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1.4: Highway, Network, Machine

Machine: The Futurama reimagines the superhighway as a networked machine.

Published onMar 25, 2021
1.4: Highway, Network, Machine

Highway, Network, Machine

Marinetti and the Machine

In 1909 Italian Futurist F.T. Marinetti published “The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism” in Le Figaro. The manifesto opens with a group of friends who have stayed up all night “scribbling” the tenets of a new artistic and social movement, Futurism. In the anecdote, they hear a sound on the street and, racing to the window, see three “snorting beasts” sitting outside: automobiles. Marinetti describes his response to these machines of the future. The scene depicts a kind of death and mechanical rebirth, evoking the image of another, prior technological symbol of a new epoch, the guillotine:

I stretched out on my car like a corpse on its bier, but revived at once under the steering wheel, a guillotine blade that threatened my stomach. (20)

Driving his fanciful racing-car, Marinetti suddenly confronts a pair of cyclists, “shaking their fists, wobbling like two equally convincing but nevertheless contradictory arguments” (20), who embody a version of philosophical dialectics for which Futurism clearly has no time. His car swerves and crashes dramatically into a canal, but is rescued by “a crowd of fishermen with handlines and gouty naturalists” who haul it out of the water. To everyone’s surprise, the machine still runs:

They thought it was dead, my beautiful shark, but a caress from me was enough to revive it; and there it was, alive again, running on its powerful fins! (21)

Marinetti’s belief that this predatory assemblage of speed and power would dominate the future was a compelling fantasy to a country that was poor, largely agrarian, and soon to be held within the powerful grasp of Italian fascism under the rule of prime minister Benito Mussolini. In place of the natural landscape, the Futurists offered a vision of a dynamic and violent mechanism:

We declare that the splendor of the world has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed. A racing automobile with its bonnet adorned with great tubes like serpents with explosive breath . . . a roaring motor car which seems to run on machine-gun fire, is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace. (21)

The Manifesto’s comparison of the car to the Winged Victory of Samothrace, who stands, headless, on a pedestal shaped like a ship’s prow, suggests not only an aesthetic and philosophical move away from classicism in art and philosophy, but also a technological move away from the antiquated ship to the futuristic motorcar. Raymond Duchamp-Villon’s bronze sculpture, “The Horse” (1914), with its assemblage of organic musculature and mechanical gears and pistons, similarly heralds the replacement of horse-power with that of the machine. The future was thus defined by a shift from human and animal energetic potential to the explosive power of the internal combustion engine.

Nike of Samothrace. Photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen, 2007. Wikimedia Commons.

The New Odology

One discomfiting aspect of Marinetti’s modern experience was the tension between the organic human body and the automobile. By 1934, historian Lewis Mumford was already warning that automobile-based transportation systems increasingly represented a “monotechnic” impulse: the development of technology for its own sake rather than for the benefit of human living. In a critical counterpoint to the pastoral wonders of the Futurama ride, the 1939 film The City (with commentary written by Mumford) offered a view of what it was like to be captured within this new technologically driven landscape, with capitalism as the fuel for the modern engine:

Follow the crowd. Get the big money. You make a pile and raise a pile and it makes another pile for you. Follow the crowd . . . we’ve reached a million, two million, five million, watch us grow. Going up, it’s new, it’s automatic, it dictates, records, seals, sterilizes, stamps, delivers in one operation without human hand. What am I bid, what am I offered, sold! Who’s next? The people, yes, follow the crowd to the Empire city, the wonder city, the windy city, the fashion city. The people, yes. The people . . .perhaps.

The narrator’s staccato delivery echoes the speed-up of modern city life, while vertical pans of skyscrapers offer a glimpse into a depersonalizing world of offices and apartments with their faceless ranks of windows.

City life. The City. 1939. American Documentary Films, Inc. for American Institute of Planners. Prelinger Archives.

