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Timothy McGettigan

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Publisher:  University Press of America ISBN-10:  0761814655


Copyright:  August 5, 1999 ISBN-13:  9780761814658

This book describes a series of three journeys on the Green Tortoise, a very unusual adventure travel company.

Barnes &
Utopia on Wheels: Blundering Down the Road to Reality

 Utopia on Wheels is a readable, interesting, and accessible introduction to contemporary social issues and theories. Through an exploration of the Green Tortoise, a San Francisco travel company that is dedicated to counter-culture adventures, Tim McGettigan uses three separate journeys as a means to examine the relationship between self and society. In this manner, he provides an entry-point for mass audiences to consider important sociological issues including the nature of social power, the problem of social order, and the ways in which individuals may produce change in a global society.


Chapter 1 - Making Rules to Break

Early on the cool, foggy morning of Thursday, 6 May 1993, I arrived in downtown Seattle to take my first trip on the Green Tortoise. The Green Tortoise is an “adventure travel” bus company, based in San Francisco, that emerged from the rebellious youth countercultures of the 1960s. In a sense, travel on the Green Tortoise is akin to journeying back to those rowdy, youthful times. The vintage buses that comprise much of the Tortoise’s fleet are painted remarkable shades of green from stem to stern, clearly announcing that this is not the usual sort of bus company. However, the distinguishing features of the Green Tortoise run much deeper than the eccentric ornamentation of its buses.

My first trip would be a week-long stint on the north-south commuter bus. The Tortoise commuter runs twice weekly from Seattle to Los Angeles and serves largely as an alternative to the Greyhound Bus Line. The point of origin for the southbound commuter was a charter bus stop outside the Seattle Greyhound Station. Approximately fifteen to twenty prospective passengers were already present when I arrived at 7:15 A.M.

The people awaiting the Tortoise were a motley bunch, most of whom ranged in age from their late teens to mid-twenties. Many of the men had lots of hair that straggled out of an assortment of wool caps, bandanas, and elastic scrunches. A few wore Christ-like beards and masks of soulful tolerance. The women had, generally speaking, much less hair than their male counterparts – some no more than the fine down that sprouts a few days after a close shave. Sprinkled throughout the crowd were the rings, clips, and posts that advertised a wide range of body piercings. Finally, the clothing that most wore looked like it had been gleaned from the bargain racks at second-hand stores. Following my first glimpse of the awaiting group, I felt uncertain about how prepared I was to be cooped up with such a conglomeration of oddballs.

Professional Reviews

Utopia on Wheels; Blundering Down the Road to Reality, a Current Sociology Book Review by Mark A. Schneider
Utopia on Wheels is a short book that falls into two distinct sections: the first describes bus trips taken by the author, and the second reflects briefly on how these trips illuminate the concept of power. I found myself charmed by the first section and disappointed with the second-though this may say more about me than about McGettigan's treatment of power.

Why bus trips? McGettigan reasoned that a San Francisco adventure travel bus company, called Green Tortoise, was a plausible site to test certain assumptions about power made by figures ranging from Hobbes to Habermas. Green Tortoise, a resolutely alternative bus line, provides both a regular commuter run between Seattle and Los Angeles and less structured adventure trips across the country. The Tortoise format, which includes a collec-tive, participatory mess and nighttime transformation of the vertical seating into a horizontal collective bed, appeals to self-consciously unconventional types. McGettigan reasoned that journeys with the company might provide a participant observer with evidence of whether individuals, briefly brought together in such circumstances, "can be diverted successfully from the pursuit of their most 'brutish' desires only when unifying codes of conduct are imposed" (p. 9).
In addition to challenging Hobbes' suspicion that they cannot, the unorthodox travelers might, McGettigan speculated, collectively "'see' and respond thoughtfully to social power's invisible influences" and perhaps together erode "the cognitive distortions that inhibit the identification of 'truth' in more conventional set¬tings" (pp. 3-4), thus forming something of a mobile Habermasian ideal speech community-a "utopia on wheels."
The first section reports on four separate trips: two of the commuter and two of the adventure variety. McGettigan's descriptions of them are filled with vivid depictions of characters and incidents, as well as with wry commentary on both as they relate to his theme of power. In fact, the writing is so delightful and the treatments so wry that I began to suspect McGettigan viewed the whole issue of "social power's invisible influences" ironically. Concern with these influences normally sets in, after all, only as we rise above the old "positive" experience of power (being forced to do things we don't want to do) to worry whether power perhaps invisibly corrupts us by setting the terms and evaluative tonalities in which we have come to view reality in the first place, causing us to obey it willingly, unable even to imagine why we should not. Yet too much concern with such power can easily seem elitist and perhaps even decadent: Indeed, the more invisible the power we wish to escape, the more our concern with doing so appears an extravagance in a world where visible power daily blasts countless lives. How better to make this point than to depict the antics of would-be
escapees drawn from sectors of society least touched by visible power? Hence my increasing delight as I read the first section of the book, half expecting McGettigan to turn on the problems that motivated his journeys and deem them comparatively trivial.
Alas, he does not. In the last chapter, he grapples straightforwardly with the paradox of invisible power-that the terms in which we come to see it preclude ever deciding ourselves free of its control-and proposes a solution to it. His too brief discussion, however, is not well connected to the observational data from the bus trips, which become retrospectively gratuitous, and the solution he proposes to the paradox is (at least as I understand it) unsatisfying. McGettigan concedes that the paradox precludes "ideal speech situations" through which we can come to know and articulate our true interests (as opposed to those implanted in us by power), yet believes that we can become "'partially emancipated' through the process of 'redefining reality'" (p. 119). He notes that both Galileo and Darwin were able to overcome the ideological straitjackets of their times to mold new visions of reality and argues that such redefinitions imply "that it is possible for individuals to obtain an awareness of their real interests" (p. 121). He apparently sees a moment of partial autonomy from invisible power in such instances of redefinition, so
that real, uncorrupted, interests may be visualized (p. 122). But, if so, why are ideal speech situations and knowledge of true interests precluded? What exactly is the difference between McGettigan's partial and Habermas' presumably more thorough emancipation? I expect readers, upon finishing the book, will be as baffled as I am about the answer to this question.
That Galileo and Darwin, archmodernist scientists, serve as heroes in McGettigan's concluding analysis, which promotes postmodern social science, is emblematic of the many problems in the final chapter. In particular, the part they play makes us wonder why McGettigan rode the Green Tortoise rather than studied history of science for illumination about power, and why he did so with post¬modernist baggage. Yet I found the journeys themselves a real treat. A skilled teacher mightmake good use of them in an undergrad course on social theory.

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