Contributions to the Policy Turn in Cycling History
Bruce D. Epperson, Bicycles in American Highway Planning: The Critical Years of Policy-Making 1969–1991 (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2014), 248 pp., $45
Carlton Reid, Roads Were Not Built for Cars: How Cyclists Were the First to Push for Good Roads & Became the Pioneers of Motoring (Washington, DC: Island Press, 2015), 360 pp., $30
For the past few years bicycle history has received increasing academic attention, in line with a general rise of interest in cycling studies in the social sciences and humanities. Both phenomena are without a doubt related to the rising interest in cycling among policy makers and urban elites around the world. This connection is most clearly shown in the still small but rapidly growing number of publications devoted to the history of bicycle policies and regulations, such as James Longhurst’s Bike Battles (2015) or the collaborative volume by Ruth Oldenziel and others, Cycling Cities: Hundred Years of Policy and Practice (2016). The two publications under review here also address the history of bicycle policies, though not from a strictly academic perspective. It is potentially the most exciting theme within the history of cycling because it can bring back a sense of agency and contingency, which is perhaps more easily lost in the history of transport than in other fields.
Agency is a major interest of Bruce Epperson’s Bicycles in American Highway Planning. Epperson is not a professional historian, but he has published widely on bicycle history, including Peddling Bicycles to America (2010), a book on the rise of the American bicycle industry. For his present book about the development of American bicycle policies in the past forty years, he was able to combine historical research with firsthand knowledge as a transport planner and attorney. The book is best understood as a history of the rise and triumph of “vehicular cycling,” the indigenous American style of bicycle advocacy and planning perhaps best known outside America through the writings of John Forester, especially Effective Cycling (1975) and Cycling Transportation Engineering (1977).
Epperson defines “vehicular cycling” as a cycling planning philosophy characterized by a reliance on the “normal” roadway system as opposed to separate bikeways; by a suspicion of any bicycle-specific traffic law or regulation; and by the emphasis on education and proficiency training of cyclists over providing specific infrastructural facilities for them. In a detailed history of the interactions of local and national American bodies of traffic planners, bicycle industry representatives, cycling advocates, and a variety of government agencies, Epperson describes how the “Dutch” approach of building separate bicycle infrastructure, which made some headway in the United States from the end of the 1960s onward, was eventually defeated and “died out” by 1981. According to Epperson, the actions and ideas of organized, elitist recreational (club) cyclists (one of whom was Forester), were crucial in undermining the Dutch approach and in successfully promoting the concept of “vehicular cycling.” Club cyclists could only think of utility cycling as an extension of the riding already done by enthusiastic recreational cyclists, not as a potential mass mode of transportation. They felt their interests were best served by as little bicycle-specific regulation and as much freedom on the road as possible. Their emphasis on cycling education was not only the cheapest possible variety of cycling promotion but also made cycling safety mainly a responsibility of individual cyclists, and for both reasons vehicular cycling was—and still is—the preferred option for many a local administrator and transportation planner in the United States. Epperson is clearly critical of the vehicular cycling philosophy, but he also argues that without substantial funds for cycling promotion, it is factually the only viable policy option in the United States.
Epperson’s inside view of this development brings both benefits and disadvantages. The major relevance of the book lies in his ability to identify, document, and discuss different streams, actors, and institutions in American bicycle planning and policy, and in doing so he demonstrates a good eye for significant details. At the same time, despite, or perhaps because of, his easy writing style, details often get in the way of the broader picture, and the need for more chronological or structural clarity and stronger contextual embedding repeatedly makes itself felt when reading his book. That being said, this is a very welcome study in a still underdeveloped field that will prove useful for anyone interested in the history of bicycle planning and policy, as well as a must read for anyone interested in the possibilities and impossibilities of an American bicycle renaissance.
Carlton Reid’s Roads Were Not Built for Cars is another example of how the recent international cycling “renaissance” feeds into bicycle history, but in contrast to Epperson’s work, Reid’s book will speak less to an academic than to a general audience. Reid, a British freelance writer and journalist, has written a book in which historical facts are used as arguments in a contemporary discussion, rather than a coherent historical analysis that stands on its own feet. Reid’s goal is to fight popular ideas (especially within English-speaking countries, on which his book focuses) about cyclists having less right to the road than car drivers. His book is a multifarious (and at times indignant) plea to recognize cyclists as important and rightful players in the development of the modern traffic and road system. To make this point, Reid has divided his book in chapters that deal with more or less distinct issues. To begin with, he demonstrates that roads were not built for cars but as a common good, and that early cyclists played an important role in encouraging road improvements. Other chapters extensively demonstrate that up to World War I most cyclists did not belong to the laboring classes but to the same elites as the early motorists, that many famous motoring pioneers and car manufacturers in fact had bicycling backgrounds, and that cycling manufacturing in important ways paved the way for the car industry. Finally, he argues that resistance against the car is not a recent leftist phenomenon but has much older and more widespread roots, and that antibicycle policies since the 1930s were driven by elitist views. Although these divergent claims may represent eye-openers to the general reader, and although Reid does a good job in uncovering interesting and relevant details in making them, most if not all of these claims as such are not new, and can be found in the existing academic literature on cycling and automobile history (although Reid now and then suggests otherwise). This is of course not a problem as such, but only an indication of the book’s limited academic contribution. Reid may be fighting common myths, and rightly so, but not recent academic ones.
