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If Mobility is Everything Then it is

Nothing: Towards a Relational Politics
of (Im)mobilities
Peter Adey
Institute of Geography and Earth Sciences, University of Wales,
Aberystwyth, Wales
Published online: 20 Aug 2006.

To cite this article: Peter Adey (2006) If Mobility is Everything Then it is Nothing: Towards a
Relational Politics of (Im)mobilities, Mobilities, 1:1, 75-94, DOI: 10.1080/17450100500489080

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Vol. 1, No. 1, 75–94, March 2006

If Mobility is Everything Then it is

Nothing: Towards a Relational Politics of

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Institute of Geography and Earth Sciences, University of Wales, Aberystwyth, Wales

ABSTRACT This paper is concerned with conceptions of mobility and immobility. Although I
argue that practically everything is mobile, for mobility to be analytically useful as a term we
must focus on the contingent relations between movements. Building upon theories of mobility
from geography, sociology, cultural studies and, in particular, Urry’s ‘mobility/moorings
dialectic’, the paper draws these ideas out using examples from the airport terminal.

KEY WORDS: Mobility, moorings, relational, space, airports


I spend my life here, in this never ending flow of passengers, communications,

conveyors, messengers, announcers and agents, because my work is at this
intersecting point of a multitude of networks all connected to the universe…I hear
the sounds of these clouds of angels […] but without ever seeing their final
destination. (Serres, 1995, p.9)

At a recent conference, I presented a co-authored paper on the topic of mobilities

and materiality. My co-author and I were interested in how physical movement
related to communication systems – what is known as virtual mobility. To show this
we considered two examples: a website and an airport. We concluded that it was
possible to view physical spaces or technologies such as airports as exhibiting the
same lack of permanence as the website. Thus, although the airport did not
necessarily move very much in terms of its location in space – it nonetheless
functioned as a node: a place where the mobility flows of passengers, goods,

Correspondence Address: Peter Adey, Institute of Geography and Earth Sciences, University of Wales,
Aberystwyth, Wales SY23 3DB, UK. Tel.: 01970 622573. Email:

1745-0101 Print/1745-011X Online/06/010075–20 # 2006 Taylor & Francis

DOI: 10.1080/17450100500489080
76 Mobilities

materials, information and so on intersect. These flows constituted the building as a

kind of event-space (Massumi, 2002; Tschumi, 2000, 1994).
On accepting questions at the end of the paper, we received a very interesting
comment that probed our use of the term mobility. The questioner stated that
‘coming from a planning perspective’ he saw airports as being extremely located by
‘sunk’ infrastructural amenities. These included the hard wirings of road systems, rail
networks, runways and taxi ways, and information communications technologies,
not to mention capital, administrative and institutional fixities such as insurance
contracts, European and regional development subsidies and staff contracts, all of
which lock airports and other buildings to specific locations in space (Graham &
Marvin, 2001). I tried, rather badly, to suggest that while this was true, this did not
necessarily mean that the airport was not mobile. On the contrary, I argued that it
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might move in slower ways than everything else. For my co-author and I, the
question was one of speed.
Yet we were still at an impasse. The questioner suggested that it could be better to
think of airports in terms of obduracy – their stubbornness within the landscape.
Indeed, as mentioned above, elements of airports are extremely immobile compared
to others. However, looking back on this discussion I don’t think our argument
could ever have been resolved for there were key philosophical differences between
the questioner and myself.
Since this discussion I have had time to think about these differences, and I think
the disjunction between our two points of view is highlighted by the key phrase the
questioner used: ‘from a planning perspective’ – his point of view, how he related to
the airport. This is crucial. For I realise now that the problem was one of relation. I
don’t mean this only in terms of our perspective, but how the relations between the
things we were trying to understand, our deeper ontological comprehension of the
world and, ultimately, how we related to the airport itself, influenced how we
understood it. While my co-author and I were imagining a world of process and
mobility, a world where mobility is an ontological absolute, the questioner was
talking about immobility and fixity. This was not a point of mere semantics, but it
was rather how the relations between the airport and other bodies, materials,
infrastructures, and us, mattered.
In this paper, I want to explore this problematic through a number of different
approaches and examples. In order to do this I turn back to the airport terminal for
some questions and answers. It is not my intention to put the airport on a pedestal,
to see it as the fundamental symbol of the contemporary world. Rather, I want to
suggest that airports and the way we think about them can inform understandings of
mobility and immobility. In short, it is at airports where the observations I want to
make are most obvious, but not necessarily the most unique.
To do this, the paper attempts to examine current understandings of movement
and space through a number of approaches, borrowing, in particular, from the
politics of mobility, complexity theory and recent ontogenetic conceptions of space. I
still think that everything is mobile, and demonstrate as much through the airport
terminal. However, if everything is mobile, then the concept has little purchase. It
might not mean ‘Nothing’ as the paper’s title suggests, but it subdues the differences
between mobilities and the relations between them. I ask in relation to what do
things move and constitute space, and how does this impact upon whether we
Towards a Relational Politics of (Im)mobilities 77

consider something is mobile or not? I also take this further and suggest that the
issue of the relations between mobilities and immobilities is not just an academic
observation but is a relationship that is directly involved in social life and the
production of space. To do this I discuss John Urry’s (2003) concept of the ‘mobility/
moorings dialectic’, through which I investigate the notion that social life must
operate through constitutive relationships of movement, relative immobilities and
differences in speed. Examples are taken from the airport.

