When we consider the effect that place can have on thought and behavior, even at a micro-level, we can see more clearly how the same myriad forces that construct places also construct bodies and subjectivities. The relationship between a place and a person is reciprocal to a point where they become inexorable. This phenomenon is thoroughly political.
For how hard it is
to understand the landscape
as you pass in a train
from here to there
and mutely it
watches you vanish.
From a heat wave in the Brooklyn summer, riding the mercifully air conditioned subway cars for the first time since January, I remember the experience of the cross-country trip The Railway Journey that was CENTRAL’s first gesture. I remember the long hours in my compartment of the train, watching the landscape pass, or, as Sebald wrote in a poem of his not too long ago, being seen vanishing by the landscape itself. My train car was like a camera obscura, providing me with a tiny pinhole through which I could see a scene inverted, twisted, spinning with speed. There was no solitude like the train cars that whisked me along terrains I had never seen before; landscapes which I still have not walked. The window became a screen and the subject of many of the photographs taken along the rails.
In The Railway Journey, I set out to collect a catch of research in a net composed of many questions, none so prevalent as how this landscape is seen. Watching the land by rail was a historical point of departure for me due to my interest in the massive perceptual changes that happened with the invention of high-speed mechanical transportation. Before trains, human beings could never traverse large swathes of land without becoming exhausted. On the train, passengers could fall asleep in one place and wake up in another, given that they could rest through the cacophonous rumbling of the mammoth machine. Coupled with the incredible tactile feeling of the train’s motion underfoot, passengers in the early trains marveled at the panoramic landscape views available to them from the window.
People still ride the passenger railways of the United States specifically because of the views they afford, the glass-framed movement and light that very closely prefigured early film. Amtrak’s viewing cars position passenger seats to fully face the window, or they are tilted ever so slightly toward each other and out the window so that one can gaze at the landscape shoulder-to-shoulder with a co-traveler. The view is positioned to slide perfectly atop the rails, which are not visible from the elevated room, always positioned on the second story of its car, above the café selling small snacks for airline prices.
With the vieiwing cars positioned in such a way, the beauty of the scene outside is the same as it was for early traingoers: one feels as though they are floating above the land, immersed in a filmic display of scenes from which they are wholly excerpted. The blurred foreground spins off to a farway landscape feature that can be seen slowly turning, eventually passing by as the wheels of the train car push on. This type of vision transforms salient landscape features into objects and makes the land into a perfectly framed light show that seems to be without end. The majesty of the landscape resonates in the harmonious experience of both technology (the velocity of the train, which makes its passengers into omnipresent viewers) and nature (which appears ever more pristine and vast specifically because the viewer is not implicated in its scape).
The importance of the shift to high-speed, compartmentalized and mechanized travel cannot be underestimated as we consider how this landscape is seen. Before the train it was not possible for a human being to watch land moving without some degree of embodiment and periodic exhaustion, whether their own or their horses’. The gravity, surface and climate of the land were always a part of one’s experience through it. The train marked a revelatory and life-shaping change in the popular experience of land, changing the way that space was experienced to the extent that it thoroughly effected how space was constructed thereafter.
Before my winter travels I had only traveled to distant geographies by airplane or as a passenger in cars and buses. The railroads seemed to carry so many of the pivotal, nation-making forces of the 1800’s — the movement of labor, the first corporate monopolies, the possibility of large-scale extractive industries, the seaming of the land into properties and parcels, and the tirade of frontierism that eventually constructed the spaces we traverse today, both physically and imaginatively.
I was specifically interested in how phenomenological experiences of and around the train caused a fundamental shift in the way that space is perceived, effectively constructing a condition of modernity that can be characterized by modularity, surficiality and disembodiment. I wanted to see for myself how the experience of the train could transform land into a series of planes and surfaces, smoothing out textural details like the gloss of a photograph or reflection of a window. I wanted to be able to launch myself across thousands of miles without getting out of my seat or even coming close to a motor. And I wanted to watch as the doors of the train cars dispatched me to and from different places and brief rest stops like the arm of a crane moving shipping containers in a city port.
[to be continued]
“In the history of colonial invasions, maps are always first drawn by the victors, since maps are instruments of conquest; once projected, they are then implemented. Geography is therefore the art of war but can also be the art of resistance if there is a counter-map and a counter-strategy.
“Transgression does not seek to oppose one thing to another, nor does it achieve its purpose through mockery or by upsetting the solidity of foundations; it does not transform the other side of the mirror, beyond an invisible and uncrossable line, into a glittering expanse. Transgression is neither violence in a divided world (in an ethical world) nor a victory over limits (in a dialectical or revolutionary world); and exactly for this reason, its role is to measure the excessive distance that it opens at the heart of its limit and to trace the flashing line that causes the limit to arise. Transgression contains nothing negative, but affirms limited being –– affirms the limitlessness into which it leaps as it opens this zone to existence for the first time.
