The body and the city

Posted on November 3, 2010


Phychoanalysis, space and subjectivity. Steve Pile, 1993, Routledge. GSA Library –  307.76 Pil.

In response to our Y2 trip to the Isle of Skye, I wanted to think about way I carry myself in the countryside in contrast with how I behave in the city. Do I ever experience t the same sense of physical power or freedom when walking in the city? What is the relationship between the body, walking and the city?

The Body and the City by Steve Pile reinterprets the way in which geographers can explore people’s mental maps and their feelings about places – “the intertwining of territories and feelings, about demonised others, and about senses of self and space. Pile speaks about the need to gain an appreciation of our relationship to a space in order to fully understand situations that arise there – “the politics of placing the subject” (p. 16).

When walking in the city  “…power resides in the taken-for-granted. in the freedom not to be aware of the world around – power does not just reside in the surveillance of, and overt control over, the world” (preface).

Human geography

“every image  and idea of the world is compounded, then, of personal experience, learning, imagination, and memory. The places that we live in, those we visit and travel through, the worlds we read about and see in works of art, and the realms of imagination and fantasy each contribute to our images of nature and man. (Lowenthal, 1961:260)”.

“(The geographer) alone has been seriously interested in what has been called the filling of the space of the earth with the wishes of man, or the cultural landscape. (Sauer 1941:24).”

Two strands human or behavioural geography – Chapter 1,’Environment, behaviour mind’ vs Chapter 3 ‘Geographies of human agency’. Both strands put “‘man’ at the centre of his world” and emphasise a relationship between ‘the individual and the external world” (p.16).


“(The body) is one site for the intensifying articulation of power, desire and disgust, of the individual, the social and the spatial. Moreover, the body is never merely a passive surface (p. 184)…which simply has a space and is a space ; they also make space” (p. 209).

“(body politic) culture/nature (physical body)” (p. 184).

There’s a summary of M.A. Doune’s analysis of D.W Griffith’s Birth of a nation and Douglas Sirk’s film, Imitation of Life.

Bodies “negotiate their feelings, their place in the world … people speak their internal-external border dialogues… bodies produce themselves in multiple real, imaginary and symbolic spaces, which are never innocent of power and resistance.

In the city

Lefebvre’s vision of the city as a system of signs representing relations of power and commenting on differences between  Greek and Roman cities – “horizontal space symbolises submission, vertical space power, and subterranean space death. “Greek cities were segregated into secular and sacred sites, telling of the way the cities “were governed by a good many prohibitions”.(p. 216)


“The streets become haunted by ghosts of other stories (see also de Certeau, 1984: 186). The city becomes a ghost town of memories without a language to articulate them because walking is a transient and evenescent practice…Walkers are involved in the production of an unmappable space…walkers ceaselessly move around in ‘spaces of darkness and trickery’, ever fashioned by a ‘combination of manipulation and enjoyment’ (Lefebvre p.18)” (p. 226).

De Certeau’s ideas encapsulate the type of walking carried out by the ‘flaneur’, except that he sees walking as a practice of the masses and not an elite practice. His ideas don’t really talk about who is doing the walking and why, e.g patrolling of police  or traffic wardens or the routines of going to work and shopping.

“The bodies of walkers write but cannot read what they write”

Walking always involves a lack of place. (p.225

“The City has an unconsious life which, we might say, carries out a guerrilla warfare with attempts to repress it; in other words, administrative rationality continually struggles to impose an order on people’s everyday urban, spatial practices, but must always fail. These are psychoanalytic analogies in this argument: the unconscious and the id (“The City”) are beyond the control of the consious and the ego (‘Administrative Rationality’) or we cannot rationalise our dreams, only revise them after the event.”

The six ‘psycho-geographical’ issues identified in this book

  1. “the object relationships between the body, the ‘me’/’I’ and the subject’s place in the world
  2. the sense that subjectivity is played out through repression and resistance
  3. the ways subjects, objects and spaces are constituted out of their partiality, their duplicity, their virtuality and their supposed truth
  4. an awareness that subjects act out their subjectivity as a situated and repeated performance
  5. a differentiation between dissimilar (psychic, social) spatialities and the often conflicting relationships within and between them
  6. an alertness to social sanction, social power and the possibilities of radical politics.”
Posted in: Books, Philosophy, SEA 2