Why do people watch a train ride? A cultural-historic note on technology fascination, aesthetic landscapes, and participatory online practices

‘Eisenbahn-Romantik’ (literally: “railway romance”) is a German television program, broadcasting train rides and railway related reports. Since its creation in 1991, the show, produced by the German regional public broadcaster SWR, has aired almost 700 episodes. While there sure have been earlier iterations of romanticising railway technology and its history, taking a cultural-historical stance, we, at least in this piece, might assume that ‘Eisenbahn-Romantik’ had a governing discursive position in defining the parameters of how and why we watch a train ride today.

Understanding the form and content of the show as paradigmatic, we are, therefore, confronted with three major areas creating the interest underlying practices of watching a train ride. The display of a social context of use, the display of historical and technological details, and the display of the train’s plain movement through a landscape. There are related shows like ‘Germany’s Most Beautiful Railways’, being used as night-time feature on television channels of the joint German public broadcaster ARD, consisting of uncommented train rides, focusing on specific areas of the paradigm. However, in the assemblage nature of ‘Eisenbahn-Romantik’, and television’s formerly central role, we might understand its governing position as creating a space of identity; creating image spaces as well as mediating information and social knowledge around which cultural identities can emerge (Morley and Robins 1989).

‘Eisenbahn-Romantik’ provides resources and contexts, enabling watching a train ride to become a meaningful practice; be it through embedding it in documentary style social knowledge of our everyday worlds or in providing historical and technological information on the trains. However, it at the same time also is the primary and central resource for the image space of train rides themselves. In broadcasting perspectives normally not broadly available to the public – i.e. cab rides, meaning viewing a train ride from the train drivers position [1] – the television program becomes a gatekeeper, regulating not only why but also how to experience a trains plain movement through a landscape (apart from being passenger on an actual train obviously).

Embedded in social and historical contexts of use, watching a train ride means watching a ‘technology-in-practice’ (Orlikowski 2000). Apart from a general interest in the history and contents of our social worlds, the underlying interest takes form of a technology fascination. The trains plain movement through a landscape becomes of instrumental value. What’s to see and to experience is the technology-in-practice. That’s what appears to be the desired meaningful frame to be in. That’s the desired syntagmatic chain to follow if the practice of watching a train ride has to be communicated as meaningful [2].

It is in the syntagmatic chain of technology fascination that we are ultimately confronted with historical ordering practices. What is of interest rests in the classical episteme (Foucault 1970), in creating taxonomies through practices of classifying different types of trains, train parts and manufactures, or railways. Maybe at least partly driven by the 19th century desire for history to be an uninterpreted continuity (Foucault 1972), interest in watching a train ride, embedded in a report of its social and historical context of use, hence lies in collecting and preserving knowledge about cultural heritage objects so present to transportation in our everyday life. In documenting these contexts of use, we are confronted with the attempt to give order to and access a history underlying these everyday life technologies. However, we are at the same time confronted with modern forms of knowledge, resting in experts, trust, and reflexivity (Giddens 1990).

What we access through the tv program thus is expert knowledge about transportation systems we don’t necessarily need to know to use them. However, we rely on trust in the accounts of these experts, therefor are seeking the feeling that there lies historical consistency behind it. Reflexivity as the motion of continuously building up on the present knowledge does thus conclude the constitutive core of how watching a train ride can become meaningful. It sits at the centre of accumulating the past of our transportation systems to understand the present world we life and use these technologies in.

Contrasting this notion, some outline a contemplative aspect in perceiving a landscape while being passenger on a train (Burckhardt 2006). Again, the train ride itself becomes of instrumental value. The underlying interest rests in the windowed view, embedded in what is understood as something like a 17th century bourgeoise aesthetic understanding of landscapes (Ritter 1974). What does this mean? As nature had increasingly been appropriated and controlled through technology, the opportunity to approach landscapes as de-functionalized harmonic entities of nature emerged (Groh und Groh 1991). What rests within this is the discourse of 16th and 17th century landscape art. Approaching nature as art, landscapes were hence transformed into beautiful objects (Büttner 2006, Ketelsen 1999). And within this transformation our view towards landscapes too is changed. It becomes (the imitation of) an artistic view, projecting and reflecting the likes of culture, society, human condition, and the world within the landscape (Dinnebier 2004).

In this syntagmatic chain of contemplative landscapes, what constitutes watching a train ride as meaningful is artistic projection and reflection. Understanding this view as cultural technique, taking the shape of cultural critique, we can describe it as always moving between nature and history. The latter being accumulated materialities, positioning ourselves in the world. The former being the present worldly condition situated in, enabling us to continuously re-question our historically constituted positioning in the world (Baecker 2016). Hence, the desired outcome in projecting the present condition into the landscape, changing our view of it to reflect on where else we could be, is to experience ‘contingency becoming order’ (Luhmann 2008). While technology fascination takes the stance of historical ordering practices, accumulating pasts to understand the present, contemplative landscapes projects the present to reflect about and construct possible future orderings of our world. Put more synthetically:

Contrasting the first two syntagmatic chains in which watching a train ride becomes a meaningful practice, we might bring a third option to the table; namely embodied experiences themselves. This is not to undermine the role of our embodiment in the former two chains. We always are situated corporal beings (Wacquant 2015) and more specifically does interest always need to be inscribed into our bodies (Bourdieu 1998). In both chains we are confronted with different (physical) materialities of technologies and landscapes; be it through historical trains and railways made present again or in a landscape’s mere worldly concreteness. In both chains our experience is mediated around something concrete, something real and immediate coming into our reach. However, that is mediated around might be the key point.

