Railway Poetics

All this talk of the machine-ensemble may conjure-up the idea of the railway as an implacable system. The Freudian themes I’ve described in relation to trains usually make things worse by speaking of anxiety and trauma…

Still, things are not all bad. Let me explain.

The kinds of structuralist analysis that I enjoy usually devolve from a Marxist position. The problem of Marx is that he is nearly almost always right. However, it doesn’t follow that revolution and upheaval is inevitable. Quite the contrary in fact.

From an individual point-of-view, it’s important not to let one’s understanding of how the structures and systems of society constrain us, to drive us to nihilism.

The strategy is to embrace the poetics of everyday life…How so?

The key thing is to embrace the Romantic legacy of feeling and sensibility afforded by everyday life. The guide to the modern re-casting of this is from the Jesuit psychoanalysis of Michel de Certeau.

To date, Certeau’s most well-known and influential work in the United States has been The Practice of Everyday Life. In it, he combined his disparate scholarly interests to develop a theory of the productive and consumptive activity inherent in everyday life.

According to Certeau, everyday life is distinctive from other practices of daily existence because it is repetitive and unconscious. In this context, Certeau’s study of everyday life is neither the study of “popular culture”, nor is it necessarily the study of everyday resistances to regimes of power.

Instead, Certeau attempts to outline the way individuals unconsciously navigate everything from city streets to literary texts. It’s obvious that the railway system can lend itself to this kind of “derive.”

Perhaps the most influential aspect of The Practice of Everyday Life has emerged from scholarly interest in Certeau’s distinction between the concepts of strategy and tactics. Certeau links “strategies” with institutions and structures of power who are the “producers”, while individuals are “consumers” acting in environments defined by strategies by using “tactics”. In the influential chapter “Walking in the City”, Certeau asserts that “the city” is generated by the strategies of governments, corporations, and other institutional bodies who produce things like maps that describe the city as a unified whole. Certeau uses the vantage from the World Trade Center in New York to illustrate the idea of a synoptic, unified view. By contrast, the walker at street level moves in ways that are tactical and never fully determined by the plans of organizing bodies, taking shortcuts in spite of the strategic grid of the streets.

This concretely illustrates Certeau’s argument that everyday life works by a process of poaching on the territory of others, using the rules and products that already exist in culture in a way that is influenced, but never wholly determined, by those rules and products.

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