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Walking in the city of Seoul

Walking the streets of Seoul – the “Soul of Asia” – whenever we have had the time, after giving a seminar at a Korean university at the invitation of a friend, has reminded me of Michel de Certeau’s now classic study, The Practice of Everyday Life (1984), part of which is entitled “Walking in the City”.

This is no ordinary travelogue, however, as readers of De Certeau would know; far from it. It is a radicalisation of what one might call a “transgressive reading” of ordinary, everyday activities, revealing the surprising degree to which such “practices” surpass the mechanisms that – according to Michel Foucault’s genealogical analysis in Discipline and Punish – structure modern life, in the process inducing “docility” in subjects of the modern state. In contrast to emphasising such disciplined toeing-the-line on the part of the typical “consumers” of today in terms of a distributed “microphysics of power”, De Certeau talks about the “procedures of everyday creativity”.

He continues (in the Introduction): “If it is true that the grid of ‘discipline’ is everywhere becoming clearer and more extensive, it is all the more urgent to discover how an entire society resists being reduced to it, what popular procedures … manipulate the mechanisms of discipline and conform to them only in order to evade them, and finally, what ‘ways of operating’ form the counterpart, on the consumer’s (or ‘dominee’s’?) side, of the mute processes that organise the establishment of socioeconomic order.

“These ‘ways of operating’ constitute the innumerable practices by means of which users re-appropriate the space organised by techniques of sociocultural production … the goal is to perceive and analyse the microbe-like operations proliferating within technocratic structures and deflecting their functioning by means of a multitude of ‘tactics’ articulated in the details of everyday life … the goal is not to make clearer how the violence of order is transmuted into a disciplinary technology, but rather to bring to light the clandestine forms taken by the dispersed, tactical, and makeshift creativity of groups or individuals already caught in the nets of ‘discipline.’ Pushed to their ideal limits, these procedures and ruses of consumers compose the network of an antidiscipline …”

“Walking in the city” is one of the “ways of operating” that enables consumers to evade the otherwise ubiquitous control exercised over them by anonymous mechanisms of order, such as the myriad forms of surveillance, ranging from census forms and tax returns to CCTV cameras, radar speed traps and parking meters.

De Certeau contrasts the act of “reading” the complexity of the city visually from the top floor of a skyscraper in a “texturological” manner – which corresponds, as expression of the “scopic drive,” to the much earlier representations of the city by Renaissance painters (p. 92), as if from a god’s-eye view – with the street-level spatial practices that elude visibility and abstract legibility.

These below-the-radar activities, he intimates, are alien to the “geographical” space of panoptical, visual mechanisms, and he thinks of them as belonging to an “anthropological,” “migrational” or poetic experience of space.

It is in these practices of invisible, unrepresentable peripatetic movements, peculiar to walkers in cities the world over, that we have participated every time we have criss-crossed this colossal city of 14-million inhabitants.

Usually we choose to walk more-or-less towards a visible beacon such as the Seoul Tower overlooking the city’s downtown area, exploring the interstitial architectural spaces that present themselves, mostly unexpectedly, to our loose directional intentions, and sometimes deliberately walking without any directional intent, surrendering to randomness and passability of streets.

One easily forgets what makes this kind of wandering exploration possible, namely space in its primordial giving, which – as De Certeau appositely remarks – is a blind spot on the part of the functionalist organization of the city on the basis of technological and economic “progress” that privileges time.

To be sure, these “urbanising” operations belong to what De Certeau calls the “Concept-city”, with its language of panoptic power, but they do not comprise the only field of power in the city. On the contrary (p. 95):

“The city becomes the dominant theme in political legends, but it is no longer a field of programmed and regulated operations. Beneath the discourses that ideologise the city, the ruses and combinations of powers that have no readable identity proliferate; without points where one can take hold of them, without rational transparency, they are impossible to administer.”

It is with what De Certeau understands as the decay of the “Concept-city” and the kind of rationality on which it is founded, that the kind of interstitial, pluralistic practices, of which unpredictable city-walking is one, have been given a new lease of life.

His analysis of the innumerable pathways such walking describes highlights its heterogeneity, its qualitative, rather than quantitative character (the footsteps comprising it cannot be counted), its non-functionalist function of weaving places together, and the intangible manner in which such pedestrian movements constitute a complex, but elusive system which is inseparable from the city “itself.”

In a way that reminds one of Henri Lefebvre’s contention, that human social activities “produce” different kinds of space, De Certeau claims that the intertwined movements of walkers “spatialise,” or shape spaces.

We have had concrete experience of this the past week – every walk across the city is irreducibly different; while, as De Certeau points out, city authorities can, through surveys, determine which routes from one end to the other of a city are more frequently used than others, the qualitative activity of walking a route is singular, never exactly the same as before, even when “the same route” is followed.

Today, for example, it started snowing in Seoul, and my partner, who had never seen snow before, responded to the snow in childlike fashion, transforming her pedestrian appropriation of the street into a veritable body-celebration of what was by now a reasonably familiar space, suddenly shot through with flurries of snow – catching snowflakes in her hands, on her eyelashes and her tongue, and deviating from her intended route under the spell of a completely novel experience.

It is easy to underestimate the revolutionary potential of what may seem like the perfectly innocuous activity of walking in a big city, functionally organised according to principles of economic and technological efficacy.

De Certeau’s analysis, which I cannot here dwell on at greater length, leaves one in no doubt, however, that such “practices” impart an experience of precluding the totalisation of panoptical control under which one unavoidably lives.

And in allowing such experiences, these practices keep the always uncompleted elaboration of freedom alive, and moreover, constitute a model of democratic actions: similar, but different.