Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (2018)

One of the most difficult tasks of doing criticism is choosing what to write about. Or, rather, which aspects of a work to zoom in on once the writing gets going. The choice is seldom obvious or straightforward; more often than not, there are several interesting things going on in parallel, and the logistics of writing gets in the way of covering them all. Out of the many possible critical points of entry, some must be chosen and others left unexplored. Art is long, life is short – between the two, criticism.

The choice is further constrained by considerations of what would be interesting or relevant to read. Unless the act of criticism is an exercise in writing for its own sake, there is usually some sort of point to be made. While there are many ways to arrive at any one point, some are bound to be more effective and resonant with the current moment than others. The critic thus have to sort through the many possible options and make an estimate of the various pros and cons, such as the ease of conveying the significance of one aspect versus the critical potential of a less obvious aspect. The former would tend to be easier to write, but its obviousness might lead a reader to wonder why it needs to be said at all; the latter would make for a more difficult writing process, but if successful it might end up being a more engaged and insightful critique. Whether to go for the one or the other, as always, depends.

Take, for instance, the new televised incarnation of Sabrina the Teenage Witch. There is something to be said about the initial expectation of this new incarnation being anything like its 90s predecessor, and having it dashed by the realization that this new version is about as far from that as it is possible to get without switching media format entirely. This state of things might be indicative of some sort of shift that has taken place between then and now, a shift which can be fruitfully explored through comparative efforts. A critic might also use difference between versions as a basis for expressing their opinion – be it that the 90s version was better, or that the new direction is a bold but successful move. It is an obvious point of entry, affording many quick write-ups which may or may not remain interesting as time goes on.

There are also individual scenes which could serve as focal points. One scene in particular involves three witches ganging up on titular teenage witch and threatening to hang her from a tree, just as women of yore were hung during the time of witch hunts. As the threat looms closer to being realized, the noose quite literally tightening around the protagonist’s throat, she turns the tables by enlisting the aid of a number of local ghosts to counterhang her tormentors in invisible (but seemingly quite effective) ethereal rope. After letting them dangle for a while, the ghosts release the witches from their ghastly hold, alive. The scene ends with Sabrina making it clear that nothing like this will ever happen again, by virtue of the ghosts doing everything in their considerable power to ensure this outcome. It is a powerful scene, which establishes that the new Sabrina is someone who does not fuck around, and who is not afraid to fight fire with fire.

A critic might do any of several things with this scene. The obvious being to use it as contrast between the different incarnations of the series – the 90s version most decidedly did not include these kinds of violent happenings, and definitely not with such frequency. It can also be used as an example of character development, as in the previous paragraph. A third use is to zoom in on the fact that one of the tormenting witches happens to be a person of color, and that Sabrina turning the tables by use of a ghost mob technically qualifies the scene as a depiction of an old style lynching, with all the racist connotations that go along with it.

This third reading has the potential to be interesting. In light of the 90s version being an extremely white series, implicit racism is very much a relevant aspect to bring to the fore, if and where it occurs. As an attention-grabbing moment, however, this reading combines all the elements for a hot take – it is relevant, juicy and has the potential to generate a whole lot of social media heat. With a little effort, it can be ever so gently packaged in a way that suggests the lynching was the explicit point of the scene, rather than an unfortunate side-effect of the setting. Ramp up the phrasing, crank up the confidence and press send, then enjoy the immediate attention that comes from exposing the new hot series as racist.

Unfortunately, such a course of action would not be the most interesting thing a critic could do with this source material. To be sure, the immediate attention might generate a retweet or two, but when the dust settles, it does not add to anyone’s overall understanding of anything, least of all the issues this series has with regards to representation. As a critical intervention, it is severely lacking in every respect.

Thus, we are back where we began, with the question of choosing what to focus on. It is always tempting to go for the low-hanging fruit or the hot topic of the day. When the two combine, it might even seem like an inevitability. Over time, however, making a habit of picking such convenient aspects to write about tends to lead to piles of uninteresting writing, even as it allows for great productivity. Hot takes can only remain hot for so long, after all.

As to the series itself, it remains to be seen if this bold new move into the spoopy horror genre will stand a second glance, or if it will become as formulaic as its 90s counterpart tended to be. Bobunk notwithstanding.

Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (2018)

Cities: Skylines

The key to understanding Cities: Skylines is to know its history. The game comes from a very particular tradition, and is in many ways a continuation of it. Things that might seem inexplicable become clear as day once put in context, and indeed take on an appearance of being nigh inevitable. The letter arrived at its destination, and it took a very particular route to get there.

I am, of course, referring to the fact that the game is a continuation of the Cities in Motion series.

This might come as a surprise to some readers. The most common comparison is to other games explicitly labeled as city builders, particularly the various iterations of Sim City. It is a natural comparison to make – apples to apples. The games even share a non-trivial amount of gameplay elements (zoning comes to mind), making the comparison that much more intuitive. At a glance, it requires intimate knowledge to even tell the games apart. Indeed, it is very difficult not to place these games in the same category.

There are different ways to achieving the same results, however. The way to reach an outcome is almost as important as actually getting there. The journey is, as the famous saying goes, the goal. This was very much the core principle of the Cities in Motion games, whose main activity was building public transit networks in order to allow people to get where they needed to go in a fast and expedient manner. The challenge being to build the transportation networks in such a way that bottlenecks are avoided, delays rerouted and, above all, waiting times eliminated. The mere possibility of getting there by public transit is not enough – it has to be a doable and convenient possibility too, in equal measure.

The main way this manifests in Cities: Skylines is that the primary building blocks are roads, and the main mechanical challenge is to place these roads in such a way that the city functions. Or, rather, to avoid gridlocks and overly long transit times; there are no actual game mechanics for a city to fall into a state of dysfunctionality. Every social ill is solved by a vehicle arriving at a location, be it fire, illness, crime or even death itself. The protagonists of this game are not the citizens who ostensibly inhabit the city, but rather the myriad of trucks that forever move back and forth. The city is built and designed for them.

One of the main challenges in the Cities in Motion games is to not have the solution get in the way of itself. Merely building a series of bus routes crisscrossing the city does not solve the problem of getting from here to there. Indeed, given enough buses, it is a very real possibility that the main impediment to a smoothly running public transit is the system of public transit. Buses block the way of other buses, who then block the way for other traffic, exacerbating the problem rather than solving it. The main joy of these games is zooming in on particular locations and situations to pinpoint just exactly where the problem arises, and make subtle adjustments which intuitively should not have a great impact, but which nevertheless do. It is all about setting up a system and tinkering with it.

The same challenge is present in Cities: Skylines, albeit with less of a focus on public transit specifically. And the game is forgiving enough to let you zoom in on a problem for a considerable amount of time without anything important breaking while you are distracted. Spending weeks and weeks of in-game time setting up a highway intersection that does not cause a stau longer than the list of city residents – has little to no consequences on the functioning of the city. At no point does a player zoom out only to discover that the city is now a racially segregated, crime-ridden, no-prospects hive of villainy and corruption, long abandoned by the very notions of progress and prosperity. Homelessness literally does not exist (except, interestingly enough, for corpses). At most, the problems might extend to a series of abandoned buildings where city services have been insufficient. There are no consequences for this neglect; new residents and businesses will continue to move in at a regular pace once the old lots have been cleared. Traffic continues to flow, life goes on, as if to say: Robert Moses was right all along.

This would be a major critique of the game if it was seen as a city builder. There is no city residing in these buildings, there is no whole greater than the sum of its parts. There are just a great number of parts that have to move from point a to point b, preferably at decent speeds. As a city builder, Cities: Skylines is an utter and total banishment of humanity from the built environment – everything and everyone are just replaceable numbers. To invoke de Certeau, there are no tactics to be found here, only strategies.

Fortunately, Cities: Skylines is not a city builder. It is a logistics simulator. The main change from the Cities in Motion series was to drop the word “public” from “public transit simulator”, thus increasing the scope of ambition whilst also remaining firmly within the narrow framework of moving things around. With this in mind, the game performs the task it has set out to do admirably. It allows players to endlessly fiddle with knobs and calibrate adjustments just to see what happens, and then repeat the process to see if the system runs smoother this time. In and of itself, this is an enjoyable experience, as far as it goes. But it is important to remember that it does not go very far, and that any social commentary the game makes with regards to actual cities is entirely incidental.