Everything is Mobile: Movement, Transformation and Transduction

Many academic theorisations of movement have tended to view mobility as
something other than the norm. Movement has been given, particularly through
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humanist interpretations, negative connotations as opposed to the fixity and

boundedness of place and territory (Tuan, 1977). Tim Cresswell labels these
approaches ‘sedentarist’ (Cresswell, 2001a). Thus, the places where we live, spend
time and lay down meaning are seen as extremely immobile places. For geographers
such as Relph (1976) the airport or the motorway, are even seen as placeless –
abstract and without meaning. Anthropologist Marc Augé (1995) calls these non-
places (for a discussion see Adey, forthcoming; Crang, 2002; Merriman, 2004).
From the other side of the coin, more recent approaches show signs of a ‘nomadic
metaphysics’ (Cresswell, 2001a). In this schema, mobility is constructed as a means
to transgress power structures through both material and metaphysical domains.
Seen primarily in scholarship influenced by the philosophers Gilles Deleuze and
Felix Guattari (1988), though not necessarily in their own work, power structures of
domination are given fixed and immobile characteristics, while mobility is attributed
with an emancipatory power (Cresswell, 1997). In David Harvey’s (1996) treatment
of the circulations of capital, although he is trying to foresee a dialectical flow of
money and material processes, there must be some permanencies, some ‘solid
foundations’ somewhere. He writes:

reifications of free-flowing processes are always occurring to create actual

permanences in the social and material world around us. Examples might be
material landscapes (such as cities), social institutions that might seem
impossible to transform by virtue of the solid way they have been constructed
(Harvey, 1996, p.81).

In short, the above approaches resemble what Henri Bergson might have associated
with a snapshot photograph. It is useful to quote Bergson at length as he brilliantly
describes this feature of perception:

We concentrate a period of this evolution in a stable view which we call a form,

and, when the change has become considerable enough to overcome the
fortunate inertia of our perception, we say that the body has changed its form.
But in reality the body is changing form at every moment; or rather, there is no
form, since form is immobile and the reality is movement. What is real is the
continual change of form: form is only a snapshot view of a transition
(Bergson, 1911, p.302).
78 Mobilities

If we apply Bergson’s view to the approaches discussed above, it appears as if the

world is understood in fixed and bounded ways. Immobilised by the click of one’s
fingers or a magic remote control, motion is frozen in time and space in a way that
effaces the vectors, the speeds and the differences between movements. People move
among and amidst an inert landscape of forms and fixities that: ‘await our arrival.
They lie there, in place, without trajectories, we can no longer see in our minds’ eyes
the stories they, too are telling, living out, producing’ (Massey, 2004, p.227). In this
section of the paper, I draw out a number of perspectives on movement, which work
to debunk these ‘sedentary’ and ‘nomadic’ approaches.
Almost a century later, some approaches have begun to rethink understandings of
place, power and politics within more mobile and relational ontologies that follow
Bergson’s processual thought (see also Whitehead, 2004 [1920], 1978; Deleuze, 1988).
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For authors such as Thrift (2002), Massey (2004) and Allen (2004), social and
material processes are distanciated and relational. They surpass previous snapshot
ontologies where relationships between people and things are fixated and
immobilised. For example, Massey draws on Latour’s (1993) treatment of the
railway when he asks whether the railway is global or local. As Massey writes:

His reply is that it is neither. It is global in that in some sense it goes around the
world; you may travel on it from Paris to Vladivostok […] However, and this is
the crucial point here, the railway is also everywhere local in the form of
railway workers, signals, track, points, stations (Massey, 2004, p.8).

Thus, what is vital for Massey is that places may be re-imagined progressively
(Massey, 1993). Place is not necessarily tied to the notion of location, for as she
writes: ‘‘‘place’’ must be distinguishable from simple locatedness’ (Massey, 2004,
p.8). Through this style of thought places become both local and global and regions
may be seen through a ‘politics of connectivity’ (Amin, 2004) – open and
unbounded. Power and governance may even be seen to operate across territories,
states and scales and in complex and non-linear ways (Allen, 2004). Buildings,
possibly the hardest and envisioned as the most immobile of things, are being
imagined in terms of the relational extensity and fluidity they embody (Jacobs, 2005;
Jenkins, 2002; McNeill, 2005).
Such approaches, therefore, reject what Doel refers to as ‘pointillism’ – where
place is rendered as a container – both fixed and discrete. For Doel, pointillism
misses the implicit relativity, the inherent relatedness of things through which places
actually take place. Places might be understood as: ‘relatively fixed points,
movements and flows, and waves – some interpenetrating, other in conflict and so
on’ (my emphasis, Lefebvre, 1991, p.88).
Indeed, there is an increasing move underway to begin viewing things that have
previously been assumed bounded and fixed, stable and permanent, in terms of flows
and fluids – in terms of movement (Shields, 1996). Instead of fixed forms, academics
are beginning to look at the relations between materiality and force where: ‘things
move through the world, or indeed move the world, however mysteriously’
(Harrison et al., 2004). Such a trend is emblematic of ontogenetic, rather than
ontological conceptions of space and reflects a wider turn towards the post-
structural thought of scholars such as Gilles Deleuze, Felix Guattari and Jacques
Towards a Relational Politics of (Im)mobilities 79

Derrida (Dixon and Jones, 1996, 1998). Within disciplines such as geography,
this work has led to a crisis of representation. Space is understood kinaesthetically:
‘in which no fixed standards of representation exist […] a constant reminder of
the limits of the logic of solids to understand change’ (Thrift & Dewsbury, 2000,
For instance, Richard Smith (2003) has turned to theorists from Actor Network
Theory, borrowing notions such as topology in order to understand space and time
in a non-linear fashion. Here, spaces and times are linked through chaotic relations.
Indeed, for some of the writers Smith borrows from, the world can be seen in terms
of mixtures, flows that slow and harden temporarily before moving on.
Similarly, Adrian Mackenzie introduces us to the notion of transduction. In his
text Transductions (2002), he builds on the work of the theorists Gilbert Simonden
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and feminist philosopher Judith Butler to present a convincing argument on the

relationship between technologies and people. Mackenzie uses Simonden’s notion of
technicity to understand how objects and technologies come to be used in human
practice. He looks at how ensembles of technologies with knowledge, society and
other agents mediate, augment and have the power to transform everyday life. This
is achieved through transduction. Transduction is effectively a process; it is
ontogenetic – the in-becoming of something. Mackenzie is interested in how things
come into being rather than how things be.
I think, at least in material terms, that mobilities compose these becomings and
processes. The idea of becoming through mobility is perhaps easiest to see in
examples from cyberspace and the virtual. For example, Martin Dodge and Rob
Kitchin have taken Mackenzie’s thesis and extended it towards geography and the
coded production of space, following others such as Thrift and French (2002), and
Graham (2003, 2004). According to Dodge and Kitchin, transduction lets us
understand space not in static and bounded terms – ontologically conceived – but

