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Reworking Appropriation

The Language of Paris Railways, 1870–1914

Peter Soppelsa

By tracking railway language through periodicals and poetry, this article examines the words and images used to make sense of Paris's new subway and streetcars between 1870 and 1914. It proposes a new threefold approach to understanding the appropriation of technology, which reworks its agents, sites, and chronologies. It maintains that appropriation takes both material and symbolic forms, and that appropriation processes transform both appropriated objects and their cultural contexts. Language anchors appropriation as it operates through circulating texts. For Paris, railways were both transportation technologies and versatile tools for making meaning. Railways set spaces, customs, identities, and images adrift, which traditionalists found threatening, progressives found promising, and avant-gardists found inspiring. Fitting Paris with railways required both reimagining and rebuilding the city, and reshaping what railways could be. The article concludes that appropriation is neither linear nor complete, but rather an ongoing and unfinished negotiation of the meaning of technologies.

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Peter Soppelsa

Chandra Mukerji, Impossible Engineering: Technology and Territoriality on the Canal du Midi (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009).

Sara Pritchard, Confluence: The Nature of Technology and the Remaking of the Rhône (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011).