The Sounded City (i)

7 May

Michel de Certeau was keen to present the negotiation of the city as both writing and reading, an in-between process where one is constantly aware of shifting perspectives and of alternations between activity and passivity. However, it is necessary to consider the potential problems of this association between street and page. In his book Species of Spaces – a work that has influenced my own thinking about the possibilities of building relationships between different spatial categories – Georges Perec begins with the space of the page upon which the letters he writes are displayed, before zooming out to the book in which he is writing, the desk upon which the book sits and so on until we have left the room, the house, the street, the city and even the world far behind. The ‘problem’, however, is that we reach the end of his adventure without having really left the space of the page.

Derek Gregory highlights a similar issue in the work of geographer Alan Pred, who explicitly uses wordplay and textual strategies (like Perec, Pred utilizes white space, unconventional line breaks and vertical text) to introduce a spatial element into his writing and to let it perform what it is writing about. Pred describes this as an exploitation of ‘the landscape of the page’ and, while it is true that his reader is forced to be aware, like Derrida’s, that a point is being made about the performative power of writing, his account of the landscapes he describes remains a description and not the landscape itself. Gregory finds more success in Pred’s inventive visual mappings of the itinerary of workers’ everyday lives, where the routes traced by workers are superimposed in a temporal-spatial representation onto the terrain of the city. But, like Certeau and Perec, description is still anchored to the page no matter how much it drifts.

Certeau seems aware of these issues in his comparison between walking and speech acts. Just as a written text cannot represent for us what the speaking (or singing) voice can do in the process of enunciation, neither can the tracing of an itinerary on a map give us a clue as to the processes involved in traversing territory:

Walking affirms, suspects, tries out, transgresses, respects, etc., the trajectories it “speaks.” All the modalities sing a part in this chorus, changing from step to step, stepping in through proportions, sequences, and intensities which vary according to the time, the path taken and the walker. These enunciatory operations are of an unlimited diversity. They therefore cannot be reduced to their graphic trail.

(Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, p. 99.)

Certeau’s reliance on a musical vocabulary is particularly telling. Henri Lefebvre, meanwhile, is interested throughout his later work with a theory that begins with the body. Indeed, Lefebvre’s insistence on the centrality of the body and on others’ bodies, constantly encountered in the production of social space, is one of the areas in which representations of space and representational spaces are seen to come into close relationship with each other. Lefebvre finds the representation of space connected to the dominant order (what Jacques Lacan would call the Symbolic Order) to be one that relies on illusory symbols:

Perhaps it would be true to say that the place of social space as a whole has been usurped by a part of that space endowed with an illusory special status – namely, the part which is concerned with writing and imagery, underpinned by the written text (journalism, literature), and broadcast by the media; a part, in short, that amounts to abstraction wielding awesome reductionist force vis-à-vis ‘lived’ experience.

(Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, p. 52.)

In contrast to this, Lefebvre suggests that music and other ‘non-verbal signifying sets’ (painting, sculpture, architecture, theatre) that rely to a greater extent on space than do ‘verbal sets’ are more likely to keep a sense of space alive, thus challenging the reductionist abstraction of the verbal.

For Alain Badiou, theatre is distinct from the other arts because of its reliance on being acted out in space; the fact that it cannot come together until the time and the space of performance gives it an ‘evental’ quality that makes each performance singular:

[T]heater is the assemblage of extremely disparate components, both material and ideal, whose only existence lies in the performance, in the act of theatrical representation. These components (a text, a place, some bodies, voices, costumes, lights, a public…) are gathered together in an event, the performance, whose repetition, night after night, does not in any sense hinder the fact that, each and every time, the performance is evental, that is, singular.

(Alain Badiou, Handbook of Inaesthetics, tr. Alberto Toscano (Stanford: Stanford Unbiversity Press, 2005 [1998]), p. 72.)

Musicologists reading such a passage will no doubt be struck not only by the fact that musical performance could be spoken of in much the same way, but also that it has already been done, most notably in the work of Christopher Small. I’ll stay with Badiou, however, in order to maintain the idea of the theatre event and what he calls ‘theatre-ideas’, the ideas created at the point of performance which could not have been created prior to it or in any other space. This has relevance for the importance we place on the text in a theatrical event (and I am thinking of a musical practice such as fado singing as precisely such an event), for ‘[i]n the text or the poem, the theatre-idea is incomplete’. Until the moment of performance the theatre-idea is in an ‘eternal form’ and ‘not yet itself’.

While this seems evident in terms of a play we might go to see in the theatre, it is equally true of the theatre of everyday life that Lefebvre recognizes in the street: ‘here everyday life and its functions are coextensive with, and utterly transformed by, a theatricality as sophisticated as it is unsought, a sort of involuntary mise-en-scène.’ Here, the ‘external’ text would be the symbolic law of the representation of space, the legal script that underwrites how we perform in social space. Lefebvre would later develop these ideas in his essays on ‘rhythmanalysis’, where patterns are discerned in everyday life. The practice of everyday life exceeds the dominant script of symbolic law but it does not get rid of the script. Lefebvre speaks of a ‘spatial economy’ whereby users of a city space have an unspoken ‘non-aggression pact’ that determines their rules of engagement with each other. It is this spatial economy that determines what Peter Stallybrass and Allon White call the ‘politics and poetics of transgression’, those moments when the rules of engagement are ignored but whose ignorance relies on the economy both for its beginning and its end (the return to normality).

Advertisements

One Response to “The Sounded City (i)”

  1. José Abreu June 8, 2012 at 11:44 am #

    Hi

    I study architecture in the UK but I am from Lisbon. For my final dissertation (BA) I am writing on the influence of Fado and unpalpable dimensions of the city which I think its really important on the influence of Lisbon’s spaces and how people interact with them. I am trying to find your book at the libraries in Lisbon but it has been a difficult job. If you could give me some lines or places to research in Lisbon would be great! I am truly fascinated with your work.

    (rhythmanalysis, Lefebre (seen from the window), certau, fado, soudscape navigation,)
    Jose

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: