Rerouting the Conventional Israeli Historical Narrative
Oded Löwenheim, The Politics of the Trail: Reflexive Mountain Biking along the Frontier of Jerusalem (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2014), 256 pp., 12 illustrations. Hardcover $70, Paper $35
The Politics of the Trail is a professor’s chronicle of his daily bike commute in the hills and valleys of Jerusalem to Hebrew University. Oded Löwenheim’s interdisciplinary book guides the reader through the highly creative, thoughtful, and transformative journey that he experienced as a hobby mountain-bike rider in Israel. This journey takes many forms, from academic to personal to political. On an academic level, the book encourages social scientists to include the often-neglected dimensions of feeling and emotion in their research. On a personal level, the author confides how he is able to pass through a state of cognitive dissonance by gradually and painfully awakening to and facing deeply entrenched inner fears and misunderstandings about Palestinians. Politically, the author challenges the existence of a monolithic Israeli nationalist narrative that perpetuates a culture of conflict. All three of these journeys (and more) happen through the lens of mobility: a man on his mountain bike making connections to his surroundings. The book contributes to the impetus of mobility studies to show that movement is about more than technology and minutiae of science, but about the whole human experience.
The book begins with a brilliant introduction that situates the uniqueness of t he project in the realm of interdisciplinary studies. The bike is a unique research tool not only because it provides access to spaces otherwise largely unfrequented but also because it allows the researcher to slow down and create a bodily (and not just cerebral) connection with the topic of study. The intimacy that the bike affords with the surroundings pushes the author to create a more nuanced perception than could be achieved in a motorized vehicle. The author writes that on the mountain bike you are quite literally “in the outside” (32). Löwenheim approaches the study of the Israeli landscape from an autoethnographic perspective, which means he uses his own experiences, sensations, dilemmas, and realities to provide insights into larger social structures and conditions. The author asserts that as an international relations scholar, this methodology constitutes a humanizing shift away from his usual academic focus on the function of Great Power politics.
Chapters 1 and 2 focus on the separation wall that Israel constructed around the occupied Palestinian territories. The author explains how he went from ignoring the wall to seeing it, and ultimately grappling with how it creates a sense of suffocation that hinders peace. Through encounters on his bike with Palestinians living in the villages along the wall, he attempts to untangle the definitions of identity (based on the act of separating) that the wall creates. He expresses frustration at discovering that the wall made him “a pawn” of Israeli nationalism. Chapters 3 and 4 trace the process by which the author learns about Israel’s destruction and depopulation of Indigenous Palestinian villages in the 1948 establishment of the state of Israel. The author looks specifically at the village of Qalunya, the ruins of which he regularly mountain bikes through. In order to unsilence the truth about this destroyed village, he de-constructs various legends that Israelis have created about it. In the process, he questions the commonly accepted notion that Israel is not an aggressor state in the conflict. In chapter 5, the author argues that the 9/11 war memorial that he often passes on the trail is a tool to legitimize Israel’s war on terror. He compares the high visibility of the monument to a nearby and deeply concealed government bunker, claiming that both are not built for the common citizen. The final chapter comes full circle by connecting the experience of the Palestinians to the experience of Indigenous people of North America, where the author resides while writing the manuscript. He concludes by hoping for “new trails” in the future that allow Palestinians and Israelis to see beyond the existing system of violence.
By engaging with the spaces through which he rides, the author provides a humanistic perspective of a landscape that is often only portrayed in a biblical or militarized sense. His book is in line with a select genre of writings and documentaries that narrate the Israeli–Palestinian conflict through the ways mobility has been experienced. Works such as Palestinian Walks or Route 181 have used hiking or driving, respectively, as the vehicle to discovery of the landscape. Löwenheim adds the voice of the mountain bike.
Representing, Creating, and Unsettling Place in Nineteenth-Century African-American Literature
Judith Madera, Black Atlas: Geography and Flow in Nineteenth-Century African American Literature (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015), 312 pp., paper $25.95
Judith Madera’s Black Atlas: Geography and Flow in Nineteenth-Century African American Literature is an illuminating study of place and place-making in black-authored texts from the second half of the nineteenth century. African-American literature from this era, as Madera demonstrates throughout her book, is “starkly geographic,” intervening in the many geopolitical debates of the nineteenth century (8). But the texts she considers do not simply reflect the spatial resonances of political and cultural transformation in the wake of the Fugitive Slave Law, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the Dred Scott decision, Reconstruction, and the opening waves of the first Great Migration. Instead, Black Atlas reveals how black literature “reconfigures” those geographic contexts, manipulating dominant spatial imaginaries and embodied relations to place so as to “make openings for black aesthetic emergences,” creating not only new maps but also new forms of literary expression (9). This archive, in other words, does not simply represent space and challenge dominant forms of spatiality but also unearths, creates, and protects nonrepresentational geographies, or “deliberations about the ways places get produced rather than the outcomes of that production” (13). That is, if place is typically treated as static, Madera attends to the relations, movements, mediations, and interpretations that create place.
