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Western ritual: passion and ecstasy of an American train driver - click opera
February 2010
 
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Sun, Oct. 5th, 2008 12:02 pm
Western ritual: passion and ecstasy of an American train driver

Dramatic and interesting things -- things that only I can see, via the "View Recent Comments" button -- sometimes happen at the end of old Click Opera threads, often when people arrive here by googling. A case in point is the dialogue that's been happening this week at the end of Superlegitimacy: passion and ecstasy of a Tokyo train driver.



Superlegitimacy is one of Click Opera's more significant posts, one I've rewritten and published. It appeared in a catalogue about the artist Matt Stokes and will pop up in The Book of Scotlands, transmuted for comic effect to a Scottish setting: "Yesterday I took one of Edinburgh's beautiful new trams, from Pilton to Restalrig. I was standing in the first car, right behind the driver."



Shortly after I rewrote the Superlegitimacy piece with a Scottish setting, an American train driver calling himself "Delta" started adding comments to the original thread.

"While I understand -- at least superficially -- the notion of superlegitimacy in Japanese living culture, in sharp contrast to western individualism mistaken as legitimacy, I have to wonder whether the train driver's actions really betray superlegitimacy," he wrote.

"I am a train driver myself, in the US (train engineer is the term we use here) and I see the difference daily: train drivers is what we do for a living, not who we are, and we would rather be scientists, movie stars or politicians to earn legitimacy. I personally disagree with this notion and tend to see my profession as a deeper calling, which, in a sense, guarantees its legitimacy for me.



"I have no doubt that the Japanese train driver in the video wears his uniform on off days and may even be addressed as Mr. Train Driver by his wife -- this is who he is and without his role, Japan could not survive.

"Still, his actions betray something quite different: ritual habits. In our profession, many actions must be ritualistic, even in western societies. The complexity of the job requires that the driver practice good habits -- really, rituals -- or run the danger of forgetting something critical. The job requires persistent focus, continual analysis of conditions ahead and constant multitasking. In an environment such as this, practicing rituals helps simplify what is already too complicated.

"This may indeed be little more than "mirror, signal, manoeuvre."

"Still, fascinating for western eyes to see. Do you have a longer video of that fellow you could post?



I responded enthusiastically: "Wow, great to hear from a real train driver on this thread! And I take your point about ritual existing even in the West, and being a necessary part of the job. The film I posted is all the video I have, alas, but there may be other video of Japanese train drivers on YouTube."

"Very good point," said Delta, and then went off and found the videos I've embedded on this page, "in which it is explained why these engineers make certain pointing motions".



After watching these videos, Delta noted one where drivers (or possibly conductors) are changing shifts. "They seem to compare watches (having standard time on railroads is critical), exchange words and salute. Another ritual."



Ritual becomes Delta's explanation for the strange movements I'd noticed in my Tokyo train driver: "Looking at the last engineer, it seems to me that what he is doing is "going through the motions." Before taking any action, such as throttle out, he checks conditions outside (e.g., the signal governing his movement), and inside his cab (indicators, doors-closed lights, etc.). ALL engineers must go through these checks before moving. It seems that Japanese engineers are required to actually point physically to items being checked. This will reinforce completeness for the checklist and assure that no brain lapses happen."

Delta concludes: "Ours is an extremely high responsibility. I like the Japanese approach.

"Again, however, this does not mean that your original point is invalid."

24CommentReplyShare

skazat
skazat
Alex à Paris
Sun, Oct. 5th, 2008 10:31 am (UTC)

While in Basel, my friend pointed out that the railway conductors from the local routes are in sort of a secret club, or part of their union - or something similar, but not quite that.

If a train driver goes on holiday, say to Amsterdam, they can meet up with their Amsterdam tran driver Brothers and well,


drive the Amsterdam trains!


Quite the honor, I'd say.


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slime_slime_sly
slime_slime_sly
slime_slime_sly
Sun, Oct. 5th, 2008 10:45 pm (UTC)

is that true?Thats pretty cool!


