Review of Creswell's 'On the Move'

Jonas R Bylund

Caution: The final, definitive version of this paper has been published in Urban Studies, 46(10), September/2009 by SAGE Publications Ltd./SAGE Publications, Inc., All rights reserved. © Urban Studies Journal Ltd

On the Move: Mobility in the Modern Western World, Tim Cresswell, 2006, New York, London: Routledge, 352 pp.; £13.99 paperback, ISBN 0-415-95256-5.

‘Travel is more than just A to B. Travel should add some extra sparkle to your winter.’ (Hilton advertisement in Brussels Airline's in-flight magazine bthere, 2007)

Urbanity often seems to be about proximities and distances, boundaries and displacements. They are stock of the trade in urbanism and planning, as they always refer to some orders and the management of those orders. Tim Cressewll’s On the Move is set right on the operational concept which holds these variables: mobility. Mobility is central, Cresswell claims, for what it means to be human. Humans move around, quite simply – even in the seemingly stationary activity of reading a book they are not really in situ. The book could thus be considered a part of the so-called ‘mobility turn’: it is an outline of the difference a mobility-approach makes in the analysis of the contemporary flow of things and their genealogies (cf. Sheller and Urry, 2006).

The theme is how Western mobility has been shaped. However, a main issue for Cresswell is to foreground the politics of mobility. The text is then set at the intersection between mobile physical bodies and represented mobility, with the justification that one would miss the point if one tried to understand the one without the other. Which, in turn, leads to the proposition that movement is rarely just movement: it is always imbued with meaning. And the agenda for On the Move is to provide a figure of thought which helps out in the tracing of how movement is made meaningful. A distinction between movement and mobility is thus introduced. Movement denotes the ‘bare fact of movement’ from A to B. Mobility, on the other hand, allows for an analysis of the politics, metaphysics, and materialities attached to a movement A–B. A pertinent use, since

‘The line that connects them, despite its apparent immateriality, is both meaningful and laden with power’ (On the Move, p. 9).

The demonstration and development of this approach is a collection of reflections on mobility. They range over the examples of capturing movement in photography in the 19th century, Taylorism and workplace an domestic efficiency, dancing and ‘decorum’ in the 1920s UK, juridical handling of mobile object-subjects, US citizenship and migration, Suffrage uses of mobility in the Boston campaign, and the contemporary production of mobilities at international airports via the example of Schiphol.

The book follows a fairly classic figure of disposition: an introduction, a theory chapter, and then empirically based chapters – but no summary discussion, rather an epilogue on Katrina and New Orleans, and how the politics of mobility influenced the interpretation and management of the event.

On the Move delivers a noteworthy critique for anyone interested in e.g. a city’s communities and public spaces. In a proposed shift from a sedentarist metaphysics to a nomadic metaphysics, i.e. whether to to see fixity or flows as the normal ‘state’ of things, ‘place’ is argued to be, in the last instance, a conservative concept.

‘As place is an essentially moral concept, mobility and movement, insofar as they undermine attachment and commitment, are antithetical to moral worlds’ (On the Move, p. 31).

Cresswell gives ‘place’ a similar treatment as organisation theory has given ‘organisation’ lately: it is more and more seen as a provisional achievement and caught up in the activity of constantly organising, rather than a kind of ‘natural’ state of order (cf. Chia, 1999). The political commentary of mobility is then linked to James C Scott and Michel Foucault, as the management of mobility is an effort of making human behaviour legible and sorting things out (Scott; Foucault, 1991). The conclusion to draw from the text: mobility is always managed somehow, by representational or material means. But not merely in a dry bureaucratic manor, since

‘Power is not simply about control and regulation through denial, but about the production of pleasure itself’ (On the Move, p. 145).

The proposed shift in thinking about flows rather than fixity (the shift from sedentarist metaphysics to nomadic metaphysics) is presented in a very clear way with a light hand. The style is light and easy, not much theory-heavy commentary. Little stories on how humans move around and how mobility is conceptualised and developed at various points and situations in the modern West. There is the voice of an observer without an ‘I’ guiding the reader – except the chapter on Schiphol. Fascinated, intellectual field trip guide, one could say. Sometimes the chapters are a bit thin and the tone is almost more of a textbook than exhaustive analysis. Although this might be one of its advantages: given the ease of language, this book is a very good introduction to thinking with or even in mobility. (I recommend reading it on the move…)

However, the simplifications involved here also invites further problematic instances in some of the statements – perhaps in that the figures of thought used in order to save the clarity retains some of the luggage of ‘sedentarist social theory’ which is criticised. For instance, I keep wondering if Cresswell wants the reader to make a choice between sedentarist and nomadic metaphysics, as if they were incommensurable. If they are, then there is really no reason to choose either-or! Instead of being used as resources, they could both be relegated the status as topics – and other resources should be developed to investigate them in action, so to speak.

Where is the sense of what we could call ‘distributed mobility’ – the fixes necessary for the mobile entities? It is not just that the state and our taken-for-granted sedentarism prohibits and regulates movements for the sake of ideological and territorial order. The fixity, or perhaps a greater degree of stability, is necessary if humans or postcards shall be able to move around and still be recognised as the same entity it was on starting the journey. (Even if there seems to be a lot less fixity around than we tend to think – many more objects are today seen to be as liquid as they need to be.) Aeroplanes have to keep a certain interval of pressure and oxygen once in the air. They have to be shaped into immutable mobiles (Law, 2002). This points to the lack of vocabularies the social science have in order to think about mobility, or, rather, about the contemporary world, without resorting to the sedentary style.

What is important, the lesson to learn from On the Move, is that not only the connections (the sediments, so to speak) are of importance, but the things enacting these relations are probably more pertinent to look at today (cf. Moreira, 2004). The human beings are one type of these circulating entities performing the relations of mobility. But here is also a slight drawback. When we take a look around us, it’s not only humans make up mobility and lead a nomadic existence (e.g. SARS, diamonds, the Mars Rover, waste). Cresswell leaves all these Other objects somewhat relegated to a backdrop. Artefacts such as laws, aeroplanes, cameras, measuring devices, etc. are kept as mere intermediaries and not really fellow travellers who interferes with or make possible human mobility. We are almost back in a container conception of space.

This point might seem unfair, because Cresswell opens up to the agency of nonhumans: in a sense, the book leaves you curious about how they were shaped. The chapters are like small introductions, sketches of a social science perspective gearing up to the challenge of accommodating other relations and agencies than the impoverished conception of human face-to-face interaction as the basic premise for collective life.

What is the use for urban studies? Obviously, we have been quite good at pinning down the city, fixating its material and informative flows, tie them to locations. In many urban studies, there is still a backbone gesture of analysis set in a sedentarist metaphysics. Without romanticising the nomad, a nomadic metaphysics is perhaps a good entry point for understanding what takes place in, or, rather, what moves cities and urban regions – that extra sparkle in your winter. We all know they do not stand still, quite simply.

Jonas R Bylund, Södertörn University

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