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Last modified: 28.06.2013

Today I want to invite you to reflect upon the relationship between the vehicles by which we move and the issues of identity and self-presentation. I have long worked with the underlying assumption that spaces and materialities may be considered as what I call ‘identity requisites’. By this I mean, that houses, technologies, products, clothes, and much else from our material culture works not only in a functional way but also in a highly symbolic way. So for example when I buy a bicycle it needs to fulfill certain functional needs and requirements (i.e. number of gears, thickness of tires etc.). But it also matters what sort of brand and type of bike I am purchasing. Regardless if I go to great pains to state that ‘brands are completely irrelevant to me’ I think it is safe to say that most people within contemporary material culture do notice, and do reflect upon the artifact’s symbolic properties, its brand value, or its social embedding into particular cultural or sub-cultural groupings.

Being a keen cyclist (albeit a rather unsophisticated one) I have for example wondered quite a bit about the latest trend in urban biking termed ‘fixed gear’ bikes. Having only one gear on a bike in a day and age where one could assist one’s physical labor greatly by relying on the latest gear technologies always struck me as odd and rather unpractical. However, ‘fixed gear communities’ across the world counter this by their very existence. The fact that people may deliberately bike on a device with no options for gear change and even find this more exotic and rich on cultural capital speaks to the fact that any vehicle (and other consumer goods for that matter) has both a functional and a symbolic side. And moreover that the functionality of an artifact might range lower in the hierarchy than the symbolic – here I am running the risk of attracting the rage of fixed gear communities all over the world – but seriously; having 7 gears and going uphill is smarter than having one gear and doing the same! Anyway, I shall certainly not challenge the legitimate right of fixed gear communities to live out their preferred mobility practices. Rather this was just one simple example of the more general theme for this blog; that what you drive, is part of your ‘identity kit’.

There is hardly much news in this but I came to think of it the other day driving through the city in my car (and mind you that was the small ‘red one’ signifying ‘urban chic’ and not my bigger black one signifying ‘conservative reliance on well-established car brands’). I passed a buss shelter where the commercials were operated by the omnipresent JC Decaux and what caught my eye was a huge poster with a screamingly yellow Fiat 500. Next to this was a female dressed in equally screaming yellow and with 1970’s style ‘afro hair’. The text accompanying the commercial reads ‘70s wear’. Precisely this short and clear message reminded me about the notion of identity requisite as being relevant when thinking about vehicles. There is a double dimension to the juxtaposition of image and text leaving the reader with the understanding that the Fiat 500 is a part of one’s ‘70s wear’. So this is a rather direct pointing at the relationship between vehicles and acts of self-presentation. Actually Mikey/Gene Hunt posted a quite similar image on Flickr taken somewhere in the UK which gives you the idea (see image here).

That this is coming out of a commercial should not come as a surprise. When it comes to capturing the most fundamental and profound dimensions to social and material culture I find it hard to avoid the advertising business (despite the moral condemnation and distance taken from ‘critical social research’) as it clearly often is way ahead of the dry analysis within academia. Moreover, this got me thinking about what I believe is a more general fashion trend (and bear with me, as I definitely is no expert on these matters). As a father of two teenage daughters I have learned that there are basic elements of a wardrobe, and then there are accessories! Now the latter category seems to expand infinitely and much to the pleasure of the producers of anything from hair pins over hats, wrist watches, and sunglasses to dog leashes and much else. Now, coming back to the Fiat 500 ad and the reference to the 1970’s wardrobe, it is clear that the car is as much a piece of accessory as it is a means of transportation. Obviously one may not have as many accessories to choose from when it comes to cars as when we talk of sunglasses, but the mechanism is precisely the same and seems to underpin the point that ‘you are what you drive’. I will of course immediately have to counter that many people cannot choose what car they want to drive in due to economic conditions and resource scarcity. Also the deliberate self-staging application of vehicles as identity requisites might be an extreme case of self-presentation. Nevertheless I do think it resonates well with two of my key issues when we turn to mobilities research: First, that mobilities is about much, much more than simple movement from A to B, and second, that mobile everyday life situations are ‘staged’ through systems and infrastructures, as well as through the individual’s choices related to mode of transport, style of driving, and ways of socially interacting.

By looking ever so superficially on a simple example of car advertisement I think we start to see that vehicles (as well as any other artifact and consumer good) always serves both a functional and a symbolic purpose. The staging of mobilities takes on many forms, and the vehicles are but one dimension of a mobile act of self-presentation that should be understood in more detail if we claim to understand the meaning of moving.

… so what’s your drive?

/ Ole B. Jensen