This blog is in two parts. The first is me thinking through some ideas about walking and ambulant bodies in prep for a PhD progression task I’ve got to do next week. The second looks at some images of walking and explores ways to use this in the classroom.
Part one – walking and the rhythms of the everyday:
Walking is a simple, everyday act. It links us to our environment in a tactile, embodied relationship with space and time. For some, it is an essential part of their day-to-day lives – the postman, the beat cop, the traffic warden. Here, walking is linked to power, or authority, or the state, or else it’s just a job to do (just as I, as teacher, walk the corridors of my institution and prowl the spaces of my classroom). For others, walking is relaxation, it frees our mind from the troubles of the day, or else we can walk the dog in the morning and the rhythms of the waking world in tune with our body invigorate us and help us prepare for the coming day. For some, walking can be an unwelcome necessity – the lack of a car can be a lifestyle choice of course, but it can also be a sign of exclusion; here, there is perhaps no aesthetic design to walking: instead it is a forced means of mobility. I remember having to walk everywhere as a child – my parents couldn’t drive and certainly couldn’t afford a car: walking was an inconvenience. It was a means to an end, the end usually being the bus-stop which inevitably lead to that other bane of the car-less: public transport, crowded upstairs full of smoke. The red vinyl seats, slashed and graffitied; masticated ticket stubs-as-projectiles spattered on windows thick with condensation, the substance of breath and damp bodies, the physical poetry of the everyday and the familiar. Walking through places which constantly remind me of where I am, who I am and even, perhaps, what I am not or what I might never be.
On the other hand, walking can be heroic – walks across continents captured forever on video or in hardback books with glossy photos of panoramic landscapes juxtaposed with the minutiae of some village life; sponsored walks to raise money for the needy, the dispossessed; or it can be a symbol of one’s own desire to preserve the environment and to reduce our carbon footprint, replacing a metaphorical step with a real, physical one.
These rhythms of walking connect our bodies to our minds and also the spaces through which we walk. The cardio-vascular exertions, the learned and taken-for-granted physiological-mechanical movements, the complexities of which are only recognised when we watch our children learn to walk, or when the ability to walk (or its gift) is taken from us, either temporarily or permanently.
Think of those stories about walking. James Joyce’s Ulysses – perhaps one of the most famous literary walks. What about Enfield’s and Utterson’s walk at the beginning of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and the mysteries that this unfolds. Stephenson’s story is full of walks – walks which bring revelation (Utterson determined to seek out Hyde) or death (Carew’s ‘chance’ meeting with Hyde that brings about his destruction). Modernist writers filled their texts with walks: Virginia Woolf and Mrs Dalloway, or even Woolf’s own sojourns through London in ‘Street Haunting’ in which Woolf journeys out to buy a lead pencil, ‘where to escape is the greatest of pleasures. On her way puts herself in the shoes of her fellow travellers, reflecting on the lives of others and contemplating their own inner monologues. And Eliot, whose hooded hordes traverse the cracked lands of modernity and walk the bridges of that unreal city. Eliot’s ambulant subjects are harbingers of the apocalypse, no less so than the walking dead who populate the shopping mall in Romero’s Dawn of the Dead ( or the local one on Saturday afternoon). Or if you like, the contemporary walkers – with which Paul Auster’s novels are richly populated. His is a psychogeography of walking, circuitous perambulations through the streets of New York in his New York Trilogy, where one walks to redefine oneself. I’m sure you can come up with your own anthology of walking, including of course, that most famous and enduring walks that concludes with chucking an Elvish ring into a volcano.
Michel de Certeau argues that stories begin at ground level, with footsteps. A nice thought. Walking is a means of change, of agency. It brings control, self-control, control over narratives. It can be missed, elided: we think more about what’s at the end of the walk than the walk itself. The acquaintances struck up, the stories we can tell, the emotions we unveil.
Charles Baudelaire and Walter Benjamin wrote of the flaneur, the denizen of the 19th century Parisian streets: an idler, a loafer, a middle class man whose walks typified the emerging gentrification of the city. His gaze was controlling, voyeuristic. For Lauren Elkin, he is a ‘figure of masculine privilege and leisure, with time and money and no immediate responsibilities to claim his attention’. There could never be a female flaneur – a flaneur, for what was the street walking woman but a prostitute, a woman of the town? Or else women were too busy doing what the idle bloke wandering through the city could be doing – looking after his kids and washing his laundry. They were excluded from the city, or else they were pushed to its margins. Like Georges Sand, she had to adopt a trappings of masculinity in order to walk.
What of the modern flaneuse? I’ve recently read Lauren Elkin’ book, Flaneuse. (@LaurenElkin)
The flaneuse is able to reinscribe the urban, reappropriate it: no longer marginalised, the flaneuse takes control of urban space. She transgresses received prejudice, she is a figure ‘saturated with in-betweenness’. Walking is a celebration of the body and its relationship to the world; it isn’t gendered but neither is it risk-free (just walk around the city at night). Where perhaps the flaneur’s medium was the novel, it is film which brings the flaneuse to the fore. Agnes Varda’s Cleo de 5 a 7 in which the eponymous protagonists walks with death on her mind, transforming from an object of the gaze to the owner of it, and so walking becomes an act of resistance. Antonioni’s flaneuses are equally resistant to patriarchal constraint, in particular Lidia in La Notte whose flaneuserie takes her into the margins of Milan where she encounters waste land, derelict buildings, street-fighting men, experiences which empower her, and trigger her own transformations. Walking as a means of telling your own story.