Mumford’s city dwellers, stuck in traffic and forced into new configurations that seemed at once machinic and strangely organic—milling on the streets like bees, prairie-dogging from the tops of stopped cars in traffic—were offered an alternative, in the shape of a green suburban town in which workers walked to their pleasant workplaces and children ran and bicycled through verdant landscapes. But the new relationship between human and machine did not end at the city’s boundary. In the same year that The City was released, Norman Bel Geddes and General Motors’ Futurama exhibit presented their vision of an America reorganized around the interstate superhighway.

Not only did Geddes propose a future mode of transportation; he proposed an entirely new relationship between technologies of transportation and the human body. The Futurama showed that highways themselves exerted powerful control over human bodies and minds, determining where we traveled and how we interacted with the landscape.

The motorized American stuck in traffic. The City. 1939. American Documentary Films, Inc. for American Institute of Planners. Prelinger Archives.

John Brinckerhoff Jackson notes that, when riding on the modern highway, human individuals are reconfigured, captured within a vast and totalizing technological network:

We do not always give credit to how the motorized American—commuter, tourist, truck driver—has accepted the new odology, how docile we have been in complying with the scientific definition of the highway as a managed, authoritarian system of steady, uninterrupted flow for economic benefits. (Landscape in Sight 252)

The Futurama anticipated this “new odology” through its control of its riders. Not only were the highways, rather than the spaces they connected, the organizing principle of the exhibit, but the very design of the Futurama as a “ride” forced the human body to become a passive node within an abstract network.

An early sketch of access points to General Motors’ Highways and Horizons building (shown above) conceptualizes a city connected by a smooth network of futuristic roadways, a design that would reduce the future to an elegant and abstract “traffic plan.” Just as today’s interstates uncouple us from the landscape, now rendered as a picturesque moving scene to be viewed from the interior comfort of the private automobile, the Futurama ride distanced viewers from the diorama’s landscape by enclosing them within the private space of the ride’s moving chair.

In this way, viewers of the exhibit were fully integrated into the machine. The spaces of the Futurama exhibit—the lines that stretched out at the front of the pavilion, the smooth aerial ride over highways and pasturelands, and the imaginary city at the end of the ride—controlled and directed the flow of human bodies from beginning to end. In a description of the Futurama entrance design, Geddes clarifies his intentions for the scene:

When the spectator enters any one of the three entrances provided on the North facade, he arrives inside the building on a system of descending ramps, wide enough for two people to walk side-by-side. Although his path is clearly illuminated by strips of light along the ramp parapets, this great Map Lobby is in subdued twilight. Its character is of great solemnity. Everything has been done to keep the spectator from realizing he is within a room at all. The gray blue tone of it helps this impression as does the fact that the walls widen out from him in both plan and section. They appear to be spreading away from him into space. (“Bel Geddes & Co Letterhead; no label,” Correspondence 4)

Space inside the exhibit appeared to expand and contract as visitors passed through the entrance and viewed different scenes of the diorama, which were rendered at different scales.

The designers of the exhibit had particular problems determining how to subordinate life on the ground to the smooth movement of the highway. On one hand, they didn’t want the landscape to appear depopulated. In production notes the designers remarked that, “there is nothing deader than looking at a landscape from an airplane.” On the other hand, they wanted to make sure the audience’s main attention was reserved for “the streets themselves.”

In a document recording conversations about how to animate parts of the exhibit, Geddes and colleagues discuss the challenge of representing a living, populated landscape while at the same time foregrounding the highway technologies that would transform that landscape:

Mr. Pecker now wants an idea of what else we are going to want animated—all of the things that might increase human interest and additional liveliness in the model. He said that there is nothing deader than looking at a landscape from an airplane. Nowland said that in order to give the model life it would be wise to forget naturalism and increase the speed of everything so that motion which would not, under normal circumstances, be visible, will definitely be apparent.
. . . Mr. Nowland pointed out here, however, that we do not want to distract the spectator so that he concentrates on looking at the buildings rather than the streets. Most of our spectacular animation should occur in the streets themselves. But Pecker pointed out that there definitely must be enough action outside of the streets, or it would look as if the automobiles were moving on highways running through a cemetery.

