- Rails, Networks, and Novels: Historicizing Infrastructure Space
Transport technology is the material base of potentiality.Wolfgang Schivelbusch, The Railway Journey
In a recent essay eviscerating the current management, operation, and ownership structures of Britain’s train network, novelist James Meek pauses to observe that contrary to their now decrepit state, “[w]hen they first came along, the railways were more than new. They set the terms by which future new things would be deemed new” (23). It should be no surprise that a novelist would take an interest in the cultural significance of the fate of the railway. After all, trains were as constitutive of nineteenth-and early twentieth-century fiction as they were of modernity itself. Augmenting Meek’s comments slightly, we might say that the railway was at once an instigator of historical change and the metaphor in which that change was couched. Novelists gravitated to the world of the railway not just as mere convenient narrative function—getting characters from A to B—but as a literary symbol that stood for the shock-inducing arrival of modernization and modernity onto the terrain of everyday life.
Before the US highway system, before international air travel, there was rail transport. In the second half of the nineteenth century the railway was implicated in everything from urbanization and the birth of finance to the logistics of war and imperialist extraction. Its sum achievements, as Schivelbusch argued in his classic study of nineteenth-century railway capitalism, were the homogenization of time and the annihilation of space (40), phenomena we now take [End Page 174] for granted in light of inexorably faster and more intensive technologies of transportation. In our own times, trains move more commodities and people around the world than ever before. But their sense of novelty, of being the keyword for modernist futurity, has waned. Supplanted by car, air, and even space travel, the railway would seem to have become a historical anachronism, a collector’s item from a phase of modernity long since past.
There has long been an association with historical periods and the modes of transportation that defined them. For example, in 1995, Walter Russell Mead produced an influential schematic periodization of the history of capitalism which claimed that the period spanning from the late nineteenth to the late twentieth century witnessed an “evolution . . . of culture that takes us from Grand Central Terminal to Kennedy International Airport by way of the Long Island Expressway” (16). For Mead, the respective ages of rail, car, and air travel (roughly, Victorian capitalism, Fordism, post-Fordism) succeed one another like falling dominoes, with the dominant mode of transport both product and producer of the culture in which it is embedded. In 1995, Mead could surely only obliquely see the emergence of the twenty-first century’s vastly intensified infrastructural world system, governed as it is by Internet giants like Amazon and Google. Despite the usefulness of his schematic historical shorthand, it is hard to situate the realities of contemporary global transportation and exchange—let alone warfare—into his narrative. But Mead’s schema does remind us of the centrality of transport technology to our available heuristics for historical thinking. The age of rail, the age of space travel, even the invention of the wheel have all been markers by which the physical movement of people and things becomes a proxy for the movement of history.
The particular model of history that railways once evoked—that of a thoroughly modern history of inexorable progress and exhilarating movement—has waned, just as the centrality of the railway to capitalist production has been supplanted by newer logistical and infrastructural technologies. This might initially prompt one to ask how such newer infrastructural and transportation technologies have been invoked by contemporary cultural objects to reflect on the particular cadence of historical consciousness in the present moment. This essay takes a different approach. I am interested in [End Page 175] how and why the railway persists in contemporary culture, in the contemporary historical novel in particular, as an objective correlative for historical thinking—that is, as a means for reflecting on the historical by way of railroad infrastructure.
This essay considers two...