In a framework of enunciation, the walker constitutes, in relation to his position, both a near and a far, a here and a there.
– Michel de Certeau, Chapter 7: “Walking in the City,” from The Practice of Everyday Life (1984)
Where is “there” — it’s a question most people think of, but not everyone considers the modes of transportation to take to get there. The message de Certeau tries to convey might answer that question. In his chapter, he talks about the physical space we use in a more abstract way than just, “Oh hey, this is a sidewalk.” To him, a sidewalk can be much more: it can express a line in a story, but more importantly, your story.
For me, I first started “walking” in a small place called York, Pennsylvania (you can see it pictured above, have fun exploring my neighborhood). Except I didn’t walk anywhere. I never got to walk. You can clearly see I was not able to walk. The place I grew up in was suburban to the max, and for those unaware, in the suburbs your only mode of transportation is a personal vehicle (and not even public transit!). When I left for college, I didn’t feel this remorse that some of my peers felt; I lived there since birth, so shouldn’t I have established some sort of emotional connection to this place? Reading de Certeau, however, made me realize it’s perhaps because I never was able to write my own story there: “…they are walkers, Wandersmänner, whose bodies follow the thicks and thins of an urban “text” they write without being able to read it.”
My inability to walk around my hometown prevented me from creating a story. I had to drive myself to school. I would drive myself to the local grocery store. If I wanted to see friends, I would have to drive myself to their houses. The suburbs are not walkable, therefore I could not wander and make memories with different places, but de Certeau stresses the ability to explore an urban environment.
The urban sprawl, AKA the uncontrolled expansion of urban areas, is preventing stories from being made, probably to the chagrin of de Certeau. By our inability to walk, not only are we preventing the city from being formed, but we also prevent ourselves to be formed. I couldn’t form myself with the physical limitations of York, but now that I am in Oakland, I feel much more alive because my story is coming alive. Take a look at “The Wilderness Downtown” and see for yourself (type in “Oakland, Pittsburgh” and click the first option). Here, you can see that my new location offers many walkable places, something I never had before. Oakland is now my “Here.”
And I’m not the only person to have ever thought of living in a city; I think that we all want to live in an urban environment because we can read it and make it our own. By walking in a city, it’s like making your own text — it makes it real and alive. You get to choose your own pace, you get to decide which path you choose, you get to put your own style on it — ultimately, you decide your “There.”
However, sometimes the stories we write, or the places we walk, do not always have to be related to where we physically are. In Joan Didion’s essay Goodbye to All That, she recounts her years in New York City. Didion’s stories are based in a city, and most of these stories of hers centers around events that happen to her, but more importantly they focus about how she feels in that time. The places that she was at, in a more abstract way, are her memories, and those memories were her “Here,” at the time. In the end of the essay, she ends up leaving the city to get to a better “There.” This proves de Certeau correct in that walking and making the place yours can create your story. But what this also proves is the part where he explains that the places you wander will become blurry memories you will add to your story: “What does travel ultimately produce if it is not, by a sort of reversal, ‘an exploration of the deserted places of my memory’… and the ‘discovery’ of relics and legends.”
We are all trying to get to a “There,” and sometimes our means of travel is not on a sidewalk, but through time and space. No, I am not trying to make this some weird sci-fi Interstellar piece! But de Certeau describes how we are constantly walking by either walking through the city or walking through our story, and how we do not have an end: “Stories about places are makeshift things. They are composed with the world’s debris… To practice space is thus to be other and to move toward the other.”
If this seems confusing, I think this is best explained in a game called Passage (it only takes five minutes to play, and it’s a great piece of video game artwork). In it, you are a man, and the only thing you are able to do is to keep going right; as you progress, you slowly become older, and you’re presented with choices to go up and down. This represents how we are constantly moving in a spatial direction, never stopping, but in doing so we also progress in time while forming experiences and memories. Everything in de Certeau is quotable, so sorry for another one, but: “And in fact memory is a sort of anti-museum: it is not localizable. Fragments of it come out in legends.” This would make sense if you just play the game.
In the end, I know my “Here” was York. And now my “Here” is Oakland. I don’t know what my “There” is, but if I want to make sure my “There” is great, I have to at least make sure I feel good “Here.”
Click the following link to answer where your “There” is, and see your classmates’ responses as well: AnswerGarden: So then, where is your “There?”