City & the City / seeing and unseeing

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The quote below is another taken from  “A Tourist Guide to Besźel and Ul Qoma” (by Rob O’Connor, full text can be found here: http://www.lancaster.ac.uk/luminary/issue%207/Article%206.pdf.) Very quickly (so as not to take up too much space on a summary of City & the City and without giving away any spoilers): O’Connor writes about the premise of Mièville’s science fiction novel, The City & the City, in which two cities exist within the same space. The inhabitants of each city (Besźel and UI Qoma) are taught to “unsee” the inhabitans of the other. The act of “seeing” that which occupies the same space but is in the other city is called breaching and”Breach” is the name of the government-like organization that oversees the two cities. Only those that work for Breach (or who “see” the other city illegally) are able to see the two cities together and all that it entails. The novel then centers around a murder that occurs in one city but the body is found in the other.

Another psychogeographical concern that Mièville utilizes for social and political commentary is the concept of borders and how to police them. Borders create geographical space and zones, encouraging an emotional connection and response from the people who inhabit them. They are areas of geographical space that can become fiercely contested, fundamentally changing the psychological behavior of the citizens who exist within those spaces. Populations become controlled by the policing of borders, not only in their physical movements around those spaces but also through indoctrinated behavior enforced through the use or promise of brutality.

‘Breaching’ becomes an interesting etymological choice. The word ‘breach’ has roots in the Old English word bryce, meaning to break or fracture. Contemporary definitions refer to concepts of infringement and fragmentation. The overriding sense of the word ‘breach’ is one of the disruption and chaos, a far-cry from the indoctrination that Breach wish to implement in The City & the City. In Mièville’s novel, the actions of Breach result in a fragmentation of not only physical space, but the very act of monitoring the borders that they are policing actually fragments the psychological behavior of the citizens under their control. The objective of Breach, to ultimately control the behavior of both populations, is inevitably flawed due to the fractured nature in which these populations exist. By enforcing the psychological separation of the two populations, yet still keeping them within a shared physical space, Breach have created a landscape which no one is able to explore to it’s full potential. Elements of the psychological experience are always missing.”

In regard to issues of borders and violence, this quote is quite clear. I think it’s quite poignant today to think about this idea that borders “fragment” the psychological behavior of citizens. But I’ll avoid the politics here and try to stay on topic!

In this same paper, O’Connor likened Borlu, the inspector from Besźel who investigates the case of the murdered woman, to a flâneur:

“De Certeau’s “walkers”, as well as the detective protagonists of police procedurals (Borlú included) are representative of the figure of the flâneur, an integral element of the socio-political movement of psychogeography. Although there are automobiles in the twin cities depicted in The City and the City, which also have to negotiate the problematic topography, most of the movement in the novel is carried out on foot. Therefore, walking becomes a central factor for deciphering the codification of the twinned urban landscapes in The City and the City because of the ability to become more intimate with each city’s unique features and explore the interstitial zones that exist between different urban zones. Borlú is not just a walker, but also a flâneur, divining meaning from the architecture and social structure of both cities as he wanders through their streets. “

and also

“Miéville shows a keen interest in the concept of the flâneur throughout much of his work, exploring how specific zones affect our personal psychology and what exists in the space in between. In Wasson and Adler’s book Gothic Science Fiction 1980 – 2010, Roger Luckhurst reflects upon how Miéville’s work is able to cross genre boundaries and expectations through its direct examination of complex zones and topological concerns: These interstitial zones, opening at random, shifting and disappearing from the purview of organized space, recur across Miéville’s work… The interpenetration of zones becomes the motor of the plot in The City & the City… Miéville’s zones are “impossible” non-Euclidean spaces in which, as Laura Salisbury argues, “generic transgression is figured in terms of topological complexity”.

and lastly

“Charles Baudelaire’s often quoted definition of the flâneur figure, in his work The Painter of Modern Life (1863), expresses its primary intention: “He is looking for that quality which you must allow me to call ‘modernity’; for I know of no better word to express the idea I have in mind” (12). Baudelaire’s flâneur uses the act of walking to identify with the burgeoning modernity of the nineteenth century city. Miéville’s intention with The City and the City is that his flâneur, Borlú, makes us consider the social structures of the postmodern city.

These quotes pretty well summarize why I enjoyed reading The City & the City so much. It caused me to view cities differently and look for, or at least consider, the different layers that exist in the cities that I travel to and wander within. I am, in a way, looking for that “other city”, looking to see what my privilege has taught me to “unsee” and ignore. Though it’s not an entirely perfect statement because there will always be those that continue to turn a blind eye, I think we can consider the flâneur to be one that wanders that liminal, in-between space. But I’m not sure where privilege would fit in here – I am arguing, after all, that we need to rethink the image and concept of the flâneur, it’s not that the privileged flâneur suddenly becomes “woke”, certainly non privileged flâneurs are hyper aware of these two existing spaces as well. (And really, isn’t it only those with privilege that were ever unaware of the two realities to begin with?)


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