Roller Coaster Planet

Kinetic Experience in the Age of Mechanical Motion

by Ross Rudesch Harley

[originally published in Convergence: The Journal of Research into New Media Technologies, London, Vol 6 No 3, Summer 2000, pp 77-97]

This was the year he rode the subway to the ends of the city, two hundred miles of track. He liked to stand at the front of the first car, hands flat against the glass. The train smashed through the dark. People stood on local platforms staring nowhere, a look they’d been practicing for years. He kind of wondered, speeding past, who they really were. His body fluttered in the fastest stretches. They went so fast sometimes he thought they were on the edge of no-control. The noise was pitched to a level of pain he absorbed as a personal test. Another crazy-ass curve. There was so much iron in the sound of those curves he could almost taste it, like a toy you put in your mouth when you are little.
Don DeLillo

In recent times scholars have drawn attention to crucial connections that can be made between a wide variety of electro-mechanical forms of representation and mechanical modes of transportation. The sense of immersion and presence afforded by ‘old’ media such as the cinema and ‘new’ media like VR often mirrors (and transforms) the kinetic experience associated with the train, the automobile, or the roller coaster . Though there are marked differences in approach, many researchers draw attention to the close parallels between the various modes of ‘mobile subjectivity’ associated with moving image/sound technologies and mechanical forms of transportation. This article focuses on two specific points of convergence the freeway and the roller coaster in an attempt to further articulate the interrelation between mechanical motion and electro-mechanical mediation.

If the freeway is the logical outcome of capital’s need for highly rationalised, distributed and speedy circuits of exchange and delivery, the roller coaster is its playful shadow the irrational double of functionalistic capitalism. These two figures allow us to investigate quite different ways in which the ‘interpenetration’ of media, objects and subjectivities takes place in the realm of moving images and bodies. The figure of either the freeway or the roller coaster is routinely mobilised by promotional discourses on new media in order to invoke a concrete image of what the ‘wired-world’ might look or feel like. More significantly, the well-developed ‘kinetic design’ of both freeways and roller coasters maximises control over the rapid mass-movement of bodies and machines in ways that many new-media forms have yet to perfect.

The Freeway

An excellent framework for this present study can be found in a ground-breaking essay by Margaret Morse on the similarities between modes of transportation, television viewing and commodity exchange. In mapping out a provisional ‘ontology of everyday distraction’, she notes that the

late twentieth century has witnessed the growing dominance of a differently constituted kind of space, a nonspace of both experience and representation, an elsewhere which inhabits the everyday…. Practices and skills that can be performed semiautomatically in a distracted state such as driving, shopping or television watching are the barely acknowledged ground of everyday experience.

Like the rider of the subway DeLillo describes in Libra, the driver/passenger of the car filters the landscape through a quotidian kinaesthetic process that invokes a kind of ‘mobile subjectivity’ which pertains to physical space and non-space alike. However, as Morse makes clear in her treatment of this often overlooked aspect of everyday life, the car also displaces and re-configures earlier socio-cultural forms of sensorial experience previously associated with the railway and the cinema. The difference between these historically distinct perceptual and ideological modes has little to do with the supposed freedom of motion made possible by independent subjects behind the wheel. Paradoxically, cars and freeways could be seen as further limiting the driver’s freedom of movement within the confined capsule of the car and in terms of the new geography of highway networks. We could also add that the freeway further reduces our direct experience of place. ‘To paraphrase Charles Kuralt, the freeway is what makes it possible to drive coast to coast and never see anything’. (Morse, p. 197).

The freedom of motion made possible by automobility also brought with it demands for a greater conformity. This is in part due to the nature and form of the car’s new ‘machine ensemble’ the network of roads, highways and related services such as petrol stations, hotels and motels. Further isolated from fellow citizens and the landscape, the privately mobilised driver became more ensconced in the complex web of advanced capitalism. As humanist critics of media might put it, similar tendencies also can be observed in the gradual erosion of direct experience and its replication in increasingly mediated activities.

We must be careful therefore, in conceiving the ‘non-space’ of automobility as neutral. Part of a vast system of communication, transportation and commodity exchange, freeways, malls and television give the illusion of mastery and control over the objective world. Spatialised, abstracted, miniaturised and interiorised, the world perceived from the freeway is part of the universe of infinitely exchangeable commodities. Morse reminds us that the

Empire of the habitual is the matrix of mental and social life…. What is new in contemporary life are not these institutions of mobile privatisation per se but the interpenetration of layer upon layer of built environment and representation, the formative and derivative, the imaginary and the mundane… [T]hey are ideal expressions of the zones of ontological uncertainty, expressions of both Kansas and Oz… The cycle of consumption… is designed for maximum mobility and circulation of a consumer inside the imaginary world of images and objects. (my emphasis, Morse, pp. 210)

From the outset, the road made its mark on the landscape by joining together important sites and nuclei in urban regions. Gradually, these land-markings grew into radio-centric geometries of freeways, on-ramps, exits, fly-overs, clover-leafs and all manner of novel architectural forms. As we will see with the roller coaster, the freeway inscribes an ‘orbital’ geometry which turns drivers into energised atoms spinning around a set of unstable and constantly shifting nuclei the city, the suburb, the country. Its impact on the landscape is infinitely greater than that of the railway. And alongside the road grows a new architecture, distinctive outgrowths of unheralded urban forms.

