Driving the Homer

Few pieces of material culture seem to say as much about us as our cars:  Cars are among the most heavily advertised contemporary commodities, we plan our communities based on driving patterns, and virtually all of us have a vehicle and count it among our most essential (if not most valuable) possessions.  Americans have long celebrated and decried "car culture," which has come to mean many different things:  Regardless of how we define that term, most of us are willing to concede that cars occupy a centrality in American life that is rivaled by very few other commodities.  That commonplace American implication in car culture is particularly marked here in Indianapolis:  Almost everybody at IUPUI commutes to campus, so we collectively spend significant amounts of time in our vehicles, and Indianapolis has long celebrated the fastest autos in the world. 

Power, style, and status are just some of the features car advertising promises consumers.  Most of us recognize the deceptiveness of such ads, but we still infer much about our neighbors' identities from their cars:  We are likely to infer quite different things about a driver if they own a hot pink Beatle, a shiny black Hummer, a van with an airbrushed painting of Michael Jackson, or a rusty Yugo with a garbage bag rear window.  Yet exactly why do we infer particular things about peoples' identities based on their material culture?  How do we conclude concrete things about identity--gender, social standing, age, sexuality, ethnicity--by looking at cars?  If you are what you drive, then who are you and how does what you drive illustrate this?

It would not be surprising to find future archaeologists defining our identities based on our cars.  This process of inferring identity from objects is the heart of archaeological analysis:  Archaeologists assess past peoples' identities by systematically evaluating material assemblages--which are themselves always fragmentary--and building the most persuasive possible interpretation.  In this exercise you will analyze one randomly selected car in an IUPUI parking lot and interpret their owners' identities.  We will not subsequently lie in wait and secure "the truth" from the car's driver; instead, your analysis should be as systematic and thorough as possible and build the most persuasive case for what you believe this particular car says about its owner.  The best papers will provide detailed and systematic descriptions and very clearly indicate what specific characteristics of each car indicate about their owners.  

This exercise is partly about making a systematic and reliable material record:  No archaeological analysis can be persuasive if the data is not thorough and detailed.  However, the exercise also requires you to think critically about how you interpret that data.  How is it that several different people could look at the same car and reach a somewhat different conclusion about its owner's identity?  You should think carefully about how you may even unintentionally reproduce stereotypes and unquestioned assumptions:  How do you assume a car's owner is male or female?; wealthy or working class?; Black or White?; and so on.

The Buick of Unconditional Love  

You must conduct your analysis in an IUPUI parking lot, though you can choose any lot you like.  The parking lots are public space, so you are well within your rights to observe any cars in the parking lots and record sufficient data to complete this exercise.  Nevertheless, there are two basic ground rules.  First, do not select a car in a spot that will potentially endanger you:  Do not "collect" your data in those well-concealed spots at the very end of the row in the parking decks, spaces directly by lot entrances, and similarly hazardous spots.  People running late are inclined to drive rather quickly through the parking lots, so please be aware of the lot traffic and do not endanger yourself.  Second, you cannot touch any car.  Any observable stylistic characteristic in the outside or inside of the car can be part of your analysis, but you cannot reach into their CD player, crack open the trunk, or crawl under the car to get a look at the engine.  People have very strong feelings about their cars and may not appreciate your effort to make their beat-up Chevy the object of critical analysis.  If somebody catches you in the act of data collection be honest about what you are doing and do not be rude:  If you tell the guy driving the Hummer that he is assaulting Mother Nature, he may not see this as a clever insight.

Your paper must clearly, systematically and methodically make a material record of the car that you are analyzing.  I suggest you focus on a series of characteristics that are common to most vehicles on the lot.  Minimally record the following, and add any other material details that you think are important (e.g., multiple Big Mac shells in back seat, missing steering wheel, etc):

Your exercise should be a typed, double-spaced paper stapled in the upper-right corner (please staple because folded or paper-clipped papers are hard to keep together).  Please answer the following questions based on your material recording of the car's characteristics.  Remember, there is no "right" answer, but there are ineffective answers that are incomplete, not very reflective, and/or do not wrestle with the ambiguities of the questions:  Good answers will be very explicit about how a specific set of car characteristics led you to certain conclusions, how your own experience shaped this interpretation, and how you can envision other ways to interpret some of the same features.

From "Lowriding: An American Tradition"

Exercise questions

Be specific and as detailed as possible in addressing each of these questions.

Due date The exercise is due on or before September 12.  Any late papers will be penalized a point each day unless you arrange an extension with me beforehand or as soon as possible.

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Page last updated August 5th, 2013