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PostPosted: Mon May 26, 2008 3:07 am 
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A while back, Dan Kobza, Dan Wyche, and I had a Philosophical Research Group on "Planes, Trains, and Automobiles," which was really rich and metaphoric. The Dans really exploded on me— I couldn't keep up. So, I'll bring up some themes, and they will have to help me in remembering the details.

I particularly enjoyed the line of metaphor that established Trains as representative of the Past; and Planes, as representatives of the Future, even down to the Train Stations as Monuments and as History-in-a-Bell-Jar, and the throwbacks in the manners and uniforms of the employees. Airports were, on the other hand, pushed toward the aesthetic of space travel, or at least the kind of hurried modernity we get in Modern Times. This representation is, in many ways, mythic. Trains, Mr. Wyche remarked, were something of legend and comparable to dragons: living in dark tunnels, roaring through the wilderness, breathing smoke and fire. And after last summer, spending several evenings hiding in niches in the train tunnels by the art museum, I promise you the comparison works on almost every level. Not just a machine, but a god.

The actual act of riding in a train, of staring out the window and thinking, is like the act of reminiscence. Where the spatial landscape of experience, at every point, can be matched up with a point in time. Air travel, even with window seats, is more akin to our orientation with the future. Anticipation, with some vague understanding of how the next few hours will unfold, a destination, a plan in which we currently engaged.

So we can speak about different phenomenologies of travel— very diverse ones, I'd say. Especially, in how much we control and how much we are engaged with the landscape as we move through it. For instance, the plane is very much like a subway, in that the move is discontinuous. We are here now; there then. There is little sense of the in-between, of Time pairing up with Space in smooth continuum. Automobiles are very continuous, however, able to even backtrack, find nooks and crannies, come to a halt, in a lot or in traffic. Plus, they are more autonomous, and are seen more as extensions of the human body— like bicycles, motorcycles, and the body walking. Trains, planes, and subways are more or less moving rooms— or at the extreme, we have things like aircraft carriers or cruiseliners, that as far as direct experience goes pretty much negate the sensation of movement in travel.

The phenomenology of travel has its categories then for each mode of transportation: autonomy, continuity, movement, distance from environment, relationship to and with vehicle (which of course also depends on being a passenger versus driver), but what else? I'm not sure I would include speed, since the sense of speed depends on the vehicle— but each vehicle can seem fast or slow, depending. I would include danger, though, real or imagined. Especially each type of vehicle's relationship to Death. In a previous essay, on clouds, I wrote: "Airflight, in itself, always reveals something the psyche. Man knows— or atleast his body and his psyche know— that he's trespasser in the sky. Like a busload of little Icaruses. Airflight is so routine and so business-like, that we should've, as a race, fully adjusted by now. But we haven't. And the pretense of routine come loose with the slightest jolt. A few engine burps or some real turbulence, and the head of Death suddenly appears to the passengers, even to people like me, who are not afraid of flying. Half the cabin mutters paternosters and their armpits reek of fear. Mothers hug children. Flights are just caricatured versions of our day-to-day suppression of the Death-head, occasionally serrated by an unexpected momento mori."

I even suspect that this anxiety (and sense of trespass) informs our attitude towards airport security and terrorism in the skies— that the myopic hysteria over Airline Terror is pushed and prodded by a fear of flying rather than fear of death, in itself. "Yeah, Check that guy. We're already pushing our luck."

Not with automobiles, for some reason, though. The Deathhead, is fully out of mind, even when it's not out-of-sight. We can pass the carnage of a ten-car pile-up— with blood mixing with gasoline on the shoulder lane— and still not put on our seatbelts. Our fears are irrationally allayed in automobiles, and why? Maybe because it is routine and autonomous.
We can handle more death and danger, if control is in our hands— as opposed to the swift, almost cosmic, injustice of plane crashes, which are not the effects of our actions. But motorcycles— motorcycles are such supreme autonomy.
Complete analogue to action, the perfect vehicle for flaunting the possibility of Death. No shell, no mediation with environment.

I will stop here, though. And wait for some others to chime in on any form of transportation, and their experience and meanings and possibilities.


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PostPosted: Fri May 30, 2008 8:04 pm 
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One thing, as well, is not just the general phenomenological differences in modes of travel, but also
the gritty differences that come through the difference in systems. For example, we can bike around Philadelphia, we can walk around Philadelphia, we can drive, we can take the subway, we could fly in a helicopter, we could crawl, use the bus, and even when the "phenomenological" differences between these modes of transportation are minimal, the paths and nodes and efforts taken give us a completely different view of the city. And this is not because of the vehicle, but because of the system of transport... the lay out, the one-way streets, sidewalks or no sidewalks, traffic or open avenues. The same would be true of all forms of transportation: that differences would not necessarily be linked to the vehicle, but to how we carve out passageways in the world. The most well-rounded conception of your world comes from using as many multiple forms as possible.


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PostPosted: Tue Jun 03, 2008 11:18 pm 
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As a landscape archaeologist, transportation infraestructures fascinate me as well. I undesrtand landscape not as a natural thing, but as the active cultural construction of the space. Airports, railways and roads are determined by and determinate our relationship with the enviroment, space, time, power relations and overall mental structures.

I'd like to add a few things!

