Discipline and Publish?

Transfers as Interdisciplinary Site

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  • 1 Dickinson College, USA seilerc@dickinson.edu


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.

What does a decade mark? This arbitrary corralling of years into a significant grouping goes back, as near as I can gauge, to the obsessed-with-things-in-tens Romans, or maybe to the human digits that set the limits of prehistoric arithmetic. Anyway, this issue we mark Transfers rolling into the academic world a decade ago, propelled by Gijs Mom and what he calls in his thoughtful piece the “small, very heterogeneous group of adventurers” that accompanied him. I was fortunate enough to be part of this group, representing the interdiscipline of cultural studies. Actually, I hail from the field of American studies, which tends to be the name cultural studies departments go by in US institutions. American studies had originated in the interwar period from a critique of the inability of extant humanities and social sciences fields to distinguish and account for the modes of cultural production, politics, and society that had emerged in the twentieth-century United States. The practices, technologies, infrastructures and values of mobility—both spatial and socioeconomic—constituted key elements of the field's scholarly purview. But the field's perspectives on mobility, like its perspectives on the nation to which it directed its inquiry, had shifted over the last decades of the twentieth century.

Despite the jingoistic overtones of its name (and its erstwhile role as Cold War shill for US interests), contemporary American studies has drawn deeply on the Gramscian cultural studies that flourished in the postwar UK, as well as feminist, poststructuralist, diasporic, postcolonial, and critical race theory.1 The field has come to reject the frame of “American exceptionalism” and treat the United States as one of many national actors in the world, sharing as well as diverging from the patterns of other modern states and societies. The most influential American studies scholarship over the past few decades has addressed itself to the inequalities of race, gender, ethnicity, class, and ability that have formed in and beset a society characterized by successive and cumulative practices of enslavement, settler colonialism, and immigration over the past four centuries.

Themes of mobility and migration have always suffused the American studies enterprise. Seminal scholarship such as Robert and Helen Lynd's Middletown (1929), Henry Nash Smith's Virgin Land (1950), Perry Miller's Errand Into the Wilderness (1956), and Leo Marx's The Machine in the Garden (1964) located the practices, values, and technologies of mobility at the heart of the American experience. However, these works focused more or less exclusively on the mobility of the white settler-colonizers, purportedly impelled by their “rugged individualism” and “pioneer spirit” across the Atlantic and the North American continent. Not surprisingly, this scholarship tended to celebrate the regimes of loco- and automobility emplaced on the contemporary landscape by drawing a direct line of descent from nineteenth-century wagon trains to twentieth-century station wagons. In this national mythos, Americans (by which this scholarship tacitly meant those Americans racialized as white) move; mobility is in the national DNA.

As Georgine Clarsen incisively notes in her contribution to this issue, this heroic tale reads very differently from the perspective of those for whom this settler mobility precipitated centuries of resource theft, exploitation, displacement, cultural destruction, and genocide. Seldom did one find in early American studies scholarship the voices of those driven from or stolen from their homelands as settlers and enslavers overspread and claimed for themselves the continent. The mobility of Puritan and merchant colonists, westering pioneers, cowboys, rail passengers, and motorists was woven together to form for its audiences what the anthropologist Clifford Geertz called “a story that they tell themselves about themselves.” This hegemonic story largely omitted, for example, the Cherokee forced migrants of the Trail of Tears, the Africans carried away by the transatlantic and internal slave trades, the Chinese laborers who largely constructed the transport and agricultural infrastructures of the American West, and any number of other groups whose mobility had been forced, circumscribed, or curtailed by white Americans and the state they created to enforce their will.

The social and political paroxysms of the 1960s and 1970s, especially the Black Freedom Movement and the Vietnam War (both of which resonated with metaphors of motion and paralysis), forced a reckoning with these unheralded mobilities, thereby transforming American studies. By the late 1960s the field had developed what one might call, after the philosopher Paul Ricoeur, a “hermeneutics of suspicion.” It began to turn a more critical eye on American mobility's political-philosophical underpinnings, technological apparatuses (the infrastructures installed on the landscape and the trains, automobiles, and aircraft that ply them), and the racial, gendered, and classed conditions that have enabled and disabled a broad range of mobility practices. American studies scholars have retained mobility as a lens, but jettisoned much of the celebratory rhetoric that used to leap from academic accounts of whites’ exploration and “discovery,” settlement, immigration, and travel. Instead, they tend to foreground the power relations that structure the global flows of ideas, aesthetics, capital, and people that the United States has facilitated, sustained, and throttled in different historical moments.

