Article Comments: “Driver-Car”

Dant, T. 2004. The Driver-car. Theory, Culture & Society 21 (4):61-74.

“The driver-car is socially embedded as a system of affordances, actor networks and embodiment that is not going to be foregone or forgotten easily. The object of the car is likely to undergo a dramatic transformation within the next few decades, yet even if the weight, body shape, controls, engine and fuel are transformed, it seems likely that the driver-car will continue to include an object on wheels in which a human being can sit and, with simple adjustments of peripheral limbs, steer and direct to go faster or slower. Both the technology of the motor car and the skills and techniques of the driver may be superseded or improved – as have the horse/rider and walker/shoe – but some form of driver-car is likely to remain” (p. 75).

Sociologist Tim Dant wrote this in an article in 2004. In it, he posited a theoretical basis for engaging with the materiality of cars, specifically through the assemblage of driver and car created in the unique paring of material automobile and material human being. His article specifically engages with the notion that the car and driver come together as an assemblage, and in a sense maintain a kind of systemic momentem: “as a form of social being that produces a range of social actions that are associated with the car; driving, transporting, parking, consuming, polluting, killing, communicating and so on” (2004, p. 61).

The driver-car is unlike a hybrid or a cyborg (such as that described by Callon and Latour) as it is not the offspring of two species of social entities, nor the permanent combination of similar types of objects. Humans remain complete in themselves as users of automobiles, but come together with cars to form a kind of temporary assemblage. Despite impermanence, the driver-car enables specific forms of action that have become habitual, generative of certain forms of social action in which neither the driver nor the car separated from each other could bring about. As Dant writes: “it is in the particular ways in which their capacities are brought together that bring about the impact of the automobile on modern societies” (2004, p. 62). Any given or particular driver-car may be assembled from different component parts, resulting in variations in ways of acting, this is especially true over time and place. Dant’s article is focused on exploring how that assemblage is formed.

He argues that the paper presents a theoretical basis for future empirical studies which questions the basis for understanding social life as simply the result of relationships between human beings forming into social groups (2004, pp. 63-64). It seems more important at this point, 15 years later, to see the article as a valuable stepping stone in probing or hypothesising how the automobile (i.e. its design, its infrastructure, its cultural narratives and metaphors) afford certain ways of acting in, and understanding actions in, the world by its users.

Firstly, Dant builds on the work of ecological psychologist James Gibson, who originally attempted to understand the process of driving a car, and published his work on the subject in 1938. Two points specifically represent the central psychological process, but indicate gaps in explanation for Dant, for which he provides his own theory. The first is the notion that the complexity of driving is beyond conscious cognitive capacity: “the driver of a vehicle overtaking another on a road with two-way traffic has to estimate the relationships between the speeds of three vehicles (his/her own, the overtaken, the oncoming car) and their continually changing fields of safe travel in relation to the stationary road” a process of information processing remarked as astounding by Gibson (2004, p. 64). The second is the idea that the car itself suggests an embodied relationship with the driver, as Gibson originally notes:

“…a sort of field which yields a variety of perceptual cues and which invites and supports specific actions. The impressions constituting it are kinesthetic, tactual, and auditory, as well as visual, and they interact with the impressions from the terrain to produce the totality of cues on which the driving-process is based. The ‘feel’ of the car or the ‘behavior’ of the car are terms which indicate what is meant by this particular field of experience” (Gibson in Dant, 2004, p. 64).

Drawing on Gibson’s later work on affordances (as many designers and design theorists continue to do today), Dant tries to establish the properties of material things in relation to a particular species, and treats the world of objects and materials as connected in ways that are “enabled and constrained by their physical properties” (2004, p. 65). Dant argues that the concept of affordance is preferable to the textual metaphor (which is often employed in the social construction of technology writing), but criticizes that preference almost immediately: the affordance concept is preferable to the textual metaphor only because it facilitates a realist physical relation which does not change with the needs of the observer. Yet the realism that the concept of affordance implies is of course itself an interpretation, a post-hoc identification of possible uses; how we know that a particular object is offering a particular affordance is dependent on our knowledge of the object, specifically and certainly our textual experiences (2004, pp. 65-66). While the concept of affordance pulls our understanding of material-human assemblages into greater physical situatedness, it falls short of explaining the moral and social aspects of human object interaction, as Dant writes:

“Cars may afford locomotion and mobility but the myriad range of ways they do it is not explicated by the concept of affordance. What is more, the mobility and locomotion of the car are dependent on the affordance of a driver; it would be more precise to say that it is the assemblage of driver and car that affords mobility. And the complexity of the relationship between driver and car has many social dimensions; it is designed, made, adapted, learnt, maintained, policed, changes over time and varies with cultural context” (2004, p. 67).

Dant’s argument appears to be that the vehicle and the driver afford actions to each other and that the subject’s interpretation of the moral quality of that action is yet unexplained by the simple notion of an action being afforded (without delving into the notion that to recognize an affordance is some kind of morally charged one – i.e. I may not recognize that car can be used as a weapon unless I have that kind of disposition). In any case, the thrust of the argument is that which had been eroding the emphasis that previous social scientists (prior to 15 years ago that is) had placed on the centrality of the human being as the single agent that is afforded action by the object. Dant calls this “mutual affordance” an assemblage: a unique agent enabled by the unique combination of physical and socio-ideological dispositions of both, for lack of a more concise appraisal, materials – a Driver-Car.

