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.
Mimi Sheller and Gijs Mom
The name of our journal, Transfers, suggests a wide and even proliferating number of ways of thinking about movement and researching mobilities. What is transferred, how, and between whom? As things “cross over,” how are they changed? And how are contexts changed by that which moves through them? In this issue, we present a series of articles that indirectly take up the concept of transfers in different ways. Transfers, they suggest, might be thought of in terms of circulations, assemblages, entanglements, mobile social practices, networks of movement, moving onward, migrations, and the choreographies of bodies within practices of transport. But it also might be conceived of in terms of more temporal processes: instabilities, transformations, subtly shifting performances, and changing representations. We welcome this wide range of understandings of practice and processes of “transference,” as we might call this kind of conceptual transformation across mobilities. They all share an emphasis on relationality and the ongoing making of meaning.
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 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.
Heike Weber and Gijs Mom
The final months of 2014 have seen many critical events in respect to mobility: Apple introduced its Apple Watch, a cyborg technology that adds a novel, substantially corporeal layer to our “always on” connectedness—what Sherry Turkle has termed the “tethered self.”1 Moreover, it is said to revolutionize mobile paying systems, and it might finally implement mobile body monitoring techniques into daily life.2 Ebola is terrorizing Africa and frightening the world; its outbreak and spread is based on human mobility, and researchers are calling for better control and quantifi cation of human mobility in the affected regions to contain the disease.3 Even its initial spread from animals to humans may have had its origin in human transgressions beyond traditional habitats, by intruding into insular bush regions and using the local fruit bats as food. Due to global mobility patterns, the viral passenger switched transport modes, from animal to airplane. On the other hand, private space fl ight suff ered two serious setbacks in just one week when the Antares rocket of Orbital Sciences, with supplies for the International Space Station and satellites on board, exploded, and shortly after, SpaceShipTwo crashed over the Mojave Desert. Th ese catastrophic failures ignited wide media discussion on the challenges, dangers, and signifi cance of space mobility, its ongoing commercialization and privatization, and, in particular, plans for future manned space travel for “tourists.”4