The elusive clean machine: rational order and play in a public railway

Michaela Skye Evans

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

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[Truncated abstract] Rational order and play are often conceptualised as oppositional forces. In modern urban life especially, rational order is presented as destructive of a playful orientation towards life eschewing mystery through coherence, spontaneity through predictability, and contingency through systematic planning. In turn, the postmodern debate often asserts the reinvigoration of free, playful, and contingent individuals whose collective acts are destructive of the rationality of modern order with the present, in contrast to the past, offering a condition of enduring and unremitting uncertainty. This thesis explores the dynamic relation between rational order and play in urban society through an ethnographic account of a public commuter railway in Perth, Western Australia. Notwithstanding this ethnographic setting, the thesis addresses questions of broader significance through an analysis of the railway as an instance of public space and state techno-bureaucratic order. I investigate the creative process through which the state attempts to standardise the various operational components of the railway as well as the reasons underpinning the state's desire to produce what I term a 'clean machine'. In turn, I investigate how differentially positioned actors live within this carefully crafted machine. I do so by following the stories, experiences, and practices of: government administrators charged with building the railway; the managers who oversee the network's operation; the staff members who operate trains, clean stations, and discipline passengers; and the railway's end-users, including passengers and graffiti artists. ... In examining the two tensions of rational order/play and revelation/ concealment, I attempt to explicate how it is that people experience life as simultaneously coherent and serendipitous. In the thesis, I document the ways in which railway officials, passengers, and graffiti artists express a pervasive ambivalence towards their experience of the railway system. On the one hand, these actors experience the railway as a system of constraint that produces 'robotic' behaviours and automated transactions. On the other, they see the railway as a liberating space that enables autonomous expression and spontaneous interaction. By examining these contending experiences and associated sentiments, I highlight the railway as a stimulating site within which to explore the meaning and significance of urban modernity. Lastly, this thesis contributes to debate on the challenges posed by the character of contemporary social processes to anthropological research methodology. I illustrate the utility of such methods as written and photographic diaries as well as mental-mapping exercises, but primarily advocate the documentary and analytical advantages of participant observation in a mobile field-site. I assert that while participant observation poses a number of personal and professional challenges in this setting, these challenges uncover the stimulating complexity of contemporary urban life. To this end, I contest emergent academic commentary that propounds the destabilisation of anthropological techniques in what is frequently described as an equally destabilised world.
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Publication statusUnpublished - 2009

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