This ontogenetic conception of space acknowledges that the forms and spatial
relations of the world around us are clearly not static and fixed; they are
constantly being altered, updated, and constructed in ways that alter
sociospatial relations (Dodge & Kitchin, 2005, p.172).

For Dodge and Kitchin, code presents one of the ways by which space is
transduced – how it is brought continually into being as code transforms relations
between people, objects, spaces and so forth. Their paper contains vignettes of the
daily routines of three people moving through the city of London. Code transduces
the space through which these people travel, facilitating and regulating their mobility
through the reproduction of space. Thus, CCTV cameras, ATMs, traffic manage-
ment systems, licence number plate technologies, checkout-tills, bus stop digital
displays are all coded to some degree, and all interact with the subjects’ journeys and
daily routines in one way or another as space and social relations are constituted and
transformed. Dodge and Kitchin recognise that the mobilities of people in their
everyday lives are, therefore, bound up within a coded infrastructure of, ‘networks of
mobilities, interactions, and transactions that bind them together across scales’
(Dodge & Kitchin, 2005, pp.173–174).
80 Mobilities

One example they use in a related paper, is the airport – what they label a ‘code/
space’. For Dodge and Kitchin (2004), air travel and airports are indicators of the
highest level of the pervasiveness of code within society and space. At the airport,
code is not just an additive to the ingredient of the space, but is instead fundamental
to the processes of air-travel. They write that code has become so important to air-
travel that if the code fails, the material processual component of the code/space will
fail also:

(for example, a security alert closes an area, or a system crash closes a check-in
area, or a failure in a plane system grounds an aircraft). Here, there are no
alternatives: check-in agents are not trained or authorized to do manual check-
in and the destination airport would not accept the passengers; planes cannot
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fly without many crucial digital systems that lack manual counterparts; ATC
system failure will ground all planes again because manual systems are
insufficient or have been discontinued (Dodge & Kitchin, 2004, p.198).

Thus, check-in systems, security information, the operational management systems,

air traffic control, even down to the management of the air conditioning, are all
dependent upon software code (Adey & Bevan, forthcoming).
However, it is not only the virtual elements of an airport, or indeed urban and
everyday places, which are mobile. The becoming of the world closely resembles the
continual production – what could be labelled the ‘eventness’ of a website (Latham,
2003; Thrift & Dewsbury, 2000) – or the recombinant reworking of space through
software and electronic infrastructures (Graham, 2004; Thrift & French, 2002). For
example, if we take an airport’s physical infrastructure of electricity, water and more,
these ‘sunk’ conduits are also mobile in the sense that they too are in a state of
becoming. So, for example, Dodge and Kitchin write:

At a more microscale level, infrastructure is constantly being modified,

repaired, redesigned, and so on, so that streets and rooms are constantly in a
process of being refashioned and remodeled and spatial layouts modified. For
example, streets are dug for cabling, shop fronts updated, shop interiors
redesigned, trees planted, buildings painted, grass mowed, litter dropped, and
so on. In other words, space is constantly (re)created, most often in subtle and
banal ways, but sometimes more dramatically (Dodge & Kitchin, 2005, p.172).

Through repetitive operations, practices of maintenance (see also Thrift, 2005) and
renewal, it is mobilities that compose and recompose these becomings.
Furthermore, people form and transform space too. People are part of space. For
De Certeau (1984), walking in the city is akin to an enunciative or a ‘speech act’
which writes and rewrites urban space and its meaning. Finally, the use of spaces and
places is always different. Therefore: ‘Space, in these terms, is a practice, a doing, an
event, a becoming – a material and social reality forever (re)created in the moment’
(Dodge & Kitchin, 2005, p.172).
If we look a little more closely at airports, David Pascoe makes a Lefebvrian
analysis of Schiphol and Heathrow airports to explore them as thoroughly modern
landscapes of pre-emption. By this, he means to examine how airports overwrite the
Towards a Relational Politics of (Im)mobilities 81

spaces, materials and people they are built upon through a process of creative
destruction. Indeed the result for Heathrow writes Pascoe, was one of erasure, as if
an atomic bomb had been dropped on the site: ‘it was as if nothing had existed here’
(Pascoe, 2001, p.84). For Pascoe, the airport takes on Lefebvrian dimensions of
domination. All that was once there is purified, sterilised and moved out. Of course,
this is also the case for people. As Pascoe illustrates with the case of Narita, Japan,
through compulsory purchase orders, the airport was able to expel farmers who lived
and worked on the land.
In short, airports are what Fuller and Harley describe as ‘terraformers’: ‘they
literally make land. They flatten difference into manageable contours, reconfiguring
geography according to the spatio-temporal rhythms and cross-modal standards of
global capital’ (Fuller & Harley, 2004, p.105). In so doing, the airport connects to
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numerous material and biological flows while it also is transformative of them

