Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Walking Within Walking: On the Dilemmas and Delights of Repetition

As is wont to happen, we often find ourselves walking the same paths, treading well-worn trails to school, work, and the store, or setting out over recognizable sidewalks and streets for exercise or enjoyment. For some individuals, this recurrence can generate a form of boredom from which there is no apparent escape, while for others it seems to offer the quiet pleasures and familiar consolations associated with the rhythms of circadian life. How might we best think about and interpret these routes and routines? How do our personal and daily walks open a portal into the larger world that is walking, which may be governed by its own order and internal logic? 

At the very heart of human ambulation is repetition. Walking is by its very nature a repeated physical action. It is a perpetually revisited “falling,” coupled with an inveterate catching and “re-collection” of our tumbling momentum. In terms of biomechanics, there is always a cycling—or recycling—in operation of both the churning legs and turning arms.  The body, and the lower limbs especially, might even be envisioned as an unorthodox organic wheel that carries us across the unfolding landscape. 

Internal to the container of our own corporeal form, there is also a repetition of the beating heart and the pulsing breath, which moves through an incessant cycle of inhalation and exhalation. As the poet Jean Tardieu puts it, “In order to advance, I walk the treadmill of myself/Cyclone inhabited by immobility/But within, no more boundaries.”

Along the way, distinct styles of ambulation emerge through the force and frequency of our reduplicated steps. Repetition becomes the hallmark of the way we appear, the signature that we author each time we saunter—more “foot-writing” than “hand-writing” perhaps—as a continuously exhibited and soon-erased trace of our fleeting presence. Indeed, we recognize friends, family members, and “familiar strangers” at a distance by the manner in which they repeatedly walk, much as we identify and come to know them through their characteristic voices and gestures or the movements they manifest in other activities like eating, talking or dance. Style is our peculiar way of showing and issuing forth in the world, a trait involving individuality, affect, habit and nuance. There are, for example, those who demonstrably shuffle or bounce or sashay or strut, to name but a few styles. Monty Python’s skit, “The Ministry of Silly Walks,” is a humorous twist on this point.  Here is the episode:

We learn to recognize, too, the footfalls of those whom we may initially know more visually through their vertical posture or bodily comportment: that is, by the distinct sounds they generate in particular kinds of pacing or, say, the unique pressure of their heels clicking and clacking on wooden floorboards or the repeated squeaks and squishy glide of their approaching sneakers parading proudly down a tiled hallway.

Interestingly, we can pick out ourselves as well when viewing ambling styles on a video monitor, but as we walk we cannot generally see our own gait (even in a mirror) since the observing eye interferes and alters our natural movement. However, because we can recognize it on a screen (as silhouette), perhaps we have an immanent sense of the way our walk looks from the inside, so to speak. There is, in other words, a deep bodily connection at work. As the philosopher Alphonso Lingis has observed, “the body is the locus of a primary reflexive circuit doubling up into inner motor diagram and externally observable thing, each inscribing itself in the other.”

Repetition also occurs by way of the fact that we stride through particular and unique locales on a regular basis. We walk to the same subway or bus stop each day. We amble again down the halls of our work environments dozens of times every morning and afternoon. We stroll through our gardens, or we walk to our favorite cafés, parks or bars again and again. We take the dog out for his—and our—turn around the block once more. This repetition not only serves to conduct us across ground—to cover space as extension—but to deepen our engagement with and understanding of lived place, our inhabited and meaning-bearing surroundings. What from the “outside” (observer’s point of view) seems to be mere repetitiveness, from the “inside” (an experiential vantage) may suggest something else, or something more. Over time, it might lead to a transformation of consciousness—through discipline or a kind of askesis (ascetic practice)—and a new view of the world.

The German philosopher, Immanuel Kant, was known for the regularity and predictability of his daily walks.  So reliable were his trips on foot through Königsberg that the eighteenth century residents of his neighborhood set their clocks to his passing. Although never traveling more than fifty miles from his birthplace—despite lecturing on the field of geography—Kant walked up and down a narrow half-mile street near his house up to eight times each day beginning exactly at 3:30 PM for nearly sixty years of his life. Breathing deeply with his mouth closed, wearing a long coat and cocked hat, and waving a rattan cane to both increase circulation in his body and to fend off talkative locals, he strolled on what cab drivers in the city (now Kaliningrad) presently call “The Philosopher’s Walk”.

“The purpose of walking in the open air,” Kant writes in The Conflict of the Faculties, “is precisely to keep one’s attention moving from one object to another and so to keep it from becoming fixed on any one object.” One may be tempted to speculate nevertheless that in Kant’s case we find an instance of what Freud diagnosed as “repetition compulsion” and later theorists extended into other formulations involving fixation.  After all, he did walk the very same route over and over again hundreds of thousands of times. But another way to perceive his repeated walks might be relative to either Kant’s philosophical approach or his personal temperament, both of which were given to extreme discipline, assiduousness, and attentiveness. Thinking and walking are decidedly different actions for him—the former having a clear and distinct object of focus and the latter none in particular—and when they occur in tandem, Kant believed, they can produce a dizzying, disorienting vertigo.

