Lonely Transit

Teresa Brennan in Transmission of Affect states that “our thoughts are not entirely independent,” which seems relevant to the way people travel through subways (New York subway stations being my sites of study) (2). At the same moment that we become hyperindividual — resisting contact, focused on a certain goal, travel as meant to be solely transitory rather than an experience itself — we become an amalgam of formless beings. People moving through subway stations and in and out of trains resemble schools of fish more than they do colliding individuals.

fish travelling   people travelling

This combination of hyperisolation and indistinctiveness reminds me of affect because of how affect, at least as it’s described by Brennan, occurs prepersonally (assuming there is a definitive ‘personal’). I wonder if transit requires a prepersonal communication. How do we know what the boundaries are of the ‘self’ when walking through a station? How do we know to navigate it in the specific way that we do? In American mass transit and specifically New York subway stations, there is an uncomfortability with the idea of becoming a swarm of travelling things, a body of non-individuals, and in New York particularly, the individual must become emphasized in public spaces. New York being a metropolis of American late capitalism, this exaggerated individualism doesn’t surprise me, but I am interested in capitalist architectures and transit. What might possibly be an interesting site for community gathering or exchange is instead a space of individuals travelling individually and alone, but together.

There is a resistance of community and affect, but it occurs regardless of conscious opinion on it. The sharing of an architecture, the experience of waiting, hearing the same sounds, travelling on the same routes (and, for many, these same experiences everyday) is stripped of any intimacy that might have been there. But like in Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter, the station is a breathing organism. It houses us all for a few moments, or maybe longer. The specific designs and layout of subway stations predict partially the flow of mass movement within them. Sounds of trains screeching against metal and gases moving through underground pipes are heard by all, but this transit is something communal and individual, so these experiences are tuned out. Many prefer to have earbuds in, like trying to tune out the experience entirely until they reach their destination. But we can’t. As much as we feel with each other (despite a cultural resistance to this), we feel with that architecture, breathing it in and exhaling ourselves out.

And yet the architecture also encourages that creation of an individual boundary. Each person is ticked off as they pass through turnstiles. Station benches have small dividers between seats as a sort of physical barrier. The travel occurs underground, unseen, unimportant — interestingly, the place of the dead. The deadness of affect in a station, where extreme emotion is rarely shown let alone shared, is itself an affect. We walk into a station and we become something else, focused on getting from where we are to where we want to be. The act of transit in New York city subway stations — checkpoints between both places and the means of getting there — requires abandoning a self and becoming an extreme individual.




~ by adriene on March 23, 2015.

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