Mapping the Field: An Atlas of Walking Arts
Karen O’Rourke, Walking and Mapping: Artists as Cartographers (London: MIT Press, 2016), 328 pp., £22.95
Walking and Mapping: Artists as Cartographers provides a useful overview of an emerging field: walking art. The recent increase in artists who walk is evidenced by organizations such as Scotland’s Deveron Arts, whose Walking Institute commissions artists to create walks. In this text, O’Rourke covers a wide array of artistic practices that combine walking and mapping. As her research demonstrates, artists interested in walking emerge from a variety of artistic disciplines—sculpture, performance art, and digital art are just a few of the disciplines considered—and they approach walking and mapping through a dizzying array of methods. The breadth of the practices considered is one of the great strengths of O’Rourke’s text, and it functions as a fantastic reference for scholars interested in alternative perspectives on the most everyday of mobilities.
Considering the variety of works she could have included in her text, O’Rourke does a remarkable job organizing her research and leading the reader on a journey through various strands of walking and mapping, both historical and contemporary. For O’Rourke and the artists she considers, cartography is a broad category. She identifies the book itself as a map, and mapping as both the subject and method of her research. The reader needn’t worry, however, that O’Rourke’s approach is too experimental; the text is written in a familiar academic style, and alternates between thick descriptions of O’Rourke’s experiences participating in artists’ walks, and contemporary and historical analyses of walking and mapping projects. Though not ordered in a strictly chronological fashion, O’Rourke spends the first half of the text establishing historical precedents for walking art, while the second half focuses more on contemporary walking practices and their relationship to digital media. Through all of this O’Rourke touches on a wide range of topics that might be of interest to mobility scholars, including issues of space and place making, walkability, and the relationship between analogue and digital practices. The combination of first-person thick descriptions, historical context, and contemporary practices provides new ways of thinking about the walk as subject and practice, and offers scholars from a variety of disciplines new ways to consider walking.
A notable aspect of O’Rourke’s text is her subtle reframing of the walking canon. The inclusion of a large number of female artists functions as a correction to the usual fraternity of artistic walkers. In addition to contemporary artists such as Esther Polak and Janet Cardiff, the book also explores historical precedents by artists such as Trisha Brown, Yoko Ono, and Marina Abramovic, whose experimental work with pedestrian movement and conceptual maps has been influential on contemporary artistic practices. Though she focuses primarily on Western art traditions, O’Rourke covers a wide geographical range, with artists from North America and Europe represented, as well as walks by artists in Australia, the Palestinian territories, Israel, and India, among others. Despite the diverse set of practices O’Rourke maps, there is no discussion of the relationship between walking and disability, a subject that calls for further research, particularly in relation to artistic walking practices.
O’Rourke notes her text is a way of preserving the traces of ephemeral works, and mapping “landmarks against which new art can be measured” (245); she doesn’t, however, make a case for why the map is the best way to preserve these traces, or why these traces should be preserved in the first place. Despite its valiant and effective efforts to map the field of walking art, the book lacks a strong critical perspective, and I would have appreciated more analysis on why walking and mapping have become points of critical and creative focus for artists and scholars. Perhaps, however, this is not the point. O’Rourke notes the process of walking is exploratory, and throughout her research discovered “branching byways” of walking practice that would have taken her research “too far afield” (247). These byways might be the “main thoroughfares” of her next book, or they might be discovered and followed up by readers of this one.
Overall, O’Rourke provides a useful guide to the growing field of walking art. Her focus on mapping, and particularly digital technologies, offers a specific perspective through which to approach the field, and her wide-ranging examples and personal walking experiences create accessible entry points for readers new to this kind of work. For the uninitiated it serves as a thorough introduction, and for those already knowledgeable about walking art it is a useful compendium that features artists not often discussed in other books on the subject. In this way, the book functions as a kind of atlas of contemporary artistic walking practices for the reader to explore. Each section is a map, and it depends on future researchers and practitioners to see where each map leads.
Up in the Air: Rethinking the American Landscape from Above
Jason Weems, Barnstorming the Prairies: How Aerial Vision Shaped the Midwest (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015), 368 pp., 116 b&w photos, 16 color plates, $122.50 (hardback), $35 (paperback)
Anyone flying across the United States who bothers to look down can hardly miss the regular grid of farms that define much of the fifteen hundred miles between the Appalachian and Rocky Mountains. Dismissed today in popular culture as “flyover states,” the American Midwest is the focus of art historian Jason Weems’s book exploring how “aerial vision” not only shaped the region’s physical landscape, but also helped it (and arguably an entire nation) weather the Great Depression, and perhaps even influenced the sprawling suburbs that came to define postwar America.
Faced with the task of opening the new nation’s frontier to white settlement, in 1785 Congress directed government surveyors to divide all unclaimed territory west of the Appalachian Mountains into a regular grid that cut straight across the land, regardless of topographical variations. Each township was further subdivided into 160-acre homesteads for the “independent yeoman farmers” who Thomas Jefferson believed were the bedrock of American democracy (10). Weems argues in chapter 1 that superimposing this orderly pattern on previously blank spaces on the map made settlement seem not only a possibility, but a preordained “Manifest Destiny” for the growing nation. When combined with exaggerated accounts of thriving homesteads, these maps helped entice enthusiastic easterners to purchase and move to distant properties sight unseen. Decades later, similar maps, now sold as illustrated atlases to recent settlers, continued to ignore the harsh realities of life for many homesteaders. These images, Weems convincingly argues, “in which all farms were envisioned as prosperous properties and all individuals (or at least all those represented) were presented as independent figures of means and determination … made the Midwest appear to be the culmination of Jefferson’s agrarian idealism” (44).
