a plea for a natural history of traffic jams

WE had now reached the summit of the loftiest crag. For some minutes the old man seemed too much exhausted to speak.

"Not long ago," said he at length, "and I could have guided you on this route as well as the youngest of my sons; but, about three years past, there happened to me an event such as never happened before to mortal man --or at least such as no man ever survived to tell of --and the six hours of deadly terror which I then endured have broken me up body and soul. You suppose me a very old man --but I am not. It took less than a single day to change these hairs from a jetty black to white, to weaken my limbs, and to unstring my nerves, so that I tremble at the least exertion, and am frightened at a shadow.”

Edgar A. Poe, Descent into the Maelstrom

Every five years or so, I like to drive a car into a traffic jam. Surely being in a traffic jam has become the American way to touch the mythic hero inside, a la Joseph Campbell. In simpler times, it was the big fish story. Gilgamesh wrestled Humbaba, Ahab took aim at the fabled White Whale, and your Gwinnett County householder descends into I-20 from several convenient ramps and takes on only two lanes of traffic open on that three lane Westbound. The third lane is closed for obscure reasons. Apparently, the highway department has decided to pile up big mounds of red clay at selected spots along five miles of the thing. Men in hard hats mill around these mounds, some of them in highly expensive earth movers. They look confused. Perhaps there are cultic motives behind the mounding.

Traffic jams are things of beauty to complexity scientists and a certain breed of architect who moves through the world of forms like a blind flatfish in search of a moderately priced oculist. Kas Oosterhuis, in Architecture Gone Wild, writes reverentially: … the traffic slow slows down, it becomes more dense. The movements go on the blink, the shape of the flow clusters into bloglike forms: this condition announces the impeding traffic jam, the flow in its liquid state. At a given point in the hardening process, the liquid stops flowing, traffic reaches its state of zero moment, it crystallizes (newspapers unfold, mobile phones come into action, the operating system (you) switches to stand-by mode, check Fellini’s film Roma). What shape does the jam have? There is no single shape, it is a dynamic balance possessing a multitude of states, from gaseous to crystalline.”

Well, I can report that the I-20 traffic jam was a cross-phaser – it went from gaseous to dyspeptic to boglike to the shape assumed by a man contemplating the purchase of viagra.

That human beings arrange these formations for their own amusement tells us, I suppose, something about what amuses human beings. Although there is a glory here. Here is something ultra-human, yet 6000 feet above all humanity. Something to compete with waterfalls and hurricanes. In great traffic jam cities like Atlanta, there is a quiet pride in the length and duration of the traffic jam. So, as I slowed the immense black truck that, by a concantenation of absurd circumstances, I was supposed to deliver to my sister at the Kingfisher school (which she owns and directs), into the auto bog, I had a sense that I, too, was an Atlantan. Well, not so fast. First I had a yikes moment, as I looked up from fiddling with the confusing array of buttons and switches that successfully fended off amateur attempts to turn on the radio and noticed that the Toyota I’d been following at 65 per had slowed to 10. As was good and proper, I brought an initial terrified glance into my encounter with the beast. Luckily, I am well trained in braking – ask any unfortunate who has passengered with me! I must admit to some feeling of betrayal. I thought we of the second lane were a team, a 65 m.p.h. team, and we were being let down.

Once inside the jam – I note these things for our post-peak posterity, riding on their mules and keeping the internet intermittently alive by generating electricity from turning giant gerbil wheels – a curious dissolution of the team spirit occurs. Though we are packed together as never before, now, now is the time to instantiate those outlying game strategies that contravene the rules of God, Man, and the equilibrium theories of neo-classical economics. Thus, the notice that the first lane was ending in half a mile operated as a curious invitation to many to get into the first lane. Yes, these clever minxes saw that the first lane was relatively open – due to the sign – and that while the cowed untermenschen in the second and third lanes were dallying, the Nietzschians were going to hurry up to the ending point and barge into the second lane. Of course, us second laners could have blocked that move, but we had already proved ourselves pussies by not plunging into the first lane from the beginning. This does raise a philosophical question about the third laners, however. Surely they were the ubermenschen. Surely they were the speeders, the risk takers. But here, in the midst of the jam (which at this phase had turned the shape of foie gras spread on wet toast), they were two lanes over from the gamers lane. In their tragic plight, the philosophically minded driver could see the whole history of the slave uprising in morals and the fall of the Roman empire.

Now, t.j. heads know that maximizing your jam requires not just plunging into one – any idiot can do that. No, you have to be low on gas, and you have to have a pressing appointment. Some of the fun of the later has been spoiled by the pernicious spread of cell phones. Luckily, LI has never and will never have a cell phone. Extra points come from having one of those cars that starts billowing steam from the hood. But the big black truck had been decently cared for in the radiator department, so I merely had to keep my weather eye on the fuel gauge, where the arrow was fingering the red zone. My plan, of course, was to stick my sister with the cost of filling up this monster. I definitely did not want to spend on it myself. Besides the gas tease, however, I had plenty of time to figure out the radio/stereo system, read a chapter of War and Peace, and gaze about, looking for the babes among my neighbors. Actually, most of my neighbors looked rather like pole struck oxen. The expressions ran from the stultified to the dissatisfied. Although of course I couldn’t survey the lot – surely some were heroically gleaming, aware of the historic occasion into which they had blundered. I would wager that all of them, however, would at some later point in the day mention that they had been in a traffic jam.