Ultimately, the diorama was not about creating a full representation of life. Rather, it was about representing life through the ceaseless movement of the automobile.

Geddes cast the driver as the weakest link in the new system, noting that “[m]an is not a machine and he cannot be geared to function automatically as part of any machine” (Magic Motorways 51). But he saw technology as a way of mitigating the human presence in the transportation system, predicting that “these cars of 1960 and the highways on which they drive will have in them devices which will correct the faults of human beings as drivers” (55). Thus Geddes’ vision of the perfect highway suggested a desire for a transportation system built for high speed and minimal delay. The superhighway became, not a collection of routes that enabled drivers to move from one place to another, but rather a timeless, networked system through which the car, with its compliant driver, could circulate endlessly.

Smooth flow. on the George Washington Memorial Parkway, along the Potomac River. “Aerial South End Highway Bridge and Interstate 395 Looking Southeast.” Photo by Jack E. Boucher/HAER. Library of Congress.

In this respect, the Futurama expressed Geddes’ belief that highways needed to be rebuilt from the ground up in order to “eliminate the human factor in driving” (Magic Motorways 41). Laying out a history of roads in Magic Motorways in 1940, he would claim that contemporary roads were not designed for cars but for human and animal travel, so that roads were laid over what were originally animal migration and travel paths. Highways, he insisted, needed to be built explicitly for cars; in fact, what were currently called “highways” were no more than upgraded animal tracks, whereas “motorways” were “a right of way explicitly designed for and adapted to the uses of motor traffic” (40). Thus, he argued,

Eliminating the human factor.: Marquam Bridge, spanning Willamette River at I-5, Portland, OR. “View of approach ramps and substructure, west of Marquam Bridge, view looking east.” HAER. Library of Congress.

The aim of highway engineers in the twentieth century should be to construct motorways instead of highways . . . [i]t means pioneering, traveling over uncharted territory instead of following in the well-worn paths which tradition has laid down. (41)

Here, as is the case elsewhere in his writing and in the Futurama ride itself, Geddes employs metaphors evoking a tangled cascade of oppositions: traditionalist and pioneer, animal and machine, past and future. The “human factor” would be replaced by the pioneering engineer and, eventually, by cars themselves, flashing through the night on neon-lit motorways.

The Network of Tomorrow

Our understanding of the landscape itself is changing as we adapt ourselves to a highway system that connects disparate spaces into new, and flexible, configurations. The Futurama foregrounded a highway system that existed in harmony with farms, cities, and industry. The highways of the 1920s and 1930s were lined with motor-hotels, billboards promoting outdoor adventure and tourism, road-side attractions, and produce stands (Gudis 49-54). Geddes’ superhighways, by contrast, were designed for drivers to “go places” without stopping, and this imperative would carry over into the planning of the Interstate Highway System in the 1950s.

Spaces defined by movement. “Imperial Valley. Interstate Highway (I-8) slices through green croplands.” 1972. Photo by Charles O’Rear/EPA. National Archives.

Impelled by transportation systems, the organization of traditionally delineated space has given way to a multiplicity of fluid spaces defined by movement. John Brinckerhoff Jackson, in his study of vernacular landscapes, observes that

. . . much of our contemporary American landscape can no longer be seen as a composition of well-defined individual spaces—farms, counties, states, territories, and ecological regions—but as the zones of influence and control of roads, streets, highways: arteries which dominate and nourish and hold a landscape together and provide it with instant accessibility. (A Sense of Place, a Sense of Time viii)

Roads and highways, in other words, connect spaces together in multiple ways, and provide easy access to those spaces. At the same time, however, space ceases to be meaningful when highways blur the boundary between city and country, allowing commuters to live in the country and work in the city, or New Yorkers to eat California lettuce and Florida oranges brought to their doorstep by a national and even transnational supply chain of livestock and refrigerated goods transported from farm to warehouse to suburban kitchen (Warner 117, 119).

