On the Road

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.

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  1. Robert
    Posted August 27, 2011 at 4:01 pm | Permalink

    I like these thoughts. I’ve been thinking about transportation routes recently too, but more railroads and bridges. What is interesting about these, and you touch on this theme here, is the way they can play a dominant role in mainstream society, but then can also play alternative roles for others. Here you have the example of the road which is by definition not a destination for mainstream users, but then may be a place to live for the homeless. In the case of bridges and railroad tracks, as well as roads, they can at one the one hand be the taken-for-granted throughway, the “indifferent space,” for mainstream users. And yet for others can be just the opposite: an explicit barrier. Train tracks can separate neighborhoods. Bridges without walkways can provide an obstacle for those without cars. Here in Atlanta, a gigantic multi-lane highway splits the city in two…

    • JohnR
      Posted August 28, 2011 at 3:31 pm | Permalink

      Your point about Atlanta strongly reminds of an experience of my own. I grew up in Regina, Saskatchewan where, at a certain time, it was decided to build the “Lewvan Expressway.” This was a multi-lane, higher speed, north-south route, that allowed people to travel quickly from downtown to their suburban homes or to travel quickly from downtown homes to the big malls at the edges of town, without their having to drive through the existing city streets. To ensure that people took this “expressway,” the city actually redesigned the city streets that formerly provided north-south access, supposedly to facilitate a more traffic-free life for those neighbourhoods. In fact, the neighbourhoods thus removed from people’s regular travel routes were the neighbourhoods that disproportionately housed lower income, First Nations residents. What the Lewvan Expressway effectively did was use roadways to build a wall around that neighbourhood, isolating it from easy access to the rest of the city, and removing it from the view of those who did not live there. Since the building of “the Lewvan,” that area has progressively and dramatically become a ghetto.

  2. Kirsten
    Posted August 28, 2011 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

    I am interested currently, too, in the way that there is something “destination-like” about certain ways of being on a road. I’ve heard this quote attributed to the Buddha many times during yoga classes, for instance: “There is no path to happiness: happiness is the path.” Similarly, I have wondered about pilgrimages: Is it the destination that is important, or is it the being-on-the-way. There’s something so significant about the experience the road allows us of being suspended, of not being settled or certain, or there yet. True, without some aim or destination of a sort, this suspension may become meaningless, but I’m intrigued by the openness that the road allows that a place might lack if traveling were not required. How much, in other words, is a destination also equally defined by the road?

  3. meghant
    Posted August 30, 2011 at 12:18 am | Permalink

    Interesting. I would like to know whether a) you mean “route” more than “road” and b) whether “route” means “road”? must be an etymological connection i’m sure…

    makes me also think of how this is “normally” what a road is. and how that feature gets produced in experience, what its conditions of possibility are. it’s interesting how, on both robert’s and your examples, a freeway, e.g., presents itself as the exemplary road. this is acuter in developing countries, where the state not only makes the road (as this showed up in the political dimension of your post), but its entire existence consists in spectacles of building roads (because a developing nation is, well, developing, and its state actions are glorifying development for the greater part). makes me think a lot about how we came to have this normal experience of a road amidst all these crisscrossing paths…

  4. Don
    Posted September 22, 2011 at 10:17 pm | Permalink

    I keep thinking about the point that we don’t always recognize we are on roads. This is both true of ostensible roads, like highways, but also in less obvious cases. A few years ago I took a day hike through the backwoods of Northern Ontario with my friend Andrew. We were remarking to ourselves how pleasant it was to have the woods to ourselves. We were following a marked trail, but for awhile we lost sight of trail markers and decided to pursue a path that would logically take us in the direction we needed to go. Far away from any settled, civilized area, we were surprised to see a few artifacts, signs of human inhabitation. We continued on without thinking much of them, until we noticed a structure that we surmised might have been a human dwelling. As we passed by the place, it was pretty clear to us that we were in fact using some kind of road, a pathway from this ramshackle home to a nearby river. We arrived at the river, but found no way across—the road was a dead-end. Just then, coincidentally, an old man with a few dogs came and accosted us, asked us what we were doing there. Once it was clear to him that we were just passing through, that we were no threat, he explained that we could go off-road for awhile and find a beaver dam that would allow us to ford the river. It is interesting to think of how that seemingly abandoned way through the woods was in fact a road, a protected space that required the confirmation of an other person to travel through. I remember seeing old Roman roads in Portugal, still intact paths of leveled-earth, but unused. I remember thinking about how well-maintained those roads were. In fact, they weren’t really roads, since no one seemed to be using them. On the other hand, this scant little berry-trail turned out to be a road.

