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Wolfgang SchivelbuschEdit

[1941-] Independant German scholar and cultural historian, student of philosophy, sociology and literature. Schivelbusch resides in Berlin and New York City. He remains unaffiliated with any university. His work is scholarly, but perhaps not overtly academic; as seen with his work Tastes of Paradise, his style is marketable as popular press scholarship.

The Railway Journey: Trains and Travel in the 19th Century [1977 German | 1979 English]Edit

In The Railway Journey, Schivelbusch delivers a delightfully readable, heavily illustrated cultural history of the railroad (European and American). In keeping with his status as an independent scholar, he makes no use of the traditional academic frames, introductions and prefaces. Each of the 10 chapters, and the 3 interspersed "Excursions" remains individually approachable.

Schivelbusch's history begins in the coal producing town of Newcastle, England, and the steam-powered experiments that went on there. Schivelbusch's major recurring theme regards how steam power and the railway shifted human relationships to space and time. According to Schivelbusch's sources, people who used and were in contact with trains and steam power described them as shrinking the space of the ocean to half its size. As the time it took to traverse land and water went down, writer's reports were that space decreased; the world became perceptually smaller. Also, steam power disrupted the mimetic relationship traditional technologies had with nature (a sailboat would tack its course in relation to wind and water, but a steamboat could force its way through against such natural phenomenon) (12-3). The railway promised to do away with the instability of both horse and driver, and produce a gaurenteed, inexhaustable and calculable mode of transport. However, the transitional contrasting opinion voiced concern over man's dissolving relation to nature; the journey becomes lost and the process of mechanized transport is seen as stripped of a soul (15). However, this is not the case in America, where the railroad is seen as unlocking the full opportunities of nature and agriculture (transportationand agricultural technologies were the first industrialized industries in the U.S., not factories). In the U.S., trains were first modeled after steam boats.

What remains intriguing about Schivelbusch's work is his design analysis of the trains, the tracks and the compartments: his efforts include both social and scientific analysis. Through both, Schivelbusch attempts to offer the popular consciousness of the train through the ideologies and ethos of its users, purveyors, architects, and promoters (and detractors). His analysis is engaged with both the mechanical history of modifications and improvements, as well as the philosophical history of how the train shaped man's relationship to geography (cutting and straightening form important characteristics of geography shift--Chap. 2). One of the dramatic tensions of the railway is its resistance of "free movement". Whereas there was once a distinction between route and means (the tollroad or causeway and the carriage or wagon that travels it), the railroad is bound to the train--route and means cannot be seperated, as the track is intended only for the train. This produces various efforts to "free up" the railways, such as the development of stagecoaches on rails (31-2). Because economic thought could only entertain the notion of individual traffic (whereas the railway could not handle multiple traffic), multiple parallel lines were laid.

The sort of notations expose the richness of Schivelbusch's work--his attention to failed and non-workable technologies, plans and improvements. Schivelbusch looks at various design endeavors (whether realized or not) to reveal something about how man understood the function of the railway in relation to their own time. What he exposes is not a fluid, straightforward narrative regarding adoption of the rail, but rather the immense logistic, ideological and design struggle that inventors, manufactorers and city planners went through attempt to "make sense" of the railroad through their own, pre-existing constructs of traffic, geographic and travel (his Chapter on The Compartment does an excellent job of figuring the design of the train into larger conflicts regarding sociality and travel).

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