Black Atlas focuses explicitly on the disparate and wide-ranging forms of mobility that Madera collects under the term “flow.” Flow exists in dialectical relation to geography, both unsettling static understandings of place and constituting new spatial relationships and locations. Although Madera examines a wide variety of print materials, from travel narratives to maps, she is especially invested in exploring the rise of the black novel, “the kind of fiction that tied the specters of the past to the flows of a new black cultural history, poised at an uncertain but impending modernity” (2). As she demonstrates across Black Atlas, flow connotes the sort of fugitive movements that William Wells Brown conducted along the Underground Railroad and that are mapped in his 1853 novel Clotel, or the President’s Daughter: A Narrative of Slave Life in the United States (1853). Flow also encompasses Clotel’s representations of the movements of people and capital from Washington, DC, to Richmond, St. Louis, Vicksburg, and Natchez, movements that Madera reveals both as producing space and as productions of geographic networks. Flow also speaks to another of Madera’s concerns: deterritorialization, which might be understood as the undoing of a world, the partitioning of territory, the remaking of boundaries, and the altering of cartographies. Madera traces the negative effects of deterritorialization in the 1856 Life and Adventures of James P. Beckwourth, which recounts Beckwourth’s facilitation of Anglo-American expansion in the West and the destruction of Native networks. By contrast, Martin Delany’s serialized novel Blake: or, the Huts of America (1859/1862) represents the deterritorialization of white imperial space, creating openings for radical networks of antislavery flow. Pauline Hopkins’s Contending Forces: A Romance Illustrative of Negro Life (1900) presents the flows of a community in transition, wherein local knowledges and counterpublics create relations and subjectivities. Contending Forces demonstrates that flow need not operate only on the national or hemispheric scales of Clotel or Blake, but can instead circulate through and shape specific neighborhoods and even domestic spaces. Madera’s final chapter considers turn-of-the-century regionalism, a tradition that tended to fix black characters in both place and time, and reveals instead a countertradition of black flow within the regionalist writings of Charles Chesnutt, Paul Laurence Dunbar, and, most specifically, Alice Moore Dunbar-Nelson, who upends the fixity, solidity, and distinctiveness of region and focuses instead on the active and unsettling processes that produce region.
Madera’s concern with place is ultimately also a concern with scale, the cartographic and temporal registers that vertically organize and seek to stabilize physical terrain, forms of knowledge, and lived experiences. Although deeply indebted to the work of geographers, Black Atlas nonetheless seeks to challenge literary studies’ reliance on uncritically imported scalar imaginaries, particularly since “literature brings to the exploration of place nonquantifiable things like people’s aspirations and memories” (212). Thus we see how flow operates not only as a feature within nineteenth-century African-American literature but also as a literary-geographic paradigm, one that “exceed[s] the lines of any nested narratives of scale” and operates horizontally, both creating and revealing networks that challenge dominant forms of mapping and organizing space, opening new routes and spaces for those marginalized by dominant scalar imaginaries (211). If, following Madera’s lead, the flows between literary and geographic studies were more fully recognized, then “literature could be, among other things, a kind of venue for tracing the texture of places as residual stories” (212).
Jane Carey and Jane Lydon, eds., Indigenous Networks: Mobility, Connections and Exchange (New York: Routledge, 2014), 311 pp., 17 illustrations, $140
Indigenous Networks is a paradigm-shifting book that seeks to recover the agency and mobility of Indigenous actors within global power networks. By demonstrating how “Indigenous cultures were already mobile, connected and adaptive” prior to colonization (2–3), the book problematizes the traditional distinction between indigeneity’s supposedly static authenticity and colonial modernity’s mobile hybridity. In the process, this work challenges the utility of transnational frameworks by showing their inadequacy when interpreting Indigenous polities and identities that transcend the nation-state (16).
In part 1, “Colonial Governance, Humanitarianism and Indigenous Action,” Catherine Hall reveals how emancipation forced slave owners into seeking new investment opportunities (33), networking colonial “sites together in webs of familial connection, facilitating the movement of money, goods, knowledges and people” (29). Alan Lester rejects the “view of indigenous stasis versus white transcolonial mobility” (52), examining humanitarian stations to show that “being in situ … does not mean being static” (53), with Indigenous geographies having dynamically “entered into new relations with transimperial ones” to acquire “indigenous capacity in the midst of colonisation” (53). Ann Curthoys challenges the “narrative reversal” underpinning migrant “non-Indigenous Australian claims of belonging” (75) by examining how Australian immigrants sought “respectability and political representation” through “claims and rights that simultaneously depend on, and transcend one’s current location” (76) where “mobility did not lessen their rights as Britons” (84).
Lynette Russell’s study of Indigenous whalers and sealers opens part 2, “Mobility, Hybridity and Networks.” She shows how colonial restrictions on terrestrial movement mobilized Aboriginal labor into joining ships, which offered a “freedom that was not present on land” (97) where “skill and reliability” (101) overrode race in “the transnational and transcultural world of the ‘mariner’” (107). Zoë Laidlaw considers native lobbyists’ metropole engagements as a mode of resistance (115), used to “enhance their standing, expand their networks … and improve their personal and political chances,” although their anticolonial internationalism caused conflict, differentiation, and separation from their own Indigenous community (128–130). Analyzing “type” photography, Jane Lydon shows Indigenous Australians to be “fluid and cosmopolitan” (161) “equals and participants in Macassan trade” (141), exhibiting a “sovereignty and reciprocity” (160), “mobility and creativity” that “undermines the static and fixed identities imposed upon” them (142). Cecilia Morgan uses Elliot Moses’s “experience of movement and mobility beyond … the Six Nations reserve” to show how “progressive” Indigenous people overcame colonialism’s restrictions (167) to become “simultaneously local and mobile,” representing “their own communities … and regional, national, transatlantic and transnational networks” (178). Jane Carey uses Te Rangihiroa as a “prism” to elucidate larger issues of “Maori participation in the overlapping local and transnational networks of anthropology, activism and ‘native policy,’” challenging the limiting binaries that frame Indigenous people as either “authentic” resistors or inauthentic collaborators (204).