The car and the huge public road-building programs that followed in its wake offered a significant challenge to the place of the railway in rapidly urbanised societies. There is perhaps no better example than Los Angeles in this regard. As is commonly known, Los Angeles was ‘put on the map’ when it was finally joined to the rest of America with the arrival of the Southern Pacific Railroad Company in the 1880s. However, as the Los Angeles metropolis grew outwards according to an increasingly decentralised pattern of settlement, the electric train system was challenged by the growing automobile lobby. Whether the ultimate abandonment of the train system was part of an automobile industry-led conspiracy or not remains the subject of heated debate. What remains indisputable however, is that there was a widely held belief that

the freeways … [and] the automobile could function as the primary means of transportation in Los Angeles and that a decentralised city form would lead to an improved quality of life. Unfortunately, as Angelenos would later learn, decentralisation and the automobile would engender new problems.

As a number of authors have pointed out, the decline in the electric rail system throughout the urbanised world was closely tied to the belief that the car would solve urban problems and lead to a car-utopia. It is a striking example of how wrong overstated claims to technology’s utopian potential can be, and should stand as an important object lesson for anyone interested in the history of new media.

The ‘imaginary world’ created by and for the car is, in part, flattened out and confined to the planes of the travelling car-windows. The driver sees what has been materialised mechanised by the new ‘highway matrix’, a ‘readable’, and in this sense ‘consumable’ space that reduces three-dimensional volumes to two-dimensional (consumable) signs. This is the new world ‘designed for maximum mobility and circulation’. Kristin Ross postulates:

The ‘moving picture’ produced by cars and movies reflects a new acceleration in commodity production and circulation, but it does so, perhaps, far more through a more thorough and complete commodification of the driver, the worker… Movable, available man (and woman) is open to the new demands of the market, to the imaginary worlds pictured on the silver screen, and to the lures of the newly commodified leisure of the countryside… which is provided by the family car.

We might well ask whether there is a way to resist such kinaesthetic effects, which seem to ‘morph’ the perceptible world into seductive images and commodified leisure destinations. For in this process, it is not only the perceived world that is reduced to abstraction. The mobilised subject-as-driver is also in peril of becoming ‘sped up’ into a little more than a mobile point in a complex commodified matrix a ‘lived abstraction’, another commodity among commodities.

As we have seen in recent reconsiderations of practices of consumption pertaining to television viewing, such fears are often overstated. The matrix of vision, power and mobility under discussion here is always subject to negotiation.

That said, it is also worth comparing the ‘maximum velocity’ of the freeway to its much touted counterpart the electronic ‘superhighway’. This new network of networks establishes a simultaneity that reduces the furthest position on the globe to a millisecond away. In global telecommunications, velocity reduces travel time to almost zero thus extending enormously the potential of earlier mechanical networks of transportation to connect places, to unify national spaces, and to standardise time. This is where ‘new media’ such as the Internet intervene: in as much as they develop a spatial ubiquity, they configure a culture conditioned to instantaneous response. This new technological sense of time is the social frame in which leisure experiences of technological speed are deployed. It is therefore no surprise that the expansionist ethos of the Web that permeates today’s Internet, dominated by e-commerce and porn, bears little resemblance to the academic/community activist networks of the late 1980s. As professor of communications Herbert Schiller has pointed out, such networks are ultimately in the service of powerful national and corporate interests:

In September 1993, the White House described the information superhighway as a means ‘to enable U.S. firms to compete and win in the global economy’, and to give the domestic economy a ‘competitive edge’ internationally.

He goes on to note that global communication networks play a major part in the worldwide cultural and economic domination of the United States.

Under the ‘free-flow’ principle, U.S. global strategy supported the rapid and fullest development of transport and information technologies, which underpinned the capability for the cultural domination that was being constructed. For example, most of the civilian airliners in operation in most countries are U.S.-made. These vehicles have enabled the massive growth of the world tourist industry, which has in turn leaned heavily on U.S. modes of entertaining and nurturing tourists chain hotels, packaged tours, constructed spectacles, and so on.

Though there are many important differences in the implementation and regulation of such communications infrastructure, the American model continues to exert enormous global influence.

