Excerpt: Assembling Moral Mobilities

The following is an excerpt from Assembling Moral Mobilities by Nicholas A. Scott (February 2020).


1: Domestic Mobilities

Local Tradition, Urban Place, and Good Roads

What makes mobilities domestically good? What makes a bike lane good for creating “home”? What domestic lessons can cycling glean from driving? These questions lead to consideration of a time-honored moral assemblage of mobility, one rooted (and routed) in the generation of home, family, and the past. Domestic mobilities animate tradition and a sense of place. In popular judgments, however, they might come across as anti-innovation. For example, domestic worth informs not-in-my-backyard-style attacks on new development, like condos and cycle tracks, waged by local communities against top- down changes to their neighborhoods. However, not all domestic judgments entail knee-jerk reactions to change. As an expansive moral assemblage, domestic mobilities encompass long-standing relations among families, dwellings, roads, animals, plants, and affective atmospheres (Pink and Mackley 2016). The longer and deeper these relations are in time and place, the higher the domestic worth of mobilities. With a philosophical pedigree that predates liberal, modern social imaginaries (Taylor 2004), domestic worth links families and their infrastructures to great cosmic chains of beings that have come before. The car, itself a relatively new artifact in human history, mobilizes domestic judgment against cycling. For example, wealthy enclaves have been known to fight bike lane construction in the name of local tradition. At the same time, cars offer inspiration for cycling as an assemblage to keep people in touch with their roots.

9781496217127Who taught you how to cycle—do you remember? For many people this question leads to a pivotal intergenerational moment of mobility that connects people’s cycling to their elders, their families, and their homes. Most of my respondents say it was mainly their father who taught them how to ride, morphing a keen sense of vulnerability into something more like independence. I remember that my mother played a critical role for me. Deep in the Canadian suburbs of 1987, wearing knitted slippers and gigantic glasses as she stood in the driveway amid the dregs of winter (see photo 7), my mother helped launch my lifelong relationship with cycling. Two years ago I suddenly thought to inquire about that little bike in photo 7. It turned out that my parents, while purging the attic only a month earlier, had thrown it to the curb. To my surprise I was upset, as if it had been stolen. That memorable bike embodied a powerful affective bond between my parents, my siblings (some of whom also learned how to ride on it), my home, and me. In modern liberal societies parents often romanticize the moment when they let go of their children on two wheels for the first time as a proverbial cutting of the umbilical cord, the making of an individual self. Another way to look at it—one that resonates more strongly with the sense of loss I felt over that little red bike—is the reverse: the moment when home starts unfurling and flowing out of the driveway, down the street, and, by way of only the most familiar and well- worn routes, into the city itself.

The articulation of domestic mobilities, wherein home flows and circulates beyond particular hearths and dwellings, is executed by most Canadians via their cars—drives to churches, mosques, synagogues, and sundry other temples; drives to resolve domestic concerns and chores at the mall and community engagements; drives to be with old branches and new twigs on the family tree; drives to just spend time driving with family. However, as ever more people sync their roots with cycling routes and cycling routines, the urban nature of domestic mobilities is itself changing, offering new ways of translating home into wider, translocal places (Massey 1993) and multicentered worlds (Williams and Patten 2006). This ongoing domestic transformation begs the question: What kinds of intergenerational flows of home can cycling afford?

Flowing Home

Domestic mobilities animate households, hearths, and homes, quilting the past and a sense of place into the present. In the classic understanding of domestic morality, “people’s worth depends on their hierarchical position in a chain of personal dependencies” that leads all the way up to a godhead (Boltanski and Thévenot 2006[1991], 90). Each individual forms only a part of a vast corporate body, a body made up of many households with their own lineages and hierarchical bonds between human and nonhuman beings that, to an extent, resemble and generalize familial relations:

Each man is a father to his subordinates and a son to his superiors. But the familial analogy refers less to blood ties, here, than the fact of belonging to the same household, as a territory in which the relation of domestic dependence is inscribed. . . . His house is a second skin. . . . Beings are distributed according to the relation they maintain to a house (as evidenced by the distinction—a very pertinent one in [the domestic] polity—between domestic animals and wild animals) and, inside the household, according to the role they play in the reproduction of the family line. (Boltanski and Thévenot 2006[1991], 90)

