by Rebecca Giggs
As a fan of the Nigerian-American writer and critic Teju Cole, I found myself last month loitering around the side entrance of the Ian Potter Centre, hoping to hustle a security guard into letting me eavesdrop on an interview Cole was giving for the Melbourne Writers’ Festival. The automatic doors shuddered—switched on, but still locked. It was early. In fact, I wasn’t sure I had the right day. Inside docents and at least one festival organiser patrolled with earpieces and clipboards, too far away to notice me tapping on the glass. So I skulked around; wound the news around my phone, wound my scarf around my neck. I wrote a note wondering if Melbourne’s weather comes not down from the sky, but up from the earth. The cold is sedimentary, as if the city’s meteorology emanates through the ground. That same artesian, rock-cracking chill, lifting and lowering under centuries of civic hardscape. Probably, if you dug down far enough, you’d hit pockets of seasons past unevenly distributed between the taproots of figs and elms. My boots brimmed with a seawater numbness, until there was nothing to be done but stop aimlessly scribbling about the weather (again), pace quickly, and strike up a conversation with whomever would pass.
Alongside the gallery were parked twenty or thirty gleaming cars. They were attended to by their owners—mostly dapper Anglo-Celtic men over 50—who were orbiting the automobiles in pairs or small groups, without ever touching them. They murmured appreciatively to one another, pointing out certain quirks of vehicular design, offering a clean chamois or the odd cigarette. They were card-carrying members of the Victorian Jaguar Car Club. These were the ‘jaguars through the ages’ they told me, which they would momentarily drive to the front of Federation Square, to be lined up there on the forecourt with their hoods open wide. The cars themselves were sleek, low beasts, long-snouted with oval headlamps. Some had bowed grills and side-view mirrors on fragile stalks, like snail’s eyes. The glacial wind couldn’t displace the sweet smell of leather-cream and Windex. There was good humor and pride among the car-club members in that stark, early light. Their pride seemed to radiate not just from the maintenance of these individual machines, but from seeing them collected together—an evolution of aesthetics, materials, ideals. The lineage laid out. How rare a particular automobile was, was less important than what it represented in terms of the directionality of jaguar engineering. Rare cars could be as the appendix is to the body (a vestigial relic), or they could represent a bit of the future sunk into the present. How fast can it go, I asked, leaning into the bucket seat of a plum-tinted convertible. Its owner frowned severely, gesturing to get me off the chrome. How fast—he told me, wiping the top of the car-door—was not the point.
In his conversation with my friend and festival director Sam Twyford-Moore, Teju Cole outlined his commitment to an ethic of radical slowness in art. Cole is perhaps best known for his literary projects on twitter (‘The Small Fates’, ‘A Dictionary of Received Ideas’, ‘Very Short Stories About Drones’): projects that often see him spending a day, or longer, drafting the paramount expression of a tweet. Tweets, of course, die faster than mayflies, and Cole’s procedural deceleration is at once an affront to the inbuilt disintegration of the technology, a call to the value of cynosure in a sped-up culture, and a deftly ironic stance. How fast is very much the point for Cole. We had a discussion about haiku and the poetic cultivation of awareness, before I walked out into the square. There were all the shining jaguars, showing their throats, in a field of fund-raising daffodils. The Cancer Council and the Jaguar Car Club had apparently double-booked the space.
Car culture is so very unfamiliar to me. I like to drive; I like particularly to drive fast through the forests of the southwest of WA, where my mother’s family are from, but that enjoyment derives from looking out of a car, not at it. It’s been three years since I owned a car. Indeed, the only vehicle I ever held the papers for was a bomb that was yellow-stickered more than once, often broken into, and eventually cannibalised for parts. A Ford Festiva, it thudded at 80 km/hr, and let loose blue plumes of monoxide going uphill. I recall that kids in school would ‘badge’ cars from the wealthier suburbs and wear the metal tokens on lanyards or snapped to their backpacks. They never stole any other component off those cars. The part that sizzled with significance was the name itself, as if removing it would immediately render the automobile off-brand, and transfer to the badge collector the effervescent capital of its cool. Even now those names seem poetically charged to me: Skyline, Maserati, Peugeot, Quattro, Laguna. I wouldn’t be able to describe the machines they designate, but the words are still possessed of desirable, if independent, connotations (nostalgia, risk, autonomy, cachet). It was vandalism, sure, but it was also a kind of culture jamming, to badge the cars and circulate their designations untethered from the origin of their physical objects.