(Gottdiener, 2004). As Fuller and Harley write: ‘All over the world, the energy and
matter of local environments are being redirected in a global ecology that requires
smooth connections for the endless circulation of commodities’ (Fuller & Harley,
2004, p.105). Airports also recombine and rematerialise the flow of cities where the
airport becomes: ‘a seeping miasma of control spaces and logistical architecture that
is woven into the everyday life of the city. This is a city of movement, where traffic
and architecture hum in synergistic flows and at different rhythms’ (Fuller & Harley,
2004, p.107).
Of course, it is not only the airport’s footprint that is extremely mobile and
mobilising, but also the materiality of airport terminals. Airports may not actually
move very much in-terms of their location in space, although the Liverpool Airport
at Speke has moved sites a number of times over its 70-year history. However, if we
imagine airports in the context of a human body, just as the cells of the skin
continually reproduce and are replaced; the airport too is continually moving and
transforming. Take the case of Japan’s Kansai Airport Terminal which was built on
a reclaimed island. At the commencement of construction, the island was found to be
subsiding as the clay foundation of the building underwent compaction. The
terminal building was built with subsidence monitors so that automised pillars can
be adjusted according to movements in the clay below (Pascoe, 2001). Indeed, the
continual building work that occurs at airports resembles the development of Las
Vegas, as casinos are built and continually ripped down. For Sudjic:

Discovering the original Heathrow buildings under the continuous succession

of accretions, extensions, new buildings, adaptations and demolitions is a task
for an archaeologist (Sudjic, 1992, p.153).

Taking forward these notions, perhaps the airport can be imagined not as a static
snapshot photo, but rather as a time-lapse exposure. Over the period of a day,
people’s movements would be blurred into hundreds and thousands of vectors. Paths
intermingle, interweave and overlay one another upon a background of the hard
terminal and stone floor. Moving on to a period of a month, or perhaps a year,
significant changes would appear on the exposure. The building would begin to have
its own vectors. Small things would begin to appear such as dirt, perhaps repainting,
litter, dust, adverts may change, the seating would definitely be adjusted and change.
82 Mobilities

Tables may be replaced. Walls may be knocked down. Shops rebuilt and refurbished.
Flooring replaced. A new restaurant added. Extensions completed. The airport
building no longer appears as a static background or a stage upon which activity
takes place, but it is also an active and mobile participant in airport life as its vectors
blur into the rest of the exposure.
Ontogenetic approaches to space understand how the world is continually brought
anew through material and social transformations. As Cresswell explores: places and
things can be understood in more mobile terms, perhaps as events. ‘Place as an event
is marked by openness and change rather than boundedness and permanence […]
places are intersections of flows and movement’ they are in a ‘constant state of
becoming’ (Cresswell, 2002, p.26). Places such as airports can be imagined as:
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articulated movements in networks of social relations and understandings, but

where a large proportion of those relations, experiences and understandings are
constructed on a far larger scale than what we happen to define for that
moment as the place itself (Massey, 1991, p.244)

For Massey, ‘these interactions themselves are not motionless things, frozen in time.
They are processes’ (Massey, 1991, p.244). As we have seen through an airport
everything, eventually, is mobile. And yet, if airports are exemplary indicators of the
continual motion and becoming of the world, we need to understand why they are
sometimes understood in fixed and immobile ways.

Everything is Not Mobile: Relations, Difference and the Politics of Mobility

If we conceive that everything is mobile, made up of vectors of flow, how can we
avoid rendering the whole world as a mass of unintelligible gloop, a liquid modernity
in which everything flows (Bauman, 2000), and ‘all that is solid melts into thin air’
(Berman, 1983)? In this section, I consider efforts made to understand mobility in
terms of difference and, furthermore, how these differences may constitute mobilities
and immobilities.
Marcus Doel has written:

in the whirling that envelops me, like a thick fog, I can sense innumerable shape
shifters starting to stir. Through a certain immanent rhythm in any particular
milieu these shape-shifters may take some recognizable form – a concept, an
idea, a person, a thing, a place, a time (Doel, 1999, p.12).

As Doel puts it, the chaos in which he finds himself is not ‘unified, totalized or
complete’. For him it is, ‘infinitely disajusted, differential and disjoined. Without
origin or end, the chaosmos only has a middle, a milieu’ (Doel, 1999, p.12). The
shape-shifters which Doel finds himself aware of are not the fixed and static forms
imagined from sedentarist perspectives. Instead, Doel wishes to pit flow against flow.
He finds that the forms are, ‘insubstantial and immaterial, shimmering on the
surface of the particular mass that is forever in circulation’. In short, for Doel these
forms are the combination of interacting and connected mobilities. They are the
result of movements that coalesce and relate. They are ‘special effects’ of the:
Towards a Relational Politics of (Im)mobilities 83

