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Railway Navigation and Incarceration

I have recently finished the arduous task of reading Michel de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life. Whilst much of this was incredibly dense social theory that went over my head, occasional passages have proved/shall prove incredibly useful for my research. The following excerpts come from a very short (4 page) chapter entitled “Railway Navigation and Incarceration” which particularly struck me in terms of its beauty and simple insights.

The chapter begins as follows…

A travelling incarceration. Immobile inside the train, seeing immobile things slip by. What is happening? Nothing is moving inside or outside the train.

The unchanging traveller is pigeonholed, numbered, and regulated in the grid of the railway car, which is a perfect actualization of the rational utopia. Control and food move from pigeonhole to pigeonhole: “Tickets please…” “Sandwiches? Beer? Coffee?…” Only the restrooms offer an escape from the closed system. They are a lovers’ phantasm, a way out for the ill, an escapade for children (“Wee-wee!”) – a little space of irrationality, like love affairs and sewers in the Utopias of earlier times. Except for this lapse given over to excesses, everything has its place in a gridwork. Only a rationalized cell travels. A bubble of panoptic and classifying power, a module of imprisonment that makes possible the production of an order, a closed and autonomous insularity – that is what can traverse space and make itself independent of local roots.

And concludes with:

Everyone goes back to work at the place he has been given, in the office or the workshop. The incarceration-vacation is over. For the beautiful abstraction of the prison are substituted the compromises, opacities and dependencies of the workplace. Hand-to-hand combat begins again with a reality that dislodges the spectator without rails or window-panes. There comes to an end the Robinson Crusoe adventure of the travelling noble soul that could belief itself intact because it was surrounded by glass and iron.

The author, and his translator, certainly had a way with words. I would heartily recommend reading this short chapter. As for the book? Don’t bother with the first two parts unless you want your brain to hurt. But there is a lot of good stuff hidden in there. You can access the whole book as a clunky PDF here.

Excerpts from pages 111 and 114 of

De Certeau, Michel. 1984. The Practice of Everyday Life. Translated by Steven F. Rendall. Berkeley: University of California Press.