Category Archives: mobility

162: James Flink’s The Automobile Age

In James Flink’s The Automobile Age, the automobile, and its attendant complex of technologies, mass-production techniques, industrial development, roads, economic and public policy, and changes in American “lifeways” resulting from “mass personal automobility,” are central to the history of capitalist development in general and to American history in particular.  Flink’s materialist approach combined with the scope of this book – he attempts to cover the rise and fall of the Automobile Age in its social, technological, business, and global contexts, from the turn of the last century to the early 1970s – make it both a fascinating history of automobility and an argument for human agency even in what looks like global domination by the car.

Flink’s narrative covers many of the canonical topics within industrialization and automobility: the Fordist system of mass production/ mass consumption; transformations in social relations and the landscape as a result of automobility; Sloanism, bureaucracy, and flexible, style-based mass production;  global automobility coupled with competition from Europe and Japan; and social and environmental critiques of automobility combined with the “world car.”  He discusses these processes by carefully tracing technological diffusion within the technological system of the automobile.


But Flink also argues that the automakers, form the very beginning, articulated themselves within both American nationalism and industrial capitalism, so tracing the car allows him to trace and critique these larger systems.  He thus shows how Ford’s particular brand of paternalism was more social control than benevolence; how the auto boom in the 1920s directly contributed to the Great Depression in the 1930s; how cars fragmented and rearranged neighborhoods and social networks; how the world car has led to uneven geographical development, and how the American “romance” with the car was actually the product of a lot of lobbying by automakers for more and better roads rather than public transit, so that an inefficient, capital-intensive system was largely funded by American tax dollars.

Flink argues that the automobile age ended in the 1970s, when public outcry led to increased safety and environmental regulations, but that the automobile will continue to be the dominant mode of transportation, especially in the US, for the foreseeable future.  I agree with him on both counts, and I hope that the recent resurgence of interest in bicycling and public transportation broadens to include more social groups so that the burden of automobility doesn’t continue to be shouldered by the poor.

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128: Tim Cresswell’s On the Move

In On the Move: Mobility in the Modern Western World, Tim Cresswell explores mobility – which he defines as “meaningful movement” – at a variety of scales and in a variety of places in the (mostly anglophone) West.  Pulling from case studies that range from Frederick Taylor’s time and motion studies to British ballroom dancing to the LA Bus Riders’ Union, Cresswell argues that mobility is “both center and margin – the lifeblood of modernity and the virus that threatens to hasten its downfall.”  While the “mobility turn” had been taking the humanities by storm since 1996, this book is the first to interrogate what mobility is rather than defining it against what it isn’t (place, boundedness, foundations, stability.)

For Cresswell, mobility is actually three mobilities that mutually constitute one another.

  • Empirical mobility is the actual movement of people, things, birds, etc.; it is the closest to actual movement and thus the most abstract (because it traces displacement, not necessarily the meaning of displacement.)  
  • Representations of mobility are the photos, literature, philosophy, etc., that capture mobility and try to make sense of it, usually in ways that are ideological.  They might link mobility to freedom, transgression, creativity, life and so on.  They reproduce mobility and interpret it according to a particular worldview.
  • Experienced mobilities are mobilities that are practiced, embodied, ways of being in the world, as well as how we experience and feel about mobility.
Mobility is both subjective and objective, and the perspective from which we experience/ study mobility has a lot to do with how we interpret it.  Because mobility is both subjective and objective, it is also both socially constructed and universal, in the sense that everything moves, and the interplay between this universal fact of life and a particular movement within a particular context gives that movement meaning.  Mobility is thus a “necessary social production,” and a way of inextricably integrating geography with the politics of social life.
Cresswell’s writing style is wonderfully clear and engaging, and his many case studies, as well as his brief history of the development of mobility into an individual right in the modern capitalist state, cover mobility at a variety of scales ranging from the individual to the workplace to nation, empire, and the placeless place of the Shiphol Airport.  The only thing missing, maybe, is a study of imperial movement from the perspective of the colonized, with some attention to the relationship between labor migration and uneven development.

118: Michel de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life

In The Practice of Everyday Life, Michel de Certeau argues that far from being a passive act, consumption, whether as use of an object or space, “ways of operating,” or art/ “ways of making” (combination, selection, cut-and-inversion), is a kind of spatial production.   
Building on (but rejecting) Foucault, Bourdieu, Kant, and others, de Certeau conceives of the physical world as divided into two classes: those with power and capital who are in control of space and production, and those with neither, but who exercise their agency by taking advantage of opportunities and consuming creatively.  The powerful side of things is also the scientific, the rational; this side creates static places of power, characterized by rational utopian uniformity, legibility, clarity, strategy, and centralized control.  The weak consumers take advantage of cracks in the rational system of these places; dependent on time, these peripatetic storytellers (walking and narration are inseparable) combine the fixed elements of the city/story with memories and inventions triggered by circumstance and audience to subvert the rational powers and create something new.

