Monday, November 2, 2009

Walking in the City, using a map

After spending this past summer as a bright-eyed New Yorker, studying subway maps, google-mapping my way from place to place, and constantly trying to orient myself, I found Michel de Certeau’s exploration of the textuality of the city in “Spatial Practices” particularly interested. De Certeau calls for a re-insertion of the individual in constructing a vision of the city. He describes the performative act of walking as “a space of enunciation” (98), as the opposite of charting institutionalized paths demarcated through urban planning and bureaucracy. Mapping, according to De Certeau’s understanding, seems to reflect Jameson’s notion of postmodernity and the unstable displacement of the individual, waning of affect, and loss of historicity. A map is nothing but a representation of a “place” (as defined on 117), a simulacra of what once carried meaning as a performative “space” (117). The objects on a map denote institutionalizes “tours” and “detours”, when in actuality, as de Certeau describes, the individual performs the act of contructing his/her own through the mobility of walking. Thus, the act of the individual in constructing space is lost even more today than ever, with the prominent role maps play as exemplified with (for example) the obsessive use of Google maps.

De Certeau revives the notion of space by highlighting the individual’s role in its construction. The place thus both constricts the path of the individual in its very spatial configuration and allows him/her to formulate his/her own experience within the set limitations. This reminds me of Paglen’s assertation that geography (and maps) cannot deny the spatial existence of place (or is it spaces?). The existence of a place, of a detour, or anything objectively mappable, provides a point off of which the individual can jump. “The street geometrically defined by urban planning is transformed into a space by walkers” (117). In my own terms, this summer I used maps and the places I found myself in to facilitate and structure my own individual existence in New York (life-changing internship, living on my own, finding myself etcetc).

As an afterthought that I think needs addressing-- De Certeau begins his critical analysis by positioning himself atop the World Trade Center, as much outside of the discourse which he seeks to examine as possible. Immediately my first question to ask became, what is at stake in looking at the city from a vantage point that no longer exists? Is it just the height that the building provided or is it the weight it carried as an international hub, representing the “world” and not solely New York? If so, under the circumstances that the World Trade Center fell, is there any point in New York that can truly gain critical distance, or is there anyone willing to seek it in the first place?

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