Spatial Shock:
Place, Space, and the Politics of Representation

Jenna Vinson


Engaging Space: The Flâneur

How does one see, analyze, or represent the dynamic nature of space? Is it possible to conduct an ethically complex rhetorical analysis of power relations structuring and structured by material location—locations that may be foreign to both students and instructors? In her chapter, "Reading Landscapes and Walking the Streets: Geography and the Visual," Nedra Reynolds (2004) argued that concepts from geography can assist composition teachers in teaching students more "complex notions of space and place that, in turn, serve to complicate our notions of difference" (p. 51). She further explained that geographical methods "can teach us about the ways in which cultures adapt to spatial limits or constraints, or how people respond differently to places depending upon race, class, gender, sexuality, or ability" (p. 50).

Specifically, Reynolds drew on Michel de Certeau’s (1984) “Walking in the City” to offer walking as an analytical practice that may focus student attention on the dynamic adaptation to (and, I would add, adaptation of) spaces. She (2004) argued that "learning to see” beyond stagnant stereotypes and classed assumptions “takes place at street level, through walking" (p. 69). Walking gives students unique access to the materiality of a place as well as the agency to choose how to interact with the space: "Walkers can pause, cross, turn, linger, double-back, and otherwise have control of their actions" (p. 69). In this way, "walking is a continual improvision, a type of performance that continually privileges, transforms, or abandons the spatial elements in the constructed order" (p. 69).

To further characterize walking as a spatial analytic practice, Reynolds turned to the image of the flâneur. The flâneur is a fairly well-known figure first found in the work of Charles Baudelaire and Walter Benjamin. The flâneur is an "urban rambler, or street prowler" (Reynolds, p. 69) who "embodies the spatial practices of walking as writing, writing as walking; his main focus is to absorb and render the city through walking" (p. 70). Reynolds argued he also "embodies a confident spatial sense that all composers and navigators need" (p. 75).

Sustaining a Walking Practice but Complicating the Flâneur

While I agree with Reynolds that "forms of flânerie" are useful as a starting point for instructors who want to engage students in place-based analysis, it is important to question the class-privileged, outsider-observer position that the flâneur represents and to address these privileges before sending students out walking. The flâneur is "a wandering spectator, an observer watching but not participating in the scene of modern urban life"; he is "mobile and detached" (p. 71), deciding on his terms, where to go and what to think about what he sees. Reynolds realized that "because the advantage of the flâneur was simply leisure time...he is also a very middle-class figure" who differs greatly in his experience of the streets than those whose "means of moving through the world" were "based upon survival rather than entertainment or aesthetics" (p. 74). She viewed this distance as important for the ability to observe street life without being implicated in it. Donna Haraway (1992), among others, critiqued outsider perspectives, or "distancing operations," as "a representational practice that forever authorizes the ventriloquist" (p. 20)—in this case, the flâneur who gets to represent the city. While a practice like flânerie does engage students in active materiality (they are walking through places they write about), it can possibly encourage our students to speak for and about (instead of with) the people who are differently and actively shaping and shaped by that space.

It is important to acknowledge that I am not the first to complicate the figure of the flâneur. For instance, art historian and visual critic Miriam Paeslack (2010) responded to the leisurely, passive voyeurism of the flâneur observing the city streets, by emphasizing that the flâneur is, instead, a symbolic mediation between “the individual and urban space”—that this subject produces and is produced by the space he or she strolls (p. 400). Looking through a phenomenological lens, Paeslack saw space as “defined by the ‘embodied subject,’ the human being that relates to it” (p. 399). But how to acknowledge that? How to conduct a spatial practice (such as walking) that implicates oneself as produced by and producing that space while also acknowledging that others are similarly or differently produced by and producing that space?

Attempting to get at these difficult questions, Paeslack offered the figure of the counter-flâneur. She explained, “by counter-flâneur I mean the individual roaming the streets of the city without escaping the personal and collective subject or its sundry pasts” (p. 401). This is “a highly circumspect, increasingly self-conscious individual that reflects and shapes the city by means of eloquently using visual and textual language” (p. 401). In her article, “Subjective Topographies: Berlin in Post-Wall Photography,” she illustrated performances of the counter-flâneur in two artists’ depictions of post-wall Berlin, highlighting the artists’ use of unexplained images, personal narrative, explicit gestures to collective experience/memory, and temporally specific spatial relations in their representations of urban space: “In these instances, depictions of urban space highlight the flâneur’s subjective consciousness and create space as the flâneur moves through it” (p. 401, emphasis in original).

