What a Society Prepares Itself For

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What a Society Prepares Itself For

I'm from Texas. And when I lived in Texas, which was before I lived in New York, my friends were Texans. I don't mean to say they were the all-got-up-in cowboy hats, tight jeans, bit belt buckles, and snakeskin boots kind of Texans a lot of people tend to think about. But I do mean to say they were the beer drinking, football playing, pick-up driving, bar brawling kind of good 'ol Texas boys that don't really exist anywhere else but where I spent the first eighteen years of my life. And, although you might never be able to tell from my long hair, baggy pants, lack of shoes, and the random book I'm usually reading, I was one of them. We'd go to Mexico on school breaks and hop keg parties on the weekend. And on one Saturday night, I went and watched some drag races with my friends at this little speedway in a town called Ennis, which is outside of Dallas. We drove out in two trucks, the seven of us, drinking beer on the way. When we got there it wasn't quite as nice a place as the Texas Motor Speedway (I've been to the Texas Motor Speedway also, you see), or the Indianapolis Speedway, but it is a similar atmosphere.

It was dusty, loud, and smelled like tire rubber and motor oil. A majority of the crowd seemed to be either drinking beer, betting on the races, or both. But it wasn't just an "overweight, sweaty, wasted, smelling-of-beer-and-marijuana, American, middle-aged man" gala weekend attraction either. There were plenty of hard working middle class men (mostly men) that had nice houses in the suburbs of Dallas who worked hard all week long, maybe even owned their own business, with their kids going to college at Texas A&M, or Texas Tech, or the University of Texas, or maybe even Rice. And as the night went on, I began to notice something. The first thing was that my friends knew a hell of a lot about racecars. That was odd because nine out of ten of my friends barely went to school half the time, much less studied, and yet they knew the intricate details of the speed, weight, torque, and horsepower of the cars. My second observation, more subtle yet more striking than my first, was that everyone was getting along impeccably.

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None of the harsh words or little spats that my friends were incessantly engaging in had yet made an appearance. It was as if they were some place where they really felt comfortable with themselves, away from everything else, the worries, and fears of our everyday lives. In retrospect, it was rather amazing.

Reading Paul Fussell's "Indy" immediately reminded me of those friends in Texas. I was entranced by the essay because, despite all my ambition and intelligence, I never really could discover what made my friends tick, what drove them on everyday, and Fusssell's insight into the ritual of the Indianapolis 500 gave me a greater understanding of the world I grew up in. It had never occurred to me before that I was taking part in a ritual that was deeper than just fast cars and loud noise when I attended those races with my friends. And just as there was a deeper ritual involved that I did not perceive, so Fussell's "Indy" is more than just an examination of one day of racing in a middle-American city. It is an examination of one of society's rituals and of what that ritual means to society as a whole.

Fussell describes Indy as an "American ceremony of innocence" (262). Reading his essay in light of my experience, I am deeply struck by the religious connotations of that description. As Fussell points out, Indy takes place on "Sunday morning, a time once appropriate for other rituals of purgation" (262). For centuries before Americans took up the practice of going to church on Sunday, their European counterparts engaged themselves in the rituals of their Christian religion. The ritual of confession has for centuries allowed people to cleanse their psyche and soul of feelings of guilt. Acts of dishonesty and violence, permanent aspects of human society, are purged by the confessor's wish to repent and reenter God's good graces through both the confession itself and the ritual penance afterwards. Fussell, intrigued by a media uproar after a driver dies in a qualifying run at Indy one year, decides to see if the reality of the race really is so very gruesome and barbaric, and finds instead a similar ritual, one of purgation. Exactly as religion has dealt with people's anxieties since the dawn of time, "Indy" deals with issues of contemporary life. However the central conflict that Fussell highlights, unlike the questions that religion has traditionally dealt with, is unique to the last two hundred years of human evolution: that of man versus the machine. In "Indy," the background to one long day of Indy car racing is intriguingly set with a geopolitical conflict, a virtually meaningless war, between Great Britain and Argentina. By expanding the scope of his story to include an international political dispute, as opposed to simply a domestic psychosocial conflict, Fussell indicates that not only is the topic of Indy car racing as discussed in the national media ultimately insignificant, but that his probing into the heart of Indy's ritual has broader applications to the world's societies.

