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An unusual piece of graffiti found near the Dunedin City Centre not too long ago (photograph by the author).

An unusual piece of graffiti found near the Dunedin City Centre not too long ago (photograph by the author).

Though I have no way of competing with cannibals, I want to begin my first entry to this record – and I simply cannot bring myself to use the repellent word ‘blog’ – with an unusual idea related peripherally to my research into religion as it exists in the nooks and crannies of modernity.  This image of hidden, marginal spaces can carry over into the physical world and, to me at least, suggests an interesting way to approach the landscape of the city.  Though the surface level of the city is interesting enough as a text to be read, what really fascinates me (as both a site for the study of human cultures and as an aesthetic pleasure) is the unofficial city, to paraphrase the great New Zealand photographer Laurence Aberhart.  While pretty much any human settlement of any size will do for this kind of exploration, a modern concrete-and-steel city is probably best, even better if it is a little run-down, lived-in, and has many strange interstitial places.  The School’s literal and spiritual home, Dunedin (on the east coast of New Zealand’s South Island), incidentally, is a very fine city in this regard.

Michel de Certeau’s two-volume The Practice of Everyday Life[1] comes immediately to mind as I try to unpack this idea a little further.  In his first volume, de Certeau lays out in some detail the ways in which people use and interact with their material culture, the ways in which people ‘make do with what they have’.  He outlines how such seemingly mundane practices as eating, reading and walking can help people to resist the ever-present tide of rationalisation.  In his essay, ‘Walking in the City’, he offers a fascinating look at living in the contemporary Western city, arguing that every city is in actuality two cities: one is the visible, functional city; the other is the city as a constant creation of those who live within it, an unofficial city that we are unable to fully explain or even describe.  De Certeau presents these two cities as engaged in an eternal and undecidable dialogue, though the official city continues to dominate the conversation.  Rationalised urban space, ‘brutally lit by an alien reason’, designed for utility and heavily quantified, strives to control the denizens of the city.  However, this control is never, and can never be, total.  The official city generates spaces and practices that run against the grain and refuse both control and quantification.  In de Certeau’s words, the city ‘makes room for a void’, ‘opens up clearings’ and allows for ‘a certain play within a system of defined spaces’.[2] He summarises:

On the one hand, there is a differentiation and redistribution of the parts and functions of the city, as a result of inversions, displacements, accumulations, etc.: on the other there is a rejection of everything that is not capable of being dealt with in this way and so constitutes the ‘waste products’ of a functionalist administration (abnormality, deviance, illness, death, etc.) … if in discourse the city serves as a totalising and almost mythical landmark for socioeconomic and political strategies, urban life increasingly permits the re-emergence of the element that the urbanistic project excluded.  The language of power is thus in itself ‘urbanising’ but the city is left prey to contradictory movements that counter-balance and combine themselves outside the reach of panoptic power.[3]

De Certeau concludes, in a manner that recalls both Jean Baudrillard’s work and my own thinking on reenchantment: ‘There is no place that is not haunted by many different spirits hidden there in silence, spirits one can “invoke” or not.  Haunted places are the only ones people can live in’.[4]

So go out and haunt your city, inscribe into it the indelible work of being human.  If we think (and act) in this way, there is no place that is truth disenchanted, no space so completely rationalised that there is no resisting its alienation.

So say we all.


[1] Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, vol. 1, trans. by Steven Rendell (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984).

[2] De Certeau, Practice I, 104-106.

[3] De Certeau, Practice I, 94-95.

[4] De Certeau, Practice I, 108.