Driving, John Melillo

Driving, John Melillo


The engaged position is to run along the earth…my ideal sculpture is a road.

Carl Andre


Lost again. Where was I? Where am I? Mud road. Stopped car. Time is rhythm: the insect rhythm of a warm humid night, brain ripple, breathing, the drum in my temple—these are our faithful timekeepers; and reason corrects the feverish beat.

Nabokov, Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle


In the West, and particularly in America, the car is a metonymy for freedom, self-sufficiency, and individual-sized imperium. Look at how much that truck can haul!! To drive is to exercise self-reliance: I can go where I want, when I want, and with whatever I want. To drive is to be in the world, to know the world, even. At the very least, to drive is a necessary convenience, a banal day-to-day operation, a goal-oriented moving through capitalism’s spaces. To drive is the pseudo-individualized activity of the dominated. It is the way one moves over the “vast expansive·megatexture of the commercial landscape” (Venturi et al. 13). To drive is to experience the production of space as fragmented, constantly dissolving and resolving into disconnected signifiers, contradictory desires. It is no coincidence that the automobile vastly expanded as a mode of travel around the same time that cubism transformed the representation of space in painting (c. 1910).[1]


I propose that we move away from the static and prescriptive infinitive and take up the position of the driver in her micro-cosmic extensiveness. I propose that we do this not to exclude the way in which the car implicates us in a social world of desire and exchange, social contract (the “rules of the road”) and reciprocity, but rather to find the way in which driving oscillates the driver between a sublime contiguity—an ecstasy of touch—and a spatio-temporal horror vacui—the empty stasis of the threat (not the actuality) of pure duration. The responsibility of driving—its “engaged position”—is not only the playing out of this contradictory oscillation within the driver, this undecidable and largely unrecognized play between empathy and abstraction, but also a critical mediation between abstract and concrete space, space as imagined and space as used.

Driving engages us in a different rhythm of experience than other ways of moving through the world. This is a function not only of speed but also of the position of the driver in relation to the earth she runs along. This position is one mediated by a series of engagements: one thing touching and moving another. The driver’s body touches the driving wheel and pedals that touch the tools and levers that touch the engine that touches the gears that touches the axles that touches the wheels that touch the road that touches the earth.[2] And there are, of course, feedback systems along the entire touch complex: the road pushes back against the wheels, which registers “shock” in the shocks· and all the way back down the line. The whole etiological framework is moving and moved. And the operator works at the center of this feedback mechanism. We feel the road when we drive. It vibrates through us as a concrete rhythm, a rhythm of concrete. It pushes our bodies against incline and curve. Our bodies sway to it, not just living particles of Newtonian physics, but articulated to it, touching it and marking it as we do so.

Driving, then (and I mean the whole thing: body to car, car to road, road to land, land to horizon), enriches and impoverishes experience. There are sensations and perceptions impossible unless we are operating a vehicle hurtling across the earth at speeds no human body alone could ever match. And yet these sensations happen because the hurtling body is always on the edge of destruction. The stance towards being we have while driving a car is simply that of survival. It’s terrifying to be moving around in these machines. An artist like John Chamberlain—who almost always works in the medium of painted crushed cars—registers this terror as a kind of baseline fact of his sculptures’ various mimetic and expressive goals. This terror is a constant drone behind these works. Fear drives the driver. Attention to objects as obstacles, the road as a way-through (a free-way), becomes paramount. Before anything else comes the bare fact of staying on the road, of remaining alive.

It is this insistence upon survival that creates a different way of being while driving. We are different creatures while operating the car. The car is not merely an “extension of the senses” in Marshall McLuhan’s sense of a medium, but actually a different skin that registers a different set of perceptual signs and reactions. The 1930s biologist (and, really, phenomenologist) Jacob von Uexkull saw the task of biology not merely as the working out of the machinic properties of living beings but also the recognition of the different forms of subjective experience in which other living things operate. These different worlds of experience, or Umwelts, develop around the necessary sign-systems of living things. The tick lives within an environment radically reduced to a very specific set of signs like a mammal’s smell, the sun’s warmth, or an animal’s temperature. The Umwelt is a way of abstracting from the totality of sense-perceptions, the Kantian manifold, to the signs necessary for an organism to survive within an environment.

The driver creates a different Umwelt while operating her car. To travel by car is to rearrange our senses. In this world, things arrive and dissolve into space faster than when we walk or ride a horse or even fly. We must deal, first, with the obvious, that which is “in the way.” That way (via) is entirely set by the road, by the concrete strip covering the broken earth. To remain within the smooth space of the road is the operator’s task. The car must articulate with the direction of the road—or chaos ensues. There is, in this, an acceptance of absolute limits, a reduction of experience to road signs. These signs include not only the bland textual indications of direction, distance, and desire that make of the road a social network but also the texture of the concrete and asphalt thing appearing and disappearing at rapid pace, the rhythm of traversing that same thing, the feeling for its construction (and dissolution in pot-holes and cracks).

