Must trains arrive on time? Thought-provoking perspectives from modern continental philosophy

The Train As Techno-totalitarianism

The very idea that the train needs to reach its destination on-time isa metonymy of the dominant technocratic paradigm which reduces the natural fluidity of time to the on-going linear movement of trains that proceed inexorably towards their final destinations. The idea that time is purely objective and quantifiable is a reification of the dominance of an increasingly bureaucratic and standardized system of temporal measurement which is imposed on an essentialist conception of time. The train driver’s control over the train is an example of how post-industrial society reduces human control to the point where people are merely allowed to interact with a pre-determined system.

This is evidenced in the train timetable, which rigidly controls the arrival and departure times of trains to the point where any deviation from said schedule is unthinkable. This is related to the death-drive of the Freudian unconscious,which is an irrepressible and inarticulate force that pushes us to transgress these boundaries. This is, in part, manifested in the train driver’s refusal to stop at a red signal. The railroad company’s insistence on punctuality is an attempt to impose a totalitarian system of control over the train driver.

This is related to the Foucauldian Panopticon, an abstract and invisible force that invades the train driver’s hard-won autonomy over his own body.This is similar to the Derridean concept of “citationality”, which refers to the way language fails to refer to any solid core of significance but is merely a series of differences that produce meaning without ever being able to grasp it.

Likewise, this is connected to the Hegelian master-slave dialectic where the struggle for control over a train in this case can be seen as an attempt to bring some order and predictability to time. This is related to the more general Deleuzo-Guattarian concept of desiring-machines, which has many similarities to the train driver’s desire to reach his destination on time.

The Impossibility Of Temporal Coherence In Transport Networks From A Narrative Perspective

The ultimate goal of any train service is to transport people from one place to another in a timely, efficient, and cost-effective manner. While the raison d’être of the train is indeed to reach its destination on time, the diegesis of the train journey is the narrative that each passenger creates in their own mind — this concept is known as autobiographical mythology. Each passenger will experience a different story based upon their own subjectivities. These differences in perception result in the passengers all reaching their respective destinations at different times; it is impossible for all passengers to reach their destination at the same time. In this way, autobiographical mythology critiques traditional concepts of time and narrative. This train of thought is related to Jean Baudrillard’s concept of hyperreality, in that there is no real destination, merely an endless series of signifiers which resemble a goal but are in fact nothing of the sort. This relates to the Baudrillardian verse, in which simulations take precedence over the signified, the map precedes the territory, and the model is more important that that which is modelled. The train’s need to arrive on time is ultimately a futile endeavour, as the temporal goals of the train ride are unattainable due to the unpredictability of human subjectivities.

Is A Train A Train When It Does Not Arrive On Time?

Trains run on time. This aims to produce a reality effect: the train as an entity is constructed by the social obligation for it to arrive “on time”, or rather, at the designated time. This purposeful arrival is the result of its temporal coherence with the designated time: it is a train because it arrives on time,and it arrives on time because it is a train. But what if the train does not arrive at the designated time? The reality effect, or the consensus that the train is a train because it arrives on time, is disrupted. The arrival of the train on a different temporal axis creates a schism in reality: people do not recognize it as a train due to its different arrival time. Part of the reality effect is then lost — the reality effect was created artificially, by the standardized arrival time. Now, there are two trains: the “on-time” train that arrives at the designated time, and the “late” train that arrives at a later time. Are the two trains part of the same entity? The consensus does not exist: we do not know if these are two trains, or one train that arrives on two different temporal axes. In this ontological uncertainty, we cannot reach any definitive conclusion about whether or not the two trains are related.

