For many the commute to and from work is a daily ritual. I don’t just mean this in the slang ‘repetitive waste of time’ sense of the word either. It’s also true in a very primordial, tribal sense.
Think of it like this: driving to work is like going on a mammoth hunt. It’s you and your workforce kin, side by side, going in to fulfill your societal responsibility. It’s a nomadic movement you engage in daily in order to sustain the survival of yourself, your family, or your position within a social network. But unlike the epic odysseys and pilgrimages of yesteryear, the modern commute is a journey essentially stripped of any physical effort, human interaction, romance or adventure.
Oddly enough because of this, the commute isn’t really a journey at all. I’d argue it’s more a necessary psychological transition from one state of mind (home/rest) to another (work/action). It’s more mental than it is physical, and it’s in this sense that it comports more closely onto the profile of a ritual than of a journey.
In 1909 a popular French ethnographer called Arnold van Gennep described the ritual as a cluster of symbolic activity which passes through 3 distinct stages; separation, liminality, return. The first and last stages are easy enough to understand; separation is the act of bringing novitiates into a special or somehow separate time and space. This could be anything from wearing ceremonial clothing, depriving a sense, using a different language, or entering a sacred building. Likewise, return is the informing of this group of their new responsibilities and the areas of culture they’ve (re)gained access to.
You can sort of see this with the commute. As soon as the engine is turned on until the moment it turns off we enter a different mindset. Suddenly our sense of space shrinks down to our dashboard, blind spots, a small radius around our metal box, and a loose awareness of Point B and the fog of war between. Also, our sense of time becomes remarkably teleological, or in other words, it’s funneled toward a very definitive endpoint. When driving we slip into a sort of spatio-temporal tunnel vision, and when we arrive at our destination (be it work or home) we’re greeted with a new set of duties and priorities.
But so far that’s nothing really special and could apply to anything; it’s the second stage of liminality which is most interesting.
During a rite of passage, Van Gennep saw liminality as a central period of disassociation where everything hangs in the balance. The past is left, the future has not yet arrived; relationships are tossed around and cultural symbols are used unconventionally. Identities invert and disappear. Consider how a wedding couple will stand alongside the priest at a pulpit, or how graduands briefly share the stage with faculty. Things are put in a new perspective as novitiates are brought to the edges of their culture, and once there, turning back, are able to see it at its maximal form. It’s kind of like the cultural equivalent of skydiving, or seeing Earth from space (AKA the Overview Effect). It’s through this vectorial passageway that we’re then able to enter into a new layer of social existence.
Intrigued by this idea of liminality, Victor Turner explored how this stage brings out a “generalized social bond”, or what he defined as ‘communitas’ in his 1969 book, The Ritual Process:
It is as though there are here two major “models” for human interrelatedness, juxtaposed and alternating. The first is of society as a structured differentiated, and often hierarchical system of politico-legal economic positions with many types of evaluation, separating men in terms of” more” or “less”. The second, which emerges recognizably in the liminal period, is of society as an unstructured or rudimentarily structured and relatively undifferentiated communitas, community, or even communion of equal individuals who submit together to the general authority of the ritual elders.” (1995, p. 96)
I admit, this all sounds a bit artsy fartsy – it seems to suit the purposes of academics more than it accurately captures the messiness of human culture. But that said, there’s more than a kernel of truth to it, especially when considering the commute as a modern ritual.
For one, it’s no secret that we tend to become a different person behind the wheel. In a way we sort of surrender our sense of self as our vehicle and number plate become more important identifiers than our face and name. Expanding our peripersonal space in this way may make us more aware of our surroundings and sensitive toward possible threats against us and those in our immediate vicinity. This results in a double-layered form of a psychological phenomenon called deindividuation, where our individual identity is bound up in our vehicle first, and in the traffic flow second. We go with the flow by subconsciously mirroring the behaviour of others.
Ironically, it could be this misfiring of empathy which compels us to make bad collective decisions which only make the situation worse. This awesome site by Bill Beaty runs through a few reasons why. From invisible accidents, to unnecessary jams caused by the zipper phenomenon or rubbernecking; almost all of them can be linked with the tendency for us to copy the aggressive actions of the drivers around us. Although this behaviour seems intuitive because everyone else is doing it, the density of congested traffic caused by this method (to close gaps, creep, tailgate and be defensive) corresponds to the movement of particles in a gas→liquid state, as researched by Takashi Nagatani in his 2002 report The Physics of Traffic Jams. In a system where the less solid the better, this attitude is counterproductive.
But there’s an even bigger hurdle preventing a roadside rendition of kumbayah, and that’s the language of the road itself.
Alongside personal disassociation, Turner recognises that a key part of the liminal stage is a language of symbols, shapes, colours and other abstract signifiers outside the regular realm of communication. Inside the car, our capacity for language is limited to a horn, indicators, brake lights, and the occasional hand gesture. Not prime tools for discussion, but then again that’s probably a good thing. Outside the car there’s arrows, signage, lane markers, pedestrian crossings, and as semiotician Stuart Hall notes, traffic lights – the epitome of this system:
Red and Green work in the language of traffic lights because ‘Stop’ and ‘Go’ are meanings which have been assigned to them in our culture by the code or conventions governing this language, and this code is widely known and almost universally obeyed in our culture and cultures like ours – though we can well imagine other cultures which do not possess the code, in which this language would be a complete mystery.” (1997, p. 26)
Everything on the road says “Go, go, go! Don’t stay here! Keep moving!”, and rightly so. It deliberately avoids connection and is set up for movement. It’s the necessary villain keeping us apart. Every now and then though the language breaks down and we get glimpses of the humanity lying underneath it all. A fire engine needs to get through, we all move to the side. There’s a power outage and we have to use co-operation and eye contact to decide when to cross an intersection. A driver flashes their lights to warn you about cops ahead. You get in a fender-bender and need to deal with an apologetic driver, or an angry one. Roadworks, courtesy waves, motorcyclist nods – there are genuine human moments when the spell of automatism is briefly broken and we’re forced to interact with the people around us. But for the most part this rarely happens.
Everywhere the commute in its current format is a ritual gone wrong where communitas actively works against us. It’s got all the potential; it’s a time where we’re suspended between two states of consciousness and engage in a symbolic language of codes and objects; it’s an effective dream state where our actions are fluid and collective, unfurling into an immediately repercussive narrative around us. And yet it’s more apt to say that the “roads are a nightmare”.
The modern commute is a profoundly time-consuming, anti-social experience, tantalisingly close to something salvageable yet stubbornly out of reach. There could be ways around it though. National Drive programs might help, but people are increasingly using their iPods on the road over radio. We could expand our hand gesture vocabulary, or carpool more. We could even get rid of roadsigns and traffic lights all together, as has been done in many cities with surprisingly positive results.
What do you think? How can we break the spell, let out our inner caveman and kindle that campfire?
Looking forward to seeing your suggestions and comments below.