The driver must respond—via the car—to the way. This creates a different set of responsibilities than other forms of transportation. The horse, the medium for travel subsumed by the car, was a mode of transportation that involved a kind of intimacy with another being, involved a system of care that reflected on that other being’s status. The subsumption of the horse by the car, however, involves a way of being-toward-the-road that subtracts the vagaries of another subject’s being-in-the-world for the extension of the self into the world. The rider attends to the horse’s attention to the road. The driver attends to the road. There is only the one tension: the driver’s—via the wheeled apparatus at his/her fingertips—attention to the road. At the center of a touch-complex, the driver creeps along the earth, contiguous with the landscape through the articulation of body to car, car to road, road to land.

So the driver moves by contiguities to the landscape, enfolds it to herself. There is a sense, then, of triumph, muted but manifest in the very dullness of speed. Speed is no longer a terrifying and chaotic possibility (a self-destructive end-in-itself[3]) but rather a sign of the ability to touch space in its traversal, to feel grounded. Speed becomes dull as the driver transforms space into touchable unit, a singular entity a body can move through. The necessary terror for survival gives way to the implicit familiarity of touch. The totality of sense-experience becomes reducible through an act of appropriation. This is the sublimity of driving.

Here we have a different sort of sublimity than the fantasy of speed and conquest we might imagine for driving. The futurist imaginary of space as a thing to be traversed and ultimately destroyed gives way to the banality of movement. The art of driving, really, is the art of discovering space again and again. The driver gains expertise through habit; repetition creates a user who does not exalt in remaining at the avant-garde, constantly penetrating space, but rather cordially identifies with space by reducing it to textural sign-system. In this way, we might say that driving is closer to listening to the drone of the urban grid than to gazing at and controlling the landscape. The listener makes it through the environment through a process of assimilation and recognition; she simultaneously gives herself up to the environment and orders it. The gaze chooses its object and owns it; it does not so much make its way through the world as freezes the world in precise moments. This is the very opposite of the way we look out of a car, that bored distracted attentiveness, momentarily caught up by an interesting sight.[4]

In driving, the skin of space becomes palpable, a vibratory texture and way of moving. Here space becomes not a vast reservoir of possibility—an abstract grid open for business, ready to be filled with the panoply of desires—but a continuous flowing. This is neither the mathematical space of Descartes nor the one-thing-after-another space of the flaneur. The car is not simply a tool for transportation. It is also a perceptual tool, along the lines of a microphone or telescope. Driving implies an attention that creates an embodied knowledge of space, not as a holding tank for objects but rather a tangle of differently textured zones.

In this, I am trying to situate driving not only as an art of the everyday but also to imagine the potential for this embodied form of knowledge. It rests at the confluence between so many relations—social, political, economic, for starters—that its mindful mindlessness becomes an important test case. The walker is constantly surprised, astounded, filled with a journey of incident. She invents new relationships all the time, in the glance of passers-by, in the surprise of something happening above, beside, behind, below her. The bubble-ship of the car, on the other hand, focuses the body upon an unspecific point ahead of the vehicle.


The driver merely wants to get somewhere. Drives can be more or less driverly, like the times my parents would zoom around potholes in the sadly decayed backroads around Princeton, Texas. And there are, of course, the relics of a past aesthetic, too. The Sunday afternoon drives of the first part of the century have become as outdated as the cars they happened in. But driving is now an art of necessity rather than an entertainment for the rich. As such, it is—despite all its unmistakable sublimity—still oriented teleologically. It is the contrast between the texturization of space and the sudden return of duration that can transform the drive into an anxious act of thwarted will.

Just as the driver feels the concatenation of thing against thing and touches space, she remains most conscious of the measured space of traversal. That is, inside of every driver is that child in the backseat whining, “when are we going to get there?” The rhythm of the car’s movement becomes measured. Time and space are calculated, worked out in a constantly changing mathematics: 60 miles is an hour away at 60 miles per hour. I’ve only got an hour and a half left.

This metrical consciousness is a function of the car’s use as a transportation tool. The driver exists at a point between the necessary attention to the road and the calculation of space-time. These two stances toward the road oscillate. At one point, the driver is nearly unconscious of time; space sheds and the pleasant drone of wheel against road transforms her heightened attentiveness into practically an unchanging tableau. And then all of a sudden, the driver is aware: oh, here I am, I’ve already gone that far? The subjective feeling for time, i.e. the moment, for the driver can be spread quite far apart. The null, quasi-hibernated state of driving releases untold reservoirs of ecstatic capacity.