Barbara Klinger has pointed out that in the American context, the road-building projects of the 1950s can be seen as an extension of this expansionist ethos, which is part of a wider technique of ‘landscaping the nation’. The same could be said of many postwar attempts at nation-building the world over as part of a more generalised process of ‘landscaping the world’. Without wishing to dissolve national differences, the new frontierism, enacted in the creation of a nationwide highway network, creates the illusion of a democratic framework where unfair class systems, property relations and industrialisation are supposedly dissolved. The same can easily be said of the expansionist ethos that permeates the World Wide Web and the net. It is therefore important to emphasise the illusory nature of such ‘democratisation’.

A 1957 cover article in Time magazine calls road building ‘the American Art’, remarking that the ‘panorama of road builders stringing highways across the land reflects a peculiarly American genius, one that lies deep in the traditional pioneering instincts of the nation… A giant nationwide engineering project the Interstate Highway system is altering and circumventing geography on an unprecedented scale.’… The photographs of the highways make them appear as spectacular as the naturescapes and cityscapes they transect; roads stretch endlessly through the equally endless American terrain.

It is worth highlighting the fact that this invocation of the landscape-as-panorama was mobilised precisely to unify difference (of place) by appealing to a particular form of nationalism and modern democracy freedom of movement becomes a substitute for freedom itself (whatever that might be).

In this sense, American highway building should be considered in the context of the way in which the relation between road systems and the nation-state replaced the 19th-century nexus between the railway and nationalism/colonialism. We should also recall that the US Interstate system was influenced profoundly by the German autobahn system (which Hitler took so much credit for) ; it was not, most definitely, the natural process many popular accounts suggest it was.

As Angela Miller has noted of American landscape painting in the 19th century, there

was little that was either natural or inevitable about the process. It was, like all social processes, grounded in particular institutions, and it evolved through discussion and debate that questioned the authority of its claims.

We therefore need to investigate further the ways in which the ‘interpenetration’ of images, objects and subjectivities takes place in the highly kinaesthetic (and often contested) realm of the moving image/sound both ‘virtual’ and ‘actual’. [Figure 3] Though we might acknowledge the critique of ‘mobilised distraction’ outlined above, in no way do I advocate a nostalgic return to a pre-televisual or pre-automobile world. Nor do I want to suggest that drivers/net-surfers are powerless to respond in a variety of creative ways to the matrix they negotiate.

However, I am suggesting that we need to understand more clearly what is at stake in networks of power that are purposely constructed for the benefit of certain kinds of commerce, consumption and exchange. As this commercial realm is further annexed into the logic of the ‘virtual mobilised gaze’, as it evolves into a vast interconnected global infrastructure running at maximum velocity, we would do well to look for new ways to understand its materiality and to analyse its morphology.

The Early Amusement Park

We could also trace the development of ‘kinetic design’ by looking at the evolution of entertainment infrastructure at the turn of the century. Here too we find a similar propensity to control the movement of bodies en masse— by way of a particular organisation of mechanised leisure and amusement. Another everyday zone of uncertainty, the amusement park was, in its own way, concerned with the miniaturisation and re-figuring of the visual and kinetic realms of modern life into safe, consumable forms. At the same time, this commercialisation of leisure opened up new possibilities for men and women looking for alternatives to the stifling social and sexual mores of the Victorian era. It should also be stressed that the amusement park arose in the context of, and as an outlet for, the crowded metropolis: it is a response to the crowd, in the same way that mass spectator sport is. The organisation of crowd movement is hence a major function of amusement park design. The deliberate attempt to attract the masses also echoes similar attempts to broaden cinema’s audience at the same time (during the 1910s and 20s especially). Under the sign of entertainment, amusement entrepreneurs created magical fun parks designed to mirror both distant Romantic places and the ultra-modern machine age, to provide a liminal zone in which the masses could experiment with new ways of being.

There have been innumerable studies of the manner in which fun piers and amusement parks were constructed at the end of the trolley lines, at the edge of the growing metropolis. They marked out a popular zone of leisure, an entertaining and supposedly ‘other worldly’ antidote to the stress of life in the big cities. Turn-of-the-century Luna Parks, Dreamworlds, and Wonderlands featured a never-before-seen amalgam of fantasy architecture and novel mechanical rides, designed to provide relief from the rapidly changing industrial world often in a parodic, hilarious way. They existed as contestatory sites where ideologies of the ‘good-natured crowd’ clashed with bourgeois anxieties about the masses going ‘out-of-control’, where working class people found light-hearted release from the toil of labour. Amusement parks were also crucial leisure destinations where women could construct new social practices centred around unchaperoned excursions, dancing, and a variety of other cheap amusements which gave new meaning to their lives. As Kathy Peiss has shown in her thorough study,

in these commercial amusement places… young women experimented with new cultural forms that articulated gender in terms of sexual expressiveness and social interaction with men, linking heterosocial culture to a sense of modernity, individuality, and personal style.

