Michel De Certeau's Walking in the City  Essay

Excerpt from Essay :

Michel de Certeau's "Walking in the City" provides a clear and appropriate lens with which to view and re-view the 17th century play, "Walking Girl." Although the two pieces are completely different in terms of their style and content, they both reflect the way people subvert established social codes and structures. Leaders and powerful men of Certeau's modern age had stood on the top floor of Manhattan's Twin Tower, observing a strategized a network of rules. These rules symbolize the social norms that govern human conduct, which are the rules that Middleton and Dekker describe in their play "The Roaring Girl."

In his essay "Walking in the City," Michel de Certeau's paints a unique portrait of city life that can be applied to personal social interactions. Certeau's thesis is that leaders and influential people draft rules regulating social interactions and social norms. These hierarchically generated rules serve to maintain an established social order and structure; and these rules perpetuate the ideals and values of the elite and dominant culture. To substantiate his claims, Michel de Certeau observes New York City from the height of the Twin Towers. He observes city below him in both topical and geographical structure with attendant features. The author notices that the city had been planned well, laid out in carefully constructed zones according to a detailed and highly thought out architectural plan. The architectural strategists of the modern city designed it to be this way. Down below, however, on the streets, a different scene was taking place. Pedestrians meander and wander in and out of the outlines the urban planners constructed for them, thus messing up the orderly hierarchical strategy. Residents adopt tactics and heuristics that best suit their intentions and desires rather than conforming to the structure.

"The Roaring Girl" is a stage play by Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker written in the 17 thcentury. Given the radical social norms that are described in the play, especially with regards to gender, it seems astonishing that the authors were not hung. The script turns established European social norms inside out. Their social commentary is subversive. Instead of celebrating the prevailing social norms of the era in which they wrote, as many other playwrights and authors do, Middleton and Dekker rework those norms and critique them. The authors even succeed in torpedoing these social norms to produce a work that can be called revolutionary.

The lens that Michel de Certeau provides is basically the following: pedestrians, which are ordinary citizens in keeping with the other meaning of the word "pedestrian" as something that is ordinary, trod their own path. Pedestrians do not want to be told where to walk and what to do, or when to walk. They have their own walking route, method, and style that skirts around and subverts the originally planned or regulated scheme of the city. The pedestrian therefore imparts a personal and individualistic meaning to his or her own space in the city. The creation of individual and meaningful personal space within a highly ridig and structured external reality becomes a lens, or an analogy, for "Roaring Girl." As Certeau points out, an ordinary citizen creates his or her own space within a strictly coded reality; this is what the characters in "Roaring Girl" do.

"The city, "says de Certeau, is "founded by utopian and urbanistic discourse." That city "is defined by the possibility of a threefold operation." The threefold operation is as follows:

1. It is the production of a particular space created so as to repress and prevent the flow of political, physical, and mental pollutions.

2. It is the imposition of an elite and dominant culture system used to suppress individuality and spontaneity.

3. It serves as aggregation and homogenization, and individual parts become part of a collective political whole: the 'city'.

De Certeau's pedestrian creates his own walking path in this city, ignoring the meanings that were originally bequeathed to places and streets. The pedestrian creates his own meaning in the urban landscape. He ascribes new identities to people, places, and things on the way. The pedestrian, in effect, links "acts and footsteps, opening meanings and directions." By opening up new meanings, the pedestrians accomplish what Certeau calls "an emptying out and wearing away of" the primary role of urban planning. The citizen creates "liberated spaces that can be occupied."

These streets, urban spaces, parks, gardens and all zones are created with architectural meaning. Certeau perceives this meaning from the top of the Twin Tower, his observation deck and panopticon. This observation deck can be compared to the viewer of the play "Roaring Girl." The viewer, for instance, observes the detailed expectations of how women should behave. These expectations are established differently, of course, to those that apply to men.

In a city, the streets are laid out in fixed concentric circles or grids, and are solid and never meant to change. In the realm of "Roaring Girl," each gender has his and her own fixed and established place, just as a 'park', for instance, has a zone in the grid of the city. In De Certeau's city, there are distinct districts. Each district contains its own species of social class; some are considered more privileged and advantaged than other according to their socio-economic background. Privileged spaces are roomier and more elaborate than the spaces set aside and reserved for the working class and the poor. Similarly, the spaces constructed around gender follow similar patterns of privilege vs. disenfranchisement. Women occupy a segregated zone that cuts themselves off from access to social, cultural, political, and economic capital. Men are the persons with power and privilege that occupy the metaphorical "good neighborhoods" of the social city.

In a city, alleys and roadways are constructed as well as highways, freeways, and all the sundry paraphernalia of streets that are designated for vehicles that divert drivers onto routed channels. In spite of these channels, and often because of them, pedestrians passed across and violated rules, creating their own pattern. By doing so, pedestrians linked "acts and footsteps, opening meanings and directions… making liberated spaces" out of rigid hierarchies. In "Roaring Girl," Middleton and Dekker's characters do the same. They create "liberated spaces" of gendered identity, stratification, and norms. In the city, the spaces are geographically segregated and subverted, but in the world of "Roaring Girl," they are symbolically segregated and subverted.

In "Roaring Girl," Moll is a woman who dresses as a man. She therefore directly subverts the gendered appearance code and crosses her gender with the other. Sir Alexander, a quintessential law abiding, norm-abiding citizen does not and will not understand her because she does not fit into the structured identity of conventional gender norms. He calls Moll "a creature…nature hath brought forth / To mock the sex of woman / It is a thing One knows how to name; her birth began / Ere she was all made. Tis woman more than man / Man more than woman and, which to none can hap, The sun gives her two shadows to one shape / Nay, more, let this strange thing walk / stand or sit / No blazing star draws more eyes after it."

In other words, Moll forges her own path like a pedestrian on Certeau's city streets. Moll is stigmatized just as a jaywalker in the city would be. Her subversiveness suggests she should be degenerate, lewd, and conniving but she is none of these things. Instead she is honest, helpful, strong, and more gentle than most of the gentlemen characters portrayed in the play. When given the chance to marry, Moll makes the most important decision of all. She breaks sacrosanct social conventions by stating she will never marry. She prefers to remain single, and to create her own space in the world. Moll not only gets away with the decision, but also is implicitly commended by the authors for her courage.

The characterization of Moll as honest, helpful, and strong creates radical new gender roles and opportunities for women. Moll subverts patriarchy, by remaining independent. Her progressive stance symbolizes revolutionary gender roles in the urban context. Urban social life provides ample opportunity for gendered dialogue, engaging the viewer and encouraging radical reconstruction of conventional social patterns. The close, dense, intimate social structures in the city create denizens capable of effecting transformative change.

Middleton and Dekker show that certain social conventions are an absurdity, just as Certeau shows that rigid rules of the road are meaningless. Moll refuses to marry since she believes that certain values that she holds to be true will never be accepted as such by society: "Who, I, my lord? I'll tell you when, i'faith / When you shall hear / Gallants void from sergeants' fear / Honesty and truth unsland'red / Woman mann'd but never pand'red / [Cheaters] booted but not coach'd / Vessels older ere they're broach'd / If my mind be then not varied / Next day following I'll be married." In other words, when certain social realities…

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