If power creates place, these storytellers operate in space, an undefined realm within place that is created as they walk/perform their narratives.   Critical is the connection between space and discourse; critical also is that this storytelling, while it carves out spaces of agency, is fleeting and momentary; it can subvert the rational powers but it cannot develop capital or power itself.  The whole point is that walking/ narrating is the illegitimate, illegible, other to the rational system; it unites discourse and practice, and as such it cannot be abstracted or contemplated from outside itself.   Or accumulated, for that matter.

Stuff I like: de Certeau is very clear: even in a Foucauldian system, there is still ample room for human agency.  That agency may not be able to build the kind of social capital needed to overthrow rational powers, but it’s not going away – the walker/ storyteller/ city inhabitant is the necessary corollary/ internal contradiction in the rational system.  Also, he combines narration with spatial movement, which links discourse to performance – sometimes with an audience, sometimes not.  His use of myth is interesting: myths humanize the city by layering legend, memory, and dream into the rational place and thus subverting its rational, logical (objective?) order.  They function as an escape from oppression.  The way he sets up the space/ place opposition is interesting: like Tuan, he argues that places “stay put” and spaces are for movement or for practicing place: one gets the feeling that the walker opens them up and they close again once he/she has passed through.  Memory also subverts place: ghosts of people or things or businesses that are no longer in a place haunt it and link people  to a place/ convert place to space in a way that defies the logical, rational order.  I also like his method: he clearly sets out the five or so theorists he is working with, pokes holes in their arguments, and shows how everyday practice links theory and discourse AND allows for human agency and ingenuity in a way that the other theorists seem to have missed.  And he clearly sees technology as rationalizing society in a way that’s no bueno.
Stuff I don’t like: To attempt to see the system from any perspective other than direct experience – to try and take it in conceptually, as a whole – is to alienate yourself from the system and to see it from the perspective of the rational powers, not from the embodied  consumers.  To study the production of space, then, requires giving up any chance to see the whole and only studying the stories on their own terms, which, sorry, just feels claustrophic and unnecessarily limited (though useful in the whole PoMo turn bit, for sure.)  Also, it makes me sad that these seem to be practices for surviving a utopia, not for changing it – unless he’s just being descriptive instead of normative.  He seems to take a technological determinist stance on the relationship between technological rationality and place/space.  Also, individuals are not atomized, but they are anonymous in the masses; without the potential for generalization, how are they not atomized again?  Further, it’s not like people are wholly irrational, and to classify them in binary opposition to rationality (er, technology and machines came from somewhere) is doing individuals a disservice… and may even be taking precisely the birds-eye view he so eschews.  From above, walkers in a medieval city probably look like rats in a warren; but from the perspective of the opportunistic walker, thinking on the margin, every movement she makes probably makes perfect sense.  Beware seeing people in the aggregate.
Connections: Laclau’s empty signifier, especially in the section on belief (to make people believe, offer them something and then don’t give it to them); Hardt & Negri, anything really, because they believe in the power of excess to overthrow the utopia (tho they allow for the development of capital among the oppressed).  He directs engages at length with Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, Bourdieu’s Theory of Practice, Freud (both his psychoanalysis and his more social piece, Civilization something), Durkheim, and Kant (though admittedly I didn’t read the bits on Kat or Durkheim.)  He also uses Lacan’s mirror phase bit as a way at getting at the relationship between the individual and society.  He is fascinated by the basic premise of anthropological work in Durkheim: to go somewhere else to study yourself; and although he picks on Foucault in particular for cutting out a small piece of culture (panoptics, for instance) and then inverting society so that that small piece of culture becomes the organizing principle of a social analysis, he uses it as the basis for his definition of tactic: cutting up, reassembling, creating narratives out of fragments.  I guess the point is that it is a tactic of the weak, not a strategy (which requires vision!  Of the big picture!) of the strong?
What are the implications of de Certeau’s walkers for performance?
Why is it so important to link space and language?
What cities is he talking about
How does this work fit in with other PoMo (vs post-structural theory)?
Originally published on 6.26.12.

99: Domosh & Seager’s Putting Women in Place

In Putting Women in Place: Feminist Geographers Make Sense of the World, Mona Domosh and Joni Seager show that space and place are both gendered and integral to the construction of gender.  In providing an overview of feminist geographical scholarship (up to 2001), they argue that this gendering has historically (and is currently) integral to processes of segregation, dominance, and resistance, in places like work and home as well as in the actions of everyday life.  Further, they situate this discussion of gender and geography within both local urban historical geographies in Western Europe and the US AND a structural analysis of global gender issues.  Their book is divided into six parts:

Home: history and analysis of a space almost universally associated with women.  Focusing on England and the US form the 17th century on, they show how the emerging capitalist system separated the male world of production from the female world of reproduction, from the Victorian cult of domesticity to mid-century suburbia.  They then interrogate the raced and classed connections between notions of domesticity and turn-of-the-century social engineering projects aimed at “Americanizing” urban working-class and immigrant women and rural Native American women.