    A couple of weeks ago I was stopped in Montreal by the police at night for going through some red lights on my bicycle. The roads were empty, and I started to explain to the officer that if the roads were empty, I could travel as I wished—I was treating the road as if it was mine. I caught myself, realizing that aside from being stupid to argue with a cop, I was asserting something absurd about the nature of the road. The road is a space of rules, rules that don’t change between busy rush hour and quiet nighttime. My mood quickly changed from frustration to understanding: I realized that these weren’t just cops accosting me and giving me a hard time, but agents of the road, there to legitimate and protect its purpose. I told the officer that I knew better, that I respect the law and should have respected the “rules of the road.” Ironically, he said to me: “It is not about the law, but about you and me. If you shit on me: I shit on you. You’re not shitting on me, you’re a good guy: so, it is going to be okay.” That is the way of the road, I guess, that even if we don’t explicitly understand it, it functions as a space of mutual use and legal protection.

    Your post is helping me understand these little stories, because even when seemingly empty or non-roads, roads are spaces that announce themselves by signs that they belong to others, whether stop lights and navigational symbols, or implicit signs that a space is a road. I think too, that crossing international borders, especially land-borders, is a moment when the road is made explicit as road, because like these other situations this is a time when we have to justify our use of the road.

    • JohnR
      Posted September 23, 2011 at 12:18 am | Permalink

      “Agents of the road”–I like that.

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The Toronto Seminar

I am deeply committed to the idea that philosophy is a cooperative activity and an inherently fulfilling one. For this reason, I encourage activities of philosophical study in which, through conversation, a community develops in which each participant experiences her or his thinking to be elevated beyond the level she or he could achieve alone, and in which study and social life are closely interwoven.

Since 2003, I have run an annual summer seminar in philosophy. Each year, roughly 25 invited participants-primarily faculty members and Ph.D. students from universities across North America-gather for roughly one week of intense, group study of a major text from the history of philosophy. Participants meet twice daily for sessions of highly focused discussion of the text and the issues it raises. When not studying in preparation for the meetings, seminar participants also socialize together, generally taking advantage of Toronto's outstanding, multicultural dining opportunities, and taking part in Toronto's vibrant and varied live music scene. Participants in these seminars consistently have the experience of growth in their conversation and conceptual abilities, and typically leave with a transformed sense of the nature and possibilities of philosophy.

Throughout the year, I also often lead smaller private seminars, specially oriented to graduate students, on various texts and topics in the history of philosophy.

Music, along with the other creative arts, is one of the most profound ways in which people express and define the distinctive character of human life. Composing, performing, and listening to music are some of the most fulfilling of our experiences. Listening offers us the opportunity for the sensuous pleasure of listening and moving (in dance), for emotional self-expression, and for bonding with others in shared enthusiasm. Performing brings with it the demands and rewards of communication and cooperation-with band-members and with audience-and supports the development and deployment of highly-refined bodily and expressive skills. Composing can be a powerful intellectual and cultural practice, offering one a route into participating in the rich historical and multicultural traditions of musical expression. Engaging with music, like engaging with philosophy, touches us in every dimension-bodily, emotional, intellectual, interpersonal, cultural, spiritual-of our experience.

My own personal path into music has involved me in the study of jazz music in particular, and since 2005 I have performed regularly in Toronto as a guitarist with my own band, the John Russon Quartet. The band (with the outstanding musicians Nick Fraser, Mike Milligan, and Chris Gale on drums, bass, and saxophone respectively, and, on special occasions, with Tom Richards joining us on trombone) performs my original compositions, as well as interpreting the standard tunes of the jazz repertoire and experimenting with free improvisation. We have just (August 2011) gone into the studio to record our first CD, and it should be available in a few months. It has also been, and continues to be, a major project of mine to develop a community of jazz enthusiasts who will carry on the tradition of appreciating live musical performance in general and jazz music in particular in this age in which recording, downloading, and dj-ing have come to define "music" for most people.

I think of both philosophy and music as communal practices first and foremost, and I regularly try to design community activities involving either or both. Currently, I am organizing one series in downtown Toronto.

"Story and Song Night" is a once-a-month event in which a speaker narrates one of the great stories from the world's religious traditions. Stories are among the oldest and most basic of our ways of telling ourselves and each other who we are as people, and the ancient stories that have been handed down for generations remain powerful and provocative resources for thinking about ourselves and our lives. On the fourth Tuesday of each month, a speaker narrates a story she or he has found personally meaningful, and this is followed first by group discussion and then by a set of live music performed by some of the best of Toronto's musicians. The event is hosted by Naco Gallery Cafe (1665 Dundas St. W.).