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(iii)  Summary: the Narrative of Acceleration.

 There are plenty of anecdotes to highlight the personal, phenomenological experience of railway passage discussed in the previous sections. For example, there is the famous illustrative anecdote that Einstein conceived of the Theory of Relativity on a train, pondering if the train was moving towards its destination or if the destination was moving towards the train.  This legend is indicative of Einstein’s assertion that “motion should replace space as the  basis for understanding the physical world” (Coyne 2001:101).   There is also Freud’s declared phobia of railway travel, after the frightful experience of having a memory of “awakened” in him, where he witnesses his mother naked while sharing a compartment during a trip from Leipzig to Vienna-ironically leading to his insights into repression of memory, oedipal complex, and infantile sexuality (Haslam 2002:online; Holland 1994:online; Freud 1954).  Another familiar legend would be that Lincoln scribbled the Gettysburg Address on a cocktail napkin on a train.  What all these legends have in common is the notion that contemplative rail travel inspired spontaneous realizations in some of the great leaders and thinkers or the 20th century. 

These anecdotes are not coincidental. They all enlist the common influence that mobility has on individual perception.  Urban legends regarding famous people and their railway experiences are disseminated to capture the message.  It is another manifestation of Rigozinski’s pointed observation that to express pure duration, we must make “recourse to analogies” (Rigozinski 1993:145). 

To remind us of the specific phenomenon being made reference in these anecdotes, let us recap the significance of the ‘mobile window’:  Aided by the anticipatory state of passage, the stationary position of the passenger forms a relationship with the inertia of the train.  A gaze develops that relaxes the traveler into the structure of motion (Leed 1991:76-77; Urry 1990). This is articulated by Virilio (1977) in terms of its historical significance:

Territory has lost its significance in favor of the projectile…the strategic value of the non-place of speed has definitely supplanted that of place, and the question of possession of time has revived that of territorial appropriation” (Virilio 1977:133).


The train is a projectile, but when once the arrival stations were constructed as “cathedrals of the new technology”( Richards and MacKenzie 1986:17; see also Dethier 1981:25), over time they lost their monumental significance as place-bound meaning became subverted by pure speed.  For Richards and MacKenzie (1986), the homogenisation of transport stations was to be expected “in an age which can design its high-speed trains to resemble aeroplanes and its low-speed trains to resemble buses” (Richards and MacKenzie 1986:4).  The new emphasis is the temporal efficiency by which physical geography can be covered. The time spanned in travelling is lost to the passenger, who attempts to maximize the territory appropriated in reducing the time it took to cover it (Virilio 1977:7).   This process is described as the revolutionary triumph of “technological vehicles” over “metabolic” ones, foreshadowing the technocratic utopias to come and the dominance of the mechanical as mediator of our élan vital (May and Thrift 2001:26).   Situated like this, bodies become “empty houses” furnished by intelligence, animated mediators for the transits of perception (Virillio 1977:88).

            Terry Castle (1988) traces this becoming of our bodies-as-haunted-vessels in a unique study on phantasmagoria and the history of imagination.   The word originates to light-projection, the so-called ghost-shows of the early 19th century.  Phantasmagoria, originally an external public event, over time, has now become an internal and subjective referent of the imagery of mind (Castle 1988:27-29).  The early roots of mechanical analogies to human thought and biological processes are traced to these ghost shows.  In enlightened rational terms, memory served as the screen and the mind as the lantern projecting the images of prior sensations.  Yet, within this rational Lockean mind/body, thought becomes a phantasmagorical process, a spectral, representative location for the personal imagination that had been marginalized by scientific rationalism (Castle 1988:55-58). 

Thereafter, it is permissive to receive and articulate the élan vital of our body-houses (i.e. to translate personal perceptual impacts of innovative mediators) as ghostly, fearful events.  Truly, “immediate experience is [or becomes] the phantasmagoria of the idler” (Benjamin 1999:801).  To idle in the immediate and at once interpret thought as spectral process demands grounding in rationalism’s technological products: and so “one by one, the perceptive faculties of an individual’s body are transferred to machines, or instruments that record images and sound. More recently, the transfer is made to receivers, to sensors, and to other detectors that can replace absence of tactility over distance” (Virillio 1993:4).   Part of this process is the increasing primacy of audio-visual technologies, dubbed by Virilio as “the last vehicle”, over locomotive attainments of speed (McQuire 1998:185). 

Thought as phantasm is a consequence of the Cartesian split, and as a further consequence to this is the broad take-over of perceptual faculty Virillio describes.  What better example than that of the American railway?  As a case-study it offers explanation to the “phantasmagoria of the idler”, as it is possible to outline changes in this articulation from these early beginnings through to modernism and postmodernism. 

            This phantasmagoria became more mediated over time by the build-up of interfaces within the contemporary urban environment.  Mass transit mobilized the landscape, and in doing so, provoked an upsurge in media-related technologies.  Perception became increasingly visually oriented, empowering presence itself with the ability to span distance without losing time, what McQuire (1998) calls “rapid seeing” (McQuire 1998:186). 

As this occurred, a narrative formed to encapsulate the phenomenology of it all: acceleration, pure speed, became a compulsive theme throughout both the historical retrospectives of technological and social development. As a social value, the pace of technological change is as lamentable as it is sublime, preordaining individual sense of destiny by necessitating the purchase of newer and newer technologies in order to “keep up” with present advances (McQuire 1998:114).  Indeed, the narrative of acceleration speaks of technological development and social development in the same breath, with the latter as a by-product of the former. 

In order to make sense of the pace of social and technological change, the narrative of acceleration continually makes use of analogy and metaphor, and in doing so, reasserts classic definitions of “progress,” especially relating to the pursuit of ‘conquest’ (of space, time, and landscape).  In this sense, the narrative of acceleration unites North America’s shared history from colonization through to our imaginings of the future.