Our vexed relationship with ourselves as nature
When a drum beats, what makes the sound? The stick that beats or the skin that resounds?
There is a widespread assumption running through many human epistemologies of an implicit predominance, according to which we are either ‘masters’ or custodians of the earth. Whether beneficent or tyrannical, a hierarchical relationship between humans and the rest of nature is implied.
This may be an inevitable result of our ability to reify intellectually and to express the nature of our reifications on the one hand, and on the other of our vertical bipedalism, enabling us to look down as effectively as we look ahead. In Wanderlust, Rebecca Solnit draws attention to Wordsworth’s ‘construction of the natural’, which relativises the experience of walking in nature as a contemplative pursuit as being as ‘artificial’ as the urban ‘drift’.
But what of the sub-atomic truism of the cosmic dust of which we, the planets, and everything are composed, the corresponding narratives of golems, humans fashioned from the earth, and the curative powers of ‘holy wells’, whether generating water or mud? Equally, the Wintu, a Native North American culture change the terms used to denote the left and right-hand sides of their body according to which direction they are facing, making self-definition a relation between the person’s body and their environment. In A Field Guide to Getting Lost [whence the Wintu reference derives], Solnit mentions Hopi creation myths ‘where humans and other beings emerge from underground‘.
Ivan Chtcheglov’s Formulary for a New Urbanism refers to the toll of the ‘dérive‘ [urban ‘drift’] ,which gives a flavour of the reciprocal nature of our engagement with our environment, and the demands it can make on us. Arguably, in part, these demands are attributable to what is involved in tracing a route carved by others, excavating the accretions of past time and the experiences sustained by people not ourselves. The cosmic immanence of our non-analytic communication between external nature and our inner nature is mirrored in this social immanence.
Naming as classification and as comfort
In naming the way stages of our journeys, from the First Australian songlines to the Via Dolorosa and the Stations of the Cross, we create trajectories that guide us through the landscape by objectifying and marking significant events and landmarks. This interpretation suggests a degree of insecurity, that we are the golems of a self-creating cosmos, rather than ‘masters of the universe’.
Landmarks and symbols are of course mnemonics, for the places arrived at in a literal or conceptual journey. There is also a parallel with Walter Benjamin’s citation in The Arcades Project of a plan to name the Paris streets after different global locations, “the symbolic on a scale that made [it] not a scale model but a vast expanse of the world” [Solnit, Wanderlust, p. 75].
The uses and ownership of thin air
Walking is essentially political, inasmuch as it is a process based on a passage through, rather than an appropriation of, an environment. A ‘pure’ nomadism extends this anti-teleology infinitely, making a mockery of a class society predicated on settlement and surplus, and cocking a snook at the later development of nation states.
Trespassing also highlights the absurdity of property, as an act of occupying nothing more than ‘thin air’. What is stake, from the Undercroft in London to the riots stemming from the proposed development of Gezi Park in Istanbul, is who controls such space and what it can thus be used for.
The last couple of decades in London have witnessed the progressive encroachment of the walkway or private pavement on to what had previously been regarded as public space. This enclosure of ‘property’s foreshore’ has, with particular reference to the Thames and locations such as the Isle of Dogs, made the experience of walking an interrupted and discontinuous experience.
As daily life becomes increasingly confined to indoor environments, researchers have identified a progressive shrinkage of human sightlines, which for many people now tend to be largely confined or constrained to the dimensions of a vehicle or a room, and thus lose the visual poetry [in either urban or rural context] of vanishing perspective. With reference to landscape and mnemonics, maybe we should consider whether Wordsworth’s allegedly prodigious memory was the corollary or the result of the lengthened perspectives of spending so much time outdoors in ‘heroic’ landscapes.
Pilgrimage is the ultimate teleological act, whose purpose and motive is defined before it is started. The goal invests the activity with meaning, and also relegates it to the status of a means to an end.
However, these means in turn could be described as sacred praxis, where the synergy between human and environment expressed in the act of walking creates a coincidence between the profane/synchronic movement though physical space and the a-chronic site of the sacred.
To arrive, for example, at Santiago de Compostela, is an act of uniting the soul with the divine. The will and the determination to realise such a destiny, enables the pilgrim to supersede the experience and effects of contingency, such as boredom, blisters, banality.
We could also argue that the Catholic and the pagan externalise and thus universalise the sacred, while the Protestant seeks revelation in the contemplation of inner space.
