- Linda J. Pawlenty
Moving Beyond Marx: A More Complicated Choreography of Truck Driving
When I write about truck driving in the academic world, admittedly, the end results are a little disheartening. I love reading Marx, Foucualt, and Bourdieu, but applying them critically to a profession one loves is... Well, you can imagine. While worthwhile in a context of confronting problems of economy and class, this overlay of Marxist theory can easily take the pleasure out of doing something one simply enjoys. Take, for example, this quote from the Manifesto: “Masses of laborers, crowded into the factory, are organized like soldiers . . . Not only are they slaves of the bourgeois class, and of the bourgeois state; they are daily and hourly enslaved by the machine . . . “ (216). For someone who spends days and hours inside of a machine like a semi-truck, these insights by Marx aren’t always what one wants to hear. As a scholar, it becomes very easy to trot happily down the path of criticism in the name of righting some social wrong, while simultaneously knocking down what’s valuable to people (here, truck drivers) in the process. As a graduate student and a truck driver, I want to take this moment to try and leave Marx and Foucault for a while, however applicable they may be, and to think through a few important aspects of trucking in a different way. In particular, I am interested in thinking about movement, for it defines the profession in, I argue, many implicit ways.
Recently I was asked by a friend what it was, exactly, that made twelve hours a day driving a semi-truck go so fast. I had just made this claim to him that time flies by while driving, contrasting it specifically with eight hours in a cubicle, but I was apparently unprepared to answer the why. “Is it the movement?” my friend queried. I stared at the ceiling for a moment, searching for the answer, then admitted: I wasn’t quite sure.
His question has been on my mind since. What makes time driving a semi go so fast? Why is it addictive to me and the other drivers I know? Is the simple fact that drivers are (hopefully) always moving the answer?
Truck drivers are defined by movement. If we don’t move, we don’t get paid. If you bought it, a truck brought it, so we are constantly in motion in all types of places, covering all types of distances. There are drivers that work within a single city, drivers that work within a 300 mile radius of their terminal and return home nightly, and drivers that cross the country. Drivers moving all types of stuff.
The interesting thing about moving (whether it’s in a car, semi, airplane, etc.) is that you both are and you aren’t. Bear with me. Sure, we drivers are crossing miles and miles and miles of ground every day in trucks, but while I’m doing that, I’m sitting pretty snugly in the cab of the semi. It’s warm, the seat is comfortable, I can stretch out my legs if I put the seat low enough, and the music choices are all mine for the making. For twelve hours a day, this is my home, my office, my nest. It moves and I move with it, but I also have the odd feeling of being very stationary inside it. In this way, then, thinking about moving for twelve hours seems strange. Am I really?
Two lines of inquiry follow from this. Perhaps what I am really doing is, in a way, not moving at all, but there’s something about being still inside the truck that’s attractive. Or perhaps we take movement quite literally, and there is indeed something about barreling with the truck down the highway or interstate that makes the trucking bug get into one’s blood and stay there forever.
In response to my friend’s question about movement, my first impulse was to blurt out something about how, while driving, I wasn’t actually moving very much throughout the day. This is telling - this indicates to me that an aspect of driving that is at least as important as getting from place to place is what is done with one’s body all day long. In other words, what I thought about first wasn’t that I actually migrated from point to point throughout the day, but what I did throughout the day to get to and from those points. This makes sense when one considers something I hear from drivers frequently: that one thing they really like about the job is operating equipment.
Depending on what a driver hauls, the amount of time and type of movement required to unload a semi-trailer varies quite a bit, so we’ll focus here on operating the truck. A driver like myself, who is home every night, spends about ten hours of a twelve-hour shift in the truck, driving. Sitting in the same seat, relatively still. Still, maybe, until you consider what it actually takes to operate a truck safely, a process that consists of multitudes of tiny but important movements:
A driver’s left foot pushes the clutch all the way down when preparing to stop, but just a little way down when preparing to shift. Her right hand cradles the gearshift, fingers flipping the range selector and arm guiding the shifter from gear to gear. While moving down the road, her hands make constant, tiny adjustments to the steering wheel to keep the vehicle where she wants it, her eyes always scanning for the next potential hazard, her head shifting between left mirror and right, windshield, gauges, then mirrors again. As she moves, her truck moves, using every bit of available space to make a tight turn, gliding to the left or right to avoid traffic drifting into her lane…
And these are just the basics, the minimum, the very minute details of operating the machine. Movements become more complicated as driving scenarios change: heavy urban traffic, a mountain pass, icy roads, or backing into a customer location all require an additional set of movements. With time and experience, this results in a kind of synchronicity with the truck, working it but also working with it, a fluidity of movements that become second-nature. Our bodies seem still ensconced inside machines, but there is labor being done at every moment.
Apparent lack of movement constitutes an appealing part of trucking in another sense too. Our infrastructure isn’t built to accommodate large commercial vehicles like semis wherever drivers might want to take them, so drivers’ movements are restricted to a limited number of roadways that can accommodate our trailer’s height, width, length, or the vehicle’s total weight. We can’t park just anywhere (no room), and we’re simple too big to make a u-turn if we miss our turn (for an enlightening two and a half minutes, YouTube the song “Give Me 40 Acres” by the Willis Brothers). Sides of streets, convenient places to park, and many restaurants and businesses are wrapped in “No truck parking” signs. For all the apparent freedom of movement we have roaming the countryside, drivers work in a very restricted space.