A number of commentators have pointed out that amusement parks were among the first modern sites to dramatise the leveling of dangers associated with the ‘technological sublime’ at the same time that they were spectacularly orchestrated. These new forms of leisure coupled with an ‘imagination of disaster’ to establish new aesthetic and kinetic forms. Concentrating a large number of mechanised attractions into relatively small lots, the amusement park introduced a concentrated commercial vernacular that continues to this day.

Canadian sociologist John Hannigan has clearly demonstrated that the early strategies of fantasy cities sought to create ‘a public culture which was attractive, non-threatening and affordable in order to lure as wide a cross section of society as possible.’ The reasons for this are to be found in the economic structure of entertainment, and not in any apparent altruism or sense of democracy. It’s worth quoting Hannigan at length on this particular subject. To create this new public sphere

required a sleight of hand worthy of a skilled illusionist. Increasingly, working people had money and free time but as a group on their own, they were seen as neither a reliable market nor one which was particularly profitable. The middle classes represented a more desirable clientele but… they were deeply nervous of the blue-collar crowds which they believed prone to drunkenness and rowdyism. In order to attract the former market without losing the latter, leisure entrepreneurs needed to convince less affluent patrons that they were being transported to magical realms… beyond the orbit of everyday constraints of class and gender, and at the same time reassure bourgeois pleasure-seekers that these new public amusements were safe and physically and morally ‘clean’. (my emphasis)

This ‘sleight of hand’ turns out to be the central organising principle of many of these leisure destinations, which form a new ‘orbit of everyday constraints’. Thus, the hallmark of modern entertainment infrastructure: the construction of a wide variety of (regulated and patrolled) attractions that act as magnets to an already highly differentiated leisure audience (in terms of class, sex, and race).

In the 1890s, new forms of mechanical perception were quickly being translated into cinematic and amusement cultures, following a new set of strategies concerning the heightening of the appearance of risk at the same time as risk is actually minimised. The most perilous amusement park attractions (such as the roller coaster) intensify both the action of the train and the mechanical movement of cinema. They parody the utilitarian purpose of the train ride while heightening the kinaesthetic experience for the purposes of entertainment: the aim of the amusement park ride is to demonstrate the extent to which even the most horrendous risks associated with mechanisation can be ‘controlled’ by the machine itself.

Media theorist Armand Mattelart has recently accounted for similar turn-of-the-century phenomena in terms of the concept of an ‘insurance society’. According to Mattelart, insurance, ‘the mechanism based on the compensatory model of risk protection, is transformed from a simple ‘risk technology’ into a ‘political technology’ ‘. In other words, ‘insurance society’ re-conceptualised the body into abstract mathematical calculation and corresponding graphic terms, re-mobilising it as part of the exercise of control. As the potential for accidents rises under industrialisation, so the individual’s life is abstracted into an ever-growing collection of statistics, probabilities, and other such calculations. Recalling the influence Marey’s and Muybridge’s graphic systems had on the reconceptualisation of the body-in-motion, the new science of risk calculation and insurance further classified and analysed the movement of the masses in ever more predictable and minute ways. As I will show in the next section on roller coasters, it is precisely this culture of ‘riskless risk’ and its attendant management strategies that lies at the core of kinetic design. It is this same culture which we find employed in many virtual applications of the formula: maximise the appearance of risk while minimising the possibility of actual harm. If computer games are an obvious extension of this practice, it is worth noting that the discourse of risk is displaced into one of moral panic. As actual injury is reduced to zero in screen-based technologies, other ‘dangers’ are identified to take their place.

It is also important to remember that the amusement park exploited the commercial potential of making flirtation and new displays of sexuality a key part of mass entertainment. Peiss convincingly argues that in this way, the mechanical rides and amusements of Coney Island helped create a new social realm that went against the grain of Victorian ideals of decorum and restraint. Built in 1897, Steeplechase Park was

much less concerned with grandeur, artistic design and awe-inspiring sensation. Advertised as ‘The Funny Place’, Steeplechase featured hilarity, symbolised by a vulgar, grinning, slightly sinister clown face above its entrance gates… Steeplechase relied on fun houses, mechanical sensations, and circus-type sideshow attractions…[and] rarely allowed… patrons to be passive viewers. Instead, the patrons were whirled through space and knocked off balance, their hats blown off, skirts lifted, sense of humour tried. The patrons themselves became the show, providing interest and hilarity to each other.

Some amusement attractions were of course interested in simulating the experience of travel to remote and exotic locations. Thompson’s Scenic Railway, Luna Park’s Trip to the Moon, Dreamland and Hale’s Tours all come to mind here. Like much travel photography and one-reel films of the time, the viewer-rider ‘journeys to another world’. The post-1910 cinema extends this still further, developing a more complex repertoire of ‘participatory’ techniques (such as narrative, point of view, travelling camera etc). The movement through the modern landscape on a ‘phantom ride’ in an amusement park, or on the trolley car on the way there was mirrored by the new attractions of cinema and later, television and interactive video games. The modern subject experienced the novel and stimulating sensations associated with mechanical movement at a variety of distinct though interconnected sites.

The rides may have dramatised and spectacularised the assaults to the body and to the natural order that were taking place in the wider culture. But they also functioned to normalise the abrupt shocks experienced by the masses, who were increasingly reminded of their ‘kineticised body’, mobilised in all manner of novel ways that became possible in an age of mechanical reproduction. The carousel and the Ferris wheel both provide models of a circular movement that takes you nowhere. But it is the roller coaster that provides the most dramatic image of this new network of circulation a technological ensemble set in motion by the collision of nature and culture, of gravity and the machine.

Roller Coaster Planet

The roller coaster actualises the central motifs of 20th-century amusement and entertainment in extremis. Its material form parodies the circuitous nature of consumption, while at the same time tracing its spectacular mechanical shape against the shifting backdrop of various zones of pleasure (urban, suburban, exurban). A highly calculated management of risk produces a kinetic body, taken to its gravitational limits for a moment, only to be restored to equilibrium the next. It represents the perfection of a certain mechanisation of the crowd, broken into small groups of riders who are sent into a ‘kinaesthetic vortex’ for a few brief minutes before making way for the next installment of thrill-seekers.

The roller coaster is a central experiment in the laboratory of mass culture because it immerses the rider in a dazzling display of extreme forces and bodily positions made possible by the machine ensemble. The thrill finds its force in the body’s encounter with a highly-controlled chaos that both parodies and eulogises the technologised world. Writing of roller coaster riders at turn-of-the-century Coney Island, John Kasson observes that mechanical

amusement rides allowed them to cultivate the delight, awe, and fear of the technological sublime still more intensely. Some of Coney Island’s rides, in fact, were directly inspired by modes of transportation in use in industry and society at large, beginning in 1884 with the Switchback Railroad, a forerunner of the roller coaster… These continued to borrow from the urban and industrial railways, so much so that some commentators marvelled how much the amusements to which people flocked resembled the features of their daily life.

The twists and turns orchestrated by the roller coaster paralleled the rickety curves and jerky motions of the new electric tram and train networks. As each amusement park operator attempted to outdo the other, the roller coaster became the privileged site of extreme mechanical motion, an intensified perception-in-motion that exerts it forces against the body. Turn-of-the-century rides such as ‘Flip Flap Railway’ and ‘Leap Frog Railway’ sent riders careening into gravity-defying twists and loops that quite literally took people’s breath away. After a ride on one of these, ‘the worst twists of the New York Elevated Railroad could hold no terror.’

The wooden roller coasters of the first half of this century produced a ‘ride of terror’ that emphasised shock and hilarity epitomised in the wild screams and hysterical laughter let out by riders at each bump and ‘crazy-ass curve’. By the 1920s, engineers had developed ingenious technical solutions to almost every major safety problem such as the ‘anti-roll-back safety dog’ (which prevents cars from rolling backwards, producing the familiar ratchet-like sound as the car climbs the first drop), the ‘under friction’ wheel (ensuring the car will not leave the track on severe turns), and the ‘elliptical loop’ (designed to minimise the high g-forces experienced in the perfectly circular loop-the-loop). Most of these designs were innovated by John Miller, who at the time was Chief Engineer for Thompson Scenic Railway Company. He also is credited with the ‘mega coaster’ concept formulated in the 1910s, featuring drops of up to 100 feet and speeds of up to 60 m.p.h. significantly higher, safer, and faster than before.

As a result of such developments, roller coasters could be built on smaller sites with reduced land costs. The steep drops and tight bends afforded greater speed and thrills that many writers say epitomise the recklessness of the times.

But it wasn’t until the Arrow Dynamics Company was commissioned to build the Matterhorn Bobsleds at Disneyland in 1959 that tubular steel track rides came into existence. This development was ground-breaking, as it allowed designers to incorporate the multiple loops, banked turns, twisted helixes, boomerangs, and corkscrews that characterise the rides of today’s amusement parks. Although wooden roller coasters experimented with a number of these forms, they could not be safely incorporated without the use of tubular steel. The steel roller coaster consequently offers a smoother, faster ride, capable of multiple inversions and mind-boggling twists that tap into a new technological sublime that of the space age.