In part 3, “Indigenous Activist Networks,” Tony Ballantyne examines “religious literacies” and “newspaper politics” to argue that paper “played a key role in suturing together anti-colonial thinkers and movements into new networks that … drew from these imperial structures at the same time as they challenged the legitimacy of empire” (219). Caroline Bressey comparatively analyzes black editorials to explore how print cultures transnationally connected Indigenous people with black activists by highlighting their common class and gender struggles against racism, helping to “shape the processes of solidarity that underpinned the foundations of black internationalism” (258). Focusing on the transnational influence of Garveyism and black musicians who supported the Aboriginal cause, John Maynard shows how “institutional contact” forged international connections “between displaced people, engendering the mobility, not just of black populations, but, importantly, of black transnational politics” (262–263). Ravi de Costa concludes by assessing indigenous transnationalism’s legacy in the international categorization and recognition of “indigenous peoples” and their rights, a “‘boomerang’ effect” whereby marginalized Indigenous communities used “international institutions, to influence discourse and policy-making within the domestic context” (273).
Indigenous Networks highlights the analytical limitations of transnationalism, and Carey concludes by asking us to “define more clearly what type of border crossings we are referring to and recognise the periods and places where these borders existed and for whom they mattered.” This volume “forces a reconceptualization of the spatial and temporal frames within which global mobility and connectedness has been understood,” hybridizing and uncoupling them from Western-centered definitions of modernity (291). It is therefore surprising that the book pivots between the Australasian and North American Anglophone worlds, leaving Indigenous communities who fall outside voiceless, with Africa a notable omission. Nevertheless, in presenting a new theoretical approach to understanding cross-cultural relations, Indigenous Networks opens up exciting possibilities for scholars not only to expand into these areas but also to revisit established historiography and rethink the exclusive, misrepresentative terminological trends it promotes.
The Nature of Necessity
Gijs Mom, Atlantic Automobilism: Emergence and Persistence of the Car, 1895–1940 (New York: Bergahn Books, 2015), 768 pp., 37 illustrations, 3 tables, $150
The Grapes of Wrath includes a rapid-fire passage in which the Joad family attempts to trade their two prized mules for a car. “Didn’t nobody tell you this is the machine age?” asks the salesman incredulously. “They don’t use mules for nothing but glue no more.”1 Gijs Mom quotes the exchange in Atlantic Automobilism to underline Steinbeck’s protagonists’ arrival at what Mom calls the “extreme end of the spectrum of automotive adventures,” a point at which this machine age least resembles our prevailing narrative of Western automotive culture in the first half of the twentieth century (441).
The “master narrative” of automotive historiography, as Mom presents it, suffers from two central misrepresentations. The first is the “toy-to-tool thesis,” in which the car, following its introduction as a recreational machine, naturally evolves a quality of necessity that then drives its widespread diffusion and the social and environmental effects thereof (4). The second is the “America-as-model myth,” rooted in what Mom calls “the deplorable chauvinism of American automotive historiography” and resulting in a narrative that sets the United States at the center of automotive history, surrounded by other countries that either followed or diverged from that model (11–13, 27). Both narratives are too easy. They ignore, on one hand, too much of the contingency and complexity that shaped the social, cultural, and technological factors embedded in the rise of automobilism; and on the other, that a diffusionist model breaks down in the face of historical developments which occurred simultaneously or completely independently across the Atlantic world.
In Atlantic Automobilism, Gijs Mom, a historian of technology at the Eindhoven University of Technology and a founding editor of this journal, has produced what will surely be an essential reference for historians of mobility going forward. Wielding a polymathic range of primary sources from five countries alongside hundreds of novels, travelogues, poems, and films, Mom presents what he calls “a vista on a new type of mobility studies,” one mindful of the inherently international nature of automobilism (3). Throughout the book, Mom uses “automobilism” instead of the more common “automobility” both to counter what he sees as the latter’s tendency toward ahistoricism and to elicit a better sense of a movement-in-flux rather than a monolithic condition. Atlantic Automobilism surveys the entire field of automotive history in the introduction and demonstrates the value added by a broadly transnational, interdisciplinary approach.
Mom’s work follows a straightforward historical sweep. An “emergence” phase (1895–World War I) sees social elites pursuing automotive adventures out into the countryside, at times facing vehement and even violent resistance from the less wealthy while enjoying the increasing support of the state and (importantly) producing numerous literary accounts of their experiences. The war itself facilitates automobilism, as thousands receive training as drivers and mechanics, militaries devise logistical systems that serve as crucial precursors to the civilian system of transportation that will arise, and tourists and journalists make use of the automobile to confront the horrors of war from a newly mobile viewpoint. In the following “persistence” phase (1919 to the eve of World War II), the “encapsulation” of the car, the accelerating rise of consumer culture, the maturation of bureaucratic regulation and infrastructural support, and growing middle classes drive the widespread adoption of the car as essential commodity (rather than tool) on both sides of the Atlantic, with some notable national differences.
