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Towards a Psychopathology of Everyday Traffic

Cedric Bobro

July 18, 2023

Towards a Psychopathology of Everyday Traffic Cedric Bobro 18 July 2023 In San Francisco and the greater Bay Area, it is not uncommon today to see driverless cars. The fantasy that comes with the driverless car is a peculiar one. The fantasy of driverless cars would quite clearly disappear and lose its efficiency if traffic, as obstacle to desire, were to disappear entirely. It turns out that the fantasy of the driverless car does not provide us with a frame in which there are no obstacles to wish-fulfillment, because its realization is desired only under the condition of the continued existence of traffic. Rather, this fantasy provides a frame in which the obstacle (traffic) is raised to the level of the means of satisfaction via its defeat. The continued existence of traffic in a society imbued with the efficiency-fetish [1] serves a precise libidinal function in today’s forms of social reproduction. The primary question guiding this article’s investigation into everyday traffic is what is the psychic function of frustration within the contemporary ‘administered’ and ‘maximal efficiency’ society? [2] Traffic of the everyday variety – which means traffic events such as accidents, etc. are not considered in full here – is an example of a social obstacle to the everyday reproduction of the worker. Moreover, the cause of this particular obstacle is absent from the driver’s sense-certainty. A driver may, no doubt, blame other drivers and most likely the driver directly in front of them, but it is the starting-point of our investigation that whatever the cause of a particular traffic event (slow driver, road closure, accident, social event in town, etc.) the cause of traffic in general is not directly observable. The cause can only be approached rationally, by perhaps imagining how a given municipal region could possibly eliminate traffic altogether. In the case of every area where traffic is an everyday given, it is the case that nothing other than an entirely new arrangement and organization of city infrastructure would eliminate traffic. Taking the city of San Francisco as an example, the population of commuters is clearly larger than the road capacity on which they commute. This, however, if taken as the cause of traffic in itself, keeps our analysis at the level of sense-certainty. It is precisely the cause of this disparity between infrastructural capacity and population that must be explained. Capital produces the surplus population required for simple reproduction [3] , which means traffic, as the evidence of a gap between infrastructural capacity and a surplus working population, is a true social symptom. If traffic is to be addressed, it must be addressed as simply this: a symptom. These two sides of the inefficient gap, capitalist infrastructure on one side and capital’s reserve army on the other, cannot be brought together by either reducing the working population or by expanding social infrastructure, since these variables are inseparable from the outset. A reduction of infrastructure projects keeps unemployment at a rate optimal for the ratio between the working population and reserve army to maintain competition between workers which keeps wages low. This says nothing of the fact, too, that the exigent requirements for road infrastructure in the capitalist mode of production pulls things in two different directions at once. First in the direction of productive consumption, i.e. the worker’s consumption of the materials of production in the length of the working day, and second in the direction of individual consumption, i.e. the worker’s consumption of commodities in the market for the reproduction of their labor-power. The expansion both at once across the duration of the 20th century of the private automobile and the public form of transportation lies bare the public road’s dual purpose for these two processes. As is evident then, traffic can only be explained – and, mutatis mutandis, eliminated -- by reference to the social totality produced by the capitalist mode of production. Just as the analysand experiences their own symptom only through its unintended enunciation, so we experience social symptoms as unintended rituals. Traffic is peculiar in this sense since it entails a certain set of unspoken rules which are learned by all drivers but not directly taught in driver’s ed classes. For example, there are certain conditions in which it is okay to not let a car merge and conditions where it is not okay – even if it does not involve directly following the letter of the law. Directly on the surface of the traffic ritual is the fact of the matter: the driver sees without integrating it into their self-image how their relationship to the Other (the demand of simple reproduction) has caused them to be obstacle to all other’s desire, and thus to their own desire, too. The simple phenomenon of following this universal demand has produced the obstacle to the fulfillment of the same demand, but, this fact is elided by the Imaginary appearance of things – which is that it appears all of the others on the road are collectively the obstacle to this demand. [4] It is possible one instead blames the Other instead of these Imaginary others, say by blaming city planners, but it is only the totality of society’s libidinal attachment to the Other of social reproduction for capital that the city planners have the impossible task of designing urban infrastructure for the end of the reproduction of means, i.e. designed for both commuting to the working day, for the accommodation of particular industry and commerce in general all at once. This obstacle transforms, in the Imaginary of working life, what is in actuality the means of social reproduction – either the working day (productive consumption) or the leisure time (individual consumption) – to its opposite: destination. [5] The frustration produced by this particular obstacle of traffic stems, and is ultimately downstream, from the fact that the totality of simple reproduction revolves around the identification in the social Imaginary of means with ends. From the perspective of capitalist abstraction, the road is, in the form of the commuter path, a means of carrying abstract labor-power to its goal of valorizing value and earning its wage. So, in other words, for the end of producing means: commodities, which are the means by which the capitalist will realize the surplus-value, and their own wages, which are the means by which the worker will reproduce their own labor-power. At the same time, the road takes the form of a consumer