Like their wooden counterparts (which are preferred by many aficionados, and consequently still are constructed at many venues) they appear to represent the inside machinations of technology laid bare, an x-ray vision of the internal workings of industrial-capital. With its dramatic displays of accelerated mobility and seemingly terminal velocity, the contemporary roller coaster has entered the popular imagination as an analog for the ups and downs of contemporary life. It has also become an analog for the immersive capacity of new technologies of moving image/sound. In Gravity, Joseph Lanza traces the significance of the roller coaster in American culture, suggesting that

of all the visual analogies that these rides evoke, the most lingering is that of an externalised digestive tract, an intestinal midway as convoluted and queasy as the one developing inside me as my travels progress. The more I equate the geography with my visceral mayhem, the more I think of Rube Goldberg, the cartoonist who illustrated machines that took the most complicated means to perform the most simple tasks.

Such analogies suggest a useless energy (leisure) expended over an extremely condensed space and time: two minutes and it’s all over. Riders chase their own shadows in the most convoluted fashion, experiencing a form of pure speed which has absolutely no purpose besides the thrill of the ride (unlike the train or the car for instance). The DNA-like roller coaster traces a path of continuous revolution without consequence. Baudrillard has written that there

is no topology more beautiful than Moebius’ to designate the contiguity of the close and the distant, of interior and exterior, of object and subject in the same spiral… According to the same model, information and communication always feed back on themselves in a kind of incestuous convolution … a contiguity that can only be solved in a loop, simulating the mathematical figure for infinity.

Like the figure eight of the racetrack or the freeway’s cloverleaf, the roller coaster is a Moebius strip of mass culture, its participants destined to repeat the same motions again and again. Once on the roller coaster, there is no getting off. You are literally locked in to the technical apparatus in order to engage in a publicly-staged race through the air. Roller coasters present the same spectacular display of extreme speed as is to be found at the velodrome. It is in this sense the logical successor to the circus, only here the audience is inseparable from the show.

One could argue that such instrumentalisation of space represents the changed geometry of the built environment and the body that interacts with it a world turned orbital, as Virilio says. Connecting what he terms ‘the law of absolute speed’ back to the railroad, and on into supersonic transportation and telecommunication, Virilio consequently argues for

the urgent political necessity to return to this law of least effort that has always founded the expansion of new technologies. A law that imposes itself on us and that is based… on gravity, this force of universal attraction that gives both weight and direction to the objects that constitute the human environment.

It is the geometry of the roller coaster’s loop, this closed circuit of bodies ‘strapped into’ commodity capitalism that strikes us in the form and function of these participatory gravity machines. As the roller coaster graphically shows us, contemporary landscapes of consumption no longer follow the geometry of the grid. There are no straight lines on a roller coaster, only ridiculous curves, loops, and inclines.

If the roller coaster is also a form of punishment that you pay for, we might ask what it is that draws customers to its geometry. The answer is simple: It offers the thrilling rush of adrenaline, without having to do anything. You are the speeding bullet, the projectile, but you are also part of a social group, which offers the distinct possibility of bumping into others and in turn, of being thrown up against the machine. Packed in tight, we become an integral part of the machine ensemble, an integral working part of this embodied metaphor of hyper-circulation. In his journalistic style, Lanza tells us that

the ride’s attraction is driven by the heart as much as the head. The dozens-to-hundreds of expectant faces on a roller coaster line tell ambiguous tales of fear, joy, sorrow, often with tentative smiles… A long coaster line also leaves time for sidelong glances. If that special someone standing a few rows behind returns the flirtation, the roller coaster romp that follows is bound to be incredible, almost miraculous. The evidence, once again, is the rider’s smile, which, in this case, is unforced and positively radiant.

The roller coaster provides an ambivalent space for the representation of social interaction and social fears. But it also offers a context for hilarity and libidinal release. The more the ride shakes you out of your senses while giving you the opportunity to cling to each other, the better the ride.

Roller coaster rides mimic (in a ‘participatory’ form) the shift from the consumption of things in space to the consumption of space itself: its pure mechanical actions produce an abstract space, but one that is experienced in an absolutely physical manner. Theme park operators often talk about these rides in terms of participation, as if there were some way to interact with the machine, to navigate an alternative path. While we are not able to change the program of the roller coaster, to select whatever path we desire, we are nevertheless highly involved in sensations of heightened presence the ground zero of the body is amplified into the most corporeal of kinaesthetic effects. For this reason, the metaphor of the roller coaster prevails in media-forms that seek to demonstrate the kinaesthetic force of particular screen-based technologies.

The roller coaster represents a particular apex of kinaesthetic simulation. Entertainment forms simulate the mechanical sublime of the roller coaster in order to demonstrate the veracity of their participatory effects.