Mom’s use of literary sources allows him to offer a rich cultural rationale for these historical developments; this is perhaps Atlantic Automobilism’s most important contribution. Central to Mom’s analysis is the idea of “automotive adventure,” encompassing the visceral experiences of speed, danger, violence, and hardship (physical and mechanical), and incorporating the alterations of perspective that come with moving at high speed across the landscape. Cultural products both reflected and cocreated a vision of automobilism that normalized this adventure. Surveying works by a broad range of contemporary authors including Edith Wharton, Heinrich Hauser, and (as cited above) John Steinbeck, Mom illuminates the cultural desires that permeated early car culture in North America and Western Europe and sets them at the forefront of his model for the emergence and persistence of the car—a crucial consideration lost in more economically determined histories. The line between pleasure and necessity, Mom points out, was easily blurred.
Mom joins a long tradition of scholars tracing the literary origins and expressions of broad cultural trends. Leo Marx, whose The Machine in the Garden was foundational in this vein, makes frequent appearances in the notes of Atlantic Automobilism. And indeed, as we have seen in the work of the past decade or so, automobilism or automobility as a category is inextricably grounded in the social, cultural, bureaucratic, and infrastructural web that surrounds it. The strength of Mom’s argument comes from its breadth: that this body of literature grew out of and helped to create a new international realm of mobility linking German motorcyclists and Parisian chauffeurs and Kansan farmers. Scholars of mobility moving forward will no doubt move to suss out the specificities and finer questions that elude a work of this size. But Mom has shown, with authority, that the parts must be understood in light of the whole.
John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath and Other Writings, 1936–1941 (New York: Library of America, 1996), 277.
Rewiring the Wireless
Nicole Starosielski, The Undersea Network (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015), 292 pp., 40 illustrations, $25.95
In a world of seemingly relentless connectivity whereby e-mails, texts, tweets, and financial transactions move around the earth almost instantaneously, it is easy to forget that exchanges of information and data flows are rooted somewhere. We might imagine that these roots lay in space with information bouncing off satellites but, as Starosielski demonstrates, these imaginaries are far from accurate. Submarine cables, not satellites, carry approximately 99 percent of our digital communications and most of the Internet through the oceans. Far from being wireless, we exist, as Starosielski highlights, in a “world that is more wired than ever” (9).
The Undersea Network begins with the evolution of understudied under-sea cables. Starosielski guides the reader through the cable’s timeline from the telegraph era through to the development of coaxial cables before finally landing at the fiber-optic cable. In doing so, we can also trace the (geo)political landscapes that the cables traverse—from colonialism through to the Cold War and finally to a post-9/11 security-obsessed world. The following chapter explores how cables enter our imaginaries through the moments of failure or disruption. Starosielski calls for a richer and more nuanced engagement with the undersea network that moves beyond these moments of disconnection to incorporate localized struggles, politics, and environmental concerns. This engagement begins to unfold in chapter 3 with a rich, personal, and detailed account of the changing cultural geographies of Pacific cable stations. The book then travels to the turbulent ecologies of the cable landing wherein the conflicts between telecommunications companies, environmentalists, and boaters and fishermen are explored and the “insulation strategies” (17) of these cable companies are analyzed. The penultimate chapter zooms out from landings and stations to paint a picture of the network of islands that are or have been pivotal to the cable industry, along with the social consequences of their absorption into this communication landscape. The final chapter deals with the environmental implications of the cables’ imbrication in the deep ocean.
One key message of the volume is that the extreme “wireless” mobilities of telecommunications and data are distinctly wired and tethered, relying on relatively static material infrastructure. Nearly all U.S. international data transactions, for example, are supported by just forty-five localized cables extending outward; in Australia, almost all Internet traffic goes out through a single 30-mile stretch. The Undersea Network challenges us to rethink the materialities and physical infrastructures that underpin a world on the move. Starosielski also introduces the reader to the array of complex human and nonhuman mobilities that work to secure and facilitate the functioning of the network—because of security concerns, for example, the movement of people is hindered, monitored, and restricted in and around cable stations. Non-human mobilities are also significant: shifting sediments and underwater mudslides prevent the laying of cables in certain areas, and the movements of fishermen and their nets dragging along the seafloor pose their own challenges to cable security.
Overall, the book brilliantly brings together the global metanarrative of mass communication with the local, material, and relatively immobile specificities of this undersea network. This being said, there is somewhat of a land bias to the book and the “undersea” element implicit in the title perhaps warrants greater scrutiny. The photo on the cover of the book tantalizingly follows a cable into the sea but only the final chapter deals explicitly with the complexities of the submarine environment and there is little reference to the processes involved in actually laying the cable infrastructure. In addition, the “strategies of insulation” that work to keep the cable secure perhaps require further attention. Numerous “strategies” are referred to throughout the book: the sheer depth of the sea, for example, acts as a layer of security; no-anchor zones for vessels protect the cable; barriers, fortified borders, and checkpoints insulate the infrastructure from potential threat. We risk losing the nuances of these multifarious natural and man-made interventions when they are subsumed or explained away under this singular label.