Walking and ludus
Solnit, in Wanderlust, draws attention to the pleasure of walking as an end in itself, which could perhaps be a minimal definition of ludic activity, shared with self-created and open-ended games and erotic non-procreative pleasure. This is, of course, a sublime waste of productive time, and thus subversive.
There is a correspondence between walking and gambling, which is not limited to the potential role of chance, but to the potential for anticipation to be as or more pleasurable than arrival. For example, the analysis of neurological patterns of gamblers’ brain behaviour sometimes indicates that ‘near-misses’ can be more pleasurable than winning. Notionally-desired outcomes play second fiddle to the playing of the game, and associated risks, even when realised, are not sufficient to erase this differential.
Sometimes, it is better to travel pleasurably than to arrive, and the anxiety generated by the possibility of not reaching our planned destination can challenge the enjoyment inherent in the experience of the walk itself. Let us then travel without maps. or with maps of terrains distinct from those we are traversing.
The human and the technological
Walking has the specific attraction of being an activity that does not require the mediation of technology, although Flann O’Brien makes a poetic and persuasive case in favour of the symbiosis of human and bicycle.
Place, space, and memory
Space as the repository of our memories: sites for future encounters with our present thoughts and experiences expressed as recollections.
Other than in the sense of mechanistic recall, Solnit is wrong to assert that ‘memory, like the mind and time, is unimaginable without physical dimensions‘ [Wanderlust, p. 77]. Perhaps the proposition should be inverted in order to challenge the limitations of what ‘imaginable’ might include, in relation to all three entities. Arguably, the lack of boundedness, infinite ‘meta-extension’, and the capacity to ‘double-back’ on themselves are the crucial characteristics that all share.
Drawing lines in space: Benjamin, Paris, and Port Bou
It appears that Benjamin’s most passionate later intellectual engagement was with The Arcades Project, an exhaustive and idiosyncratic genealogy of Paris as political, historical, aesthetic, and social space. Amongst other things, Benjamin examined Haussmann’s reduction of much of Paris to an effective extended grid, and the nature of the arcade as an interzone between the outside and the inside. Analyses of lines through space. There is thus a tragic irony that his suicide was impelled by the fear of the power of a truly arbitrary and imaginary line drawn in space – the border between Spain and France, in a territory that shared a pre-French and pre-Spanish identity as Cataluňa.
Body and mind
In Wanderlust, Solnit summarises Edmund Husserl’s view of the movement of the human organism through space as representing the fixed point [the body] in a turning world. This reduces human perception to an intellectual and visual experience, disregarding all the minor organic variations of each body in movement [including eyesight], such as heat/cold, fatigue, etc.
For some post-modernist thinkers, all that can be relied on in terms of describing mutually-recognisable entities are intellectual constructs, whereas everything else is too compromised by subjectivity to be epistemologically reliable. And so, as humans, we make our extension through space a negative attribute, and become a form of anti-matter.
There is an irony operating here, in that despite being proud inheritors of the anti-Enlightenment tradition, the post-modernists both embrace Cartesian dualism and champion the primacy of thought [and thus rationalism, however qualified] over extension and experience.
Fragmented time, activity, and space
The rise of industry impelled the acceleration of urban development and rapidly disrupted long-experienced modes of rural social organisation. And yet, nomadism as the logical extreme of a loss of loyalty to ‘homestead’ continues to be perceived as the enemy of capitalist values.
In reality, even hunter-gatherer cultures typically constrain the range of their wandering, maintaining defined, albeit large ‘demesnes’ within which to live. In contrast, the potential distribution and terminus of communities forced into diaspora by economic imperatives tends to be both less predictable and far more distant from the point of departure.
Capitalism fragments the twenty-four hour day into work and leisure, the working day into an artificial homogeny of repetitive tasks [the division of labour], and the social being of the individual into worker/parent/partner, etc.
It replaces the life of the home-proximate or home-based individual share-cropper or crafts-person with the forced intimacy of the slum-dwelling proletarian, and for the petit-bourgeois escapee mirrors the division of social roles with a greater physical distance between urban workplace and suburban home.
The apotheosis of this process of fragmentation is of course the de-pedestrianised strip mall, which reduces the home to the place in which one attempts to take some rest between work and consumption.