‘relations of movement and rest, of speed and slowness of lighting and texture, and
of rhythm and consistency. No thing is there, just effects of differential spacings’
(Doel, 1999, p.12).
We need to consider mobilities – just as Doel does – in differential and relational
ways. By this I mean that there is never any absolute immobility, but only mobilities
which we mistake for immobility, what could be called relative immobilities. To do
this we can build upon conceptions of movement that revolve around a body of work
known as ‘the politics of mobility’. This has developed and mutated through a
number of studies and through various different examples such as refugee migration
(Hyndman, 2000; Hyndman, 1999), the movements of tramps, hobos and the
homeless (Cloke et al., 2003; Cresswell, 2001b), women (McDowell, 1999; Silvey,
2004), through transport technologies (Hubbard & Lilley, 2004; Law, 1999; 2002;
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Merriman, 2004), and urban infrastructural networks (Graham & Marvin, 2001).
These perspectives follow Doreen Massey’s efforts to critique generalised
conceptions of time-space compression (what we might call mobility). Massey
contends that there has been a propensity to generalise movement as a universal
benefit. She argues that it needs differentiating. Movement is not a simple thing
undertaken only by a few but it is present everywhere and may be experienced in
many different ways. In Massey’s writing, the unintelligible flows discussed earlier
become distinct: ‘some are more in charge of it than others; some initiate flows and
movement; some are more on the receiving end of it than others; some are effectively
imprisoned by it’ (Massey, 1993, p.61). Mobility is, therefore, a highly differentiated
activity where many different people move in many different ways. For Tim
Cresswell, different social groups and individuals are placed in distinct ways in
relation to movement – to the flows and connections. As Massey writes: ‘it is […]
about power in relation to the flows and the movement’ (Massey, 1991, p.239).
Cresswell’s work in this area emphasises the importance of the context in which
movements take place (1996, 2001a). Thus, there is not an innate or essentialist
meaning to movement. Mobility instead gains meaning through its embeddedness
within societies, culture, politics, histories. He also relates this back to power
through a consideration of domination and resistance (Cresswell, 1999). In terms of
domination, then, movement may be an action of domination in one circumstance
but it may be viewed as an action of resistance in another. Mobility, like power, is a
relational thing.
In short, the politics of mobility revolve around two main ideas. First, that
movement is differentiated – that there is a politics to these differentials. In other
words, that power is enacted in very different ways. And second, that it is related in
different ways, it means different things, to different people, in differing social
circumstances. In other words, mobility and immobility are profoundly relational
and experiential. The point I am trying to make is that while everything might be
mobile, mobilities are very different, and they also relate and interact with one
another in many different ways. This relatedness impacts upon what mobilities mean
and how they work. It is also because of this difference and relatedness that illusions
of mobility and immobility are created.
For instance, although one may be moving, one may still experience and feel
immobility. Think of the passenger dozing on their flight, think of the incarceration
of the car driver locked into their seat. They are moving extremely fast. Indeed we
84 Mobilities

are always moving. But when we say that something is immobile, we are normally
saying this in relation to ourselves or something else. For example, as I walk with a
group of passengers through an airport terminal, if I turn to look at them I find I can
concentrate on what they are doing. They appear knowable and distinguishable
because they are static. In relation to me they are relatively immobile, even though
we are both moving at relatively the same speed. Our mobility is in relation to the
terminal building, or rather the objects and materials that make the buildings.
Illusions of motion can often occur. As I sit on an aircraft waiting to take off on
my night flight, I watch the lights of an aircraft nearby. As the aircraft gradually
disappears out of view of my window, I assume that we are pushing back towards the
runway. Not so. We are still – well, relatively so in relation to tectonic shifts, the
rotation of the Earth or the orbit of the planet that moves us. The other aircraft
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which was moving gave the illusion that the aircraft I was sitting in was mobile
As Mackenzie writes: ‘We have no experience of speed except as a difference of
speed’ (Mackenzie, 2002, p.122). Thus, we may only see, or comprehend motion
when we perceive difference, changes in the landscape or the movement of the
airport shops passing as we walk by. For the Italian Futurist Boccioni: ‘in fact there
is no such thing as rest; there is only motion, rest being relative, a matter of
appearance’ (Boccioni in Kwinter, 2001, p.62). In short, it is the differences in
mobility that creates relative immobility.
These relations are also temporal for we are perceptual beings and perceive the
duration of our own ‘times’. When we say something is mobile we are making, of
course, a judgement and an interpretation from our own times. Thus, the time-
exposure photograph discussed earlier, in the words of James Gleick, expands: ‘the
reach of our eyesight in the temporal domain’ (1999, p.60). The imaginary time-lapse
photo allows us to see the movement of things from outside our normal experience of
time. Hence, the airport becomes: ‘only slow in relation to our time, to our body, to
our rhythms’ (Lefebvre, 2004, p.20).
But this does not necessarily mean that things only appear and act immobile or
mobile in relation to us, but this occurs in the relationship between things too. For
example, if we take elements of an airport in terms of its architectural design and
physical permanence, in comparison to the passenger it is relatively immobile. Yet, in
relation to the aircraft the airport is incredibly mobile. Let us take Pearman who

The planes, plugged umbilically into the buildings or standing in solitary

splendour just outside, are as valid a part of the airport’s architecture as any of
these buildings. They are also, in some ways, more permanent. The Boeing 747
to name the ubiquitous international airliner has been a familiar feature of the
world’s airports since 1970. The Boeing 737, to take the canonic short haul
plane beloved of low-cost airlines and the most successful commercial
aeroplane of history, has been around since 1968. Its appearance is older still,
since its fuselage and nose derive from the Boeing 707 of 1950’s vintage.
Airliners then, through constant development, are long-lived beasts. Over that
timescale, few parts of any major airport have retained much of their original
appearance. Ergo, the plane is the real architecture: it might move, but it is
Towards a Relational Politics of (Im)mobilities 85

always there. The building is the ephemeral object: it does not move, but its life
is usually short and its appearance is more likely to be radically altered than
that of the vehicles it serves (Pearman, 2004, p.17).

If comparing the airport to railway architecture a similar story is told. Let me

quote Pearman again at length:

There is, however, one crucial difference between such ancestral transport
nodes and today’s airports: longevity or the lack of it. While Paddington lasted
and adapted, the old Penn Station, which took 13 years to build lasted scarcely
more than half a century before redevelopment in Manhattan saw it toppled.
The rate of change at airports is exponentially higher. The architecture of such
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places calls into question the whole matter of permanent versus temporary. The
internal scenography of a terminal is liable to constrain change, particularly in
the retail sections’. Forever struggling to catch up with demand and with
changing requirements, all large airports are to a greater or lesser extent
construction sites as new buildings are pieced into the overall complex and old
one overhauled (Pearman, 2004, p.17).

The problem is that while things are occurring, as the world is always changing
and continually made anew, we and things become embedded within these processes
and subjected to them. Let us take Dewsbury’s description of a building:

what is the speed of flux that is keeping it assembled? It seems permanent, less
ephemeral than you, but it is ephemeral nonetheless: whilst you are there it is
falling down, it is just happening very slowly (hopefully). In such a world, that
is incessantly bifurcating and resonating amongst the different movements of
its many compositions, our subjectification is always occurring (Dewsbury,
2000, p. 487).

