Le Panoptique

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Publié le 1 octobre, 2008 | Pas de commentaires

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The expressive freedoms promised by the vanity plate are predicated on an inherently false understanding of their bureaucratic function. The vanity plate eradicates « plagiarism » within its system and promulgates seriality rather than individuality akin to those who affix numbers to their email addresses in order to use their own name.

ALBERTA  1915 auto license plate
Jerry « Woody », ALBERTA 1915 auto
license plate
, 2007
Certains droits réservés.

At first sight, vanity plates seem to represent a revolt against automobile identification provided by the standard government issues license plate. On standard plates, registration codes progress incrementally. Vanity plates invite automobile owners to intervene upon this process by selecting alphanumeric digits of their own choosing. Owners create, in effect, a personal composition unique from the regulatory serial numbers randomly produced by the legislator’s computer. Despite the possibilities for creative personal identification, the vanity plate ultimately achieves the same goal as the standard license plate: the visible registration of the automobile. And yet, the state takes only partial credit for the seemingly endless and preternatural examples of linguistic innovation. Although the state restricts the number of digits that vanity plate “authors” may employ, the latter transcend these constraints through poetic strategies. Familiar words acquire new spellings as plate authors manipulate letters and numbers, maximizing the limited space of the plate by phasing out expected portions of short phrases or words.

Interest in vanity plates lies not only in the spatial restrictions that guide the composition of personality plates, but also in their cultural reception. The desire to select and to express personal identity emanates from a rigorous and rhetorical commercial culture that places a premium on the automobile as a symbol of wealth and power. Even the most expensive automobile is just one unit in a series of identical makes and models. Vanity plates advertise the intellectual stealth of their owners, and moreover, the interpretive skills of their readers. The medium of the vanity plate is a conversation, or autologue between drivers, a linguistic exchange in which author-drivers inscribe words – or alphanumerical combinations resembling words – that driver-readers or reader-pedestrians consume and interpret in turn. In the end, the personalized license plate may have less to do with vanity – a word with etymological ties to concepts of worthlessness and futility – and more to do with the fine-tuning or complete reinvention of individual iconography made possible by the intersection of automobile law and language.

The introduction of the license plate in Britain in the early 20th Century raised immediate concerns from drivers who expressed outrage at the unsightliness the new registration numbers caused their vehicles (1). Early drivers argued that their recreational vehicles were lowered to the status of the numerous delivery carts in the streets bearing unseemly placards, advertisements, and logos. Then, as now, vehicles were more than a means of transportation to early drivers. Cars operated as status symbols signifying both the wealth and the social importance of their owners. They also represented purchasing power, particularly under the rubric of the “American Dream,” which promised freedom of self-expression as a consequence of the “life” and “liberty” made available by the United States. As Jean Baudrillard observes, however, America itself manifests as “neither dream nor reality,” but as a simulation of the desires and possibilities encoded in the rhetoric of that dream (2).

Rather than substantiating or fulfilling the desire for “justice, plenty, rule of law, wealth, [and] freedom” the automobile actually helps to promote the decay, blurring and leading to the outright disappearance of the America promised by the dream (3). A recent Ford Mustang commercial asks: “Why Dream? Drive,” urging a radical transference in which the promise of liberty is found in the commodity, rather than the state where the commodity is produced. The Mustang in the commercial is not so much a car as it is a chrome representation of a horse charging across a desert landscape, the environment itself suffering simulation through the mechanism of television. Due to speed, Baudrillard notes, automobile “driving is a spectacular form of amnesia,” a spell that is broken only “when it runs up against a known face, a familiar landscape, a decipherable message” (4).

Although Baudrillard accuses the car of erasing the ideas of freedom and liberty, he claims that the car simultaneously perpetuates these ideas; the phenomenon of the personalized license plate emerges, arguably, as a decipherable series of messages from within a deleterious amnesia of speed. Like the car itself, the language of the vanity plate is a simulation. In other words, the autologue is a simulated, deviant English used by authors operating under constraint.

Two problems emerge here: the parallel constraints of form and content. For instance, the restriction of eight characters on vanity plates in the province of Ontario is due to the physical parameters of the plate, a mere 5.5” x 11.5”. The government not only restricts the number of digits a driver can use to create a personalized license plate, but also renders each plate hapax legomenon, dissolving the possibility of repetition. In effect, plagiarism does not apply to the autologue. By requiring that every plate display a unique composition, the state engenders poetic permutation. Plate authors must innovate within the shrinking realm of possible utterances by abbreviating words or replacing vowels and consonants with the phonic properties of numerals. Daniel Nussbaum exploits the condition of hapax legomenon and alphanumeric recombination in his book PL8SPK: California Vanity Plates Retell the Classics. By culling actual vanity plates from the California Department of Motor Vehicles, Nussbaum locates a sufficient number of variations of the same words that he never has to use the same vanity plate twice: “Move over Eskimo with your 55 words for snow … PL8SPK boasts 159 versions of “awesome”: AAAWSOM, AAHZUM, AWSHUM …” (5).

Vanity plate authors also face censorial constraint, particularly during turbulent political unrest. Jehad Al-Iweiwi of Markham, Ontario, for example, inadvertently associated himself through his vanity plate with the terrorist group al Qaeda, whose “jihad,” or “holy war” against America resulted in the destruction of the World Trade Center. Recalled by the Ontario Ministry of Transportation, Al-Iweiwi’s plate, “JEHAD,” drew an interpretive connection between Al-Iweiwi’s first name and the activity of the terrorists. According to the deputy registrar of the Ministry of Transportation, James O’Mara, “the ministry attempts to not knowingly manufacture plates that may be considered offensive to the general public” (6). Al-Iweiwi, however, ordered his plate seven years prior to the catastrophic events that radically educated the world about the al Qaeda’s jihad against the Americans. The censorship of the “JEHAD” plate results, in part, from differing translations of the word itself. Al-Iweiwi, who translates his name as “striving” in English, found his identity under attack as a result of the ministry’s misinterpretation of his name. As Umberto Eco demonstrates, incorrect interpretations occur when the intention of the author and the intentions of the reader are misarranged (7). Refracted by world events, Al-Iweiwi’s vanity plate found itself under scrutiny for the transmission of a message its author did not intend. Deemed unacceptable, the ministry recalled the plate post factum, suggesting that the ultimate constraints for authors of vanity plates reside with the instigator of the phenomenon, the government.

From the viewpoint of the reader, the context of vanity plates shapes their interpretation. Paul Ricoeur argues that “words do not mean outside of the sentence,” suggesting that words maintain constant semantic relationships with other words as they are defined by “opposition to other entities within the same system” (8). When interpreting the vanity plate, the car becomes a kind of sentence. The make, model, year, and even the movement of the automobile contribute to the overall message of the plate, initiating a kind of narrative expectation in the imagination of the audience. A recklessly driven car bearing the plate “JST CRZY” (Just Crazy) semantically satisfies the concept indicated by the text while describing the behavior of the driver behind the wheel. Conversely, a subversion of expectations occurs when a plate promising “MOM” produces a male at the wheel, overriding the logical antecedent evoked by the word “mom.” In the autologue, the message of the vanity plate works in collusion with the vehicle, which operates as a collection of refractory signs that constantly position and reposition the meaning of the plate within a representational system.

The automobile has never served a mere utilitarian function. The vanity plate is also a deliberate mechanism of metaphoric conveyance, entering intelligible text into the social sphere in addition to information already provided by the make of the car. Readers rely upon context when formulating responses to vanity plates. The theorists alluded to in this paper conceive of language as a recombinative structure. The interweaving of texts relies on both the relationships between individual words and the larger rehearsals of ideologies based upon these independent units. Baudrillard and Ricoeur highlight the fragmentary nature of language and the energy unlocked by the reordering of words under the influence of a defining system. For Baudrillard, the idea of America collides in a hologram of tortuous ideas about itself, not unlike the individual units of a sentence. Ricoeur argues that the internal pressures of syntax shape the meaning of both the word and the phrase so that, for our purposes, the unit of the vanity plate within the greater structure of the car finds completion in an environment of signs hermetically sealed by the situation of interpretation. Wherever vanity plates appear, the artificial language of the autologue inspires interpretive indulgence, perpetuated by powerful poetic activity within the procedural constraints imposed by politics.


(1) Julian Pettifer and Nigel Turner, Automania: Man and the Motor Car. London: Collins (1984)
(2) Jean Baudrillard, America. Trans. Chris Turner. London: Verson (1988): 28
(3) Ibid, 77
(4) Baudrillard, 9-10
(5) Daniel Nussbaum, PL8SPK: California Vanity Plates Retell the Classics. New York: Harpercollins (1993)
(6) Umberto Eco, Interpretation and Overinterpretation. New York: Cambridge University Press (1992)
(7) Paul Ricoeur, “Word, Polysemy, Metaphor: Creativity in Language.” A Ricoeur Reader: Reflection and Imagination. Toronto: University of Toronto Press (1991): 69.

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