Dogpossum has posted some extracts from her dissertation, and the question of first person perspective in the context of being a “fan/scholar” (in Matt Hills’s sense of the slash-phrase). I don’t like the term ‘fan’ for describing the similar relation to car culture, I much prefer to follow Moorhouse and talk about enthusiasms. Over the fold is from a just-written part of my diss; it is so just-written not even my supers have seen it yet;). It is a section entitled “Defective” and it serves as the second half of my introduction. You can see the influence that some of my dissertation thinking has had on my blog writing and vice versa. Plus I hope it is obvious that my dissertation is written in a different style to my blog writing, being much less convoluted, although hopefully just as sophisticated in the thinking. Anyway, here is a taste… (oh, and just under 40,000 words done, w00t!)

EDIT: I’ve added some of my comments in response to dogpossum to the body of the text


One of the online forums I joined to help facilitate research was the Fast Fours Forums. The forums are run by Fast Fours magazine. Fast Fours caters for enthusiasts of four-cylinder and late model ‘performance’ cars and has been published since the early 1990s. In early 2004, BOMB_ASS posted a request for modified cars. It is reproduced below as close as possible to the original format:

Its that time of year again and the Fairfield City Council “Bring it On – Youth Festival” is on again. Sunday 4th April 2004 @ Fairfield Showground (where Small Car Sunday is held)
As per last year, I am helping out with the car exhibition section of the festival and seeking expressions of interest to display your modified vehicle.
There will also be music, food, entertainment, info sessions etc etc on the day as well as ‘Levi’ from Aust Idol performing live.

Last years festival saw over 4000 people attend in 1 day. Last years winner of the car exhibition was the Black TT Supra “MPRESV” owned by the girlfriend of a f4s forum member.
As part of this years program we are trying to focus on responsible
ownership and driving of vehicles which will hopefully also include workshops providing legal advice on vehicle modification. As well as information from police who are also supporting the festival. The Police STI is also expected to be in attendance. Last years event went off without a hitch and this years is looking to be even bigger.
There is no charge to have your vehicle displayed on the day and prizes will be awarded through peoples choice voting system.
I will proved entry form details asap pending on interest/suitability.

The original call for modified cars was posted on February 16, 2004. As my online avatar, Dr_Hoon, I posted a reply to the thread on March 06, 2004. It read:

I am keen to do this! I am buying my new car this week, it is an ED XR6 with a few minor mods. Is it suitable? Different styling/genre of car to others… I will send you PM.
And on we raced, hurling watchdogs against doorsteps, curling them under our burning tires like collars under a flatiron. Death, domesticated, met me at every turn… Marinetti

The Marinetti quote was my ‘signature’ which is a portion of text or image that is inserted below every post. I had also worked on an avatar image which would accompany my name on every posting. I was perhaps a little too excited about getting my new car. Not only had I been without a car for just over one year, it also meant that I could begin my fieldwork properly. I had chosen a car that would allow me to participate in the activities that belonged to a certain part of the modified-car scene in Sydney. I shall discuss this process of choosing a car and a scene in a later section where I discuss my time with the Fordmods group. The car I was buying was an ED XR6 Ford Falcon. It was a special ‘performance’ model of Ford Australia’s top-selling Falcon model. The ‘ED’ referenced the model which was made between 1993 and 1994. Bomb_Ass replied to my posting with:

PM answered It better be modded!

Bomb_Ass and I exchanged ‘PM’ or ‘private messages’, which eventually lead to him emailing me an entry form. I signed up and looked forward to debuting my new car at a car show. I had also just received ethics protocol approval from my university’s ethics committee. I thought I would have problems with the issue of street racing or cruising as offences against the recent ‘anti-Hoon’ laws. Instead they only wanted to see a draft of my call for participants that I wanted to post to various online forums. I was intending to attend the car show with a thick wad of research participant information sheets and the like. I thought I might be able to recruit research participants.

