I mentioned Wolfgang Schivelbush’s Panoramic Travel in a previous Daily Ritual post.
In the text, he investigates the shift in landscape (and geographical) perception that took place after the introduction of the railroad. In the past, travelers would move from one region to the next by foot, horseback, wagon, or other related methods. Even though horse travel was faster than slogging away by foot, it was by no means as fast, alien and compact as travel by rail. A walk “cross country” would quite literally take the traveler into contact with the localized, unique environment of each individual moment: ruts, bushes, trees, individual rocks, local people, wildlife. The viewer’s camera eye, so to speak, could focus more intimately on the vignettes of passing through a space more slowly. It also causes the viewer to see only the near, with a hint at the broader landscape and geography as they are caught up at eye-level, or wagon-level vertical space.
Goethe described a coach trip to Switzerland: “The highway pavement has been improved with limestone. Woods in back of the watchtower. A man climbing up the great tall beech trees with a rope and iron cleats on his shoes…” (Schivelbush, 93).
This is a common, pre-railroad travel passage. The viewer is able to identify the types of trees and stones, recognize nearby depth, analyze a local’s clothing down to the details on his shoes.
Now, in a train (or car), we hurtle through environments. We might catch a glimpse of the man climbing the tree, in the woods off the rail line, but we get an impression of his existence which is gone (and potentially forgotten) as soon as he comes into view. The train covers vast distances quickly, rises higher than eye level, ducks lower and deeper than foot or horse travel allows. Contemporary trains, cars and planes move at even greater speeds–an endless desire to blast across the flatlands or rush to a destination, ignoring the in-between.
Inside, we are often packed with other people. Jostling with conversation, blasting music, reading, hammering away on a cell phone. Our understanding of the landscape has changed from the single moment with limestone bricks and anthills to the long, stretching passage of time and geography. In a plane, the passenger can often see entire ecosystems, regional environments and terrain that once required microscopic, close-up travel, fall away into abstract layers. The outline of Lake Superior or the Hudson River become iconographic. From the plane’s height, it’s as if you’re flying over those flat, information-filled maps themselves. The information and image merge.
Schivelbusch believes the rapidity of travel has mutated our understanding of space / place, potentially for the worst. He describes nervousness, fatigue of the eye and senses, weariness of the mind, the inability to consume and process all of the rapid, flickering images–leaving a dulled-out impression. The “intensive experience of the sensuous world, terminated by the industrial revolution, undergoes a resurrection in the new institution of photography” (Schivelbusch, 99). According to Schivelbusch, photography reclaims our lost focus on the minute. Maybe that’s even part of what The Cascade is in dialogue with. But that’s another conversation for another time, though it’s important to note that he believes we do seek to recapture that relationship to the instant footfall, the slower, more receptive appreciation of our surroundings.
Advances in travel have changed everything, made almost anything possible.
I disagree with the sense of weariness Schivelbusch describes–or at least I disagree with a blanket assumption that all travelers fall into nervous overload. If anything, I find this compartment view of the world fascinating–global in scope. I can choose to analyze rocks and trees when I’m walking, or I can ‘pull the camera back’ and view the bigger picture, analyzing entire waterways and migrations of people. You can now visually understand the relationship between locations better and faster. Geographic drama plays out before your eyes as you follow a river cutting through the desert and see why it twisted and turned, its obstacles larger than life.
The image above? A glimpse of that so-familiar desert through a vehicle, from the outside of the vehicle. Either trouble or the cavalry is coming, too! Not quite a panorama, but the image made me think of my fascination with observing the geographic space.
AT S2 E18 84