Saturday, January 15, 2005

American Monsters

In a recent essay which can be found here in The Religion & Culture Web Forum of the University of Chicago's Marty Center website, Jeremy Biles elevates his Ph.D. in Religion and Literature from the University of Chicago to its apex in writing on a topic that no one else I know could have done such justice: the monster truck. I highly recommend reading the whole essay (and viewing the accompanying pictures as well), but here are some of the highlights.
... Monster trucks, I contend, are complicit with the sinister, negative, oppositional aspect of the sacred, and embody the transgressive, destructive force associated with death and the underworld. Like many other countercultural phenomena, this domain of custom culture inspires its fearful fascination through a combination of underworld associations and spectacular displays of destructive power. In particular, these trucks are the automotive embodiments of that most conspicuous form of potent alterity: sacred monstrosity.
In a section entitled "Auto-da-fé: The Car as Icon," Mr. Biles compares this sacred monstrosity to the epitome of profane identity in the industrialized West: the ordinary automobile.
... The dream of auto-mobility that found its realization in the production and distribution of the car is part and parcel of the American dream on the whole. Indeed, the freely roving person behind the wheel might be considered the horizontal counterpart of vertical or upward mobility within a free market economy.
... However, the almost religious zeal with which cars have been embraced in America has not, in fact, culminated in the triumph of individualism. On the contrary, “mass car ownership heralded the beginning of consumer capitalism” — and what the automobile heralded at its advent has also become its destiny: The car is no longer only an icon of American individualism, but simultaneously an icon of American mass consumerism and the triumph of corporate capitalism.
... To be sure, the icon of the automobile retains an aura. The peculiar seductiveness of cars is at once double and other to the aura of the monster truck. It is a seduction predicated on the allure of mass-produced objects, and underwritten by the exhilaration of consumption itself. The fetishization of commodities is thus epitomized in the automobile, which, however, far from assuring a mobilizing individualism, is the embodiment of the age of mass production, with its attendant impediments and de-individualizing effects. For example, the irony inherent in the mass-production of machines of auto-mobility finds its most poignant expression in the traffic jam. A parody of the assembly line, the traffic jam is a phenomenon that dramatically displays the diminution of individuality and the arresting of mobility, forward or upward.
In the final section "From Traffic Jam to Monster Jam: Hyperbolic Consumption," Mr. Biles argues that the "the Monster Jam is staged as the antithesis of the traffic jam."
... If the car has become the icon of mass consumerism and its de-individualizing effects, the monster truck—originally the customized, singular, unique creation of individual labor—is the expression of a kind of rage against the machines that embody consumerist culture in late capitalist society.
... In fact, the monster trucks might be said to apotheosize road rage—that violent expression of opposition to the frustrating, de-individualizing effects of a road glutted with traffic—while the trucks’ ritualized auto destructions afford a cathartic "visual pleasure…associated with humanity’s most atavistic traits and rudimentary instincts."
There is a twist, however.
... But the exuberantly sensational and gratifying images of this mechanical mayhem are by no means the straightforward expressions of wish-fulfillment. Nor do they simply represent a revolutionary reclamation of individualism and freedom in confrontation with the homogenizing effects of capitalism and mass consumerism. On the contrary, I will argue that the spectacle of the Monster Jam dramatizes an inversion that ultimately “preserve[s]…sociopolitical and economic structures intact,” with corporate America left standing as the beneficiary of the ritually affirmed status quo.
... The ritual of the Monster Jam capitalizes on the audience’s ambivalence vis-à-vis the automobile through a three-act challenge to, and concomitant re-affirmation of, capitalist ideology.
... The first act of the Monster Jam rally consists of competitive races between pairs of monster trucks over a looping semi-circular course with impediments that include rows of junked cars.
... In an iconoclastic rage, the monster trucks variously trample, crush, or overleap the anonymous cars, those icons of freedom and individuality that have come to emblematize mass production. Here, then, is the initial challenge to the dominant ideology. But this routine simultaneously heralds the triumphant re-instatement of an American economic ideal: individual talent and effort, embodied in the custom vehicles, are the inevitable victors of a ritual of competitive consumerism; far from corroding or opposing the system, they here dramatically comply with its conditions.
... Lumbering to the center of the arena is a “transformer,” an earth-moving machine outfitted as a fire-breathing, car-eating monster. Raising its victim up with powerful claws, the Robosaurus, seen here, scorches the automobile before crushing it between mechanical mandibles, making carnage of the car. The singular monster devours and destroys the anonymous automobile: thus the second challenge. However, in this auto-cannibalistic display, the massive monster embodies the very thing it was to consume: mass consumption itself. In a moment of conspicuous, indeed hyperbolic, consumption, the transformer violently literalizes consumerism by devouring the automobile—a spectacular, fascinating re-affirmation of capitalist ideology.
... In the third act, the monster trucks participate in a freestyle competition in which each machine is given the opportunity to display as much creative destruction as possible, crushing and jumping cars, letting their engines roar, and spinning donuts that stir up thick nimbuses of dust. It is in this third act that the trucks’ drivers, attempting to whip the crowd into a frenzy with risky stunts, are most likely to lose control of their vehicles. On the night that I attended the Monster Jam, a truck called Destroyer fulfilled the destiny implied in its name. Using junked cars as a ramp, Destroyer attempted to ride out a wheelie, before tipping over and crashing. This was clearly the highlight of the evening. With the crash of the monster, a staple of any Monster Jam rally, the audience goes wild. In fact, the ideal outcome of the freestyle competition, from the fans’ perspective, is a crash. For this reason: what we fans love most is to see a monster work itself into such a frenzy of destruction that it actually exhausts itself, destroys itself. In this instance, Destroyer’s frenzy of destruction extended beyond the cars to the very agent of destruction. The automobile-destroying Destroyer proved also to be autodestructive. But Destroyer’s crash marks the third re-affirmation of capitalism—this one with Aristotelian overtones, for the crash is also the death of the monster, and has all the cathartic moment of a tragedy. This catharsis has a rhetorical, persuasive effect: in stirring up excessive emotions of rebellion and opposition—those emotions most likely to corrode the prevailing ideology—it also rids the audience of those emotions. It thus effects a rewarding, gratifying release of potentially dangerous sentiments. To the cheers of fans, the destruction of the destroying machine spectacularly glorifies the risk-taking individual even as he stumbles and crashes, again and again.


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