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Introduction: A Bad Traffic Jam

We live in a distinct culture of movement. The essays in this issue of Bad Subjects attempt to define, consider, and criticize this culture of movement from a variety of perspectives.

Megan Shaw and Jonathan Sterne, Issue Editors

Issue #40, October 1998

Traffic in the 1990s refers to a different spectrum of activities than it once did. The traditional idea of traffic as patterns of movement among people and goods refers to endeavors that are a central focus only to the mundane labors of maritime commerce and highway engineers. But in the 1990s the idea of traffic has entered into everyday conversation, everyday thinking. In the age of road rage, road traffic has become something of a unique problem: rather than how we find our way, it has become something to find a way around.

As populations surge and international migration grows steadily, the movement of people, objects, and identities are activities that have taken on a political and cultural character of their own. Metaphors of "trajectories" and "lines of force," of "networks" and "flows," circulate freely among academic theorists (there's that traffic metaphor again!), and within the international news and technology reports of newspapers and television. Businesses re-tool themselves for the information age by hiring systems-thinking gurus to chart the flow of ideas within the workplace, rather, the learning organization. Old travel narratives are being folded into new: Hmong quilts that document the movement of families over generations are now shipped around the United States for middle class consumers of all ethnicities to put in their homes. We live in a distinct culture of movement. The essays in this issue of Bad Subjects attempt to define, consider, and criticize this culture of movement from a variety of perspectives.

Three of our essays reflect on traffic as a specifically international phenomenon. Gretchen Soderlund and Emma Grant attack the very idea of an international traffic in women, arguing that the movement of sex workers across borders is considerably more complicated than the epithet "trafficking" would suggest. Far from protecting sex workers, existing trafficking laws actually restrict sex workers' freedom of movement across state and national borders and may ultimately work to inhibit sex workers from organizing for their own rights. Dan McGee criticizes the United States' imagined and real roles in attempting to police the international traffic in chemical and biological weapons. Chemical and biological weapons become part of a secret political economy because they are internationally stigmatized, and as the recent U.S. bombing of a pharmaceutical plant in Khartoum, Sudan, shows, guesses about chemical weapons production are treated as facts by the U.S. military. Peter Ives reflects on the continued importance of national borders in an age of "global flows" and transnational corporations. As he points out, the traffic between Toronto and Portland is strikingly different from the traffic between Toronto and Vancouver.

Hsuan L. Hsu gives us a fast food break from the traffic jam by looking at the kind of communicative act we perform when we order a "Big King" sandwich from Burger King. He points out that when advertisements prompt us to enunciate for our lunch, the words we speak are commercially programmed. Jonathan Sterne thought about calling his piece "The Traffic in Teaching Positions" because it shows how his own university handles undergraduate teaching as just one more labor market issue.

Four of our articles approach the theme of traffic in the literal sense of roadway environments and automotive transportation. They each make this approach to traffic in very different ways. Joel Schalit gives us a personal reminiscence of the way his relationships with his father and other members of his family were defined by unusual and adventurous road trips. John Brady contrasts the phenomena of private vehicle transportation and public transportation. He reminds us that public transportation has publicly ignored advantages, that riding buses and trains takes us through cultural spaces that freeways circumvent. Megan Shaw and Rick Prelinger consider what kind of hold driving time has on consciousness. They reveal that time spent on freeways is time that is suspended between the mythology of the freedom of the open road and the frustrations of modern urban congestion. Mike Mosher describes Johanna Poethig's "Freeway Prophecy" mural in San Francisco. He explores how the mural presents a vision of movement and traffic that engage the observer in representations of a variety of human ways of movement. He considers the "traffic jam" that the mural represents, in terms of the number of colluding creative talents that are responsible for its final form.

We can not take for granted the role that traffic patterns play in our lives, as we live in an atomized world that finds great spaces between living and working, between playing and eating, between commerce and thought, all of which spaces must be traversed by traffic flows. New traffic patterns are creating distribution networks that have important cultural and political implications that must be examined.

Copyright © 1998 by Megan Shaw and Jonathan Sterne. All rights reserved.