de Certeau: Walking in the city

“Walking in the city” is, at its core, a rumination born out of gazing. Standing in the World Trade Center looking out oven Manhattan and its sprawling everything, de Certeau ponders what he sees. He is, both at once, in the city and not in the city; the difference being one of perspective and semantics. In one sense, he is physically present within the limits of the city of New York – this is not in dispute. In another sense, he is above it, physically looking down on it, seeing things that those who are in the thick of it do not. The city looks different from up on high, and this difference between perspectives is the core theme of this short, strange text.

Maps are strange artifacts. In Swedish copyright law, maps are classified as works of fiction, by virtue of depicting a point of view. The fact that ordinary human beings can not adopt or enter into a position where they would have this point of view is of little consequence. It is not a view from nowhere, since it is clearly directional (from above, as it were), but it is close enough. These visualizations do not have to be possible to be useful, however, and the mere fact of their human impossibility does not mean they lack consequences for real (and possible) human lives.

de Certeau uses the experience of looking upon New York from a great altitude as a synecdoche for how adopting these impossible points of view changes our experiences of the places depicted. Not just on maps, but in plans, policies, programs – all the formal apparati of administration which permeates every aspect of urban social life. Seeing things through the lens of these things means not looking at a place directly, but rather filtering it through past decisions. A row of houses in disrepair looks a certain way if approached as physical objects at a fixed location, but it takes on quite a different characteristic indeed once it has been made known that these houses are soon to be demolished and replaced with something shinier. Confronting places head on (and, as the title suggests, feet on) lends itself to a radically different understanding of what is going on than confronting them through planning documents.

A question that immediately arises from this is which perspective is correct – from above or from within? de Certeau does not answer this question for us, but rather invites us to ponder the differences between these modes of seeing. To be sure, knowing the planning documents and their changes over time gives an explanation to why things look the way they do, but they do not lend themselves to explaining how the people on the ground look at things. The streets, as William Gibson put it, find their own uses for things, and these uses may or may not correspond with what the manuals have to say. Public policy, following the same logic, does not always translate into the intended outcomes. Planning documents are only words on a page, and can only ever be put into action so far as the place itself allows it. There is always the inherent possibility of reality talking back at the impossible view from above, rebuking its impertinent claims with supreme indifference.

There is an old story of king Canute, who in jest ordered the tide to stop turning. He did not expect the ocean to obey, of course. Rather, he gave the order to show that there are limits to what can be accomplished by authority alone. Some things can be changed, others not, and a wise ruler knows the difference.

A more contemporary example are squatters who occupy (in the many meanings of the word) old and abandoned buildings. From the point of view of immediate physicality, this makes all the sense in the world: here are all these empty places that no one is evidently using, so transforming them into homes is only natural. Seen through the lens of deeds, planning documents and safety regulations, however, these places are supremely unfit for use, and the presence of squatters making use of these places presents a paradigmatic paradox. On the one hand, there is not supposed to be anyone there. On the other hand, those who are nevertheless present make an excellent case in terms of raw, intuitive physicality. Arguing against homeless people living in empty buildings is not only bad public relations – it also highlights the limits of public and state authority. Keeping a building empty in the name of someone who has not been anywhere near the city for decades is not the preferred platform with which to win the next election. Moreover, enacting violence in their name sends strange messages about who counts and who does not in the eyes of the city. A wise ruler – or a wise city council – knows the difference.

This brings us to de Certeau’s distinction between strategies and tactics. Strategies are made possible through the view from above – through mapping and the decision making that decrees where things should be. Strategies are the building of city grids, laying of pipes and regulation of spaces – all the thousands of things that have to be there in order for the city to function. Strategies mobilize vast resources and shape the conditions within which the city’s inhabitants find themselves. Tactics, in contrast, are those courses of action that take place within these very same conditions. It is tactical to ride the subway and get off a stop early because it turns out there is a secret shortcut through an alleyway (more of a hole in the wall, really) which shaves off five minutes of walking time; it is strategic to build a subway line. Tactics is doing what you have with what you got, and when all you got is the city as it presents itself from within, you are confronted with a very tactical situation indeed.

The difference between strategies and tactics allows us to look back on ourselves (now there is an impossible point of view) and ask: are we acting strategically or tactically? And how would we know the difference? Moreover: has politics abdicated itself from the realm of strategy in favor of questions of tactics, such that the only questions under consideration are those set within the limitations of old strategies? If so, what does that mean? What even is politics when the default point of view is that nothing can be changed, where the only possible course of action is to enforce the current order until it is broken beyond repair, and then keep going?

The fact that these ruminations began while de Certeau gazed down at Manhattan from the World Trade Center does have uncomfortable strategic implications. These have yet to be worked through, decades later, and it is my hope they will be addressed through other means than ineffectual airport tactics involving shoes.

de Certeau: Walking in the city

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