Daily Archives: June 15, 2005

NASCARTOLOGY, Part Two

Driving to Sunday’s Pocono 500 provided an opportunity to reflect upon our lives in relation to the automobile and how the total-immersion world of NASCAR racing is a metaphor for our relationship to machines and media – the prime movers of our postmodern culture. On the drive home from the race, I was thinking about the preeminent role that television plays in our lives, how televised reality is the standard against which other realities are measured, and how pre-packaged experience replaces what is sometimes referred to as the “real world.”Five miles from the track NASCAR fans were everywhere apparent. We began funneling our vehicles into snake-like rows that inched forward past rickety roadside stands selling everything from unlicensed car and driver apparel to counterfeit tickets and illegal fireworks. Some folks had started their tailgate parties early and in-transit – grilling franks in the back of moving pickups, waving racing flags and banners, or driving with sliding van doors wide open. Passengers were drinking beer beside life-size cardboard cutouts of favorite drivers sticking out of their vans into the few feet between vehicles making their way to the speedway Mecca. The tailgate party proper began in the parking area the night before the race. Piles of crushed beer cans attested to the vast prior consumption of party-hearty participants. Nearly everyone was wearing a picture of a car, a car number, or driver and many canopy-covered gatherings were graced by the full-size facsimile figures of the most popular racers on the circuit. U.S. flags and patriotic stickers, banners, and apparel shared the space along with NASCAR-related imagery. NASCAR is not just about racing. It’s about an idea of America itself – a robust, rowdy, free-to-be-me vision of American consumerism and branded self-expression.Entering the fenced-in raceway grounds I was immediately surrounded by dozens of titanic trailers emblazoned with gaudy allover race graphics and displaying all manner of racing collectibles. It’s de rigueur to purchase t-shirts commemorating attendance at big events like this and long lines of ready buyers made this patently clear. Inside the track structure itself – beneath the grandstand – I was struck by the distinct notion that this was a totally mobile city – a city built entirely with branded products emblazoned on every available space. The average attendance at NASCAR races is 180,000 and it’s clearly a very like-minded citizenry – united by the love of automobile racing, but even more, united by participation in an ultra-branded postmodern ritual – one that is connected to every aspect of life. Fans buy the cars produced by the sponsored automakers, watch the races and the pre- and post-race productions in their living rooms, buy the long lists of NASCAR-branded products, and identify their loyalties by means of clothing, speech, and behavior. Postmodern thinkers who see the roots of Roman and Nazi crowd-control-and-influence methodology in contemporary live events have resurrected the significance of the coercive function of spectacle in contemporary society. However, as I see it, it seems that today the live event functions merely as to-be-recollected sensory accompaniment to the televised or otherwise electronically mediated experience. The spectacles that dazzle us do so primarily via our electronic and digital media.These races, for example, are better seen on TV. And televised races constitute the vast majority of races experienced by race fans. One attends a live event primarily in order to collect the various sensorial inputs – the sounds of the cars at near two hundred mile-per-hour speeds, the smell of fuel and rubber, the feel of the crowd. Later, these memories enhance the professionally produced experiences we attend to on a daily basis.Electronically reconstituted performance is enhanced in ways that magnify the ability of the audience to perceive aspects of the performance that are unavailable to live viewers. We form base impressions of our significant spectacles – from rock concerts to presidential campaigns – from television and other media. Live experience exists to add additional data to events-as-media. It does not stand alone. In our current cultural mindset, television and other electronic media are the ultimate standard of what is real and they are our preferred method of apprehending the world. More and more, we form our conceptions of the world from experiences that have been created, packaged, and marketed to us. Our views are not our own – instead, we have been urged as willing consumers to acquire them from corporate sponsors. We may not acknowledge it but our tribal pride in them and our eagerness to flaunt their symbols belie our protestations to the contrary. Once I had collected the relevant sights, sounds, and paraphernalia of the Pocono 500 on site, I left the venue and motored back home to watch the finish of the race on television – where I had a better view. *Pocono 500 Images by Tullio Francesco DeSantis, 2005

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