ReplyThread Parent
ofenheizung
ofenheizung
Sun, Oct. 5th, 2008 11:00 am (UTC)

Britain had an incredible railway culture until the 1990s. My father worked for the railway and that meant that the whole family was involved. I learned to play music in the railway brass band, played badminton in the railway badminton club. There was a very clear sense that it wasn't about the money. It was a kind of solidarity, culture of service to the state and communal thinking that is impossible to imagine in Britain now. More's the pity.
Dr. O.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Sun, Oct. 5th, 2008 11:44 am (UTC)

My grandfather on my father's side worked all his life as a clerk with the railways. He had free travel all over the UK, but he hardly used it, except for trips to Helmsdale to do lay preaching (he was deeply religious).


ReplyThread Parent

bugpowered
bugpowered
Sun, Oct. 5th, 2008 02:08 pm (UTC)

There's even a young female commuter

And a sexy one at that...


ReplyThread Parent

imomus
imomus
imomus
Sun, Oct. 5th, 2008 03:16 pm (UTC)

Japanese trains are very sexy, it's undeniable. It's actually a great advert for trains being more appealing than cars. If only we could somehow achieve the same results in the West! Only the Paris metro really comes close, though. And possibly the L train between Manhattan and Brooklyn.


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(Anonymous)
Sun, Oct. 5th, 2008 03:26 pm (UTC)

... sounds like you haven't spent much time on the rail routes of the Randstadt.


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count_vronsky
count_vronsky
Sun, Oct. 5th, 2008 04:13 pm (UTC)

sex and golf apparently kuma :)


ReplyThread Parent
foggy_eyes
foggy_eyes
oh, um.
Sun, Oct. 5th, 2008 08:23 pm (UTC)

From the Mooseknuckle website (so informative!): "Avoid wearing tight jeans from the disco era, which tend to accentuate and even celebrate the creation of a moose knuckle. "


ReplyThread Parent
cerulicante
cerulicante
cerulicante
Mon, Oct. 6th, 2008 11:40 am (UTC)

When I was in Tokyo, I saw those signs. They're instructions to concede space to others and not take up more space in the seat than needed. "When the seats are packed, you have to make concessions. This is called 'manners'." There are also signs in the stations that say "do it on the mountain" that instruct riders not to carry bulky backpacks or eat on the train.

I was in Shinjuku station and I was glad that I was surrounded by Japanese. It was all very cordial and people were very polite. Osaka is an entirely different matter...


ReplyThread Parent
cap_scaleman
cap_scaleman
cap_scaleman
Sun, Oct. 5th, 2008 05:47 pm (UTC)

Hmm, though Paris should drop the wheels amde out of rubber.


ReplyThread Parent
akabe
akabe
alin huma
Sun, Oct. 5th, 2008 06:44 pm (UTC)

the uniforms may be proper but take a look at their expression and it's clear that it's nothing more than a superficial semi-ironic play -- superlegitimacy ? i'm glad the concept's finally found a good home in a fictional book of scotlands. (on a more sinister note most research on ww2 and a great deal of fiction/drama/art for the past few decades shows that no kamikaze really believed themselves to be Mr kamikaze, neither did their wives. rather the result of bad pressure, bad drugs and , yes, bad ideology.)


ReplyThread Parent

imomus
imomus
imomus
Sun, Oct. 5th, 2008 08:16 pm (UTC)

My use of the concept of legitimacy comes from German sociologist Max Weber. He identified four sources of legitimacy:

(a) By tradition; a belief in the legitimacy of what has always existed;

(b) by virtue of affectual attitudes, especially emotional, legitimizing the validity of what is newly revealed or a model to imitate;

(c) by virtue of a rational belief in its absolute value, thus lending it the validity of an absolute and final commitment;

(d) because it has been established in a manner which is recognised to be legal. This legality may be treated as legitimate in either of two ways: on the one hand, it may derive from a voluntary agreement of the interested parties on the relevant terms. On the other hand, it may be imposed on the basis of what is held to be a legitimate authority over the relevant persons and a corresponding claim to their obedience....


ReplyThread Parent

imomus
imomus
imomus
Sun, Oct. 5th, 2008 09:47 pm (UTC)

Super is just an intensifier in that phrase.

