C Magazine


Issue 141

Poletown Lives
by Lisa Gitelman

Planned obsolescence is a sub-discipline of design learned at the knee of General Motors. Change is good, the engine of industry purrs; change is opportunity. Every year brings new models to a car dealership near you.

Unnoticed amid the accelerative tick of industrial design is the inertial pretense of documents. My certificate of title says “Void if Altered,” “Alteration or Erasure Voids this Title,” “Keep in Safe Place.” Change is bad. My car is parked out on the street someplace—parking has gotten way too competitive around here lately—but the title to my car stays locked away in a drawer. It proves that I paid off an auto loan, for one, but it also exerts oversight by the state. It is legible (that is, official) according to the relationship it establishes between this piece of paper and the unique vehicle it specifies. Mapping a piece of paper onto one and only one motor vehicle is tricky business, judging at least from the intricate graphical techniques deployed. The certificate of title reports a unique VIN, or vehicle identification number, and names me as legal owner, but it also has its own control number plus a barcode, a signature, a watermark, an elaborately printed border and more. Such techniques are variously affirmative. This document is real, they seem to say, as (and because) they discourage forgery.

Redevelopment planning is a sub-discipline of governance that Detroit learned at the knee of the auto industry. Change is necessary, the engine of creative destruction purrs; change is opportunity. Confounded by the strategic press of economic development is the inertial pretense of documents. Deeds locked away in drawers were overtaken by eminent domain as Detroit’s Poletown neighbourhood was razed to build GM’s new facility in 1981.

—Lisa Gitelman