The writer Marshall McLuhan, in comparing “city man” with “tribal man,” suggested that while nomadic tribes were nomadic physically, they were sedentary mentally. And that modern city dwellers, while physically sedentary (settled), are mentally nomadic and dynamic. The point is interesting, and while we can’t deduce from it a causal or necessary relation between physical nomadism/mental sedentarity and physical settlement/mental nomadism, the contrast is worth entertaining. McLuhan wants to draw a comparison between movement in the cultural and intellectual sense and movement in the physical and societal sense. Without having to examine the accuracy of his anthropology, it would seem that McLuhan’s comparison rests on a bad analogy. It rests only on a metaphorical comparison, in which two different kinds of movement are compared only through their use of the same term. For nomads were in fact sedentary when in motion. The nomadic tribe travels together, in a pack, preserving its integrity and identity with every passing step. It is a society on the move. While nomads may have moved great distances through spaces, they moved within them with relative stillness.

Our movements through and within a space show us that space does not precede movement, but follows from it. We enjoy freedom of movement within spaces. It is movement through spaces that is constrained. In and within a space, we are free to move as we wish. It’s where we show up or don’t show up that matters to us, not how we get ourselves there. Hence the durability of American car culture: it is the vehicle by which we express and exercise our freedom to move within. Our limiting lines, or borders, are drawn around our spaces such that they constrain our movement through them. Fixed homes and places of work hold us captive; county lines, state lines, and national borders fix us to the many levels of territory we occupy, though we occupy only one place at any given time. What concerns us is the line of escape that travels through a space; hence our obsession with chase scenes, road movies, manhunts and state lines.

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