Just a few generations later, the same region was engulfed in the dual disasters of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. Chapter 2 explores how the federal government deployed two new technologies refined during World War I—the airplane and the aerial survey photograph—to save the “independent small farmers” who, as modern-day representatives of Jefferson’s ideal, “symbolized the fate of American democratic ideology” for the entire nation (61). Armed with aerial photos of individual farms, agents of the New Deal’s Agricultural Adjustment Administration worked to convince farmers to plant alternate crops, reduce erosion by “farming on the curve,” and even accept federal subsidies to leave part of their land unused. Ironically, these measures also eroded Midwesterners’ foundational identity as hardy pioneers who succeeded (or failed) solely as a result of their own hard work (66).
Whereas historians of technology will likely feel most comfortable with these first two chapters, which rely equally on documentary evidence and careful interpretation of images, art historians may well view them as an extended historical backdrop for chapters 3 and 4, in which Weems presents case studies exploring the relationship between the Midwest and “aerial vision” in the works of artist Grant Wood and architect Frank Lloyd Wright.
In chapter 3, Weems examines how aviation influenced Wood’s worldview and work. Although best known today for his portrait of a dour farm couple entitled American Gothic, the Iowa native was a popular landscape artist who “became a symbol and (perhaps somewhat reluctantly) a leader” for those who asserted that unique regional identities offered an antidote to a homogenizing, urban-centered mass culture that threated to eclipse rural America (162). Carefully analyzing more than a dozen paintings (many beautifully reproduced in full color in this book), Weems aptly demonstrates how Wood employed an aerial view in his artwork to hybridize the modern with the past in a way that resonated with contemporary viewers and helped them come to terms with social and technological upheaval.
The final chapter explores Frank Lloyd Wright’s Depression-era plan for Broadacre City. What began as an attack on the shortcomings of modern cities evolved into a concept to “reintegrate rural space and values into the machinery of American life” by distributing the population more evenly across the countryside (218). This concept gained popular acclaim, although many of Wright’s intellectual contemporaries dismissed Broadacre as little more than a utopian critique that ignored the social, economic, and logistical realities of regional planning (240–241). Weems acknowledges these criticisms, but because Broadacre’s actual influence on the landscape of postwar suburbs is questionable, he perhaps overreaches by continuing to assert that it was “one of the most far-reaching visions for remaking the American city” (206).
Scholars and casual readers who buy this book for its rousing title and compelling cover will be disappointed if they expect to learn much about “barnstormers.” Indeed, there are only a handful of pages about this generation of daring young fliers who “traveled the prairie countryside offering airplane rides for a modest fee” between the world wars (136). But for anyone who has long desired a thoughtful and thorough analysis of the various meanings and influences of the “aerial view,” Barnstorming the Midwest delivers.
Up and Down Plus Sideways of Mobility
Christopher Schaberg and Mark Yakich, eds., Airplane Reading (Alres-ford, UK: Zero Books, 2016), 213 pp., $22.95 (paperback)
Airplanes and airports take on a different air, at least for me, when a cultural theorist and a poet edit a volume about them. Airplane Reading is a selection of stories collected from an online initiative by Schaberg and Yakich under the same title. The book pushes the boundaries of academic text writing and invites scholars to look differently on notions of mobility. The editors have brought together forty-five stories from personal experiences during air travels without any visible demarcation beyond the title for stories or thematic indexing. However, one realizes the underlying connections while reading through the details of each story. We see reflections on airplanes and airports as objects of curiosity in the writings of Anna Leahy and Douglas Dechow, as well as two object-oriented ontology philosophers, Ian Bogost and Timothy Morton. Writings from authors such as Jeani Elbaum and Jason Harrington grant a narrative voice to female flight attendants, pilots, and ground and security crew. The collected stories find different angles on the same theme: for instance, Matthew Vollmer conveys how flight attendants become subject to the sexual gaze of passengers, while Amanda Pleva turns the table to show how passengers are also seen through the personal desires of onboard crew. But it is the stories and experiences from the point of view of passengers that dominate the book.
The editors have succeeded in holding their promise of “not expressing a unified interpretation of air travel” (1). Most essays do share one unifying factor, though: the use of airplanes as weapons on 11 September 2001. The fall of the twin towers of the World Trade Center on 9/11 seems to be a threshold and a turning point in their air traveling experiences. Authors discuss the ways that air travel and specifically airports changed since the incident. Harold Jaffe juxtaposes odd occurrences that highlight the change, and Stephen Rea shares how different tricks could save travelers from cancelled flights and finally reaching home before 9/11.
Unlike the content of the online initiative, it seems the majority of selected stories are written by academics rather than regular travelers. These stories stimulate us to wonder about the details of mobility and how movements across borders are orchestrated performances. Kevin Haworth demonstrates the theaters of security and how airports are embedded in Israeli history through narrating questions and answers of security guards at the passport check (150). The details that his story highlights do not refer necessarily to an individual case or an isolated incident; rather, they point at a much larger social and cultural issue.
Some of the essays convey how air travel has occupied our fantasies and appears in intersubjectivity and networks of psychical manifestations of the global north. Randy Malamoud explains this as “the mechanics of mobility” (193), Elbaum names it “magic” (67), and Nina Katchadourian asks “is there always more than meets the eye?” (59). The book opens a space for asking new questions and challenging mainstream conceptions. However, it remains within the limitation of a Euro-American narrative and lacks stories from countries with much younger aviation history.
Many of the stories are microhistories that call for further attention. For instance, Neal Pollack exposes how class and economic disparities are reflected inside the aluminum transport tube called an airplane. He shows how these disparities are not truly rigid and can be suspended for the duration of the suspension in the sky. This story is an example of how mobility and transportation remain mobile themes both conceptually and operationally.
