger talked of the automobile as something that “chews up kilometers.” He was not impressed by this chewing. He wanted a return to slowness, one in which our capacity to dwell poetically (sic) would give us the “power to let earth and heaven, divinities and mortals enter in simple oneness into things”. He saw the automobile as a threat to the basic structure of human experience.
The automobile: vehicle for liberation or doom machine. Either way it was a big deal.
It isn’t a big deal anymore. The 21st century is manifestly not the age of the automobile, though, of course, the growing consumer cultures of Southeast and East Asia may provide a historical reprise of the situation. Still, while the possibility of owning a car means a great deal of change for the average Chinese person, global culture has been too aware of the automobile for too long. It can’t ever again be the symbol it once was.
That sort of thing has happened to us again and again. The locomotive, the ocean liner, the airplane, the spaceship. There are stories from the 19th century about people essentially losing their minds from the stress and discombobulation caused by riding on their first train. Ditto for airplanes and then once again for space travel. There were discussions, on the level of both science and fiction, during the ’50s about whether leaving the earth’s atmosphere would so fundamentally alter human physiology that it would create radically different kinds of people.
It didn’t. The human being is a malleable being. More malleable than we ever imagined. There are limits of course and I’m not suggesting that we go out of our way to find them. The 20th century was as much an experiment in inhumanity and human degradation as it was an experiment in human possibility.
But the automobile has, in the end, neither remade us nor destroyed us. Instead, it has become something more mundane. It is a given. It is simply a fact of our daily lives, a tool that we rely on fundamentally and therefore have developed all the attendant ambivalences toward.
The philosophers speak of second nature. They are referring to the way that human beings are at home both in the natural world (first nature) and in the world of our making, the world of artifice and human production (second nature). The rules of first nature are given to us by the world that we’re born into and by our evolutionary development as the creatures that we are. The arena of second nature is rather more up to us. It’s the rules and arrangements of human societies.
The way human beings have moved around for most of our history is pure first nature. It’s the use of the feet, hoofing it. A couple thousand years ago we started borrowing the first nature of horses and riding around on them. That changed things. But it was only with the vast technological advances of the 19th century and the Industrial Revolution that we created our own autonomous mechanisms for moving ourselves around. The theorists of the early 20th century were right to be amazed, to be wild, almost, in their assessment of what the automobile had wrought. It had changed the basic context and constraints under which we transport ourselves about the surface of the earth.
But every nature, first or second, has to become natural. The real achievement now, at the beginning of the 21st century, is the degree to which we take the automobile for granted. It is a fully synthesized part of our nature now, second nature though it may be. It has changed us in the basic assumptions we make about where we can get to and in how much time, but the automobile has also proved itself to be less than radical, pace Heidegger and Marinetti, in its implications for what kind of creatures we are when we get wherever we’re going. • 16 January 2008