Penn Station, New York
Amtrak Station Detroit
Tomorrow the 49 Lake Shore Limited will depart from Penn Station at 3:45pm. We’ve reserved a seat for fourteen hours. After that we’ll be on our way to Detroit to stay for a few nights, until Thursday, when thirty-three hours of rail will take us to Albuquerque.
The Alvarado Transportation Center, Albuquerque
From there, an overnight train leads to Los Angeles in the early morning; after three days there, up to Oakland. This collection of train cars and ticket stubs, conversations and recordings, photographs and snapshots will make up The Railway Journey one day at a time.
Union Station, Los Angeles
I’ll be making sure my documentation is thorough and my description is thick, but to transform my field notes into publishable material will take some reflection. To make sure that The Railway Journey lives in real time, and to make sure to open up research, travel and experience to conversation at every opportunity, I’ve set up an e-mail subscription list for updates in the next two weeks.
Jack London Square, Oakland
These e-mails are intended as letters and will function as material to pick up for interpretation when it comes time to write articles for CENTRAL. More importantly, however, these e-mails are lettersto you; they are an invitation for you to join me on this trip.
Union Station, Portland
We’ve got just one week left until The Railway Journey departs for its cross-country tour. Keep up with the project by checking back to this main website (and follow it- its a tumblr!). Live updates can be emailed directly to your inbox by clicking through to the subscription signup page here : http://eepurl.com/tuKTP and above. This email service will be an exciting way to get written updates sent to your mailbox as soon as they are written.
There are many ways to stay updated. Looking forward to sharing this with you!
This weekend your donations to The Railway Journey hit the project fundraising goal. This is no small feat. I can hardly write out how much of an honor it is to have this research funded by a community of friends, family and acquaintances. Perhaps more important than my feelings of gratitude, however, is this opportunity to remind ourselves of the vitality of crowdfunding as a community resource and the practice of gift exchange. And what a fortuitous coincidence to be writing of gratitude and the gift during the holiday season, merely one day after the end of Hanukkah and one week prior to Christmas and Kwanzaa!
Much has been written on the gift as a cornerstone of interpersonal and community exchange, from volumes extolling the symbolic importance of particular objects to a wide range of commentary on gift as a gesture of reciprocity and mutuality. While introducing Mauss’s famous text, The Gift, often noted for expelling the notion of the free gift, Mary Douglas writes:
“It is not that there are no free gifts in a particular place, Melanesia or Chicago, for instance; it is that the whole idea of a free gift is based on a misunderstanding. There should not be any free gifts. What is wrong with the so-called free gift is the donor’s intention to be exempt from return gifts coming from the recipient. Refusing requital puts the act of giving outside any mutual ties. Once given, the free gift entails no further claim from the recipient. The public is not deceived by free gift vouchers. For all the ongoing commitment the free-gift gesture has created, it might just as well never have happened. According to Marcel Mauss that is what is wrong with the free gift. A gift that does nothing to enhance solidarity is a contradiction.”
Mary Douglas, introduction to The Gift
To enhance solidarity, that is the function of the gift; at least in Douglas’s summary introduction. This notion of solidarity resonates with me now, and I keep it with me in these anticipatory weeks before the departure of The Railway Journey from New York City on January 6th. I’ll be making a lot of writing and moving through many places, witnessing, as many generations of Americans from Argentina to Canada have, the unfolding of the landscape across the picture-plane of the window. This experience, paired with site visits and interviews in cities across the United States, will be a joy to share with you and reflect upon in writing and interpretation. I look forward to performing this journey with all those who follow my updates, with those I meet and talk with, and with the landscape itself to create a solidarity in discourse.
Because this project predicates itself on its gift-based fundraising exchange, it is an honor to undertake its work. This is cause for celebration; moreover, we can view the entire journey as an act of celebration. Etymologically, to celebrate is “to publish; sing praises of; practice often,” from celeber, meaning “frequented, populous, crowded,” from the mid fifteenth century. CENTRAL is a collection of research, a practice, a conversation and series of conversations, in praise of geographical thought; The Railway Journey is an opportunity, a long haul, a line of inquiry, a railroad line, a mobile research station, and a train station. This celebration, frequent, populous, as crowded as a train car in a desert, has already started.
The last word I have for this occasion is a focal point for the work of CENTRAL and The Railway Journey. That word is colloquy, from the 1580’s, meaning discourse, from the prefix com, “together,” and suffix loquium, “speaking.” The Railway Journey marks the expansion of CENTRAL’s colloquy by thousands of miles, opening up its research to the coalescence of multiple voices most directly through its core interview project. A colloquy is also already established through the crowdfunding process, through which I will be writing to supporters individually from my journey. Specifically, I’ll be writing twenty-eight postcards for a tour lasting fifteen days. By continuing a private rapport alongside the public work on this main website, the project offers many layers of engagement. We’ll be going cross-country next month. You’re invited.
CENTRAL has come out with its first batch of 8.5x11” double-sided posters for printing and distributing in your communities and about your home. The first four posters quote from Michel Foucault’s introduction to Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus. Following posters quote Susan Sontag from her essays and speeches inAt the Same Time. DOWNLOAD THE FIRST EIGHT POSTERS after the jump.