Trimalchio, the ex-slave turned millionaire in Petronius’s Satyricon, invested all his money is some ships so that he could transport his wine to sell it in Rome, a short distance away. Sea transport was a risky business, though, and his little fleet was wrecked and he lost it all. Why didn’t he ship it by land? Because the roads of ancient Rome were there for the army, not for business or personal travel, and transport by road would have been very slow, expensive and difficult.
This little scenario is interesting because it invites us to think about roads–about their importance and about their nature. We rely upon roads daily, directly for our personal travel but also indirectly for making available to us all the goods and services that have to be transported to our nearby spots. Historically, the “silk road,” the central route connecting traders and travellers from ancient China to ancient India, Persia, Palestine and Egypt, was a central force in facilitating development both between and within these cultures. It is precisely the importance of these routes that makes them also prime sites for power: control of these access-routes allows one to control the flows of goods, people, and ideas, a control that can be directed towards cultural development or can be used for all sorts of military and economic exploitation. And, of course, roads should not simply be thought of as land routes: the sea route Trimalchio’s ships sailed similarly functioned as a road as do all sorts of contemporary air and sea routes. What is it that makes a road? I notice two features in particular that seem to definitive of roads.
First, roads are not a destination, but a route. Of course on can settle on a piece of highway and play a game, start a business,or make a home (the plight, often, of the poor and disenfranchised), but to do this is not to treat it as a road. Roads are “made out of” asphalt or gravel, to be sure, but more importantly they are “made out of” an attitude we take to them, namely, the attitude that this piece of the world is for travelling. Further, this is a collective decision: we must all recognize and respect that this is a road if it is to be able to function well.
This notion of collective recognition points to the second definitive feature of roads. A road is not just my thing for going to my place, but is something any of us could use to go wherever each of us should desire. The road itself, qua road, is indifferent to user, direction, and destination. As Heraclitus writes, “the road out and the road back are the same.”
To use a road, then, is to enter into a shared perception of the character of (a piece of) the world, and it is essentially an agreement to enter into a space that others are entitled to enter with equal legitimacy and with conflicting goals. It is the very nature of the road that using it for my own purpose simultaneously and automatically puts me into negotiation with the opposed purposes of others, and it is incumbent upon me (and them) to act cooperatively so as to coordinate our conflicting projects.
I have two points I want to make about these reflections on roads.
1. We generally take roads for granted. We don’t typically notice a shift in our attitude when we change from “inhabiting” a place (while chatting in a coffee shop or working in the office) to “travelling through” space. That change in activity does involve a fundamental change in our “interpretation” of the nature of our surroundings, however: our surrounding world is not longer a destination or “end,” but a route, a “means.” We expect the world to accommodate this change and, typically, it does, with the result that we needn’t pay much heed to the issue. In fact, though, the viability of the world as a place for travel must be accomplished and maintained. Most immediately, we can travel so easily only because we have a history of governments who have established and maintained the “infrastructure” of roads and the traffic laws that govern their use. Even more basically, though, we rely upon the cooperation of others to treat this as a space in which we can move freely. We no longer face the danger of moving across land that was faced, for example, by Ibn Fadlan, Marco Polo, or St. Paul as they embarked on their travels. They knew that crossing the land was a matter of engaging with people, and they behaved (and suffered) accordingly. We however can easily fail to notice that inhabiting space is always also a matter of inhabiting society, that our own “personal” movements are a matter of interpersonal negotiation. The very success of our society in providing us with reliable access to interpersonal space has concealed from us the essentially intersubjective nature of space.
2. We need to remember, too, that roads are not a destination: roads are themselves only important if we have somewhere to go to. Our society has been very successful in establishing for us an environment in which we can travel; we have established, in other words, a social environment that treats space as an “indifferent” space. We must remember, however, that, as well as travelling in generic space, we must also be able to inhabit specific places. We need, that is, to be able to make homes for ourselves in places that are not indifferent, but that are our own, that are “for” us. Without such places, we have no destinations. My last point was that our society’s success in establishing a world of “equal rights” has the paradoxical effect of concealing our dependence upon society; I want to suggest now that our political goal of establishing the indifferent equality of all–a goal of universal inclusion–similarly conceals the essentially exclusive use of places that we all ultimately depend upon, and that is the very reason why we need roads, the very reason we need an indifferent space.
We must not confuse a road with asphalt–for it is a social negotiation–and we must not confuse it with a destination–for it is only a route. A world with an asphalt route, but no social cooperation and no destinations would be a wasteland, and a world in which that asphalt route would be, precisely, useless. This, indeed, is the exact situation dramatized by Cormac McCarthy in The Road, which portrays a world in which there is a road, but no longer a society, no longer a goal. McCarthy’s novel reveals, it seems to me, the disastrous implications of a politics that conceals the essential role of government, and substitutes the norm of instrumentality for the norm of healthy social life. We should be concerned, I think, that this might be an image of precisely the implications of our own political world of technological instrumentalism, individualist democracy and global capitalism.