The thesis for Schivelbusch’s book The Railway Journey seems to be that the railroad altered the traveler’s perceptions of space, time, distance, nature and the senses. Although the means of a quick and reliable mode of transport was and is an important part of industrialization, it denaturalized and desensualized the passengers (Schivelbusch 20). Shrinking and reshaping the world it touches with industrial fingers and alienating the riders to the world around them.
With fast and reliable steam power engines replacing previously expensive and unreliable natural sources of energy such as water or animal man is released from the constraints of nature. These engines do not succumb to the whims of weather or exhaustion and are reliable enough to keep and daily regulated schedule despite wind or rain. Yet, by replacing the age-old use of the horse and carriage and through sheer speed they have made the world smaller and more accessible to the people. Where in the olden days people experienced every step of the way with their senses now all they have to do is step on a train and step out onto a different place. The railroad has annihilated the space and time, which were characterized by the old transport technology (36). To the perception of the people who had previously experienced every step of their journeys the world seemed to have shrunk.
The detachment of man from nature and his perception of nature is finalized in the construction of the railways (20). Since the ideal railway is hard, level and straight, they were not laid out sympathetically to the landscape but instead cut and carve their way through in a straight line. Nothing gets in their way, not river mountain or canyon. The riders of these straight speeding bullets see nothing but a disorienting sight of the landscape shooting past to quickly for them to focus on. The train creates a barrier between themselves and the landscape making them detached viewers of an untouchable scene. This barrier is later enhanced by the telegraph poles that began to be widely used to regulate railway traffic. Now “the traveler perceived the landscape as it was filtered through the machine ensemble (24)”
The use of railways to transport goods began to be felt in the very architecture of the time. With the use of availability of previously hard to acquire items, such as glass and steel, the “railroad reorganized space (45)”. These new materials bent the contrast between light and shadow making it uniform and absent of contrast, a disorienting combination to people used to rock and wood. In the very beginning of the book, culture is described as having an organic quality, if so it is now an inorganic culture. This culture is now detached from the organic.
As the railways expanded their reach they began to affect the “special presence (40)”of various commodities and towns which were once associated with a certain region. This desensualization of the regions is described as losing their ‘auras’ and so no longer have the special qualities that it once has. No longer do people have to travel long and rugged distances for a certain fruit or to visit a certain town, now they only have to hop on a train then hop off. Thus the perception of individuality is lost.
The changes of perception that the railway caused are precursor of the denaturalization and desensualization that is abundant is modern industrial society. Schivelbusch’s book gives interesting evidence to this thesis. By its manipulation of the world by the railways which altered the old world views of travel and nature it changes the definition of man’s world view and the place man sees himself as being in the landscape around him.
Shivelbusch. “The Railway Journy”