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Dériving Through the City

By Bertie Wnek.

In his 1952 study of Parisian geography, Paul-Henri Chombart de Lauwe logged a single student’s every movement for an entire year. The diagram forms an obstreperous triangle—its three points representing the student’s house, her piano teacher’s house, and the School of Political Sciences. There are some haphazard derivations but the map is stamped with the mark of routine, and tightly bound routine at that. Is it outrageous that one’s experiences can be so limited, or is it normal? Can it be both?

We tend to think of ‘the city’ as expansive, even endless; a vast nervure of connectivity; a network rendered by myriad fragments and countless pathways. But Chombart de Lauwe, an urban sociologist, was trying to illustrate the narrowness of our real lived urban experience. Because when we say that we live in Paris or London or New York, we actually mean to say that we live somewhere in Paris or London or New York—in some (not-so) arbitrary collection of spaces, environments and zones. We live, that is to say we experience, a tiny specialised version of the city, itself inflected by concomitant associations and memories. His diagram tries to illustrate the city as it’s lived—not in expanse but in peculiarity.

To look at one’s own movements from a great distance, decontextualised, seems always to illustrate how one is enmeshed in the same coercive patterns as everybody else.

It pushes you to think about how often you comply with the invisible boundaries dividing the city. How often you take the path of least resistance. To think about the criteria by which you choose a route; is it reactionary?—an unconscious feeling, which street feels the most inviting or interesting. Is the route always the most direct? The quickest? Do you walk on public streets as opposed to through people’s gardens? Do you move between zones of work, leisure and commerce? Do you take public transport? The point is that our paths through the city are often chosen for us long before we’ve chosen our paths.

A map of my last year as a student would have looked like a kind of squashed trapezoid: house, library, supermarket, English Department. My movements were organised by the  easy access between these four-zones: a proximity between residential and commercial areas; transport links between private student property and university buildings; reorganised bus routes; new independent coffee shops; etc. This is to demonstrate quite obviously that the urban map is intimately connected and ordered around any given society’s economic structures. By extension, our triangles and trapezoids, our actions and motives for action within the city, are made and maintained by those same mechanisms of capital.

Still, such a picture is aesthetically satisfying: the (carto-)graphic expression of a year-long experience, deeply suggestive, turns life into a synchronic moment. It’s accurate too. Because the way we experience the same street over and over does indeed seem to be a kind of layering. A reiterated experience accumulates in our minds until our understanding of these spaces, these journeys, coagulates into a thick mass, a heavy indistinguishable line. A non-graphic moment. Like capital, the lines on our maps are reified by repetition, routine, the five-day week, the eight-hour working-day, commercial holidays, productivity, degrees of ease. Like capital, our lines become heavy, burdensome, abstruse. They occlude their foundation; they distinguish between inside and outside; they at once determine and are determined; they are systemic; they are both living and dead.

I like to think Carey Young’s plaintive and playful slide projection sequence, Lines Made by Walking, is an incarnation of Chombart de Lauwe’s study. The sequence shows a crowd of businesspeople crossing a concrete bridge against a grey sky. The crowd, sartorially drab and mostly looking straight forward, are enacting their daily commute as a kind of singular identity: a lonely expressionless mass. As the sequence continues, Young becomes increasingly conspicuous as someone who is both inside and outside the group. Walking backwards and forwards, appearing and disappearing, she is her own enclave, embodied in but also displaced and radically dislocated from the concrete thoroughfare and the crowd.  The rest of the crowd are iterating their own daily lines and adding to the thick mass that constitutes their experience of the spaces they perennially occupy. The sequence pressures every sense of the word monotony, forcing it to dehisce, until all that remains is Young, in the crowd, suspended between two states, held within the daily economic routine of the commuters and moving towards a kind of liberated act that’s hidden and trapped in equal measure. The artwork moves sideways to repurpose the urban space.

