De Certeau and Ahmed

In his essay “Walking in the City,” Michel de Certeau describes the interplay between the proper names of streets and the materiality of pedestrians’ movements through them. The very movement of pedestrians, de Certeau argues, recodes those streets’ meanings and grants them a social life that outlives and reconfigures what they were originally named for: “[T]hese names make themselves available to the diverse meanings given them by passers-by; they detach themselves from the places they were supposed to define and serve as imaginary meeting-points on itineraries which, as metaphors, they determine for reasons that are foreign to their original value but may be recognized or not by passers-by” (104). Within what he terms the “strange toponymy” of the city’s grid, composed of street names detached from their original meanings over time, the physical movements of pedestrians are reframed as embodied practices of meaning-making. To move through urban space is automatically to retool it to fit one’s own imagination and desires. Further, these spatial and signifying practices “elude urbanistic systematicity” and “alter functionalist identity”; at the same time, the movement of pedestrians is an accumulation of affect and intensity, where absented histories are made to live precisely through their destratification of an established spatial ordering, or what we have been referring to in class as visuality: “Things extra and other (details and excesses coming from elsewhere) insert themselves into the accepted framework, the imposed order. … The surface of this order is everywhere punched and torn by ellipses, drifts, and lacks of meaning: it is a sieve-order” (107).

We might use Sara Ahmed’s account of affective economies and “happy objects” to critique de Certeau’s assessment of spatial practices in its racialized, gendered, and ableist logics. That is to say, de Certeau’s fetishizing of the walked-through city as a “sieve-order,” with its many vernacular disruptions and reconfigurations, conspicuously avoids the question of how bodily difference comes to matter in the production of urban imaginaries–and more importantly, how the policing of urban spaces always already marks certain bodies as “disruptive” to an established visual order. Indeed, it is possible that the discontinuities constituting de Certeau’s urban “sieve-order” are not merely resistant affects brushing up against top-down disciplinary urbanisms, but are in fact remnants of systematically produced, biopolitical caesuras regulating the entrance of bodies into an urban imaginary–or in Ahmed’s phrasing, the affective traces of bodies’ differential inhabiting of norms (The Cultural Politics of Emotion).

It is necessary to not only consider how bodies linguistically recode the spaces that they walk through (keyword: walk, an incredibly privilege-laden mode of transportation), but also to examine how identity categories such as race, gender, and ability magnetize certain affects which, in turn, serve to prioritize certain modes of spatial practice over others. As Ahmed writes, “Some bodies are presumed to be the origin of bad feeling insofar as they disturb the promise of happiness, which I would re-describe as the social pressure to maintain the signs of ‘getting along.’ Some bodies become blockage points, points where smooth communication stops” (39). When applied to the spatial practices of re-envisioning urban space that de Certeau eloquently describes, such a perspective illuminates the uneven biopolitical distribution of the capacity to re-order urban visuality–or indeed, to have one’s re-ordering count. In other words, the production of certain bodies as affective “blockages” to unspoken civic goals through technologies of normalization and control reveals the forms of power structuring even the “fragmentary and inward-turning histories” represented by vernacular spatial practices (de Certeau, 108).