Introduction: cultural crossings.
In her article on roadside memorials and motoring heritage Jennifer Clark explores a neglected facet of motoring history, namely, death. Based on a study of 400 roadside memorials across New Zealand and Australia, Clark presents an alternative history of motoring as terminal rather than as glamorous, progressive mobility. In addition, the road itself appears as more than just a material conduit for traffic. Instead, the private practice of erecting memorials to motor bike and car drivers and passengers killed in motor accidents constructs the road as a liminal space of trauma, loss, memorialisation and emotion. Whether simple or ornate, ironic or serious, hundreds of roadside memorials attest to road and vehicle pasts that are not easily confined to sanitised displays in museums, engineering audits or romanticised advertisements. Human road kill is quickly removed in the interests of traffic safety and public sensibility, but grieving friends and relatives have found ways to reclaim the public road as not just a place of passing along but also as a place of passing on.
Clark's work raises the paradox of how motoring as an individualistic activity may separate living bodies and how road deaths and their public marking may create 'a community of individuals'. Of course, the purpose and legibility of the roadside memorials presuppose persistent mobility along the tarmac. Clark uncovers some conflict over transgressive use of public road verges, and suggests a need to examine the conflicting priorities of private remembering (and public reminding and hectoring), on the one hand, and keeping potential distractions and hazards to a minimum on the other. The uneven treatment meted out nowadays to private shrines and to revenue-generating roadside advertising hoardings clearly needs some scrutiny. Skid marks and damaged roadside barriers are, for a time, often the only palpable record of motoring tragedy: traffic authorities, vehicle recovery and recycling contractors and insurance firms erase evidence that would project the dangers of motoring. The evolution of this practice merits further inquiry--what, indeed, is the history of carnage being overlooked as a traffic management tool?
The other article on road travel in this 'mini-special' edition is about survival rather than death, although it speaks to the fragility of the car operating in and against powerful nature. Georgine Clarsen's study of the Cape-to-Cairo section of a 16,000 km automobile journey is an examination of a marathon overland trip undertaken in 1930. A key point of the article is that the two women travellers did not construe their mobility either at the time or afterwards as an epic motorised adventure by heroines. Two lower middle-class women, one a welfare worker and the other a taxi driver, 'wandered' as best they could on a low budget using a second-hand car and calling on hospitality and help as appropriate. Unlike other transcontinental treks, theirs was not a spectacle of assertive mobility--it was not an officially sanctioned performance of motoring nationalism wound into manly and overbearing racist imperialism.
Clarsen's study falls into the category of mobility history that examines the co-production of people and machines, and the continued re-production of vehicles beyond the factory gates. It is not just that machines-in-use are banged, patched, repaired, refitted, rebuilt and re-badged (the Girl Guide trefoil in this case). In addition, they acquire unimagined uses and serve purposes supplementary to intentional mobility. Between Cape Town and Cairo the car (named modestly and male) and the trip made statements to spectators and readers about the ordinariness and vulnerability of cars and their occupants. Whether this reduces the car to a form of conveyance is a moot point. The humanising effect extended to the drivers sensing displacement and becoming sceptical and wary of the imperial project. Clarsen notes that the effect was incomplete, however, and that the two women (occasionally reinvented as honorary white men because they were car operators) judged sedentary African women inferior.
Cars are famously vehicles of escape and intimacy. Whether or not lesbians resident in a colonial outpost sought and attained affirmation and sanctuary in mobility and distancing (and writing their mobility tale for public consumption) is unknown. Whatever the case, the car was 'the measure of the women' who drove it: modest but prepared, and less and less auto-mobile.
In the same period that intrepid motorists were crossing continents overland, others were discovering, and indeed creating, a new form of mobility in the air. Elizabeth Millward's study of women's and men's accounts of inter-war air tours is also about a kind of pioneering long-distance travel. The 'embodied aerial subject' is a notion that stresses the physicality of air travel: living human bodies are in transit, and the anticipation and sensations of hurtling, pitching, rolling, plummeting and yawing are visceral. Raucous aircraft engines could compound terror, headaches, nausea and vomiting.
Millward's research scrutinises thirteen English-language books about air touring published between 1925 and 1937. At the time, commercial aviation and private aviation were in their infancy. People with time and inclination (but not always talent) wrote down their impressions of this new, elevated mobility. Few of their accounts were designed as handbooks, or even as airline propaganda, but they nevertheless informed readers about what to expect and how to conduct themselves in the regulated space of an airliner cabin. Men and women writers, Millward argues, reported their experiences of aerial mobility differently, but none could simply transpose land or sea travel practices into the new technology. Like aircraft themselves, flying also had to be invented.