The central object to all chains, and the discussion of this piece obviously, is the train ride. The question asked, how and especially why do we watch a train ride? How does watching a train ride become meaningful? We might propose that the embodied experience of watching a train ride can be meaningful on its own. And Gumbrecht’s (2004) use of Heidegger’s term ‘Gelassenheit’ (composure), the capacity of letting things be, might be key to understand this process. “For could Heidegger’s Gelassenheit not mean being simultaneously quiet and wide-awake?“ (Gumbrecht 2004: 136).

‘Gelassenheit’ becomes a disposition through which we approach our embodied experience of the world. It takes both the form of a disposition we take and a disposition we are moved into. Put differently, it is the matter of a context we set or set context we are set into, allowing us to let the things be. To be quite for a moment whilst being wide-awake. To experience “the things of the world in their preconceptual thingness will reactivate a feeling for the bodily and for the spatial dimension of our existence.” (Gumbrecht 2004: 118). So how does watching a train ride become meaningful in this stance? It does, if the context we are in requires nothing more than being present.

Taken forward, we might see such contexts in their clearest forms in tv programmes like ‘Germany’s Most Beautiful Railways’, meaning the plain train ride itself. A body in motion through space which we can latch onto. However, the entitlement of most beautiful might still be hindering in freeing the train ride from the meaningful context of syntagmatic chains one and two. For isn’t the aspiration of the most beautiful not already the attempt to be somewhere else instead of just being present?

Looking into participatory online practices that emerge with the advent of new and digital media (Hay and Couldry 2011), we can observe the creation of a new image space of plain train rides. Taking the case of the video distribution platform YouTube, we can find a variety of train and railway related footage, among which the already mentioned cab ride videos are a part [1]. What we find more precisely is over-the-top content par excellence, participatory in nature that the footage uploaded comes directly from the drivers of the trains.

These new image spaces are not, or at least far less, framed through the meaningful discourses of social and historical contexts of use that are so present to the governing position of the image spaces of ‘Eisenbahn-Romantik’. Sure, every video is historically specific, however, the perspective of the video is a windowed one. There is no focus on the driver’s actions, no view of the dashboard. The view focusses on the trains’ plain movement through a landscape. Altering the view from passenger to driver, we are at the same time confronted with a different view of landscape. What we see are not landscapes in their classical windowed frame, but rather landscapes divided by a centred track. It neither really is a technology-in-practice nor a contemplative landscape. It seems as there is nothing really to it apart from it being a body in motion we can watch and be part of.

In this sense, this piece maybe didn’t want to show anymore than the possibilities of change within syntagmatic chains, a change of contexts, that comes with new media technologies. The contents, the footage of the train rides has always been there, however, it seems like that only in this new setting of participatory online practices the possibility to broadly and publicly set it free from the contexts of technology fascination and contemplative landscapes emerged. This is not to undermine their form and relevance, but to highlight the existence of a possible otherness, a syntagmatic chain, a meaningful way into reality, in which we are not ‘forced’ to surround our human embodiment, the immediacy of the world with ideas and concepts, but have the capacity to let it presently be meaningful on its own.

‘Eisenbahn-Romantik’ sure still plays a paradigmatic role in creating the space of identity that is romanticising railway technology today. However, it is within the advent of new media technologies that new ways into reality emerge and thus it’s formerly centralized position is being contested. However, as these technologies do not change the contents but rather the way we approach them, we might need to hope that we finally forget logics of scarcity in allocating resources to the production of our cultural contents, so that we finally are able to fully grasp onto the particularities that can emerge within our ever evolving digitized and mediatized cultures and societies. It is within such a position that we might need to sharpen our view on homologies; not to look for difference in contents, but rather in contexts that achieve the same but in a different way. Leaning on positions from the postmodern discourse, we might argue for more sensitivity towards differences ‘to tolerate the incommensurable’ (Lyotard 1984). Leaning on arguments present in the ethnography discourse, we might ask to strengthen the ‘arts of noticing’ (Tsing 2015).

[1] e.g. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LE_BlE4DxcA and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0dVEt9DfaK0 or https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UAGgVzGRwoE

[2] For the distinction paradigm / syntagm we lean on them as linguist concepts used in science and technology studies to map the development of scientific controversies as the simultaneous production of text and context. “The first (syntagmatic) dimension defines how many different elements may be held together in a meaningful assemblage, while the second (paradigmatic) dimension defines the meaningful substitution that may be done at each point along the syntagm. The first dimension defines association, and the second substitution – or, still more synthetically, AND and OR.” (Latour, Mauguin, and Teil 1992: 36). However, we aim to understand this mapping in the broader sense of power relations associated with technologies used (Latour 1991). Put more concretely, we aim to outline different syntagmatic chains, meaning an assemblage of content (more broadly experiences of social knowledge, historical knowledge, landscapes or embodied experiences) and media technology parameters (more broadly what frames the experience from window, to television program, to online video distribution platform), defining the power relations necessary for watching a train ride to become meaningful.

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