We edged past the Panola exit as in a dream. I know what dream, too. It is the one where somehow, you are trying to walk down the road or over the floor and you can’t seem to get anywhere.

Perhaps Leibniz was dimly foreseeing the traffic jam when he came up with that monad idea. Each of us did have a mirror in our vehicles, but otherwise we lived in our traffic jam with a maximum of self enclosure, on up to the microclimate produced by the a/c. And this is why I am rather surprised at the road rage fashion – none of which was really on display in this jam. In a sense, this was a break in the day. Each could meditate on the four last things, if desired. Or compose a recipe or grocery list. Traffic jams are ideal for poets and hermits. If the desert fathers had known about them, they surely would have deserted the caves for the friendlier, but still solitary, medium sized automobile.

At some point, as suddenly as it had congealed, the traffic jam took on the shape of a dead man pitching a spitball. In other words, it broke apart. There was, suddenly, empty highway – emptiness being, here, a metric for the possibility of going 75 miles per and not crashing into the bumper of the guy ahead of you. In fact, the guy ahead of you is going 80. And thus my big black truck freed itself from the posse of 18 wheelers and the inchworm action of the Jetta in the second lane who was breaking the eleventh commandment: thou shalt not hold up traffic. Yes, my jam time was over. And what had I learned?

Well, it is hard to say. The true descent into the traffic jam (contra Godard’s Weekend) has still not been made. We need a Dr. J.M. Rossbach. In 1870, Dr. Rossbach realized that battlefields were not just battlefields – just as a rose is not just a rose – but occasions to study rigor mortis. Thus, he went traipsing over the battlefield at Sedan and Beaumont, measuring and observing the dead soldiers, and reported his observations in an article entitled Over initial rigor mortis in cases of immediate life-ending events (Ueber eine unmittelbar mit dem Lebensende beginnende Todtstarre). He noticed the “preservation of the expressive effects of the last moments of life in the face” of many soldiers, noting, however, a few anomalies – “in a group of six French soldiers, killed by a grenade blast, on an elevation at Beumont, [there was one] with a smiling, happy face, which only lacked the top half of its skull, torn away by the grenade blast.” My problem is that, unlike Dr. Rossbach, I did not have carte blanche to get out of the big black truck and walk about amongst my fellow jamites, to see how they were taking it. Someday, some sociologist should pack students up in a truck or van and plunge into a jam and, in the slow heart of the heart of it, let the students rush among the vehicles, taking pictures and giving out survey forms. Otherwise, this odd feature of modern life may pass away, in silence, when this civilization is good and extinct.


amie said…
LI, let me be the first of many undoubtedly, to nominate this post for the Blogorama's Thurber Award. If the award doesn't exist damn it, perhaps General Motors and/or the New Yorker could sponsor it. The prob with that could be that the award might consist of an shiny SUV or a subscription to the estimable magazine, ergo, in either case, a large quantity of noxious gas.

Anyway, after such Denken und Dicthen, you should at the very least be treated to some serious Trinken. How you interpret Jimmy's line re martinis is your privilege as a Thurber Award winner!
roger said…
Amie, wouldn't it be sweet if there was more talk of Thurber on the blogs and, perhaps, a tad less talk of, say, Zizek? ho ho ho.

My brother's comment - my brother who owns the big black truck - is: people are going to wonder how come you haven't been in a traffic jam for five years. As an Atlantan, he considers this unimaginable, and perhaps the most shameful confession a man can make.
Dominic said…
wouldn't it be sweet if there was more talk of Thurber on the blogs and, perhaps, a tad less talk of, say, Zizek?

Any more cracks like that, and I shall essay a Zizekian reading of Thurber, just to annoy you. If nothing else, it would be a good excuse to re-read Thurber.
roger said…
Oh no - a Lacanian analysis of The Owl in the Attic! Dominic, kill me now.

Actually, I have nothing against the good Dr. Zizek, I just think there is too much of a too muchness of him on the theoryblogs. I'm a big Derrida man myself, but I try to honor his spirit by not relating everything in the known world to the guy. Of course, Derrida didn't spend his time on earth emitting his opinion of Flash Dance or the latest op ed outrage, either. I like that. I like the distance.

Now that I think about it, there is a Thurber piece all about this, the one in which he has a fight with his wife over who is the better actor, Greta Garbo or Mickey Mouse. We postmoderns, who can see further, have settled the question once and for all in favor of Betty Boop, of course, but the point of the Thurber essay, I think, was: I'm tired of Garbo.
amie said…
LI, your brother has a point. After all, an essential aspect of the descent - geworfenheit! - into the maelstrom of the traffic jam is its everydayness.
Thanks for the reminder re the Thurber piece on Garbo and Mickey Mouse. Say, do you recall Thurber writing anything re Louise Brooks?

(If I were to compare the good Dr.Z to a film star from that era, rather than Garbo I'd pick Adolphe Menjou.)