If we want, like Young, to move into a different compulsion, we have to explore new terrains—which isn’t necessarily to say new spaces but new ways to be inside (familiar or unfamiliar) spaces. A levering and a repurposing—those essential elements of play and disorder—to bring about a new type of reckoning for the city. This conscious disordering is a way to escape the menacing pressure of the neoliberal mode, of the (non)freedom to choose where and how to move, of the (non)control over a marketised space, of the pseudo-agency bestowed on us by capital. It involves the recognition that constantly following one’s every tendency is a kind of slavery. Not long after Chombart de Lauwe’s study, the Situationists formulated the theory of the ‘dérive’—a French word meaning ‘to drift’. The dérive is supposedly a way of walking through and beyond the city’s normal lines: they call it ‘a mode of experimental behaviour linked to the conditions of urban society: a technique of rapid passage through varied ambiances.’ Experimental not just because it was largely untested, but because the Situationists wanted it to be a way to understand the urban space’s effect on the mind. A type of data collection. One is compelled to apply an algorithm—e.g., first right, first left, repeat—to a walk; these have no destination in mind, rather, they’re rules set to cultivate a different way to explore the city, one without direction. The Situationists prescribe the perfect conditions for a dérive—two to three people, clear or stormy weather, a day-long timespan, uninterrupted by stops, etc. To my dériving coevals and me these prescriptions are disposable. We like to stop for a drink, we like to walk during sunset and stop at darkness, we like to go in groups of three to six to nine. We like to dérive for the pure and simple feeling of being under a different and surprising new order.

One distinction that remains useful is to do with chance. Following the laws of chance happens to enact a sort of anti-determinist liberation but, as the Situationists’ say, ’the action of chance is naturally conservative.’ The strangeness of a dérive isn’t in such a randomness but in its direct opposition to that randomness—each step of the dérive elucidates a set path. It is to live out in real time a pre-determined way to be.

My first walk felt like a strange concoction of bizarreness and weirdly rewarding serendipity. From our front-door, my two housemates and I weren’t two minutes gone before we’d reached a street we’d never had occasion or will or motive to go down. This continued for the next three hours—streets we hadn’t been down but must have been always close enough to smell. Strangely, we all noticed that the feeling of newness wasn’t couched in these unexplored spaces themselves but rather in how we were exploring them; not a contrived reconnaissance into an adjacent neighbourhood or a nearby avenue but a reconnaissance into nowhere, under a different motive.

The exploration of new streets, we might say a stroll, is like Barthes’s notion of consumptive reading: a masturbatory gorging, a devouring, a way to walk that goes straight to the point, straight to ‘the articulations of the anecdote’; a dérive is to graze, to take part in the text, to take pleasure in the text through writing, reading, tracing and feeling. It lasts. It’s not about consuming new spaces—it’s about divested control.

We continued walking and talking under a sky that was emboldened by layers of a pink and red sunset until we were taken through a tunnelled brick walkway stretching through a row of semi-detached houses into a broad, capacious but weathered Victorian street where a thick, sleepy tabby cat was expecting us on a red-brick wall. He looked like he’d just eaten a large meal. The street was filled with the loud noise of an out-of-tune piano being played before a huge ground-floor open window. We were the only people there. There were more streets like this, ones that seemed to be letting us in on a secret, but no sooner would we be taken into an area of confusing beauty than would we be whisked away again—the next left or right taking us onto a main road, away from interest and intrigue. The sense of resignation soon faded into a willingness to follow, to release ourselves of the autonomy we’re so often told we need and deserve. A full autonomy that represents the endpoint of progress in late-stage capitalism. The feeling is like an unburdening, a bypassing of a certain type of menacing pressure—the pressure to choose. What accompanies this unburdening, or maybe this loss, this new absence, is a strange kind of freedom: the freedom to trust in a process that dislocates you from the urban space. That takes purpose, if only briefly, out of the physical, capitalist realm of the city and lets it broaden into an ongoing state of becoming; a living present as opposed to an abstract future. To dérive, to drift, to move sideways, is to cut across our conditioned ways of being. It is to fuck with our shapes on the map. It is to outplay the paradigm. It is to go left, then right, then left, then right.


Bertie Wnek is a writer living in London.


First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, June 27th, 2018.