Cities: Skylines

Haraway: a Cyborg Manifesto

Every now and then, I am asked if I can summarize the Cyborg Manifesto. Every time, my answer is a resounding “no”, because what would be the point? It would, to be brutally blunt, be counter to the many points made along the way, beginning with the very first line:

An ironic dream of a common language for women in the integrated circuit

This point is mirrored in the final paragraph, wherein Haraway writes:

This is a dream not of a common language, but of a powerful infidel heteroglossia. It is an imagination of a feminist speaking in tongues to strike fear into the circuits of the supersavers of the new right.

Any attempt to strictly and straightforwardly summarize the Manifesto would immediately run into trouble when faced with these two snippets. By beginning with the statement that this is an ironic dream of a common language, and ending on the note that this is in fact not a dream of a common language, the neat categorization characteristic of orderly summation becomes ever so slightly undermined. Things can not be both A and not-A, and yet here it is, proclaiming to be both, unabashedly and unapologetically. It is language, but – I think you can agree with me on this point – it is not common in the least.

To make things worse, this is the point. Haraway is not trying to give you the analytic rundown of what the concept of cyborg is, means and implies, working through all the definitions with helpful clarifications along every step of the way. This is a manifesto, where the act of reading forces readers to shift their thinking on the subject in order to retroactively fill in the gaps. By partaking of the language and immersing oneself in the verbiage, uncommon thoughts become possible. Adopted at face value, it indeed becomes an infidel heteroglossia, capable of alienating even the most integrated of individuals. Take for instance the following passage:

The main trouble with cyborgs, of course, is that they are the illegitimate offspring of militarism and patriarchal capitalism, not to mention state socialism. But illegitimate offspring are often exceedingly unfaithful to their origins. Their fathers, after all, are inessential.

There is a lot going on here, not least in the juxtapositioning of oppositional concepts. Untangling the precise nature in which a cyborg is an illegitimate offspring of both capitalism and socialism would be a substantial project in and of itself, but the Manifesto is not the place where this work is performed. The point, again, is to move readers to a place where such retroactive reasoning can be undertaken. This is the irony of the common language – if you stop too long to think about it, it becomes drastically less common by the second. By providing this launch pad from which to propel yourself into adopting an uncommon language, the text performs an ever so small act of violence upon its readers. The thought is now in your head; it is up to you are your curiosity to find out what it means.

Seeing how this is the mode in which the Manifesto operates, a quick clean summary which extracts the main points and lays them out in a neat orderly fashion (preferably with bullet points) – would miss the boat entirely. The point is to assault your brain with language and immerse your thinking in it for the duration. What does it mean that “[o]ur best machines are made of sunshine; they are all light and clean because they are nothing but signals”? Any one answer to this question would be insufficient, given the vast range of interpretations opened up by having made the statement. The irony of the common language is, yet again, that it isn’t.

This mode of presentation has the advantage of getting the creative juices going. At the same time, it suffers from the disadvantage of being an infidel heteroglossia. The Manifesto does not give readers anything for free, and merely reading through from beginning to end is a slog, an accumulation of efforts too large to be readily performed with enthusiasm by newcomers. There is always the risk of readers throwing up their hands and proclaiming that they can’t even, leaving the words unread. (This audio version might prove helpful in that regard.) To borrow an insight from 80s cultural studies: it is unimportant how a text is structured if no one actually reads it.

If anything definite can be said about the Manifesto, it is that it is a relentlessly 80s text. This manifests itself by a myriad of references and things taken for granted that are simply not obvious to our current moment. It takes a certain amount of historical knowledge to realize that the references to star wars is not just about the movies, but also about the cold war endeavor to build space defenses against nuclear missiles. The intellectual context of the text is one where the Soviet Union was a very real and immediately felt presence on the world stage. Readers from the cybernetic future have the combined advantage and disadvantage of knowing how things turned out. Predictions can be deemed either accurate or mere speculation, but the basis of these predictions can not so easily be reconstructed. Unless you are already familiar with this past mode of thinking, the Manifesto will be slightly more alien than it intended to be; it will not provide you with the expository discourse necessary for its decryption.

