The Theory of Mobilities Reconsidered – Commenting Mobilities Paradox: A Critical Analysis

February 15, 2018

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Multiple lines connected by dots against a blury background

Maximiliano E. Korstanje offers an analysis of the mobilizes paradox.

This book was thought as a result of years of academic discussion with global scholars such as Geoffrey Skoll, Rodanthi Tzanelli, Adrian Scribano, Luke Howie, Charles Landry, Freddy Timmermann and David Altheide among others. Basically my focus –here- was aimed at discussing the possibility to build a bridge between classic Marxism and the theory of mobilities as it was coined by John Urry and the Lancaster School.

To some extent, one of the first obstacles I come across was the lack of dialogue between cultural theorists and Marxists. While the former placed mobilities as the touchstone of modern civilization, the latter referred to mobilities as an instrument of surveillance orchestrated to protect the interests of ruling elite.

In this book, I tried to keep in mind a different argument that confronts the strongholds and weaknesses of both theories towards a new alternative that helps social scientists to think the contemporary society. To put this bluntly, though we are accustomed in defining on ourselves as mobile citizens, no less true is that –unlike our ancestors- we deal daily with new diseases which are the direct products of a sedentary life. This is not a work related to health studies but this point reveals –among other things- how while thinking mobilities as the best of possible worlds, we physically more immobilized than our ancestors. In the cinema industry, many plots serve as illustrative examples of this futurist scenario such as The Island (directed by Michael Bay) to the Saga Matrix (The Wachowski brothers). In all them, mankind -far from being emancipated- remains oppressed by the technology. Leisure travels or the belief in a better world act as conduits towards a complete exploitation and exhaustion of the bodies. The paradox lies in the fact the same technology designed to make of this world a safer place situates as the future iron-cage of an ever-oppressed humanity. In order for this submission to be effectively achieved, an illusionary sense of movement should be imposed.

Equally important, reviewing the specialized literature I felt this was a gap in social sciences somebody needs to fulfill. The Mobilities Paradox exhibits two significant aspects of modern mobilities, which merit to be debated.

On one hand, we live a world of serious inequalities where some travelers are encouraged to visit the world (for example the tourists) whereas others are treated as undesired guests (asylum seekers or refugees). Of course, international terrorism, 9/11 and the civilian war in Syria –though in different facets- have played a leading role in the configuration of a new World where the alterity is not welcomed. To some extent, terrorism is eroding one of the symbolic milestones of Western civilization, hospitality.

On another, I found that –unlike Marxists- the above-noted point was widely studied by Urry and the authoritative voices of mobilities studies, but they somehow have no interests in deepening into the nature and evolution of nation-state. Mobilities are something else more complex than the result of technological breakthroughs. In this sense, historians witnessed how at the time the sense of nation-hood was imposed as an emerging cultural and political project many nomad groups have been coerced and forced to live with less liberty to move. This seems to be one of the open questions the theory of mobilities has not addressed, and where this book centers. It is vital to remind that only a small portion of humanity can travel today. The book is not intended to strip mobilities from its sainthood but to put into context its ideological power.

Meanwhile, it is important not to lose the sight of the fact that the nature of globalization expanded the logic of state to the margins of a flat globe creating a climate of uncertainty that today is conducive to the insurance industry. While the inflation of risks leads to sidestep the check and balance institutions, jeopardizing modern democracies, the future governs. However since events, as they are usually imagined in the future never happen, daily behaviors may be very well molded according to economic policies which are externally designed to lay-citizens.  Fear allows citizens to accept some policies in other conditions would be amply neglected.

In a world of material asymmetries, capitalism poses the appetite for the discovery as a psychological need. The best example that illustrates this point is the Carrousel –roundabout- a French invention oriented not only to entertain our children but also to denote the rotation of a circular mobility.  At a closer look, roundabouts are often populated with the means of transports or animals which are associated with velocity and ferocity. The ideology of mobilities not only is inextricably intertwined to children education but to the essence of the nation-state.

Last but not least, I do not want to gloss over the opportunity to mention the final chapters contain an interesting philosophical debate on the theory of “non-places” as it was ignited by Marc Augé. I hold the thesis that airports represent precisely the corollary of the central role occupies mobilities in modern consumption. To cut the long story short, airports, far from being spaces of anonymity as Augé accounted, should be understood as exemplary centers of discipline and control where the “Other”, the “Alien” is tightly scrutinized. Once their identities are positively validated, guests seem to be introduced in the wonderland of hyper-consumption, but not before where they run the risks to be rejected. At any airport, the three main cultural values of western civilization are at stake, security (Police), Trade (Customs) and Hospitality (Migration Office). The legitimacy of capitalism and ruling elite consists in imposing a false sense of mobilities on citizens while they are enclosed in the Matrix of consumption. This is the reason behind the importance of airports for international terrorism. Once an airport is under attack, the credibility of officials is undermined.

This project places the theory of mobilities under the critical lens of scrutiny narrowing the contributions of Marxism and Lancaster School in harmony.

Maximiliano E. Korstanje, Department of Economics, University of Palermo, Argentina

Korstanje Mobilities

The Mobilities Paradox is available now.

Read chapter one on Elgaronline.


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  1. mobilities paradox – Maximiliano Korstanje - February 16, 2018

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