Morton aptly states that “air travel is a wonderful way to experience … the social” (108), and I should say Airplane Reading embodies this statement. This book will amuse, entertain, and stimulate students of anthropology and cultural studies, as well as anyone with interest in mobility and transportation beyond the limits of the ivory tower.
Special Trading Ports in Meiji Japan: A Launchpad for Export Growth
Catherine L. Phipps, Empires on the Waterfront: Japan’s Ports and Power, 1858–1899 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015), 308 pp., 6 maps, 3 tables, $39.95
In the last decade of the nineteenth century, Meiji Japan emerged from the shadow of informal imperialism to become an imperial power in its own right. Two watershed moments heralded this transition—military victory in the Sino-Japanese War (1894–1895) and a return to full sovereignty with the end of the treaty ports in 1899. As Catherine Phipps shows in this innovative study, however, conventional narratives often fail to adequately explain Japan’s rapid commercial expansion at the turn of the century. There is still a tendency to rely largely on the framework of the treaty port system, but this offers only a partial view. Often overlooked, and the focus here, is the network of designated “special trading ports” that also helped to launch modern Japan in the global economy.
In this analysis, the much-vaunted “opening of Japan” is reconfigured as a more gradual process, stretching over several decades. The opening of treaty ports midcentury thus forms only the initial stage in a broader drama unfolding over five acts. It was during the latter stages that special trading ports appeared as a foil to the treaty ports. The new system compensated for the still meager capacity of the native commercial fleet by using foreign ships to help carry Japan’s burgeoning export trade from selected points to overseas markets. Universally welcomed, this allowed Japanese merchants a share in overseas trade, while providing foreign shipping firms limited access to “the interior” beyond the official treaty ports.
Special trading ports illustrate the hybrid nature of Meiji Japan’s commercial growth. Grafted onto the existing treaty port system, they reflect what Phipps calls “the paradox of informal imperialism” (152). Ironically, the same network that had curtailed Japan’s economic independence was now used by the Japanese themselves as a platform to build their own export trade. Perhaps more emphasis could be placed on the increased competition these ports also placed on foreign merchants in treaty ports like Yokohama and KMbe, eroding their hitherto unchallenged monopoly in this field. Nevertheless, this critique amply demonstrates how Japanese businesses tapped into an existing network forged by such Western merchants to develop a complex pattern of interimperial interaction across East Asia.
Phipps provides a comprehensive survey of the various ports considered for special treatment, but focuses on the case of Moji. Situated across the Kanmon Strait from Shimonoseki at the entrance to the Inland Sea, Moji’s prodigious growth was based on exporting coal—the “lifeblood” of the port— from the mines of the ChikuhM region in northern Kyushu. Multiple actors are introduced in turn at global, national, and regional geographical scales. The voices of local stakeholders grow louder as they promote their cases through the newly established national assemblies in Tokyo and the pages of the Meiji press. A lively narrative on the history of the Moji shinpō shows how the global vision of this local newspaper championed the port’s identity as “a nexus of a larger network” (143). During the Sino-Japanese War, for instance, pioneering shipboard interviews brought news directly from the continent, rather than extol hometown war heroes like so many newspapers at this time. There is also some interesting detail on the working lives that accompanied the region’s industrial growth, such as the system of forced labor in the ChikuhM coal mines (increasingly drawn from colonial Korea) and the regimented lines of stevedores, the dockworkers who formed “a human conveyor belt” (174) as they loaded coal on the Moji waterfront.
Based on a rich seam of Japanese source material, this is a systematic and largely convincing analysis. Possibly more reference could be made to Western studies on this area, such as the memorable image of the Kanmon Strait as “an S-shape like the Grand Canal in Venice” that appears in Brian Burke-Gaffney’s 2013 study of Holme, Ringer & Company (113). Nevertheless, Phipps demonstrates the need to move beyond the treaty port system as the only framework for interpreting “the opening of Japan.” Clearly, these special trading ports played an integral role in the course of modern Japan’s emergence as a commercial power.
Cyclists’ Right to the American Road: Lost Battles and Missed Opportunities
James Longhurst, Bike Battles: A History of Sharing the American Road (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2015), 294 pp., $34.95
Among several recent contributions to the history of cycling in the US, James Longhurst’s book Bike Battles is alone in its very long-term treatment of cycling (approximately 1880–1980). The book is written for a wide audience. Even so, Longhurst’s conceptualization of the road as a common-pool resource, a scarce resource to be managed for the public good, should inspire mobility scholars beyond cycling historians. Longhurst reminds us of age-old principles about the right to use the road stretching back at least to the Roman Empire. But within this overarching right to use the road, there is ample room for different treatment of various user groups through funding mechanisms, traffic regulation, and infrastructure design choices. As Longhurst puts it, “The road might be a common-pool resource, but its competing users have uneven histories of access and claims to ownership” (237). Although the depth of analysis with respect to commons theory leaves room for improvement, mobility scholars should consider the book an invitation to probe deeper.
The first bike battle was a legal one, regarding how cyclists got a right to the common-pool resource that is the American road in the first place. As new kids on the block, could bicycles be considered vehicles? This was not a matter of semantics only, but rather an essential starting point for cyclists to have the same rights—and responsibilities—as other road users. Thus, while bicycles and cyclists were increasingly regulated, that also secured their right to use the road.