The railroad. Everytime I think about trains I can't help but think "Empire". Railroads were massively built in the 19th century as a prolongation of the rizomatical limbs of the 2nd Industrial Revolution. The triumph of the bourgeoise, the colonial exploitation of resources. Rail lines join natural resources with centers of production and trade. It's clear in South America, where rail lines serve not the social needs but the economic stakes of the criollo elites and foreign companies: shipping bananas, minerals, metals, meat. But also in the US: train was the greater weapon for the imperial expansion to the West. To me, railroads are the expression of the violent and traumatic birth and arise of the nation-state. Today (and I'm thinking about Spain, specially), trains are often expensive, old-fashioned, slow, a total bummer. Something that only a nostalgic bohemian the-trees-pass-by-oh-so-fast would appreciate. Like a Victorian style chair, or a Colonial ebony trunk.

In the post-war world, airports are the new expression of a different set of social power relations. Airport locations are not casual, and their fares are not as affordable as the satisfied affluent society may proclaim (Galbraith's, yeah, I'm a big fan). International and local airports determinate business centers, touristic destinations, leisure, youth, sex, food, money. Few new airports have been built in the last decades. In the 1860's the choice of the location for a train stop was far from being a casual decision, for it would have huge repercussions in the subsequent development and resources exploitation. What criterias were used in the 50's - 70's to choose airport locations?

Also in the city. In Philadelphia, for instance, the first subway line and trolleys were intended to facilitate the transportation for the bourgeoise and middle classes from their comfy residential neighbourhoods to the world fair at Fairmount Park in 1876. In Barcelona and most European cities, first subway lines were opened in the early 20th century to link working-class neighbourhoods with industrial zones. In the 30's perfect-society utopia, the Nazi regime designed in Berlin the most amazing public transportation network I have ever seen. In the early 90's Prague, subway was still free.

Yeah yeah, I'm sorry. My Marxist upbringing, that pops out everytime I get distracted! Let me rewind: I'm really interested in this phenomenological exploration of the transportation means. I wanna think about it, and will come back with my thoughts.


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PostPosted: Wed Jun 04, 2008 2:08 am 
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Good points. So that the transportation systems I was speaking of are not just separate because of functional needs, but by traveling through different systems, and along different paths and nodes in that system, you are literally retracing power relations and historical contours. And that retracing would, to sensitive travelers, be something that could be experienced. One way is to look around at the passengers and ask: who does this vehicle serve? Though it seems as though, at first, we could not easily distinguish transportation that helps "move labor to and from sites" from transportation constructed for the mobility of the working-class, we might be able to look at a map and ask whether there are lines going from working class neighborhoods to, say, the beach or nature reserves. Or whether there are more lines going to nature reserves from upper-class regions.

Anyway, these questions do not have to be asked only looking over a map. They could be perceived in transit, in the vehicle. You could observe who and who was not getting off where, who was sleeping before work and who was returning shitfaced from the bar and grill. So the historical contours that shaped the lines outside the vehicle would also influence the experience inside the vehicle.
The different systems would be differentiated not just spatially, but historically. And these contours, for most people, determine rather than serve our movement.


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PostPosted: Thu Jun 12, 2008 9:00 pm 
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sararoca wrote:
The railroad. Everytime I think about trains I can't help but think "Empire". Railroads were massively built in the 19th century as a prolongation of the rizomatical limbs of the 2nd Industrial Revolution. The triumph of the bourgeoise, the colonial exploitation of resources. Rail lines join natural resources with centers of production and trade. It's clear in South America, where rail lines serve not the social needs but the economic stakes of the criollo elites and foreign companies: shipping bananas, minerals, metals, meat. But also in the US: train was the greater weapon for the imperial expansion to the West. To me, railroads are the expression of the violent and traumatic birth and arise of the nation-state. Today (and I'm thinking about Spain, specially), trains are often expensive, old-fashioned, slow, a total bummer. Something that only a nostalgic bohemian the-trees-pass-by-oh-so-fast would appreciate. Like a Victorian style chair, or a Colonial ebony trunk.


I am really glad you brought this up, because our initial conversation was decidedly aesthetic rather than political. And as someone who also self-identifies as a Marxist (at least on certain things), it think it's vital that we really have a sense of where things come from.

That being said, I think it's absolutely fascinating that rail travel in particular has gone essentially from being the tendrils of imperialism to being--in certain contexts--as progressive as it gets. Now, don't get me wrong, trains are still being built in the service of domination. The Qinghai–Tibet railway might be the best, most recent example of this.

On the other hand--and this is often brought up in the contexts of other technologies, computers for example--where things come from cannot dictate how they are used later. I do believe that we can be cognizant of the ethical problems that something is rooted in, but still use it as a tool for something either positive or at least neutral.

So while the Philly trolley and subway system was built for one reason, it is now absolutely vital for more economically disadvantaged folks around town to get quickly and cheaply to work. It sure as hell is not a perfect system, but riding it regularly it's clear that it's important. The same for a place like New York. It seems to me that giving a broader swath of the population better economic access is now one of the major arguments for a system that ironically began with shutting them out. The ecological benefits obviously don't need to be stated.

What also really interests me when comparing rail systems is what they are viewed as being for. I'm with you on trains in Spain: absolutely horrible. So are trains here. The biggest problem I see with rail travel as it stands is that it exists solely for economic purposes (trains only go from houses to jobs), not as a basic facilitator of quality of life. In a really great counter-example, trains in Japan go absolutely everywhere. You can get quickly from the city to the mountains for a nice hike, from one residential area to another without having to pass through the economic hubs of the city, or to any generally interesting place. What struck me was that you can use them to do everything--not just commute.

I really think that this is the type of model that should be discussed more by people who have clout in these things. I guess being able to get from Philly to the beach in Atlantic City is pretty cool, but as popular as the shore is, it's amazing that's the only option.


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