Theoretical approach and Frameworks

Explore: Individual and Shared Experience and Cultural Maps and Personal Maps

Individual and Shared Experience

When we first get on the bus, we look. After paying or flashing an ID at the driver, the next task is to look for a proper seat. The bus usually fills from front to back, but the true unspoken rule is to sit an appropriate distance from the other passengers, to spread out so as to be equidistant from each other. In his landmark 1903 essay The metropolis and mental life, Georg Simmel postulated on this type of experience. In an effort to understand the tension between individualism and collectivism, Simmel stated that in the city, like no other place, an individual’s senses and intellect are overwhelmed. The only way to cope, then, is to assume a posture of blasé indifference (14). To fail to do otherwise in a place of “that which is spatially close” would result in being “mentally ground down and destroyed in the metropolis” (Simmel, Frisby and Featherstone 154). What is gained on the flip side, however, is the feeling of being free to go about one’s business in anonymity.

While this may provide a starting point for examining the impressions of indifference plastered on bus passengers’ faces, it also is problematic. Many of the riders are regulars. You can tell by their familiar greeting of the driver or their nonchalance in how they ride (unaffected by the bumps or sways or even leaning against the window to close their eyes and rest). As a regular myself, I recognize many of them on sight although we may have never spoken or even acknowledged each other’s presence. Moreover, most of us have probably been raised in the city (many in this particular city, Lexington, Kentucky). Acclimation has long since overridden sensual overload. What was overload for Simmel’s generation has become the norm for ours. Familiarity has bred actual, not synthetic, indifference. Daniel Makagon muses about this contemporary state of human disconnect in his ethnographic study of Times Square as urban space and public sphere. Indifference, he asserts, is a personal choice:

It is possible that people seek out places where social connection is not required. Perhaps, they desire to be left alone and feel comfortable in those places where they can be in the presence of others while not having to give of themselves (3).

Disengaging fear (Simmel’s modernity) or comfortable disengagement (Makagon’s postmodernity) appear to be two theoretical choices to describe the resulting silence on the bus.  Augé’s poetic ethnography may add yet another possible framework that would also allow for not only the silences, but also leave room for the more rare, but rich communicative connections. In passing, he offers this dialectic:

…the law of the metro inscribes the individual itinerary into the comfort of collective morality, and in that way it is exemplary of what might be called the ritual paradox: it is always lived individually and subjectively; only individual itineraries give it a reality, and yet it is imminently social, the same for everyone… (30).

I am intrigued by this dynamic perspective on the individual and the shared experience and, subsequently, pose my first research question:

RQ1: What evidence is there of both the individual and the collective in the urban space that is the city bus and how is that dialectic played out communicatively?

Cultural maps

As the bus flows through the city, so also the people flow through the bus. The bus rolls endlessly on, down the same streets and past the same buildings predictably lumbering on a predictable timetable through the streets of Lexington. You can obtain a map of the city’s mass transit routes from any bus driver. You can see the lines for the bus drawn over the lines of the city. It is a physical reality, an artifact that cannot be disputed on the basis of fact.

But other maps exist on these routes. In the same way that the bus runs regularly, the constitution of passengers varies, a fluid membership changing from stop to stop.  This brings to mind the unwritten maps – the sometimes recognized/sometimes not boundaries that invisibly divide “this” neighborhood from “that one”. Riders may get on or off within the neighborhoods of their identities. However, on the bus, those place identities may not be externalized for the collective consumption even as they remain tightly bound internally to the individual.

And what of race and ethnicity? Isn't that the basis for many of these lines between neighborhoods? Robin DG Kelley writes in his book, Yo' Mama's Disfunktional, that only 10 years ago in Los Angeles, 80 percent of the bus riders were minority riders although less than a third of the funds were spent on transit in these areas. Seventy percent of the funding was spent on less than 10 percent of the riders in the form of a commuter rail system to predominantly white suburbs (1997). In the movie Crash, this cultural line in LA is acted out. Ludacris, playing the part of LA street-smart Anthony tells his friend why he does not ride the bus: "You have no idea why they put them great big windows on the sides of buses, do you?"
"One reason only, to humiliate the people of colour who are reduced to riding on them." Some lines are highly visible, some are more subtle—yet just as definitive, as Anthony notes. It is more likely that Lexington will mirror turf-bound LA more closely than Augé's elegant Paris.

Personal Maps

Additionally, besides these cultural maps, do we not also maintain personal maps? Walter Benjamin thought so. Places to Benjamin were more than glass and stone, they were repositories for personal memories. Moving through a city, physical structures and landscapes trigger memories of past events and people, but more than that, that visual observation of those particular places trigger the imagination and emotion created through the intrapersonal interpretation of those memories (Benjamin and Demetz). But places were not the sole property of just the creative imagination. Fran Tonkiss explains the elegiac individual-collective dialectic of Benjamin’s city (2005):

…place and objects have effects that cannot be fully explained by their official uses or representations, not wholly reduced to the responses of the subject. There remained something intrinsic to the place itself. Things speak, if you have the eyes to listen (120).

As the bus rolls past an adult novelty store called Priscilla's, I recall how the building once housed a good Chinese restaurant named August Moon. Seventeen years ago, my then-new in-laws took me to dinner there for the first time. But who rides with me and looks out the window and, at the same moment, looking at the same brick-and-mortar structure, and thinks perhaps of more recent lascivious purchases — or at the opposite extreme — dwells on the recent traffic fatality on that corner, signified by the little white cross and wreath of flowers? Could such extreme emotional memories encourage one to speak out? “Surely it is our own life that we confront in taking the subway,” Augé (2002) romanticizes, “and in more than one way” (9). Such observations about such introspections lead to my second research question:

RQ2: Can and do cultural and personal maps inhibit or unleash communicative behavior in conjunction with the physical map of the bus’s route?

It is here that our journey begins.

return to top