Thursday, 10 December 2009

Michael De Certeau - The Practice of everyday Life

Quotes from The Practice of Everyday life
Michael De Certeau, Luce Giard & Pierre Mayol

-Living: The Neighbourhood-

De Certeau identifies two strands of research into the neighbourhood:
1. The urban sociology of the neighbourhood. It essentially privileges data relative to space and architecture; it takes measurements (surface area, topography, the flux of movements, etc.) and analyses objective material and administrative constraints that enter into the definition of the neighbourhood.
2. The Socioethnographic analysis of everyday life, which proliferates the erudite research of folklore specialists and historians of “popular culture”, to the vast poetic, even mythic...

The neighbourhood is, almost by definition, a mastery of the social environment because, for the dweller, it is a known area of social space in which, to a greater or lesser degree, he or she knows himself or herself to be recognised.

A relationship exists between the apprehension of lodging (an ‘inside’) and the apprehension of the urban space to which it is connected (an ‘outside’). The neighbourhood is the middle tern in an existential dialectic between inside and outside. And it is the tension between these two terms, an inside and an outside, which little by little becomes the continuation of an inside, that the appropriation of space takes place.

It is less an urban surface, transparent for everyone or statistically measurable, than the possibility offered everyone to inscribe in the city the multitude of trajectories...

The limit between the public and private, which appears to be the founding structure of the neighbourhood for the practice of the dweller, is not only a separation, but constitutes a separation that unites: the public and the private are not both disregarded as two exogenous, though coexisting, elements; they are much more, constantly interdependent because, in the neighbourhood, one has no meaning without the other.

A signature attesting to origin, the neighbourhood is inscribed in the history of the subject like the mark of an indelible belonging inasmuch as it is the primary configuration, the archetype of every process of appropriation of space as a place for everyday life.

A stroller’s walk in the neighbourhood always caries several meanings: a dream of travelling in front of a particular display window, a brief sensual agitation, the arousal of the sense of smell under the trees in the park, memories of itinerates buried since childhood, joyous, serene, or bitter reflections on one’s own destiny, as many “segments of meaning” as can be substituted for each other as the walk goes on, without order or constraint, aroused by chance meetings, incited by the floating attention to “events” that constantly take place in the street.

The city, in the strongest sense, is “poeticised” by the subject: the subject has refabricated it for his or her own use by undoing the constraints of the urban apparatus and, as a consumer of space, imposes her own law on the external order of the city

-Living: Propriety-

The neighbourhood is thus defined as a collective organisation of individual trajectories

The interpersonal contact that takes place in these meetings is itself random, not calculated in advance; it is defined by chance comings and goings involving the necessity of everyday life: in the elevator, at the grocery store, at the supermarket...
The neighbourhood imposes a saviour faire of simultaneity undecidable and inevitable coexistence: the neighbours are there, on my floor, on my street, and it is impossible to avoid them forever; “one has to make do”, to find an equilibrium between the proximity imposed by the public configuration of places and the distance necessary to safeguard one’s private life.

The neighbourhood is a social universe that does not take transgression very well; this is incompatible with the supposed transparency of everyday life, with its immediate legibility; it must take place elsewhere, hide itself in the darkness of the bad side of town, or flee into the private folds of the household.

-Intermezzo – Ghosts in the City-

In Paris, this reversal was not sudden. Already, within the grid pattern of functional planners, obstacles sprang up, “resistances” from a stubborn past. But the technicians were supposed to make a tabula rasa of the opacities that disrupted the plans for the city of glass. [...]this Urban planning destroyed even more than the war had. Yet, some old buildings survived, even if they were caught in nets. These seemingly sleepy, old-fashioned things, defaced houses, closed-down factories, the debris of shipwrecked histories still today raise up the ruins of an unknown, strange city. They burst forward within the modernist, massive, homogenous city like slips of the tongue from an unknown, perhaps unconscious, language. They surprise. [...] Hetrogeneous references, ancient stars, they create bumps on the smooth utopias of the new Paris. Ancient things become remarkable. An uncanniness lurks there, in the everyday life of the city. It is a ghost that henceforth haunts the urban planning.

Something insinuates itself here that no longer obeys the “conservative” ideology of national heritage. The past is generally looked on as imaginary. A stranger is already there, in residence. This gothic novel scenario agrees with the research of architectural schools, such as Site in the United States, that aims at giving city dwellers the possibility of imagining the city, dreaming it, and thus living it. More than its utilitarian and technocratic transparency, it is the opaque ambivalence of its oddities that make the city livable.
...The remains of waning pasts open up, in the streets, vistas on another world. At the quai des Celestins, on the Saint Paul block, and in so many other places, facades, courtyards, cobblestones, relics from ravaged universes and enshrined in the modern like oriental precious stones.

In this urban imaginary world, there first of all things that spell it out. They impose themselves. They are there, closed in on themselves, silent forces. They have character. Or even better, they are “characters” on the urban stage, secret personas. [...] By eluding the law of the present, these inanimate objects aquire a certain autonomy. They are actors, legendary heroes. They organise around them the city saga. [...] They are witnesses to a history that, unlike that of museums or books, no longer has a language.

A pantheon where the “spirits” in so many heterogeneous places cross paths and compose the interlacing of our memories. [...] The population of ghosts that teem within the city and that make up the strange and immense silent vitality of an urban symbolics.

The renovated “old stones” become places for transit between the ghosts of the past and the imperatives of the present. They are passageways on the multiple frontiers that separate periods, groups, and practices. In the same way as public squares which lead many different streets, renovated buildings constitute, in a historical and no longer geographic model, interchanges between foreign memories. These shifters ensure a geographic circulation of collective or individual experiences. They play an important role in the urban polyphony.

The wordless histories of walking, dress, housing, or cooking shape neighbourhoods on behalf of absences; they trace out memories that no longer have place – childhoods, genealogical traditions, timeless events, such is the “work” of urban narratives as well.

Through stories about places, they become inhabitable. Living is narativising. Stirring up or restoring this narativising is thus also among the tasks of any renovation. One must awaken the stories that sleep in the streets and that sometimes lie within a simple name, folded up inside this thimble like the silk dress of a fairy.

Festivals, contests, the development of “speaking places” in neighbourhoods or buildings would return narratives to the soil from which they grow. If “an event is what one recounts”, the city only has a story, only lives by preserving its memories.

Renovation does not, ultimately, know what it is “bringing back” – or what it is destroying – when it restores the references and fragments of elusive memories. For those ghosts that haunt urban works, renovation can only provide a laying out of already marked stones, like words for it.

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