The main goal of this quarter’s seminar ‘Speed and Power in Twentieth-Century Europe’ has been to explore the many ways that trains, planes, and automobiles have shaped modern urban life, as well as modern thought. We’ve conducted our survey mainly by engaging with works of literature, art, and film that touched on the interrelated themes of travel and technology. Though Europe provided our starting point, the scope of our inquiry soon stretched to a global level.

Gino Severini, Armored Train in Action (1915)

Reading Antoine de Saint-Éxupery’s (author of the Little Prince, and an accomplished aviator) memoir of his time as a pilot, Wind, Sand, and Stars led us consider the ways that the novel experience of flight might have helped to influence the course of twentieth-century philosophy. A comparative look at Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and Che Guevara’s The Motorcycle Diaries had us thinking about the relationship between the romance of the road trip and the realities of privilege, and about the power dynamics in North American/Latin American exchanges. After reading F.T. Marinetti’s controversial 1909 ‘Manifesto of Futurism’ we visited Stanford’s Cantor Museum, to discuss how modern artists in the 1910s and 1920s incorporated (or rejected) Futurist thinking into their works. While at the Cantor we also looked at materials having to do with Leland Stanford’s sponsoring of Eadward Muybridge’s famous motion studies, which related to another reading we’d done on motion and photography in the work of Muybridge and his French peer Etienne-Jules Marey. In another session we thought critically about the relationship between transportation and conspicuous consumption, and we came to the conclusion that the horse and carriage might be thought of as the private jet of the Early Modern era – the latest and fastest technology, harnessed by elite individuals who traveled for business and pleasure.

Eadweard Muybridge, Horse in Motion (1886)

After many weeks of looking deeply into the relationships between humans and machines, we spent one of our final sessions thinking about the human body itself as a machine, and of walking as the most essential form of travel technology. Inspired by Guy Débord’s concept of the dérive, and by the work of contemporary artist Tim Knowles, who incorporate Debord’s thought into his artistic production, we divided up and went on individual derives, which we thought of as “guided wanderings.” For the guided wandering each student chose some kind of rubric (I’ll follow someone wearing red, until I see the next person wearing red and then I’ll follow them; I’ll walk toward the loudest sound I hear; I’ll walk from the youngest person I see and then try to find progressively older people as I walk…) with which to guide his/her walk around campus. The point was to explore what kinds of different interactions we might have with our built environments if we travel for some other reason than the typical ones of work and (often equally regimented) leisure. Coming back as a group we reported back on our respective “travels,” which prompted a lively discussion ranging from the state of garbage collection on campus, to the relationship between one’s age and how much one is looked at in public, to the ancient art of eavesdropping!

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