Notwithstanding the above, Starosielski is extremely successful in rewiring our wireless imaginaries of a networked world. The depth and breadth of the fieldwork conducted is noteworthy as is the production of the book itself, which contains a plethora of images, graphics, and maps. The book is also accompanied by a useful Web site that enables the reader to virtually travel along the cables and their landing points (http://www.surfacing.in/). As highlighted by Starosielski, some fascinating narratives exist alongside this little-known critical infrastructure. The Undersea Network weaves some of these together to challenge our often inaccurate assumptions about flow and fluidity, creating a study of wide interdisciplinary appeal in the process.
Wayward Movement: Black Artists Transcending State-Sanctioned Limitations in Search of Freedom
Sarah Jane Cervenak, Wandering: Philosophical Performances of Racial and Sexual Freedom (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014), 220 pp., paper $23.95
Wandering is a form of mobility often too complex for simple categorization. It is this seemingly elusive form of mobility that is at the center of Sarah Jane Cervenak’s book, which ambitiously examines wayward movement in relation to both Enlightenment-era formulations of reason and freedom as well as post-Enlightenment (and often state-imposed) limitations on physical mobility. As Cervenak argues, the works of artist-philosophers included in her study (from David Walker, Sojourner Truth, and Martin Delaney to Adrienne Kennedy, William Pope.L, Adrian Piper, Carrie Mae Weems, Gayl Jones, Audre Lorde, and others) philosophically transcend restrictions on mobility and often in ways that foreground the racialized and gendered characteristics of modern mobility. Even more, she demonstrates how the mobility of black artist-philosophers challenges “the straight and narrow constraints of hegemonic and counterhegemonic post-Enlightenment subjectivity” (18). A valuable contribution to studies of mobility, Wandering is particularly well-suited for readers interested in black feminist theory, philosophy, performance studies, and intellectual history.
In terms of its argument and structure, Cervenak’s text is divided into two major parts, with the first half (chapters 1 and 2) establishing the problem of the European Enlightenment’s troubled relationship to the invention of race. Describing the seminal work of Enlightenment philosophers Immanuel Kant and Jean-Jacques Rousseau as “an ecstatic, erotic existence, or wandering off the straight and narrow path” (15), Cervenak illustrates in chapter 1 how “racial and sexual difference undermined the requisite disinterestedness of the Enlightenment” and, ultimately, she suggests how Kant’s early formulation of race—a formulation that rests on “the imbrication of blackness itself with perversion and a perverse kinesis” (28)—represents a “straying from reason’s teleological ground” (15) in its contribution to the “racist consolidation of the Enlightenment subject” (28). She likewise shows how racial difference influenced Rousseau’s straying, Rousseau contributing significantly to Kant’s thinking.
Building on this troubled formulation of wandering as representing the waywardness of European reason, Cervenak examines in chapter 2 how David Walker, Martin Delaney, Sojourner Truth, and Harriet Jacobs challenged fictions of black “unenlightenment” through movement that contrasted “acts ideologically imagined as wayward” or “nonsensical” (16). It is this tension between European Enlightenment’s formulation of black waywardness and black philosophers’ own straying counter to such a harmful formulation that is at the heart of Wandering. The second half of the book (chapters 3 and 4) moves beyond the problematic established by Cervenak in the first chapters to investigate black wandering for freedom. Examining black wandering for freedom, she insists, “despite and in the face of dispossession and of being disentitled from material landscape, black philosophers made terrain through wandering” (17). That is to say, “black philosophers’ wanderings created ground for a different kind of movement” (17), a movement philosophically crucial to black struggles to achieve freedom.
Chapters 3 and 4 treat the surrealist aesthetics of playwright Adrienne Kennedy and the elusiveness and challenging legibility of Gayl Jones’s novel Mosquito, respectively. Examining the plays Funnyhouse of a Negro (1964) and The Owl Answers (1965), Cervenak analyzes Kennedy’s aesthetics as “a wandering: a fundamentally nonstraight, twisted, and hard-to-follow storytelling that extends a tradition of black feminist anticaptivity inaugurated by Truth’s own privately guided ‘incomprehensible’ movement” (19). Turning to the work of Jones in chapter 4, Cervenak analyzes Jones’s novel as a traveler’s tale characterized both by “movement through space” as “drifting through history, memory, and desire” and by a “refusal to abide by post-Enlightenment modes of efficient storytelling” (20). The result is a narrative that creates possibilities for traversing alternative landscapes.
Cervenak concludes Wandering with a treatment of the work of contemporary artists Adrian Piper, Carrie Mae Weems, and William Pope.L, whose art Cervenak frames as “reimaginings of the beyond” in ways that “signal an undisclosed terrain of philosophical desire” (22–23). It is here, particularly in relation to the work of Piper and Pope.L (but also Weems) that Cervenak foregrounds art that conjures “scenes of racialized, classed, and sexual devastation, figured by state-sanctioned post-Enlightenment logics as the unlivable horizon of death, to suggest the possibility of unrestrained movement” (23). Put another way, Cervenak illustrates how the work of these artists “potentiates other terrains where black life can amble unharmed” (172). She insists, “Free black worlds become possible on the edge of bus-ride ruminations and in stares at the sea. Free black worlds become possible in wandering” (23). To some extent, Cervenak’s conclusion gestures toward an Afrofuturism consistent with the vision of future possibility intimated in works of speculative fiction such as Octavia Butler’s dystopic short story “Bloodchild.” More important, though, it foregrounds the relevancy of wandering in the present moment when seemingly state-sanctioned violence continues to delimit existential (that is corporeal or physical) black mobility.