And a global perspective is appropriate for examining the man/machine dichotomy because the conflict involves more than just Americans; it affects everyone from the Isle of Man, to Poland, to China. The machine is both a balm and bane of almost every human existence. It has delivered to mankind modern medicine and mass communication, but it has also brought mechanized warfare and social isolation. And if we children of the American (Texan) suburbs share one quality that makes us seem homogenous, it is social isolation. I now know of about twenty kids that live on my fairly short street back home, or at least lived there when I was younger, but I barely ever played or talked with any of them. We had and have video games, telephones, automobiles, roads, televisions, microwaves, and pagers to separate each of us in our day-to-day lives. Through technology, people naturally grow apart from one another and from the earth. People do not work with their hands anymore and throughout most of their lives only interact with the world in some form of collusion with technology. And thus we feel that the machines have more control of our lives than we do, that in fact we are becoming part of a vast machine that is beyond our, and anyone's, comprehension.

The essence of this conflict is power and the perception of power. People come to feel that they have no power over their surroundings and they fight back to regain their sense of destiny and purpose. And Indy is a mechanism by which this power is reclaimed, enacting "the ritual taming of machines" (Fussell 264), much as religion is a way to define oneself collectively and reaffirm that each individual is a legitimate and worthy part of society through rituals such as confession. By allowing man to distance himself from his "sins" against society, by transferring the burden to God and through the symbolic atonement of penance, confession allows him to once again become part of a larger, and thus more powerful, whole. And thus Indy is "a great Sunday-morning proclamation of the dignity of man" and "like former Sunday morning rituals, Indy insists that people are worth being saved" (Fussell 264). Indy allows man to once again control his world through vicarious domination of the machine, which is embodied by the cars. But where does this power struggle lead? How does it extend beyond the individual's mental well-being and affect society as a whole?

The earliest examples of the man/machine conflict began with the Industrial Revolution. Charles Dickens' 1854 book Hard Times is a scathing satire on the abject poverty and squalid living conditions which the mechanization of industrial production was causing in Great Britain at the time. However, the conflict doesn't reach its apex until after World War II and the invention of the atomic and hydrogen bombs, and the subsequent forty-year nuclear arms race. In this context the scope and impact of the conflict between man and machine has become, in Jonathan Schell's analysis, infinite, because "although the risk of extinction may be fractional, the stake is, humanly speaking, infinite, and a fraction of infinity is still infinity. In other words, once we learn that a [nuclear war] might lead to extinction we have no right to gamble, because if we lose, the game is over" (Schell 95).

In The Genocidal Mentality: Nazi Holocaust and Nuclear Threats, Robert Lifton discusses the issue of the world's "nuclear constellation," or the state of affairs in which the nuclear powers constantly threaten to annihilate one another, and how its implicit threat to use indiscriminate killing, terror, and population extermination constitutes an inherently genocidal system. He parallels this with the most infamous example of genocide in recent history, Nazi Germany's Holocaust. One of the main focuses of the writing is how a basically good and culturally advanced society, like Germany before the Nazis, can prepare itself for and take part in something as nefarious as the indiscriminate slaughter of Jews, gays, Poles, Russians, and the handicapped. A society deceives itself in many ways to produce a genocidal mentality, he concludes, and many of these ways parallel Fussell's dissection of the Indy ritual. To begin, Lifton explains that ideological overtones such a nationalism and religion build "a positive sense of 'we' identity on the ground of our negative sense of 'them'" and "may also be part of the essential moral and psychological preparation to wage nuclear war" (Lifton & Falk 208). Fussell describes a similarly troubling discourse of power at work at Indy. In their struggle to exert power over the machine, the "we" insiders of Indy take advantage of similar tokens of exclusion. Through what Fussell describes as the exposed genitalia of the winner's trophy, in the absence of women, and in the absence of non-white drivers, Indy's notions of "ideal maleness" and "ideal whiteness" are revealed (Fussell 260).

Fussell also calls attention to how the Indy participants shape the ritual in careful and exclusive language. He observes in the offical rule book a sense "that racing will sink proleward unless rigorously disciplined" (258). This is an example of how language is used to control the ritual, the whole system of the race. Litton and Falk trace an analogous tendency in the language of nuclearism,

we domesticate these weapons in our language and attitudes, we render them benign. In calling them 'nukes,' for instance, we render them small and cute. . .these words provide a way of talking about nuclear weapons without really talking about them. . . . Rather, the weapons come to seem ordinary and manageable or even mildly pleasant. (106)
This rhetoric, in the narratives of both Indy and nuclearism, creates a way of framing thought that prepares the hearers and speakers for the actions to come, to continue on with the ritual at hand in the face of the risk of death and destruction.

