Tuesday, May 3, 2011

survey the illusions in the rear-view mirror

ESPN's David Newton took it upon himself to imagine what a NASCAR draft would look like. Topping off the list was the moderately-talented, but supremely attractive Danica Patrick, of whom Newton commented: "Like Cam Newton on the NFL side, she may not be the most talented, but when you combine talent with marketability she'd be hard to pass on at No. 1."

Danica may have set multiple records of 'firsts' for a woman driver... she may have maneuvered successfully between the racing, advertising, and marketing realms, but she is not the first motorina to take the world by storm.  That distinction belongs to Dorothy Levitt. Born in 1882, Levitt was the first woman ever to compete in a motor race-- the 1903 Southport Speed Trial. Interestingly, this was the same year that the motoriste Madame du Gast found great success (and greater humanity) in the Paris Madrid Race. Ultimately placing 45th, she would have secured a much higher finish if she hadn't stopped to aid a seriously injured English driver. But back to Miss Levitt and her most un-feminine femininity. In his book, Fast Ladies: Female Racing Drivers from 1888 to 1970, Jean Franรงois Bouzanquet describes Levitt's "discovery":
Selwyn Edge, Director of the Napier Car Company and famous racing driver... spotted Miss Dorothy Levitt amongst his staff, a beautiful secretary with long legs and eyes like pools. In a bid to promote his cars... Edge decided that she should take part in a race, though first he had to teach her to drive. She surpassed his expectations... and proved such a good driver that she was taken on by De Dion for a major publicity stunt. At the Hereford Thousand Miles Trial in 1904, Dorothy posed before members of the press, delighted by her uncommonly glamorous racing outfit, holding a snappy Pomeranian dog that barked ferociously at all the other competitors...
Levitt was more than just a pretty face. She was a speedboat driver (in addition to race cars), an aviator, a journalist, and an activist -- especially as a proponent of the woman's 'right to motor' -- and she was also an innovator. In her book (compiled from a series of articles written for the British Daily Graphic), The Woman and the Car: A Chatty Little Handbook For All Women Who Motor or Who Want to Motor, Levitt devised the idea of the rear-view mirror, albeit with a different primary purpose:
The mirror should be fairly large to be really useful and it is better to have one with a handle. Just before starting take the glass out of the little drawer and put it into the little flap pocket of the car. You will find it useful to have handy, not only for personal use, but to occasionally hold up to see what is behind you.

Miss Levitt was full of bravura, adventurousness, and spunk. In fact, she is reported to have been rather cheeky as well. A mere three months after winning her class at the 1903 race, Levitt was stopped for speeding at a "terrific pace" and summoned to court. Never bothering to appear personally, she was quoted as having commented to the police officer who pulled her over that she had a desire to run down all police officers and, specifically in his case, she wished she had flattened him into the poorly paved British road grit. As this was still the same year in which the Motor Cars Act passed in Britain, finally raising the speed limit from four miles per hour to twenty, it was possible Ms. Levitt was driving at the unheard of speed of twenty-one mph!! (Make mental note that sprinter Maurice Greene has run on his bipedal wheels at the speed of around 26 mph.) In the words of Clark W. Griswold, "Eat my road grit, liver lips!"

The turn of the century brought numerous innovations in the motoring world as roads improved, technology rapidly proliferated, and the need for mobility increased. Nonetheless, as with all change, the automotive cosmos seemed to many a 'brave new world' for which we were not ready... most especially women. They were seen as being too dainty and lacking the physical strength needed to crank the starter handle and perform demanding (or perhaps demeaning) roadside tasks like changing a tire. Further, their presumed inbred vanity was assessed to be an overwhelming hurdle. The 'sport' of driving was to require "unflattering googles, utilitarian apparel, and complexion-spoiling conditions. Lady Jeune warned women motorists in her tome Dress for Motoring that they 'must relinquish the hope of keeping their soft peach-like bloom' for 'appearances must be sacrificed if motor-driving is to be thoroughly enjoyed.'" (Jennifer Shepherd, "The British Press and Turn-of-the-Century Developments in the Motoring Movement, Victorian Periodicals Review, vol. 38, no. 4 (Winter, 2005), p. 384)

Apparently, Levitt and Patrick didn't get the memo. While Levitt's first interest was not scanning the rearward traffic in anticipation of agilely and expeditiously changing lanes to get ahead of the rusting VW bus parked obnoxiously and obliviously in the left lane, she was clever enough to conceive of an automotive enhancement that we now consider standard... and to do so ten years ahead of its manufacturing debut.

