dakar as sentimental education

Found via Suz of LP, and according to The Age, an editorial in the Vatican newspaper published Wednesday night described the Paris to Dakar Rally as “the bloody race of irresponsibility.”

“The Paris-Dakar, a race which many classify as a sporting event, in reality has very little to do with healthy competition,” the editorial said.

“The trail of blood which grows longer from year to year on the route of the race instead underscores the undeniable component of violence that lies behind every attempt to export Western models to human environments and ecosystems that have little to do with the West,” it said.

The Vatican newspaper said the race and its sponsors betrayed a “cynicism” that ignores local realities. It called the wrecks of cars, trucks and motorcycles abandoned in the desert “rusty monuments to irresponsibility”.

Over at LP Suz writes:

“Motor racing in general has no appeal for me at all, but whenever I see news clips of rally vehicles ploughing through the Sahara, it does always look like a violent imposition of metal on sand, of noise on silence, of arrogance onto people unknown.”

OK, so what is the appeal of motorsport? I was once asked a similar question by The Bulletin about Dick Johnson and the famous ‘rock’ incident at Bathurst for an article about XD Falcons. The author ran with a comment about the secondary (second hand cars) and tertiary (wreckers, etc) automotive markets. I talked about it in terms of a symbolic play (‘deep play‘ if you will) where those who partake in this masculine activity attempt to conquer the risks involved. There is nothing more boring than watching someone easily win a race. If they have to battle it out, with each other or against their environment then it is more exciting. What does this mean?

Geertz’s classic piece on Balinese cock fighting describes the specific relation relation between men and their fitghing cocks as if the cocks were “ambulant penises”. Isn’t there a direct equivalent with cars? Eddie Murphy in The Nutty Professor buys a Dodge Viper with number plates “PNSCAR.” However, there is a less explicit but no less pronouced relation between owners and their vehicles. Deborah Lupton has written about the car and driver as forming a cyborg, where the body image of the driver (the concept of body image from Freud and developed by Feminists) is mapped over the dimensions of the vehicle. This allows drivers to park and ‘know’ where the car is even though they can’t see it.

However, at the same time the car is a monstrous creation. Lupton’s piece is called “Monsters in Metal Cocoons”, but it is on road rage, and about when drivers ostensibly go bad and “become someone else behind the wheel”. The interesting thing is that they go bad, Lupton argues, by assuming some of the characteristics of (without using these terms) the system of automobility. The system of automobility is a monstrous beast, a contemporary Leviathan common to every urban centre.

cocks in flight

Motorsport has a number of dimensions. Robert Post in his history of drag racing talks about the ambiguity around the notion of ‘performance’. Dragsters perform in certain tests of technical effectiveness while at the same time performing in a theatrical sense. Jon McKenzie in his book Perform or Else, explores this theatrical performance as what some gender scholars have called performativity. There is a performative dimension to motorsport that overlaps with the function of what Geertz called ‘deep play’.

motorbikes in flight

To understand deep play means understanding what Geertz calls the “crosswise doubleness of an event.” In cockfighting it is the rigid rule and rule-based structure of the fighting combined with the ‘pure hate’ of the cocks as they fight. Within motorsport the rules often come under scrutiny by TV commentators but it is very rare indeed for drivers or team owners to openly criticise the ‘stewards’ (as they are so termed). The ‘hate’ of the cock is a convenient representation of the sum total of the cock’s affects. Hate is (literally, in this case) an anthropomorphised affect recognised as ingressed into the event of the fighting cock’s total complement of affects. There is also speed, visciousness, sharpness of its spur and so on. If wounded in the first round the cock comes in for a “pit stop” and attention from its trainer. The ‘crosswise doubleness’ emerges in the asymmetrical homological relation between the ‘deep play’ event and the social event of which it is part.

The evental ‘floor’ or form of the fight is constructed as an articulation of broader social interactions:

[The fights] 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, sitins, cockfights, by the cultural preoccupations-here, as we shall see, the celebration of status rivalry-which not only specify the focus but, assembling actors and arranging scenery, bring it actually into being.

Motorsport is a kind of spectacle that pitches man against machine. The monstrous fury of the machine is unleashed and has to be tamed through the skill of hyper-masculine drivers. Motorsport reproduces a heroic confrontational relationship to technology. The driver risks everything (his life) for the sake of something else, such as status or memory. Brock is a perfect example, not in his death, but in his 1979 Bathurst race where he set a lap record on the last lap and while leading by six laps. Race car drivers must perform as monuments to their future memory.

But it is not just the driver and his race car that is involved in this pitched battle. As a performative confrontation between humanity and the system of automobility, the risks of motorsport are a spectacular manifestation of the risks experienced everyday by all automobilised subjects (i.e. most Western subjects, and a great number of others around the world). The confrontational relationship to technology is played out in the everyday streets and in the specialised racetracks and other places. The bet here is not always monetary, as in the case of Geertz’s cock fights, but as the Vatican editorial puts it “a trail of blood”. In a perverse inversion of along the axis of civilisation of the technologically advanced western countries versus the peasant Balinese village, in motorsport the cost is in human lives, while the Balinese have their ambulant avatars. In other words, the Vatican editorial is pointing out the obvious and reinforces the social dimensions of the Dakar rally as a motorsport and social event. Yes, it cost human lives, that is exactly what is at stake. The colonial dimension of this in the case of the Dakar simply dovetails into the deep play function of the event relative to societies of automobility. There is no contradiction.

