The city as totalizing and mythical landmark for socioeconomic and political strategies


I confess, I didn’t take proper notes from this book… oops. In any case, these notes are from somewhere in Michel de Certeau’s Walking in the City (obviously written before 9/11) and are not perfect quotes…

“Unlike Rome, New York has never learned the art of growing old by playing on all its pasts. Its present invents itself, from hour to hour, in the act of throwing away its previous accomplishments and challenging the future. A city composed of paroxysmal places in monumental reliefs. The spectator can read in it a universe that is constantly exploding.”

Looking down from the World Trade Center, de Certeau writes: “what is the source of this pleasure of ‘seeing the whole’, of looking down on, totalizing the most immoderate of human texts. To be lifted to the summit of the World Trade Center is to be lifted out of the city’s grasp. One’s body is no longer clasped by the streets…. elevation transfigures into voyeur. It puts him at a distance. The exaltation of a scopic and gnostic drive: the fiction of knowledge is related to this lust to be a viewpoint and nothing more.”

“The desire to see the city preceeded the means of satisfying it [i.e., the fiction of birds-eye-view, the celestial, divine eye, created gods]”

“Is the immense texturology spread out before one’s eyes anything more than a representation, an optical artefact?”

My notes (from about 10 years ago!) are incomplete and provocative and I don’t really know de Certeau’s work that well… Is he connecting the concepts of utopia, architecture, environment, and belief? Is he saying that the belief that we can see or know all still drives our construction of the world and that this fiction allows us to (or creates readers who) believe they can see into the opacity of change?

“The panorama-city is a theoretical/visual simulacrum, in short a picture, whose condition of possibility is an oblivion and a misunderstanding of practices. The ordinary practitioners of the city live ‘down below’, below the thresholds at which visibility begins. They walk – an elementary form of the experience of the city… whose bodies follow… an urban ‘text’ they write without being able to read it. These practitioners make use of spaces that cannot be seen; their knowledge of them is as blind as that of lovers in each other’s arms.

Escaping the imaginary totalizations produced by the eye, the every-day has a certain strangeness that does not surface, or whose surface is only its upper limit, outlining itself against the visible. Within this ensemble, I shall try [de Certeau writes] to locate the practices that are foreign to the ‘geometrical’ or ‘geographical’ space of visual, panoptic, or theoretical constructions. These practices of space refer to a specific form of operations (ways of operating), to another spatiality (an anthropological, poetic and mythic experience of space), and to an opaque and blind mobility characteristic of the bustling city. A migrational, or metaphorical, city thus slips into the clear text of the planned and readable city.”

“From the concept of the city to urban practices

The city founded by utopian and urbanistic discourse is defined by the possibility of a threefold operation:

1. The produciton of its own space: rational organisation must thus repress all the physical, mental and political pollutions that would comprise it;

2. the substitution of a nowhen or of a synchronistic system for resistence of tradition; univocal scientific strategies to replace method whereby opacities of history are reproduced[???]

3. Finally, the creation of a universal and anonymous subject, which is the city itself… the city gathers scattered functions previously assigned to many different real subjects (groups, associations, individuals). The city, like a proper name, provides a way of conceiving and constructing space on the basis of finite, stable, isolatable and interconnected properties. Administration (the differentiation and redistribution of parts) is combined with elimination (the rejection of everything not capable of being thus dealt with), though progress allows many of those things being eliminated (abnormality, deviance, illness) back into networks.

Finally, the functionalist organization, by privileging progress (ie time) causes the condition of its own possibility – space itself – to be forgotten; space thus becomes the blind spot in a scientific and political technology.

If in discourse, the city serves as a totalizing and almost mythical landmark for socioeconomic and political strategies, urban life increasingly permits excluded elements – powers that have no readable identity proliferate; without points where one can take hold of them, they are impossible to administer.”

[obviously, my notes could have been better, but I wanted to keep them because it sounded interesting still!]


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