By Jesse Miller
My finest life achievement is one I don’t even remember. It exists memorialized only through the meticulous documentation of my ever-attentive parents. There I am, little Jesse, crouched in the grass in my OshKsosh overalls; the wind causes the audio on the videotape to crackle, obscuring for a moment the background sounds of people talking, children screaming and playing, a few birds singing spring. Then I rise, slowly, wobbily, on rubbery legs, an act which recalls the millennia of evolution I’m sloughing off behind me, the blubbery whales beached on shore whose tails split into legs and who rose slowly as I do in the grainy video and promptly walked up the beach and into the jungle. My initial attempts at bipedalism were a kind of delayed falling forward, with none of the swish and flair for equilibrium that characterizes the carefully modulated walk that I now can proudly call my own. In the video my mother watches trepidatiously as each next step catches me tottering on the brink of disaster. But for all of their sloppiness they are mine, my first steps, my first forays into human locomotion.
Then, each step had narrative potential. It makes a good story, this struggle to stand, the moving forward, thwarted gravity, momentum, inertia, the closing in on an object of desire, the arrival at a goal. And in fact a quick look at the way we talk about stories reveals an intimate relationship between the way we think about life, narrative and bipedalism. “If life is a journey,” writes Rebecca Solnit, “then when we are actually journeying our lives have become tangible, with goals we can move toward, progress we can see, achievement we can understand, metaphors united with actions.” We tend to translate the abstract and intangible into the graspable, physical realm through metaphor. So, for example, illusory time becomes a line that stretches out in front of us like a road we walk along throughout life, looking back on our pasts, moving forward from our mistakes, a road filled with unexpected twists and uphill battles, steep ascents of suspense, swamps of indecision, and two roads diverging in a wood (ask any middle schooler what that means). Miranda July captures these layered meanings of walking in her installation, “The Hallway.” Here, walking down a hallway is the action by which the viewer moves through a narrative and the moving through narrative is a means of signifying the movement through a life.
A cursory look at the canon of Western literature reveals author after author mining the drama of human locomotion while constantly imbuing the act with new meanings and significances, so much so in fact that the history of literature begins to look like a history of walking. There are Dante’s tours of the underworld, the pilgrimages enshrined in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and Mallory’s errant knights adventuring their way through forests besotted with armored adversaries of various colors and sour dispositions. Jumping forward a few years we find the walk itself has replaced the goal, and with it an enhanced focus on the individual moving through space, their interactions with others, their thoughts and memories. Austen’s characters stroll through the gardens and parks of English estates cautiously socializing. Wordsworth hikes his way through the Lake District, muttering lines of poetry so as not to forget. Mrs. Dalloway goes out to buy flowers in London and walking the streets, discovers threads connecting her to all of the other human beings milling around the urban maze of London. Proust dallies along Swann’s way.
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Such a simple activity, this walking, which like breathing quickly loses itself in the implicit background of human processes, but try describing how to do it to a tree or a lamppost, or some other being for whom, ‘lift your leg, move it forward, put it down’ does not suffice, and you soon lose yourself in questions that go way deep, questions like, what is the relationship between time and space, and, where am I in relation to the body I call mine. A discussion of walking is never merely an explication of a biological act, but about, as Rebecca Solnit explains in Wanderlust: A History of Walking, “how we invest universal acts with particular meanings.” And walking has attracted around it a plenitude of those, spanning from the religious (pilgrimages) to the political (marches) to the social (promenades). An investigation of walking, not just as an activity but a dynamic cultural artifact that has been imbued with various meanings and significances over time, reveals the values and assumptions prevalent in and important to individuals and groups of people at different times and different places. By examining where, when, how and why walking is used and represented in art and literature we are thus provided ample opportunity to analyze those cultural aspects fossilized in their form and content.
The subject of urban walking in particular has fascinated writers and artists from Rousseau to Auster, and their works reflect the ways in which we designate the boundaries between humans, the built environment, and nature, sometimes in ways more complex than those theorizing on the topic.
The figure of the flâneur, a literary type and professional people-watcher recorded in the poems of Baudelaire, arose “at a period early in the nineteenth century when the city had become so large and complex that it was for the first time strange to its inhabitants,” Solnit writes, paraphrasing Walter Benjamin. The figure of a reflective and detached solitary urban walker, alone in the crowd, is according to this interpretation not merely a literary convenience, but an artifact that reveals a particular stance of man to the environment he had built around himself.
In his work Walkscapes: Walking as an Aesthetic Practice, architectural theorist Francesco Careri continues to trace this figure of the walking artist in avant-garde practice and the ways in which the artist’s changing relationship to such issues as urbanization, technology, politics, and the environment affected and motivated their work. Thus while in the late nineteenth century such activities could be seen as reactions to a rapid urban development which left the world new and strange and constantly changing, at the end of the 1950s the artistic and political group the Situationist International employed what they called the dérive, or drift, to perform psychogeographical research (i.e. wander around the city and go to cafés) as a rejection of bourgeois lifestyle. For the Situationists, the dérive was a defense of non-productive time that would otherwise be “sucked into the system of capitalist consumption through the creation of induced needs” while they waited for a revolution that never fully materialized to occur.
Walking continues to be a topic of exploration for artists and writers. Today though, it has cultural resonance not so much as a radical subversive act, but as a reaction to environmental degradation and a perceived alienation from the world around us. In the last few years there have been a number of creative works published which focus on the walk as a structure for narrative and a means of art making, among them My Two Worlds by Argentine writer Sergio Chejfec and Ten Walks/ Two Talks, a collaboration between Jon Cotner and Andy Fitch. Both texts embody as well as critique these ecological concerns, teasing apart as they do some of the popular assumptions about what it means to walk now, and in particular the vexed relationship between walking and technology.
