Tag Archives: Michel de Certeau

Strolling and Shuffling

21 Mar
Rua do Carmo

Rua do Carmo, Lisbon, 2008.

Listening, as Mladen Dolar suggests, ‘is “always-already” incipient obedience; the moment one listens one has already started to obey’.  The form this obedience takes is inherently spatial but this should not blind us to the obvious temporal implications of listening. Listening to music. for example, offers us a possibility to pass time and, as Simon Frith points out, an experience of time passing: ‘In the most general terms,’ Frith writes, ‘music shapes memory, defines nostalgia, programs the way we age (changing and staying the same).’  For Sylviane Agacinski, who presents a similar discussion of passing time (focussing on both senses of the term), Walter Benjamin remains a key figure, one for whom the act of strolling through a city street was akin to strolling through a series of memory places, stumbling upon evidence of one’s own past and that of one’s society. Here, a giving of oneself over to happenstance is presented in distinction to the strict control of the searcher who is on a quest. Comparisons with forms of reading, viewing and listening are immediately apparent: the browser flicking through the pages of a book, the television viewer cruising the various stations, the radio listener trusting to the dial, or the iPod listener setting their collection to ‘Shuffle’. Agacinski sets up this apparent distinction between agency and passivity by opposing the figure of the historian to that of the stroller:

The historian takes possession of the past by interpreting traces, whereas the trace of the past happens to the stroller and takes possession of him. Let us not claim, however, that nothing happens to the historian; undoubtedly his desire also involves an anticipation, a curiosity with regard to what will come to him from the past, what he will discover in the shadows and encounter. There is often a stroller at the heart of each historian, a part of him that is trying to let himself be touched by the traces.

(Sylviane Agacinski, Time Passing, Columbia UP, p. 52)

Agacinski admits in a footnote that she is thinking of Michel de Certeau when she writes the foregoing, and it is no coincidence that this stroller-historian should also become the author of a discussion of walking that wished to problematize the distinction between active and passive ways of being in the city. As with the historian, so too with the browser, the cruiser and the shuffler, who may well be enjoying the ‘ecstasy’ of discoveries made by accident or by the equally pleasurable activities of browsing among bookshops, record stores, or other collections.  Continuing the idea of browsing-as-activity, Agacinski writes:

For Benjamin, the possibility of experiencing the past requires certain conditions. In particular, the frame of mind for letting oneself be touched, for letting oneself be taken by the aura, requires a true idleness. The stroller cannot want to arrange time himself, for example, by undertaking some project or by precisely scheduling his course of action; rather, he must be available to time, to let time pass, to spend it without keeping count, to know how to waste it.

(Agacinski, p. 55)

This is not a simple form of passivity; to make oneself available is still to make something, to do something. The stroller strolls and the shuffler shuffles with a prior knowledge of certain things they are going to encounter.

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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).

A Man in the City (ii)

7 May

Carlos Saura’s use of ‘Um Homem na Cidade’ in his film Fados (2007) is rather more postmodern but maintains the idea of a tour through the city. Saura’s visualization of the song opens with Carmo standing in front of three musicians (guitarra, viola, viola baixo), who in turn are sat in front of a screen showing filmed footage of Lisbon street life. As the song progresses, Carmo walks forward until he is flanked by two large screens with photographs of Lisbon on them. He walks between these screens, advancing towards the camera, between further pairs of screens all depicting the city until he comes to a halt during the closing of the song in front of what is now a collage of images made up of the photographs he has passed. In a sense he is touring through the city but it is a city of mostly static images and the focus remains on the singer throughout, zooming in on him as he delivers the final line of the song.

Saura has arguably missed something in the song by singling out Carmo and superimposing him on both the musicians and the city. To see what he is missing, let us return to Certeau’s rousing dedication:

The floodlights have moved away from the actors who possess proper names and social blazons, turning first toward the chorus of secondary characters, then settling on the mass of the audience… Slowly the representatives that formerly symbolized families, groups, and orders disappear from the stage they dominated during the epoch of the name. We witness the advent of the number.

(Certeau, p. v)

Saura, then, has returned the floodlight to the individual, as have I. There is a seeming paradox here. How do we reconcile an insistence on the number, the everyday, the move away from the proper name, with an account such as that presented in Fado and the Place of Longing, which emphasizes biographies and recordings of prominent fado stars? Would it not be more apposite to Certeau’s vision to take the route more usually frequented by the ethnomusicologist and attend to the everyday practice of fado by less well-known amateurs (‘users’, in Lefebvre’s and Certeau’s formulation)?