But these restrictions have an interesting side effect. Bourdieu writes about the formation of social groups that “[t]he capacity to make entities exist in the explicit state . . . represents a formidable social power, the power to make groups by making the common sense, the explicit consensus, of the whole group” (729). “No truck parking” signs are a form of social control as much as they might be utilitarian for a particular business. And so arguably, these types of control and restriction are the driving force behind a general feeling of comradery between drivers. Because we are relegated to certain spaces, drivers are not only thrown in with one another, but share a bond based on the exclusion encountered in other spaces (and perhaps the social associations carried from simply being a driver, a job not heralded by non-drivers as appealing or noteworthy). This bond manifests itself in many ways, of course, the most obvious perhaps being the propensity for drivers to talk to one another about anything: things they’ve seen on the road, trucks, weather, men, women, life. I will never forget, as a young driver during my first winter, waiting at a truck stop with two seasoned co-workers for the highway to clear of snow. I commented that I heard other drivers chattering away on the CB radio, like they weren’t worried about the weather at all, and yet I was chock full of nerves: how would I ever manage to make it down the road? To which one of my older driver friends replied, “They’re talking because they’re nervous too” - a thought which never occurred to me then, but strikes me now as just one way we reach out to one another when we need to, to people who, while technically strangers, are the only ones who share our experiences.
Drivers also talk to one another with their machines: another melding of the driver’s body and the truck’s. Anyone who has seen drivers flash their high beams, tap their brake lights, or flash their clearance lights (done with a built-in “interrupt” switch just for this purpose), has witnessed this. It seems to be a secret language, and a Marxist reading would interpret this as a language born of necessity and constraint, existing because it is the only way to converse while operating on a highway system dominated by small vehicles with more freedom of movement. And yet, these conversations between machines are still conversations, they are relationships - however small.
The final type of movement I want to touch on is what I’ll call, for now, “consumable.” I think this is most like what my friend was thinking of when he suggested that moving makes the day go fast, and yet it’s also different. Many non-drivers believe that truck drivers have the opportunity to “see the country,” and this is often used as a selling point to recruit new drivers to the profession. But the country that we see isn’t Mount Rushmore or Crazy Horse, the sequoia forests, or the view from Clingman’s Dome in the Great Smokies. Those places don’t offer truck parking. And although drivers certainly do have the opportunity to observe much of our country’s variegated landscape, most of what we consume are details. Can this be what makes the day fly by?
My initial response was no, for by and large, I observe the same landscapes daily. The same stretches of Interstate 29, the same piece of Highways 77, 60, 275. Over and over, I pass through. Over and over, I pass by. Over and over, I am looking around me - at the condition of the roads, at what you’re doing in your cars, at the dead animals on the shoulder, at the billboards, at the land.
But I realized that what happens when you see the same things every day is not that you become complacent to them (although it’s a risk), but that you notice when they change. When signs once there go missing. When they finally build a truck entrance at the Casey’s. When the ducks that cross the road at that house on the top of the hill (I’m serious) suddenly aren’t there anymore. We notice the things other people don’t. Drivers might well be described as nomadic, as wanderers, and yet that’s the very thing that allows for a gathering of detail that others will simply never notice.
And there’s beauty in this. This sense of attention lends itself not only to the natural beauty of the sunrise or the eeriness of the Sandhills of the shadow of a looming mountain range. This sense of attention is more than practical. While non-drivers often want to hear “exciting” stories about all the “weird” things we’ve seen on the road, some of the most jarring sights are a collection of details that non-drivers won’t understand. A close driver friend once described to me the way he felt when, driving at night up a western mountain pass, he saw ahead of him a string of red taillights of so many tractor-trailers winding up, around, over the pass, and what it looked like to see the lights of a corresponding line of tractor-trailers snaking their way back down. And then he said to me, “I know that probably sounds stupid…”
“No, not at all,” I said quickly. “It doesn’t sound stupid at all. I know exactly what you mean.” And I did. I knew exactly what he meant. I knew how he felt. I knew this because I’d often marveled at the same thing, even on Interstate 80, heralded by most as a mind-numbing stretch of concrete that challenges the body’s ability to stay conscious. I knew because my friend and I, we are both truck drivers. I knew because I’d seen it too, felt it too.
The realization of a driver’s labor occurs when a load arrives at its destination. This is certainly an achievement, but it can also be seen as labor that produces no tangible object, particularly since drivers move on quickly after unloading the commodity. Marxist criticism queries, then, how drivers can possibly relate to what they produce when what they produce is ephemeral, and if this relationship is lacking, what else is there to turn to?
As I reflect, it occurs to me that yes, my friend, it is precisely movement that makes a twelve-hour day in a truck simply melt away for me and so many others, and that the types of movement discussed above are perhaps the products of the driver’s labor, a type of tangible result. For all these things create stories. They create relationships. And they create a way of relating to a machine and a profession that is unique and important despite whatever evidence I can produce from Foucault aligning Bentham’s Panopticon with the power structures that govern trucking.
I could go on, but this is long enough. It’s the chatty driver in me, I guess. I welcome your comments as I continue to sort through these ideas. Would theories of geography and of the body help elucidate the intricacies of trucking work, and when should we put the theory down for a bit and just enjoy the drive? At any rate: drive safe out there. And I beg you, put down your cell phones.
Bourdieu, Pierre.“The Social Space and the Genesis of Groups.” Theory and Society, vol. 14, no.
6, Nov. 1985, pp. 723-44. JSTOR.
Marx, Karl and Frederick Engels. “Manifesto of the Communist Party.” 1888. Economic and
Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, Karl Marx, and the Communist Manifesto. Translated by Martin Milligan. Prometheus, 1988, pp. 203-43.
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