Wednesday, December 5, 2012

"Walking in the City" - Michel De Certeau

Trying to characterize the dynamic between the designers and founders of Salt Lake and those who use its wide streets as part of their everyday experience is made much easier through the lens provided by Michel de Certeau in his seminal essay, “Walking in the City,” which appeared in The Practice of Everyday Life.

Michel de Certeau
De Certeau makes a distinction between those who fashioned the system of a city—“urbanists” and “architects,” he calls them—and “walkers . . . the ordinary practitioners of the city [who] live ‘down below,’ below the thresholds at which visibility begins” (p. 93).

De Certeau continues: “The walk—an elementary form of this experience of the city; they are walkers, Wรคndersmanner, whose bodies follow the thicks and thins of an urban ‘text’ they write without being able to read it. These practitioners make use of spaces that cannot be seen” (p. 93). These spaces constitute rhetoric, not in the form of spoken language, but are often expressed through “real systems whose existence in fact makes up the city” (p. 97).

Carrying the idea of space as rhetoric even further, De Certeau compares walking to the speech act: “The act of walking is to the urban system what the speech act is to language or to the statements uttered” (p. 97). He continues, “Walking affirms, suspects, tries out, trangresses, respects, etc., the trajectories it ‘speaks’” (p. 99).

De Certeau compares the grammarians on language to the “urbanists and architects” (p. 100) who try to define the “proper” use and meaning of space, but  walkers’ “rhetorical transplantation carries away and displaces the analytical, coherent proper meanings of urbanism” (p. 102).

Walkers in downtown Salt Lake
While there is an “official” narrative authored by those “urbanists and architects,” De Certeau observes that “the language of power is in itself ‘urbanizing,’ but the city is left prey to contradictory movements that counterbalance and combine themselves outside the reach of panoptic power” (p. 95). We have seen this in Salt Lake City over the years in public discourse, as smaller groups have challenged prevailing political and cultural influences—including the Utah Legislature’s voting “wet” instead of “dry” for the 21st Amendment in the 1930s; and Salt Lake City’s authorizing health benefits for domestic partners of its gay employees—and won.

Another metaphor associated with the rhetoric of the printed page is that of the topos—which is Greek for place, and also referred to as a container—where author, topic, identity, and space are limited to that page. Rice (2006) speaks to this idea: “The space of the page . . . is tied to the single author, the individual who works in one fixed space within a fixed disciplinary focus with a single identity tied to a singly motivated reading practice tied to a single idea expressed at a single moment” (p. 130).

De Certeau also does not see walkers in the city as being limited to a topos/place. “Pedestrian movements form one of these ‘real systems whose existence in fact makes up the city.’ They are not localized; it is rather that they spatialize. They are no more inserted within a container than those Chinese characters speakers sketch out on their hands with their fingertips” (p. 97).

Not only are walkers not limited to place, according to De Certeau. In fact, “to walk is to lack a place. It is the indefinite process of being absent and in search of a proper. The moving about that the city multiplies and concentrates makes the city itself an immense social experience of lacking a place” (p. 103).

The place outside the container—and off the printed page, as Rice (2006) described it—is “the space somewhere else . . . [it] is the open space constructed out of connections where multiple writers engaging within multiple ideas in multiple media at multiple moments function. That space somewhere else is the network. . . . In that process of making networks, writers, through their work, see themselves connected to information in ways the space on the page does not allow” (p. 130).

Expanding on Rice’s “elsewhere” of the network, De Certeau clarifies that “the networks of these moving, intersecting writings compose a manifold story that has neither author nor spectator” (p 93).

Exploring where these stories emerge is the topic of my next post, where I look at Rice’s Digital Detroit: Rhetoric and Space in the Age of the Network (2012) and how the network has helped or hindered the dialogue among walkers of Salt Lake in its wide streets.



De Certeau, M. (1984). The Practice of Everyday Life (translated by Steven Rendell). Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Rice, J. (2006, November). "Networks and New Media," College English, Vol. 69, No. 2.

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