The main point about cyborgs – then and now – is that they herald a new world order which we do not know yet. Things could become more of what they already are, or completely different. Or, as the almost thirty years since the publication of the Manifesto have shown us, something in between, where radical brand new innovations inevitably find themselves conforming to old established patterns, revealing that we already knew the shape of things to come, but simply had not extrapolated far enough yet. This could be both a cause for despair and a reason to double down on the ironic dream of a common language. If the future is already written, then there is an ever more pressing need to point out its inconsistencies and fault lines. Proclaiming that one would rather be a cyborg than a goddess means carving out a piece of uncertainty for oneself, and – this would be the point – an abject refusal to ask permission to rewrite one’s own code, be it common or uncommon.

Haraway: a Cyborg Manifesto

Hall: Theoretical fluency

I recently stumbled upon the phrase “theoretical fluency” in an essay by Stuart Hall. In one sense, it is an intuitive phrase – being able to converse fluently about things theoretical, knowing how to produce discourse around things in the abstract. In another sense, perhaps equally as intuitive, it connotes an ability to spring into lengthy soliloquies on any topic theoretical, be it postmodernism, feminism or the mood in late 19th century Prussia prior to German unification – without necessarily knowing what the ever increasing voluminousity of verbiage actually means. The first sense is, as you might imagine, preferable; nothing quite beats someone who knows what they are talking about. Yet there is always the suspicion whenever someone goes on at length, on any topic, that it might all very well be a case of fluency in the second sense; the author, having finally found an excuse to expound the matter, goes at it with gusto and great enthusiasm. Being able to tell which is which is not always an easy proposition.

It does not help that the ability to explode into theoretical discourse is a skill in its own right, only loosely related to grasping the theories themselves. Knowing the theories of Foucault (to take a popular example) does not automatically lend an immediate proficiency in retelling them in an interesting or accurate manner. It takes time and effort to craft language which conveys both the broad strokes and the fine points, and like everything else there is a skill to it. Like with most theory, the one surefire way to improve this skill is practice.

What makes matters even less clear is a cultural tendency to view presentational prowess as intelligence. Being able to perform the moves of presentation (as in giving a lecture or writing a text) lends an aura of being knowledgeable. Someone who has delivered a stunning TED talk is seen as more competent than someone who barely managed to stumble through the same material. This goes even if the TED presenter exhausted every bit of knowledge in that one presentation, while the stumbler has spent years reading up on this stuff. Knowledge is not necessarily a powerful mover of hearts and minds, as it were.

This opens up for a notion of theoretical fluency which conforms very closely to a common stereotype of academics: people who are very adept at blowing hot air, but whose range of actually useful knowledge only extend as far as keeping themselves employed in their cushy jobs. And to be sure, being able to perform Foucault, Derrida or whomever else happens to be in vogue at the moment – is a very useful skill to have in academic settings. It helps in getting the grades needed to insert oneself into such circumstances, and can be instrumental to maintaining an employment once attained. Since so many things in academia do not go without saying, being able to blow hot air has a very tangible real world application.

It might be tempting to go all in on the bullshit angle, and describe someone who knows nothing but is very good at verbally passing the bucket along. This would be unfair, however, and less than useful. It takes a certain amount of effort to find out what to say, which sources to invoke, which turns of phrase will accomplish just the right amount of ingroup bonding – and so on. A more interesting aspect of theoretical fluency is how knowing these subtle discursive signs becomes a skill and goal in itself. Given that most of them are rooted in reasons that are historical (and thus ruthlessly arbitrary), they can not be intuited or deduced from general principle. The only way to know the generic markers and secret handshakes is to perform a certain amount of work – or, phrased another way, to undergo the process of socialization. Attaining theoretical fluency is not a matter of pretend or being an impostor; it is still necessary to become a legitimate member of the academic community, jumping through all the requisite hoops and performing all the rituals.

What worries Hall is a possibility (perhaps a tendency) to become too proficient at performing the theory, at the expense of grappling with what the theorists set out to do. A non-trivial number of the canonical 20th century theorists wrote under 20th century conditions, and wrote with the intent to accomplish a radical theoretical shift which would prevent their present from repeating itself. Never again. There is a radical intensity to these thoughts which is not easily translated into theory, even in contemporary academic circumstances which style themselves as critical. There is a tendency of translating manifestos into tokens, talking points which convey just the right amount of context without actually having to work through the implications. A reference to this thinker here, another thinker there, and a third one just to cover all the bases. Suddenly the history of ideas is reduced to a number puzzle pieces, which only have to be placed in the correct order to achieve publication.

