To comment scroll to the bottom of the entry. Your e-mail address and URL are optional fields.

2006 07 21
Philosopher’s Walk I: Toward an Interpretive Psychogeography of Toronto
Urban life is governed by the Janus-twin pulls of structure and change, and differs from rural reality only in the sense that in cities we rely more greatly on the solidity of structures to guide our own turbulent movements. Visionary American urban planner Kevin Lynch wrote,
Change and recurrence are the sense of being alive -- things gone by, death to come, and present awareness. The world around us, so much of it our own creation, shifts continually and often bewilders us. We reach out to that world to preserve or to change it and so to make visible our desire. (from What Time Is This Place, 1972)
But at the same time, the city eludes our efforts to delineate it: it is as discontinuous and evasive as our desires. Commenting on the slipperiness of the "grammar of urban life," travel writer Jonathan Raban observes,
at moments like this, the city goes soft; it awaits the imprint of an identity. For better or for worse, it invites you to remake it, to consolidate it into a shape you can live in. ... The city as we imagine it, the soft city of illusion, myth, aspiration, nightmare, is as real, maybe more real, than the hard city one can locate on maps ..." (from Soft City, 1974)
And so in cities we find ourselves alternately reaching and rearing back, launching forward into the glittering swirl, leaping backward when it bites at us. Only occasionally do we simply let the city flow and eddy around us, currents tugging, liquid forms mouthing at us like thousands of silver fish. We might rest here, on a piece of shale unmoored by the current, and consider the direction, pacing, and purpose of its flows.

It is a principal task of psychogeography to explore our responses to the spaces we inhabit and move through. Despite its rural precursors, perhaps chief among them the English poet William Wordsworth and the American naturalist Henry David Thoreau, psychogeography has become primarily an urban movement and is associated most visibly with Walter Benjamin's narrative of the flaneur, a figure who ambles through the city, drawn by its smells and sounds and seeking to immerse himself in their texts and subtexts. Toronto has an active Psychogeography Society, one of whose chief proponents, Shawn Micallef, publishes a regular psychogeography column in Eye Magazine called Stroll and employs a psychogeographical philosophy in his work with [murmur] and Spacing. Toronto's psychogeographers do much to remind us of the subtle flows and passages of the city, affirming their value and meaning in a vibrant, living metropole.

And yet I find myself a reluctant psychogeographer. In part my reluctance stems from the suggestion that the flaneur is a man (as Anna Bowness points out in her Literary History of the Flaneur, in literature he was almost invariably a man) with the leisure and liberty to stroll through the city without contract or commitment. By relying so persistently on the passive or voluptuarial characteristics of the flaneur, it seems to me that psychogeographers risk devaluing the habits and responses encoded in daily activity, the half-voiced inferences we make while travelling to work or while shopping, selling hot dogs, pouring concrete, or prodding unruly children through the zoo. If the flaneur is essentially a voyeur rather than a participant, s/he risks becoming nothing more than (as Benjamin writes, quoting Georg Simmel) "someone who sees without hearing." And as Rebecca Solnit points out in Wanderlust: A History of Walking (2000), "urban walking seems in many ways more like primordial hunting and gathering than walking in the country", underscoring the active, engaged, participatory nature of the urban experience. An interpretive psychogeography must heed all these rhythms, even the confused and contradictory and rushed ones. Describing city streets as "the rivers, canals, and streams running between the land masses [buildings], Solnit writes,
just as narrowing a waterway increases flow and speed, so turning open space into the spillways of streets directs and intensifies the flood of walking. ... walking, witnessing, being in public, are as much part of the design and purpose as is being inside to eat, sleep, make shoes or love or music. The word citizen has to do with cities, and the ideal city is organized around citizenship -- around participation in public life.
And so, what do we make of an engaged, interpretive psychogeography? We might do so without purpose, as Benajmin's flaneur does. We might do so with a political purpose, as the Situationists did (and do), and in Toronto, as the Toronto Public Space Committee might be said to operate. Or we might move in the urban stream wherever we can find footing, somewhere between the sheltered banks and the turbulent middle, carrying with us an active, engaged sense of attunement. For me this attunement is necessarily phenomenological, meaning that it is preoccupied with the character and meaning of experience, including those experiences so intense or hurried or even banal that perspective comes only in fleeting insights, like light flashing into the subway train as it crosses the Bloor Viaduct. Bright spots of meaning, flashes of being that might nonetheless be subject to thoughtful scrutiny.

Tomorrow, and through the coming week, I will further this discussion, offering phenomenological readings of a number of Toronto sites, entities, and events, beginning with the city's laneways and proceeding through considerations of stray cats, night, garage sales, garbage, raccoons, abandoned lots and buildings, and unwanted flora.

(The above image of a pathway at Christie Pitts park was taken by Michael Wong and is used under the aegis of a Creative Commons license.)
[email this story] Posted by Amy Lavender Harris on 07/21 at 09:23 AM

<< Back to main

Archive Search

Related Links
Toronto Stories by
Toronto Links
Your Opinions

Other Blogs
News Sources