To re-visit Wordsworth’s fetishism of nature, the suburb is the sterile microcosm of the world of nature, controlled within the built environment. The UK, as the originally suburbanist culture was, of course, the first to comprehensively industrialise. It would be instructive to map the chronologies of industrialisation against the degeneration of national and regional cultures’ relationship with cuisines that might be described [in shorthand at least] as ‘less mediated’.
In the UK, foraged food is the province of the ‘adventurous’ middle class. In many other European societies, such as Italy and Spain, people collect snails and pick wild mushrooms because these are free resources historically associated with peasant food.
Labyrinth and maze
The experience of travelling through the city on foot more readily approximates following the labyrinth rather than the maze, at least in urban environments not completely dominated by vehicles. As Solnit notes, random encounters are more likely, and we are sometimes faced with culs-de-sac, and unexpected diversions to our route.
Spectacle and the city
The tenor of a disproportionate amount of writing about London is Gothic – de Quincey, Dickens’ Night Walks, etc. Whatever the flaws of Peter Ackroyd’s post-Reformation Catholic mysticism, he at least allows for the magical, and is inheritor of Chtcheglov’s organic sense of the city as being suffused in history and immanence.
It is perhaps no surprise that the concept of the Spectacle originated in Paris, a place not only exhaustively photographed at different historical junctures, but also subject to ‘review’ [images of the same vistas pre- and post-Haussmann, Doisneau’s visual hommages to Brassaϊ, etc], resented and represented throughout the development of capitalism.
The female sex worker and the flaneur
In Wanderlust, Solnit supplies a necessary corrective to the inaccurate and lazy correspondence that Walter Benjamin draws in The Arcades Project between the [male, bourgeois, non-working, unmolested, wealthy] flaneur and the female sex worker. Solnit also adds that, in her reading, a proportion of these women prefer the freedom they experience on the streets [despite elevated risks] to the incarceration of the brothel.
Dissolution and self-realisation
As we merge and become more fully our ‘natured’ selves in the non-built environment, so we merge identities with all the anonymous others [past and present] in the city, that most constructed ‘human’ environment, designed variously for utility, display, and profit.
Speed and movement
High-speed travel radically compresses pace into progressively smaller pockets of time, and depends on our physical immobility and psychological passivity. The primal referents that define out corporeality, our size and physical capacity, are rendered irrelevant, in much the same way that a hospital in-patient is immobilised in bed.
In A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Solnit enumerates the characteristics and possibilities associated with getting lost as an active decision, rather than an error or a mishap. These might be summarised as:
- Allowing ourselves to live with/living with uncertainty/contingency
- Seeking that with which we are not familiar
- Allowing for self-transformation through the incorporation of new perceptions
The fruitful loss of certainty
In an anxious and acquisitive culture, loss has a primarily negative association, namely as a diminution. In contrast, the apparent absurdity of Zen koans throws down a challenge [as did the Dadaist attack on language itself], namely that to learn the reality behind the agreed appearance, we have to cast aside the certainty of the notionally ‘rational’.
Multilingualism makes the truth other than an essentialist and invariant ‘eternal verity’. However, ‘shades of the truth’ retain a relationship across languages, to the extent that the reality being described is recognised at some level by all parties to the conversation. Equally, ‘within’ a given language, inference and allusion act as elliptical references to a given things, in order to minimise [for any number of possible reasons] the sharp edges associated with the direct expression of a term.
With the right tools, human interaction is a liminal space, not Babel, as some post-modernists might rather have it. As such, subjectivities are not unmoored and discrete, but retain a cultural specificity, within the overall range of human experiential possibility. What we lose in translation is balanced by what we gain in terms of new understandings of human perception.
Loss, gain, retention, and colonialism
The implantation of familiar practices within the colony by the coloniser is used as a form of compensation for the loss of certainty represented by migration from the ‘homeland’, and acts as a form of rejection of the potential gain that could be derived from such change. The alternative strategy to deal with this scenario is of course to allow oneself to become absorbed by the new and to ‘go native’.
The unanswerable ontology of death
Ultimately, two things prohibit us from fully being able to consider a world from which we have been expunged. Firstly, it is conceptually impossible to imagine an entity that lacks our consciousness as a constituent element, when it is that consciousness that is the mechanism by which we perceive the wider entity.
The second is a more emotional factor, summarised in Leszek Kolakowski’s phrase ‘the phenomenon of the world’s indifference‘. The waters will close over us.
And so we walk the earth in order to reassure ourselves of our continued present reality, reflected in our consciousness of the world around us.