Humans and elephants have historically shared the forested mountain ranges of Zomia, a geography defined by the regular movement of people and an ecology shaped by the movement of its elephant population. This article will examine how free-roaming elephant pathways facilitated human mobility in the highlands defining the Indo-Myanmar border. It will analyze the more-than-human agency that emerges when following elephant trails and the varying role this forest infrastructure might have played in the social and political history of the region. The article will explore two historical examples. First, the migration of a Lisu community in Upper Myanmar who utilized elephant paths to navigate their passage. Second, how the British Empire exploited a network of elephant-human tracks to subjugate the peoples living in Mizoram, northeast India. In these regions the patterns of migration, history of colonization, and identities and practices of communities must be understood in relation to wild elephants.
Human-Elephant Mobility and History across the Indo-Myanmar Highlands
Paul G. Keil
Topology and Infrastructural Politics in Alpine Italy
This article examines transportation infrastructures’ capacity to produce and transform social space through a focus on the contested history of railway development in Valsusa, Italy. I draw on participant observation and interviews with local residents and activists during ethnographic fieldwork in 2014–2015. I first describe how railways helped form modern sociality in Valsusa in the twentieth century. Subsequently, I explore contrasting topological effects of a projected high-speed rail through the valley. For planners envisioning a trans-European space of exchange, the railway is a powerful way to “shrink” space; for local residents, this implies reducing Valsusa to a traffic “corridor.” Yet their protest generates new social relations and knowledges, giving rise to a notion of “territory” as unbound and connected to a transnational space of resistance to capitalist expansion.
Continuity and Change of (Post)Socialist Infrastructure
The construction of the Baikal-Amur Mainline (BAM) in East Siberia and the Russian Far East in the 1970s and 1980s was the largest technological and social engineering project of late socialism. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the BAM was dogged by economic bust, decline, and public disillusionment. BAM-2, a recently launched state program of technological modernization, aims to complete a second railway track. The project elicits memories as well as new hopes and expectations, especially among “builders of the BAM.” This article explores continuity and change between BAM-1 and BAM-2. It argues that the reconstruction efforts of the postsocialist state are predetermined by the durability of the infrastructure as a materialization of collective identities, memories, and emotions.
Educating the First Railroaders in Central Sakha (Yakutiya)
Sigrid Irene Wentzel
In July 2019, the village of Nizhniy Bestyakh in the Republic of Sakha (Yakutiya), the Russian Far East, was finally able to celebrate the opening of an eagerly awaited railroad passenger connection. Through analysis of rich ethnographic data, this article explores the “state of uncertainty” caused by repeated delays in construction of the railroad prior to this and focuses on the effect of these delays on students of a local transportation college. This college prepares young people for railroad jobs and careers, promising a steady income and a place in the Republic’s wider modernization project. The research also reveals how the state of uncertainty led to unforeseen consequences, such as the seeding of doubt among students about their desire to be a part of the Republic’s industrialization drive.
Decolonizing Directions in Railway Mobilities
This article considers the railways as a decolonial option for moving toward mobility justice. It views the photographic artwork Trained Man by Ngalkban Australian artist Darren Siwes through a mobilities lens, considering how the artist plays with time and attends to space, making visible what colonial projects of protection and assimilation have attempted to erase. Attending to the truths and imaginaries that reside and move with Trained Man, it draws on the work of Aboriginal and Black artists, scholars, and activists to trace Australia’s past and present colonial history of training Aboriginal people into whiteness. It considers the railways as carrying “two lines of destiny” with potential moving in both colonial and decolonial directions. The article concludes by suggesting that shared spaces such as the railways open possibilities for mobilizing the decolonial project.
Where Environmental Aesthetics Meets Magical Realism
A unique exhibition was held between 19 and 22 September 2018 in the deep blue waters of Amorgos, Greece. Amorgos is the easternmost of the Cyclades islands, neighboring the Dodecanese island group. The island’s rich aquatic life and architectural beauty featured prominently in French director Luc Besson’s internationally acclaimed English-language film on freediving, The Big Blue (Le Grand Bleu, 1988), transforming the island into an international destination for tourists and freedivers. The exhibition Underwater Gallery: On a Single Breath, was installed at a depth of 7 to 17 meters inside a sea cave in the area of Aghios Pavlos, below the Monastery of Hozoviotissa. Hozoviotissa’s famous top-floor window of the “big blue” opens to the Aegean Sea, affording visitors a bird’s eye view to the Aegean. It is clear that the gallery’s connection to Besson’s artwork is indisputable.
COVID Pandemic and the Politics of Mobility
This article reflects on the dissenting act of mobility as articulated by migrant workers in India, who, during the nationwide lockdown amid the COVID-19 pandemic crisis, are walking back home, hundreds of miles away, in lieu of public transport. Their mobility—precisely, the act of walking—has thus acquired a metaphoric status, and laid bare the ideological practices of territorializing the city-space. This article argues that the migrant worker’s mobility, from within the axiomatic of the prevalent “mobility regime,” can be read as a powerful metaphor of our tensions within the global political-economic order that the pandemic has so starkly exposed. The article provokes less literal, but more literary, understandings of mobilities in general, in order to come to grips with the manifold contradictions, paradoxes, and counteractions in the way the world moves.
Anthropology of Infrastructure and Debates around “Green” Transit
Heather Anne Swanson
As the introduction to this special issue points out, railroads are a relatively new object of attention for anthropologists. My response dives more substantially into the question of why they are such compelling sites in this present moment. What does the growing interest in railroads—exemplified by this collection of articles—tell us about current anthropological concerns, as well as about how the discipline might further contribute to wider debates about the politics of infrastructures? The first half of this response considers railroads within academic trajectories, while the second half examines them in relation to wider environmental conversations, especially ongoing public debates about climate-friendly transit.
This Perspective piece marks the ten-year anniversary of Transfers’ life as a journal and its contributions to aeromobilities research. Reflecting on my own past decade learning and writing about aeromobilities, the article takes stock of some significant threads in the field, before charting out three key future directions for aeromobilities research prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic and health crisis. Without prejudice to existing scholarly threads, the article discusses the burgeoning salience of new (aero)mobility injustices, automation, and aerial (in)civilities, amid an aviation industry struggling to reboot itself. The next ten years present enduring possibilities for aeromobilities inquiries, and the article hopes to inspire future thinking on the subject as societies connect again through aviation.
Transfers as Interdisciplinary Site
Ten years ago a new journal that would anchor and foster what would become known as the “new mobility studies” appeared: Transfers. The intervening years have seen it grow into an important multidisciplinary, if not yet quite interdisciplinary, journal for researchers around the world. Reflecting on Transfers’ founding and first decade, this essay comments on the salutary development within the journal's pages of “worlding” the European and North American analyses that had characterized early mobility studies, and cautions against underestimating the continuing power of the state in constructing and administering environments of mobility.