Road scholars
September 27, 2020 3:37 PM   Subscribe

I'm looking for recommendations of philosophers/thinkers whose work could help me ask better questions about the nature and history of specific roads. For example, thinkers whose work would shed light on the contrast between "the history of US 41" as a designation vs. as a physical stretch of road. Or whose work might shed light on the use of roads and road construction in asserting and resisting various forms of hierarchy. Et cetera.

The work need not deal with roads directly, although that's obviously a plus. There's probably no limit to the philosophical issues that can be raised by the study of roads, so I'd be quite interested in anything that addresses roads directly as a topic of philosophical/theoretical inquiry.

(For example, I've come across a Korean road historian who makes some use of the homonymy between "road" and "Way" (道), and I'd be very interested in knowing of any more systematic philosophical treatment of that connection.)
posted by Not A Thing to Society & Culture (18 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Yi-Fu Tuan, Space and Place. He’s a geographer, not a philosopher, but it’s a largely theoretical work about what makes somewhere a “place”.
posted by kevinbelt at 4:09 PM on September 27, 2020 [6 favorites]

Technically, Roads to Power: Britain Invents the Infrastructure State takes a historical approach, but I think you'll find that it opens out some exciting questions and is more philosophical/theoretical than the category of 'history' suggests.
posted by dizziest at 4:20 PM on September 27, 2020 [2 favorites]

I'm not sure if this is exactly what you're looking for but perhaps National Park Roads? It's more a work of history but does talk about the theory of access versus preservation and how roads shape experiences of national parks.
posted by Preserver at 6:10 PM on September 27, 2020 [2 favorites]

Hmm. You may be interested in the work of Robert Macfarlane. I'd hesitate to call it philosophical but it's certainly reflective.
posted by turbid dahlia at 6:34 PM on September 27, 2020 [1 favorite]

My first master's thesis was on semi-related topic (I read Tuan's Topophilia for it) and as I see it, there are several branches one could take.

1. Ethnography of particular roads OR ways to experience roads.
I'm not personally familiar with any on very particular roads, although more famous highways and trails (and pilgrimage routes) will have ethnographies and histories written about them (Bourbon St, Rt 66 both came up with various theses.) There are also books on the culture of RVing and the US Highway system and its effect on the landscape.

2. Back up to the more general concept of Self and Place and Boundaries in anthro/sociology.
Some of the more general anthropologists/sociologists who worked on applicable concepts of personal space, place, location, and travel include: the very readable Edward T Hall, the less readable Foucault (although more about boundaries than roads, if I recall), I want to say Geertz in some of his more semiotic works, and the Turners.

3. Linguistics.
Or the linguistic anthropology subdivision. Chomsky is the most famous and controversial. This was my least studied area so I really don't have resources on this.

4. Urban studies/sociology.
These topics have to do with modern geography (things like gerrimandering, the geographic and sociological influence of putting new roads in, and sociological texts on whether roads are public or private space.)

5. Geography/map studies more formally. I found this while looking for something else: Yale Library Map Prize papers, and some of them may be leads you find interesting.

I apologize that this is lacking more than a perfunctory list, but this abuts a huge topic and I wanted to point out I saw as a semi-former anthropologist. you never really quit
posted by cobaltnine at 7:11 PM on September 27, 2020 [3 favorites]

Not roads exactly, but you might like On Trails by Robert Moor.
posted by inexorably_forward at 8:17 PM on September 27, 2020 [1 favorite]

JB Jackson in general; his essay "The Stranger's Path" in particular. Good concise intro here.
posted by niicholas at 8:22 PM on September 27, 2020 [2 favorites]

You'd probably be interested in Jerritt Frank's dissertation, A Vast Moving Caravan, which covers the road system of Rocky Mountain National Park. In a similar vein is David Loutner's Windshield Wilderness, which covers road systems in Washington's national parks.
posted by lilac girl at 8:29 PM on September 27, 2020 [1 favorite]

Peter Frankopan's The Silk Roads, for a reinterpretation of that set of specific routes (and trying to reorient the question of where the 'centre' of the world has been).
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 8:46 PM on September 27, 2020 [1 favorite]

There's Robert Moses, unelected but powerful public planning official in New York in the first half of the 20th century, and his design of low bridges on NY parkways, too low to permit public transport, to act as de facto segregation technologies for New York's public beaches. Moses also routed highways through and destroyed minority/low income communities. A lot of material out there, which search queries such as

"robert moses" low bridges

will provide an entry into.

