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The Railway Journey

I immediately thought of this video:

In the first four chapters of The Railway Journey, Schivelbusch describes the introduction of the railway in the industrializing 19th century Western Europe and its development into an independent system, along with characteristics of the new perception that the railway traveler experienced. While the book is abundant with fascinating accounts from circa 19th century, I tried to keep this posting concise.

The development of railway is described as a process of redefining the relationship between human and nature. Steam power replaced animal power, being more cost-efficient, controllable, durable and powerful. This artificial energy, operating independently from natural constraints and enabling faster journeys, created its own spatiality- expressed as the “shrinking” of the natural world. The notion of space and time as was possible using the traditional transportation technology was no longer valid. The absence of sensory perception of such traditional traveling aspects as animal exhaustion was experienced as non-natural. Railroads also required flattening of the terrain, resulting in deeper contrast from the nature.

With the help of legislations allowing monopoly the railway grew into an independent and precise system, or machine ensemble, that fully functions only as a whole, including routes, vehicles and communication facilities. The system incorporated ever more outlying areas; the decrease in space (technically travel time) also meant that space expanded.
As accessibility increased, the context of original locality was lost, both for products from outlaying regions and the regions themselves. “Devaluation … by their exploitation for mass tourism”, or loss of aura. The connected regions were also given standardized time, another loss of isolated identity.

As for the passenger, faster speed led to detachment from immediacy and the details of proximity, which was characteristic of coach travels. A new mode of perception, the depthless panoramic one, appeared instead. This distant macro-vision mediated through the apparatus(train) paved the way for the reading of books, which are “imaginary landscapes”, to become a standard activity.

This book made a good pair with Benjamin’s article, as it portrays the industrial change that eventually resulted in the conditions upon which Benjamin discusses the new technology of film, from whom Schivelbusch borrows some part of framework for analysis. The analogy between buying tickets to ride a train and go to a theater was another interesting point, considering the similar traits of panoramic perception and film, respectively described by Schivelbusch and Benjamin.

  • (See first question under Benjamin)
  • De Quincey’s quote (p. 12) describes a form of technological obfuscation that was introduced to transportation: whereas the animal power was closely senseable, the engines were hidden from the passenger. This sort of obfuscation, or abstraction, seems to be something that often accompanies technological change, in transportation, manufacturing and other areas. While it might open up a new mode of perception for us, it also might interfere with our agency as users. Not only users, as a matter of fact: the train’s driver is more of “an operator of a machine” rather than a “captain on dry land.” (p. 30) What reasons do we have to advocate such obfuscating traits of technology?
  • Not a question, but I was pleased to finally read about a time in history when people actually communicated with each other instead of looking into smartphones. It was before trains.

Citation

Schivelbusch, Wolfgang. The Railway Journey. Urizen Books, 1979.

-Achim