On the day I arrived on time. There were basically two lines of cars parked in such a way as to be facing each other. There was some rain falling during the day and before I drove to the venue so some parts of the ground were muddy. However, the display area for the cars was underneath a long metal roof that covered a concrete base. I parked on the very end of the line of cars closest to where I entered this area. The other end of the display area opened to the rest of the festival’s space, including a modest stage for music performances and award presentations, several stalls for information and food, another much smaller stage and DJ set-up for the break-dancing competition, and a skateboard half-pipe. I was therefore parked away from the action end of the car display. The line of cars I happened to park along were mostly older style ‘Street Machine’ vehicles of highly modified cars originally manufactured in the 1970s. Facing the Street Machines were more recent Imports or ‘performance’ vehicles, and although this division was not absolute it was very noticeable. As both Forrester (1999) and Thomas and Butcher (2003) note as well as a generational divide between the respective styles of vehicles and modifications there is also a cultural or ethnic divide. In this case, the division may have been more as a result of the older Street Machiners all belonging to the same club and arriving at the same time, than explicit ethnic divisions. To further complicate this relation the suburban area in which the youth festival was hosted had a large second generation migrant youth population and this was reflected in the awards handed out on the day. All the awards were “people’s choice” which means that the public attending the event voted on their favourite car. The winner on the day was a BMW painted orange with highly polished ‘chrome’ mag wheels. Most of those voting were not enthusiasts, and most enthusiasts that I spoke to on the day were very impressed by a Datsun 1600 that had an engine swap to a later model Nissan SR20DET. The enthusiasts judged the car in terms of the evident skill of the owner/builder expressed through the ‘build quality’ of the Datsun. Also interesting is that the car was owned by a younger enthusiast, and yet because of the age of the car and the evident ‘skill of the build’ it largely transcended enthusiasts divisions across generational and ethnic lines. The BMW was much more of an impressive and flashy vehicle and parked in a prominent position close to the action of the festival.

To briefly jump back before the car show event, there was an information evening where an accredited automotive engineer and police liaison officer would be in attendance:

Subject: Car & Bike Exhibition Registration/Workshop

Registration night will be Monday 29th MARCH 7pm – 9pm @ BONNYRIGG YOUTH HALL (top of B’rigg Plaza Carpark)

Engineer will do a presentation on legal modifications etc.
We are hoping to involve Police & Road Safety Officer in this workshop (currently negotiating), however there will be a second workshop (that will not be a rego night – date TBC)

The engineer in question, John Varetimidis, was regularly quoted in Street Machine magazine as part of Street Machine’s “Expression Session” segment. “Expression Session” involved an artist drawing an often fantastic and imaginary modified car that may be able to be built. In a side-bar off to the side of the drawn images would be text broken up into various subheadings that covered the major areas of vehicle design according to the registration rules, such as lighting, braking, interior, engine emissions, and so on. Varetimidis would interpret the design brief presented in the form of the artist’s modified car and comment on the legality, safety and often the reality of the modification from an automotive engineering perspective. I attended the information evening with about a dozen others. I brought along recording equipment (a Sony Minidisc recorder) to record the talk presented by Varetimidis. It was a very informal affair where we all sat around in a circle in an open area of a multi-purpose community centre. Unfortunately, my first blunder during this part of the research was to not check the sound levels of the recording. In the end I recorded much background noise with the odd exclamation or phrase discernible from the sound of what could have been content farm animals. They over-estimated the attendance or perhaps just the dietary requirements of one and half dozen attendees, so at least I was fed that evening. As soon as I got home after the event and I checked the recording I quickly wrote down some notes regarding what transpired.

Much of Varetimidis’s talk, and especially the discussion with attendees, revolved around communicating the reality, without directly expressing it, of the regime of registration and defect notices handed out by police as being more than an expression of the technical dimension of automotive technologies. Varetimidis knew, as did most of the older enthusiasts in attendance, that defect notices are not so much a defect of the car as a technological object, but the disciplinary regime that used the technical dimension of the car as a resource to mark the car and owner as socially defective. I have been lucky enough not to receive a defect while carrying out fieldwork even though my car was certainly too loud. There are perhaps some obvious reasons for this, I am older and my car is not popular amongst ‘youth’, but these obvious reasons coalesce with more sinister possible reasons including racial and ethnic profiling. As an Anglo-Australian driving what is ostensibly a car belonging to Anglo-Australian-dominated car enthusiast culture, I was ‘safe’. I did observe, from the safety of the car park, a spontaneous ‘defect station’ set up near the Krispe-Kremes doughnut franchise in the Sydney suburb of Liverpool. Such defect stations are a common sight at popular cruising/hang-out locations. I shall explore the relations between police, enthusiasts, and the system of automobility through the figure of the Hoon in a later section, but here I just want to draw attention to the double relation between technical defects as a social defect in the context of my research defects.