My first impressions of Japan were that this was what Victorian England must have felt like, so I don't say it's necessarily an Asian phenomenon. But Confucian attitudes and collectivist attitudes and a certain fetishism (as well as a "horizontal authoritarianism", "society as god" and all those other things I mentioned in the original article) make Japanese society feel much more intensely legitimate than our own "maverick" and "punk" societies, where everybody is supposed to be challenging everything all the time, out for himself, and so on.


ReplyThread Parent
cerulicante
cerulicante
cerulicante
Mon, Oct. 6th, 2008 11:50 am (UTC)

Most of the off-duty train station/railway employees I've talked to just see it as a job they can be part of. Belonging to something is an important part of Japanese everyday life. However, most of them would quit in a heartbeat to pursue their dreams if they didn't have families/mortgages/etc.

It's distinctly non-romantic and very, very Western, indeed.


Wait...you HAVE actually talked to real Japanese before, right? Sometimes, I think you prefer fetishizing Japanese from a distance or in "safe" environments with like-minded Japanese rather than soiling yourself with the sordidness of a capitalistic Asian society. It won't kill you if you eat yakitori with some drunken salarymen from NEC or Sony, you know. You might learn something, too. I always do.


ReplyThread Parent
imomus
imomus
imomus
Mon, Oct. 6th, 2008 12:12 pm (UTC)

You know, I'm prepared to believe you might even have spoken to a Japanese woman, too... more than once!


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(Anonymous)
Sun, Oct. 5th, 2008 03:54 pm (UTC)
Trams

What do you think about Edinburgh's reintroduction of trams?


CS


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Sun, Oct. 5th, 2008 06:53 pm (UTC)
Re: Trams

All in favour! Here in Berlin we only have them in the former communist half of the city. Now Edinburgh will be one step closer to communism, perhaps. Well, transport communism, anyway. As long as Brian Soutar isn't allowed to get his grubby mitts on them.


ReplyThread Parent
imomus
imomus
imomus
Sun, Oct. 5th, 2008 06:57 pm (UTC)
Re: Trams

Grr, fucken' Souter!

"In March 2007, he donated £500 000 to the Scottish National Party, citing an imbalance of funding within Scottish politics. One month later, in April 2007, the SNP's commitment (made at the party's 2006 conference) to re-regulate the bus network was dropped from the 2007 manifesto, although the SNP denies any direct link."


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(Anonymous)
Sun, Oct. 5th, 2008 10:42 pm (UTC)
Re: Trams


Good way of looking at it, although I think they're likely to cause subsidence and the castle might fall over.



CS


ReplyThread Parent
eclectiktronik
eclectiktronik
eclectiktronik
Sun, Oct. 5th, 2008 05:16 pm (UTC)

Time flies by when you're the driver of a train.....according to these chaps anyhow.
http://www.last.fm/music/Half+Man+Half+Biscuit/_/Time+Flies+By+(When+You're+the+Driver+of+a+Train)


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cheapsurrealist
cheapsurrealist
Dave Nold
Sun, Oct. 5th, 2008 05:55 pm (UTC)
"I Often Dream Of Trains" or...

..."It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train to Cry"

My Dad worked as a Fireman on the Railroad. He shoveled coal into the firebox of a steam engine.

He could talk for long time about coal shoveling techniques that would ensure an even fire.

It was a lot of work keeping that 2200 degree Fahrenheit fire going just right. He said it was the Fireman who really ran the train.

Part bluster, part truth.

He gave it up when I was very young. Too much time away from the family.

I think he lost a large part of his identity. But the diesel engine was about to take it from him anyway.

I think of him when I hear phrases like "build up enough steam" or "I ran out of steam"




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count_vronsky
count_vronsky
Sun, Oct. 5th, 2008 06:58 pm (UTC)

Southern Virginia was basically built by coal and the railroads (and agriculture and moonshine), most notably, the Norfolk and Western, and train culture runs deep here. The great photographer O. Winston Link captured the look and feel of the steam engines, and the tiny trackside towns in the '50 and '60s.






Edited at 2008-10-05 10:13 pm (UTC)


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(Anonymous)
Tue, Oct. 7th, 2008 02:16 am (UTC)
Engineer as distracted object of affection

http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/nationworld/chi-train-hobbyists_slider_10-2oct05,0,3316264.story


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