The first instance of a mounted rear-view mirror was on Ray Harroun's Marmon Wasp at the first Indy 500 in 1911. Allegedly, he had gotten the idea -- not from Ms. Levitt -- but from seeing just such a mirror on a horse-drawn carriage in his hometown of Spartansburg, Pennsylvania. Giddee yup!!

His use of this newfangled device caused quite a bit of controversy. He had significantly reduced the weight and streamlined the overall body of his vehicle by foregoing the inclusion of a 'riding mechanic' which was the common practice at the time. Rear-view mirrors, thereby were able to make race cars more wieldy and indeed sleeker, sensuality and cars forever after becoming married.

The rear-view mirror proliferates. There are rear-view mirrors on all cars, some now even with rear-view cameras. There are secondary rear-view mirrors for parents to monitor the behavior of their little backseat drivers-in-training. Cyclists, especially urban commuters, often attach a small rear-view mirror to their helmets. As we race along the information superhighway, there are rear-view mirrors as well -- many laptops come with eyes in the back of the head -- rear-view mirrors conceived with the objective of preventing the discovery of sensitive information... or to protect the user from lurking snitchy co-workers who stand at the ready willing to report any and all 'unauthorized' computer use at work.

The rear-view mirror functions metaphorically as well. "We look at the present through a rear-view mirror," announced media theorist Marshall McLuhan. "We march backwards into the future." In a 1968 interview with Norman Mailer, McLuhan expanded upon his anxious retrogressive perspective:
"Every age creates as an Utopian image a nostalgic rear-view mirror image of itself, which puts it thoroughly out of touch with the present. The present is the enemy. The present is... only faced in any generation by the artist. The artist is prepared to study the present as his material because it is the area of challenge to the whole sensory life, and therefore it is anti-Utopian; it is a world of anti-values. And the artist who comes into contact with the present produces an avant-garde image that is terrifying to his contemporaries."
So much for the advantage of what we see in the rear-view mirror. Watching the backwards film of our lives, we find ourselves unable to confront what is ahead on the road. Baudrillard, not surprisingly, agreed with McLuhan about how we move when we drive. For him, the sport and now necessity of 'motoring' was "a spectacular form of amnesia. Everything to be discovered, everything to be obliterated." In our amnesia concerning the past, we may uncanily possess a "nostalgia for the future" (Baudrillard) brought about through the hyperreality of American life which is often closer to fiction than reality, yet is uninhabitable because we cannot imagine it prior to its existence; rather "the apocalyptic forms of banality... the hyperreality of life... anticipate imagination by giving it the form of reality" (Baudrillard) -- a reality which transcends the imaginary and leaves us with this strange sort of time reversal, a nostalgia for the future. What appears in the rear-view mirror is not real, is hyperreal, and anticipates ourselves all at the same time. The vision we see, the rearward gaze of our unfocused eyes, is holographic "in that it has the coherent light of laser, the homogeneity of the single elements scanned by the same beams. From the visual and plastic viewpoints too: things seem to be made of a more unreal substance; they seem to turn and move in a void as if by a special lighting effect, a find membrane you pass through without noticing it... The hologram is akin to the world of phantasy. It is a three-dimensional dream and you can enter it as you would a dream." (Jean Baudrillard, America, trans. Chris Tucker (London: Verso, 1986), pp. 29-30)

And so, in White Noise, DeLillo imagines a similar and fragmenting holographic perspective of ourselves. For "if these people could see us through a telescope we might look like we were two feet two inches tall and it might be raining yesterday instead of today." (Don DeLillo, White Noise)

Keep your eyes on the road. Watch carefully in the rear-view mirror. Beware the holographic fantasy. Try to see what others are not seeing in their somnambulistic amnesia. Pick out the road signs that march towards the future, rather than the insidious commercials that lead us to sentimentalize a non-existent past... or present... reflected over your head in the rear-view mirror.

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