Categorically, and in practice, the airline passenger did not appear instantly but had to emerge. The contented and compliant abstract passenger who figured in the drawings of aircraft cabin and seat manufacturers, and in the minds of airline operators, was not always the same real person who bought a ticket, boarded and disembarked. The embodiment of the real passenger predisposed him or her to attitudes and responses learned in other (travel) contexts. The relatively few women who flew sat mostly among men in aircraft cabins, and they constituted themselves in ways that protected their dignity and resonated with their domestic lives and experiences.
The three articles in this 'mini-special' issue, one on aviation and two on the road and motoring, all touch on the gendered (3) and embodied nature of mobility. The different responses that men and women had to early flying traced, not least, the legacy and fears invoked by prohibitions on some women flying at all (frailty and pregnancy were invoked). Responses to flight were contingent on weather, route, season, and aircraft design and stage of technology, and not all authors regarded the experience of flight in the same way; the contradictions show the difficulty of specifying authenticity in travel. On the road women's bodies were less regulated than in the air, but, as one instance of the iconic Cape-to-Cairo road journey shows, 'domestication' of the car could and did also occur. That women could retain female integrity while using a car challenges the inevitability of recursive 'masculinisation' by motor technology. Stella Court Treatt succumbed a little: while motoring across Africa in 1926 with her husband and three other men she tried to forget she was a woman but also longed for female company.
Matters of gender and embodiment are also written into roadside memorials. They remind passers-by that car wrecks had once moved people with friends and family, and that pedestrians too were once living and connected human beings. The scandalous statistics of cumulative human 'car-tastrophe' do not begin to address the human cost of automobility: roadside memorials project the horror better. They make achingly plain the fragile conjuncture of body and machine, and the disembodiment that may follow inebriation and speeding, themselves often socialised markers of masculinity.
A second theme common to the three articles has to do with the spaces of mobility (someone of a historiographic disposition might one day refer to the 'micro-spatial turn' in transport history). The grand and emblematic spaces of railway station, seaport or airport are not under examination here. Rather, it is the aircraft cabin and car that constitute a site of real and deeply felt mobility, if not yet the mobility of ordinary people revelling in freedom and suffering dislocation. Unlike on trains and ships, these capsules confine mobile bodies, paradoxically rendering them almost static and giving movement complex meanings. Cramped bodies and dulled minds slumped in car and aircraft seats may indeed proceed in a negation and oblivion not far removed from death.
Cutting across their modal, period and geographical specificities, the three contributions by Clark, Clarsen and Millward insist that mobility is more than being seated in a mobile machine, and not just predetermined by technology. Rather, it is malleable, cultivated and represented in various ways--mobility has texture and is not just one-dimensional. Mobility is also textual. The trio of articles shows that in addition to people's movements being material they also have another (longer) life in public and private memory, in sculptures, words and photographs. In the same way that roadside memorials make visible the place and moment of immobility, scriptural markings record past mobility. Mobility is most often considered sensate and immediate, but it is also ephemeral and becomes intangible. Variously preserved, past mobility is cultural capital that is also (re)produced and consumed in a variety of ways. Alongside tangible transport equipment, books and memorials too are part of an object-based mobility heritage.
University of the Western Cape, Cape Town
(1) Gijs Mom, 'Editorial', Journal of Transport History 26 (2005).
(2) Colin Divall and George Revill, 'Cultures of transport: representation, practice and technology', Journal of Transport History 26 (2005), 99-111; Michael Freeman, ' "Turn if you want to": a comment on the cultural turn in Divall and Revill's "Cultures of transport" ', Journal of Transport History 27 (2006), 138-43; Colin Divall and George Revill, 'No turn needed: a reply to Michael Freeman', Journal of Transport History 27 (2006), 138-43; John Walton, 'Transport, travel, tourism and mobility: a cultural turn?' Journal of Transport History 27 (2006), 129-34.
(3) See Maggie Walsh, 'Gendering transport history: retrospect and prospect', Journal of Transport History 23 (2002), 1-2.
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|Title Annotation:||THE CULTURAL TURN|
|Publication:||The Journal of Transport History|
|Date:||Mar 1, 2008|
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