Again, let’s avoid the temptation to fall into caricature. Some shorthand is always necessary, and finding fast ways to convey complex ideas is a virtue. Hall’s worry is a theoretical fluency which turns on all topics with equal alacrity, without first assessing where theoretical action is most necessary or useful. To use an example: someone wearing a piece of symbolically loaded article of clothing of an indigenous culture may or may not be cultural appropriation. It probably is, in several ways. However, if an author’s first and only response to centuries of colonial history leading up to this point is to mobilize a vast array of theoretical frameworks and resources in an elaborate attempt to show why this one singular person was wrong – then the author has exhibited an impressive amount of theoretical fluency, and a very clear case of not getting the point of any of it.

Hall: Theoretical fluency

Solo (2018)

The old Star Wars movies were masterpieces of world building. Mostly because they never stopped to explain what everything is – they just casually mentions things and move on, leaving the viewers to fill in the gaps. It begins early in A New Hope with a casual mention of the clone wars, which is never elaborated upon or made an object of exposition. It then continues as the protagonists go from place to place, with a similar lack of explanatory pretense. What is Mos Eisley? Don’t know, but it’s bad and that’s where the space ships are, so we have to go there. What’s on Alderaan? Don’t know, but it blew up. What is the Force? Who knows, but apparently it gives you the ability to choke people and somehow confers military rank within the Empire. What is the Empire? Who can tell, but they blew up Alderaan, so they are probably evil.

This goes on all the way to the Ewoks, at the end of Return of the Jedi. Things are introduced, and the gaps between these new things and what is already known allow for creative efforts to try to explain how it all fits together. A non-trivial part of the original movies consist of people standing around in costumes without being either acknowledged or explained; they are just there, a fait accompli which must be taken into account for the narrative universe to make sense.

The fact that most of these movies take place on a connotative level makes them extremely goofy if you watch them with a denotative sensibility. Darth Vader, menacing presence par excellence, becomes a figure who shows up every now and then to proclaim things with supreme confidence. This confidence is not based on any particular reason available to intersubjective scrutiny, but is simply present because. Seen in this light, he becomes a smug muppet more than anything else.

The newer cinematic entries into the Star Wars universe follow the same dynamic, albeit with less dramatic results. The new Solo movie aims to make explicit what has so far been implicit, with the result that the movie becomes less interesting for it. The events depicted have mostly been deduced from information already provided (with the particulars differing across individual interpretations), and putting them on screen adds little to the narrative copia already in place. In fact, it has the paradoxical effect of subtracting from the space of possible interpretations; knowing just how the card game wherein the Millennium Falcon came into Solo’s possession came down isn’t conducive to generating more stories. It just means we got this one on screen.

To be sure, this dynamic extends to the prequels as well (e.g. midichlorians), but it is exacerbated with these new movies that pertain to particular events at particular times. A Boba Fett movie (rumored to be in the works) would have to take into account that for most of his screen presence, he is one of the aforementioned suits who is simply there to provide ambient world building. What he did on screen pales in comparison to what he would have had to do off screen in order for things to make sense. Any particular instantiation of these implied stories would, by necessity, be lesser than the potential range of stories afforded by not telling them. The new movies are, in many ways, a self-defeating proposition.

When seen in this light, the reactions to Solo can be understood in context. On the one hand, it goes through the motions of being a movie, and does it with adequate alacrity. On the other hand, it closes down avenues of potential stories, without an equal opening up of new ones. Those who enjoy the movie in the first sense are happy to have seen a nice flick, with all the bells and whistles. Those who worry about the implied trajectory of the franchise, in the second sense, can’t help but feel a more or less explicit sense of dread with regards to the movie. Despite the production value, if this is where things are headed, there is reason to sense a disturbance in the force indeed.

Somewhere in here, we glimpse the difference between content and culture. It would be an easy (albeit work-intensive) process to simply tick off boxes of potential new movies. The backstories of Boba Fett, Leia, Yoda; there is an endless series of Solo-style movies just waiting to happen. It would, in a long enough run to warrant massive financial investments, be a sure bet; the potential to unleash the forces of cinematic mass production is there. But as we saw from the Hobbit, more is not always better. More content will certainly bring asses to seats, but it would also define and close down the narrative universe. Rather than being a space to project what-if on, it becomes a long list of movies to watch to even be a part of the conversation. It becomes a chore to keep up, with enough granularity inherent to the material to enable a non-trivial number of smug muppets to appear.