By ‘double relation’ I am referring to what Clifford Geertz calls the “crosswise doubleness” of the event of cock fighting in his celebrated ethnographic research in a Balinese village. Geertz writes of the event’s crosswise doubleness “taken as a fact of nature, is rage untrammeled and, taken as a fact of culture, is form perfected, defines the cockfight as a sociological entity”(1973: 424). The concept of a doubleness to the event is useful for understanding many of the diverse events of car culture, such as motorsport races and the aforementioned defect station, but what is important for my current purposes is the cross wise doubleness of the event from my perspective and how I originally approached it as a possible research event as part of a larger research project. Geertz continues and adds that such events “take their form from the situation that evokes them, the floor on which they are placed, as Goffman puts it; but it is a form, and an articulate one, nonetheless. For the situation, the floor is itself created, in jury deliberations. surgical operations, block meetings, sit-ins, cockfights, by the cultural preoccupations […] which not only specify the focus but, assembling actors and arranging scenery, bring it actually into being” (1973: 424). The cultural preoccupations guide the becoming of the event through its articulation as a ‘sociological entity’.

Instead of participating in the event of the car show and understanding the action of the car show as part of the larger event of the scene of modified-car culture in Sydney, I engaged with the event as a potentially constituent element of my research. Of course, ethnographic researchers have to do both – participate and research – but I was largely oblivious to gaining a participatory appreciation of the event beyond my capacity as a doctoral research student. Much to my embarrassment whenever I tell of this story, I actually brought along a card table upon which to display a selection of quasi-scholarly enthusiast texts that covered the history and imagery of various eras of modified-car culture. I literally folded my research practice into the event of the car show by producing a quasi-scholarly space amongst all the cars. This is the worst kind of ethnography. The effect must have been somewhat bewildering for actual car show participants because I had a car at the show on display and yet I was walking around talking about the research project I was doing. It removed all objective pretence from the concept of ‘participant observation’ by eliding the distinction between my research practices and the practices of enthusiasts (or at least enthusiasts not doing research). In retrospect it is very easy to say that I should have approached the car show event in terms of wanting to participate in what I knew would be a small-scale car show to get some sense of the dynamics of the event. The sort of questions that would have been my explicit focus would have been: What do participants do for the seven or more hours they were at the show? How do different groups interact? What was the demographic composition of the ‘public’ in attendance? Who organised the event? What was their goal? What did enthusiasts think of the event? How did they carry themselves during the event?

This initial foray into ethnographic fieldwork with my new car was very exciting and to a certain extent a relief because all I had done for the previous year is read the already existing literature and participate in the culture through online forums. I missed the car enthusiast dimension of my life. Yet, to return to Geertz (1973: 448), the status of the car show for me as a defective fieldwork event, like the cockfight for the Balinese, acts as a kind of ‘metasocial commentary’ on my research endeavours. For the Balinese, the function of the cockfight “is interpretive: it is a Balinese reading of a Balinese experience, a story they tell themselves about themselves” (Geertz 1973: 448). The defective car show fieldwork was a research-based reading of a researcher’s experience. In the future I knew that whenever I ‘went into the field’ I would not be cultivating the event of my own research project that happened to be on contemporary modified-car culture in Australia, I would be participating in the event of contemporary modified-car culture in Australia and most of research and intellectual work would involve tracing the large and small events of which I would be part, and then mapping these events back through the archive to understand their conditions of emergence. To put it bluntly, the defective car show fieldwork was an event that forced me to appreciate my own potential failures just as I was beginning the engaged part of my research. Failure is meant here in the sense that Foucault discussed ‘stupidity’ in his review essay “Theatrum Philosophicum”:

Intelligence does not respond to stupidity, since it is stupidity already vanquished, the categorical art of avoiding error. The scholar is intelligent. It is thought, though, that confronts stupidity, and it is the philosopher who observes it. […] At the limit, thought would be the intense contemplation from close up-to the point of losing oneself in it — of stupidity; and its other side is formed by lassitude, immobility, excessive fatigue, obstinate muteness, and inertia — or, rather, they form its accompaniment, the daily and thankless exercise which prepares it and which it suddenly dissipates. [The philosopher] must be sufficiently “ill humored” to persist in the confrontation with stupidity, to remain motionless to the point of stupefaction in order to approach it successfully and mime it, to let it slowly grow within himself […], and to await, in the always-unpredictable conclusion to this elaborate preparation, the shock of difference. (190)

Between researcher and enthusiast there was little middle ground, and I had to be attentive to my enthusiasm while at the same time learn how to unlearn it so to become a researcher. As an enthusiast, I became an undercover researcher. I had to learn not so much how to do the right thing, as Foucault might say, do research free from error or do research just as I expected it to happen and therefore discover nothing, but use my failures as a resource for my actual research practice and use the contingencies of the field to generate my research. ‘Failure’ perhaps carries too much of the affective burden of a heroic researcher using philosophical weapons to battle the stupidity of his initial clumsy forays into the scene and a lack of experience mediating between researcher and enthusiast. However, such descriptions are nowhere near as harsh as how I would later describe myself as I critically participated in the scene. The further I felt myself becoming enveloped by the scene, the more I felt compelled to become a researcher. As I shall discuss in the relevant proceeding chapter, I began to think of myself as a traitor to my own enthusiasm.

2 replies on “defective”

  1. That’s really interesting stuff, man.

    I didn’t produce any majorly first-person discussions of my field work in my thesis, but I have masses of writing from various trips and regular ‘field work’. I did go to Herrang – a dance camp in Sweden – for which I secured uni funding, and that was perhaps the most ‘event-like’ approach to ‘field work’ that I took during my research…. i’m having trouble articulating today!

    But I one of the things I wrote about in my discussion of my methodology was the distinction between ‘the field’ and ‘the acadamy’ – or rather, how I imagined the relationship between the academic part of my brain and the ‘participant’ part of my brain. I’ve generally decided that to divide ‘the field’ and ‘the academy’ is a bit of an artificial distinction. I’m a dancer when I’m writing about dance, but I’m also an academic when I’m dancing. The stuff I’m ‘studying’ is my everyday – I don’t make a distinction between ‘the field’ and my ‘work’ because the two overlap so much. I certainly didn’t think ‘off to do some research’ when I hopped on my bike to go dancing last night!

    Although, I’ve noticed many, many times, using ‘acka talk’ when ‘in the field’ (ie posting on discussion boards or hanging with the homies out dancing) doesn’t really work. So I was really interested in your description of delineating a bit of acka space at the car show.
    … I’m not sure where I’m going with this (I think I’m a bit overstimulated by your fascinating post).

    But do you feel, really, that you need to divide up when you’re a researcher and when you’re an enthusiast? I think that’s why I like the term scholar-fan (with all its problems – and there are a few): it lets me be a fan and a scholar at the same time. An enthusiast and a researcher.
    Or have I misunderstood your post (I think that’s pretty bloody possible – I’m really feeling pretty slow today)?

    One of the best points supporting this, for me, was that you can’t really write about what dance means if you’re not a dancer – you have to have embodied experience to write about dance. And in much of the dance studies lit, this is a given. I know that I couldn’t possibly have really understood what was going on at Herrang, for example, if I hadn’t been in there _as_ a dancer, doing all the things that dancers were doing. I found that I was percolating the acka ideas _while_ I was dancing and participating, and then produced a sort of mishmash of acka/fan stuff. Which is what I am, really.

    …dang, I’ve rambled on too long, but I can’t help it. This was such an interesting bit of writing. And it resonates with so many of the things I’ve thought about in my work, I’m babbling. 🙂

  2. dp, I am “a former self-confessed hoon” as the media describes me, because I grew up in the suburbs of Perth. I just wanted to escape. I have escaped. My interests have shifted. Now I have D&G and the event. I haven’t stopped being a hoon, now I am just a hoon within some almost unintellegible crazy-ass theory stuff. 😉

    The question of embodiment is precisely what I was getting at with the lack of middle ground. There is no way anyone can do any proper research on this sort of culture without actually driving one of these cars for at least some period of time. Then there is working on such cars. And hanging out for hours in a car park! But what captures the embodied enthusiast relation best is the ache of dreaming about cars. Until you dream you are not an enthusiast. The Trading Post serves this function (almost exactly like the scene from The Castle, but about cars.)

    Anyway, academia has its own comportment, this is evident when attending conferences. But it is not a question of the embodiment of one interest (academic) over another (car enthusiasm). Rather it is more a case of being an undercover academic while being an enthusiast. Traitor is how I would describe this double-agent status, because it has an immediate affective pull ‘in yer guts’ feel to it. I am using my own experiences of being an enthusiast, which are completely authentic by the way, and how I participate in the events of the enthusiasm with others as a scholarly ethnographic resource.

    Didn’t you feel like you were somehow betraying a confidence when ‘working’ with your dance peeps, because you knew you were doing fieldwork and what was happening would become written up and pulled apart?

    Car enthusiasts are meant to be extremely bright when it comes to the technical details of automotive technologies, but there is little self-reflexivity regarding the actual experience of being an enthusiast and the social machinery that allows it to happen. Car culture is about cars, not the enthusiasm.

    What balances this feeling of being a traitor is my own confidence that I am engaging with the culture in an intimate and respectful way. No one else could quite write what I am writing about modified-car culture. That is what sustains me.

    My post was about my initial clumsy forays into the scene and a lack of experience mediating between researcher and enthusiast. I had to learn not so much how to do the right thing, i.e. do research free from error or, to put it another way, do research just as I expected it to happen and therefore discover nothing, but use my failures as a resource for my actual research practice and use the contingencies of the field to generate my research.

    I might add some of these comments to my chapter!!! lol

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