Sunday, September 14, 2008

About this blog

I’ve worked through a lot of ideas about history and heritage in the past dozen or so years, but the car part is new. Here’s my basic position on how history and heritage get produced (and this is far from original, by the way—it’s built on the thinking of Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Dean MacCannell , and many others):

* We can never make a simple or straightforward retrieval of anything from the past—there are always present-day mechanisms of collection and interpretation that shape what we know about the past.

* We give this knowledge different names—“history” and “heritage” are two of the main ones—depending on who is doing the retrieving and interpreting, and why.

*We usually want the mechanisms for creating knowledge about the past, like the mechanisms for producing tourist experiences, to be somewhat if not completely invisible. Modern humans have a huge thirst for “authentic” or unmediated experiences, and we’ve developed immensely complex infrastructures to provide them for us!

Those mechanisms, which have been studied in increasing detail over the past couple of decades, include museums, folklife displays, tourist attractions of all kinds, reenactments, parks and preserves, monuments and memorials. One component of all this that remains largely invisible, though, is the role of the internal combustion engine in shaping the contemporary landscape of heritage production. (The Centre for Mobilities Research—CeMoRe to its friends—is beginning to address this question, among others. This isn’t surprising, as this is the home base on British sociologist and influential tourism theorist John Urry. Click here for a paper by him on cars and other kinds of what he calls “weightless mobilities”).

I actually started out looking for ways to study the role of the car in American culture more directly, rather than thinking about it in relation to heritage production. I wanted to do some kind of engaged social scientific research that would contribute some useable knowledge to the current widespread attempt to unplug from our petroleum-powered economy and society. And on the list of things we would need to change radically in order to accomplish that unplugging, it has seemed to me that our use of cars is among the most intractable items. So much of our physical world and so many of our behavioral patterns are shaped by the car, particularly in North America. Remaking these landscapes and behaviors feels like one of the more overwhelming tasks on a long list of overwhelming tasks. Faced with what feels overwhelming or baffling, my typically egg-headed response is usually to design a research project about it.

So this blog represents a first step toward bringing together the intractable social/spatial question of how to shift our car culture for a post-carbon world with the ever-intriguing (well, to me, anyway) set of questions about how we construct our knowledge about the past. How many historic and heritage sites wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the automobile? How does the creation of a North American heritage infrastructure relate to the construction of a car culture, and to the development of various national, regional, and local identities? How do we display and memorialize car culture itself? How is all of this changing (or is it changing?) as the environmental, social, and economic consequences of our reliance on cheap, abundant petroleum become clearer and clearer to us? Is there any way to mobilize heritage display itself to help make the changes that we’re going to need to make?

Those are the kinds of things this blog will address, in the context of looking at some specific roadside attractions. (Note: This isn’t the only “History on Wheels” project – this one is a military vehicle museum in the U.K., and this is a vintage motorcycle club in India, while there are several that are more straightforward projects taking history “on the road” in some way. To my knowledge, though, this is the only “History on Wheels” project looking at the automobility and heritage production combo.)

It’s a new adventure for me to be putting out my field- and research-notes in a more or less public format like this one. But it seems to me that understanding and changing our automobility is a mammoth challenge that demands collective effort and pooled resources on many levels. So I’m putting my thoughts-in-progress into the mix, for whatever they’re worth. I hope to hear others’ in response!


Michael said...

I believe Paul Frost at the University of Brighton is doing something related to automobility and heritage.

Univ. OF Brighton

of course the 2007 book Mobilities by Urry is also required reading!!

Cathy Stanton said...

Thanks for this tip, Michael - I'm still getting my set of links and lists of reading together for this blog, and this is helpful!

I have to say, I think the Brits have always been a step (or several) ahead of U.S. scholarship on heritage stuff. Seems to me this is because of having been deindustrialized a tad earlier, since so much of heritage production is prompted by massive economic change. When industry leaves, heritage work (and the people who study it) rushes in to fill the void and help reinvent the world...

This Is What a Feminist Looks Like said...

I'm assuming that you're posting this on the internet because you'd like to hear thoughts, so I submit the following for your consideration:

At the heritage site I'm most familiar with (the homes of Transcendentalist philosophers in Concord, MA), it is a commonly repeated fact that folks would walk to Boston. At the same time, it is a *huge* factor in the popularity of these sites that they are not trivially accessible by public transit: you have to walk less than two miles from the commuter train, which runs on an inconvenient schedule, to get to most of the sites, and this puts a lot of people off. So while the site would exist qua site without the car, I would bet that it wouldn't be financially sustainable as a site of tourism without it.

I wonder about whether the idea of mobility -- our thoughtless expectation that we'll be able to range, say, 100-200 miles at will -- is something that is changeable in American culture. In my own understanding of it, I see strong ideological ties to the concept of freedom and abundance, and I'm not sure I understand how to tip those over into a place of treasuring and respecting resources that (I think, at least) we should be thinking of as more valuable without getting into a grabby, greedy self-preserving mindset of scarcity. I think many Americans envision our history -- still! -- as one long forward trajectory, and see this as a step back. At the same time, I see possibilities in subcultural groups that articulate a kind of reified semi-primitivism that translates what most Americans would call "deprivation" into "relationship."

Debbie said...

This is a fascinating project! I have been thinking about roadside historic markers recently, after re-reading Michael Kammen’s Mystic Chords of Memory and Marguerite Shaffer’s See America First — both point out that the construction of roads intended for motor traffic was explicitly linked to greater access to heritage sites, and roadside markers went up almost immediately. They were part of the construction of automobility as a particularly American leisure activity.

As American car culture has progressed and suburban sprawl increased, it seems to have eclipsed those markers—there is one near my apartment adjacent to a six-lane highway with no sidewalk. But the link between the road trip and heritage remains.