Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Mimi Sheller's "Aluminum Dreams"

Mimi Sheller is a Professor of Sociology and Director of the Center for Mobilities Research and Policy at Drexel University. Through her research on Caribbean history, transnational and everyday mobilities, and mobile communication and locative media, she has helped to establish the new interdisciplinary field of mobilities research. She is the author of Democracy after Slavery (2000); Consuming the Caribbean (2003); and Citizenship from Below (2012), as well as several co-edited volumes in critical mobilities studies.

Sheller applied the “Page 99 Test” to her latest book, Aluminum Dreams: The Making of Light Modernity, and reported the following:
On page 99 of Aluminum Dreams is a striking 1943 advertising image from the Bohn Aluminum & Brass Corporation. The graphic illustration in rich hues pictures “A Possible Tractor of Tomorrow” and is part of a series of ads showing a railway observation car of the future (with a glass domed front), tomorrow’s power shovel, a future cotton picker (which looks like a giant futuristic vacuum cleaner), and a huge future tank truck for delivering milk. These images are a great way to show connections across the history of material culture and design, ideas of speed and modernity, and the political economy of global metals production and consumption.

The text on page 99 refers to futuristic designer Arthur Radebaugh who drew on the 1930s Streamline aesthetic of “formal compactness that lends static rigidity combined with a low weight and smooth, spherically shaped surfaces rendered in a bright, lightweight, metal.” Radebaugh applied this style to depicting life in the future with gleaming aluminum cities abuzz with personal helicopters, zeppelins, moving sidewalks, and elevated automated highways, and colonies on the moon. He is just one among a fun cast of maverick inventors, writers, architects and designers who appear in the book, including Jules Verne, R. Buckminster Fuller, Norman Bel Geddes, Jean Prouvé and Walter Gropius.

This image is crucial to the book’s argument that aluminum alloys contributed to the dream of high-speed travel and gravity-defying flight, which informed twentieth century mobile modernity and its visions of the future. Aluminum made the world modern both as a new material out of which to design streamlined modernism, and as a support for the entire infrastructure of fast transport and satellite communication that we associate with modernization. It appears in cars, trains, and planes; lightweight cans and aluminum-foiled foods; high power electricity lines and massive hydroelectric power projects for smelting; and aluminum powders that make their way into everything from cosmetics, food, paint and vaccines, to bombs, rocket fuel, and new nanotechnologies.

But aluminum also connects to darker dreams of modernization that came with heavy environmental costs in terms of mining bauxite in the Caribbean, West Africa, Australia and India, and using huge amounts of energy for smelting. Many harms and risks are embedded in this material culture, yet it is not easy to unravel aluminum from our everyday social practices.
Learn more about Aluminum Dreams at the MIT Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue