Queues, Traffic, Affect

Been thinking many thoughts about queues recently. They are damn confounding. Gillian Fuller (no relation) from UNSW gave a superb presentation of some research on airport queues at the Autouni event. She has an online paper here. Below is her definition of a queue:

Queues are a distribution technology: they are a resource for sharing, smoothing the striations that form at thresholds and producing a particularly linear and commodified form of justice that perhaps oddly in a time of real time technologies seems to be spreading virally. Queues are a type of strange attractor, a singularity that captures the motion of a multitude and directs it into a sequence.

She also adds there is a moral dimension citing the example of the ‘queue jumper’ and so on. The below is some early stuff of mine after hearing Gillian’s talk and feeling inspired!:

A successful road user is one who becomes a forgotten part of traffic. Traffic is a single, highly complex queue of road users. In a simple queue you move forward when the person in front of you does, and then finally when you are hailed by an open teller or open toilet door you leave the queue. In a complex queue, directionality is not programmed in; instead it is produced through a system of switches and feedback loops and so on. If someone was to speed past you in a bank queue or, worse, in a toilet queue, then you might get angry, perhaps even enraged. Queue-rage seems to be the only rage left; people need to know their place in the queue – be it simple or complex – and they certainly won’t rage against the queue itself, lest they lose their position in the queue… ‘Speeding’ is a performative transgression of the socio-technical mores that enable the production of traffic. Thresholds of movement (speed) for the production of traffic are found as street-sign triggers catalysing the road user mass through notification of changes in the respective ecologies of movement acceptable for a given territory.

Michael Lynch described what he called the ‘linear society of traffic’ (thanks Amazon.com!!) in a short appendix in a book on ethnomethodology. Lynch suggest that “it would be dubious to project the social order of traffic as a general set of power relations” (158). I don’t agree; traffic is an economy of queuing (or ‘dromoeconomic distribution’, for what is at stake is the rate of distribution and access). The linear society of traffic is the visible effect of a localised condensation of a global (ie system wide) distribution of car-drivers in the mass, 24-hour-a-day queue we call ‘traffic’. To extend Gillian’s viral metaphor: Virilio argues the transport revolution was also a communication revolution. The emergence of traffic is not so much a virus, but a molecular-becoming enabled by the meme like spread of a set of incorporeal events that elucidate configurations road user bodies (human or non-human). Think of the trans-local homology between different sites of automobility. (Traffic will be different, of course, but the repetition of the cybernetic relations between street-car-driver is exactly that which allows for the production in differences of traffic.)

To imagine automobile traffic as a complex queue allows one to include and exclude some of the focuses of that have preoccupied the road safety industry for a long time. For example, the road safety industry has a concept called ‘risk homeostasis’. From MUARC:

“[T]he concept of risk homeostasis which argues that road users always operate at the maximum level of risk that they are prepared to accept. This theory assumes that the driver is aware of and desires the level of risk he or she is taking.”

Various studies and theories discuss different registers of this ‘awareness’. Some definitions of this concept require conscious reflection on calculated levels of risk while others rely on something closer to an embodied ‘feeling’ of anxiety. Strangely in the latter approach the nonfeeling of comfort is not addressed. If automobilised space is actually understood as the sociality belonging to a complex queue then the affective dimension of the ‘risk homeostasis’ theory can be complimented by a much more diverse array of affects within the system of automobility. There is shame, potentialised in the sound of a horn. Surprise-startlement potentialised in the distance from the hand on the steering wheel to the horn. There is the joy of the ‘open road’. Of course, there is everyone’s favourite: road rage.

The thing about the risk homeostasis model of driving behaviour is that it is often deployed in contexts regarding speeding. This is pure ideology. To imagine that the only consideration that a driver may incorporate into calculations regarding risk is to do with maximum comfortable speed is to already assume the driver is subsumed by what Virilio calls the dromocratic imperative. If, on the other hand, you think drivers are not all neo-Futurist wannabes and actually participate in traffic as a social enviroment, then you need to have a much more complex risk matrix.

The interesting thing here for me is the overlap between the ’embodied affects’ approach of people like Silvan Tomkins and his followers amongst cultural studies practioners and the Deleuzian approach of affect as ‘non-human becoming’ (Jon has been discussing this recently).

The relationship between the driver, car, traffic, and road environment is a good, if not obvious, example of affects in the sense of them being “non-human becomings”. The paper I am currently writing on affect address something ‘Mr A’ (of Getaway in Stockholm) said in the interview I did with him in Stockholm about “capturing speed on film.” Their films only make sense, that is, the speed capture in their films is only apparent, if the viewer of the film is already sufficiently conditioned by the non-human becomings of automobility.

3 thoughts on “Queues, Traffic, Affect”

  1. The thing about the “risk homeostasis” explains the current speeding propoganda:

    If people always operate (always? Even stopped at a red light? Pfft.) at their level of maximum risk, to make them reduce their speed, we must make them more scared. Hence: every K over is a killer; graphic ads depicting gore; etc.

    Doesn’t this ignore the thrill of risk? Are these people (MUARC) aware of bungee jumpers? eXtreme sports? Risk == fun.

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