American studies’ objects of inquiry, methods, and ethos mark it as oriented toward national and global transformation in an egalitarian, democratic direction, an orientation it shares with most mainstream contemporary humanities and social science disciplines. Let me just say, by way of understatement, that things lately have been rough for those of us with such commitments. Despite the Great Recession, interminable war, and climate crisis, the environment of 2009 had for most of the Global North not yet become the “dangerous world” (around which Mimi Sheller and the other Transfers editors organized their 2017 special issue of the journal) that confronts us ten years later, as a global pandemic wreaks its havoc and authoritarian leaders amass their suicide cults in Brasilia, Moscow, Budapest, Beijing, and Washington. What themes will we, interdisciplinary scholars of mobility studies, foreground in our analyses of mobility in this dire time? Because we gotta, to quote The Animals, get out of this place.

Around the time of Transfers’ founding, I had just published Republic of Drivers, which recounts the history of automobility in America from the 1890s to the 1960s. This work argued that the feelings of autonomy and agency bruited by early motorists and the automobile industry were instrumental to its incorporation into the “American way of life” in the national transition from proprietary to corporate capitalism, and from a craft- to a factory-labor paradigm. Not only did the performative and circumscribed “freedom” of automobility shape the built environment of the twentieth-century United States, but it powerfully conditioned its social and political imaginary as well.

At the heart of the project sat the driver, the figure for whom the car and the built environment of automobility are produced. To drive, I argued, is to inhabit a valorized subjectivity that reflected and repetitively performed the freedom, mastery, and autonomy that characterized a mythic American past. Not surprisingly, the driver-subject found favor with the US nation-state, which demonstrated its approval by building the essential infrastructure of automobility: public roads and highways on which this subject could perform this spectacular and ultimately submissive species of freedom. “To whirl along with all the joy your car has to offer—that's something to want,” announced a 1955 advertisement by Republic Steel, one of the suppliers of material for the Interstate Highway System that would be authorized by Congress the following year. The ad featured a white man behind the wheel (in full color, while the passengers remained in monochrome), his smile testifying to his pleasure and his prerogative: the self-governing, free citizen of a bounded political space—the republic of drivers.

The automobility of women and people of color, by contrast, threatened US hierarchies of race and gender, a fact borne out by the efforts—often violent—undertaken by the state, private organizations, and mobs to prevent these groups from claiming the driver's seat and thereby the symbolic proprietorship of American space. At the same time, these groups’ efforts to acquire a fully realized automobility were often ambiguous, foreclosing on a more thoroughgoing critique of the liberal-capitalist society that automobility anchors and whose values and practices—individualism, competition, risk, consumption, repetition—it spatially and performatively represents. Even today, if the harassment, violence, and injustices visited on those “driving while black” were to disappear, through police reform, strict enforcement of antidiscrimination laws, and more general antiracist sensibility among white citizens, the regime of automobility would suffer no diminution of its legitimacy—quite the contrary. Indeed, such groups’ successes in assuming the driver's seat have tended to reaffirm automobility as the epitome of freedom. The durability of automobility as “something to want” has precluded Americans’ imagining, demanding, and building more robustly democratic structures. Driving looks and feels like freedom and agency, but it amounts, substantively, to neither.

Republic of Drivers did not slot readily into any of the disciplines—political science, sociology, or the subfields of policy, business, and engineering history—that typically focused a scholarly lens on automobility. Still, I was routinely and pleasantly surprised at the variety of audiences the book found, as I was asked to give talks by departments of anthropology, psychology, geography, history, art, architecture, and literature, and the book appeared on syllabi for courses in fields ranging from landscape design to cultural history to urban planning. Another most pleasant surprise was Gijs Mom's invitation to join the group that came together to found Transfers.

