Walking in the City

Walking in the City (de Certeau, 1984) is an extract from Michel de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life (de Certeau, 1984) which discusses social behaviour; notably how we’re shaped by our environment (in a cultural and political sense as much as a literal sense).

Observing New York City from the 110th floor of the World Trade Centre, de Certeau watches the crowds below and sees the city as a story with neither author nor spectator; its inhabitants as users of the architecture, practitioners of the city. He equates pedestrian movement with speech, describing the act of walking as the pedestrian speech act – the long poem of walking.

The link between language and walking is solidified with de Certeau equating the geometrical city-scape designed by architects to ‘proper meaning’ which pedestrians manipulate through its use to create ‘figurative meaning’.  But despite each individual’s ability to shape the urban environment to their own meaning the city ultimately shapes us as “spatial practices secretly structure the determining conditions of social life” (de Certeau, 1984).

De Certeau discusses and investigates two distinct linguistic methods , synecdoche and asyndeton.  Synecdoche means to use a word for a part of something to describe the whole; describing a car as a windshield for example.  Whereas asyndeton means the suppression of ‘linking words’ like adverbs.  In treating walking as speech the pedestrian creates his own version of the city, linking some sections and skipping others.


De Certeau also discusses memory and how it’s linked to (and indeed stems from) place. We use what can be seen to designate what is no longer there; she used to live here, but there’s no one there now. De Certeau’s work is challenging to read, assuming a high level of knowledge of psychoanalysis and social theory.  But after taking the time to decipher his text, I found his arguments illuminating.


Certeau, M., (1984) The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven Rendall, Berkeley: University of California Press


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