In a survey of Foucault’s work, scholar Barry Smart explains the two forms in which power has been exercised over life in modern Western societies since the shift away from absolutist government in the seventeenth century. While the first form–an anatomo-politics of the human body–is exemplified by “techniques directed towards the optimization and realization of bodily forces and capacities,” the second form–a bio-politics of the population–concerns “the management and regulation of the population, the species body and its demographic characteristics.” Clarke explains how through car manufacturing emerged as national project through Fordism, where “men were to become standardized and interchangeable, valued less for their individuality than for their efficiency and conformity.” While accurate, reading automobility as a project of anatomy-politics does not capture its biopolitical dimensions. Timothy Campbell and Adam Sitze explain that biopolitical power produces “life zones” where citizens are protected by a host of techniques of health, security, and safety. In the life zones of North America, biopolitical power has expressed itself through tighter regulations to curb car power, increase safety features, and render cars less customizable–all in the name of the “collective” good.
In response to the oil price hikes of the early 1970s, congress passed the Energy Policy Conservation Act of 1975, which established fuel economy guidelines for vehicles. These guidelines stopped American car industries from producing high-powered vehicles, effectively bringing an end to the high-risk muscle car phase. Auto manufacturers in the United States were attuned to public anxieties about safety. Returning to the November 1969 issue of Car Craft, I found an advertisement from General Motors that detailed the crash tests that GM performed by introducing their crash test dummy “Sophisticated Sam.” Assuming it was a joke, I showed by dad who explained, “Cars back then weren’t safe like they are today. They used to be fun – it wasabout risk-taking and having guts.”
Daniel Miller notes that “the car constitutes an arena around which it is possible to test and slightly stretch the limits of acceptable behaviour.” Racing the W30 and taking the car to its limits let my dad and uncle take part in a culture of masculine risk-taking and bodily improvement. I opened up the conversation with my dad: “Did you ever race the W30?”
At night, we would go race guys with our 442. All backstreet stuff. We would up on Clyde road or in Roseville usually. You would drag race until whoever won at the end. If you were up against a 454 or a 455 or a 427, you know that you were messing with a bad boy. They would have their own distinct emblem; you could tell my looking at the back of the car. Oldsmobile was like gentleman’s car. It was smoother and more comfortable. The barracudas were all bare bones, but this had more comfort. The 442 had air conditioning, power brakes. Our original car had both of those, so it was rare. It had the biggest fastest motor with most of the luxury options.
“So you must have won a lot of races?” I asked impatiently.
“Oh yeah. We wanted to take it to the limit. It was all about trying to go fast and give it more gas. You needed to have a big motor, you needed to have guts to go fast. Ford and Chrysler were putting in the biggest motors because horsepower sold. We would take it to its limit and seeing if it would hold together. Oh we had so much blowing up the engine in that car. You could feel your heart racing in the car. Some guys just didn’t have the guts to go fast. Afterwards, it didn’t feel so great. It would cost money to fix it up again and the car would be out of commission for months at a time.”
For my dad and uncle, racing the W30 gave them an opportunity to use the surrogate body of the automobile to push the limits of their own bodies. Going “fast” was tied into a masculine performance of bravery and courage in the face of danger. “You have to think about the car as a living machine,” my dad informed me, “It’s almost like apart of you.”
By the 1990s, the realm of car customization has changed considerably. The introduction of ECU chips meant that new cars could only be customized through computer programming–something that my uncle and dad had not mastered growing up. Driven in part by the desire for increased safety, the electronization of the automobile in the early 1990s radically altered car culture. No longer manually adjustable in the face of biopolitical power, cars built after the muscle car era no longer provided the same terrain on which my dad and uncle could articulate their masculine identities.
“They strangled the muscle car,” my uncle remarked, “you couldn’t do anything fun with the new cars.”
Barry Smart, Michel Foucault, Chichester: E. Horwood. 1985. Print.
Campbell, Timothy C., and Adam Sitze. Biopolitics: A Reader. Durham: Duke UP, 2013. Print.
Campbell, David. "The Biopolitics of Security: Oil, Empire, and the Sports Utility Vehicle." American Quarterly 57.3 (2005): 943-72. Web.
Clarke, Deborah. Driving Women: Fiction and Automobile Culture in Twentieth-century America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2007. Print.
Miller, Daniel. Car Cultures: Materializing Culture. Oxford, UK: Berg, 2001. Print. 23.