It is, therefore, our subjective position and our relationship with the world, that
often stops us from seeing and feeling its ‘eventness’ (Latham, 2003), its becoming,
its motion.
But this is more than simply a conceptual point to realise how differential
mobilities may appear relatively mobile and immobile. Rather it is to grasp how the
relationships between mobilities and relative immobilities are bound up in the
processes of making the airport work and making life happen. Let me turn to what
Urry calls the ‘mobility/moorings dialectic’ to draw out the final stage of a relational
politics of (im)mobilities.

The ‘Mobility/Moorings Dialectic’: Towards a Relational Politics of (Im)mobilities

While airports operate as mobility complexes par excellence, there are relational
tensions going on that can be best explored through Urry’s concept of the ‘mobility/
moorings dialectic’. In his book Global Complexity, Urry (2003) utilises several
metaphors and vocabularies from complexity science and related disciplines to
describe the mobile and complex world in which we live. For Urry, one of the main
86 Mobilities

characteristics of this world is the relationship between mobilities and immobilities.

He writes that: ‘This relationality between mobilities and immobilities is a typical
complexity characteristic […] There is no linear increase in fluidity without extensive
systems of immobilities’ (2002, p.125). Social life and the complexities of life seem to
require immobile moorings that are solid, static and immobile. Mobile life has
become constituted through: ‘material worlds that involve new and distinct
moorings that enable, produce and presuppose extensive new mobilities’ (Urry,
2003, p.138). In this final section, we will explore how the wonderful complexity of
the world is built upon dialectical relationships between mobilities and relative
In his mobility/moorings dialectic, Urry effectively gives movement context. He is
arguing that there can be no movement without context, without something to push
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off from. According to Urry there has to be some kind of holding, some friction for
things to happen. Rather than over-romanticise the fluidic ‘Liquid modernity’
(Bauman, 2000) of the incredibly complex and mobile world in which we live, there
has to be some form of stability to generate such complexity.
I think Urry is effectively building upon another strand of thought associated with
the politics of mobility where Cresswell (2001a) and many others offer the suggestion
that the movement of some depends upon the immobility of others. From examples
of travel to Geneva (Hyndman, 1997), to the post-national citizenship schemes of
Canadian and Chinese business people (Mitchell, 2001; Sparke, 2004), to the
example of someone attempting to cross a busy highway (Graham & Marvin, 2001),
these authors effectively suggest that the movements of some people are intimately
linked to the immobility of others (see also Boltanski & Chiapello, 1999). As Massey
has written: ‘It is not simply a question of unequal distribution, that some people
move more than others, and that some have more control than others. It is that the
mobility and control of some groups can actively weaken other people’ (Massey,
1991, p.240).
While Urry expands this notion towards material cultures, or relationality, he also
demonstrates the symbiotic character of these ‘mobility/moorings’. For Urry:

The complex character of such systems stems from the multiple time-space
fixities or moorings that enable the fluidities of liquid modernity to be realized.
Thus mobile machines such as mobile phones, cars, aircraft, trains, and
computer connections, all presume overlapping, and varied time-space
immobilities (Urry, 2003, p.125).

Anything mobile, he asserts, must need systems of immobility in order to work. The
relationship is dialectical as movement and immobility are dependent upon one
another. Therefore, if all life was mobile, or instead fixed, he argues that the
complexity characteristics could not be ‘dynamic and complex’.
This concept is quite broad and elusive as it seems that anything and everything
works upon this relationship. Moreover, if, as I have been arguing, everything is
mobile, then these immobilities or moorings are indeed mobile too. There is also an
inherent mobility in the relationships Urry is describing as it is not quite clear how
fixities enable mobilities or indeed how easily mobilities and immobilities or
mobilities and moorings slip out of phase, moorings becoming mobilities and
Towards a Relational Politics of (Im)mobilities 87

mobilities becoming moorings. Yet, the concept is still useful as it powerfully

demonstrates the inherent relationality between mobilities. For it can be seen that
mobilities rely upon moorings, or what I label relative immobilities, in order to
move, and, vice-versa, relative immobilities and fixities may generate mobilities in
order to support their relatively immobile character.
Using an example from the airport, Urry explains that the most powerful mobility
machines may require the biggest moorings and immobilities. Think of the
kilometres of rail network infrastructures over which trains must travel
(Schivelbusch, 1986). The mobile machine of the commercial jet plane requires the
immobility or the mooring of the airport city to provide a temporary physical port
for the aircraft to land, refuel, unload and load. Urry argues:
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Thus the so-far most powerful mobile machine, the aeroplane, requires the
largest and most extensive immobility, of the airport city employing tens of
thousands of workers (Urry, 2003, p.125).

Physically then, relative immobility provides the mooring for mobility. The aircraft
needs the fixity of the airport so it can be mobile. We can also see this relationship
within the terminal building itself. Within the terminal, passengers require the
physical stasis of the building to make their way through, confident that their feet
will always make contact with the floor. The movements of passengers, information
and fuel, rely upon the mooring of the airport’s design and architecture to position,
fix, striate and shape their movements towards the plane. The passenger movements
are also reliant upon a hard-wired physical infrastructure of communication systems.
Passenger mobilities must also coincide with the temporary and relative immobility,
of aircraft, equipment, cars, buses, staff, passengers, food, water, energy,
information, money, and more that orbit and intersect the airport in visible and
invisible ways. These mobile machines must also be confident that the airport will be
there when they come back. Moreover, in relation to the passenger other fixed and
stationary visual and sensual cues drive passenger mobilities. This could be the
signage system Marc Augé (1995) describes, which mediates passenger movement
and interaction. Fixed flight information displays also provide information points at
specific areas of the building. Flooring textures and materials affect other passenger
However, there is significant danger in reducing everything to the material. This is
not my intention. While a passenger’s motion may depend upon the relative fixity of
the terminal walls and floor, that passenger’s movement is also wrapped up in
societal norms of behaviour and, of course, other forces such as airport bylaws.
These forces may even stabilise the fixity and durability of the building by forbidding
passengers to remove airport items, to deface or destroy them. Mobility/moorings
are, thus, profoundly implicated in social life and they are also held and stabilised by
them. As a result, mobility/moorings constitute, and are constituted by, social
To return to the relationship between the airport and aircraft, the airport is
spatially fixed, its runway coordinates are the same the next time the aircraft plans to
land. In essence, the airport provides the technological context for the aircraft’s
flight. Notably, such a perspective is also put forward by Martin Heidegger who also
88 Mobilities

uses the example of the airport to demonstrate the ‘unautonomy’ of technology

(Heidegger, 1977). Pascoe discusses:

Heidegger argued that no matter how autonomous a great airliner may appear,
until it actually flies it only exists as an instance of ‘standing reserve’ within and
subject to, the larger structure of the infrastructure. The machine ready for
take-off is in fact capable of flying off on its own; the fact that it can become
detached from the ground says nothing about its essential embeddedness
within technological system which one might term ‘airport port’, a
disembeddedness which is also not contingent on the fact that the pilot may
experience the aircraft as a means of performing a job (Pascoe, 2001, p.126).
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According to Heidegger, ‘standing reserve’ is an ordering strategy enacted by

humans to place technology and objects close to hand so that they may be of use and
ordered further. The airliner standing on the apron ‘reveals’ the relationship of
people to technology. The aircraft’s relationship to the airport is exemplary of the
relational nature of technology and the aviation and airport system: ‘it is ordered to
provide the possibility of transportation’ (Heidegger, 1977, p.17). According to
Heidegger, the aircraft is therefore unautonomous: ‘it has standing only from the
ordering of the orderable’ (Heidegger, 1977, p.17).
Understood in these terms, although aircraft spend most of their time in the skies,
airports form the ‘obligatory points of passage’ in the air transport network of
relations. Their relationship is obviously more flexible than the train which must
spend all its time on the rails. Yet, commercial aircraft must eventually land on a
surface strong enough and long enough, at a place where they can refuel, where they
can pick up their cargo. Usually, all this must occur at an airport.
But, to use Heidegger’s phrase, the airport also sets the aircraft as a ‘standing
reserve’. Taken from the perspective of the airport’s design and materiality, the
airport is incredibly mobile compared to the static shape, structure and materials of
the aircraft. As Heidegger describes, the ‘airliner stands on the runway’. The aircraft
itself ‘stands in reserve’ for the runway and the airport to exist. Through particular
periods of an aircraft’s relationship with an airport, it is the airport that is incredibly
mobile compared to the aircraft, and not only from the architectural standpoint
noted earlier.
Once the aircraft is parked, it is reliant upon the complex mobilities that go on
within and beyond the airport to provide it fuel, information, passengers and cargo
in synchronicity. Storage is also a major part of this and an important factor in
mobility/moorings relationships. As Urry (2003, p.125) writes:

There are short periods of storage, such as the overnight stay of a car in a
garage or an aircraft on an airfield or information within a database or a
passenger within a motel. Such modes of temporary storage often involve
complex sorting and stacking procedures.

There may be ‘temporary moments of rest of a machine and/or its users and/or its
messages, such as at a bus-stop, voice mailbox, passport control, railways station or
web site. The machine or its object or user waits in preparation for its next mobile
Towards a Relational Politics of (Im)mobilities 89

phase’ (Urry, 2003, p.125). The aircraft must be checked over and stored overnight.
In short, movement is possible only through particular periods of rest. Things must
stop in order to prepare for later movement.
The relationship I am describing is therefore dialectical and symbiotic.
Commercial aircraft cannot exist without airports, just as airports would find it
very difficult to survive without aircraft flying to and fro. As the aircraft relies upon
the mooring or immobility of the airport to ‘stand reserve’, the aircraft too ‘stands
reserve’, or as mooring, for the airport and for passengers. The airport and the
aircraft are embargoed into a relationship of temporal economics – a ‘system of
synchronisation’ (Fuller & Harley, 2004). That is, the time and place of the aircraft
must be fixed according to the flights schedule. The aircraft must stand reserve so it
can be loaded with passengers, food, water, cargo and so on. It must stand so it can
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be maintained, examined and refuelled.

Here too, the airport may be relatively mobile compared to the passengers. Within
the airport, there are several spaces where passengers are expected to remain
relatively immobile and kept waiting. Passengers wait while they check in, they wait
to go through security control, they wait to go to their gate, they wait until boarding
is called. Indeed all these periods of waiting are facilitated by many different
technologies and procedures that contain passengers (Bechmann, 2005). Here, the
passengers become the mooring to the airport, as flows of communication systems,
objects, workers and more circulate and orbit the passenger in order to prepare,
screen and extract revenue from them while they wait for their flight – mirroring the
hive of activity that surrounds the parked aircraft on the apron below.
Indeed, airports and aircraft may be compared to the ‘machine ensemble’
Wolfgang Schivelbusch (1986) describes in his history of the industrialisation of time
and space in the nineteenth century. In his account, the train and the railroad were
imagined in unity, as one great machine in contrast to the traditional horse and
carriage and other means of transport where ‘mutual flexibility’ between individual
forms of movement was dominant. The railroad ‘put an end to that liberal state of
affairs. Route and vehicle became technically conjoined on the railroad’
(Schivelbusch, 1986, p.16) as an ‘indivisible entity’.
And yet, the mobilities of people within the airport are also directly and indirectly
related to one another. Let us take the scenario of check-in and security queues at an
international airport. Schiphol Airport, Amsterdam, employs a system called
Privium, a frequent flyer program where passengers can pay to have their iris
biometrically scanned and their background checked to ensure their ‘low-risk’ status
as flyers (see Adey, 2004a, 2004b). Upon arriving at the airport, Privium passengers
are allowed to park their cars close to the terminal, they can check in late before
having their iris scanned before security. Upon authorisation of their identity, they
may experience expedited travel through security to the gate. In relation to the
queuing passengers holding economy tickets, they are ultra mobile. They are the
kinetic elite. Yet, their improved mobility is not only visually contingent upon
the slower movements of economy passengers, but it is asymmetrically related to it.
The principle of the system works by speeding up the mobility of the frequent flyer
‘low-risk’ passengers so that airport security will then have longer periods and more
time to examine in more detail other higher risk passengers. In other words, higher
risk passengers are slowed down so that the frequent flyer passengers may move
90 Mobilities

