Monday, April 30, 2018


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"Systems analysis must become cultural analysis, and in this historians may be helpful."-- Lynn White, Jr. 

Drive into Far West Texas and before you can say "pass the Snickers" you'll spy the railroad tracks, which more often than not run, seemingly infinite sinuous ribbons, parallel to the highway. Travel for a spell and you'll pass or, if at a crossing, be passed by a freight train, always an impressive experience. All of which is to say, railroads are an inescapable part of Far West Texas scenery and history, and so, for my book in-progress on that region, I have been doing my homework.

Of late: The Railway Journey: The Industrialization of Time and Space in the Nineteenth Century by Wolfgang Schivelbusch, a German historian and scholar of cultural studies. Originally published as Geschichte der Eisenbahnreise, the English translation came out in 1979; I read the 2014 edition with a new preface, "World Machines: The Steam Engine, the Railway, and the Computer," in which  Schivelbusch asks,
"Could it be that the railway, the accelerator of the Industrial Revolution, and the computer occupy different points along / on the same trajectory of machine evolution?"

In recent weeks, this question of machine evolution, to my surprise, has begun to interest me intensely.

At first I had thought of this book I am writing about Far West Texas as a doppelgänger to my 2002 memoir of Mexico's Baja California peninsula, Miraculous Air, for the ecosystems and early exploration and mission histories of these two regions have many parallels. There are indeed many parallels, however, to start with, the literature on Far West Texas is exponentially greater and-- more to the point-- since the time I was traveling in Baja California, the experience of traveling itself has been radically transformed by the Digital Revolution. My sense of this is a compression of time and a curious elasticity of space; of oftentimes disquieting and othertimes most welcome transparency; and that constant pull to the little screens that, so it would seem, we all feel these days, whenever, wherever.

In The Railway Journey, Schivelbusch opens with a detailed discussion of the history of the steam engine.

"Next to wood, water and wind power were the main energy sources of pre-industrial economic life. The Industrial Revolution, generally seem as having begun in the the last third of the eighteenth century, was a complex process of denaturalization... Iron became the new industrial building material, coal the new combustible. In the steam engine, the prime mover of industry, these two combined to produce energy in theoretically unlimited amounts."

The "decisive step" for the development of the steam engine-- and ultimately the railroads-- was the introduction of rotary motion, "a kind of mechanization of the mill race." In other words, transforming the up-and-down movement of the steam-driven piston to the driving wheel.

In his new 2014 preface, however, Schivelbusch writes: "It took me forty years and the Digital Revolution to realize that I had missed the more important point of the invention preceding it." In other words, the technological Crossing of the Rubicon, as it were, was "placing a piston in a cylinder and applying the pressure of steam... [I]t did not transfer an existing form but forced a new form of power out of combustible matter." Moreover, "the piston's up-and-down movement was no longer the analogue of any form of movement found in nature but possessed a binary-digital logic all its own."

Watch a demonstration of a piston (in this example, powered by an electric motor):

Most histories of the computer's binary-digital logic that I am familiar with focus on English mathematician George Boole's An Investigation into the Laws of Thought (1854)-- the concept of binary logic. Schivelbusch's is a wondrously powerful insight. 


In his second chapter, "The Machine Ensemble," Schivelbusch explores the ways the development of the railways was experienced as "denaturalization and densensualization." With cuttings, embankments, and tunnels"the railroad was constructed straight across the terrain, as if drawn with a ruler." Now "the traveler perceived the landscape as it was filtered through the machine ensemble."

And what is the machine ensemble? "[W]heel and rail, railroad and carriage, expanded into a unified railway system... one great machine covering the land."


With the railroad, argues Schivelbusch, "space was both diminished and expanded." Things moved across space faster, and simultaneously, more space could be accessed. "What was experienced as being annihilated was the traditional space-time coninuum which characterized the old transport technology."

Schivelbusch quotes the German poet Heinrich Heine, writing in 1843:
Heinrich Heine, protosurrealist
"What changes must now occur, in our way of looking at things, in our notions! Even the elementary concepts of time and space have begun to vacillate. Space is killed by the railways, and we are left with time lone... Now you can travel to Orléans in four and a half hours, and it takes no longer to get to Rouen. Just imagine what will happen when the lines to Belgium and Germany are completed and connected up with their railways! I feel as if the mountains and forests of all countries were advancing on Paris. Even now, I can smell the linden trees; the North Sea's breakers are rolling against my door."

Sniffed Victorian-era English art critic John Ruskin:
"Modern traveling is not traveling at all; it is merely being sent to a place, and very little different from being a parcel."

(I quail to imagine what might have been Ruskin's reaction to a TSA line. We airline travelers have been demoted from parcel to cattle...)


For me, having spent so many hours driving through the vast spaces of Far West Texas, the fourth chapter, "Panoramic Travel," was the most engaging. The opening epigraph is from Emerson's Journals: "Dreamlike traveling on the railroad." In a car, as in a railway compartment, we are enclosed from the weather behind windows, and by a roof and a floor. We rest our bodies in an upholstered seat. Beyond the window, things sail by silently, inexorably, scentlessly: hills, fences, a gas station-- it becomes a blur.

Travel by railroad induced "panoramic perception." Schivelbusch:

"Panoramic perception, in contrast to traditional perception, no longer belonged to the same space as the perceived objects: the traveler saw the objects, landscapes, etc. through the apparatus which moved him through the world. That machine and the motion it created became integrated into his viual perception: thus he could only see things in motion. That mobility of vision-- for a traditionally oriented sensorium, such as Ruskin's-- became a prerequisite for the 'normality' of panoramic vision. This vision no longe experiences evanescence: evanescent reality had become the new reality." (p.64)

Because this can be deadly boring, and necesitated being in close quarters with fellow travelers of, shall we say, possibly inconvenient social connections, bougeois train travelers took up reading. Schivelbusch:
"Reading while traveling became almost obligatory.The dissolution of reality and its resurrection as panorama thus became agents for the total emancipation from the traversed landscape: the traveler's gaze could then move into an imaginary surrogate landscape, that of his book." (p. 64)*

But back to computers. I am beginning, with fraying patience, to think of ours as the Age of Phubbing Smombies. To walk the aisle of a railway passenger car or an airplane  is to catch the soundless glow of dozens of little screens... the overwhelming majority not of text but of flashing images of murders, faces, scantily clad women, roaring dinosaurs, cars and other objects hurling off cliffs (what is it with all the cliffs?).. and cartoons of the same... In sum, a mesmerizing mishmash of imagery.


In the 19th century the "great machine" of the railway ensemble spread across the land in both Europe  and the North American continent, but, as Schivelbusch details, there were fundamental differences in the pattern and nature of that machine. Europe was already densely populated and richly networked by highways and roads; "in America, the railroad served to open up, for the first time, vast regions of previously unsettled winderness."* In other words, to quote Schivelbusch quoting von Weber, "In Europe, the railroad facilitates traffic; in America, it creates it."

*Quibble: Important regions of America's interior were not in fact a wholly "unsettled wilderness" until after the cascading demographic collapses,  and later Indian removals, and the Indian Wars. There were well-established trails and trade routes throughout the continent, many going back many hundreds of years. But yes, compared to Europe, the road networks in Amreica were thin and poor and the vast desert expanses and the Great Plains were terrible, as many memoirs attest, to traverse by horse-drawn vehicles. 
And while Europe's industrial revolution focused on manufacturing, primarily textiles, in America it was about agriculture (cotton, tobacco) and transport. In the early 19th century, what American industry had in the way of machines was, writes Schivelbusch, "river steamboats, railroad trains, sawmills, harvesting combines."

By the 19th century the string of older cities of the North Atlantic coast-- Boston down to Washington DC-- were linked by well-established highways, however, the rest of the continent had more primitive roads, oftentimes what amounted to footpaths and, above all, waterways: The Mississippi, the Missouri, the Ohio, the Hudson, various canals, and the Great Lakes. "Thus passenger travel used these waterways in the absence of highways... One traveled by water whenever possible."

Unsurprisingly, the American railway compartment took on the distinctive character of the American riverboat cabin. These tended to be broad open rooms, more comfortable for traveling long distances. European railroad compartments took their template from the stagecoach, a cozier space.

Schivelbuch argues that in American culture the railroad was closely linked with the steamer both because it was these were the first and second mechanized means of transportation and because so much of the interior landcape-- the Great Plains--was described by travelers as kind of vast ocean. (Indeed it was, in an eon past, the bottom of an ocean.)

