Walking in the City

7 May

With the appearance of perspective in the previous post, I wish to return to Michel de Certeau and his text ‘Walking in the City’, from The Practice of Everyday Life. Like Jonathan Raban, Certeau presents the city as a text, suggesting there is legibility to it. However, this legibility changes with perspective. Certeau famously opens his essay with a meditation on New York City as seen from the 110th floor of the World Trade Centre (a view which is, of course, now lost). But, he suggests, this perspective was always a false one; while the ‘God’s eye’ view of the high-rise, the aerial or satellite photo or the map may present the city as a kind of ‘printed’ text, this is not the way that citizens encounter the city on a day-to-day basis, even if they can access such views with increasing ease. The citizen as ‘walker’ writes the text without being able to see what they have written:

These practitioners make use of spaces that cannot be seen; their knowledge of them is as blind as that of lovers in each other’s arms. The paths that correspond in this intertwining, unrecognized poems in which each body is an element signed by many others, elude legibility. It is as though the practices organizing a bustling city were characterized by their blindness.

(Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, p. 93)

Yet there is a process somewhere between writing and reading, a negotiation with the text that they are producing, that enables the citizens to use the city productively, and not only passively. Though caught in a story which has ‘neither author nor spectator’, a way of mastering space is nevertheless fashioned via ‘another spatiality’, with the result that ‘a migrational, or metaphorical, city … slips into the clear text of the planned and readable city.’  The names given to these places inherit a magical quality in this process of migration, as can be heard in the countless fado songs that take Lisbon as their subject matter.

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