Neo-nomadism: How to Think Sedentariness in Mobility
Yasmine Abbas, Le néo-nomadisme: mobilités, partage, transformations identitaires et urbaines (Paris: FYP Editions, 2011), 142 pp., €19.5
Neo-nomadism is somewhere between an essay and a manifesto, a scientific work and a practical guide. Like the creative and mobile neo-nomads she describes, Yasmine Abbas uses multiple examples from architecture, design, the social sciences, digital technology, and current events, among other things, as indicators of neo-nomadism and its effects. Road warriors, environmental refugees, tourists, and international students are all presented as neonomads who experience a physical and mental unease due to interplay between mobility and immobility.
Mobility is understood as widespread mobility of people, information, goods, and spaces (PIGS) based on three areas: physical mobility in geographical space, digital mobility, and mental mobility (i.e., identity) (17). Neonomadism is a requirement of contemporary existence, because all human beings are torn in two, between inhabiting and moving, permanence and mobility. Here is the definition of neo-nomadism: a dialectic between nomadism and sedentariness (32).
The book’s main problematic therefore is how to think about and facilitate the bond between spaces and human beings, the “adherence” as Georges Amar called it.1 How and to what extent do neo-nomads create ties and appropriate spaces? And how could these same spaces—if better designed—help them in doing so?
Neither nomads nor settlers, neo-nomads are a hybrid category. This hybridity is a source of strength because of the adaptability, creativity, and potential for transgression it fosters. But it is also a source of uneasiness and stress, as neo-nomads must constantly adapt to new spaces. To overcome this identity crisis they use different recentering tactics, such as selecting and assembling spaces and objects, observing rituals, and sharing their knowledge via virtual networks. Neo-nomads transform spaces in three key ways: by making them mobile, that is, adaptable and transportable; by making them memorial, that is, giving them personal meaning; and by making them relational, that is, interconnecting and linking them to one another via their personal trajectories.
To recenter themselves, neo-nomads collect a multitude of signs, objects, rituals, and links, but these require a lot of space, both physically and virtually. Here emerges one of the main themes of the book: the energy-guzzling, wasted resources dimension of the neo-nomad lifestyle. Thus, in the sixth and final chapter, the author offers hints for sustainable neo-nomadism based on the sharing, optimizing, and recycling of resources and participatory creation. The neo-nomad condition changes the ecosystem of human habitat, forcing it to produce dynamic spaces based on the experiences and networks of neo-nomads while offering sustainability. Such is the challenge thrown out to cities and their developers: to durably adapt to contemporary neo-nomadism.
Though Abbas is convinced of the advantages of neo-nomadism, her work questions its limitations—stress, identity issues, waste, and so on—and tries to offer solutions. Because the book lacks an exhaustive review of the academic literature and does not employ surveys on neo-nomadism, certain analysis appears somewhat impressionistic. Despite that, it sheds light on some of the central questions surrounding mobility and especially addresses the issue of the links between spaces and mobility in a direct way: how to inhabit mobility? What does mobility do to spaces? How could public spaces be created to better suit the needs of mobile people?
A veritable pool of ideas, the book is teeming with reflections and analyses useful for those seeking to rethink mobility and to better understand the production of cities, as the cities of neo-nomads, who aspire to greater spirituality, not only must be functional but also must make sense to the soul.
This book encourages those wishing to rethink mobility to consider the neo-nomad category in all its hybridity and beyond established categories of “nomadic” and “sedentary.” From this thinking emerges a variety of social questions on neo-nomads as a group: do they form a homogeneous group? Do international workers and environmental refugees really belong to the same category? While these questions are not addressed in the book, they seem fundamental for further reflection on mobility.
Georges Amar, “Pour une écologie urbaine des transports,” Annales de la Recherche Urbaine 59–60 (1993): 141–151.
The Mobility–Knowledge Nexus and the Struggle for Social Justice
Suzan Ilcan, Mobilities, Knowledge, and Social Justice (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2013), 526 pp., CA$39.95
Mobilities, Knowledge, and Social Justice offers a thought-provoking synthesis exploring contemporary movements of capital, people, social networks, and information, and how the complex interrelations between mobility and knowledge have created the “mobility–knowledge nexus.” It shows how various forms of mobility across the globe have depended on and generated specific types of knowledge, and how such interactions lead to new forms of inequality and calls for social justice.
This volume is divided into three parts. Part 1, “Frames of Belonging,” examines how social and political ideas of belonging influence human and social mobilities by privileging certain types of knowledge. Consequently, various epistemological frames increasingly condition human mobility and generate new forms of social inclusion and exclusion. Such knowledge-induced immobility is particularly visible among dual nationals, new immigrants, and temporary workers, as documented in the analyses of chapters 1, 2, and 4. A very interesting perspective offered in part 1 is chapter 3’s revisit of Émile Durkheim’s views on cosmopolitanism, in which the author refers to cosmopolitan social life found in global cities as “mundane cosmopolitanism” involving new expressions of solidarity, belonging, and normative regulation as well as small-scale, routinized forms of mobility.
Part 2, “Governance and Expertise,” focuses on how certain types of mobility and knowledge have introduced distinctive governing practices at local, national, and transnational levels. Contemporary discussions on certain governing regimes, such as the jeopardized Security and Prosperity Partnership in North America (chapter 5), the growing prevalence of security knowledge on border management (chapter 6), and even humanitarian aid programs (chapter 7), demonstrate the interconnections between expert knowledge and biopolitical governance underscoring the mobility–knowledge nexus, which in turn raises new questions regarding inequalities in social and political power. More importantly, governments are not the only social actors using the mobility–knowledge nexus to create inequality or social injustice. Such practices can also be found in payday lending, an exploitative yet formalized financial sector (chapter 8) and transnational corporations’ labelling practices (chapter 9).
Part 3, “Counter-movements,” explores how emergent knowledge provides the basis for countermovements and challenges new inequalities associated with global mobility, which draws attention to the significance of understanding the mobility–knowledge nexus in pursuits for social justice. The six chapters throughout part 3 emphasize several key issues of mobility, such as migrant rights (chapter 10), the cultural autonomy of indigenous people (chapter 11), international copyright laws (chapter 12), and discourses on international interventions (chapter 16). In chapters 13–15, which may be the most informative chapters for communication scholars, the authors collectively question the techno-optimistic and sometime even techno-deterministic opinions implied by information and communication technologies for development (ICT4D). Instead, the authors propose a capacity-based approach to future ICT development as a potential means for social justice and highlight creative uses of techno-infrastructures in local contexts as resistance to the neoliberal agenda often introduced by international agencies.
In sum, this volume considers mobility as a key notion in contemporary political debates and offers engaging and enriching discussions on the emerging mobility–knowledge nexus and its significant implications for global struggles against social injustice. Scholars working on mobility will especially appreciate the ways in which the volume grounds the notion of global mobility and justice in unique local contexts (e.g., chapters 1, 7, and 15). The volume’s primary strength lies in its interdisciplinary perspectives, with coverage of issues ranging from gender, race, and class matters to governing practices and international trade regimes. Another strength of the volume is the interconnectedness between individual chapters. Each chapter includes specific in-text notes to direct readers’ attention to related chapters and this feature considerably improves the entire volume’s theoretical coherence.
Unfortunately, the volume also bears one minor limitation: although the introduction offers a well-rounded overview of the different articulations of “mobility” addressed throughout the volume, it fails to do the same regarding the notion of “social justice.” Different aspects of social justice have been addressed through the individual chapters and this definitely deserves more attention in both the introduction and conclusion.
Representing Mobility and Mobilizing Representation
Lesley Murray and Sara Upstone, eds., Researching and Representing Mobilities: Transdisciplinary Encounters (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), 236 pp., e-book $100
At first thought, the idea of representation seems to suggest stasis. Photographic images are said to “freeze” a moment in time, while words encompass the fixed meanings that they express. What happens, then, when what is represented is mobility? This is the central question that editors Lesley Murray and Sara Upstone raise in Researching and Representing Mobilities: Transdisciplinary Encounters.
In their introductory chapter, Murray and Upstone provide an extensive literature review of scholarship from mobility studies, spatial theory, and non-representational theory. They consider the epistemological implications of representing mobility and draw attention to how mobility is affected by identity politics. Recalling Jacques Derrida’s observation that the idea of representation has both a political and an aesthetic sense (the first of which suggests a mode of “speaking for” the other, and the second, a mode of re-presenting or mimetic imitation), the editors chose to curate a volume that engages scholars from both the social sciences and the humanities. The result is a collection of texts that highlight the transformative potential of this transdisciplinary methodology, and offer an engaging reconceptualization of both mobility and representation. This theoretical project is continued in the book’s second chapter, in which Anne Jensen performs a Foucauldian analysis of how mobilities are produced at the intersection of the discursive and the corporeal/ experiential.
The following three chapters consider the possibilities of using literary representations of mobility as data in sociological research. Sara Upstone responds to an absence of mobility studies scholarship that addresses issues of race and ethnicity with respect to postcolonial nations. She demonstrates how, within a selection of texts from 1980s postcolonial fiction, intranational movement may be seen as a form of resistance. Lesley Murray and Hannah Vincent examine twentieth- and twenty-first-century fictive portrayals of women’s mobility within the “dangerous” city of London in order to demonstrate how mobility is gendered. Lynne Pearce draws upon her earlier work on the phenomenology of driving in order to survey the evolution in depictions of driver consciousness in writing from the first three decades of the twentieth century.
The next three chapters investigate the fields of the visual arts, architecture, and music respectively. First, Lesley Murray analyzes the “street semiotics” of sectarian Belfast by highlighting the role of mural art in governing inhabitants’ mobility between loyalist and nationalist zones. Sue Robertson considers how architectural drawings of elevated urban highways may serve to construct mobility, while questioning how these graphic representations relate to somatic experiences of material structures. Karolina Doughty and Maja Lagerqvist use a case study of spectator’s perceptions of South American pan flute players in Stockholm to examine the relationship between music and mobility on a local and global level.