Other entry points into this include Robert Caro, his biographer, who cites cases of Moses' outright racism, and the sociologist Langdon Winner, who made the Moses' bridges one of the case studies of a chapter/article "Do Artifacts Have Politics?" (lots of copies of this online). A lot has been written on this.
posted by carter at 3:36 AM on September 28, 2020 [1 favorite]

Link to Winner article on JSTOR.
posted by carter at 3:40 AM on September 28, 2020 [1 favorite]

My PhD dissertation was on the philosophy of place, so I'm in a good place to tell you that there's really a lot out there that might be of interest.

Some of the authors that first came to mind have been mentioned already. Seconding Yi-Fu Tuan and (especially) John Brinckerhoff Jackson. Jackson's work, I think, really fits what you're looking for. His writing is wonderfully clear and diverse. I'd look into A Sense of Place, A Sense of Time, which has an entire section on 'Towns, Cars and Roads' and an essay called "Roads Belong in the Landscape". I loved everything I've read by him.

As for my own suggestions:

- Edward Casey's Getting Back Into Place is, to me, the single best philosophical work on issues of place and our relation to the environment. As such it also deals with roads and paths. Also check out his The Fate of Place, a philosophical history of the concept of place.

- Tim Ingold is a philosophically inclined anthropologist whose interpretation of the relation between person and place is based on the idea that we are constantly 'on the road'. He wants to re-orient our understanding of our spatial surroundings towards flows and paths, rather than boundaries and edges. I've read parts of The Perception of the Environment: Essays on Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill and Being Alive: Essays on Movement, Knowledge and Description, but just a short glance at his bibliography might pique your interest. Somewhat related to this approach: Christopher Tilley, A Phenomenology of Landscape: Places, Paths and Monuments.

- Then there's (arguably) the philosopher whose thinking about place and paths has been most influential: Martin Heidegger. As a short introduction, consider his essay "Der Feldweg". The best text about Heidegger's thinking of place is Heidegger's Topology by Jeff Malpas. (Casey, too.)

- Finally, some authors that I haven't read myself but might be of interest: Henri Lefebvre, Michel De Certeau, David Seamon, E.V. Walter's Placeways, Rebecca Solnit's Wanderlust. Oh, and Lucy Lippard's The Lure of the Local (have read that one, also contains parts that you'll find interesting I think).

Some search terms which might help to track down even more literature: 'human geography', 'environmental aesthetics', 'architectural phenomenology' (there's a newsletter edited by David Seamon which is potentially a great resource as well.)
posted by Desertshore at 6:10 AM on September 28, 2020 [7 favorites]

Not mentioned yet is literature on ordinary object metaphysics. Some of that literature gets into differences between physical objects and abstract object-roles. Like, what's the difference between a specific train or train-car and a train route? Or what makes a plane Air Force One? Etc.

My former colleague Dan Korman talks about object-roles in his book Objects: Nothing Out of the Ordinary, in the chapter on arbitrariness, pages 131-137 and 142-143.

More generally, I think you're going to find the same basic issue cropping up over and over again with "object" metaphysics, especially when you're thinking about abstract or quasi-abstract objects, such as musical works, works of fiction, experiments, programs, recipes, and the like. So, you might want to broaden your literature search to look at what people are saying in those areas as well.
posted by Jonathan Livengood at 10:58 AM on September 28, 2020 [2 favorites]

Korman has a more recent paper on The Metaphysics of Establishments that is probably relevant as well.
posted by Jonathan Livengood at 11:03 AM on September 28, 2020 [1 favorite]

I wrote my tenure book about highways! PM me and I’ll send you my bibliography.
posted by media_itoku at 12:45 PM on September 28, 2020 [1 favorite]

Seconding Yi-Fu Tuan's Space and Place.

Check out Strong Towns and Place and Theory.
posted by smich at 2:25 PM on September 28, 2020 [1 favorite]

Jane Jacobs, foe of Robert Moses, had a lot to say about the ways that roads shaped cities and human lives in The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Some of it would be germane to your question about how roads and road construction (especially the destruction and reshaping of neighbourhoods that goes along with it) changes relationships of power between local communities and higher branches of government and finance.
posted by clawsoon at 9:22 PM on September 28, 2020 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thank you all! Looks like my reading list is all set for a bit.
posted by Not A Thing at 6:52 PM on October 2, 2020

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