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 Georgine Clarsen
Fostering conversations (and even better, interdisciplinary collaborations) between mobility historians and media historians is a high priority for this journal. Three years ago in Transfers 3, no. 1 (spring 2013), Dorit Müller and Heike Weber, as editors of this journal and guest editors of a Special Section on Media and Mobility, made a plea to study “the intense correlations between media and transport technologies,” which had been fatefully split at the end of the nineteenth century. On that occasion, we also announced a “portfolio” on Media and Mobility (for more details, see this journal’s website), which was designed to stimulate the writing and publication of such crossover scholarship. We wait in hope for a courageous and curious historian who ventures an analysis of the car as a medium of communication, to name just one possible example.
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
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.
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