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February 23, 2004 - What would Roland Barthes drive?

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I tell my friends I drive an Ironymobile.  I do.  But guys like cars and read reviews.  I read them all the time, and I came across a review today that was quite unusual.  It was... full of references to semiotics and other really non-automotive issues?  Sure was! 

For the record, the fellow liked the new Mercedes station wagon. 

See Why hitch your star to this wagon?
Larry David and other great philosophers weigh in on the semiotics of vehicle type.  The Mercedes E500 4Matic puts us in a philosophical mood. 
Dan Neil, The Los Angeles Times, February 18, 2004

Neil opens with this:


Even though the great French critic Roland Barthes has been dead for nearly 25 years, I bet he still smells like Gitanes. 

I miss him.  Part anthropologist, part philosopher, part journalist (the part that couldn't get a good table at a restaurant), Barthes thought hard about ordinary things - the first serious anatomist of pop culture. 

And one of the things he thought hard about was automobiles.  His 1957 review of the Citroën DS famously begins, "I think that cars today are almost the exact equivalent of the great Gothic cathedrals: I mean the supreme creation of an era, conceived with passion by unknown artists, and consumed in image if not in usage by a whole population which appropriates them as a purely magical object."

Wow.  Geronimo. 

I don't think about cars nearly as deeply or as well as Barthes, no matter how many tiny cups of coffee I drink.  But I do appreciate his search for cars' deeper meanings, the invisible scaffolding that holds up our opinions about them. 


Okay, I will have to check with my literate friends to find out if Barthes actually wrote a review of the Citroën DS - and I'm not sure he did.

Photo: Ric Erickson, MetropoleParis

But these comments on station wagons and pickup trucks, and the Chinese, and on the soft-handed Parisians who bought up Millet's peasant paintings long ago, and SUV owners, are amusing, without a search of the philosophic texts in translation. 


... For what they say about the emotional health of their owners, station wagons are the happiest cars on the road.  And I can live with that. 

Consider the pickup truck.  The top-selling vehicles in America, trucks are purchased in ever-increasing numbers by people who don't actually need them - commuters, Lone Star suburbanites, empty Stetsons. 

Well, if not for its utility, why buy a pickup?  Because pickups as a type have meaning: a rootsy, red-state nobility, a mild scolding of sophistication and effete urbanism, a mood very much in fashion these days.  My house may be in the suburbs, the purchase says, but my home is on the farm. 

Naturally, in proper dialectical fashion, cars mean different things, depending on which side of the windshield you are on. 

In China, for instance, the rising middle class doesn't want anything to do with pickups; they remind people of an all-too-recent peasantry.  The contrast exposes a faint foolishness under America's love of pickups: Like the soft-handed Parisians who bought up Millet's peasant paintings, pickup poseurs would find rural virtue a different thing entirely if they spent a day in the fields. 

Barthes loved to flog the petite bourgeoisie with their own illusions. 

SUV haters usually indict their owners as inconsiderate and aggressive.  But read SUVs another way, not as tanks but as fortresses, inside which their owners huddle for safety.  In this light, drivers of huge, scary SUVs appear more frightened than you are.  That's a provocative thought, considering the way SUVs are marketed as fearless and self-reliant vehicles, the Natty Bumppos of the road.


Wow!  All that and James Fenimore Cooper too! 

But wait!  There's more! 


These conventions, these sets of prefabricated meaning, can be as powerful as they are erroneous, a fact illustrated by one word: "minivan." The "M" word has become so radioactive that few manufacturers dare speak its name in advertising.  General Motors recently launched two vehicles the Saturn Relay and the Buick Terraza that the company refers to as a "family utility van" and a "premium crossover sport van," respectively, a semantic rearranging of deck chairs that fails to hide the fact that the vehicles are just that. 

What's wrong with minivans?  Nothing.  It's the idea of minivans.  To drive one is to feel regarded as somehow sexually demoted, to be reduced to a one-page Kama Sutra. 

Don't want to play the cars-define-the-man game?  Sorry, you can't opt out.  The most low-key, basic transportation comes with its own constellation of meaning. 

Think, for example, of the Larry David character on HBO's "Curb Your Enthusiasm," who drives a white Toyota Prius, the automotive equivalent of corrective shoes.  Think of the meanings that line up behind this car: a thumb in the eye of SUV culture, a call to arms on fuel economy, a declaration of sexual security.  This is modesty of a very ostentatious sort. 


Yep, he went from the Kama Sutra to an HBO series to the Toyota Prius being a both the automotive equivalent of corrective shoes and a clear declaration of sexual security. 

Cool.  And I didn't bother you with his road test comments and review of the Benz.  He liked it. 


Note - Ric took the picture above here:


Rétromobile - Beginning on Friday, 13 February through Sunday, 22 February.  On opening day, from 12:00 to 22:00, then from 10:00 to 19:00, and from 10:00 to 22:00 on Tuesday and Friday.  At ParisExpo, Porte de Versailles, Paris 15.
Métro: Porte de Versailles.  InfoTel.: 01 49 53 27 00.