Friday, 23 January 2015

Mindful Walking and the Postmodern Urbanscape – Part 1

Physical agglomerations in the form of buildings, roads, paths, street décor and all the spaces in between, make up our urban landscape. While our towns and cities have gradually developed over time, one of the side-effects of urban planning is that of the homogenisation of the landscape such that it appears to have been that was ‘forever’. Take your regular walk to work as an example: have you noticed how you see new hoardings appear, then later the building work begins behind the hoarding, then upon completion the hoardings are removed and the new building appears in its fullness? In a very short space of time you will have forgotten what was previously in its place. The space will become ‘stable’ again.

Nevertheless, behind these structures sit power-relations in the form of authoritarian schemas: political decisions, competing agencies, organisational collaborations, policy-making and so forth. The schemas which represent the manifestation of structures that appear in urban space have a discourse which supports the ideology behind them: from the gestation of the development plan itself, through to the materialised object. The final project - be it a shopping centre, public housing complex or a new road system - is built on this discourse and becomes a representation of it. As Roland Barthes states in his text ‘Semiology and Urbanism’: “The city is a discourse and this discourse is truly a language” (1967).

However, the formations, processes and narratives that support the urbanscape often have a preference for producing a particular subjectivity in their pedestrian citizens, one of worker-consumer. Postmodern space is neoliberal in its moorings and along with this a habitus is defined which encourages specific behaviours, gestures and actions from us. As discussed by Michel Foucault in Discipline and Punish, power is spatially manifest: operations and procedures applied to the body-politic take place in material structures that appear in concrete form. The authority attached to procedures are oriented in space and come in the guise of statements that become naturalised upon being repeated by not only those designated to do so, but also they become legitimised by being mediated through popular narratives and discourse. Moreover, while the heterogeneity of postmodern space should, theoretically, contain the possibility of a multiplicity of potential subjectivities, subjectivities that do not conform to a neoliberal ideology are discouraged, or at least not encouraged. This means that individual desires that are outwith the project of capital tend to get co-opted by capital, rather than being allowed to run free.

For the pedestrian (for example, the worker or shopper), their individual desires tend to become either rerouted or suppressed by the urban landscape, to the extent that little internal thought arises, to any level of full consciousness, around how the urban space came to be the way it is. Nevertheless, these desires still exist because of the aesthetics of space and the affective response that results, even if it is not consciously acknowledged. This means that to be able to really ‘see’ the city individuals need to be encouraged to move about it in a new way. One could say that they need to be educated to respond to it somatically and aesthetically.

Please click here for part 2


  1. Perhaps two other directions regarding mindful walking:
    Thich Nhat Hanh's walking meditations.
    As all objects give birth to experiences (Merleau-Ponty), even before we consciously ' experience' them, I like to bring up the art of Miksang. Seeing with fresh eyes, Seeing what is, before our mind makes it concepts, words, .. and photograph just that.
    I know, it'[s a different track ;-)

  2. Thanks, Paul. I used to read a lot of Buddhist-oriented texts in the 1990s, although not recently. I'm sure I have a book of Thich Nhat Hanh's somewhere...