with Jacques Lacan, Sigmund Freud, and Toby Keith riding in the back
For several years on most afternoons after school let out, my colleague Adam’s son Evan was a fixture in a small study area tucked into a corner of the vestibule outside the department’s main office. While my colleague Adam met with students in his nearby faculty office or graded papers, Evan would do his middle school homework or read. A sweet-faced and quiet boy, he would respond politely if asked about how school was going or how he was doing with soccer. He would remain busy and out of the way until it was time for Adam to leave for the day and take them both home for dinner.
Each fall, Evan seemed a little taller and little broader, until one year he was mistaken as a college student by one of the new department secretaries who asked him if he was waiting to see a professor. This pleased Evan greatly, and he bragged to Adam that no one could tell the difference between him and the college guys. The next time I saw him, Evan had begun to grow a little goatee, or what one day would become a goatee, and had begun to spend more time eyeing the coeds passing by on the nearby stairs than he did his homework.
A few weeks after the birth of Evan’s goatee, my colleague Adam told me the following story.
The weekend before, Evan had come to Adam as Adam sat in the den in his recliner reading through the Sunday New York Times, like the good academic he is. “I need to talk with you Dad,” Evan had said in a tone that was serious enough to cause my colleague Adam to quickly fold up the book review, tilt his chair upright, and give Evan his full attention. Adam said his mind began to race through the possibilities of why a teenaged boy would need to have a serious talk with his father. Then he noticed Evan clutching a magazine. Adam could only wonder just what images those glossy pages held. Hopefully, no one was naked. Adam said he knew that one day he would need to talk with Evan about women and sex, but he had not done any prep yet—no hand out or PowerPoint—so he figured he would just wing it. He said Evan seemed so serious that he decided in that instant that even if the pictures were of naked men, he would proceed as best he could. After all, he said, his flesh and blood is his flesh and blood.
Evan moved closer into the circle of light of the pole lamp and flipped opened the magazine to a centerfold spread. Adam leaned over and looked. “Ain’t it a beauty,” his son said. Adam ran his eyes back and forth across the pages at the picture of a huge pick up truck with multiple exhaust pipes, giant tires, a rack of fog lights, and leggy blonde perched on the tailgate “Yes, son, that’s a mighty fine truck,” he said, breathing a sigh of relief.
While a comprehensive understanding of the work of Sigmund Freud and his defender/extrapolator Jacques Lacan, the controversial and influential literary and psychoanalytical theorist, would take more than a truck load of books to master, a quick look at some of Lacan’s ideas regarding the formation of the self and the function of the unconscious can provide an interesting perspective on the contemporary Southern male fascination/obsession with pick up trucks.
In 1936, psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan introduced his idea of the “mirror stage” of development, a concept that suggests that the self is essentially “decentered” and is always defined in terms of its relation to an “other.” This view counters the idea that identity is innately self-determined and instead maintains that a child’s understanding of his or her identity comes through a “mirroring” of itself as reflected back to the child through interaction with the mother or others.
For Lacan, this orientation of the ego to the other is total, and works to redirect the functioning of the psyche at many levels. One way is to create within us the desire to have what others have or dress the way others dress. This drive to gain recognition from others results in our attaching value to something not based simply on its intrinsic qualities but upon how much it is desired by everyone else.
“Dad, everyone I know gets a truck on his sixteenth birthday,” Evan told Adam a few months before his own birthday. “So you have to get me a truck or else I will be the only guy I know without one.”
My colleague Adam hears this plea and challenge or variations of it numerous times as Evan’s birthday approaches. Evan has his learner’s permit and is taking driver’s ed at school. One of his buddies—a doctor’s son—already has a new truck in the driveway waiting for the stroke of midnight of his sixteenth birthday. Adam counters Evan’s demands for a truck with stories of his own first car “a real beater” he says, and explains to Evan that money doesn’t grow on trees and that a new truck is out of the question. So they agree on a used truck, a basic model that Evan, if he gets a job and makes his own money, can fix up anyway he likes. Adam and Evan both recognize however that Adam’s wife must give her permission, I mean agreement, before any final decision is made.
Evan, of course, gets his truck. My colleague Adam says that used to on weekend afternoons when he looked out of his study window he might see three or four bicycles piled in the yard and know that Evan and his friends would be in the den playing video games or out back shooting hoops. Now, he says, each of the boys arrives in his own pick up truck and blocks the driveway or ruts up the side yard.
Adam and his family live in a gated community with a golf course and a lake. Many of the homeowners are professionals or business owners, and it is not unusual to see neighbors in golf carts stopping to chat. All the homes have alarm systems and most have lawn services. Many have swimming pools. My colleague Adam is a professor of English and his wife is a music teacher. A baby grand piano is visible through the front window of the house. Evan and his friends, who also live in the neighborhood, on occasion will rush out to move their trucks when the automatic sprinklers come on so that the trucks don’t get wet. They often wear polo shirts and cargo shorts laundered by their mothers or their maids. One weekend Evan asks Adam if he can use Evan’s truck to haul some mulch for the rose garden. Evan says he has to go to a friend’s house and needs his truck. Adam says they can swap vehicles. Evan says no, he doesn’t want the bed of this truck to get dirty or scratched up.
In 2005, nineteen percent of vehicles sold in American, nearly one out of five, were light trucks. Reportedly, these trucks are very profitable for automakers, who advertise them heavily in certain markets such as the South. Some of the more successful campaigns have been those conducted by Ford Motor Company. Its F-series trucks frequently rank in the top ten best-selling vehicles in the country. A popular spokesman for these Ford trucks is Toby Keith, a very successful country music singer and songwriter. Keith is a tall muscular man who is often photographed wearing a trucker-style bill cap or cowboy hat. Keith has become closely identified with these trucks, and in one series of commercials sings a version of this song:
I’m a Ford Truck man, that’s all I drive
I ain’t got no boundaries, I don’t compromise
I rather walk ten miles, and be down on my luck
Then ride around the block in any other pick up truck.
You can see me on the highway in the left-hand lane
Lost out on a back road in the pourin’ rain
And I’ll pass that center line when the ride gets rough
Ain’t no doubt my king of the mountain’s built Ford tough.
Another ad in a series built around the theme “The Truth about Trucks” contains a scene in which Keith, sitting in a diner, is mocked and ridiculed by two other men after he says he drives a Ford F-150. Keith then approaches the men in an intimidating manner and sets cut-away sections of each of their trucks’ frames before the men. Keith’s cutaway from the F-150 frame is larger and sturdier, and Keith exists the diner leaving the other men “shaking in their boots.” Mark Grueber, F-150 marketing manager, says of Keith’s endorsement: “Our ads featuring him strongly resonate with customers in the truck segment.”
Ford sponsored Keith’s recent music tour that began in the summer of 2006. A press release states that Keith is a third-generation truck owner, following in the tradition of his father and grand pa. The article also mentions that Keith has started his own production company and is starring in a movie. During a recent CMT interview about this movie “Broken Bridges,” Keith talks with the interviewer in a deep relaxed voice. A close up reveals a hint of makeup, perhaps to make his blue eyes sparkle a bit more. One imagines a publicist just out of camera range checking her PDA, and a stylist hovering to make sure the turned up tee shirt sleeves around Keith’s big biceps stay put. No doubt a driver waits outside to whisk him to his next appearance.
Keith is also known for his post-911 anthem “Courtesy of the Red White and Blue.” The song generated some controversy based in part upon its confrontational lyrics, which include the following verse:
Justice will be served
And the battle will rage
This big dog will fight
When you rattle his cage
And you’ll be sorry that you messed with
The U.S. of A.
‘Cause we’ll put a boot in your ass
It’s the American way
One fall evening about six months after Evan gets his truck, Adam gives Evan permission to have a few friends over—including some girls—for a cookout. Some of the guys arrive early to help Adam fire up the grill. Each arrives in his own truck, several of which sport updated stereo systems, chrome rims, high performance tires, or glass pack mufflers bought with summer job money. Adam stays on guard in the kitchen over looking the patio to make sure no beer shows up uninvited.
A little while later, the girls arrive in small SVUs, economy sedans, and one convertible sports car. None of the girls drive trucks. As the group hangs out on the patio, a late arrival roars up to the house in one of the biggest trucks Adam has seen on the street. He recognizes the driver as one of Evan’s friends who has been waiting for his birthday and his own truck. The boys turn to glance at the truck, but the girls move down the drive and surround the new truck and congratulate the beaming driver. Giggling, several of the girls step up on the wide chrome sideboards and into the bed of the truck for a quick ride around the block in the big new truck. The new arrival speeds off with all of the girls in the bed and cab of his big truck. They hoot and wave as they pass the house. Evan and his friends, their own trucks looking smaller and smaller to them, turn back to the grill to make sure the hot dogs don’t shrivel and burn.
Another intriguing element of Lacan’s rewriting of Freudian thought is his idea of the “phallus,” as it relates to the Oedipal stage. For Lacan, the phallus becomes a metaphor or symbol for the child’s desire to satisfy the mother, and thus does not explicitly signify the male organ, which receives more emphasis in Freud.
In his seminal 1957 essay, “The Insistence of the Letter in the Unconscious,” Lacan challenges the idea that the unconscious is “merely the seat of instincts” and instead suggests that what is found in the unconscious mind is “the whole structure of language.” As such, dreams—considered the “voice” of the unconscious by many psychoanalysts—can therefore be “read” as if they were a language.
Thinking of the unconscious as structured like language, Lacan moves past Freud’s idea of sexually simplistic dream imagery, in which an image represents another (a dream broom represents the phallus or a rounded melon a breast), to suggest that dream imagery often substitutes something closely associated with one thing for another thing, such as an apron to represent the mother or the smell of shaving cream for the father.
The idea that a substitute might come to represent a desired wholeness is intriguing when applied to the popularity of pick up trucks among Southern men. It can be said the pick up truck is a representation of what it meant to be a man in the rural southern past—tough, strong, reliable, earthy. As contemporary southern men—and young men in the case of Evan and his peers—have become removed from the manly toil of rural self-reliance, the pick up truck provides them with a means of representing themselves as identifying with the characteristics of these rugged male images of the past.
A few weeks ago, I found myself at a car dealership. My twelve-year-old economy compact, a loyal vehicle that had served me well in my late bloomer’s stint in graduate school and my pre-tenure days at work, was wearing out. So I stepped onto to the lot armed with the latest Blue Book values and Consumer Report recommendations. I have my checkbook poking out of my front shirt pocket to show the salesmen I mean business.
Although I pretty much know which vehicle I will buy—a sensible but larger and more comfortable upgrade of my little compact that I will refuse to call a station wagon though it sure looks like one—I look around the lot around nonetheless, admiring the various sedans and SUV’s that offer me more power and extra comfort but which of course I cannot buy without feeling guilty. I step away from a sparkling sedan with leather seats and a navigation system and notice the pick-up trucks parked in the front of the lot near the highway. For a moment, I think I see Freud or Lacan waving and beckoning me over, but then I realize the salesman I had already brushed off twice has caught me looking at the trucks. So I walk over. The trucks are big and boxy and boldly colored. The cabs look as fancy and as comfortable as any of the luxury sedans. The beds of the truck are fitted with pristine liners and the tires are thick and shiny. The salesman asks if I want to take a test drive, and I agree.
He quickly scurries back with the key and we hop into the cab. I slide beneath the wheel, turn the ignition, and feel the power of the engine surging through the vehicle. I check the mirrors, and notice how high we sit and how much hood stretches out in front. As I ease onto the road with the icy air conditioning blowing, the salesman says the truck has satellite radio and a killer stereo system. He asks if I would like to hear. I say yes. He opens the glove compartment and says each truck comes with a complimentary CD. He slips it in, and Toby Keith begins to sing as I punch the gas and overtake the little car in front of us.