Women at Work: a structural analysis of gendered definitions of “work” and an intro to women’s labor issues.  They demonstrate how women’s work, including homework, formal work, and exploitative work under global capitalism is devalued and rendered invisible around the world, and they include discussions of the glass ceiling and the feminization of poverty.

The City: history of the relationship between gender and urban landscapes.  Beginning in the late 17th century, they trace gender in the landscape, from the creation of masculine and feminine countryside to the Postmodern city.  They then examine women as both consumers and workers, and show how the city and its spaces of consumption and production have been reconfigured as gender roles have changed over time.

On the Move: a discussion of women’s mobility.  Beginning with spaces of the body, they trace mobility across scales and spatial contexts.  They examine social structures, like transportation routes, that inhibit female movement, as well as the formal and informal processes of maintaining those structures; they also discuss different kinds of female travel, from Victorian female travelers to refugee migrations and sex tourism, to suburban women buying cars and women from 3rd world countries moving for work and thus feminizing the global workforce.  They show that gender impacts how and why people move and examine what women’s movements mean.

Nations and Empires: a mostly theoretical discussion of women’s mobility in the context of imperialism.  They consider geographical scholarship in gender, imperialism, and colonialism, with an eye toward the interpenetration of the domestic and the imperial as it pertains to women, and they examine (dis)placement of women and women’s issues within nationalisms and nationalist movements.

The Environment: Discusses connections between women and the environment, from the often devastating results of importing Old World links between control of nature/ control of women to the New World, to ecofeminism and other 20th century feminist/ environmentalist movements, including 3rd world environmental degradation.

As a survey, this book provides a good introduction to the ways in which gender and geography are studied and thought together, as well as some concrete examples of how the two intersect.  I do wonder whether they end up with a simplified understanding of the category of “women,” however; more discussion of intersections with race and ethnicity, as well as thorough analyses of the social constructions of gender in 3rd world countries, would make me feel better about consistently linking female bodies with the social construction of gender.

4: David Gartman’s Auto Opium

This book took a while, mostly because I’m a sucker for Marxist histories of the auto industry.  Something about reading Marxist language makes me feel like I’m cracking a secret code (exciting!)  Also they usually tie up their narratives so neatly, like the end of a Dickens novel (comforting!).  Yes, I’m a huge nerdo.  Anyway.

Gartman argues that automobiles are the opiate of the masses.  He’s not saying that we’re all fools for being tricked into buying cars and staking our identities on them – that’s for the bike activists to claim.  Instead, he’s saying that people who claim cars as a part of their identity are effectively taking a happy pill: they’re focusing on the pleasure they get from owning, driving, maintaining – consuming – a car to distract themselves from their crappy, dissatisfying jobs.

The process by which people’s identity gets shifted from work to car consumption goes something like this.  Back at the turn of the (last) century, as Ford’s assembly-line style manufacturing increased the pace of work and parsed it into smaller and smaller pieces, workers became detached from the final product, and eventually work stopped being the thing that workers staked their identity on.  But when they revolted against this deskilling, Ford was wise: he raised their pay to $5 a day.  Apparently workers were psyched – they could feed their families!  Buy houses!  Buy Model T’s!  Go to movies!  And they stopped complaining about their crappy jobs, because they were being paid well, and being paid well meant they could buy all the things they’d always wanted but couldn’t afford.

They bought cars, which made Ford happy, because more people buying cars meant that he could produce more cars and make more money.

The thing was, the cars the working people could afford in the teens and twenties didn’t look anything like the cars that rich people drove; they looked like they were cobbled together by a bunch of different people (84, to be exact) from a bunch of disparate parts into a big rectangular box – which, of course, they were.  Luxury cars, on the other hand, were still made using craft production, which meant that each car was assembled, fitted, and tuned by a single mechanic.  They were aesthetically pleasing, with organic lines that made them look like a unified whole.

As it turns out, people who spend all day doing menial tasks at an assembly line don’t want to drive around in something that reminds them of how much they hate work when they’re not at work.  Hence, when Alfred Sloan at GM started styling mass-produced cars to have the streamlining and unified design of luxury cars, working people were SUPER psyched.  Finally, they wouldn’t have to drive around in some rattletrap that stank of assembly line, and, even better, someone might mistake them for a richer person than they really were.  Genius!

Sloan and his stylists were geniuses in other ways, too, namely in the invention of planned obsolescence and product hierarchies, both of which were designed to encourage consumers to buy newer or better or more cars than they needed.

