The Uncomfortable Animism of Car Ownership

I bought my first car recently.

I finally had enough justification to get one – my 20 mile commute via transit takes over an hour, requires uber to get to the train station from my house, and then a 10-minute ride from a retired (and very generous) family member to get from my stop to work. Done entirely via transit, it would take almost 3 hours, one way.

Cars never really struck me as being “right”. For my entire life, they seemed to be misplaced, alien creatures; exotic animals let loose on an ecosystem that has no niche for them. They are also in the habit of turning perfectly nice people into assholes, perfectly laid-back people into tired, burnt-out husks, and the most well-intentioned into accidental murderers. They quickened a pace of life that seemed to be going too fast already. I wanted nothing to do with them.

Except, when I did.

I fell head over heels for a certain make and model, and promised myself that if I ever had to succumb to car ownership, it would be on my terms, and I would get one that inspired me to build a relationship instead of blithely use it, abuse it, and junk it when I was done. It – he – was going to be the one. Last weekend, he found me, and I said “let’s do this”.

This post might have been better titled “The Uncomfortable Animism of Everyday Things”, but the car part is important, because my new inorganic partner has been making me think on this a lot.

First, though, an observation: the modern polytheist conception of animism as it is practiced strikes me as a little odd, and still suffering from some vestigial paralysis wrought by the materialism and Cartesian dualism so entrenched in western society. We recognize that the world is full of spirits, yes, but where, exactly, are they all? A survey of blog posts concerning the topic would have you believe that they might wink in and out of our world at will, or sort of float about in the air. Rarely are spirits of this or that material object referred to – divination systems or natural landmarks are an occasional exception. In many indigenous folkways around the world however, objects themselves are understood to have spirit and agency, whether humanoid in shape or not, and that it is important to win their favor just as you would try to win a God’s or ancestor’s. Instead of going to Hermes or Djehuty every time your computer acts up, why not speak with the computer first? In several Mesoamerican traditions, Gods can even don completely non-human forms, too, likes knives or marching lines of ants. It’s easy to overlook these small, simple embodiments, but we ought not to.

But what about inorganic things? Technological and synthetic things? My car has spirit and agency, too – and it’s important that I win his favor. And quite frankly, I just like him a lot.

But I still can’t shake that feeling of him being an exotic, alien thing, a creature out of time and place. I can’t shake the feeling that he’s not supposed to be here.

This is because he devours and was wrought from fossil fuels.

I’ve done a lot of thinking on the nature of fossil fuels, and what role oil has in the mythic story of things. Elders at Standing Rock called the pipeline a black, poisonous snake. Personally, I’ve found myself being struck with the ubiquitous image of the zombie in my mental wanderings: the shambling undead, indiscriminately violent, unstoppable until completely rent apart, and hungry for the flesh of the living. (Or just the brains, which makes an even more potent metaphor. Either way, the idea that a zombie apocalypse is a thing of disaster porn fantasies amuses me: for all intents and purposes, we’re in the midst of one.)

Oil is ancient liquid sunlight – the noxious dew of the midnight sun? – and countless dead literally bubbling up from the underworld. We take those million-year-old ghosts, and we torture them: subject them to intense heat and pressure, spin them in centrifuges, chemically separate them, before we keep them in flasks made from the innards of their brethren, or extrude them into pieces like the God Osiris and scatter them to the ends of the earth in chariots fueled by the scorched remains of yet more. After such abuse, these ghosts settle into foreign waters, soils, and air, and they begin to gnaw like the serpent at the roots of the world tree. They are hungry.

My car is beautiful, but he’ll turn against me too someday. His skin is made from their skin, his blood is their blood. Either he’ll grow too hungry for me to feed, or he’ll grow too tired, and someday lay down to rest and never wake up. I don’t think its at all useful to think of cars as the symbolic steel horse; horses are animals that are, and eat of, the living earth. Cars are spirits visiting us from the underworld if I ever saw it. So I didn’t fall head over heels for just a car, then: I fell for a big, metal, ghost.

Does he know what he is? Most things in this world do (we’re an interesting exception), no matter how young they are. I get the inkling that he knows he’s doomed to a kind of purgatory once all this is over, and that he knows that his existence is one of vampirism. Maybe he’s sorry about it, maybe he’s not – either way, he didn’t ask to be made. None of us do.

Sometimes I look out the window at him and feel uneasy. I hate going to the gas station. I hate pushing that 89 and hearing it surge into that massive tank. I frown at the idea of how many different kinds of fluids are in him, and how many of them will take your skin off. But then I also know that he is everything I need for him to be, and then some. I know the dangerous bargain I struck.

So what do you do when the spirits in your life, like the ghosts of bastard children, can no longer be denied? How do you acknowledge the agency of your digital gadgets, built, as they are, on an assembly line of ecological abuse, child labor, and rapidly depleting natural resources?

Magically, plastic has always had a sickly feel to me – others have said not to use plastic in most workings because of its inability to conduct or house energy. This is very much because it is a dead material, though far from inert. Plastic – like oil, like gasoline, like cars – is teeming with spirit. Overfull with it. Most of the time, though, it’s not the kind that wants anything to do with us. Talk about your angry Jotnar.

For now, I’ll keep him. We want to work together, and he wants to run. When he needs to drink a little blood from the vast victim underneath my feet and his tires, I can look away, even though I can’t completely forgive either of us. Because even for all our differences – we could not exist more differently in this world than if he were a stone and I were a bird – I feel a deep affinity for him, for who and what he is. We are both, as the saying goes, trying to get by in a world we never made.

And while it makes me very sad, it also helps me feel a little better to know that, like all pretty things, this relationship won’t last forever. All we might try to do in the meantime is keep each other safe and have a little fun while we’re at it. Even as the world slowly burns.

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3 thoughts on “The Uncomfortable Animism of Car Ownership

    1. Bringing him home felt like a dream first date, but after that the churning in my stomach started when I realized what had happened, what he was, and what role I’d suddenly assumed.

      (Also the fact that I didn’t know the first thing about cars and he’s 20 years old, but that’s a different anxiety.)

      Like

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