faster. This is also the case for other people that inhabit and pass through airports,
although in different ways. For instance, Cresswell writes how ‘some mobilities are
dependent on the immobilities of others so it is the case that one mobility may be
symbiotically related to other mobilities with entirely different cultural and social
characteristics’ (Cresswell, 2001a, p.22). Taking the example of Changi Airport,
Singapore, he writes:

Changi Airport is also the space of immigrant labour from the Indian
subcontinent brought in to build the new terminal and then asked to leave.
Further it is the space of the people who work there – the people who staff the
check-in desks and the people who clean the toilets and empty the bins who
come in from the city on a daily commuting cycle. The already differentiated
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traveller, the immigrant workers and the airport workers are all mobile. While
their mobilities were enabled by the construction of a node in a network, each
is brimming over with different forms of significance (Cresswell, 2001a, p.23).

Airports must consist of this continual ambivalence between mobilities and

relative immobilities, movement and moorings. In relational or topological terms, we
might understand airports through shifting combinations of ‘immutable mobiles’
and ‘mutable mobiles’ (Law & Mol, 2001). The flows I have discussed exist in
continuous movement through three-dimensional Euclidean space, yet if imagined
topologically they change phases of mutability and immutability in relation to other
mobilities (Sheller, 2004). As Fuller and Harley note: ‘we need to think of the airport
as a topology of relations continuously folding and unfolding in and out of a
multitude of dimensions’ (Fuller & Harley, 2004, p.108).

In this paper, I have questioned how we conceive of mobility and immobility
through examples from the airport terminal. In borrowing from the recent turn
towards all things mobile – what Sheller and Urry (forthcoming) describe as the ‘new
mobilities paradigm’ – I illustrated how the world could be imagined in-flux: as it is
continually made and re-made anew. Objects, things, buildings, landscapes and, in
this instance, the airport, are not viewed as merely static and fixed. They are made up
of thousands, millions, billions of movements that interact with one another in many
different ways. To be sure, process rules. Space is never still, it can never just be –
because mobilities compose material processes and becomings. They constitute new
apprehensions of space, which Thrift might call ‘movement-space’: ‘folded and
animate because everything can be framed as in perpetual movement’, it is a
‘perpetually mobile space […] open-ended rather than enclosing’ (Thrift, 2004,
And yet, while things are always on the move, they can appear in a fixed and
stable manner because mobilities are all different, and we relate to them in different
ways. I presented the argument for a relational politics of (im)mobilities that takes
into account not only the differences between movement, but their contingent
relatedness. This approach examines not only how mobilities appear immobile, but
also how they behave and function empirically in this way, borrowing from Urry’s
Towards a Relational Politics of (Im)mobilities 91

‘mobility/moorings dialectic’. This was evidenced through several different ways by

which the contemporary airport functions in constant tension between movement
and mooring.
The field of quantum mechanics might provide useful analogies to understand this
phenomena as materials may both act as individual particles, but also as waves
(Zohar & Marshall, 1994). And yet, these sorts of relationships do not just happen at
airports, probably perceived as the most mobile places anywhere, but they can
happen everywhere. For instance, Henri Lefebvre notes that buildings such as houses
can work in both ways, as immobile hard matter or in flux:

Either it is stable and immovable with stark, cold and rigid outlines (as a
‘particle’). It is the epitome of immovability, possessing clear and unambiguous
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boundaries […] Alternatively the house can be thought of as a ‘wave’, as

‘permeated from every direction by streams of energy which run in and out of it
by every imaginable route’ (Lefebvre cited in Urry, 2003, p.48).

Similarly, Brian Massumi, describes the ‘event’ of the home, not in the fixed and
bounded terms normally associated with such places, but as a ‘membrane’: ‘a filter of
exteriorities continually entering it and traversing it […] Awash in transivity, the
home is a node in an indefinitely extended field of immanence, to which the
technologies of transmission give body’ (Massumi, 2002, p.85).
We must realise how things may appear and work in incredibly mobile and wave-
like ways, yet in other relationships and other contexts, behave and are viewed as
fixed, solid and bounded. Buildings, people, objects and things can be at once
moored and immobile, or indeed mobile and moored. It depends upon the
relationship between them that determines how they appear and act.
If we are to take the ‘mobility turn’ seriously, academic scholarship should not fail
to realise the relations and differences between movements. As we become conscious
of the inherent changeability and erratic nature of our mobile world, there may be a
tendency for mobility to become everything. Indeed, the term and study of mobility
has perhaps itself become mobile and is spreading through academic disciplines. It
must be realised that if we explore mobility in everything and fail to examine the
differences and relations between them, it becomes not meaningless, but, there is a
danger in mobilising the world into a transient, yet featureless, homogeneity.

Thanks must go to the three anonymous referees who provided some really perceptive
and probing comments. I am also grateful to Tim Cresswell, Paul Bevan and Deborah
Dixon for reading through several drafts of this paper and the PhD thesis it is based
upon. Finally, thanks to participants of the Alternative Mobility Futures conference,
held in Lancaster in 2004, who planted the seed of an idea for this paper.

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