The Train As Superego

We can imagine the mindset of the train operators and planners by first taking a look at Sigmund Freud’s model of the psyche, specifically the super-ego. The cold, mechanical efficiency of trains obviously springs from an overdeveloped sense of rules and order, which fits with the logic of an overbearing parent figure (ie: father) in charge of one’s actions; however, this idea is thrown into question by recent discoveries about the nature of reality. The Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum physics states that the observer affects the reality of a system, which would invalidate the theory of the overbearing parent, while recent discoveries in Buddhist philosophy prove that the nature of reality is fundamentally illogical. In addition, self-organising systems such as ant colonies or the human brain which operate in chemical intensities rather than the electronic binaries of logic-gates, refute the notion that logic is a foundational cornerstone of all decision-making.

The idea that the universe exists only as a collection of possibilities until observed by a conscious being is at the heart of the Buddhist perspective, and is nowhere more clearly represented than in the ideas of impermanence and interdependence. But this is not a uniquely Buddhistic idea — indeed, the modern concept of quantum mechanics, with its emphasis on probabilistic events and parallel universes, bears more resemblance to Buddhist metaphysics than Newtonian physics does. This is not a system in which trains can be considered to have rule-driven, predictable paths. Lines drawn on maps are useful fictions that allow us to frame our understanding of an infinitely complex reality:but the moment we step onto the railway, we enter a world that is without meaning except the meanings we ascribe toit. To claim that a train’s final destination can be predicted is to assume that its route is pre-determined, but if reality exists in potentiality until it is measured, where is the precise moment when the driver decides to take a different turn? Does he wait until the last possible moment before weighing up his options? Does he consider that there is an infinity of possibilities, all of which are equally likely, and pick one at random?

The Train As A Cybernetic Metaphor

We begin by considering the train as a metaphor for any manifested idea — be it artistic, ideological, or morphological. As such, the train is held on a perilous course between two stations: genesis and closure. These stations are signified by the ideological mapping of two tuples: stored information and perceived information. The former refers to the orientation-molecules that determine the train’s capacity formotion. The latter refers to the stations which it is scheduled to visit.We may consider a manifested idea, then, through the framework of this dualistic cartography.

That is to say, the concept of what a train is (its genesis), and what a train does (is perceived).The former of these is determined by the object’s morphological(shape), and technological (function) properties. The latter, by its use in the context of a system. In Cybernetics and Flamenco, Brodie describes this system as that which”describes a world of inherent instability where anything is capable of transforming into anything else.”

The first tuple, stored information, consists of that information available in normative memory; the second, perceived information, consists of the limits of consciousness. Together these two stations form a Cartesian coordinate system in which the manifested idea-train is apprehended. Since the train is a metaphor for any manifested idea, we are able to apply this model to include a wide range of phenomena: from works of art to ideologies and all manner of phenomena in between.

The train’s stored information is recorded and inscribed on its orientational maps. The train’s perceived information is the ideological sorting and categorizing that it receives through its scheduled visits to stations — what may be termed its cultural reception.Through this model, we can see that there are two possibilities which determine the manifestation of a train asa work: it may either become over-scheduled, or under-scheduled.The over-scheduled train is one which is visited by too many stations. It becomes an object of immense and disorienting exposure, its messaging so complex that it becomes improper to say that the train itself ever had a single author, but instead was the product of an entire ideological transportation network.The under-scheduled train is one which is not visited by enough stations. It remains obscure, unknown, unpublished. This condition is perhaps even worse than that of the over-scheduled train, as there it at least has the comfort of being exposed on a broad scale. The under-scheduled train exists in a void,never reaching its audience, and thus unable to ever truly exist as a completed idea.

A Taoist perspective

Daoism and the philosophy of non-action can be seen to be inextricably bound together in their mutual emphasis on inaction. The anticipation of the future trajectory of a train is an example which can be seen to perfectly illustrate both these concepts.By allowing the passengers to go about their own free will, one plays an active role in the unfolding of events, and the train arrives at its destination.By deputing a driver to direct the train,one creates an environment of passivity,whereby the passengers can do nothing but await their destination. By applying the concept of non-action to the scenario in which the train is driven towards its destination, we arrive at a moral exemplar of Daoist principles.

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