But then again. That might have been Star Wars culture all along.

Solo (2018)

Astrology

Astrology has a long and interesting history. To say that it began with the ancient Greeks would be traditional, but also inaccurate, seeing that they learnt it from venerable civilizations who were ancient even back then. This fact alone adds to the length and interest, and a far more research-intensive blog post would go into the intricate developments that took place over the last half a dozen millennia. Alas, this is a post about the intricate present state of astrology, and different approaches towards it.

Astrology has a long and interesting present. Not only is it informed by its history, but also by the very modern trends and forces that so ruthlessly inform everything around us. Newspapers make sure to include horoscopes in tiny secluded corners, knowing its inclusion will cause readers to stick around. Publishers make sure to keep at least one astrologer around to write books on the subject, whose sales numbers are as predictable as you would expect. In every profitable nook and cranny of contemporary life, astrology finds a niche. It would be downright strange if it did not, given capitalism.

Those wanting to take a scientific approach to this phenomenon have to come to terms with what it is. That is what scientists do – they come to terms. They also define and analyze. Which is a statement so close to a tautology that you would think it’d go without saying. However, over the course of the next three paragraphs, I am going to show you that it does not. Buckle up.

When the words ‘science’ and ‘astrology’ are used in proximity to each other, it is usually in the context of sceptics wanting to debunk the latter in favor of the former. A common theme is to bring up the predictive powers of astrology, or rather the lack of it. The movements of the celestial bodies do not, it is said, affect the outcomes of happenings relevant in the lives of individual people, and can thus not be used to predict anything at all. There is no causation to be found, and those correlations that can be found are in fact the kind of statistical random noise expected given a sufficiently large data sample. Thus, it does not matter how rigorously an astrological method (there is more than one) is applied; given the lack of causal mechanism, any prediction made is by definition unscientific. Thus having proved the unscientific nature of astrology, sceptics consider themselves finished and the topic exhausted. Nothing more to see here, move along.

This is a rather narrow view of scientific inquiry, though. Merely showing that a method is scientific or not does not exhaust the scientific method. Indeed, we already alluded to another use of this method in the very first sentence of this post: the long and interesting history. Scholars and historians can apply rigorous methodology in their efforts to establish a timeline, and in establishing a systematic understanding of the contemporary uses of astrology during different historical periods. To be sure, one of the key facts of history is that we can not go back into it and perform experiments. It is, however, possible to science the living daylight out of the remains and fragments that have survived to this day. There is a history of astrology, and we can study it scientifically.

Moreover, there is a present of astrology. Social scientists can look at how it is used in contemporary everyday settings, and how it offers different affordances when applied in various ways. Someone saying that someone else is such a Sagittarius is not an ontological claim that because this person was born at a particular time, they are predestined to have certain personality traits. Rather, this statement efficiently mobilizes an implicit understanding of a particular kind of person, which allows the conversation to move forward with a shared mutual understanding of who’s who. Similarly, describing oneself as a Scorpio is not a resignation of agency in the face of the compelling deterministic power of the cosmos. Rather, it is a modest acceptance that the speaker is a particular kind of person, and thus when faced with a particular situation it had predictable outcomes – which again is an efficient communicative strategy to engender sympathy or formulate alternate courses of action for future situations of a similar nature. Social scientists, when allowed to listen in on these conversations, can apply the rigors of their trade to understand these social dynamics. The presence of astrology does not define the totality of the situation, but rather constitutes an important analytical aspect that can be leveraged to generate useful information and insight.

When I said that scientists come to term, and that this does not go without saying in the context of astrology, this is what I meant. When sceptics dismiss astrology as nonsense out of hand, they do not apply the scientific method they hold in such high esteem. Rather, they make a quick reference to a particular piece of dogma, and then move on without second thought. Which, to be sure, is an efficient way to mobilize a shared understanding of a situation so as to move a conversation along, but it is neither scientific nor methodological.

Sometimes, you have to choose whether you are scientific or sceptical. And that, dear reader, is a very anomalous state of things indeed.

Astrology

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