Ghosts in the City


“…the ruins of an unknown, strange city.”

This month I am finally whittling away at a few of the books in my pile. Among these is the second volume of The Practice of Everyday Life—Living and CookingI have been meaning to read it since visiting de Certeau’s grave back in 2012. And now that I am in the middle of it, I’m embarrassed that I waited so long.

I didn’t expect that most of the book consists of two projects by the book’s co-authors, Pierre Mayol and Luce Giard. They are interesting studies of the practices of neighborhood living and cooking—both very detailed and demonstrate a multi-layered approach to their projects. I think it might be useful to have students in my visual anthropology class read a bit from Mayol’s neighborhood study—to give them a sense of how one can approach the idea—as they prepare to do their own projects in our neighborhood.

The real gems in the book, however, are the short essays by Michel de Certeau. Reading is his translated prose is as pleasurable as it is insightful. I pause after every few paragraphs to enjoy his observations. I rarely read an author that I so completely agree with, one whose observations—in the best tradition of anthropological writing—make me see the world in a slightly different way.

This morning I was reading his eleven-page essay “Ghosts in the City” and all I could think about was wanting to share some of his most excellent moments (itself a de Certeauian move!) For me De Certeau’s eye to the mystery of the unknown, the value of the story shared and the celebration of the ways humans create meaning is infectious. In a contemporary America where, what de Certeau might call the “totalitarian meanings” of urban space are often those of fear, insecurity, and danger—I am particularly drawn to the way that his haunted cities are intriguing cities—places that invite us to explore, learn and discover meaning, even as we add our own footsteps to the places we visit.


“…the opaque ambivalence of its oddities…”

So, I thought it might be interesting to share some choice quotes on my blog—also a useful way for me to save them somewhere so that I can share them with a class sometime. I decided to throw in some of my photos—just to make it into a kind of photo essay.

“Yet some old buildings survived, even if they were caught in [urban planning’s] nets. These seemingly sleepy, old-fashioned things, defaced houses, closed-down factors, the debris of shipwrecked histories still today raise up the ruins of an unknown, strange city. They burst forth within the modernist, massive, homogeneous city like slips of the tongue from an unknown, perhaps unconscious, language. They surprise. Better and better defended by devoted groups, these islets create exotic effects within. They alternately worry a productivist order and seduce the nostalgia attached to a world on its way toward disappearing…An uncanniness lurks there, in the everyday life of the city. It is a ghost that henceforth haunts urban planning” (133).

“More than its utilitarian and technocratic transparency, it is the opaque ambivalence of its oddities that makes the city livable” (134).

“These wild objects, stemming from indecipherable pasts, are for us the equivalent of what the gods of antiquity were, the “spirits” of the place. Like their divine ancestors, these objects play the roles of actors in the city, not because of what they do or say but because their strangeness is silent, as well as their existence, concealed from actuality. Their withdrawal makes people speak—it generates narratives—and allows action; through its ambiguity, it “authorizes” spaces of operations” (136).


“…their strangeness is silent, as well as their existence, concealed from actuality.”

“Certainly, the pedagogical processes of which they are the object include an internal contradiction: they must at once protect and civilize that which is old, make new that which is old. The products that com out of restoration are thus compromises. That is already a great deal. The renovated “old stones” become places for transit between the ghosts of the past and the imperatives of the present. They are passageways on the multiple frontiers that separate periods, groups and practices” (137).

“The museum…functions in its own way. It conceals from users what it presents to observers. It stems from a theatrical, pedagogical, and/or scientific operation that pulls objects away from their everyday use (from yesterday or today), objects that it offers up to curiosity, information, or analysis. The museum forces them to move from one system of practices (and from one network of those who practice) to another…The question no longer involves renovated objects, but the beneficiaries of the renovation” (138).


“…the true archives of the city…”

“Gestures are the true archives of the city, if one understands by ‘archives’ the past that is selected and reused according to present custom. They remake the urban landscape every day. They sculpt a thousand pasts that are perhaps no loner namable and that structure no less their experience of the city” (142).

“These narratives also constitute powerful instruments whose political use can organize a totalitarianism…they make people believe and do things: narratives of crimes or feasts, racist and jingoistic narratives, urban myths, suburban fantasizes, the humor or perversity of human-interest stories…They require a democratic management of urban credibility. Political power has known for a long time already how to produce narratives for its own use. The media has done even better” (142).

“Narratives are certainly not lacking in the city. Advertising, for example, multiplies the myths of our desires and our memories by recounting them with the vocabulary of objects of consumption. It unfurls through the streets and in the underground of the subway the interminable discourse of our epics. Its posters open up dreamscapes in the walls. Perhaps never has one society benefited from as rich a mythology…For us, the grand narratives from television or advertising stamp out or atomize the small narratives of streets or neighborhoods” (143).


“…as rich a mythology…”

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