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Sidney Edelstein Prize, Recipient 2021

Recipient 2021:

Gijs Mom (Eindhoven University of Technology); Globalizing Automobilism: Exuberance and the Emergence of Layered Mobility, 1900-1980 (New York: Berghahn Books, 2020)

Globalizing Automobilism is the kind of ambitious work that seeks to fundamentally alter our understanding of a historical phenomenon. In setting out to decenter automobile culture from the grip of its strictly West-centered narrative, Gijs Mom introduces the notion of “layered mobilities,” suggesting that the expansion of automobilism globally in the twentieth century folded into hybrid forms of mobility that incorporated both the old and the new and sometimes the entirely unexpected. It invites us to rethink the long history of the automobile as not one in which the world converged upon an inevitable end point, but rather one that is a deeply contested and contingent history with unexpected detours across time and space.

In the introduction, Mom lays out a formidable set of goals for the book, to decenter the history of the practices, cultures, and networks produced by the proliferation of automobiles in the twentieth century at a global scale, but to do so with a deep sensitivity to an array of theoretical frameworks and empirical case studies. Conceptually the book is framed around a series of ideas, such as automotive perception, subaltern mobilities, consumption, and commodification which are themselves grounded in broader historical processes such as decolonization, industrialization, and the rise of an international order in the latter half of the century.

The main narrative of the book is organized around three lengthy chapters, each focusing on a different time and space, and each overturning the received history of mobility as manifested in cars, rickshaws, electric trams, horses, buses, and other forms of transportation. In focusing on the pre-World War II years, the first chapter traverses over a vast and heterogenous range of sources such as travel writing, government reports, films, and economic data. We learn here about the emergence of new mobilities in places such as Singapore, Japan, China, Hong Kong, Vietnam, colonial India, Benin, Uganda, Tanzania, Ghana, Mozambique, Argentina, Chile, Brazil, and Mexico. Mom finds that regular people in their everyday lives committed to a kind of “layeredness” of multiple mobilities, often using, disusing, and reusing old and new forms of transport in consonance with each other—what Mom calls “synchronicity” of mobility.

In the second chapter, Mom moves his focus of enquiry to the post-World War II period, exploring the ways in which automobility begins to fragment into multiple and often countervailing trends, especially in the West. Covering a period of roughly three decades, the focus here is primarily on North America and Western Europe, and on expressions of automobile exuberance in cultural registers, including in postwar American literature, science fiction, the culture of the Beats, folk music, rock’n’roll, and cinema. Here, he explores the ways in which the modern automobile’s status as a mode of transport must be understood as part of a larger ‘attack’ on public transportation (especially in the U.S.), and the ways in which a generic middle-class stance on automobility was an elusive goal.

The final chapter once again takes us across the globe. In seeking to reconstruct the “transnational construction of a world mobility system,” Mom suggests that, especially beyond the West, the car “formed … a part of a much broader ‘mobility network’ on which people walked, cycled, drove trucks, and buses, and used animal- and human-powered carts, barrows, and rickshaws.” He suggests that the exuberance that is normally associated with American and European culture in the postwar era represented a minority in the world of cultural responses to the automobile. In attempting to (re)write the history of automobile culture “from below,” Mom creatively uses a diverse array of sources and moves the story across Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Soviet Union from the 1950s to the 1970s.

As a whole, this book dispels some seductive myths about the use and proliferation of the automobile in the twentieth century that continue to persist both within and beyond scholarly communities. In connecting the vicissitudes of automobile culture on a global scale, where ideas and modes were constantly in motion and multiple meanings and mobilities were simultaneously at play, the book offers an innovative intervention into several different literatures, including the history of technology, mobility studies, and global history. Beyond incorporating a vast amount of empirical evidence, its innovative use of sources, from official government reports to the writings of radical writers in the late 20th century, make this an indispensable book for historians of technology.