Automobile, Speed, Moving Image

from You Saw Nothing: Sight, Digital Video, Post-3.11 Japan

The aesthetic relation between the automobile and moving images has been much discussed. Architectural historian Iain Borden, for example, draws an exuberant relationship between moving images and the act of driving, stating that “cinema, more than any other representational form, provides the most direct sense of what it actually feels like to drive, its visual qualities giving a substantive indication of how driving involves movements, bodies, thoughts, feelings, spaces, sights and sounds”.* He also argues in relation to motion and speed that:

movies help us understand the experiential thrill of modernity not only through aesthetic experiences of space – through effects of framing, signs, mobility and so forth – but in transcending the rational and disciplined qualities of driving and moving into a realm of the comparatively irrational, into matters of non- codified thought, instinct and everyday behaviours. In short, films help us understand that we often live dynamically and without the necessity of constant presence of self-reflective or rationalised thought.**

Moving-image theorist Laura Mulvey, in her argument on the materiality of film and narrative structure, notes that:

the story’s development extends into the movement of the car and the line of the road duplicates that of the narrative, both leading towards death and stasis. In this way, the car and the road link the narrative structure to thematic content, also generating an actual momentum and mobility from which these films derive their aesthetic specificity.***

As both moving images and automobiles encompass movement and are the offspring of twentieth-century technology, the coalescence of these two phenomena builds aesthetic relationships. With these examples of the aesthetic reconstruction of speed – the physical experience of being doubly in a moving car and in the forward movement of the media specificity – at the basis of its aesthetics, You Saw Nothing in Fukushima examines the notion of speed materialised by digital video in affinity with capitalism’s figurative speed. The apotheosis of speed is a shared aspiration between automotive technology and capitalism.

David Harvey, citing Karl Marx, notes that to “Speeding up ‘the velocity of circulation of capital’ contributes to the accumulation process. Under these conditions ‘even spatial distance reduces itself to time: the important thing is not the market’s distance in space but the speed … with which it can be reached’.”**** The capitalist imperative of “the annihilation of space by time” is accomplished by the acceleration of speed. The creation of global markets requires the compression of space by time with accelerated means of transportation and communication technology. Faster transportation and communication are essential for speeding up the process of capitalist accumulation.

Automotive physical speed, on the other hand, is the offspring of the historicity of design and engineering. As car designer Kota Nezu notes, the industrial materialisation of high technology including the automobile was the subject of the projection of the bright hopeful future imagined both by society and by individuals in the mid-twentieth century. As one of the materialisations of such imaginings, the automobile was not only a means of commuting but also a product that embodied the attainment of dreams and a bright future closely tied up with the cultural admiration for speed.***** Automotive engineering developed, being projected by the dreams of growth and technological advancement, until the oil crisis in 1973 and 1979, the watershed period when automotive design was turned towards fuel efficiency.˜ In response to the low economic growth of developed industrial countries and the environmental concerns of the 1990s when mass production and consumption as a result of industrialisation and capitalism came to be rethought, automotive design was directed towards eco-friendliness. It thereby left behind its symbolic status evoking the bright future, revealing the dark side of excessive CO2 emissions and the overconsumption of limited fuel resources.˜˜ Resultingly, Nezu advocates the necessity of slowness, lightness, and softness in automotive design as representative of today’s culture.

The automobile embodies, as Nezu describes, the cultural aspirations of an era. At the advent of its industrial materialisation, the automobile embodied the advent of the bright and hopeful future projected onto high technology. In the industrial shift to Connected, Automated, Shared, Electric vehicles (CASE) today, an automobile embodies the cultural aspiration true to the present time. With its material embodiment tied up with aspirations, hopes, and dreams, transcending its function as a means of commuting, automotive technology represented the arrival of the bright and hopeful future as much as nuclear technology did in the material flux of high technology.

The automobile, in the particular context of the grand narrative of growth in Japan, in which a dream of a prosperous future emerged from the ashes and memories of World War II, embodied national sentiments reflecting national history and a cultural projection of high technology. As a driver of trade and the economy, cars and vehicle parts are the top two exports from Japan today. Within these cultural and economic social backgrounds, the automobile tied to the forward movement of digital video symbolises the economic state of growth, progress, and development. In the grand narrative of growth, speeding-up shaped an ideology characterised by one answer: to achieve the economic state that would lead the nation to wealth and happiness. Speed, thus, is semiotically embedded in the structural specificity of forward movement in the following two ways: as a Marxist concept of compression by time for growth, and as cultural aspirations of the past century.

*Iain Borden, Drive: Journeys through Film, Cities and Landscapes, London: Reaktion Books, 2013. pp. 12–13.  **Ibid., p. 13.
***Laura Mulvey, Death 24x a Second: Stillness and the Moving Image, London: Reaktion Books, 2009. p. 77.
****David Harvey, Spaces of Capital: Towards a Critical Geography, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2001. p. 244.
*****Kota Nezu, Car Design Makes the Future, Tokyo: Planets, 2017. pp. 22, 40.  ˜Ibid., p. 44.  ˜˜Ibid., p. 49.
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