path; a means of carrying the worker to a place where the ends presupposed in the above process are realized. The means which the worker has produced in the span of the working day (commodities and wages) become the ends of the consumption process. In the first process, that of production, the worker produces the means which reappear as ends in the second process, a process which results in the reproduction of the worker, i.e. the means of the first process. Simply put, the Marxist tradition which focuses on the consciousness of the worker asks the right question: why is it not apparent to the worker that their existence is the means of the reproduction of their own domination? It is simply because these things which, from the perspective of capitalist abstraction and of capitalism’s simple reproduction, are means (commodities and wages) appear as ends – and not due to any false consciousness, but due to the actual existence of obstacles placed in front of these means. For Marx, if capitalism’s commodity-market relies on selling to the worker their own produce, then the labor-market relies on erecting obstacles between the worker and their means of subsistence – i.e. their own produce. Surplus population, which I mentioned above, is one such obstacle. [6] Finally, what makes traffic an alienating experience? Traffic is the dialectical transformation of capitalist individuals as frictionless cogs in a social mechanism of reproduction into the exact opposite, as blockages or obstacles to that exact social mechanism. Capital requires the surplus production of a working population in order to create its reserve army, but, dialectically, the quantitative change in population comes with a qualitative change, not just in particular parts of the population but in the general form and function of the population as a whole. From the standpoint of capitalist abstraction, both those who would conventionally be considered part of the ‘surplus population’ and those who, say, work full-time are necessary parts of the process of simple reproduction. What we are dealing with when we consider traffic in this context, is an experience of the concrete effect of such a universal alienation produced by a simple surplus in the working population. In a traffic jam, everyone is equally blocked by ‘all’ and a blockage to the movement of the ‘all.’ One of the conditions for what is commonly known as proletarianization is the creation of an obstacle for attaining the means of social reproduction, an obstacle which consists in the fact that others are on the very same quest. This obstacle is produced by the creation of a labor reserve army. So in other words, the condition of proletarian is the condition of being the obstacle to oneself. Put differently, from the standpoint of it as a class, the working population consists in particular individuals whose self-realization is predicated on the impossibility of the realization of the class as a whole. The obstacle is, in the final analysis, not something that reappears within the social organization of the capitalist mode of production that resists the realization of its ends, it is immanent to any such social organization of the capitalist mode of production because of its irrational spiral-form [7] conflation of its ends with its means [8] . Therefore, traffic takes on a ritualisticcharacter in capitalist society. It reproduces in concrete social relations the philosophic misidentification of means with ends that characterizes the capitalist fantasy of surplus-value production. In conclusion, traffic is a symptom of two parallel laws of motion of capitalist development: 1) the creation of a surplus-population and 2) the separation of workers from the means of production. Traffic would not exist without the home market dispersing workers at one pole and the workplace concentrating them at another, thus keeping the two geographically separate; and, secondly, its congestion as obstacle results from the surplus-population here created, since each individual in the traffic situation, we can safely assume, is simply following their self-interest, when wages, in the form of means of subsistence, are by design available to only a portion of the working population. [1] For reference, the capitalist’s conflation of machinery’s function aiding in the process of the production of relative surplus-value with its outright production of value, see Karl Marx, Capital Vol. 1 (Penguin 1990), 530.
[2] Stoppages generate psychic energy (libido) much more than flows – flows are basically the gaps between stoppages and are therefore the everyday experiences in which desire is absent – desire being for Lacan what the Other actually wants from the subject, not in its spoken demand, but what it wants by imposing limits on the subject, the first of these limits being the knowledge of the Other’s desire. As defined, desire is a stultifying and not a flowing experience. Deleuze & Guattari identify the self-activity of the ego with desire(ing-production) and consider any imposition of Lacanian desire (as defined above) as fascistic.
[3] Simple reproduction is understood here as all of the mechanisms by which capital reproduces the conditions for repeated capitalist production. See, for instance: “the capitalist process of production, seen as a total, connected process [Zusammenhang], i.e. a process of reproduction, produces not only commodities, not only surplus-value, but it also produces and reproduces the capital-relation [Kapitalverhältnis] itself; on the one hand the capitalist, on the other the wage-laborer.” (Marx, Capital Vol. 1, 724)
[4] The actuality of the obstacle gives rise spontaneously, therefore, to fantasy in general. This is because simple barriers require the function of the Imaginary in order to be reconfigured into obstacles, i.e. barriers with a beyond. Everyday traffic is able to stir the Imaginary in this sense simply because its cause is hidden or concealed from immediate knowledge, i.e. is not symbolized.
[5] This is isomorphic with a misidentification on the other side of the property fence – in fact, means and ends become even more confused from the perspective of the capitalist.
[6] “If a surplus population of workers is a necessary product of accumulation or of the development of wealth on a capitalist basis, this surplus population also becomes, conversely, the lever of capitalist accumulation, indeed it becomes a condition for the existence of the capitalist mode of production.” Marx, Capital Vol. 1, 784.
[7] See Marx, Capital Vol. 1, 725-7.
[8] Surplus-value extraction -> re-conversion into capital -> surplus-value extraction.

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