Republic of Drivers: A Cultural History of Automobility in America

By Cotten Seiler | Go to book overview
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chapter five
“How Can the Driver Be
Remodeled?”: Automobility
and the Liberal Subject

It seems at first sight as if all the minds of the Americans were formed
upon one model, so accurately do they follow the same route.

—Alexis de Tocqueville1

We call “subject” that which results from the relation between living
things and dispositifs” [apparatuses]. —Giorgio Agamben2

As with African Americans and other people of color, the expansion of automobility in the 1950s increased women's capacity to perform freedom in the twentieth century. That is to say, highways and enhanced automotive technology provided a means for women to blunt the disempowering spectacle of their physical particularity. Speeding down the detached limited-access highways, one could assume anonymity, disappear. Tom Lewis offers as proof of automobility's empowering effect on marginalized groups a poem by the writer Barbara Smith. The poem, “I-80,” places the reader with a female protagonist as she drives across Nevada, the car and the driver moving in a way “so different from 1954.” Lewis concludes his analysis with the approving observation that “Smith is alone.”3 No longer suffering the indignity of “limited access” to public space, women and racially marginalized people can now enact the individualist practice nonpareil: traveling alone.

I am suspicious of the tone of congratulation in such claims. Moreover, it is unclear to whom and/or what specifically we owe thanks: is it to white men, for “extending” the prerogatives of citizenship to women and people of color (as though it was not the result of bitter struggle); the

-129-

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