Even in classic teleological conceptions of domestic worth, as exemplified by biblical texts and the institutions of monarchy, those on the lower rungs of the great chain of being—children, sinners, women, servants, slaves, the family dog and cat—are better off than they would have been without a household. However, this does not mean that people (or pets) in households enjoy individual rights or the freedom to choose and revise what kind of good life they wish to lead. Classic chains of this household dependence—versions of which still play out in small pockets of religious and ethnocultural fundamentalism across Western democracies—clash strongly with contemporary rights and freedoms in liberal societies such as Canada. Given the illiberal, blood- bound nature of classic households, to theorize domestic mobilities I draw on the related yet distinctive idea of home.

Mobilities become domestically good, I propose, by assembling home. Home offers an evocative way to associate mobilities with tradition, place, and familial ways of life without permanently locking the domestic worth of persons and places into these ways of life forever, as they are in the classic household. Home is revisable. Home forms but one transposable situation in which people judge and assemble the good life. People not only revise the particular homes for which they enact relations of care and belonging; home itself is contested by other ways of assembling worth. For example, traditional ways of making home through co-presence, especially among mothers and children, are challenged by women participating in the workforce at unprecedented levels. When governments in wealthy countries define “good mothering” as gaining paid employment or self-enterprise but do not publicly support working mothers by granting parental leave, child care, and flexible work hours, home life may suffer. Some experts worry that neoliberal pressures and the marketization of child care are turning home into “a site of financially recompensed interactions, rather than a locus in which all the social relations and interactions [are] assumed to be based on ties of love and affection and largely per-formed outside a cash nexus” (McDowell 2007, 132). This moral friction between domestic and market worths is only one way in which home is becoming distanciated and practiced at a distance through mobility. And yet home finds it difficult to embrace its place on the move.

Domestic mobilities are unique among moral assemblages and somewhat oxymoronic, causing intractable tension between moral worth and mobility itself. Home, and its companion ideas of place and dwelling, has long been viewed by social scientists as something that, by and large, stays put. By remaining rooted in one place, the thinking goes, home and neighborhoods thrive over time. According to the Chicago School of Urban Studies, too much mobility overwhelms and degenerates modern urban societies (Burgess 1925[1970]). Some level of free-flowing locomotion is important for a healthy city metabolism, “but ha[s] to be stabilized by association and anchored within place” (Sheller and Urry 2000, 741). Without roots people become rudderless, like the figurative hobo (Cresswell 2010). This narrative of the city as undermined by excessive mobility later resonates with theories of civil society in which places of dwelling supported by local associations that strengthen community keep people bonded and trustful of one another and prevent authentic places from becoming homogenized (Heidegger 2002[1954]; Putnam 2000; Relph 1976). The mobilities paradigm (Sheller and Urry 2006; 2000) articulates a strong counter perspective of movement that challenges such sedentary thinking wherein only rooted places of dwelling and associating are normal and healthy for urban people but not migrations, pilgrimages, wilderness holidays, or everyday journeys through the city. Still, while the mobilities paradigm has opened up new avenues for understanding place, community, and dwelling—as loci of exchange and translocal interaction rather than as bounded containers (Massey 1993)—home remains underexplored. Where home has been creatively investigated as a matter of mobilities, it is often equated with houses (Anderson et al. 2016; Pink and Mackley 2016) and, by extension, with cars (Wagner 2017; Ellingsen and Hidle 2013).