At the same time, that subjective moment can be every second and more. The driver can be anxious, constantly measuring, constantly imagining away from the present. The driver can reach a state where the drive itself is in the way of a realized goal. “Am I there yet? Am I there yet?” This state of anxiety opens the driver to the horrifying possibility: “No, I am not there yet. No, I will never be there. I am here, forever, moving.” This is the horror of an empty time, unmarked by succession. Paradoxically, it is the measure of time-space that sends the driver into paroxysms of pure duration. A kind of frozen state, in which time is excruciatingly unmeasured and the will is excruciatingly thwarted. Movement here gives way to stasis, and the ecstatic touching of space opened up by attention to texture becomes merely the necessity for traversal, the dream of something faster in the wake of the nightmare of never-getting-anywhere.

The expansiveness of the driverly sublime exists as a negativity, a null, reduced state that abstracts space through its concrete concatenations. The infuriating anxiety of driving’s durational remainder results from the positive but thwarted necessity to reach a place, a goal. There is only time to be endured. We become lost again even as we head in the right direction. Stopped car. Mud road. Even in the midst of movement.


To take the terms of Michael Fried’s oft-quoted article, Art and Objecthood, driving is neither theatrical nor graceful. Fried heaps scorn upon the conclusion the sculptor Tony Smith arrives at while driving through an unopened (and unmarked) New Jersey Turnpike: “I thought to myself, it ought to be clear that’s the end of art” (158). To Fried, it is problematic to imagine an art grounded in experience “available” to everyone. Such “art” is ultimately theatrical—based around the artificiality of setting and placement rather than “the works themselves” (160). But driving is neither the theatricality of pure duration, nor the ecstasy of one trans-valuing moment after another. To go fast over flat stretches of concrete, black tar, and crushed rock. Keep your feet on the ground and your head in the clouds.

Go the way of the least

To be the driver involves a level of mediated attention that we often take for granted. We are artists of the everyday in the car. The freeway is a zone of movement, speed, repetition. It is not elegant; it is blasted out of rock. It replaces the local with something else, packets of information, signage, data of particular orders rather than the symbolic touch of ma and pa’s local eatery.

The road does nothing but go on.

The car extends our running along the earth.

You’re moving across the landscape.

Here is what you do.

You process through the landscape: forward moving, a moving through, serpentine and straight lines, movements up and down, you feel the road, the texture of the different pavements, different forms of pavement, different types of road: the bumps and breaks, the liquid cobbling together of asphalt slab after asphalt slab, slowly broken by the movement of liquid in and out of the little holes that are in the concrete/asphalt. The road is always porous, it’s always open and breaking down. It’s constantly under construction, never finished. And the landscape is the same way. The roadscape, the bubblescape that you occupy in the car: The car conditions the possibility for a new perception of space and time. It is, itself, not merely an aesthetic but creates a new aesthetic perceptual model. The road is merely another accretion of history in this moving process. It’s one more way of Entering the landscape.

The car provides an opening to experience by making it difficult to sit back and engage and envelope a landscape. It drives as to the landscape, nails us to the landscape, like some kind of Merzbau junk construction, a giant moving series of junk.

The space of driving is a kind of sweat dolloping along the skin of the earth, flowing downhold,  straight into the huge pools of humanity we call cities.

Everyone drives.

Everyone goes at very fast speeds in very flimsy machines. Driving is a big-wave sport. You move through things.

This very banality allows for driving to be situated at a confluence of social, ideological, economic, environmental, linguistic, aesthetic discourses.


1. This date is of primary importance to Henri Lefebvre, who sees it as the turning point in a history of the production of space. At this moment, the regularizing codes of space dominant in the early modern period give way to the fragmentation of space under the influence of capitalism’s contradictions. Cf. Lefebvre 292-351.

2. This list, like any other, could be much more detailed—all the way down to the sub-sub-sub-atomic infinitesimal energies and masses that move at speeds and frequencies still yet to be imagined much less measured.

3. This is the nihilistic implication of Futurism.

4. Perhaps another way to think of this different sort of sublime is to put the body in a pool. Imagine that feeling of expansion as the moonlight makes the bottom of the pool disappear, as we are seemingly invited into space, an endless possibility there in the half-light obscured by (and created by) the water’s motion and the pool bottom’s reformatted depth. We take up that invitation only briefly, only in the short, too short moment of stillness as you float under the water, resisting breathing, until your body’s rhythm returns and you break the expansive stillness—in order to repeat the feeling again. This is sublime extensiveness.