"Caning In the City"
The last stop when touring Dublin's Guiness Brewery is a sky-bar where visitors receive a complimentary pint of the world-famous draft. The taps are located at the centre of the room, and plush leather sofas line the edge of the bar's floor-to-ceiling windows. The brewery offers the best view of Dublin in town, and a number of postcard cityscapes have been taken there. From the top of the tower Temple Bar, party central in Dublin, looks just like any road would from above--its' famous pubs are reduced to building blocks, and its' swarms of patrons disapear. Looking down, with pint in hand, one becomes a voyeur, and is able to see the city as a system.
Michel De Certeau says from this distance the city becomes a text, readable, and such a view is impossible through the act of walking. "To be lifted to the summit of the World Trade Centre is to be lifted out of the citys' grasp." On street-level Certeau's walkers become blind to the forces that govern a city ie: social, political, economic, structural. But suppose there was no other option than to walk a city blind; how does one "see" a city when the only choice they have is to cane through it? Upon investigating Ryan Knighton's "Charles Street, Pandemonium" I am confident that he provides an answer to Certeau's theory.
The day after Elliott and I visited the Guiness Brewery, we were scheduled to meet Vancouver indie-punk band You Say Party! We Say Die! at Temple Bar for an interview. Just having completed a list of questions for them seconds before jumping on a train, we were running late. The last minutes of daylight were falling away into a brilliant sunset, and as I watched the passing landscape I realized my nervousness. At the time, I had been on the road for close to two months, I was about to interview a band I admired, and it was getting increasingly more difficult to see due to my night-blindness.
Throughout the UK Elliott had been my sighted guide, but still the thought of walking blind in a city that was foreign to me was a bit overwehlming. As we travelled our planned route we found that each stop on the map posed a new equation, a system to solve. The traffic of a city, its' layout, and the characteristics and patterns of its' walkers were all variables, and changed dramatically from place to place. Throughout our journey Elliott had guided me through museums, smokey music venues, and crowded punk clubs, and with each new challenge he was becoming a better guide. As time passed he was able to develop an eye for anything that might be important to mention ie: curbs, traffic-lights, obstructions, oblivious pedestrians, oddly placed construction etc. He began to see as I do, blindly. In order to experience the Vancouver Knighton paints in "Charles Street, Pandemodium" we as readers must first, like Elliott, understand what it means to see a thing blindly.
People with partial vision, when attempting to "see" something, tend to simplify any visual details in order to better understand the thing as a whole. In this way a line of pedestrians becomes a solid wall of matter, and is not understood as a group of individuals, but instead, as a separate singular thing. Importance is placed on the fragment, and the stitching together of those fragments to build a general understanding. It is only when one canes the city that they become "touched into / by blindness", and are able to read the city as a system. "Descartes, in his Regulae, had already made the blind man the guarantor of the knowledge of things and places against the illusions and deceptions of vision." In this way the view from the summit is useless, flawed, and the blind become some of the only walkers who do not "lack" a place as they walk it, but write a place as they read it.
In "Charles street, Pandemodium" Knighton walks a post-Expo Vancouver with the ghost of his blind buddy John Milton. He indtroduces the long-deceased author of "Paradise Lost" to his neighborhood, Commercial Drive, and comes to recognize similarities between it and the Pandemodium that Milton describes in his famous epic. As Ryan tries to impress Milton with what his generation has done with the modern metropolis, using Vancouver as a microcosm, he notices Milton's lack of enthusiasm, "is that all there is to witness?", and begins then to critique the city as he revisits it.
But it is not a linear tour of Vancouver that Knighton leads Milton, and his readers on--it is a glitchy, fragmented experience of place. One can almost imagine the two, Knighton and Milton, unexpectedly bumping into the places they encounter. Knighton separates particular sections with an , which he uses as a barrier or obstruction, forcing his reader to either cross quickly into another place, or stay back and re-trace steps. These markings both tend to disorient the reader, and alternately, serve as landmarks, a point for the reader to rest, reflect and organize themselves before moving on. Like Certeau's walkers, Knighton's readers have the choice to experience the text as they please--one can either climb the wall or turn back. But they are not constrained to one trejectory, Knighton's scattered path suggests that the journey is not as important as the moments that it is built from. These "jumps" of place and subject provide "flashes" of vision, individual sketches that together construct Knighton's Vancouver.
As Elliott and I exited the train station we encountered a mass of people, all rushing to their prospective destinations: pubs, World Cup parties, and even the Guns 'n Roses show that was taking place at one of Dublin's larger venues. The sidewalk seemed to be solid with pedestrians, and my night-blindness was in full effect. It was common for me to take Elliott's elbow in situations such as this, so he could easily guide me out of harms' way, but at the time the walk-able area of the sidewalk was too dense to accommodate for the width of two bodies. As we became enveloped by the crowd Elliott said, "just follow my lead, I'll give you the directions." Once again, Elliott had to see the movement of the walkers as a system in order to get us through safely. He began listing directions aloud, "bank right ... to your left now ... okay, we're coming to a curb." As Elliott carved a path through the maze of unaware pedestrians, and provided me with "flashes" of vision, I was able to navigate flawlessly, and without the aid of an elbow. Although blind, I was able to understand the forces, and structures that governed sidewalk travel at the time. Certeau's walkers, like the unaware pedestrians in Dublin, are blind to such forces:
These practitioners make use of spaces that cannot be seen; their knowledge of them is as blind as that of lovers in each others' arms. The paths that intersect in this intertwining unrecognized poems.