The mythology of death and disaster that circulates around riders is part of this very same process of amplification though accidents are rare, their existence confirms at least the possibility of being catapulted to a grisly end. We might be dazzled by the spectacular heights or nearly thrown out of our seats on hair-raising curves, but the kinetic thrill-ride almost invariably delivers the passengers safely back to where they started. The roller coaster thus assumes its most horrific panic-inducing form only if we imagine we are unable to get off. Here lies the real psychological terror: ‘Imagine boarding a roller coaster in California and being strapped in all the way to Connecticut or beyond.’ (Lanza, p. 17.)


The same orbit that pertains to modes of perception and motion associated with the car and the roller coaster also figure in a variety of new media forms that appeal to the contemporary body-in-motion/perception-in-motion nexus (from so-called virtual environments to ride films and location-based entertainment). More recent instances of kinetic design and mobilised subjectivity function in a manner similar to that of perception-in-motion at play in the car and the roller coaster. Each limits the physical involvement of the passenger-viewer while amplifying speed and kinaesthetic effects (via the electro-mechanical reproduction of motion) in as many sensual realms as possible. Under the guise of increased involvement in the image, in palpably-spatialised sound, navigable environments, and in motion itself, the world of experience is stitched further into reproducible and exchangeable commodity forms that simultaneously embody and disembody experience.

Roller coasters transform the nature of the journey: it no longer goes anywhere, but is instead a complete loop, like the Sunday drive in a crowded Tokyo where drivers no longer can leave the freeway to eat their lunches in a park and so simply eat them in the car. It is like the Autopia ride for children at Disneyland in Anaheim, a kind of inertia such as Virilio describes in much of his recent work.

Rather than liberating us from restrictions of choice, of distance and of movement, the model of the networked world invoked by new media forms further ensconces us in a complex web of advanced capitalism. In this sense, the gap between the physical and the virtual has not widened, as is so often claimed. Nor is the virtual about to obliterate the actual. The complex machine ensemble of the present is constituted simultaneously in physical space and non-space. And it is precisely at these points of convergence and contradiction that new paths of resistance are likely to emerge. Moveable, available, open to the rapid shifts and the fast pace of late capitalism, the matrix of vision, power and mobility under discussion here is under constant renegotiation, subject to new kinds of kinetic design and experience that constitute the human environment.

If transportation and mediation have reached a stage of thorough interpenetration, then perhaps we can imagine this ‘roller coaster planet’ as an abstract Rube Goldberg machine for the cyber-age where you can go as fast as you like, to the wildest extremes, without really going anywhere at all. This then defines the political dimension of this project: how to ride this gravity-defying global network and still manage to escape its orbit.


