Monday, March 10, 2008

Certeau's Sieve-order

Lately I've been puzzling over de Certeau's theorization of maps and what they risk obfuscating (e.g., stories, minutiae, detritus, etc.) in The Practice of Everyday Life. His pedestrian rhetoric affirms the viewpoint of the "ground level" over the observation of the whole from the 110th story of the World Trade Center, from which he once experienced a curious pleasure while looking onto Manhattan--seeing it as a "wave of verticals" hovering distantly above the city's "paroxysmal places" (91). De Certeau wonders about the pleasure he felt and, as well, what this bird's-eye viewpoint, with its "scopic and gnostic drive," obscures: "When one goes up there, he leaves behind the the mass that carries off and mixes up in itself any identity of authors or spectators" (92).

From the observation deck, De Certeau says the mass is left behind, that it "carries off and mixes up." Reasonably true. Looking down on the ant-like taxis, the city appears different--further away. But in another sense, the urban observation deck is not less local than the sidewalk, is it? Also, marveling at the city does not make its streets more readily navigable (whatever compels you to go out and about).

Certeau goes on to critique maps, traces, place-names, and flattened projections, lumping them together as totalizing devices: "The surface of this ["suspended symbolic order"] is everywhere punched and torn open by ellipses, drifts, and leaks of meaning: it is a sieve-order" (107). The sieve-order favors stories and localization, and these are thwarted by intervals of distance, from those viewpoints at which the "world's debris" disappears.

Later he admits an oscillation between the local stories and "rumors" (presumably reinforced by a desire for totalizing representations), he is concerned that the relationship between the two has become stratified: "Stories diversify, rumors totalize. If there is still a certain oscillation between them, it seems that today there is a stratification: stories are becoming private and sink into the secluded places in neighborhoods, families, or individuals, while the rumors propagated by the media cover everything and, gathered under the figures of the City, the masterword of an anonymous law, the substitute for all proper names, they wipe out or combat any superstitions guild of still resisting the figure" (108). The overwrought substitution of the one (i.e., totalizing view) for the other (i.e., everyday practices) is troubling: "The trace left behind [on, say, a map] is substituted for the practice. It exhibits the (voracious) property that the geographical system has of being able to transform action into legibility, but in doing so it causes a way of being in the world to be forgotten" (97).

Might the projection--and even the written account--also rejuvenate the action, renew its circulation, and cause it to be remembered again? Specifically, I am thinking about this in relationship to distant reading methods that translate large volumes of data (mined from texts or activities) into visual models--projections in which we can apprehend patterns not identifiable at other scales of contact (such as the "ground level").

Maybe there is a place for de Certeau in Chapter Five. I haven't decided yet. But I am discovering the faint separations between my dissertation and the walking rhetorics he advocates. Something tells me these can be bridged (or filled), but I am still reaching for ideas about how to do that (and also still thinking about whether it is even necessary).

Bookmark and Share Posted by at March 10, 2008 3:30 PM to Rhetorico-Geography