Readers begin to notice Knighton's critical eye as he makes his first steps with Milton on Charles Street, just off Commercial Drive. As he reflects on the places he visits, it is clear to see that Knighton holds a "vision" that the general population is blind to. This is reminiscent of the Wordsworthian idea that the poet is gifted with a greater soul. But I am confident that in this case Knighton's unique, poetic eye is connected to the Cartesian idea that the visual world is unstable and untrustworthy. This is why Knighton is able to resist interpelation, and view Vancouver's prime spots: Commercial Drive, Stanley Park and downtown Vancouver from an alternative perspective.
As Knighton shows Milton his own "plot", Vancouver, he becomes increasingly less optomistic about it. His imagery suggests a degree of desparation and decline:
The municipal lamps
Knighton sees the city as a metropolis, a "brand of leviathan", and realizes that his Vancouver is out of his hands--a living, breathing thing that is growing out of control. This idea, that the city takes on a life and has an identity, is something Certeau suggests in relation to the concept-city:
The same scopic drive haunts users of architectural productions by materializing today the Utopia that yesterday was only painted. The 1370 foot high tower that serves as a prow for Manhattan continues to construct the fiction that creates readers, makes the complexity of the city readable, and immobilizes its opaque mobility in a transparent text.
Through his word-use and subject matter readers come to understand that Knighton is aware of the social, political and economic forces that have transformed his city. "pushed to the edge of False Creek by cmmittees," and "they have never been exposed to an original revolution and think they want one / or are one.
Through these passages Knighton investigates the social feel of one of Vancouvers' most progressive areas, Commercial Drive, after the buzz of Expo '86. Although he calls Charles Street his neighbourhood, Knighton steps back and criticizes the "freaks behind sunglasses" who, with their hounds, also call the area home. Through his text he suggests that there exists a bigger picture that the Commercial Drive punks can't see. As he and Milton drift into their realm for a moment they assume the role of the voyeur, in certeau's sense of the word, but at times both hold a stance that is representative of the flaneur. One gets the impression that although Knighton is critical of Vancouver, he does not have the power, or even the interest to regenerate his Vancouver back into a paradise. Similar to "Paradise Lost", the story begins in medias res, when the force which was Expo had already hit, and had forever sculpted the citys' identity. Through his abstraction and defamiliarization of Vancouver, Knighton becomes estranged, and blindly guides Milton through a ghosted city.
As Knighton attempts to describe a thriving Vancouver, it becomes clear that even he is unsure as to what vancouver really is, or has become. He fails to provide Milton and the reader with a "proper name" to describe the city, something that Certeau states brings order and gives meaning.
It was not a beast in need of a name, it
This "problem of likeness" resists any solidarity, suggesting that the smoldering metropolis that stands before the two men is in transition, either becoming something great or deteriorating--the author is unsure. Certeau suggests that through the use of proper names ie: place names, city names, street names, a greater understanding of the system can be reached. When one attaches proper names: Charles Street, Stanley Park, Commercial Drive, to a travelled route, the journey, or process, is better understood. The "dotted line" that a walker both leaves and blindly follows, becomes solid, readable. However through his descriptions, Knighton does not sketch for his readers the lines that Vancouver will leave, but instead suggests that the displacement throughout his city was due to a cataclysmic shift. In this way, the reader experiences Knighton's Vancouver on a synchronic axis, with no reference to the past. Readers are then left to scrounge the fragmented lanscape for the pieces of a structure--something Knighton enacts throughout his "long-poem" of walking" by amply providing the reader with broken sketches, flashes of partial vision.
In a section entitled "The Pedestrian Speech Act", Certeau offers a possible solution for this fragmentation, and suggests that, similar to language, there exists a "rhetoric of walking". He compares the act of walking to the speech act, and concludes that they are similar in that both work within a system, and have particular limitations and freedoms within that system. "The act of walking is to the urban system what the speech act is to language or to the statements uttered." In this way stylistic literary devices can be applied to walking, and one can derive new and alternate meanings from a pedestrian's travelled route. Certeau suggests that synecdoche provides an accurate representation of how people tend to understand their trejectories:
"Synecdoche consists in "using a word in a sense which is part of another meaning of the same word. In essence, it names a part instead of the whole which includes it. Thus "sail" is taken for "ship" in the expression "a fleet of fifty sails"; in the same way, a brick shelter or a hill is taken for the park in the narration of a trajectory.
If one applies synecdoche to Knighton's trejectory throughout "Charles Street, Pandemodium" his collection of "broken sketches" begin to come together, and are framed by an overarching narrative.
In Michel De Certeau's "Walking In The City" he begins with an image of Manhattan from the summit of the World Trade Centre. Lifted out of the city's grasp he is able to read the city as a text, a view he says is impossible while walking. From his understanding, Certeau paints pedestrians as mindless drones, unaware of the forces that govern their travel. However as an individual with partial vision, i am lead to believe otherwise. For me, the view from above provides only a fragmented and skewed image of the city as a whole, and I am unable to, like Certeau, focus and critique. It is only through caning the city that I receive information about my surroundings. My constant contact with the street through the scraping of my cane provides me with a direct, uninfluenced connection to visual information. In order to navigate through a crowd or busy sidewalk, I must be aware of patterns and structures, the characteristics of fellow walkers. It is only through street travel that the "visually independant" are able to read a city.