The proponents for why we should be walking (and Solnit and Careri can certainly be counted among the first of their ranks) extol the act for its ethical, political and environmental implications: walking as a defense of free time against the dark arts of technology, walking (as the urban and environmental conservationists claim) as a practice that will get us out of air conditioned cars and away from computers so that we can begin to live together “in the whole world rather than in interiors built up against it.” Walking that will cause us to remember to remember the world around us, to take some time to smell the roses and rivers and historic buildings and thus begin to care about what happens to them. And for these advocates there is no better or more important time to walk than now, when the processes of globalization, the ascendancy of car culture, and the ubiquity of cheap communication technology are increasingly alienating us from our environments, our neighbors, and ourselves. Both histories are written in such a way that they place the reader at the end of the historic road, hand off a baton, and say, now it’s your turn, walk, you’re our last and only hope.
But in taking such an untempered romantic, nostalgic, and somewhat regressive stance towards walking and its relationship to technological progress, these writers fail to encompass the complexity of the issue in ways that contemporary art and literature of walking has. The narrator of Sergio Chejfec’s recent novel My Two Worlds sums up the dominant discourse on walking when he writes, “Even before I could understand it with any certainty, in all likelihood I sensed that the main argument in favor of walking was its pace; it was optimal for observation and thought, and furthermore it was the corporeal experience with the best syntax to accompany one in life.”
This statement sounds remarkably similar to Solnit’s when she writes, “I know these things have their uses, and use them—a truck, a computer, a modem—myself, but I fear their false urgency, their call to speed…I like walking because it is slow and I suspect that the mind, like the feet, works at about three miles an hour. If this is so, then modern life is moving faster than the speed of thought, or thoughtfulness.” Low speeds and the concomitant awareness are thus praised, fast paces and technology cursed. Chejfec, Cotner and Fitch, however, refuse to accept this simple polar division between walking and technology.
On the one hand it’s too late to turn back. We have already been changed, likely irrevocably, by these technologies. In Chejfec’s narrative, which like a stripped-down, modern-day Ulysses encompasses a walk, the nameless narrator wanders as a tourist through an unfamiliar Brazilian city reflecting on the things he sees, remembers and imagines as he tries to find, and then walks through, a somewhat dilapidated park. But the way that the narrator describes his experience muddies the pristine division between embodied walking and virtual, alienating technology. “When I walk,” he describes, “my impression is that a digital sensibility overtakes me […] the places or circumstances that have drawn my attention take the form of Internet links.” Referring to associative memory as being like hypertext is a perfect example of how the significance and description of walking changes in reference to the time and culture in which it is grounded. The metaphors we use to characterize things we don’t understand often change with relation to extant technology. For example the human mind once described as a tablet is now popularly referred to as being like a computer. But this use of figurative language also demonstrates how metaphor shapes the way we perceive and experience the physical world. “It’s impossible for me to know how different my old-time, pre-Internet perceptions were,” states Chejfec’s narrator, but what is clear is that they have changed. The metaphor of walking as linear narrative has been superceded by an experience that can only be described with reference to virtual worlds. Even such ‘natural’ processes as walking and perceiving are shot through with the symbolic.
On the other hand, this technology has allowed artists who walk to continue to make new and interesting art. GPS, digital photography, Twitter, and small handheld recording devices are just some of the new tools on the artist’s palate. And who’s to say that these technologies make us less aware of the world around us. Ten Walks/Two Talks, not quite a story, a poem, or a transcription, but some amalgam of all three, reintroduces the topic of city walking into literature by way of conceptual and performance art. The avant-garde movements that Careri describes in Walkscapes, beginning with the Situationists, admonish literature in an effort to replace poetry with action. “Poetry simply means the development of absolutely new forms of behavior and the means with which to be impassioned,” write the Situationists in one of their (many) manifestos. Cotner and Fitch’s work seeks to attain just such a poetry of living, and in many ways the technology they use allows them to do this. Particularly in the two talks that the title mentions, Cotner and Fitch’s use of audio recording demonstrates how technology can allow for the kind of embodied, spontaneous, and aware walking art that Careri and Solnit so desire. These transcriptions of recordings acknowledge the technical process involved (“so we abruptly stopped the tape” ) and the gaps and imperfections of transcription (“most afternoons I’d [voices] sun set over New Jersey”), but also the illogical, disjointed nature of conversation rarely captured in fiction (J: I wouldn’t… / A: Trump gets printed on everything…/ J: That… / A: bouncing off ice like blood”), all in ways that suggest a spontaneity now past, a living, rambling poetry composed out of the quotidian. Not just despite, but because of the tools that are at their disposal, Cotner and Fitch go out into the city to make their art, using walking in a way that draws on the familiar (they implicitly and explicitly draw on the traditions of Romantic Poetry, American Transcendentalism and Japanese travel narrative) but is also uniquely now. “Though Thoreau stresses being still in the woods I couldn’t sit and wait for rustlings to reveal their sources,” writes Fitch in a declaration of exploration. “After more bad job news and predawn insomnia I wanted to know this world with me walking through it.”
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There is no doubt that walking is tied in innumerable ways to the mode of experiencing the world that fits our human scale, where perception and action meet. But even shoes are ‘un-natural’ and getting out the old iPhone to check Yelp for the nearest curry house is becoming an integral part of how we explore urban space. And perhaps there’s no there that progress will bring us, and maybe no progress at all, just a slipping in and out between avenues and alleyways. But there will still be walking. That old video packed away in a box at the top of a closet in my house is the illustration of human agency at its most simple; while whatever caused me to trust in the abilities of my musculature, to stand and go forth, lies somewhere out of the frame, lost in the swirl of the undocumented and forgotten past, what remains on tape is no more and no less than the incarnate potential energy of unfulfilled desire.