The beauty of the gesture
by Eric Darras
The long road that stretches between Lyon and Saint-Etienne is an incredibly busy one, just like the railway that run alongside it, one of the oldest and most used in France. But the vast majority of the time it is just a passage from one city to another. Through the windows of a car or a train, the countryside is transformed into a landscape. One’s gaze slips across nature and the unmoving, forgetting about men and their cultures which change and transform. The photographer observes the traces of popular creativity and in particular the many vehicles that have been transformed, customized, no one really says “pimped” anymore, that’s kind of old hat. Pimping, or tuning in French, is the art of personalizing a vehicle – bicycle, scooter, motorbike, car, van, truck… with his or her project, the transformation of a standard run of the mill vehicle, the tuner shows what they can do with their hands. Each tuner thus rebuilds a car which is unique, and rather than seeking to be admired, he or she is trying to earn the respect of his or her peers. This practice of an individualistic re-appropriation of a standard vehicle is as old as the vehicles themselves, appearing with the Model T Ford in America in the 1920’s, with its spread in France emerging alongside the popularization of the car in the 1980’s. This popular pastime is particularly paradoxical on a number of levels: both sporting and cultural, collective and individual, utilitarian and aesthetic, passionate and stigmatized, tuning, or pimping, can also reveal itself to be costly for creative individuals with a modest income…
Tuners present themselves in a voluntarily virile manner, and yet show great patience and have high standards with regard to one another. It is an authentic popular creation, close to other popular forms of do-it-yourself, like allotments, and various movements within punk, techno and heavy metal. The practice of tuning is almost always done as part of a team that represents the once industrial rural town. Like the local football club, the hunting group or the last remaining café in the village, the team is often the product and vector of a group of uniquely male, working class youths. The customized vehicles could be considered as the work of budding craftsmen, expressing a popular, and often working class pride, both individual and collective, and are often truly “places of working class memory”. This popular world of the art of the automobile brings together personalities who are both modest and, for the most part, self-taught and who claim to be, and recognize each other as, honest hardworking men, who feel that they have been abandoned by politicians, who have been profoundly hurt, even scarred, by their time in school, by painful periods of unwanted inactivity and unemployment, and who possess a deep rooted fear of social disaffiliation.
It has been said that the search for an essential satisfaction is an expression of singularity, “showing what we can do”, each tuner wants to earn the respect of his peers: “even if I don’t win a prize, at least I’ll feel proud that I did it myself”. Those who, like Giotto when he painted the Trecento, allow themselves to sign their vehicle are few and far between, and in this they manifest something that is generally felt, a need for re-appropriation: “to be able to say: I did it”.
The vehicle as a unique aesthetic creation is doubtlessly based on the assertion of a certain individualism, and is at the same time made possible by the team: “I did what I wanted to, in the spirit of the club”. It is also a question of provoking a “certain form of jealousy”, entirely devoid of malice.
Jealousy only affects one’s peers. So “real” tuners only feel scorn for THEM, those above, the “bourgeois” who live in the city – and sometimes but not always, far from it – urban, working class youths “who listen to rap”, along with THOSE who, positioned above them in a social hierarchy – “the jackys” and “the kékés” – try to imitate them by buying kits, and who “fuck up the work” by making “crap”. What the “virtuoso” expresses through his car sculpture is also a fear of social regression, of being downgraded to the level of lumpen-proletariat alongside the trailer trash and the good for nothings. Tuners consider themselves as belonging to the higher, relatively stable part of the population made up of rural and semi-rural families.
Tuners who have been asked about the reasons that drive them so to dedicate so much time, money, energy and ingenuity to customizing their vehicle with such single minded focus, almost always answer with a disarming simplicity “because it looks great!”. This aesthetic judgement, this “beautiful”, takes on different meanings that are dependent on social class: in a popular milieu beauty is often the result of a physical effort. The (undoped) cycling race is beautiful because it reveals power, endurance, strength and tenacity… On a similar level, the personalized vehicle is beautiful because it is the object of a love for work well done. Within this discourse, ideas “come by doing”, “it just came to me”. The tuners muse seems to express itself directly through their hands. With virtuosos, tuning extends an already ancient interest for design or mechanics to the point that it becomes a professional activity: “It’s always been there, I always transformed my bicycles, repainting them, it was my way of standing out. Same thing with motorbikes, and then I started fiddling with cars”. For them, after the decorated and customized bicycles of childhood, scooters (that used to be called “mobs” and “mules” in France…) and motorbikes are tampered with in the teenage years and ultimately, the car, sometimes even before a driving license is obtained, between the moment when the young prodigy is given (or as an apprentice, buys) their first car and the moment when they pass their driving test, something that is of particular importance for this working class youth from small towns and semi-rural zones who experience it, in a more intensive fashion than elsewhere, as the means and symbol of independence, as much from the village as from their parents.