Walking Space

Reflecting on the installation I ended up creating for the svr2 event, I see that I, too, was trying to achieve a counter-flâneuristic representation of schools participating in Wildcat Writers. Sufficiently dismayed by my tendencies to represent local high schools as underserved (as a rhetorical appeal to get FYC instructors to participate in the writing program’s service-learning initiative), I returned to some of our partner schools, determined to engage these places as spaces. That is, I wanted to see as an outsider of these schools if I could move through schools in a way that would confront my own assumptions about what the structure and material conditions of the school meant for the students who attended, while being simultaneously attentive to the ways students shape those spaces. I decided this required that I walk through the school accompanied by a student who used that space, listening to their stories about what it is like to be in that space. In total, I visited three schools—two high schools and one college campus—with students who attended those schools. In order to later represent these visits for FYC teachers at the svr2 event, I brought along a digital video camera and invited the students to film as they took me to the spaces of their school that they used and/or thought were the most important. I chose to film the walks in order to capture the pace, fluidity, and materiality of the moment. In handing the students the camera I hoped to (1) privilege the student’s perspective as an insider/regular of that space and (2) highlight my position as the outsider/visitor who prompted the walk.

I began each visit by assuring the student(s) that I was not looking for an official tour of their school. Instead, I wanted a student's perspective, specifically their student perspective. In doing so, I hoped to encourage student choice in how to represent themselves and their school spaces in this moment with me. Of course, the way students moved through their schools during our stroll was most certainly affected by my presence. They knew I was a college composition instructor and that I was unfamiliar with their school and/or the way they experienced it. A former student strolled with me through the University of Arizona campus, sometimes pausing to ask “is this what you were looking for? I am not really sure....” Yet, alongside these tensions, the students’ movements and stories about their campuses effectively jarred my assumptions about those seemingly stable places.

For example, as I moved through one high school space, I was hyper-attentive to the surveillancing mechanisms of the school such as the layout of classrooms—bordering a central, grassy slope used for student social space—and how this layout allowed for easy scrutiny of student leisure time. I seemed to be looking for details that would serve me well as evidence for a rhetorical analysis of oppressive power relations in this place. Focusing on the material construction of the place, I could have potentially missed the interactions of the students with this space—how student movement(s), clusters of friends, graffiti, and improvised additions shaped the experience and function of the space—something my student partner kept drawing my attention to through his personal stories.

In the end, going back to high school in this way was an interesting experience. The school visit that affected me the most was the one I was able to do on a weekday just before the school day began. This meant I could witness students huddled in groups, monitors and security officials reminding students of the proper way to act in certain spaces (no hats in the buildings, you must wear your I.D. badges at all times)—all things I remember from my experience in high school. I remembered the constant feeling of being watched (both by peers and adults), of feeling constrained.

However, the student I strolled with was not rattled by the inquisitive guards and monitors and seemed undaunted by the expectations of his behavior. It was then that I remembered my similar attitude in high school—this was just how high school was. During the stroll the student focused on his spaces, where he felt he could "chill." He engaged the space as his own, and paused to speak with his friends, seemingly at ease with my presence. It was hard to quiet my inclinations to analyze the space and its constructions of power so that I could focus on experiencing the space with the student first, listening to his descriptions, understanding his analysis. In the end I think that even with all my efforts to collaborate with the students I observed, the project is still very much shaped by my perspectives on the schools and what it must be like to experience these spaces for education. Yet, I hope that the way I framed the material implicated my position as the researcher and representative of these places in this moment.

Strategically Social Strolling?