Part two – images of walking and thoughts about gender and space
I came across a photograph in Lauren Elkin’s book, of which this is a part:
It’s a very famous photograph, taken by Ruth Orkin in Florence, Italy in 1951. I like to deconstruct photographs, slow down our ‘reading’ of the image in order to consider the complexity of how we work out the connotations of what we see, decode the various constituents of the image. The woman in Orkin’s photo is walking along the pavement. What’s the first thing we notice? She fills the frame (but that could be because I’ve cropped the image) and we notice she is in mid-stride, her left foot just off the ground and slightly blurred in the shot. The camera has captured movement here, the rhythms of the stride. Although there is space around her, the balance of the image is anterior: she carries her bag at a slightly perhaps uncomfortable position in front of her, her left arm bent at the elbow, clutching a folder or a book. Her right hand is also clutching something – this time it’s a shawl, the pressure of her hand causing the two creases which can be seen just on her shoulder. She wears a long black dress, sleeveless; the sandals and the shawl suggest sophistication – perhaps she is Italian, perhaps she is one of Antonioni’s flaneuses. But what of her facial expression? Her head is erect but her eyes appear downcast, her mouth too, slightly open but turned down at the edges. What do we make of this? Is she anxious? Afraid? Discomfited by the fact that she has just had to walk past the three men, loafers, idlers, standing in the doorway? If this were video, what would we hear? The inevitable sexist comments perhaps – or are we allowing our own prejudices to cloud our judgements?
I’ve been using this grid to help my students work with images. I like the second and third prompts – ‘I wonder why?’ and ‘what does this remind me of?’ Such questions empower readers to bring in their own contexts, to negotiate their own readings and situate them within personal experience. I wonder why she is walking? What is it that she is holding? Where is she going? Irrelevant perhaps in that they become the visual reading equivalent of ‘how many kids did Lady Macbeth have?’, but they get readers to ENGAGE with the text and task, it creates discussion points, autonomous thinkers …
I can feel this blog going on forever. Here’s a wider shot of the image. How does this change the way we read it? Who is in control of the physical space? Now what can we say about the woman in the picture?
Is she brave? Foolhardy? Confident? Has she found herself in the wrong place at the wrong time? What does this tell us about women’s relationship to urban space? And men’s? Who is in control of this space? Here’s a wider shot- in fact it’s the whole image and you’ll probably recognise it:
This is a very famous image and as Lauren Elkin suggests it’s often held up to be an example of what women have to deal with if they walk out in public. However, as Elkin points out, the woman in the photo, Ninalee Craig said in a 2011 interview that “It’s not a symbol of harassment. It’s a symbol of a woman having an absolutely wonderful time!” As Elkin writes: ‘The photo was taken during a day of ‘horsing around’ the city with a camera, with Orkin taking pictures of [Craig] taking in the sights …’ (The Flaneuse, 2016: 287).
I love the way that this photo as become a symbol of how we bring our own preconceptions to the text. And what does it tell us about context? Is the producer of the text important to a final, conclusive reading? Roland Barthes would say no of course – the author is dead. And can we trust Craig’s assertion that she was having a good time? Does Craig become an unreliable narrator and what motives would she have for such subterfuge? Is she making excuses for the behaviour of the men around her? Is it dangerous to say that it’s okay to see this image as playful when the buy grabbing his crotch might suggest otherwise? What would happen if I’d cropped this image so that we began with the crotch-grabbing?
Indeed, some argue that the image is far from playful:
“Street harassment is how some men exert male dominance and ownership over the streets and ensure that women who may not have the fortitude of Ms. Craig choose not to be in public alone, or feel discomfort when they are there. Do you see any other women on the street? No. That is a problem!” http://www.stopstreetharassment.org/2011/08/american-girl-in-italy-does-depict-street-harassment/
I was wondering if there was an image I could compare this with. In fact, I didn’t wonder/wander – I immediately thought of this! –
Here is Travolta the flaneur – ‘you can tell by the way I use my walk, I’m a woman’s man, no time to talk’. Travolta owns the street, helped of course by the director’s judicious used of lighting and costume which makes him the absolute focal point. His gaze is directed towards the woman at the right/front of the frame and it is one of implicit (explicit?) control.
(although hands up if you can’t help thinking now about this instead?)
What’s interesting is the way in which we can interpret the relationship between the body, the gendered body and urban space. You could always turn this into a prep for GCSE English Language paper 2 of course:
But I’m also interested in how we can use images to think about viewpoints and perspectives. What do these images tell us about attitudes to the images themselves? About how the image has been produced and constructed? I love using ‘provocative statements’ to get students to negotiate, argue, interpret, re-position themselves in relation to a text. Try them as socratic talks.
I want to reclaim some space in English lessons for the image. Maine and Shields’ paper on using moving image in the classroom is particularly interesting in helping to formulate a methodology if we need one: for them, moving images “enable readers to create meaning through a transaction with the text, inferring meaning beyond the literal, bringing to the text their own prior experiences and knowledge, and drawing from it their understanding of narrative genre and story”.
But I would argue still images are equally as helpful and we need to encourage more interaction with them – especially in the light of their importance for GCSE Lang paper 1.
Elkin, L. 2016: Flaneuse: women walk the city in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice and London (Chatto and Windus, London, 2016)