According to notes found among Geddes’ papers, his plan for the Futurama included a narrative trajectory to introduce visitors to the superhighway in terms they could understand: transporting farm goods to the city. In a memo, Geddes describes the scheme:

B - Where we attract the spectator’s attention to a particular farmhouse where a truck is coming out of the barnyard loaded with milk cans . . . Spectator follows this truck on various roads until it finally turns on to this super-highway system. It’s an illustration showing how the vehicle goes from the every-day road to the super-highway system which is independent of the every-day road. (Description of Traffic Models)

In another description of the Futurama’s scheme to model the connection of farms to urban markets, Geddes characterizes the new system as capable of remaking space through elaborate transportation networks:

The exhibit will show

1. that with the great ease with which people will be able to get from place to place, the population of the congested centers will gradually be shifted.

2. that the farm and city will be brought closer together which will provide mutual advantage for the populations of both of these areas. The markets of the world will be brought closer to the farmer and the farm areas closer to the manufacturer. (Traffic Control Exhibit) 3

Side entrance to the General Motors exhibit, featuring a diesel train. P. Medicus, New York World’s Fair. 1939. Amateur Film. Prelinger Archives.

In To New Horizons, the Futurama narrative took full advantage of this idea of collapsing geographical distances, representing space as that which must be conquered through technology:

Without tedious travel, the advantages of living in a small town are within easy reach, bringing the people who live there into closer relations with the world around. Over space, man has begun to win victory. Space for living, space for working, space for play: all available for more people than ever before.

The film’s slow, caressing pans of various features of the countryside—an amusement park, a farm, a steel factory, worker housing—were meant to suggest that highways would allow a new understanding of proximity: citizens would be able to live in the countryside, work in a planned industrial space, and travel to leisure areas, all within easy reach by motorcar.

Leisure, convenience, and comfort. To New Horizons. 1940. Handy (Jam) Organization for General Motors. Prelinger Archives.

Lost in the Network

At the same time as roads and highways conquer distance and time, though, they also limit and control access to local spaces. Privileging highway construction in city planning, for example, means that fewer resources are available for other forms of transportation like light rail or bicycle lanes. The Futurama paid lip service to alternative modes of transportation—the airport, for example, provided a hub for rail, car, and airplane—but it was clear that the dominant organizing force of this particular space was the highway.

Geddes was already clear by the time he came to plan the Futurama that the future of transportation would mean the erasure of rail in favor of motorcars. Among his notes for Magic Motorways are the minutes of a 1938 meeting on the subject of highway planning:

Transportation Highways As Developed by the Railways.

Under this heading, make a comparison between railway highways and motor car highways, showing how railways have the proper curves for speed and economy.

Air photographs of railroads across the big deserts in Mexico. It takes twice as long to go by train as motor, because the motor roads are built straight whereas the railways wander around.

Show what automobiles can do that railways never can do. The facility with which a farmer can load his produce on trucks and reach his market quickly as compared with railroad transportation where he has to load it first on trucks to reach a railroad station and then it takes two or three weeks for delivery. What a well organized highway system can contribute in the way of speed and economy. (“Minutes of meeting June 17 1938.”)

Thus in the exhibit the highway was the primary connector for other transportation modalities like rivers, airports, and trains, but these were merely subordinate “spaces” situated to be easily accessible from the highway. While the full Highways and Horizons GM exhibition building included an entrance with a streamlined diesel train engine, it was clear from the Futurama ride and the rest of the pavilion that rail was already on its way out.

The domination of the landscape by the highway in the Futurama reflected a desire, compelling at the time, for a top-down reconfiguration of messy, local American spaces into a national, centralized machine—a comprehensive technological network laid across the landscape. Geddes himself was already thinking about how to implement a nationwide highway system in 1938, as he began preparing Magic Motorways. In the book, Geddes notes that the key problem was not physical, but bureaucratic: there existed no single planning authority that could override various regional officials responsible for local highway planning and engineering. Discussing the recommendation to establish a program called “Traffic Research, Inc.,” Geddes had proposed:

This work will be a flexible program geared to ten or twelve years in the future, making a definite series of recommendations which will result in a plan to provide the maximum comfort, maximum safety and maximum speed over a highway system whose ultimate purpose is to relieve the ever-increasing congestion around the city highways. (“Minutes of meeting. June 17 1938”)

Referring to the successful setup of regional authorities around New York under the authority of Robert Moses, Geddes noted that several agencies governed roadway building in one way or another, but complained that, “[w]ith this dissipation of authority and dissipation of program, there is no means of establishing a regional planning board as in New York . . . There is no bridge authority for roads.” With regards to his client, General Motors, Geddes also noted:

In setting up such a bureau, the General Motors will achieve its object in the way of advertising, publicity, etc . . . [I]f I succeed in getting an appropriation to build a 25-mile strip of this roadway, General Motors can go right on and “skim the cream” off the whole thing. (“Minutes of meeting. June 17 1938”)

But such a centralized approach, which was eventually implemented at a national level with the 1950s Eisenhower Interstate System, would override the needs of the very people it was designed to accommodate. The corporate and bureaucratic infrastructure that sprang up around the building and maintenance of the highway system could best be described as what Lewis Mumford called a “megamachine,” a centralized, bureaucratic mechanism that enforced a hierarchical and powerful control over people, demanding that they follow its rules.

The megamachine in action. Carquinez Bridge at I-80, Solano County, CA. Photo by William Hall/HAER. Library of Congress.

Echoing Mumford’s formulation of the “monotechnic,” urban planner Keller Easterling suggests that transportation architecture encourages a “single entity” model and does not account for local needs. Rather, the highway system is imagined as a totality, not as one part of a conglomeration:

The traffic-engineered interstate highway . . . was designed as an inflexible and totalizing system segregated from interaction with other transportation modalities and valued as a smooth system of neutralized equivalence. (3)

Highway planning has thus been abstracted, virtualized, and decontextualized, choosing the needs of some (manufacturers, contractors, truckers) over the needs of others (commuters, lower-class citizens, minorities) who have been subdued and disenfranchised by the monotechnic force of the Interstate Highway System.

The new replaces the old. “Division of Highways drawings of proposed Carquinez bridge.” 1955. Photo by William Hall/HAER. Library of Congress.

Easterling argues that if we ever want to gain back power from a centralized highway designed, she writes, as “a frozen shape—a dumb network with dumb switches” (77), the urban landscape must be re-planned as a flexible network organized to respond to the needs of its inhabitants rather than as an entity that dictates and controls the actions of its citizens. The interstate highway, as a “smooth” and “inflexible” system, reflects a power struggle not only between single-use and multi-use environments, but also between centralized and decentralized control. John Brinckerhoff Jackson’s description of roadways as divided between “centripetal” and “centrifugal,” between local and contingent on one hand and national and monolithic on the other, helps clarify what is at stake in monotechnic roadway planning. Centrifugal roads, “meant primarily for the exercise of sovereign authority and to maintain order” (Discovering the Vernacular Landscape 23) appropriate or replace local roads as they remap the continent into a single networked entity.

Today, the enduringly popular old Route 66, with its nostalgic stories and priceless scenes of Americana, offers an interesting spin on this tension between centrifugal and centripetal. Once itself a national road, Route 66 devolved into a centripetal road with the sections that still exist exhibiting characteristics of what Jackson would call uniquely “vernacular”: a local, meandering pathway with a “mom and pop” quaintness. Against Route 66, the centrifugal superhighway embodies a sense of anonymity and emptiness. It is literally a kind of “inter-state” designed to homogenize the driving experience through cookie-cutter gas stations, fast food franchises, and ubiquitous signage. Indeed, despite a few local variations in roading materials and driving conditions, the implicit goal of the superhighway is to be the same everywhere, and thus utterly predictable. The Interstate, in effect, has become its own “place.” Reminiscent of William Gibson’s “distanceless home,” it is ultimately meant to be empty, so that the clean flow of traffic can move unimpeded by messy human activities.