Like Kant and other philosophers such as Rousseau and Nietzsche, Søren Kierkegaard was an enthusiastic traveler by foot. The great Dane sauntered the streets of Copenhagen as a way to address or sublimate his experiences of melancholy and alienation and to compose many of his written works, which are now part of the Existentialist tradition. “Health and salvation can only be found in motion,” he proclaimed. “If anyone denies that motion exists, I do as Diogenes did, I walk.  If anyone denies that health resides in motion, then I walk away from all morbid objections.” Kierkegaard was also fascinated by the phenomenon of repetition, which may help to account for some of his passion for walking. “The love of repetition is the only happy love,” he confessed. Kierkegaard viewed repetition and recollection as sharing in the same movement although happening in different directions since “what is recollected has been, is repeated backward.” And whereas repetition is conducive to happiness and transition into the future, recollection causes us to be unhappy and is tied to the past. Similarly, with bodily ambulation one can discover and indulge in one’s bliss. As Kierkegaard avows, “If one keeps walking, everything will be all right.”

Repetition serves as a defining mark or essence of an entity or process. It involves a trait or quality that is identifiable—or seemingly so—over time: the refrain, mantra, image, or word that seizes our senses or settles into our memories and imagination. In the case of walking, such repetition can alight and express itself through the medium of the body or the vessel of place. But repetition need not be interpreted solely as numerical (as opposed to qualitative) sameness or self-sameness. Change is always in play and at work.  In a walk, however much we strive to recover, return to or recreate earlier conditions, it will be true that the path or weather or temperature are sure to be slightly distinct, as will be our evolving state of mind and subjective feelings. Therefore, as Kierkegaard notes, the only true and exact repetition is to repeat “the impossibility of repetition.” 

Repetition-with-difference provides a twist. In this regard, the coil or curve is perhaps somewhat akin to a Möbius strip, where the inside subtly turns and transitions to become the outside. There is continuity but also change, commonality as well as testament to difference. Gilles Deleuze, in fact, proposes a model of repetition as a system of relations that is similar to a spiral (as opposed to a simple circle), making possible new formations and metamorphoses rather than merely duplicating singularities or patterns or, alternatively, subsuming particulars under a universal—what he terms “bare repetition”. For Deleuze, repetition is related to a unique series of events or objects. He thus distinguishes a “qualitative order of resemblances,” which is represented by the image of a cycle, from a “quantitative order of equivalences,” which finds its symbol in equality.

Experientially, a sense of enchantment and a suggestion of the sensuous seem to be bound up with encounters of repetition.  We take delight in the presence of discernable patterns, colors, textures, sounds and smells. But we are also charmed by surprises that break the order, disrupt the familiar so as to interject wonder, awe or curiosity into our pathways.

One interesting instance of repetition is provided by the artist, Richard Long, who has devoted himself since the late 1960’s to exploring the aesthetic aspects of walking in the landscape through his environmental sculptures. The connection between sculpture and walking, in fact, is what art historian and critic, Lucy Lippard, claims as the source for considering walking to be an art rather than merely a performance. One of Long’s works, Line Made by Walking, for example, is a black and white photograph that depicts a path in the grass running through the center of the picture. It was “drawn” with his feet—via the repetition of his steps so as to suggest walking within walking itself—and appears both commonplace (pedestrian, ordinary) and yet oddly ambitious at the same time in marking the earth itself. In this regard, it gestures implicitly toward Robert Smithson’s well-known “Spiral Getty,” which itself is a walkable “pedestrian scale” path of rock and earth in the Great Salt Lake.

Playing on a sense of ambiguity through the intellectual beauty, singularity and visual clarity generated by a simple straight line, the work raises the question for us of whether the line is an enactment of walking—a performance in effect—or a sculptural trace of the repeated walking and, it demands of the viewer to engage in some interpretive thinking. Without describing the surroundings, a walk or anything else for that matter, the work also suggests some of the differences between traditional art-based aesthetics and emerging environmental aesthetics: first, it occurs outdoors (a larger context than the conventional art world of indoor museums and galleries); secondly, it is impermanent and temporary (in contrast to a typical striving for permanence in the art world); and, thirdly, it is practical in that one can put to use the path made by the walking (unlike most paradigmatic artworks.  

How, then, might we best find delight in the repetition afforded by familiar walks without succumbing to the trap of monotony? The poet W. H. Auden observes, “the ear tends to be lazy, craves the familiar and is shocked by the unexpected; the eye, on the other hand, tends to be impatient, craves the novel and is bored by repetition.” Whether this opposition is fully justified or not, varying walking surfaces and the times of day in which we amble about can surely contribute to a deepening sense of engagement with the surrounding landscape and place. The desire to repeat is often tethered to the desire to affirm, to say “yes” again and again to what we have experienced once before. But this same desire can also be yoked to a longing, a yearning for what is past and long gone. How we relate to the world of repetition depends in part upon whether we perceive ourselves as backpedaling, progressing forward creatively, or simply stepping sideways in the ever-fluctuating stream of time.  

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