Gijs had correctly discerned a need for a new interdisciplinary journal that would anchor and foster what would become known as “new mobility studies.” I had not realized that my work fed into this stream; I only knew that, when it came to scholarly inquiries into mobility, I felt a bit like Goldilocks. As I researched, wrote, and attended conferences, I had been drawn to and enriched by but ultimately dissatisfied with the conversations in the adjacent fields of sociology, transport history, science and technology studies, and the literary, film, and art criticism of a number of humanities disciplines. The sociology I had read offered useful theoretical tools, but struck me as too ahistorical; nor did it tend to do close readings of cultural texts to illustrate its claims. The field of transport history into which I had dipped a toe seemed uninterested in, even hostile to, theory. Both struck me as insufficiently attentive to the racial, national, ethnic, gendered, and classed particularities of the moving subject (or the “user,” as science and technology studies characterized this figure). One could find this more nuanced and granular analysis in literary, film, and art criticism (one cannot imagine, for example, an account of the raft in Mark Twain's 1885 novel Huckleberry Finn that does not attend to the different mobility capacities of its two passengers, one black and enslaved, the other free and white). But in much of this criticism, mobility remained tangential; it rarely, if ever, achieved the status of an optic through which one could acquire a compelling new view of this or that literary, musical, visual art object.

Signing on to Gijs's ambitious project, I had hoped that Transfers would provide a scholarly space that could gather together under one roof, so to speak, these diverse disciplinary perspectives and toolkits. I had suspected—and have since found to be true—that there exist few formal incentives for professional scholars to read and publish outside of their disciplines; despite paeans to interdisciplinary work in the mission statements of so many institutions of research and higher education, professional rewards accrue to scholars who stay within the disciplinary paradigm in which they were trained. It is simply the way the profession has been organized since the advent of disciplines in the nineteenth-century academy; and it is worth emphasizing the tremendous intellectual labor that went into establishing disciplines and setting their paradigms to work, and how much fruitful knowledge they have issued. At the same time, I was and remain thrilled by generative and pathbreaking work produced by misfits and malcontents who chafed at disciplinary habits and habitats: Suzanne Langer's Philosophy in a Minor Key (1942), Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), Harold Cruse's The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual (1967), and Mike Davis's City of Quartz (1990), to name just a few. Such influential works may appear stolid to us now; it grows harder to see that at the time of their conception and release they were symptoms of—and correctives to—the insufficiency of disciplinary vocabularies in formulating the questions that most needed asking.

Looking back on ten years of Transfers, it strikes me that the journal is on its way to fulfilling its interdisciplinarity promise. This is not to say the essays, book and exhibit reviews, translations, and other features are not informative, provocative, and useful (to my mind, they have been all three), but the journal has tended to display what the historian Philip Deloria has called “Interdisciplinarity 1.0.” That is to say, much of the scholarship Transfers has published remains wedded to specific disciplinary paradigms; hence the tables of contents of most issues reveal a thoroughgoing multidisciplinarity. Nevertheless, the variety in methods, theories, concepts, and topics each issue brings indicates that the journal is moving itself and its readers toward “Interdisciplinary 2.0,” which yields new configurations of thought, professional organizations, and sites of research and pedagogy.2

Let me close by taking up two developments in new mobility studies in which Transfers has played an integral role. One strikes me as wholly salutary and exciting; the other gives me pause. In the first instance, I am talking about the internationalization of new mobility studies, and with it, the decentering of the mobilities regime of the Global North. Here Gijs and the journal have led the way, organizing conferences, facilitating connections, and directing resources to the study of the vehicles, practices, values, and consequences of the specific mobilities found outside the traditional metropoles—in Asia and Africa in particular. The result, which Gijs documents with statistics and graphs, has been a wealth of new accounts of Global South mobility that trouble, in the very best way, the assumptions and generalizations of generations of European and North American scholars. And, as Georgine suggests, this sort of engagement has had the added effect of making us all more adept and curious scholars, attuned to difference in a myriad of forms.

