Cultures of Transport: Representation, Practice and Technology

Article excerpt

If transport history is to be again at the cutting edge of economic and social history, it should be innovative and controversial. It needs to develop, or borrow from other disciplines, novel theories, techniques and approaches to the subject. If new ideas, or their findings, are also iconoclastic, so much the better, since that encourages debate and discussion enlivens the feel and ethos of the discipline. [John Armstrong, 'Transport history, 1945-95: the rise of a topic to maturity', Journal of Transport History, third series, 19 (1998), 103-21]

Despite transport history's illustrious development in the 1960s and 1970s, the idea that the discipline could be at the cutting edge of historiographical research, not only expanding its own boundaries through the adoption of innovative theoretical and methodological techniques but also contributing to the renewal of neighbouring fields, seems hardly credible today.1 In this article, however, we argue that the so-called 'cultural turn' that has remodelled so many other areas of the humanities and social sciences over the last decade may help answer Armstrong's plea for an innovative, even controversial, transport history. Such a strategy would not merely bring the discipline into line conceptually and methodologically with what has long been going on elsewhere. By focusing on the practical limits and historical capabilities of transport technologies, the new historiography would have something of relevance and value to say to these other fields.

Transport, travel and the cultural turn

The cultural turn has propelled issues of travel and physical mobility to the centre of lively debates in a number of key areas of social and historical enquiry - imperialism, postcolonialism, migration, the formation of scientific and technological knowledge, the clinical and social definition of the modern body, to name but a few. Terms such as 'travel', 'mobility', 'displacement', 'diaspora', 'frontier', 'transience', 'dislocation', 'fluidity' and 'permeability' have become central to thinking about the nature of subjectivity and hence the formation of identity, both personal and social.2 In particular, social theorists have highlighted the ways that transport, along with communications, has helped to reduce the power of traditional places to define personal and communal identity. Instead, new identities are created through networks spreading across geographically and socially extended spaces. At one extreme John Urry proposes that unparalleled levels of mobility have contributed to a contemporary 'post-societal' world of extreme individualisation in which nation states and their civil societies are replaced by global 'networks and flows'.3

Yet, as critics of globalisation theory have long argued, without a sure grasp of the historical precedents to this allegedly postmodern condition, it is all too easy to overdraw the distinction between past and present and to misconstrue the significance of the changes that have taken place.4 At the most basic level, there is a clear place for transport historians-or 'historians of transport, traffic and mobility' (T2M), if one prefers to signal the arrival of a new paradigm-to act as under-labourers in contemporary social theory. Our job is to attend to the historical evolution of the transport systems that have brought about the new senses of identity and their social structures.

At the very least, such a move might constrain some of the wilder rhetorical flourishes of those theorists who, by confusing metaphors relating to travel and mobility with the realities, end up in either a Utopian celebration of the liberal freedoms of postmodernity or its mirror image, a dystopian condemnation of the pathologies of late modern capitalism.5 The problem here, as Janet Wolff has observed, is that many of the key terms of this 'travelling theory', such as 'nomad', 'travel' or 'maps', 'are not usually located and hence (and supposedly) they suggest ungrounded and unbounded movement- since the whole point is to resist selves/viewers/subjects. …

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