Home exceeds the house—and not only by car (Moore 2016). On one hand, the expansion of long-distance mobilities and virtual travel continues to disrupt the notion of home as a particular place. From domestic migrant labor (Cox 2006) and annual diasporic flows (Wagner 2017) to the rapid multiplication of private homes among the kinetic elite (Birtchnell and Caletrio 2013), mobilities are actively making new forms of home and dwellingness on the move. People not only dwell in a “multi-centred world” (Williams and Patten 2006); they find home in mobility. On the other hand, even homes that constitute particular houses in specific places transcend local space and present time. As Henri Lefebvre argues, the house has an “air of stability about it. One might almost see it as the epitome of immovability, with its concrete and its stark, cold and rigid outlines” (1991, 92–93).  But this solidity quickly dissolves, when the house is “permeated from every direction by streams of energy which run in and out of it by every direction: water, gas, electricity, telephone lines, radio and television signals, and so on.” Especially in the digital era, the house’s “image of immobility” should be “replaced by an image of a complex of mobilities, a nexus of in and out conduits.” It is worth noting that in this often-quoted passage, Lefebvre was describing home as a machine.

In a less-cited but domestically richer description inspired by Gaston Bachelard’s (1994[1958]) ideas on the poetics of space, Lefebvre defines home as a richly temporal (and representational) space of memory:

Consider the house, the dwelling. In the cities—and even more so in the “urban fabric” which proliferates around the cities precisely because of their disintegration—the House has a merely historico-poetic reality rooted in folklore, or (to put the best face on it) in ethnology. This memory, however, has an obsessive quality: it persists in art, poetry, drama and philosophy. What is more, it runs through the terrible urban reality which the twentieth century has instituted, embellishing it with a nostalgic aura while also suffusing the work of its critics. . . . The dwelling passes everywhere for a special, still sacred, quasi- religious and in fact almost absolute space. . . . The con-tents of the House have an almost ontological dignity in Bachelard: drawers, chests and cabinets are not far removed from their natural analogues, perceived by the philosopher—poet, namely the basic figures of nest, corner, roundness, and so on. In the background, so to speak, stands Nature—maternal if not uterine. The House is as much cosmic as it is human. (Lefebvre 1991, 120– 21)

The “House” flows and spills over the walls of dwellings into the streets while furnishing the city with ontological dignity and a cosmic connection. Lefebvre’s rendering of home as memory shows that, in addition to moral friction with market worth, domestic mobilities share a strong temporal and process-related affinity with ecology, including a shared vision of place as an ever- and always-unfolding process formed through movement (Ingold 2008). If home exceeds the static house, as well as the sedentary conceptions of place and dwelling, where does home flow to? More important, how does it flow? How do mobility and home become together?

I imagine home as flowing through familial roots, familiar routes and the everyday routines by which roots are remade and remembered. Domestic assemblages of mobility take on more multiplicity than we often realize. Sometimes familial roots take on a physical co-presence, as when parents cycle with their children. At other times roots link generations but under conditions of absence, as when traveling on a familiar route brings about the reliving of an earlier familial voyage, like leaving the den, losing a parent, or an irreversible transatlantic emigration. At still other times roots entwine different communities and cultures, as when a confluence of rivers seasonally draws together a diverse city of people for thousands of years. Regardless of form, putting down one’s roots constitutes a flowing, quite ordinary process reinforced by routine movement and well- worn pathways that map people onto place. The very act of longing for roots comprises an important affective piece of this process, where searching “for an authentic identity, a romantic dream of going back to roots, generates connections and links between the urban and the rural, the modern and the traditional, between ‘routes and roots’ ” (Ellingsen and Hidle 2013, 255, citing Clifford 1997).

At first glance, traveling with children, riding and remembering familial routes, visiting traditional gathering places, and feeling nostalgic about home may all seem a bit thin as a domestic foundation for human flourishing. But consider the extensive synchronicity with which families enact domestic mobilities in the same seasons and rhythms between school and work, between weekends and holidays, between using shared equipment and infrastructure. Small-scale, local-level domestic routes and routines, when assembled together en masse, support a larger, common domestic good—one compatible with a liberal society. Inflating home and nostalgia into higher political registers, for example, by restoring a nativist fatherland with a manifest destiny, simply takes us back to where we started in the classic teleological household where domestic worth depends on being born into the right body bloodline. On the (trans)local scale, domestic mobilities instead assemble open-ended and ultimately fleeting associations. Nobody really knows where home will flow.

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