This initial victory is followed by five chapters of lost battles and missed opportunities from the perspective of cycling. Some are recognizable from European scholarship (although not acknowledged by Longhurst) and popular accounts. In the first half of the twentieth century, bicycle ownership spread down the social ladder; yet since they lacked a powerful lobby organization, cyclists were devalued in road designs, traffic management, and traffic legislation. This marginalization accelerated in the post–World War II period, when cycling increasingly became the province of children, framed as a safety problem, and as a stepping-stone toward adult motoring. In the 1970s, cycling experienced a short-lived renaissance as adults for the first time in many decades took to the bicycle for transport. While these themes are familiar to the mobility historian, Longhurst’s accounts build on a truly innovative use of multiple sources, from legal texts, design manuals, and newspaper articles to sitcoms and traffic education films. These chapters are pleasant reads and convincing narratives.
Other chapters lay bare little known battles and unexpected events, which show that things might have turned out differently. Cyclists won the first battle about the right to the American road. While cycling would later be framed as unfashionable, ironically the second battle was lost due to cyclists being represented as urban elites. At the turn of the last century, the Sidepath Movement bolstered dreams of a network of smooth bicycle paths from coast to coast. A few cities had extensive networks laid out, but they were all paid for by private funds or user fees, since the interpretation of the movement as elite undermined any attempt to frame sidepaths as a public good and thus secure public funding through general taxes. In the coming decades, most paths were paved over and made part of widened roads to be shared with other traffic, including cars.
A third surprising battle arose between agencies within the federal administration during World War II over the efficiency of bicycles versus cars. The War Production Board (WPB) wanted to curb civilian mobility altogether, to save resources for the war effort, and thus completely ban bicycle production and sales during the war. The Office of Price Administration (OPA), on the other hand, feared that impeding the mobility of civilians would have a negative psychological effect on Americans on the home front. Since bicycles, according to their calculations, meant far more efficient use of scarce resources, rubber in particular, they should not be kept completely off the civilian market. Bicycle production and sales were controlled during the war, but in fact, the federal government encouraged bicycle use. In a situation when cars were, for the moment, considered a resource-wasting technology, cycling was even framed as a patriotic act. After the war, however, old representations were quickly re-established: driving was seen as the ultimate reward after years of sacrifice on bikes.
Another missed opportunity occurred when pro-cycling groups failed to cooperate and press for cycling infrastructure as the energy crisis of the 1970s transitioned into an abundance of cheap energy in the 1980s. In 1973, the federal government made available funds for cycling-related investments, but in the spirit of “New Federalism,” states could decide for themselves whether to use it for bikeways or highways, resulting in fragmented networks at best. On top of this, an influential segment of the bicycle lobby was experienced male cyclists who favored “vehicular cycling”—that cyclists should confidently take a clear position in the middle of the roadway—rather than bikeways, since they feared these would make cyclists lose their right to the main road. Decades later, in a similar situation of high gas prices and formulations of alternative ways of life, present-day bicycle advocacy groups stand united in their claims, and US cities are stepping up their efforts in realizing bikeways and introducing bike-friendly traffic regulations.
Today’s conflicts between individual cyclists and motorists need to be considered through the lens of bicycling’s long history. In going beyond the present, this book helps us understand why motorists so often consider the road as their birthright. It is not because of an oft-claimed American love affair with the car, Longhurst asserts, but because of those multiple lost bike battles during the past hundred years. Their net result makes us believe that motorists are the entitled masters of the American road, while cyclists are trespassing, although they by law have the same right to be there.
Junk or Junque? Charting Two Contrasting Views of Automobile Salvage Yards
David N. Lucsko, Junkyards, Gearheads, and Rust: Salvaging the Automotive Past (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016), 283 + xii pp., 10 illustrations, $44.95
What image comes to mind when you read or hear the word “junkyard”? Is it an unsightly expanse of rotting automotive hulks, or a potential treasure trove of desperately needed parts for a street rod or restoration project? In Junkyards, Gearheads, and Rust, David Lucsko explores the powerful tension between the two, while at the same time taking on a number of economic, cultural, and environmental issues: waste, recycling, planned obsolescence, landscape aesthetics, the practice of bricolage, and the shaping of government policies.
The narrative begins with a brief history of automotive salvage in the United States (with the exception of a few Canadian examples, the book deals exclusively with the US). In the first chapter Lucsko traces the origins of the automotive salvage business, noting that originally it followed a streamlined business plan, whereby worn-out or obsolete automobiles were quickly stripped of usable parts while the remains were consigned to scrap metal processers. But by the 1920s, these efficient operations were overwhelmed by the vast number of old and unwanted automobiles that were the by-product of the rapid expansion of mass motoring.
By the late 1930s, the typical automotive boneyard was a sprawling outdoor facility with acres of junked cars. In the post–World War II era junkyards had become significant repositories of parts for five discernable groups: hot rodders, customizers, old-car restorers, import and sports car owners, and builders of street rods. The attitudes and junkyard-based activities of each are well documented in the second chapter. Chapter 3 continues this theme by narrating the rise of specialist junkyards that served the needs of each group. Many of these operations are described at some length. Although these sketches flesh out the narrative, some readers may find them a bit tedious.
Chapter 4 begins with a geography of junkyards while analyzing why certain places in the United States are more likely sites for junkyards than others. It also looks into repositories of needed parts other than junkyards. Sometimes a much sought-after NOS (new old stock) component—an original part for an old model that has not been sold or used—will be discovered on a dealer’s shelves, while others may be unearthed in unlikely places. Other important sources are automotive swap meets that are regularly scheduled in places like Hershey, Pennsylvania, and Pomona, California, and are attended by thousands of vendors and eager shoppers. Yet another source are car hoards held by individuals rather than commercial operators, a group often subject to harassment by local authorities who fail to see the value of dozens and sometimes hundreds of cars, dead and alive, that mar the views of residents of recently developed suburbs and exurbs.