The path of the railroad tracks differed as well: American tracks tended to curve where European tracks would be straight. As Schivelbusch points out, this reflected differences in labor and land costs. In America, land was cheap and labor expensive. In Europe then "it paid to construct tunnels, embankments and cuttings in order to make the rails proceed in a straight line, at a minimum of land cost."

Ah, so that explains the sinuosity of those Far West Texas rails.


"new consciousness of time and space based on train schedules and the novel activity of reading while traveling" (p.160)

Re: The reconsideration of the concept of shock in the 19th century. Schivelbusch:

"The railroad related to the coach and horses as the modern mass army relates to the medieval army of knights (and as manufacture and industry do to craftmanship.)" (p.159)

 Re: A "sinister aspect". Schivelbusch:

" had become possible to travel in something that seemed like an enormous grenade." (p.160)
"The train passenger of the later nineteenth century who sat reading his book thus had a thicker layer of that skin than the earlier traveler, who coud not even think about reading because the journey still was, for him, a space-time adventure that engaged his entire sensorium." (p.165)

(Thicker layer of skin!! Just turn on TV news!! The commercials!! In our day, we've all grown callouses on top of rhino hide.)


Schivelbusch covers Haussmann's remodeling of Paris in detail in chapter 12, "Tracks in the City."

"The streets Haussmann created served only traffic, a fact that distinguished them from the medieval streets an lanes that they destroyed, whose function was not so much to serve traffic as to be a forum for neighborhood life; it also distinguihsed them from the boulevards and avenues of the Baroque, who linearity and width was designed more for pomp and ceremony han for mere traffic." (p. 183)
"The broad, tree-lined streets were seen as providers of light and air, creating sanitary conditions in both a physiological and a political sense-- the latter favorable to the rule of Napoleon III." (p. 186)


The final chapter, "Circulation," looks at the consequences of the changes in transportation for retail, specifically, the development of department stores.

"As Haussmann's traffic arteries were connected to the rail network by means of the railway stations,and thus to all traffic in its entirety, the new department stores, in turn, were connected to the new intra-urban arteries and their traffic. The Grands Magasins that arose during the second half of the nineteenth century were concentrated on the boulevards that supplied them with goods and customers." (p.188)
While traveling on the train put an end to conversation, so the department store put an end to haggling, for now there were price tags.

Department stores encouraged panoramic perception.

"There had to be noise, commotion, life everywhere... The customer was kept in motion; he traveled through the department store as a train passenger traveled through the landscape. In their totality, the goods impressed him as an ensemble of objects and price tags fused into a pointillistic overall view..."(p. 191)

The sources of parnoramic perception were at once speed and "the commodity character of objects."(p. 193)


"... whatever was part of circulation was regarded as healthy, progressive, constructive; all that was detached from circulation, on the other hand, appeared diseased, medieval, subversive, threatening."
(p. 195)


Re: The Grand Tour, "an essential part of ... education before the industrialization of travel." The world was experienced in its original spatio-temporality... His education consisted of his assimilation of the spatial individuality of the places visited, by means of an effort that was both physical and intellectual" (p. 197)

(At this thought, of the industrialization of travel, I had an evil little chuckle recalling Mrs Pofrock in Henry James' The Ambassadors.)

"The railroad, the destroyer of experiential space and time, thus also destroyed the educational experience of the Grand Tour... the places visited by the traveler became increasingly similar to the commodities that were part of the same circulation system. For the twentieth-century tourist, the world has become one huge department store of countrysides and cities" (p. 197)

I would venture that a more apt analogy would now be "menu of venues for digitally realized self-presentation" -- translation from the Noodathipious Fluffermuffer: "selfies." I hear most everyone shops online these days.

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A curious analogy occured to me, that just as the automobile allowed for more agency for a traveler vis-a-vis the railroad, so the tablets and smartphones allow more agency than the television for the consumer of entertainment.


Lynn White's 1973 address to the American Historical Society
Both charming and profound.

Society for the History of Technology's List of Classic Works in the History of Technology
Note: One book that should be on that list and for some unfathomable reason is not:
Donald R. Hill's Islamic Science and Engineering (Edinburgh University Press, 1993)
Speaking of which, why isn't Schivelbusch?! Let's call it a handy, albeit embryonic, list.

See also SHOT's Basic Bibliography of Works in the Field

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