Mobility, Logistics & Aesthetics: the Felt Politics of London Underground Design

  • Sam Mutter (Speaker)

Activity: Talk or presentationInvited talk


Drawing upon qualitative document analysis and auto-ethnographic research from a PhD project on the London Underground, this talk questioned the implications of design strategies which seek to render the ‘passenger experience’ of public transit simultaneously more aesthetically pleasurable, more economically valuable, and more accessible and inclusive. The talk examined and developed knowledge at the intersection of three strands of conceptual thought. First, work in geography and related disciplines which probes felt (sensory and affective) experiences of mobility and design, including understandings of aesthesis and kinaesthesis (Adey, 2008; Bissell, 2016; Jensen & Lanng, 2016; Merriman & Pearce, 2017); second, critical approaches to logistics as an assemblage of spatial discourses, knowledges, technologies and practices for managing circulations of ‘stuff’ – materials, people, and information (Cowen, 2014) – in particular, research which highlights the role of aesthetics in the extraction of value from logistical systems of movement (Toscano & Kinkle, 2015); and, finally, the tradition of political thought which examines the links between aesthetics, space and power (Rancière, 2013 [2001]; Dikeç, 2015). Considering the London Underground as logistical infrastructure facilitating the continuous flow of people around urban space, the strategies and design principles of the governing body, Transport for London, nonetheless recognise the growing importance of the ‘passenger experience’ for reversing trends of falling ridership and maximising revenue. Moving beyond mechanistic understandings of mobility as displacement, the Underground’s design philosophy is framed in a humanistic tone, with the intent to create comfortable, caring, even joyful and surprising sensory experiences and affective atmospheres for all (see Anderson, 2009). However, the talk examined how this philosophy both intertwines and comes into tension with aesthetic strategies which – spurred by the involvement of third-party logistics specialists – target network optimisation and financial viability through the curation of mobile spaces wherein comfortable and enjoyable journeys are linked more specifically to productive and attentive ones. It is argued that such strategies are based upon an exclusionary aesthetic of mobility which, intentionally or unintentionally, secures certain experiences – satisfaction through work, rest via quiet reflection, pleasure via retail and advertising – against other forms of aesthetic exposure deemed undesirable or unproductive. Behind the purported intention to ‘balance’ and synchronise these aesthetics of mobility lies the necessity of a political choice which has potentially severe ramifications for the future of the London Underground and public transit more broadly. References Adey, P. (2008), ‘Airports, Mobility and the Calculative Architecture of Affective Control. Geoforum, 39(1): 438-451. Anderson, B. (2009), ‘Affective Atmospheres’, Emotion, Space and Society, 2(2): 77-81. Bissell, D. (2016), ‘Micropolitics of Mobility: Public Transport Commuting and Everyday Encounters with Forces of Enablement and Constraint’, Annals of the American Association of Geographers, 106(2): 394-403. Cowen, D. (2014), The Deadly Life of Logistics: Mapping Violence in Global Trade, Minneapolis, MN & London: University of Minnesota Press. Dikeç, M. (2015). Space, Politics and Aesthetics. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. Merriman, P. and Pearce, L. (2017) ‘Mobility and the Humanities’, Mobilities, 12(4): 493-508. Rancière, J. (2013 [2001]). ‘Ten Theses on Politics’, in Corcoran, S. (ed. & trans.), Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics. London: Bloomsbury. Toscano, A. & Kinkle, J. (2015), Cartographies of the Absolute, Winchester & Washington: Zero Books.
Period10 May 2022
Held atKonkuk University, Korea (Republic of)
Degree of RecognitionInternational