This concern felt by residents is the subject of chapter 5. For enthusiasts, a ramble through a junkyard may be akin to a treasure hunt, but to the general public, automotive salvage yards are eyesores that, if they cannot be removed, should at least be hidden behind high walls. This was a prominent aspect of the Highway Beautification Act of 1965, but a greater challenge to established junkyards was posed by local authorities responding to the complaints of constituents who had moved into a new development with full knowledge that one of their neighbors was an auto dismantler, but now were determined to have it removed, an attitude described by Lucsko “ex post facto NIMBYism” (139). This attitude was reinforced by local governmental authorities, who hoped that rezoning could be used to displace junkyards in favor of other businesses that could provide greater tax receipts.
In the final chapter Lucsko turns away from junkyards per se in order to consider efforts to diminish air pollution by allowing certain industries to off set their emissions by paying owners of “gross polluters” to scrap their vehicles. On the face of it, this seemed like a fair trade-off, but as tests conducted by several car enthusiast magazines demonstrated, an old car wasn’t necessarily a gross polluter. Nor was it necessarily environmentally advantageous to condemn old cars to be shredded or crushed so they could be a source of recycled steel. As Lucsko argues, a throwaway mentality is reinforced when replacement parts obtained from old cars are no longer available. As he puts it, “we litter less than we did in 1965, but we waste a great deal more” (136).
In researching Junkyards, Gearheads, and Rust Lucsko perused an amazing number of enthusiasts’ publications such as Hot Rod, Car and Driver, Cars and Parts, Hot VWs, and many others. Seven years of combing through these and other publications has resulted in a book that will be of interest to automotive historians, land use professionals, environmentalists, and anyone who has difficulty comprehending why a greasy differential assembly extracted from the remains of a 1971 Mustang could be an object of delight.
Reconsidering the Development of Bicycles and Motorcycles
Steven E. Alford and Suzanne Ferris, An Alternative History of Bicycles and Motorcycles: Two-Wheeled Transportation and Material Culture (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2016), 189 pp., $80
Steven E. Alford and Suzanne Ferris’s An Alternative History of Bicycles and Motorcycles: Two-Wheeled Transportation and Material Culture considers the development of bicycles and motorcycles, while emphasizing the importance of cultural context. The authors convincingly argue against the idea of a progressive development in which the horse led to the hobbyhorse, which led to the pedal velocipede and, with several steps in between, led to the modern bicycle and finally the motorcycle. At the core of their book is the idea that “it could have been otherwise” (3). That is, the path to the modern bicycle and motorcycle very well could have been different, as could the design, components, and use of these machines.
Alford and Ferris begin their introduction by troubling the idea of the “tinkerer-genius” without whom a particular technology would not have been invented, stating: “Innovation results not from an individual, but from the convergence of a number of forces” (2). Part 1, “Machines,” consists of chapter 1, the aptly titled, “‘It Could Have Been Otherwise.’” The authors describe both the development of successful machines, such as the safety bicycle (which is the model current bicycles are based on), as well as those that ultimately were not. However, they do not limit their argument to the idea that certain machines were successful because they were better, but emphasize that the bicycle and motorcycle were “propelled less by engineering and design considerations than social expectations” (31).
In part 2, “Materials” (chapters 2–4), the authors address the materials that made the development of bicycles and motorcycles possible. They consider both the manner in which these materials were used in relation to bicycles and motorcycles, as well a broader history. For example, when discussing rubber, they trace its history to the development of tires, but also link its use to European exploitation of people and materials in South America and Africa. Chapter 2, “Roads: Mobility, Bicycles, Motorcycles,” addresses the “connection of the device to its physical environment,” specifically in relation to roads, which in the authors’ parlance includes even a dirt path. The authors also articulate the difference between movement and mobility, defining mobility as movement “embedded in culture” (50). Chapter 3, “Rubber and Steel,” considers two other significant components that are utilized in bicycles and motorcycles. In chapter 4, “Textiles,” Alford and Ferris analyze the intersection of bicycle and motorcycle technology with textiles. Interestingly, while they provide a compelling discussion of cotton, they do not consider wool, which was the material nineteenth-century cycling guides most recommended riders wear.
Chapters 5 and 6 make up part 3, “Machines and Riders.” In chapter 5, “The Paradoxes of Class and Gender among Bicyclists and Motorcyclists,” Al-ford and Ferris use the bicycle and motorcycle as case studies to answer the question: “How do we understand the relations between class and gender, and how do developing technologies affect this relation?” (129). For example, they provide a nuanced discussion of class and gender in relation to the bicycle in the mid-1880s through the 1890s, questioning exactly which women were “liberated” by bicycles given how expensive they still were. In their final chapter, “The Embodied Cyclist and Freedom,” the authors ask what freedom in the context of bicycling and motorcycling means and consider freedom in both a legal sense and in a philosophical and psychological sense.
Alford and Ferris succeed in their overarching goal of reconsidering the evolutionary understanding of the development of bicycles and motorcycles. However, despite citing recent bicycle histories that have provided more accurate information of when various iterations of early bicycles were developed, the authors continue to rely on now-debunked dates. Although they explicitly address the limitations of progressive, chronological histories of the bicycle, it nonetheless would have behooved them to use dates cited by recent scholarship.