This is a more complex (although on the basis of argumentation not any more or less comprehensive or complete) account of this interaction between people and things which finds its theoretical genealogy in Latour and Actor-Network Theory (ANT). According to Dant, ANT revealed the ways that the technical world is often revealed as a result of the social world (although the distinction between “worlds” is not a necessary or even positive one). It identified the social relations involved in technological development; it emphasized the semiotic work of networks in inscribing and describing technology with cultural relevance, and; it treated material objects as equal responsibility actors within these networks (p. 68).

To describe the network in which the driver-car is an actor:

“The mobility of the driver-car is dependent on the network of the car’s components and the human driver’s capacities; there must be sufficient cash flow to provide the petrol, there must be petrol available in petrol pumps nearby, the driver must be able to get the petrol into the car and the engine must be in sufficiently good condition for the petrol to be ignited and for combustion to be translated into movement of the driver-car…But without much investigation it is obvious that there are all sorts of other networks entailed in this basic driver/petrol/company/car network. So, within the car there is a network of spark plugs, ignition system, crankshafts, gears, transmission and so on; these need to be able to translate each other’s actions for drive to be achieved in the wheels. And at the social level there must be no fuel tax protesters blocking deliveries to petrol stations, there must be a sufficient supply of crude oil being sold by the OPEC countries and there must be a system for taxing the fuel to contribute to the social costs of the driver-car.” (p. 69).

While the network extends beyond affordances, Dant points out in his article, there remains a significant issue with the neutralizing of humans and non-humans as being equally responsible for the outcomes of outputs of the given network of stuff: agency, or the difference between humans and non-humans. Latour largely saw this issue in a Foucauldian way: purposeful action is neither the property of objects nor people, but of social institutions and of ideological apparatuses (what Foucault called dispositifs) (Latour in Dant, p. 70). Dant, on the other hand sees this interpretation of agency in the network as mildly problematic.

This may be largely because Dant equates agency with intention or choice, particularly in the case of artificial objects, although his final position on the status of the object as devoid of agency remains unclear. He comments that all artificial objects are constructed and imbued with the intentionality of the human designer – he draws upon Latour’s famous example of the “sleeping policeman”) (p. 71), but rather than keep to Latour’s position of complete symmetry between humans and non-humans he reminds us that “just because the actions of people often occur within the shaping and limiting context of institutions does not mean that humans are equivalent with non-humans” (p. 71).

In order to move past the network and its completely horizontal treatment of humans and non-humans, Dant approaches the assemblage of the driver-car as an embodied form of agency based on the situatedness of perception. He draws upon Merleau-Ponty’s conceptualization of perception as “situated and oriented to the kinaesthetic awareness of the body” and “geared towards the outside world” (2004, p. 71). For Merleau-Ponty, perception is not dependent on individual senses generating disembodied information, but rather “a combinatory process which relies on the total sensory experience of the body in producing states of perception dependent on bodily memory” (2004, p. 72). Visual perception, that sense which is integral to driving, is not just as the psychologist Gibson noted, a matter of the way that image of the world is deformed in the eye as it moves through space, but an orientation of the entire body to the world through which it moves (2004, p. 72). As Dant argues: “what is perceived in the visual field is complemented by the kinaesthesia of the body and its trajectory as a whole, by the sounds of the engine, the road and the wind on the car, by the resistance of steering wheel, accelerator and brakes – even the feel of the road through the wheels of the car” (2004, p. 72).

For Dant’s construction of this embodied assemblage, driving is largely habitual, and in the process of learning and doing, the driver’s sense of speed and of what conditions of surroundings will permit becomes a skill embodied “through the vehicle, not only in dials and controls but through sounds and vibrations” (2004, p. 73). As Merleau-Ponty describes motion: “motion is a phenomenon of levels, every movement presupposing a certain anchorage which is variable” (Merleau-Ponty in Dant 2004, p. 73). In the case of driving, the perception of movement is about the learned corporeal direction towards noting the changes from one moment to the next, building on prior embodied understandings of moving through space.


Thinking about actions made possible by the combination of car and driver as an affordance implies a more or less objective understanding of physical capacities. Similarly treating driving as dependent on purely mechanical operations of perception overstates the cognitive aspects of driving while understating the learned and embodied processes of moving and acting in the world which may be conceptualized by the heuristic nature of the feedback loop on which incremental changes in the entire body’s orientation and location in time and space are operating. It is not clear given the absence of any engagement of the article with clinical psychological or even Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) literature suggesting the benefits of such a conceptualization (or scientific legitimacy). But I also think the purpose of Dant’s article is not these points.

The benefits of a quasi-ANT and quasi-phenomenological engagement with the driver-car (or human-non-human assemblages more generally) is largely philosophical. It is a basis for engaging with embodied action as cultural and habitual, and technologically co-constituting social action: “People who have become familiar with the driver-car through participating in the assemblage become oriented to their social world, partly at least, through the forms of action of which it is capable. Social institutions – legal systems, the conventions of driving, traffic management – develop to embed the coordinated habits of driver-cars within the social fabric” (2004, p. 74).

Driving, and the use of cars, extends beyond function or convenience alone, and the habituated actions of the driver-car are in a way highly imbricated in the everyday activities of society. This is because these actions are facilitated, afforded, and engendered with meaning by a network of automobility realized in the driver-car which extends human intentionality into society and extends technology into human activity.


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