T2M Newsletter Volume III, Number 3, November 2006
Autumn in Paris
Newsletter editor Drew Whitelegg gives a personal view of the recent T2M Paris conference (A more detailed report on the Paris T2M Meeting will appear in the Journal of Transport History).
I am becoming ever fonder of Paris, perhaps because the metro and RER system provides a level of civilized mobility that contrasts starkly with its counterparts in Atlanta, my adopted home, and London, my former one. Though zooming around from conference location to conference location may not have been ideal for those less mobile – something that an association focused on mobility may want to think about in the future – I, for one, found it fun. And fun’s not to be scoffed at these days.
T2M’s fourth international conference kicked off with a keynote address by Bruno Latour at The Sorbonne in which the sociologist cryptically toyed with the relationship between transportation – the means of getting from place to place – and transformation – the effect such means has on the transportee. I was reminded here of Marshall McLuhan’s “inventory of effects,” in which any new technology permeates society at an exponential level. Indeed, Latour seemed to be stepping further into a McLuhanite world when claiming that mobility is only fully visible in a “flat society” argument (of the sort, presumably advanced by Thomas Freidman). Paradoxically, within such arguments the tensions between transportation and transformation produce a “law of constant immobility” in which, for all the talk of the global, “distance is back.”
The conference then decamped to Marne La Vallée the following day, where I attended intriguing sessions on road history and aerial mobility. At the former, I heard about road building in the Ottoman Empire and in the British and French Empires of Africa, along with a deceptively fascinating account of road development in Denmark. At the aerial mobility session, a collective of French scholars took us through ballooning, sport flying and urban imagery in pre-WWII New York. What struck me about all these accounts was the role of local factors and agents. According to Gordon Pirie, for instance, you could often tell which “part” of Africa you were in just by the state of the roads. If they were good, you were in French Africa, in which a superior construction system dominated; if they were bad, you were in British Africa, where sensibilities about forced labour ran deeper. Equally, French women pilots, according to Luc Robene, organized their own associations and clubs some twenty years before their counterparts in the United States, first wave feminism notwithstanding. In other words, geography, like distance, matters.
Friday evening’s dinner – which was not the official T2M banquet – was held in the sumptuous grandeur of Le Train Bleu, the turn of the (20th) century restaurant at Gare De Lyon. Old meets new here: look up at the ceiling and marvel at the frescoes depicting France’s imperial and tourist destinations; look out the window to see the TGVs snaking their way off to a modern, highly-mobile Europe.
For me, the highlight of Saturday was the gender and mobility session. To my mind, since the pioneering gender and transport conference held at York in 2000, the topic has taken either a back seat or been shunted into the sidings within the field of mobility history. Too often researchers imply that gender doesn’t exist, or they don’t really understand it, assuming it to be solely about women. Sadly, one of the speakers was not present, but that allowed us to have a more fulfilling discussion with the presenters, Markus Nohl and Maggie Walsh, ably chaired by Vanessa Schwartz. Given Nohl’s use of German cartoons to illuminate his arguments, an intriguing conversation also developed over the nature of image and how we, as historians, use image in our work.
Saturday’s banquet was the normal T2M-style affair, in which guests were entertained by a jazz-style ensemble, while tucking into ravioli and other assorted cocktail snacks, washed down by an assortment of fine wine. “Mobility” was in the air, and guests could move and mingle from one table to another freely. If I were to be critical I would say that the banquet seemed rather upstaged by the previous evening’s meal at Le Train Bleu, even though the latter was not an “official” T2M event. Perhaps some thought in the future could be given towards avoiding such conflicts.
I have to confess my attendance on Sunday was limited by my need to think about another form of mobility, namely the Prix De L’Arc de Triomphe horse race at Longchamp in the Bois-de-Boulogne that afternoon. I’d never been to this occasion, and I wasn’t going to miss this opportunity. And, funnily enough, even at Longchamp, T2M issues lurked in the wings. Not only was the Paris racecourse filled with Brits who had zoomed over on the Eurostar; there were also over 5,000 Japanese punters there to support their favorite horse, many of whom had just landed at Roissy that morning. With global warming now a serious threat to the planet, how much longer this kind of apparent frivolity can be tolerated is a moot point. Sadly for the Japanese visitors, their horse didn’t win; the big race was won by Rail Link. Sadly for me, I completely missed the fact that with a name like that – on the weekend of the T2M conference – the horse couldn’t lose!