Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Animals and Beggars

The British writer Will Self recently made his inaugural lecture as Professor of Contemporary Thought at Brunel University. (You can read an edited version here.) In it he argued that the walker, or more specifically the flâneur, is a "a democratising force who seeks equality of access, freedom of movement and the dissolution of corporate and state control."

But the impending extinction of that very walker — defined by Self as someone moving across a cityscape free orienting/disorienting electronic impedimenta and/or gas or other powered conveyances — leaves us a nation of, or nations of, corporate or state controlled zombies, under constant or random surveillance, moving from cash machine to cash machine down empty corridors unrelieved only by Koolhaus's "junkspace."

Like in Borges's On Exactitude in Science, the only ones left navigating the physical geography of the world, living among the Tattered Ruins of the Map, are animals and beggars.

There's no doubt some truth to Self's argument — especially if you are reading this post from Tokyo or L.A. — but here in the outskirts of nowhere, in the shadow of the Henro-no-Michi, and with a bicycle trail constructed out of an old mining railroad running past my house, I have a decidedly different view of the movement of people across the landscape. I'm sure the residents of Copenhagen or Kathmandu have equally divergent views.

It is worrying though that, according to Wired, the NSA is currently constructing a mammoth "data center" in the desert of Utah, ostensibly to collect information from people in other countries (as if that in itself is okay — as long as it falls under the rubric "counter-terrorism") but more than likely a facility to spy on anyone on the planet who makes any kind of electronic utterance or transaction (i.e. has any "digital pocket litter".)

So if you heading out for a walk and don't want to be traced by the NSA, or accused by Will Self of being one of "the majority of urbanites, who.....neither know where they are, nor are capable of getting somewhere else under their own power," you'd better make sure you leave your smart phone at home.


  1. "...under constant or random surveillance, moving from cash machine to cash machine down empty corridors..."

    Perfect description, and beautiful in a grim way.

    PS: Once upon a time I could orientate myself at night with the help of the Southern Cross and Orion the hunter. Now it's neon.

  2. I do feel it's strange to be trying to get better at describing dystopia, or even creating an alternate one in my head -- but I guess the only way to cure the patient is to begin describing the symptoms.