an exploration of urban identity in the middle of Texas
Driving in Austin suggests a metaphor: this town always has one eye on the windshield and one on the rearview. Everywhere you look things are being built, while others are being torn down. Everywhere you look, people both celebrate and worry about this. This is a city structured in the conflict between reaching towards and holding on. People seem to want (where “want” means both desire and lack) a way to reconcile the two, but it never quite happens.
Our rapidly-changing streetscapes and roadscapes feel exciting, and “happening”, but also anxious. One reason for this is that they are haunted not only by memories of past lives but also by past dreams of the future both realized and interrupted or displaced.
For me, this dialectic is contained most poignantly in the many roadside car trauma shrines in and around the city, sites dedicated to negotiating the trauma of losing people killed as drivers, passengers, or bystanders in or by cars, trucks, or motorcycles. Some, like the white crosses put up by MADD and the many ghost bikes around town, have a clear collective political aim, but most speak much more softly. For ten years now, I have been photographing and writing about these shrines present here in Austin as well as around the country, watching them grow more and more prominent in the physical and cultural landscape in that same time period. Here I want to explore what they have to do with “the end of Austin.”
Even while driving in traffic in this increasingly crowded city, to drive is to experience the freedom of autonomy and mobility–to be suspended in motion, to perpetually be moving between past and present, now and then, here and there–and making measurable progress towards a projected future. But to drive by a road trauma shrine is to be confronted with a different world–the largely disavowed prevalence of past, present, and future deaths and mayhem embedded in the ordinary landscapes of car culture–and to be reminded that mobility and autonomy are always structurally connected to the forces of immobility, constraint, and oblivion. Crash shrines materialize the fact that a kind of collective melancholic shadow hangs over the streets and roads of this forward-driven city.
Even if we do not know the people commemorated by crash shrines, we can see that somebody here knew them, and somebody here feels their loss very powerfully and intimately, and does so in a public way for the rest of us to witness. If the memory of the lost person were not performed for us as a public of strangers, we might have no knowledge of the loss. Road trauma shrines thus remind us not only that a loss has occurred, but that we are part of a collective that has lost someone–that we are in this thing together, that their loss is our loss.
However, the gap between those who know the loss and those who know of the loss remains unbridgeable: the stranger can feel something, and the stranger can feel implicated, but they can never in any meaningful sense of the word remember what they have never known. Strangers can feel affect, but with no known object to attach it to, the affect remains free-floating—a vague, generalized feeling of melancholia, a recognition that a place is a place of loss, but not a place of one’s own loss, even though it is asking you to see it as such. That gap is not an empty void, however. Because it is a gap witnessed in public, it is a space that creates a shared feeling of being inside a gap.
I have come to see that this collective sense of being-in-a-gap is the nature not only of the collective melancholia hanging over road trauma shrines, but also of the collective melancholia hanging over Austin as a whole. Indeed, it is a key feature of its sense of place. The common denominator is a shared condition of being a stranger in relation to someone else’s loss when someone else is asking you to see the loss as your own. You know the conversation: “When did you get here?” followed by “Well, I have been here since [insert date here]. Yeah, it’s a cool town now, but it doesn’t feel like Austin anymore. You should have seen it back in the day. That old Austin is lost.” Generations of Austinites, rooted firmly in the gap between the future they project and the loss they mourn, continue to make this a vibrantly melancholic city.
As geographer John Wylie writes, landscapes can be full and empty at the same time; they can entail “a simultaneous opening-into and distancing-from.” As a scholar, as an empathic person, and as a member of this community, I may desire a bridge to understanding the losses commemorated and performed by road trauma shrines and other signs of evident loss present throughout the emotional geographies of Austin, but I know that where I may seek a bridge there is always a gap.
The challenge I have given myself as a scholar of road trauma shrines and resident of Austin is to stay in the gap long enough to understand the dialectic as its own force, which brings people together in a very particular way, and not as something to be reconciled. As a driver, the challenge has been to practice being-in-the-gap, to continue to be reflexive as I drive these streets and roads haunted by people who died doing the same thing I am doing when I see their shrines: living in between a lost Austin and an Austin still becoming, anxiously reaching forward while holding on, one eye on the windshield, one eye on the rearview—and maybe a third eye looking out the side window trying to see what the hell all the other drivers are doing alongside me as well.
(all photos by Robert Bednar)
Robert M. Bednar is Associate Professor and Chair of Communication Studies at Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas, where he teaches media studies, visual communication, and critical/cultural studies. His work as an analyst, photographer, and theorist of critical visual communication focuses on the ways that people perform identities visually, materially and spatially in public landscapes. He has published a number of scholarly and popular articles on National Park snapshot photography practices and roadside crash shrines, and currently is completing a book titled Road Scars: Trauma, Memory, and Automobility. When he arrived in Austin in 1985, he couldn’t figure out if he had arrived at the end of the beginning of Austin or the beginning of the end of Austin, and he has since realized that it continues always to be both.