On September 30th in SUB we spoke quite a bit about power and power relations. Perhaps this was inspired by the possibility of having to cancel class the next Friday due to a conference on “power” that our college was sponsoring. None of us in the room knew anything about the conference, who was speaking at it, at what time they would speak, about what, etc. We only knew that the conference was taking place all day the next Friday. (Our first point in the discussion was that none of us knowing any of this must have something to do with power, itself.)
Our discussion was informed, as well, and more substantively, by the chapter from Michel de Certeau’s book, The Practice of Everyday Life, that we had read in preparation for our seminar. The chapter is entitled, “Walking in the City,” and this was part of my interest in walking as a form of mobility with particular kinds of agency. The seminar syllabus is organized with this session and two others that focus on changes in mobility that lead to changes in the agency of the subject in motion. Our trajectory in the course is to consider the walker, then the driver, or voyeur-voyager traveling at great speed, and then the electrate surfer awash in a digitally disintermediated mobility. Stated another way, the course is interested in the relationship between urban spatial configuration and kinds/types of subjects that are constructed by those configurations. We take the flaneur and the Parisian arcade as a starting point and look for what that flaneur has become, structurally or relationally speaking, as urban spatial configurations morph from dense, centered cities towards mathematically sublime horizontal and entropic forms of urbanism. In many ways, our interest in de Certeau’s walker in the city is motivated by thickening the subjectivity of the flaneur as presented by Baudelaire and Benjamin, establishing attributes to this subject’s way of knowing space. In discussing the walker, we are still very much discussing the city proper. But at the same time, we are discussing urbanism’s propensity to flirt with forms of density and crowdedness and this seems important to recall as we move in subsequent weeks away from walking and away from the city proper, and into urbanism disengaged from space of the city.
Now, back to the power issue. In class, I invoked Roland Barthes’ book, Criticism and Truth, then I efficiently constructed a model for understanding power using my hands. I first held my two hands close to one another, forming a tight cylinder with them and said that this might represent the stakeholders of power in any given situation. I then moved my hands away from one another, gesturing towards another, larger diameter that lies at the perimeter of the original cylinder and beyond. I named this the “margins” of that power and explained that stakeholders of power inside the tight, centered diameter, generally grow conservative towards their stake in power… i.e.: they want to conserve their power and thus push things that do not correspond with the terms of their power towards the margins. This marginalization of competing forces is part of the power dynamic. Those in power attempt to conserve their power by pushing divergent views, interests, values towards the margins. Meanwhile the margins begin to fill up and start teeming with multiple possibilities that are being excluded in the center. Sooner or later, organization within the margins reaches the point where a “run” is made towards the center and this “run towards power” has the effect, for the sake of this explanation, of creating a new group of stakeholders of power as the new, multiple, teeming possibilities overthrow the conservative arbiters of power that marginalized them in the first place. Then, and this is really the important part, the process begins again as the once marginalized and teeming entity now grows conservative in response to holding onto the power that was originally gained in the move from the margin towards the center. This new group begins marginalizing a new set of multiplicities that will build up in the margin and sooner or later will challenge the center for power.
At this point in my diagram constructed with my hands I am coursing both hands cyclically towards one another and then away from one another gesturing towards the waves of marginalization and then power grabbing. My hands are flowing towards the center and then upward together until they start moving downward and away from one another. I am indicating to the students that this process is continual and though there are variations and durational factors that would make one cycle of this process slower or faster and more or less brutal from another, it generally operates in the manner of my hands coming together and then falling away from one another as a new moment of coming together takes seat. I explain, too, that what my hands are modeling could be social relationships among small groups of people; corporate hierarchies; institutions like the one we are all working; in large political systems whose stakeholders in power affect many more of us at once; and also disciplines, who tend to conserve their defining characteristics over time as a part of how they work on topics. And this is precisely the moment in our discussion when we return precisely to the Michel de Certeau text, as I believe this is one of the strong aspects of the chapter the students had read.
I then quoted the passage on page 96, which I believe is essential to “getting” de Certeau. It is worth the data space here to quote in full:
Rather than remaining within a field of discourse that upholds its privilege by inverting its content (speaking of catastrophe and no longer of progress), one can try another path: one can analyze the microbe-like, singular and plural practices which an urbanistic system was supposed to administer or suppress, but which have outlived its decay; one can follow the swarming activity of these procedures that, far from being regulated or eliminated by panoptic administration, have reinforced themselves in a proliferating illegitimacy, developed and insinuated themselves into the networks of surveillance, and combined in accord with unreadable but stable tactics to the point of constituting everyday regulations and surreptitious creativities that are merely concealed by the frantic mechanisms and discourses of the observational organization.
de Certeau is interested in “minor” practices that persist within dominate systems of power and understands power as a dynamic condition that has as much to with the geometrical, geographical, and theoretical constructs that safeguard it as it does with the “blind spots” proliferate within those administrative practices. He points out that disciplines wield power over the topics that render the discipline knowable and in many cases it is the discipline that must emerge unscathed from forays with the territories of its brokerage. To state it another way, the city is engaged by urban planners and architects in ways that often assume their authority over that engagement above and beyond all else that is also possible in the engagement. Disciplines tend to underwrite their own efficacy with pre-given, well-established responses to certain conditions even if those conditions could more accurately be understood as deeply unsettling for the assumptions of disciplinary work. Disciplines look past the unsettling conditions such that the discipline emerges unscathed, clean, recognizable. de Certeau, writing in pre 9/11 exaltation, uses his own ascendancy to the 110 floor of the World Trade Center as a metaphor for the control practices that take the wild and teeming reality of the city and subject it to a way of knowing that looks past its variability in favor of characterizations of urbanism that are more sympathetic to the control ambitions of disciplines. To this “concept city,” — the city of control, planning, and theory – de Certeau contrasts the “blind and opaque” movements of the walker who enunciates a discrete phatic present out of the abstract conditions of control that permeate urbanism. The walker perpetuates an interruption in otherwise overtly seamless renderings of the city.
de Certeau describes the “triple enunciative function” of the walker. 1) The walker appropriates the place and actualizes some of the plural possibilities that a spatial order posits as possible, making them both emerge and become known. 2) The walker affects a spatial acting out of the place and thus makes a discrete selection out of an otherwise plural set of contingencies undisclosed by the concept of a city. And 3), the walker initiates, maintains, and interrupts social relations among the diverse actors that flow within urbanism, and this conjunctive quality of walking constitutes the city’s atmospheres of sociability; its diverse yet shared feelings of mutual engagement, for better or for worse.
In our discussion, we worked hard to establish both the propriety of the pedestrian here and also understand that de Certeau was invoking a subjectivity, a mind set for practice, and a way of knowing the city that is attributed to walking but might also be understood as not reducible to simply walking. In other words, whether or not one set out to literally walk, I wanted the students to understand that the agency of walking holds this potentiality.
In our seminar session the previous week, we discussed Georg Simmel’s seminal essay, “Metropolis and the Mental Life,” along with Walter Benjamin’s exaltation of the flaneur with the intent of establishing the mutual construction between particular urban configurations of space and their corresponding subject affinities. Our primary interest in the de Certeau chapter was to develop our understanding of the particular agency held by those who walk in order to construct something specific within and from the metropolitan experience of cities. We used de Certeau’s writing to thicken our developing understanding of subjects and urban spaces, but also tapped into his interest in being cognizant and critical of how power relations get inscribed and maintained in all sorts of organizational systems.