Abstract, second draft

Here is another abstract, this time organised around the ‘thesis’ of my dissertation (previous chapter by chapter summary version here). It is too long and contains too many ‘glenisms’. I am posting it here because it is a very good summary of my argument for those who have been wondering wtf Glen has been on about since I started developing this line of the research two and a half years ago. I sat on the couch for about half an hour before sending it off just thinking about how much work I have done and feeling a little stunned. But I knew it would be too long. OK, third time lucky…

Modified: Cars, Culture, and Event Mechanics

This thesis investigates the enthusiasm, scenes and cultural industry of contemporary modified-car culture in Australia. Enthusiasm is often thought of as a charismatic relation of durable excitement between the enthusiast subject and the enthusiast object modified cars. This thesis argues that the simple charismatic relation of enthusiasm is a reduction that allows the enthusiasm of a given scene to become a resource for cultural industries servicing that scene. Instead of a simple charismatic relation, enthusiasm is understood as the event of a singular complex of affects that exists on transversal scales from the personal to the scene and beyond.

The affects of enthusiasm may be felt in the enthusiast body, but this thesis argues that affects belong to a subjective dimension of the event of enthusiasm. The event of enthusiasm is defined by the subjectively experienced impersonal affects that circulate across bodies and which are actualised in the capacities of enthusiasts, the objects engaged with, and practices performed. The movement of affect is controlled through the different consistencies of organisation at the level of the cultural events of modified-car culture. The cultural events include cruising, working on cars, racing, showing, and consuming or participating in the enthusiast media. Enthusiasts deploy a social ‘know how’ of the different cultural events of the scene to navigate their various capacities for action. These cultural events serve as the locus for the differential repetition of the event of enthusiasm, which is rendered durable through the bodies of enthusiasts and the infrastructure of the scene.

The scene is defined by the character of the cultural events which populate it and the enthusiasts that participate in the events. The cultural industries and social institutions enable the enthusiasm by investing in the infrastructure of the scene and facilitating the existence of cultural events through sponsoring or practical support. The power relations between enthusiasts and various dimensions of the infrastructure constitute the dispositif of the scene. Archival research of enthusiast magazines allows me to map the transformations to these power relations between the state (governmental regulatory bodies), social institutions (online and offline car clubs, and federations), cultural industries (magazines, event promoters, and later importers) and different populations of enthusiasts (from interested public to highly skilled and devoted enthusiasts). The periods roughly delineated are the street rodding era (the 1970s), the street machining era (1980s through to the present) and the import era (mid-1990s through to the present).

Transformations to the scene arguably occurred in the context of broader social changes exemplified by the processes of globalisation. National automotive industries and markets have been transformed over the last 30 years and these transformations have been felt through correlating transformations to the cultural identity of scenes and enthusiasms. The historical example of Australian street machining saw the emergence of a reactionary nationalism in the mid-1980s linked to the technology of the V8 engine. This thesis maps some aspects of the relation between culture and technology of this reactionary enthusiasm and that belonging to the ‘rise of the imports’. The event of enthusiasm is repeated in different ways across the transversal scales connecting the subjectively experienced affects of cultural events to effects on the scene by the global-scale transformations of the automotive industry.

For enthusiasm to become a resource, the event of enthusiasm has to be reduced to the simple charismatic relation between subject and object. The cultural industries and social institutions attempt to control this relation by controlling the cultural events of enthusiasm. I contrast the scene dispositif of the three eras of contemporary modified-car culture in Australia: the militancy of the street rodders, the emergence of the synergistic spectacle of the street machiners, and the immanent online-based sociality of current enthusiasts. This thesis argues that the militant representational social structure of the street rodders was displaced by the spectacle of the street machining era; yet, the rise in popularity of online clubs and forums serves as a new and different form of social infrastructure that complements the spectacle.

The spectacular cultural event is organised around enthusiasm reduced to a charismatic relation. In the context of 1980s street machining, I examine the way elite level vehicles built by highly skilled enthusiasts following spectacular ‘head turning’ styles of modification are used by event promoters and magazines to collectively individuate a population of the interested public. The head turner is a singularity within modified-car culture. It organises the social space of the street, of car shows, and of the discursive space of magazines. Through the example of Street Machine magazine and the Summernats festival, I argue that the emergent synergistic relation between magazines and event promoters is organised around the labour of skilled enthusiasts and the capacity of ‘head turners’ to mediate relations between different populations of enthusiasts.

This thesis draws on fieldwork research with an online-based car club – where I participated as an enthusiast – and archival research of 30 years of enthusiast magazines and other texts. I develop a post-Kantian event-based conception of enthusiasm by drawing on the limited amount of previous scholarship on modified-car culture, including the exemplary work of Bert Moorhouse, read through post-structuralist theories of the ‘event’ and ‘affect’, and with reworkings of other notions such as the ‘scene’ and ‘cultural capital’. The oeuvre of Gilles Deleuze is a key theoretical influence on this work, which also draws on the historical method and philosophy of Michel Foucault, a ‘practical’ reading of Pierre Bourdieu’s cultural capital, the problematisation of the social by Bruno Latour. It develops Theodor Adorno’s work on the cultural industry by examining its biopolitical dimension. The conclusion surveys the broader cultural context of enthusiasm and the utility of the concepts of ‘enthusiasm’ and ‘scene’ interrogating how the cultural industry invests in various scenes to cultivate enthusiasm as a material and cultural resource.

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