(iii) Summary: the Narrative
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.
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).
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
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
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
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
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).
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.
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).
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.
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.