The pimped vehicle celebrates the gesture of the (skilled) manual worker. The customized vehicle is proof, more than a CV, that the owner shows themselves capable of true “miracles” with their intelligent hands when it comes to DIY or to resourcefulness. Here, social hierarchy can sometimes be inverted, as one of them said to me: “when you’re not good with your hands, you have to do well in school”. It is well and truly a question of displaying the pride of the hard worker, often a manual laborer, even when unemployed, because “a worker works”, to use an expression used time and time again. The sculpture of virtuosos thus expresses itself differently, now outside of the factory, as the worker’s pride in work well done: “I have to keep my hands busy” is a kind of leitmotiv. Tuning and pimping generates and valorizes the pleasure taken from manual, direct and physical work: “I like working with my hands!”. Through their work, their beautiful creation, these more or less virtuoso tuners thus express themselves without words to aesthetically declare a form of know-how and a self love that goes well beyond any individual claim, reaching the level of class advocacy. For the most gifted among them, the practice of tuning imposes and maintains, outside of the factory, knowledge and know-how, gestures, discipline and forms of asceticism, but also a passion for hard work, for companionship and creativity that one finds within the working class culture of the workshop and among craftsmen, just like in allotments. Like all forms of work done on the side (gardening, DIY, informal economy…), tuning, in particular, ensures the maintenance of a certain local respectability, of a certain dignity.
It is precisely this dignity associated with know-how and skilled work that these children and grandchildren of old-fashioned workers reclaim. In contrast to the abandoned unemployed person, ashamed and afraid of meeting the gaze of others, but also in complete opposition to factory line work which numbs workers, depriving them of all initiative, of both their individual and collective intelligence as well as the satisfaction of the work done. Tuning thus takes on the appearance of a true cultural and political creation which provides a response to “working class despair”. For these young men, fulfillment is achieved through manual work, in a real experience that is not just about words, and occurs through a physical confrontation with the machine. Tuning, this mechanical art, like the repairing of motorcycles practiced by the lobbyist-philosopher Matthew Crawford, generates satisfaction and pleasure in the sense that it has already been idealized by Marx: “in my production my individuality and its peculiarity, and thus both in my activity enjoy an individual expression of my life and also I, looking at the object, have had the individual pleasure of realizing my personality was objective, visible to the senses and thus a power raised beyond all doubt.”
These “hometown boys”, to quote the title of Nicolas Renahy’s book, propose an original form of a reaffirmation of a popular class with its egalitarian and native values, an obstinate and creative means of expression, of arranging and organizing a problematic future. Tuning serves, transforms and appropriates “globalization” in its own way, something that has been tragically imposed on them, particularly through industrial delocalization. Thus, to a certain extent tuning expresses a nostalgia for a popular quality of life as described by E.P. Thompson, not only misunderstood but also disparaged. Far from abstract intellectual constructions (GNP, rate of activity or unemployment, poverty threshold…) which claim to define them and define their future from on high, tuning as a cultural practice recalls, coming from below, and not without a certain tragic lucidity, the lost wealth of a popular life in all of its cultural, social and affective dimensions. It is indeed a question of a subculture and a counter culture, of a working class culture. And so today, events based around tuning have replaced balls as meeting places. The tuned vehicle and its equipment are proof that their young owners already possess non-negligible economic means; “extravagant” spending on the tuned vehicle thus represents, for any tuner seeking his better half, a more rational placement than it might seem on first sight. Tuners thus prove through their acts, with their customized vehicle, that they have access to the acquisition of property via credit; they have clearly managed to convince a bank of their potential, and everyone knows that it is easier for renowned tuners to find a better paid and more stable job.
Thus, the classic oppositions between males and females seem to be reproduced, of a female investment in a domestic space and that of the male in public space. But here too, traditional masculinity is forced into retreat to the benefit of more egalitarian conceptions. Certain female tuners, who do the tuning themselves, are increasingly qualified, and benefit more often than not from jobs which are more stable and better paid than men of their age…
With the personalization of the tuned vehicle, the couple learns how to live together, how to share work and bank loans before buying a house, having children and getting married, which almost always leads to an abandoning of the practice of tuning: with energies being directed towards working on the house and home, raising children, and continuing to live and work in the valley.
Translated by Derek Byrne
 Eric Darras, “Un lieu de mémoire ouvrière : le tuning”, Sociologie de l’art, 2012. Florence Weber, L’honneur des jardiniers, Belin, 1998.
 Florence Weber, Le travail d’à-côté, Ed. Of the EHESS, 1989
 Olivier Schwartz, Le monde privé des ouvriers, PUF, 1990.
 Michel Pinçon, Désarrois ouvriers. Familles de métallurgistes dans les mutations industrielles et sociales, Paris, L’harmattan, 1987.
 Matthew B. Crawford, Eloge du carburateur, La Découverte, 2010
 Karl Marx, Selected Works, Oxford, p. 132 cited by Dominique Méda. For questions relating to the necessity of reconsidering work see his book Travail, la révolution nécessaire, Edition de l’atelier, 2010.
Eric Darras is an associate University professor in political science. He is also the head of the Cultural Study master at the Toulouse Insitut d’Etudes Politique and a board member of the scientific journal Sociétés contemporaines.