The key is in Certeau’s mention of metonymy, the part taken for the whole. It is time, he says, for the floodlights to move from the actors representing the people to the people themselves. But what this does not take into consideration is the audience’s desire, the fact that they came to the theatre in the first place wishing to see themselves represented by those privileged, highlighted and floodlit actors. The same is true for the godlike view of the city, a view that is actively desired. People want to get out of the city and look back or down on it, to look back, as it were, on ‘themselves’ in the place where they normally are. It should be remembered that the request for representation of the community – be it visual, sonic, theoretical, or academic – comes from within the community itself. There is no privileged ‘theorist’ forever in a position on the ‘outside’. Which is not to say that there is not power, and abuse of power and misrepresentation and non-reflexive categorization. All this exists but it cannot all be laid at the feet of those with proper names. Celebrity culture is something that feeds on a desire that emerges from the everyday. This paradox is also encountered in those artists who are simultaneously feted as ‘one of the people’ and as celebrities. Even the celebrant of anonymity and the practice of everyday life still attaches to his celebration a proper name: Michel de Certeau.

A Man in the City (i)

7 May

In 1976 Carlos do Carmo represented Portugal in the Eurovision song contest and recorded what would become one of his signature tunes, ‘Lisboa, Menina e Moça’, a popular song which feminizes the city as a ‘young girl’. It was his 1977 album Um Homem na Cidade [A Man in the City], however, which really showcased what Carmo meant for the future direction of fado. Described by Rui Vieira Nery as ‘one of the most significant albums in the whole fado discography’, it consisted of a series of specially written poems about Lisbon by José Carlos Ary dos Santos and set to music by a variety of composers from the worlds of Portuguese pop, jazz and fado. It was a concept album and one which clearly was aimed at the post-revolutionary metropolis, showcasing new possibilities of being in the city alongside recognition of longstanding customs that predated (and could therefore escape the taint of cooptation by) the recently overthrown dictatorship. The album came with liner notes by Carmo, Ary dos Santos and two of the composers, António Vitorino D’Almeida and Martinho D’Assunção, all of which stated a commitment to creativity, modernity, Lisbon and the people. ‘With love we leave you this disc’, wrote Carmo at the end of his note. The ‘man in the city’ is also to be found in the dedication at the beginning of Michel de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life and it is interesting to consider these two works alongside each other:

To the ordinary man.

To a common hero, an ubiquitous character, walking in countless thousands on the streets. In invoking here at the outset of my narratives the absent figure who provides both their beginning and their necessity, I inquire into the desire whose impossible object he represents. What are we asking this oracle whose voice is almost indistinguishable from the rumble of history to license us, to authorize us to say, when we dedicate to him the writing that one formerly offered in praise of the gods or the inspiring muses?

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

Certeau’s words bear an echo of the commitment shown by Henri Lefebvre to the lived experience of those connected to representational spaces. It bears a challenge to authority and the ‘view from above’, while also acknowledging the modest endeavour of a description of the everyday. So, too, with Carmo’s album, which mixes quotidian description with an imagination that recognizes the potential for transformation. Almost all of the tracks included in the album make reference to the city of Lisbon. In addition to regular references to the city as a whole, other features of Lisbon are hymned. The title track records the Tejo and the Rossio area, ‘Fado do Campo Grande’ refers to the area of the same name, and ‘O Homem das Castanhas’ uses Praça da Figueira and the Jardim da Estrela as backdrops to the chestnut vendor’s song. Two songs celebrate the public transport systems that connect Lisbon’s neighbourhoods to each other and to the world beyond. ‘O Cacilheiro’ describes the ferries that criss-cross the Tejo, connecting the quays of Cacilhas, Seixal, Montijo and Barreiro and carrying ‘lovers, sailors, soldiers and workers’ to their destinations, while the tram system is the subject of ‘O Amarelo da Carris’ (Carris is the company that operates the buses and trams in Lisbon, easily recognized by their distinctive yellow colour).