Early on, centralized plans for the Interstate Highway System were not prepared to deal with the increasing availability, fuel efficiency, and affordability of the automobile. In fact, as a 1939 study from the Bureau of Public Roads suggested, the adoption of the car as the primary mode of transportation far exceeded early engineers’ expectations. Since these early days, the Interstate Highway System has become a more complex creature, perpetuating the creation of sprawling suburbs and distributed urban centers or what Joel Garreau calls “edge cities,” conspicuous for their predictable architecture, brand name box stores, maze-like parking lots, and the absence of real residents (since no one actually lives in an edge city). Corresponding to these newly imagined spaces was the need for smart interchanges, overpasses, and an ever-increasing demand for more parking.

Garden city or edge city? Lewis Mumford’s celebration of an ideal suburb (Greenbelt, MD). Over time, this kind of suburb would be subsumed into a larger network of commuter roads and shopping malls. The City. 1939. American Documentary Films, Inc. for American Institute of Planners. Prelinger Archives.

Over time, the reconfiguration of the landscape by the automobile has created a whole new network of dynamic spaces that did not appear in the simpler, more delineated “countryside/village/industry/city” model espoused by early visionaries. Yet the modern, distributed landscape of suburbia that we see every day, with its outlet malls, bedroom communities, and commuter lanes, owes its existence to the impulse represented by Geddes’ fantastic diorama: a network of machines that controls people and conquers space.

Notes from the Polyrhetor:

Vernacular landscapes

A vernacular landscape (also called an historic vernacular landscape) is a geographic area that has been shaped by the material and cultural practices of everyday human activities. One example would be a river valley reshaped by long-term agricultural practices, though the term might also describe an historic region that reflects, in its biological, geological, or physical attributes, a local community’s cultural character.

Further Reading

Jackson, John Brinckerhoff. Discovering the Vernacular Landscape. 1984. New Haven: Yale UP, 1986.

Notes from the Polyrhetor:

Edge city

 In his book of the same name, Washington Post reporter Joel Garreau coins the term “edge city” to describe the cropping up, in the late twentieth century, of suburban business and shopping districts, usually near existing or planned highways or air- ports and surrounded by housing developments. Occupying a massive geographical footprint and built to accommodate automobiles rather than people, edge cities tend to operate as “secondary downtowns” in terms of job density, but rarely does anyone actually live in them.

Further Reading

Garreau, Joel. Edge City: Life on the New Frontier. New York: Random House, 1991.

Notes from the Polyrhetor:

Distanceless home

The term “distanceless home” comes from William Gibson’s 1984 cyberpunk novel, Neuromancer: “And flowed, flowered before him, fluid neon trick, the unfolding of his distanceless home, his country, transparent 3D chessboard extending to infinity” (52). The phrase describes Case’s experience of jacking into cyberspace, his virtual “home.” However, the novel also makes clear that the time- and space-distorting effects of “the information superhighway” can be seen as an extension of geographical “sprawl” brought about by unchecked urban and economic expansion. In fact, “the Sprawl” is the vernacular name in the novel for the monolithic “Boston-Atlanta Metropolitan Axis” (BAMA) that serves as the novel’s setting.

Further Reading

Gibson, William. Neuromancer. New York: Penguin, 1984.

Notes from the Polyrhetor:

Route 66

Known colloquially as “Main Street of America” and the “Mother Road,” Route 66 extended across the United States from Chicago all the way to Southern California. From the time that it was established as an official highway in 1926, Route 66 served as the major path for travelers heading west, and came to be known, long before it was decommissioned in 1985, for its roadside oddities, including quaint shops, gas stations, drive-ins, themed motels, and other flavorful attractions.

Since its removal from the U.S. Highway system, parts of the historic highway have been absorbed into interstate highways, while other parts have been repurposed as business loops through downtowns or as scenic byways. A number of associations have grown up to save the character of the original road, and several segments have been granted protected status in the national register of historic places. Route 66 continues to exert its influence on American popular culture.

Image Credit

“Abandoned Cars, Route 66, Arizona.” 2006. Photograph by Carol Highsmith. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, repr. LC-DIG-highsm-04078.

Notes from the Polyrhetor:


Monotechnic is a concept developed by historian Lewis Mumford in his 1934 book, Technics and Civilization. As opposed to “polytechnic,” which refers to the complex engagement of multiple and varied technologies in the service of solving the moral and material problems of humankind, “monotechnic” describes technology for its own sake. Whereas in a polytechnic approach humans use technology to advance civilization, in a monotechnic system technology takes on an agency of its own, and becomes a monomodal “megamachine” that oppresses humankind as part of its deterministic trajectory. For Mumford, the modern, automotive transportation network, which forced humans to become dependent on cars at the expense of other transportation options like cycling or walking, represented one such monotechnic approach.

Further Reading

Mumford, Lewis. Technics and Civilization. New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Company, 1934.

Notes from the Polyrhetor:


In Lewis Mumford’s influential critique of the “myth of the machine,” he uses the term “megamachine” to describe the negative consequences of living within the monstrous and hierarchical regime of modern technology. Mumford’s megamachine depicts a system in which technology, which exists for its own sake, uses humans as its components (this he calls “monotechnic”) rather than humans utilizing technologies to solve the problems confronting mankind (what he calls “polytechnic”). Philosopher of technology Carl Mitcham writes of Mumford’s critique, “[t]he megamachine often brings with it striking material benefits, but at the expense of a dehumanizing limitation of human endeavors and aspirations” (44). The material advantages of the megamachine consequently overshadow, at least initially, its negative consequences, producing the “myth of the machine,” the notion that megatechnics are “both irresistible and ultimately beneficent” (Mitcham 44).

Further Reading

Mitcham, Carl. Thinking through Technology: The Path Between Engineering and Philosophy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.

Mumford, Lewis. Technics and Human Development: The Myth of the Machine, Volume 1. New York: Harcourt, Brace, and World, 1967.

Notes from the Polyrhetor:


Billboards or “billing posters” have been around much longer than the car, but with the increasing availability and popularity of automobiles in the United States in the early twentieth century, roads and highways became prime locations for advertisers and entrepreneurs to market products and services through this medium. Whereas Americans traveling by rail in the previous century were limited in terms of when and where they could stop, the individual motorist had the freedom to stop anywhere along the road, and thus became a prime target for billboard advertisements. In the decades after World War I and prior to the construction of the Interstate Highway System, outdoor advertisers aimed primarily at selling the outdoors itself, promoting regional tourism and pastoral idylls. “Tourism itself,” writes Catherine Gudis, “was a means by which drivers could be made into consumers and the landscape into consumable merchandise” (54).

By the late 1930s, the time of the Futurama, a new vision of American auto-mobility had emerged, a vision that did not encourage drivers to stop along the road side to imbibe in regional quaintness, but rather encouraged them to keep moving. Miller McClintock, America’s first “traffic engineer,” urged road planners to maximize movement by creating “frictionless traffic.” The limited access superhighway, with its emphasis on speed and the smooth, ceaseless flow of cars, would become the ideal (Gudis 118). As a result, many regional tourist locations languished, bypassed by the interstate highways that favored the rapid on-and-off of rest stops, drive-thru restaurants, gas stations, and chain hotels. Billboards along the highways, now dominated by fast food franchises and other big corporate advertisers, would begin to reflect this change as well.

Further Reading

Gudis, Catherine. Buyways: Billboards, Automobiles, and the American Landscape. New York: Routledge, 2004.

Image Credit

“Visual Pollution along Interstate 24.” 1972. Photo by William Strode/EPA. National Archives.

Notes from the Polyrhetor:

New odology

In Discovering the Vernacular Landscape, John Brinckerhoff Jackson coins the term “odology” to refer to the study of the cultural, political, and material impacts of roads and motorways. Jackson makes a distinction between “small, isolated and centripetal” highways and “the impressive, widespread, permanent centrifugal” highways (22). The “centrifugal” highway system is characterized by “first, a vastness of scale, second, a disregard of local landscape features, topographical as well as man-made, and last, a persistent emphasis on military and commercial functions” (23).

