Rebecca Solnit • River of Shadows • 2003

Here is the famous photograph of the meeting of east and west on the US transcontinental railway in 1869. The picture marks the completion of the first overground route across the US.

Rebecca Solnit (2003) identifies this moment as a decisive marker in the acceleration of the modern machine-ensemble in the US. In practical terms, the speed associated with the transcontinental railway reduced the size of the US and contributed to the annihilation of time and space, described by Marx as a defining characteristic of industrialised capital.

Paul Virilio (1986) has described how the acceleration associated with modernity alters the qualities of all sorts of relations…

The golden spike provides a slightly unlikely starting-point, through the personality of Leland Stanford, for her description of Eadweard Muybridge’s photographic experiments in relation to animal locomotion.

Solnit expertly combines the work of Jonathan Crary (1990) and Wolfgang Schivelbusch (1977) to account for the acceleration of image culture associated with the speed of the machine-ensemble in late 19C America. She describes how the traditional themes and subjects of the western image-culture, comprising Yosemite, native Americans and sequoia, became incorporated into something bigger and more comprehensive.

In this context, Solnit describes the railway as providing the basis for a specific optic derived from accelerated speed, and informed by the culture of California, understood as a form of utopia. She also acknowledges the brutality of the machine-ensemble and the destruction associated with its extension, and its connection to the politics of manifest destiny and to the mythology of the American sublime…

It’s no accident that California has also supported the machine-ensemble accelerations associated with flight (20C optic) and the digital realm (21C optic). Nor that the film-industry chose to locate itself at the point of maximum acceleration…

The image-culture of the Californian west, especially the photographs of Muybridge, provide a tangible glimpse of the future.

This is a terrific book.


Solnit R (2003) River of Shadows – Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West

Crary J (1990) Techniques of the Observer

Schivelbusch W (1977) The Railway Journey

Virilio P (1986) Speed and Politics

Virilio P (1989) War and Cinema

I’ve posted before about railway vision, here

Intelligence – Railway Observation and Ocular Formation

and about the railway and the machine-ensemble, here

and I’ve posted loads about the idea of speed in fashion and image culture. Just google new pamphleteer speed…





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