‘O Amarelo da Carris’ provides a good example in its lyrics of wider theories regarding agency, passivity, consciousness and the unconscious in the city. The first verse describes the tram which runs from runs from Alfama to Mouraria, from Baixa to Bairro Alto and ‘climbs shuddering to Graça / without knowing geography’. On one hand, the tram serves a purpose similar to the train in many popular song texts, providing a potent metaphor for the workings of fate as it faithfully follows its pre-designed course. Its passengers are passive citizens unable to alter the text of the city, etched as it is in the steel rails. Like the tram itself, which does not require knowledge of geography, the passengers can put their trust in the hands of the network and its operatives (which include, of course, the tram driver). On the other hand, they have chosen to be carried thus and are actively using the tram for their own purposes. They have a starting point and an ultimate destination; the tram and its driver are merely the means to achieve this destiny.

Similarly, the lovers described in ‘Namorados da Cidade’ are like Certeau’s ‘lovers in each other’s arms’, blind to anything beyond themselves while simultaneously creating that ‘beyond’ by going about their business. The protagonist of the title track, the man in the city, is the equivalent of the walkers found in Certeau, Aragon and Sinclair, going through the street under a ‘moon / that brings my Tejo into season / I walk through Lisbon, naked tide / that flows into Rossio’. Another song, ‘Rosa da Noite’, also hymns the incorporation of the city into the body and vice versa, claiming that ‘each street is an intense vein / where the song flows / from my huge voice’. The city is both body (a theme employed by other fados such as David Mourão-Ferreira’s ‘Maria Lisboa’) and a channel through which other bodies (human, non-human, mechanical) flow. Um Homem na Cidade celebrates all these corporeal manifestations. It is, importantly, an album, and therefore, like a photograph album, something to be taken as a whole; its songs are snapshots of the city and its citizens, a collective creating a collection, a thing. This sense of the album as a thing-in-itself was highlighted by the release, in 2004, of an album entitled Novo Homem na Cidade which recreated the original album with versions of its songs, in the same running order, recorded by twelve different artists, a number of them associated with the novo fado of the early 2000s. In addition to showcasing these younger performers, the album serves two other purposes, commemorating Carlos do Carmo’s original album as a thing-in-itself (without which the new album would not exist) and highlighting the continued relevance of the city of Lisbon as a thing-in-itself to be celebrated (without which neither album would exist).

Fado texts provide a tour of the city of Lisbon by incorporating various names associated with the city and, in Certeau’s terms, ‘liberating’ them into a new poetic and metaphoric language. Yet, given that we are dealing with a musical form, it is also necessary to remember the role played by sound in this process. If fado texts take us on a tour of the city, part of that tour involves the hearing of fado music itself. The sound of fado, its instruments and cries, are both representations of space and representational spaces, products of and responses to space itself. In Um Homem na Cidade, there are additional sounds of the city referenced, such as the sound of the tram bell emulated by the guitarra in ‘O Amarelo da Carris’ or the use of the chestnut vendor’s cry in the refrain of ‘O Homem das Castanhas’. This practice develops in sonic form a process earlier undertaken by numerous European and American modernist writers and artists to provide a representation of the noise of the city, albeit witnessed in silence (in the space of writing). For example, we find the following in Fernando Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet:

Future married couples pass by, chatting seamstresses pass by, young men in a hurry for pleasure pass by, those who have retired from everything smoke on their habitual stroll, and at one or another doorway a shopkeeper stands like an idle vagabond, hardly noticing a thing. Army recruits … slowly drift along in noisy and worse-than-noisy clusters. Occasionally someone quite ordinary goes by. Cars at that time of the day are rare, and their noise is musical. In my heart there’s a peaceful anguish, and my calm is made of resignation.

All of this passes, and none of it means anything to me. It’s all foreign to my fate, and even to fate as a whole. It’s just unconsciousness, curses of protest when chance hurls stones, echoes of unknown voices – a collective mishmash of life.

(Fernando Pessoa, Book of Disquiet, p. 14.)

This ‘collective mishmash of life’ is wonderfully transformed in ‘Fado Varina’, from Um Homem na Cidade, into a noisy and salty metaphor suggested by the cries of a woman selling fish in the market: ‘Os teus pregões / são iguais à claridade / caldeirada de canções / que se entorna na cidade’ [Your cries / are like brightness / a fish stew of songs / spilling over the city].

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.