The authors also inaccurately claim that the bicycle craze produced a “revolution in culture and dress for women” (107). Other scholarship, such as Patricia Campbell Warner’s When the Girls Come Out to Play (2006), has found that women’s bicycling dress, rather than influencing fashionable dress, tended to reflect it. Still, despite some inaccuracies, Alford and Ferris make a strong argument for narratives that consider the complexity of how technology is developed and utilized. Their book provides a novel and generally compelling retelling of bicycles and motorcycles that should help future scholars better consider the many facets of bicycling, motorcycling, and mobility.
The Circulation of Knowledge in a Postcolonial Framework
Harald Fischer-Tiné, Pidgin-Knowledge: Wissen und Kolonialismus (Zurich and Berlin: Diaphanes, 2013), 104 pp., €10
Harald Fischer-Tiné’s slim volume Pidgin-Knowledge: Wissen und Kolonialismus makes a contribution to the field of postcolonialism that is anything but slim. It models a new form of academic research and publishing: succinct rather than bloated, its form determined by its content, and the import of its own claims modestly assessed.
As holder of the Chair in History of the Modern World at the ETH in Zurich and author of a number of influential monographs and edited volumes on imperialism, Fischer-Tiné’s credentials in the area of postcolonialism are undisputed. In this volume, the weight of learning that anchors his argument is managed dexterously; instead of clogging the narrative flow, it is consigned (for those wishing to consult it) to approximately forty pages of notes and bibliography that follow fifty-five pages of readable and engaging description, illustration, and argument.
The substance of Pidgin-Knowledge is an argument against the idea—according to the author, still current in the field—that in the course of its colonialist history, Europe disseminated “truth” in areas of the world purportedly in need of it, and in so doing made its scientific standards part of the fabric of the research and teaching infrastructure of those places. Similar to new imperial history scholars, and influenced by the actor-network theory of Bruno Latour, Fischer-Tiné demonstrates that Europe did not export a monolithic model of science from a geographical center to a needy periphery, but rather that science emerged from polycentric sites of “entangled knowledges” (8) born of the mutual influence of European and indigenous systems of knowing.1 The “entangled knowledges” that emerged from them are newly described and coined here as “pidgin knowledges.” The term “pidgin,” borrowed from linguistics, where it designates a contact language, emphasizes the origin of knowledge as a dynamic practice of making contact. As such it shifts away from the less dynamic, biological import of Homi Bhabha’s metaphor of “hybridity” and comes close to being an illustration of Latour’s “centers of calculation”—singular, historically determined places and institutions in which knowledge is produced through exchange and translation.
Fischer-Tiné’s monograph draws its material from the history of medicine in colonial India. But to be clear: the book is not primarily about the history of medicine, nor even about history; rather, it is about knowledge formation and about what can be learned when we study knowledge at its point of emergence as a dynamic practice occurring in specific historical contexts. It follows that Fischer-Tiné’s methodology has both historical and transhistorical dimensions. It is rooted in historical circumstance and historical understanding of the “ways of knowing and working” (11) of medical practitioners in the colonies, but its purpose is to use its historical examples to point to the far broader question of “the epistemic dimension of colonial exchange systems” (11) and from there to epistemology per se. It seeks, therefore, like Latour, to pursue knowledge of knowledge itself without resorting to the kinds of abstraction that postcolonialists since Edward Said have regarded with suspicion. Knowledge formation happens in a specific set of circumstances, in a unique story that is only subsequently abstracted, repeated, and made applicable. Pidgin-Knowledge, therefore, returns to these sources of knowledge, to explore the fabric of stories and case studies.
The exemplary role played by medicine in Fischer-Tiné’s account is given threefold justification: first, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries it is the scientific discipline out of which many other disciplines develop; second, its intimate relationship with culture and religion makes it ideal for studying processes of cultural transfer; and third, medicine was an important “tool of empire” (10), frequently used to legitimize the imperial project. Already at this point, it is clear that medicine occupies a strategic position in the generation and mapping of knowledge: in short, it is a gateway discipline both to other life sciences and to the human sciences. When we look at the evolution of medicine in the colonies, we see how history, religion, geography, politics, and economics all converge and codetermine the path of scientific progress. These diverse disciplinary influences are also themselves of diverse origin. Fischer-Tiné shows how, in forging the path of medical advancement, both European and indigenous locations, institutions, and people are in play, in a constantly evolving relationship of mutual determination.
Given this dynamic, it is unsurprising that Fischer-Tiné’s account of medical advance is not chronological. Instead, Pidgin-Knowledge explores in turn various aspects of the medical establishment—from the men (and their politics) who went from Britain to work in the East India Company (including the fascinating Irishman William Brooke O’Shaughnessy), to the institutions (and their politics) that constituted the medical infrastructure, to the processes of exchange (and their politics) that unfolded between the colonizers and the colonized, to case studies of various pidgin knowledges. It is crucial to the argument that these pidgin knowledges, which arise out of a process of exchange and translation, are to be found on both sides of the colonial divide: both the European medicine practiced in India under the influence of indigenous methods of healing, as well as traditional Indian medicine practiced under the influence of the British medical establishment are pidgin knowledges, each determined by and entangled with the other. And this goes further: Fischer-Tiné’s account of Eastern medicine disputes the monolithic coherence sometimes attributed to it by an undifferentiating Western gaze and is cognizant of the very different (religiously based) medical traditions that in turn have been molded by contact and exchange.