The whole styling thing worked to increase consumption of cars because, according to Gartman, people who have dead-end, menial, unproductive, bureaucratic, or otherwise dispiriting jobs increasingly seek the personal satisfaction, pleasure, and self-worth they should be getting at work in the objects they consume.  And they know that buying things isn’t going to make them happy like good productive labor would, but they do it anyway, to ease the pain.  Hence opiate.

It stopped working in the 60s, when people started to catch on that they were working ever harder in ever more degrading work conditions so that they could buy increasingly expensive cars that weren’t actually making them happy. So they revolted, both economically and culturally, and at the end of the 1960s, Fordism was dead.  Unfortunately, consuming to fill a void was not. 

I’m too tired to add much in the way of analysis right now, but I will say that I suspect that the many car enthusiasts in my life do get a lot of pleasure from working on, shopping for, and driving their cars, and that for all I know their cars may well fill a need that jobs don’t.  However, I’ve never thought of them as building cars that represent “‘freedom from the superfluous adjuncts of styling-for-obsolescence'” or working on “humanizing the alienated products of capitalist mass production.” Oh, Marxists.

3: Massey & Denton’s American Apartheid


2 for 2 today!  Huzzah!

As the title suggests, American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass is both sociological (the “underclass”) and a bit polemical (“apartheid”) about the relationship between black urban poverty and the “American institution” of the black ghetto.  Their book is clear, easy to read, and incredibly strident in its arguments.  They’re also well-supported by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, a Guggenheim grant, a Faculty Development Award, and the National Opinion Research Center, which means that they had enough money to hire plenty of researchers and analysts.  And it shows: the depth of research in this thing is impressive.

The authors’ argument is pretty straightforward: more than any other factor, race-based residential segregation creates the “urban underclass,” a segment of the urban population so socially and spatially isolated from the labor market that they seem to have no chance of climbing out of poverty.  The primary instrument of segregation is the urban ghetto, and the residents are almost exclusively black.

Urban ghettos have been fascinating to me ever since I biked through them in Chicago in the early 2000s – I couldn’t figure out why anyone would live in an intensely poor, dilapidated neighborhood when a much nicer one was sometimes just a few blocks away.  The two books that provided the strongest answers for me back then were Alex Kotlowitz’ There Are No Children Here and William Julius Wilson’s When Work Disappears; the first provides an intensely human look at growing up in a Chicago housing project, and the second provides clear, well-supported structural explanations for the development and persistence of the ghetto. 

American Apartheid basically builds on Wilson’s argument.  Wilson argues that shifts in the economy contributed to urban economic decline and the creation of new jobless ghettos. Discriminatory housing practices combined with discriminatory hiring practices concentrated black urban residents into poor, predominantly black neighborhoods, so when shifts in the economy (like automation in the auto industry, for instance) threw blacks out of work, whole neighborhoods went under.  Shops closed, community institutions left, and the ghettos became so thoroughly separated from the rest of society that they formed their own norms, expectations, and speech patterns.Seeing this decline, those families that could leave, did, which left the poorest residents marooned in inner city slums without employment prospects or transportation to jobs in the suburbs or other parts of the city. 

Massey & Denton add to this line of logic an emphasis on residential segregation.  If these same black people were living in integrated neighborhoods, the authors argue, their white and ethnic neighbors would probably still have jobs in an economic downturn, so their neighborhood institutions, shops, etc would be able to stay open, the neighborhoods would remain relatively stable and connected to the workforce, and those thrown out of work would eventually be able to find jobs again.  However, even in the late 1980s (when they were writing), most white people did not want black people in their neighborhoods, violence and intimidation was still rampant, and the Fair Housing Act was still really hard to enforce.  Thus, segregation was the key contributing factor to black isolation and poverty.  And since the authors see residential integration as the first step toward social integration, their solutions to these problems are stronger, more systematic enforcement of the Fair Housing Act and active dismantling of urban ghettos.

Since this book was written, several major changes have taken place: in an effort to break down the ghetto, cities like Chicago have replaced their massive (and massively deteriorated) public housing projects with mixed-income housing and city-wide HUD vouchers; the rise of a creative class sensibility has brought white middle class people to the ghetto in search of authenticity and cheap rent; and gentrification processes have massively transformed inner city neighborhoods in a kind of forced resegregation (from black to white.) 

Given these processes, does the residential segregation aspect of the urban ghetto still stand?  Or, more bluntly: have these processes of desegregation/ resegregation done anything positive for the plight of the urban poor?

virginity, guilt, and suburbia?

The virgin sidewalk – the physical embodiment of sprawl’s guilty conscience – reveals the true failure of suburbia, a landscape in which automobile use is a prerequisite to social viability.

Duany, Andres, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and Jeff Speck.  Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream.  New York: North Point Press, 2000.