In the last chapter, Paola Jirón and Luis Iturra demonstrate how the drawings they produce to document the quotidian trajectories of their subject (a wife and mother in Santiago de Chile) actually construct the narrative of her mobility. In fact, the book as a whole performs a meta-level reflection on research itself; it encourages scholars from both the humanities and the social sciences to think more deeply about how we represent and mobilize our work. After reading it, we not only respond with a resounding “yes” to the editor’s question of whether mobilities can be represented, we also become convinced of the idea that representations can also produce mobility. In other words, Murray, Upstone, and their contributors draw our attention to the performative dimension of representations—their ability to not only reflect or describe, but also create, worlds.
Road Trips and Warning Signs: Troubles Ahead in French Contemporary Literature
Michel Houellebecq, Soumission (Paris: Flammarion, 2015), 320 pp., €21
The 7 January 2015 cover of Charlie Hebdo caricatured French author Michel Houellebecq dressed as a toothless sorcerer smoking a cigarette and announcing that “in 2015, I lose my teeth” and “in 2022, I will do Ramadan.” A caption above read: “the predictions of mage Houellebecq.” His book Soumission (Submission) had just officially come out after much anticipation, including the first online leak of a French-language novel. Rumors about its Islamophobic depictions of France’s future had been flying about for weeks. However, inside the satirical magazine, left-wing economist Bernard Maris’s last article praised Soumission as a “masterstroke” that did not constitute an attack on Islam. Maris, a close friend of Houellebecq, was among the twelve victims killed in the shooting that morning. After a television interview, a visibly shaken Houellebecq suspended his promotion tour and left for the countryside.
Beyond the circumstances of its publication, Soumission deserves serious consideration for its treatment of mobilities through representations of road and rail trips as they highlight political changes and social anxieties around the perceived threat of the rise of Muslim minorities in France. Houellebecq’s novel tells the story of the 2022 presidential elections that would peacefully bring to power the fictional party of the Muslim Brotherhood in France. Houellebecq’s protagonist is our witness. François, a name originating from the old French for Frenchman, is his typical narrator: a middle-aged man, misanthropic and misogynic, who subsists on a steady diet of frozen dinners, wine, television, and porn. At the beginning of the novel, he is an unambitious literature professor at the Sorbonne who specializes in the oeuvre of Symbolist J. K. Huysmans.
At first, François observes politics with a certain detachment but, in between the two rounds of the presidential elections, he starts to notice the obvious signs that France is changing, “that something could happen; that the political system in which [he] had been used to living since childhood and that had been visibly cracking for a while, could break up all of a sudden”3 (78). For example, burqa-clad women are confidently walking the hallways at the university; his sometime girlfriend and former student Myriam is emigrating to Israel with her parents because her family feels unsafe; a reception for a literary society is cut short by the noise of nearby gunshots; a young colleague reveals his past as a far-right activist; the husband of his colleague Marie-Françoise who works for the DGSI (General Directorate for Interior Security), the French intelligence agency, lets him in on some of the dealings between political parties.
Raised in a bourgeois suburb of Paris, the road trip would allow François to fully achieve his Frenchness: “I had never really visited this country of which I was, in a somewhat theoretical manner, citizen” (126). He ends up in Martel, a medieval town named after Charles Martel, famous for defeating an invading Islamic army near Poitiers in 732. There, he stumbles upon Marie-Françoise’s husband and finds himself again drawn to the political changes in Paris.
I had no plan, no specific destination; just the very vague feeling that it would be in my interests to go toward the Southwest; that, if a civil war was to break out in France, it would take more time to reach the Southwest. To be honest, I knew almost nothing about the Southwest, only that it was a region where one eats duck confit; and that duck confit seemed to me incompatible with civil war.(125–126)
Hinting at parody, François’s trajectory parallels Huysmans’s evolution from decadence to religious conversion. Indeed, a passage from his En route serves as epigraph to Houellebecq’s novel. Later, this time by rail, François tries to reenact Huysmans’s Catholic retreat to Ligugé. However, the trip fails to bring him closer to Catholicism and marks the end of his “very long relationship with Joris-Karl Huysmans” (283), while the enclosed space of the train car allows envious François to share in a moment of domesticity with a Muslim businessman and his two teenaged wives.
Back in Paris, François wraps up editing Huysmans’s complete works in a “supercool period of [his] life” (284), contented with the political and social changes in France. The budget deficit is solved by cuts to education: the Sorbonne closes, but not before François accepts a generous retirement package. As women are driven out of the workforce, unemployment disappears. Once the Sorbonne reopens as the Islamic University of Paris–Sorbonne, funded by the Saudis, François is courted by its new head, a former nativist who has converted to Islam and taken several wives, one of them an alluring fifteen-year-old and another one an older woman who acts as hostess. Will François convert or rather “submit” to Islam?
French critics have seen in Soumission a hateful description of Islam. The novel, written as a first-person narrative, offers insight into the point of view of François, a pathetic French hero. He fails to imitate his scholarly subject’s path to religious revelation. He takes to the road and rails as a cowardly escape from dealing with political and social changes. He ends up accommodating himself with a caricatured vision of Islam. If Soumission paints a troubling image, it is also one of France as it struggles to move beyond issues of national identity, racism, and immigration.
All quotes are my translations from the French edition.