Using Peter Merriman's recent book as a trigger, this review-cum-polemic argues that mobility history is facing a scholarly crisis in the midst of other mobility-related fields that are blossoming. The core of the diagnosis is a lack of debate on a central question that is painfully missing. The article suggests as a remedy the opening up of the field along the paths of transmodality, transdisciplinarity, and especially transnationality. The national bias of much historical scholarship is a hindrance to its future blooming.
In his reply to my diatribe about the crisis of transport and mobility history, my friend Peter Merriman casually drops the term “modernist” three times (one time in combination with “desires”), as if to suggest that mine is a backward struggle. He seems to ask: haven’t we now moved into the postmodern condition, beyond the illusions of grand narratives and all-permeating questions, into a meadow of a thousand blooming flowers? Apart from the fact that Mao was more modest than Merriman (Mao used ba¯i, a hundred, not qia¯n, a thousand, my Chinese teacher here in Shanghai explains to me, and he used “blossoming” rather than “blooming,” though the difference between the two escapes me with my limited mastery of English), Peter might be right: I confess I am an antimodernist modernist. Like Deng Xiaoping, for whom this term was coined by the Chinese historian Wang Hui and with whom (for several reasons) I don’t like to be compared, I like to stir things up to keep us awake. I need to ask questions—often with a vengeance. Perhaps the main difference between Peter and I is that I dare to use the word “us.” I feel a member of an association, while Peter might be considered a monad in a network. While I bask in the illusions of a community of scholars, Peter advocate a mild postmodernism, perhaps feeling more at home in a fragmented environment, of which even the mobile practices of the Australian Pitjantjatara form a part. Do we have a case of Gesellschaft versus Gemeinschaft here?
This summer a small airplane was suspended between high trees on a lane in a posh neighborhood of Amsterdam. Part of a display of contemporary art, the plane is one of Joost Conijn’s self-built contraptions in which he flew all the way to Africa, regularly reporting on his “performance” in one of the Dutch national newspapers. In Western histories of mobility, voyages to Africa—on foot, by ship, in litters carried by indigenous people, in trains, by car or motorbike, and in planes—symbolized in the popular mind an aggressive colonialism. Such trips demonstrated Western superiority as much as they involved utilitarian journeying or reconnaissance of land to be conquered. Anxious about staying aloft, Conijn mimicked in his adventures the pioneering spirit of colonial exploits while at the same time giving them a postcolonial twist. In his case, the return to Africa was a self-consciously humble venture, one that threw into comic relief assumptions of western superiority and the right to unfettered mobility. At the same time as his low-tech vehicle questioned the rationality of mass tourism in supersize Boeings, it reminded us of an era after the car began to be domesticated, when aviation promised to be the more advanced successor of individual motorized transport.
In the very first issue of Transfers, we invited our readers to “Hop On the Bus,” to engage in an adventure to rethink mobility, and to reformulate and construe what we called new mobility studies (NMS), an envisaged amalgam of historical, humanities, and social science approaches to modern and postmodern mobilities. Now, seven volumes and seven years (and twenty-one issues with give or take two hundred main articles and three hundred reviews) later, at a moment when I consider my time to lead this fascinating project as coming to an end, we can look back, I venture to conclude, on a period in which this project stabilized into a transdisciplinary, transnational program of research with contributions from academic and nonacademic writers from across the globe.
Gijs Mom and Pet Norton
With the publication of this yearbook, we celebrate two jubilees: the yearbook itself appears in its fifth edition, enabled by an association just entering its third lustrum. Where do we stand in 2013, as a community of scholars and other persons interested in the study of mobility? How did we, as a community, evolve? What developments did we experience during the past ten years to reach our current standpoint?
Christiane Katz and Gijs Mom
Scholarship in the history of the electric vehicle has covered the first wave of enthusiasm in this alternative propulsion system well. On the basis of this scholarship, we find that this wave consisted of three generations: first, before 1905, a pioneering generation of electrified carriages; then a second generation from 1905 to 1920 of vehicles also derived from horse drawn technology but now equipped with a sophisticated lead-acid battery and, most of all, supported by a management system based upon subscriptions for batteries and tires in cents per kilometer; and finally, from the 1920s on, a generation of would-be petrol cars on which the electric propulsion was hidden, as a silent recognition of the victory of the petrol car.
Gijs Mom and Nanny Kim
How topsy-turvy can the world of mobility become? Th e London cab has recently been revived by a Chinese automotive group,1 General Motors had to be rescued by the American taxpayer, and BMW is converting its cars to electricity. In Delhi, after a rape and murder of a woman in a bus, rickshaw pullers introduced “safe for women” rickshaws.2 In Brazil riots against corruption and poverty started in a bus, out of outrage at increased ticket prices.3 In Rio de Janeiro there are three bus accidents per day, in part caused by drivers racing against each other.4 How can we understand the plethora of confusing messages from a world of mobility that seems to spin out of control, more so with every new decade? New Mobility Studies tries to make sense of this turbulence and as editors of Transfers we seek fresh approaches that are not afraid of transgressing boundaries. Th is issue, in which we present scholarship beyond the immediate reach of Western mainstream mobility studies, is an example of such boundary crossing.
Gijs Mom and Georgine Clarsen
The recent wave of refugees into Europe is—apart from a heartrending drama of human suff ering—a lesson in mobility. We increasingly find that current forms of mobility are diffi cult to analyze without taking such public dramas into account: it seems that more than ever the politics of mobility are crying out for the mobility student’s attention. While in Europe a gulf of ambiguous empathy was triggered by the ultimate expression of immobility (a shocking image that so quickly moved around the world of a little Syrian boy called Aylan Kurdi lying facedown on the beach, his head pointing toward the sea, as if his last wish had been to go back), the fl ows, the streams, the “swarms” of refugees were nothing less than the very embodiment of movement. Swarms, in this context is not meant to be a pejorative term or invoked in the service of nationalist agendas, but refers to the insight that certain forms of collective mobility seem to follow a kind of inherent behavioral logic, the group acting as if it is organized but without an actual leader.
Georgine Clarsen and Gijs Mom
This issue we mourn the untimely death of John Urry, our much-loved friend and colleague. John’s role in the emergence of mobility studies, our robust and multidisciplinary field of scholarship, is well-known. Based at Lancaster for most of his working life, John was central to launching new ways of thinking and researching, not only in his own discipline of sociology but across the social sciences and humanities. The breadth and scope of John’s scholarship is evident in his extensive list of publications. They date from the early 1970s, gathered momentum over the past two decades, and will continue into the future with material still in press.
Georgine Clarsen Gijs Mom
The title of this journal, Transfers, merits explication, as it attempts to engage a multitude of scholarly fields, applications, practices and conceptual frameworks. For us, Transfers invokes the movement of people, things, and information through time and space, but it also applies to the transit of concepts between fields of scholarship. The practices of technology transfer are an example of the former, while the latter can be seen at work when the concept of mobility is used to refer to both social (or “vertical”) mobility and physical (or “horizontal”) mobility. Social mobility, for instance, comes into play when the possession of a car leads to higher status, or when the train compartment becomes a medium of social exchange or the display of social hierarchies rather than simply a vehicle of physical transport. Interdisciplinarity, the key scholarly mode of this journal, always involves the movement of ideas across disciplinary borders, unsettling them in (we think) productive ways. Transfers, in other words, connects adjacent fields of scholarship as much as it connects geographical areas between which technologies move. It is crucial to understand that during this process, people, technologies, concepts, and goods in movement are transformed and transform their environments in turn. This is not an automatic or passive process: as people move, people translate.