Further Reading

Jackson, John Brinckerhoff. Discovering the Vernacular Landscape. 1984. New Haven: Yale UP, 1986.

Notes from the Polyrhetor:

Winged Victory of Samothrace

The “Winged Victory of Samothrace” is a marble sculpture depicting the goddess Nike. Standing around eleven feet high, the marble form was originally found on the island of Samothrace and is thought to have been carved around 190 BC. It can now be viewed at the Musée du Louvre in Paris.

Image Credit

“Winged Nike of Samothrace. Parian marble, ca. 190 BC? Found in Samothrace in 1863.” 2007. Photograph by Marie-Lan Nguyen. Wikimedia Commons.

Notes from the Polyrhetor:


Futurism was both a controversial avant-garde art movement and a social movement of the early twentieth century that was characterized, according to Umbro Apollonio, as a contradictory blend of “naïve visionary enthusiasm” and a “violent expression of feeling” (9). Futurists, mostly artists and writers from Milan, Italy, paradoxically revived and repurposed images and themes of a past they rejected in order to encourage a “genuine modernity” that was, on one hand, progressive and on the other hand, “arrogantly imperialist and autocratic” (Apollonio 8).

Key figures of Futurism included F.T. Marinetti, the author of “The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism,” and artist Umberto Boccioni. Futurist art is notable for its blend of Cubist aesthetics with images of animals and machines in perpetual motion in order to portray the modern world as both dynamic and frenetic.

Further Reading

Apollonio, Umbro. “Introduction.” Futurist Manifestos. Ed. Umbro Apollonio. Boston: Museum of Fine Arts Publications, 2001. 7-16.

Image Credit

“Movement of a Man on a Staircase.” 1919. Kazimir Malevich.  Lithography on Paper. Wikimedia Commons.

Notes from the Polyrhetor:

Founding and Manifesto of Futurism

F.T. Marinetti’s “The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism,” also known as “The Futurist Manifesto,” was published on the front page of the French newspaper Le Figaro in 1909. In the manifesto Marinetti rejects “[m]ythology and the Mystic Ideal” of the past (20), symbolized by the “old canal muttering its feeble prayers and the creaking bones of sickly palaces” (19). Instead, he embraces and exalts the noise, aggression, and predator-like violence of the modern, mechanical epoch, signified by the “red-hot bellies of locomotives” (19) and the “famished roar of automobiles” (20).

In a declaration of Futurist “intentions,” Marinetti celebrates the “love of danger, the habit of energy, and fearlessness” that attend the mechanical speed-up of modern life. “Time and Space,” he writes, “died yesterday. We already live in the absolute, because we have created eternal, omnipresent speed” (21-22). His manifesto is also marked by a defiant and youthful patriotism, and a glorification of war as “the world’s only hygiene” (22). It is ironic, then, that the speed, violence, and aggression of Fascism during World War II would bring about the end of the Futurist movement.

Further Reading

Marinetti, F.T. “The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism.” 1909. Futurist Manifestos. Ed. Umbro Apollonio. Boston: Museum of Fine Arts Publications, 2001. 19-23.

Image Credit

“Aldo Palazzeschi, Carlo Carrà, Giovanni Papini, Umberto Boccioni, and Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, 1914.” 1914. Photographer unknown. Wikimedia Commons

Notes from the Polyrhetor:

F. T. Marinetti

Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, Italian poet, editor, and one of the founders of futurism, was born in 1876. The publication of his “The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism” in 1909 sparked debates across Europe for its appeals to violence, anarchy, and, circumspectly, to fascism. Marinetti became associated with Italian Fascism under the leadership of Benito Mussolini. However, he would later disagree with the party and speak out against anti-Semitism.

Though futurist art was initially well regarded under Fascist rule, as the regime became more conservative in the 1930s, modern art and futurism were condemned as “degenerate arts.” As a result, Marinetti withdrew in protest. He died in 1944.

Image Credit

“Italian poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti.” 1914. Photograph by Emilio Sommariva. Wikimedia Commons.