But the most insistent parallel is that of the ritual dominating of the machine. The "wonder and glory of the dominator" is central to Fussell's analysis of the ritual that is occurring at Indy. He concludes that: "What the spectator wants to see is the machine crashing, disintegrating, wheels flying off, and in the end the man springing out and waving, 'I'm Okay.' 'Because that's the moment of the greatest thrill,' says Posey ["a longtime student of the race"]. 'That's when man has conquered the machine" (264). In relation to the nuclear behemoth, Robert Lifton asserts that "ultimately it is a matter of the difficulty of human minds, individually or collectively, maintaining control over these vast man-machine constellations they have created. As such control becomes more tenuous, the likelihood of nuclear war becomes greater" (Lifton & Falk 106). Essentially. Indy as a ritual teaches us how to control machines, or reaffirm that we do exert control over these vast systems we have created to help us regulate our world. But we can't even make Windows 98 work perfectly, and even though someone wins the race at Indy, people do crash, burn, and die. Sometimes the machine does win.

Fussell's conclusion that the elements of "ritual purgation" at Indy are in the end "benign" leaves several questions unresolved. How does Fussell justify the overtly racist and sexist overtones of the entire event, even the entire sport? And more important, how does he justify the war in the South Atlantic (where "every day brought worse news and more terrible images of people's limbs blown off") with the obliviousness of the people at Indy? Fussell suggests that Indy is a "therapeutic" alternative, that ministers to the "national spirit" (265). Perhaps he means to suggest that it is better for men to work out their power struggles at Indy than at war. But what strikes me is how content Fussell and the crowd seem-why are they here engaging in symbolic struggle rather than doing something to stop the real destruction taking place simultaneously? It's interesting that Fussell picked a conflict involving Britain, which happens to be the nearest country socially to America, because after a careful examination, the reader realizes that there is nothing that separates these Americans who happen to be at Indy right now from those British who are currently blowing their fellow human beings into chunks. How can a ritual that is complicit in violence, sexism, and racism be benign?

Indy is not a progressive ritual, but one that preserves the status quo. Through the ritual domination of machines and the reaffirmation of the audience's insular values, Indy shuts down alternative dialogues on these kinds of issues. Instead of actually reclaiming society from machines, we learn to live with them through vicarious domination. The entire system tricks the believer into a few key attitudes: first that we can control the machines; and second, that our society is fine exactly how it is, including its racism and sexism; and finally, that the world is okay because since we are at Indy reaffirming our values we can ignore everything else. We are like ostriches sticking our heads in the sand at the sight of imminent danger, when we should be heading for higher ground.

And that, in the end, is where most of my friends stand, tacitly condoning death, passive in a world that needs action. Maybe they just didn't realize there was a world outside lower middle-class suburban comfort to fight for and just believed, as they have been taught, that America as a country was inherently better and righteous. Or maybe they just didn't think they could make a difference, that they were already a part of some kind of gargantuan machine which could decide by the push of a button whether they even get to see the sun rise again. I'm lucky in that respect. We as a society must reclaim our world from remote and mysterious machines, not just take a vicarious day trip once a year to an Indianapolis fantasyland where we pretend we have control. The world has tangible problems that cannot be dealt with by psychological mechanisms/rituals, and the machines we are in conflict with will control us as long as we let them. That is, as long as we prepare ourselves psychologically, as we do at Indy, to perpetually endure their control over us. The implication of this is that eventually we will lose control, as long as we stand complicit, using our rituals as a mask for the glaring flaws in our world. The geopolitical car need only crash once for us all to be destroyed utterly.

Works Cited

Fussell, Paul. "Indy." Encounters: Readings and the World. Ed. Pat C. Hoy II and Robert DiYanni. 1st ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1997. 254-65.

Schell, Jonathan. The Gift of Time. New York: Alfred P. Knopf, 1982.

Lifton, Robert and Eric Markusen. The Genocidal Mentality: Nazi Holocaust and Nuclear Threats. New York: Basic, 1990.

Lifton, Robert and Richard Falk. Indefensible Weapons. New York: Basic, 1991.


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