Being now a pedestrian and a commuter, you might be surprised to learn that this past week I’ve become preoccupied with the new Ferrari. A news-story in The Age piqued my curiosity. The 2013 Ferrari, a ‘supercar’, is called ‘LaFerrari’ (literally, The Ferrari). It’s a ‘mild hybrid’ V12, in a carbon-fibre monocoque (which basically means the car is contained within one tensile shell: think of a ping-pong ball). Naturally, every article published on LaFerrari is accompanied by an image of the car in red. With its doors open, it looks like an origami stag-beetle. With its doors shut, it looks like the kind of one-man, undersea submersible a multinational oil company might patent for executive joyrides around the drill pipes. (That is to say, it appears fit for earthly mediums other than air and tarmac). At the auto-shows, the car is so heavily glossed that under the lights its flanks seem to fluoresce, and its windows turn as dark as if it contained a collapsed star. Ferrari made 499 copies. Each costs around $AUD 3 million—but not everyone who wants one will be able to buy one. Ferrari vets the purchasers, prioritising those individuals who already own at least five other Ferraris. Only four LaFerraris, total, are earmarked for Australian consumers.
The effect of LaFerrari then, is to transform all other Ferraris into quotidian Ferraris. Ferrari Australasia President Herbert Appleroth (that name kismet for his profession, so reminisce of an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel) is quoted in The Age observing that some prospective purchasers were buying more “everyday Ferraris” to clinch their eligibility. Is there a more oxymoronic idiom than everyday Ferrari? Prestige is a light-globe blown out by everyday use—a luxury run down to the shops, an opulent school pick-up. If LaFerrari is “The Ferrari”, can other Ferraris be said to still vibrate with the same authenticity, the same claim to the intangible voltage of that word, Ferrari? “Honey, let’s take the Ferrari out for a spin”. By stratifying the product range, Ferrari the company have changed the meaning of Ferrari the noun. “The Ferrari” can’t signify the Ferrari Spider, the Ferrari Berlinetta, the Ferrari FF or the Italia any longer. In a sense, it is as if they have badged their own cars. Though car manufacturing doesn’t have the same built-in ‘planned obsolescence’ of products as the tech industry does, on the semiotic level doesn’t this transformation amount to the same sort of conceptual down-powering?
LaFerrari made by Ferrari is a kind of mise-en-abîme in the literary sense: the name is a recursion, a frame that repeats its content indefinitely. The Ferrari made by Ferrari. Ferrari are the company that make the Ferrari. There’s a neat synecdoche for this idea in the fact that all triumphant purchasers of LaFerrari also receive a one-eighth amalgam model of their car—right down to the personalised detailing. They own the car, they also own the car’s reduplication. Get it in red, as the promotions encourage, a colour which is trademarked Ferrari Red. The name of the colour is also the name of the car. LaFerrari is indeed like a black hole, taking in everything around it.
What do Ferrari mean by calling their new car “The Ferrari”? Their hope, I imagine, is that the new car will be positioned in the market as Ferrari’s apotheosis—the paramount compression and expression of every tangible or intangible ideal Ferrari stands for. But the danger of apotheosis is that it shares a common border with terminus. For where will Ferrari go now they have built The Ferrari? Their motif is completely articulated. Embedded in this latest design, is there not also a subliminal awareness of the denaturing of prestige in the luxury car market; a tacit recognition of the end of the golden age of car culture? I see LaFerrari as an elaborate coffin, a place to bury notions of automotive decadence that belong to a bygone era.
In Australia at least, LaFerrari is a car that cannot be driven. Its four owners will fly to Italy to have the seats customised to their heft and shape, but because the car is not built to Australian specifications (it’s left-hand drive, for one), legally, it cannot travel public roads in this country, and so it can’t be registered. An enablist might argue a car is classified by its ability to car. So LaFerrari is not in fact, a car, by this definition. (There is a nice resonance here, with all the videos online of LaFerrari beating around Ferrari’s Fiorano test track—for, of course, the videos are all computer generations of how the vehicle might look, were it opened up to the possibilities of such perilous speed). How fast can it go? Well, to borrow from Alan Bennett, that’s a question that has to be asked in the subjunctive mood. It cannot be driven. LaFerrari might be art instead—like the brilliantly warped ‘Bugatti Type 35’ by James Angus, a sculpture that has been displayed in the entrance of the Art Gallery of NSW for some years now. Alternatively, it might be pure class semaphore, signalling to its owners’ elitism, to the kind of wealth that brokers no social obligation (for $3 million is also the cost of a hospital unit, a local sporting team in trouble, a long-term scholarship). But however car-like LaFerrari looks—however it is grouped with other cars in motor-shows and lined up with other cars in dealerships—it slants the meaning of what a car can be.
At a time when the automobile market worldwide is pinched three ways by resource pricing, competitive cost advantage, and a declining appetite in the market for low fuel economy vehicles, the real value of LaFerrari is as a motionless cynosure in the meaning of car culture. The vehicle leads us to thinking about the worth of abstract value, and how brands might eat themselves alive in the decline of their industries. The fastest car has hit a wall. I think Teju Cole might appreciate such a conceit, of a Ferrari that is itself a stop-sign.
[photos of LaFerrari sourced from Flickr, through Automotive Rhythms and Romain Bihore]