In describing what I did to engage these spaces to teachers at the svr2 event, I originally called these visits “strolls” in order to emphasize the flexible, dynamic nature of the visit. The idea of strolling incorporates the material, physical engagement of Reynolds's (2004) reading of the flâneur, while also suggesting a more accessible form of collective, rhetorical movement. People in wheelchairs stroll on sidewalks; friends stroll together in the street; guardians stroll babies through parks. In a way, strolling is a term that avoids privileging the physical ability to walk. Yet, I realize now that strolling (a word stemming from the concept of the flâneur as a stroller) can also imply an individual’s leisurely walk, undirected, happenstance, and unengaged with the space of the stroll. In searching for another word to describe how I structured my visit to each place, I only found disappointing alternatives. For example, “guiding” and “escorting” bring attention to the student-directed collective walk, but suggest an undue burden on the one who is doing the guiding (which perhaps there is) and also a power dynamic in who gets to go along for the ride. “Meandering” or “promenading” suggest fun, fluid, transgressive movement but also imply unintentional movement, missing the fact that both the student and I were self-conscious of our identities, our relations to each other, our relationships with the space, and our past experiences that informed how we moved and where we went. Thus, for now, I keep the idea of strolling and add words to it to emphasize that these walks were constructed, ephemeral experiences between insider and outsider of the space: strategically social strolling.

After finishing my walks with students, editing the films for projection at the svr2 event, and reflecting on what insights stemmed from my and the students' experiences, I thought long and hard about how FYC students from the university could visit local schools in a way that would mediate (not diminish or dispel) moments of spatial shock—moments in which seeing, first-hand, the material conditions of an unfamiliar place jar or unnerve the student. I wanted a method that would productively prolong the uneasiness to allow time for critical reflection on feelings within and assumptions about this place that was not their own. I suggest the concept of strategically social strolling as a spatial rhetorical practice that positions students who are visiting unfamiliar places as self-reflective, conscious observers of dynamic instantiations of space. “Strategic” emphasizes the need to complicate material privileges of observing a space from afar, on one's own terms, by actively seeking out someone to engage the space with. “Social” highlights that an analysis of place will remain stagnant and one-dimensional unless students approach that place as a space shaped by the people who use it. This is not to say strategically social strolling, especially within a school, is a perfect method (see Contested Conclusion(s)). But it is one way to try to get students, and ourselves, to see space beyond a place that determines the activities of its inhabitants (just as the WALK sign appears to produce and limit the walking-sign figure), and to see a more dynamic and embodied relation between place and subjectivity.

Strategically Social Strolling for Students

Strategically social strolling is a study of spatial practice—a study of how an insider uses and understands a space. Yet it is also a spatial practice in-and-of-itself that may serve the purposes of rhetoric and composition courses by encouraging students to practice embodied research and by giving students opportunities for locally based rhetorical analysis. Hopefully, students come away from strolls with ideas about how social relations both produce and are produced by spatial constructions. Most importantly, in representing these shared moments, they practice implicating themselves in their research of social issues. As Donna Haraway (1992) reminded us, "This world must always be articulated, from people's points of view, through situated knowledges" (p. 21). The more we encourage our students to make this apparent in their writing, the better.

Strategically social strolling requires

  1. Time and access to a community, which still implies an inherent problem of class privilege for those who can conduct a spatial rhetorical practice. But strategically social strolling also implies awareness of community. This spatial practice is not isolated or distant. To stroll in such a way is to engage space with another person, someone for whom that space has meaning, someone who feels they belong to this space.
  2. Understanding of “space” as dynamic. Strategically social strolling requires that the researcher understand the practices that happen within that space. Often the member of the space will take it upon themselves to describe these practices and assist the outsider in negotiating the space.
  3. Willingness to form a relationship with the space/community. While the flâneur may remain unchanged by his walk through the streets—observing others without communicating with them—the strategic stroller strolls the space in a way that encourages interaction with it.
  4. Critically conscious, collaborative reflection. As I prepared for the strolls with students, I consistently reflected on the politics of the process of getting into the schools (access to schools, unlike streets, is often an arduous process), of finding students to stroll with me, and of finding the technologies that would allow me to record and represent the space for others later. Before going on the school visits, I prepared questions for the students I strolled with (e.g., How are you supposed to “be” or “act” in this space? Why? How is this ensured? How do you feel in this space? Who are you in this space? How does this relate to how you are in other spaces? Who has power in this space? Why?), but I also welcomed students to ignore or move beyond these inquires in telling me stories about their space. After the stroll, I went through the self-reflective practice of editing the film to show it to others. Once complete, I returned to the school to share the footage with the students, and they told me how to edit further to make it “good.” The strategic stroller is mindful of his or her role as a representative of the place in a moment of analysis and works hard to make this representation dialogic.


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