Text and Space

27Aug07

I received in the mail at work, the Alfred Kazin book A Walker in the City. It’s a great paperback edition from 1958, with illustrations throughout by Marvin Bileck. I got interested in the book after reading a recent story in the New York Times by Nicole Krauss about walking. I went to the New York Public Library to check out the book, but all the copies seemed to suddenly be on reserve, possibly because of the newfound attention from Ms. Krauss, so I just ordered it online on Amazon.

This article inspired me to go on another wiki-adventure.

Guy Debord

Guy Debord.

Walking reminds me of psychogeography, a Surrealist/Situationalist idea developed in 1995 by Guy Debord.

He sought to confound expectations of the city and, as Wikipedia writes, ‘take pedestrians off their predictable paths and jolt them into a new awareness of the urban landscape.’ His essay on psychogeography which started the movement can be found here. Debord also developed the concept of the derive, based on earlier Parisian tradition of the flâneur, or aimless stroller. He writes:

 

“In a dérive one or more persons during a certain period drop their usual motives for movement and action, their relations, their work and leisure activities, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there…But the dérive includes both this letting go and its necessary contradiction: the domination of psychogeographical variations by the knowledge and calculation of their possibilities.”

 

Or in other words: walking around aimlessly for adventure. It was a way to reacquaint city-dwellers with the city, to renew the urban geography in the eyes of those who experienced it. The concept of the flâneur or dérive also appealed to Walter Benjamin, whose unfinished work called the Arcades Project, about city life in Paris and the covered arcades of the city, was posthumously published.

 

Believe it or not, there are modern participants in this movement, including Glowlab in Brooklyn, and this fall there is also an annual festival in New York called Conflux with interesting events and guided tours.

 

Pittsburgh map

In my hometown of Pittsburgh, there is a Pittsburgh Psychogeographical Society. They have a great website that tracks the experiences of a steelworker in the city through the urban landscape. It’s a great project because a lot of the physical remnants of the steel and metal industry in Pittsburgh, leftover from the age of industrialization, are being torn down to make way for malls (see the Waterfront) and other redevelopment projects, so recording for posterity this disappearing urban landscape is more important than ever.

 

The innovative site moves through four neighborhoods, studying the life of one man, Anthony Psuty, who is described as the first child born in America from a Polish immigrant family, a steelworker for 37 years, a veteran of WWII, a father and grandfather.” There are pictures of him, including a timeline. The idea, perhaps, is to follow along with the maps and explore on one’s own the neighborhoods where he lived.

 

Seamus Heaney wrote that ‘landscape should be read as a sacred text.’

 

The practice of walking around, using the city to stimulate one’s memory, but also reading the city as a text reminded me of the influential Japanese literary critic Maeda Ai (for readers of Japanese a brief Wikipedia entry on him), whose book Text and the City: Essays on Japanese Modernity I read while at Columbia. He reportedly had a great stamina for walking cities, and deep knowledge of urban history, referencing the local geography of neighborhoods to inform his literary critiques of authors and their works. In doing so, he explored the intersection of social and political history with literature. Maeda passed away in 1987 at the young age of 56.

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One Response to “Text and Space”

  1. You might be interested in my blog on City Magic, ekistomancy.blogspot.com. I’m a big fan of Psychogeography, and also a resident of Pittsbugh!


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