The second development amounts to what Gijs calls “decentering the nation,” a move undertaken “to break away from an exclusive nation-state perspective among transport historians.” Work by a number of mobilities studies scholars has indeed managed to confirm the transnational nature of modern mobilities, especially automobility, in the twentieth century and beyond. Now, as we contemplate mobilities’ future, it might be time to bring the nation-state back to the center, or closer to the center, of our analyses.

Mimi Sheller's incisive introduction to this issue catalogues the changes wrought on our everyday lives by the “dangerous mobility” of the novel coronavirus as it transfers from person to person, community to community, continent to continent. The virus has attenuated—and in many cases halted altogether—the physical mobility most inhabitants of the Global North had considered a kind of modern birthright. In a bitterly ironic turn of “American exceptionalism,” the United States has emerged as one of the pandemic's hot spots, and stands among nations as an object lesson in how to fail to control the coronavirus. As the magazine Scientific American recently observed, the COVID-19 pandemic has amounted to an X-ray of the medical, racial, economic, and political structures that undergird American life, revealing their fractured condition.3

But we should have seen it coming: the US state has for decades shrugged off its role as the supplier of national infrastructures that reflected and generated what the anthropologists Penny Harvey and Hannah Knox describe as “a generic social promise.”4 It is the state that has traditionally produced and kept in working order the bulk of what Mimi Sheller, along with Kevin Hannam and (the late and graceful) John Urry described as “the necessary spatial, infrastructural and institutional moorings that configure and enable mobilities.”5 The infrastructures of mobility might take a transnational form, but they are produced and maintained in national contexts, expressing, at bottom, the affect of the state for what it imagines to be its population.6

The political situation in the United States (and other nations where neoliberal economic policy and authoritarian populism have intertwined) has convinced me that the state's wherewithal to conceive, build, and maintain the infrastructures that make mobility (and the sustenance of life itself) will emerge as a key topic of investigation as the twenty-first century unfurls. I anticipate that Transfers will be there to do what it has done for these past ten years: shed light, pursue connections, keep moving.



See Janice Radway, “What's in a Name? Presidential Address to the American Studies Association, 20 November, 1998,” American Quarterly 51, no. 1 (1999): 1–32.


Philip J. Deloria, “Broadway and Main: Crossroads, Ghost Roads, and Paths to an American Studies Future,” American Quarterly 61, no. 1 (2009): 1–25, here 5.


Leah T. Rosen, “COVID-19 Is Like an X-Ray of Society,” Scientific American, 14 May 2020. https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/voices/covid-19-is-like-an-x-ray-of-society/.


Penny Harvey and Hannah Knox, “The Enchantments of Infrastructure,” Mobilities 7, no. 4 (2012): 521–536, here 523.


Kevin Hannam, Mimi Sheller, and John Urry, “Mobilities, Immobilities, and Moorings,” Mobilities 1, no. 1 (2006): 1–22, here 3.


Despite their association with “twentieth century industrial political economy” roads “could arguably be taken as the paradigmatic material infrastructure of the twenty-first century, supporting both the information society (in the ever increasing circulation of commodified goods and labor) and the extractive economies of developing nations on which the production and reproduction of such goods and labour depends. … Beyond the moral complexity of establishing the infrastructures as a ‘public good’—in the majority of cases roads are constructed as public works—the realisation of such works involves financial, regulatory, and technical relations that often fold international, national and local regimes into a single and specific location.” Dimitris Dalakoglou and Penny Harvey, “Roads and Anthropology: Ethnographic Perspectives on Space, Time and (Im)Mobility,” Mobilities 7, no. 4 (2012): 459-465, here 459–460.

Contributor Notes

Cotten Seiler is Associate Professor of American Studies at Dickinson College. He is the author of Republic of Drivers: A Cultural History of Automobility in America (Chicago, 2009), and his essays have appeared in Social Text, Public Culture, American Quarterly, and other interdisciplinary journals. His current book explores the racial politics of infrastructural provisioning in the twentieth-century United States. Email: seilerc@dickinson.edu.


Interdisciplinary Journal of Mobility Studies


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