The Want for Speed
May 22, 2009
(Cross-posted at Upturned Earth)
As disturbing as cadaver-sex exhibitions may be, sometimes it strikes me that the most insidious ways in which we reject self-limitation are those that seem most innocuous. Unlike intentionally offensive activities, taking normal behavior and pressing it to the absolute boundaries of physical impossibility doesn’t shock. Indeed, it awes. And the more spectacular it becomes, the more we forget the very language of restraint.
This is nowhere more true than in the amusements of the mechanized age. I mean, seriously, what does this teach us about ourselves?
When long-time Indy revellers Scott Jasek, Joe Kennedy and Jeff Sinden started the company in 2001, people thought they were crazy. “How do I convince a privately run company like the [Indianapolis Motor Speedway] to put these cars with people inside and offer them high-speed rides?” Jasek asks.
“It’s a dangerous experience, but we make it safe.”
An Indy 500 car accelerates from 0 to 100 mph in less than three seconds. I’m pulling G-forces, my face flattens, cheeks flutter backward, saliva dries, my eyes are stuck wide open – and a drunken giddiness takes over.
Now in the interest of full disclosure, I have never understood or enjoyed auto-racing. But I can see why it amounts to a sport in so many peoples’ minds. There is a tremendous amount of technical knowledge that goes into making cars go around in circles for hours on end, and if nothing else we can stand back and appreciate the skill of the mechanics and drivers. If it isn’t an art, its at least a craft, and one which takes years to develop.
However, I have a hard time understanding how making auto-racing into a consumable experience preserves any of that value. It transforms the sport from a pursuit of mechanical efficiency to a ritual of pure bodily exhilaration, and yet it does so in a thoroughly normalizing way. One need not partake if one doesn’t wish to, and so the question of the activity’s virtue is completely obscured by the options of the consumer. Yet it simultaneously endorses a vision of humanity that says we operate best when we are at the limits, not just of our ability, but of bare physical sensation. It flattens the eudamonic foundations of our moral discourse at the same time it expands it in unlimited directions. And in this sense, auto-racing-tourism and like-minded pursuits are just as worrisome than Von Hagen’s exhibition. It’s not just that they share a threadbare moral outlook, though that’s part of what’s going on. Rather, it’s that experiential tourism’s spectacle provides a key part of the social background for the more extreme manifestations of consumer excess, and hence ensures their continued presence and intelligibility.