The challenge is therefore much larger than a simple motorsport event, and involves the confrontational relationship to technology that underpins contemporary automobility. This confrontational realtionship is organised around relations of risk and masculine performativity expressed through “P-plater moral panics” and obscene urban-driven 4WD SUVs as much as it is through organised motorsport. The question for Suz and others critical of the Dakar is, why become so concerned about locals and spectators being killed in this motorsport event, when it happens on a daily basis, and even more frequently, in every western city in the world? Because the expressive function of motorsport to array the elements of automobility is intuited and assumed. The Dakar is not just a race. Motorsport acts as a metasocial commentary on the relationship between man, machine and environment, and the distributive relationship between them in the system of automobility. The Dakar is a performative act, an event, or to use the language of Geertz, a “sentimental education” in automobility:

What the [Dakar] says it says in a vocabulary of sentiment-the thrill of risk, the despair of loss, the pleasure of triumph. Yet what it says is not merely that risk is exciting, loss depressing, or triumph gratifying, banal tautologies of affect, but that it is of these emotions, thus exampled, that society is built and individuals put together. Attending [the Dakar] and participating in [it, as spectators] is, for the [automobolised world], a kind of sentimental education.

In the confrontational relationship to technology that so pervades the current system of automobility, death is a banal constituent element.

11 replies on “dakar as sentimental education”

  1. Very interesting Glen.
    “The question for Suz and others critical of the Dakar is, why become so concerned about locals and spectators being killed in this motorsport event, when it happens on a daily basis, and even more frequently, in every western city in the world?”
    I’m not only concerned about those deaths, though concerned I am. (And concerned I am about such deaths in Western contries too.) I was pointing out that the way such deaths are seen as a kind of collateral damage and kept invisible in the western media is a manifestation of the colonial mentality which seems to underpin the Dakar race. The Vatican and I (!) are both criticisimg this exploitative colonialism first, not just the automotive aspect.

  2. I was pointing out that the way such deaths are seen as a kind of collateral damage and kept invisible in the western media is a manifestation of the colonial mentality which seems to underpin the Dakar race. The Vatican and I (!) are both criticisimg this exploitative colonialism first, not just the automotive aspect.

    Ok, this makes the light-bulb in my brain go ding. I understand where you’re coming from now.

  3. However, and maybe I didn’t address this point properly with all me Geertzisms, but can the colonial dimension and the automotive dimension actaully be separated? For example, my take on the p-plater moral panic is that it is not actually about deaths and young adults driving irresponsibly, that is only how it is expressed. The moral panic is actually about how one of the main mechanisms of colonisation internal to western societies has failed.

    At the unsustaible present, societies of the west are societies of automobility. Citizen-consumer-subjects must become automobilised to be proper citizen-consumer-subjects in the hierarchy of automobility. Learning to drive and gaining a driver’s license is actually the culmination of a mechanism of internal colonisation. Connected to automobility is the urban-suburban population distributions, which is connected to an certain conservative Australian way of life. This process of colonisation is so complete and utterly effective that many people think it is common sense to get a driver’s license and react angrily when I make suggestions such as the driving age should being raised to 25.

    Automobility is an event that must be continually repeated, it needs a constantly supply of new subjects to incorporate. The event of motorsport is the spectacular form of the event of automobility (which is connected in various ways to the dominant culture, in Australia through suburbanity and mythic rural cultures, etc). The focus on risk in motorsport is the spectacular form of the confrontational relationship to technology. See the comments in the LP thread when people suggest it is the spectators’ or organisers’ fault for letting spectators to get too close, i.e. the spectators aren’t sufficiently automobilised enough for this event of automobility and it is their fault!!! In other words, they haven’t been colonised properly by the event of automobility.

    The relation between the two events, which in this case is the ‘deep play’ of motorsport and the social event of automobilised societies (these are actually asymmetrical but homological social events), is the relation the Geertz is getting at in his deep play essay.

  4. “can the colonial dimension and the automotive dimension actaully be separated?”
    In the case of the Dakar rally, no. In other instances, even in western (eg European) countries, ‘automobility’ is not as intrinsic as in Australia and manifests socially in different ways.

  5. Glenn
    interesting post on the technological mode of being.

    I’ve watched bits of the Dakur Rally on SBS Television and I would argue that this rally, as a motorsport and social event, involves more than a performative confrontation between humanity and the technological system of automobility.

    The skill of hyper-masculine drivers and their heroic confrontational relationship to technology takes place in a desert which destroys both mean and machines. Death and wreckage is all pervasive. Most fail the test and are beaten by the sand.

    What he Dakur Rally indicates is that the technological mode of being has reached its limits, if not its completion.

  6. “What he Dakur Rally indicates is that the technological mode of being has reached its limits, if not its completion.”

    good point, gary. the interesting thing then might be to ask why stage the event? is it way to valorise a certain relation to technology, not in the sense of expressing a dominant relationship ie everyday automobility, but something more esoteric. I am not sure. (i think this is the point to do some actual research on viewers, participants and organisers. Or at least study the discourse surrounding the event.)

  7. hmmm you are probably right about the not finding favour, although I can\’t speak for a cult stud blog network (is there one!?!?! i just link to mates and people i have met mostly. lol)

    I would rather talk about it in terms of the production of singularity, perhaps involving an intimate experimentation across the habituated thresholds of comfort through risk taking etc. Otherwise isn\’t there a danger of life simply being realised as an avatar of not-death in the resonace of ego? like rather than understanding life as a kind of positive tendency of the cosmos?

  8. Glenn
    judging from the Memes of production blogroll there looks to be cult stud blog network.

    I don’t understand why the amateurs, who typically make up about eighty percent of the participants, do it. The images I saw on the desert section of the 20006 Dakar Rally were very Mad Max, with a strong emphasis on technology and human endurance, with death having a strong presence.

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