All of this might lead us to the conclusion that the knowledge described in Pidgin-Knowledge is dissipated and intangible. The contrary is true. For all the hierarchies and borders that Fischer-Tiné challenges here—most significantly, that which divides the center of knowledge from its periphery—what is achieved is not the dissolution of knowledge into its incalculable influences, but rather a sense of the great machinery of knowledge production as a mechanism that binds every small part in co-motion. It is with this view to the whole that Fischer-Tiné ends, warning against any precipitous application of his theory to a broader canvas, a move that might compromise the unique historical texture of local conditions of knowledge production. But a broader application, further stories, and further case studies are much to be desired. Fischer-Tiné’s claim that knowledge is born of transfer and that transfer occurs as the acts of travelers who link places and epistemologies is of central importance in mobility studies and invites more illustration. It is a volume that will be of interest to all those who know across disciplinary divides that learning is an encounter with newness and requires, in some sense, that we leave home. Seldom have a hundred pages yielded so much.
This and all following quotes from Fischer-Tiné are translations made by the review’s author.
NOVEL REVIEW: Fugitive Locomotion
Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad (New York: Doubleday, 2016), 320 pp., $26.95
Colson Whitehead’s fierce new novel The Underground Railroad imagines the potential and peril inherent in African American mobility. It tells the story of Cora, who is born into slavery on the Randall plantation in the southern state of Georgia. Cora has sharp eyes and a green thumb: “The dirt at her feet had a story,” we are told early on in the novel, “the oldest story Cora knew” (12). In the slave quarters, Cora carefully guards a tiny garden plot passed down from her grandmother. We learn the backstory of her grandmother Ajarry, who is sold into slavery as a girl in what is now Benin. She ends up in Georgia, where she has five children. Cora’s mother is Mabel, Ajarry’s only girl and the only one of her children to survive into adulthood. Mabel runs away from the plantation when Cora is still a child; we learn very late in the novel that Mabel didn’t get far, since she was bitten by a snake in the nearby swamp. Cora is marked by Mabel’s escape and compelled to repeat it. Her pursuer is Arnold Ridgeway, a bounty hunter paid to track fugitive slaves and return them to their masters. Ridgeway is particularly eager to catch Cora to make up for the fact that Mabel was the only slave he couldn’t find.
The novel’s title evokes the strategic, evasive movements of escaped slaves and the track-bound, scheduled movements of locomotives. Fugitivity and railroad travel are both emblematic mobilities of the antebellum United States, and the first chapters of the novel evoke that period in a clear, unsparing style. Yet this is not a historical novel, or at least not quite. When Cora and her companion, Caesar, get off the plantation, the men who help them to safety seem to be part of the metaphorical underground railroad, a network of abolitionists who helped enslaved people in the South travel to safer spaces farther north. Yet when Lumbly, the first “station agent” they encounter, takes them through a trap door and down a stairwell in his house, they find themselves on the platform of a literal underground railroad whose tunnel is twenty feet high and tiled with stones (66).
Whitehead’s underground railroad is an uncanny setting: though counter-factual, it reflects a misunderstanding that many readers may have experienced as children—that the underground railroad was a real train. (Near the novel’s publication date, Colson Whitehead retweeted comments by Twitter users who had made that mistake.) Once Cora and Caesar board their boxcar, Lumbly tells them, “If you want to see what this nation is all about, I always say, you have to ride the rails. Look outside as you speed through, and you’ll find the true face of America” (67). This is a joke worthy of Ralph Ellison in Invisible Man. Whether you can see the tunnels dug by African Americans or whether you can see only darkness, the “true face of America” is black. White-head’s literal underground railroad highlights the American fetishization of that form of transit as synonymous with freedom, as well as the tendency to ignore the ways that freedom often came to exist through the work of enslaved people.
Once Cora and Caesar debark in South Carolina, readers find themselves in an alternate version of the antebellum United States shaped by the logic of slave narratives and eugenic discourse. There, the state boards black workers in dormitories, replacing the whims of individual owners with government regulation. But this more pleasant version of bondage has its own restrictions, including state-mandated sterilization of the female residents. Cora decides to take the underground railroad to North Carolina, but finds herself in a far worse position there. That state has outlawed African Americans from residing within its borders; patrols regularly search the houses of white residents to ensure compliance. The former underground railroad station agent who finds Cora hides her in a nook in his attic, where she is safe but trapped much like Linda in Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Ridgeway catches Cora in North Carolina and transports her through Tennessee, the book’s bleakest landscape. The movement in this section is slow, reminiscent of Faulkner’s wagon crawling through Mississippi in As I Lay Dying. She is rescued by fellow runaways and ends up in the planned community of Valentine, Indiana.
Founded by free people of color, Valentine seems like a utopia. Farm life, education, and self-determination all help Cora to feel rooted for perhaps the first time. She has a poignant affection for farmer’s almanacs, as they unite her garden on the Randall plantation with her newfound ability to read. For all of Cora’s movement, we sense that she’d be happiest working a plot of her own land. But this respite is only temporary: the farm is raided, and it seems that Ridgeway will finally triumph. But before he returns her to Georgia, he asks to “get a look-see at the famous underground railroad” (299). Cora takes him into the underground space, pushes him down the stairs, and escapes by handcar. The space she’s in, we’re told, is a “ghost tunnel”—unfinished, and not big enough for a locomotive to pass through (253). She sleeps in the darkness, and finishes the rest of her journey on foot, finally emerging in an unknown northern region and joining a group of former slaves “headed west” (305); she is still on the move as the novel ends.
The Underground Railroad distorts some facts of American history in order to more clearly show its psychological impact, one that is articulated through mobilities. Whitehead’s novel helps readers to understand the mix of anger and hope felt at “the moment when you aim yourself at the north star and decide to run” (286). Fugitivity has come to be an important concept in contemporary critical theory, associating the movement of escaped slaves and maroons with the waywardness and utopianism of contemporary black writers and thinkers. The Underground Railroad prompts theorists of mobility to reflect upon the forms of fugitivity, past and present.