1. Don DeLillo, Libra (New York: Viking, 1988), p. 1.
2. For examples of this work, see Scott Bukatman, “Zooming Out: The End of Offscreen Space’, in The New American Cinema , ed. Jon Lewis (Durham: Duke University Press, 1998), pp 248-272; Jonathan Crary, Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1991); Anne Freidberg, Window Shopping: Cinema and the Postmodern (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993); Lynne Kirby, Parallel Tracks: The Railroad and Silent Cinema, (Durham: Duke University Press, 1997); Margaret Morse, Virtualities (Durham: Duke University Press, 1999); Lauren Rabinovitz, ‘From Hale’s Tours to Star Tours: Virtual Voyages and the Delerium of the Hyper-Real’, iris, 25 (1998); Kristin Ross, Fast Cars, Clean Bodies: Decolonisation and the Reordering of French Culture (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1995); and Paul Virilio, The Art of the Motor (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1995).
3. Margaret Morse, ‘An Ontology of Everyday Distraction: The Freeway, The Mall, and Television, in Logics of Television: Essays in Cultural Criticism, ed. Patricia Mellencamp (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1990), pp. 195-96.
4. See Scott Bottles, Los Angeles and the Automobile: The Making of the Modern City (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987) for a sympathetic account of the role of the car against the streetcar and train networks. For a more critical view of this particular history, see Mike Davis, City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles (London, Vintage, 1992). Also see Martin Wachs, ‘The Evolution of Transportation Policy in Los Angeles: Images of Past Policies and Future Prospects’, in The City: Los Angeles and Urban Theory at the End of the Twentieth Century, eds. Allen J. Scott, and Edward W. Soja (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996).
5. Writers such as Bottles are among apologists for the car, arguing that the train and trolleycar system that preceded it were not the ideal of public transportation that many might now claim it was. Banham sidesteps this issue to a certain extent, if only to emphasise the extent to which Los Angeles represents the ‘accretions’ of transport systems, rather than a battle of antagonistic technologies. For Banham, the freeway system follows the footprint laid down by the trainlines with astonishing accuracy.
6. Bottles, p.21.
7. Kristin Ross, Fast Cars, Clean Bodies: Decolonisation and the Reordering of French Culture (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1995), p. 40.
8. The work of Lynn Spigel, Denise Mann, Karal Ann Marling and Lynne Joyrich which is interested in reconsidering the place of television in the home, as part of wider power relations and perceptual modes, pertains here. See for instance Private Screenings: Television and the Female Consumer, eds. Lynn Spigel and Denise Mann (London: University of Minnesota Press, 1992); and Lynne Joyrich, Re-Viewing Reception: Television, Gender, and Postmodern Culture (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1996).
9. Herbert I. Schiller, ‘The global information highway: project for an ungovernable world’, in Resisting the Virtual Life, eds. James Brook and Iain Boal, (San Francisco: City Lights, 1995), p. 18.
10. Schiller, p. 19.
11. Barbara Klinger, ‘The Road to Dystopia: Landscaping the Nation in Easy Rider’, in The Road Movie Book, eds. Steven Cohan, and Ina Rae Hark, (London: Routledge, 1997), pp. 187-88.
12. For more on autobahns/highways see Edward Dimendberg, ‘The Will to Motorization’, October (Summer, 1995), pp. 91-137.
13. Angela Miller, The Empire of the Eye: Landscape, Representation and American Cultural Politics, 1825-1875 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993), p. 3.
14. John F. Kasson’s Amusing the Million (New York: Hill & Wang, 1978), remains one of the most thorough of these studies. The new edition of Rem Koolhaas’ inspirational Delirious New York (New York: The Monacelli Press, 1994) is also indispensable for anyone wishing to understand the connection between modernism and the fantastic. Kathy Peiss’ Cheap Amusements: Working Women and Leisure in Turn-of-the-Century New York (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1986) provides an essential account of how young working women at the turn-of-the-century spent their free time and money. More recent, and equally valuable is John Hannigan’s Fantasy City: Pleasure and Profit in the Postmodern Metropolis (London: Routledge, 1998). Written from a multidisciplinary perspective, this book challenges many misconceptions commonly asserted by postmodern and conservative critics alike.
15. Peiss, p. 6.
16. Hannigan, p. 18
17. Hannigan, p. 18.
18. Armand Mattelart, The Invention of Communication (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996), p. 230.
19. Piess, p. 134.
20. See Koolhaas, pp. 32-70; and Raymond Fielding, ‘Hale’s Tours: Ultrarealism in the Pre-1910 Motion Picture’, in Film Before Griffith, ed. John L. Fell (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983).
21. See Ellen Strain, ‘Exotic bodies, distant landscapes: touristic viewing and popularised anthropology in the nineteenth century’, Wide Angle 18/2 (1996), pp. 70-100.
22. Kasson, p. 74.
23. Kasson, p. 77.
24. Bennett, pp. 26-31.
25. Bennett, p. 52.
26. Joseph Lanza, Gravity: Tilted Perspectives on Rocketships, Rollercoasters, Earthquakes, and Angel Food (New York: Picador, 1997), p. 18.
27. Jean Baudrillard, Xerox and Infinity (London: Touchepas, 1991), p. 10.
28. Paul, Virilio, ‘Gray Ecology’, in Anywhere, ed. Cynthia Davidson (New York: Rizzoli, 1992).
29. Lanza, p. 32.
30 Kathy Peiss also reminds us that this has always been a function of the amusement park: ‘At Steeplechase Park, visitors often experienced the unexpected in a sexual context. Some attractions simply encouraged closeness and romance. Men and women customarily sat together on the mechanical horses for the Steeplechase Ride. More inventive were such novelties as the Razzle-Dazzle, also known as the Wedding Ring. This attraction was simply a large circle of laminated wood suspended from a pole, which would be rocked back and forth, causing the patrons to lose their balance. The Wedding Ring made instant acquaintances of strangers and gave women and men a perfect excuse to clutch each other. Similarly, the Barrel of Love was a slowly revolving drum that forced those in it to tumble into each other’. Piess, pp. 134-135.
31. Lanza cites National Safety Council’s ‘Death Due to Unintentional Injuries’ figures for 1992 to argue that riding roller coasters is safer than travelling by car, train, bus or plane. ‘Yet from the mid-1980s to the present there has been an unprecedented liability crisis. Skittish companies wishing to avoid legal problems and to lower insurance costs have installed such devices as safety harnesses, magnetic or photocell sensors, and microprocessors to monitor a roller coaster’s every move.’ Lanza, pp. 22-25.
32. For a particularly good summary and criticism of this body of work, see Scott McQuire, ‘Blinded by the (Speed of) Light’, Theory Culture and Society, 16, nos 5-6 (1999), pp. 143 – 159.