First of all, congratulations on the publication of A Vehicle for Change. Could you tell us a bit about how you came to write the book? And how did the project develop from its initial formulation to the book it has become?
Thank you! This book was a long time in the making. It started off as a PhD on cultural representations of motorsport before sprouting wings and taking off in a whole new direction. A colleague in Geography sent me an article and it was like a lightbulb just lit up in my mind. I now had a crucial component of the theoretical framework for my thesis. When negotiating my book contract my editor made it quite clear that I would need to modify my approach in order to make it more reader-friendly. My project involved quite a bit of work in removing some of the layers of theory in order to produce a stronger end-product. I am very grateful for all the support that I received; it has made for a much stronger book.
What were some of the key discoveries you made during the process of researching and writing your monograph?
I think the first thing that struck me was the central role played by France in the democratization of the automobile. This was most apparent in turn-of-the-century motorsport with the creation of the FIA in 1904 and continued with the Le Mans 24-hour race. Less well-known were the Sahara desert crossings in the 1920s, which placed the automobile (Citroëns and Renaults for the most part) at centre-stage as symbols of French modernity in the colonies. The link between the car and the growth of mass tourism in France was also particularly interesting.
Do you feel differently now about Twentieth-Century representations of and attitudes to vehicles than what you did at the beginning of your research?
The post-World War 2 representations of the car were quite surprising as regards how it was portrayed and perceived as a symbol of status. I read a lot of magazines and was quite struck by the number of celebrities who were snapped either standing beside or at the wheel of their car. It was interesting to trace how this evolved over this period and to see how this was reflected in both literature and, particularly, French cinema.
What was it specifically about the time period between the Second World War and the oil crisis of the 1970s which struck you as a particularly interesting socio-historic period to choose for this study?
Picking up on research from other scholars, I identified three distinct ‘ages’ of the automobile during this period of economic growth in France, the so-called Trente Glorieuses, which saw a remarkable transformation of society. Representations of the car reflected its evolution from a highly desired marker of status to a more commonplace commodity. I think that two pieces written by Roland Barthes are particularly apt in this regard. In the first essay, he compares a car to a cathedral and then, ten years later, he states that it has become as normal as bread. During the period leading up to the 1973 oil crisis, we can see a disenchantment with the car for the first time.
Was there anything that surprised you during the development of your own studies of what you describe as the particularly ‘car-centred society of contemporary France’?
I think the visibility of the car across many forms of media was striking, making the fact that it had been the focus of limited analysis up to then even more surprising. This has changed recently with a number of scholars now working on the automobile, including particularly its impact on the environment and urban planning.
How do you think reading Twentieth-Century narratives with a particular focus on automobiles might provide a dynamic gauge to measure changing cultural norms and values of French culture more broadly?
As an object that has been so consumed as to become part of the fabric of society, the car’s impact and perception make it an accurate means of examining cultural values. As it has grown in popularity, the automobile has conditioned the texture of modern life. The particularly car-centred society of contemporary France is thus apt for such an examination. Precisely because the automobile has become so ubiquitous, people from all classes have interacted with it, making it part of the national cultural fabric. The automobile provides us with an accurate prism through which to examine the evolution of French society in the modern and post-modern eras.
The first chapter of A Vehicle for Change theorises the idea of cars as a fetishized commodity. In what ways does your development of this concept inform your book more broadly?
I use Marx’s concept of the commodity fetish as a theoretical framework, supplemented and refined by the work of later thinkers, specifically applying it to the automobile. Marxian fetishizing of an object is that predicated on desire; indeed, a commodity can be so invested with imagined properties that it comes to be highly desired. This desire evolves in response to societal changes, and later French commentators such as Barthes and Baudrillard are useful for adapting this Marxist theory to a post-war context.
Would you be able to tell us a bit about what you are working on now?
I am currently working on articles focusing on ‘Elle au volant, representations of feminine driving in Trente Glorieuses France’ and on Futurism and the automobile. I hope to expand the latter topic as part of a wider exploration of post-oil automobilities in France in order to contribute to research on sustainability.
You can now purchase A Vehicle for Change by Éamon Ó Cofaigh via the Liverpool University Press website for just £34.99. An Open Access edition of this book is also available on the Liverpool University Press website and the OAPEN library.