In my research and reading for this project, I came across an academic paper by one Rob O’Connor titled “A Tourist Guide to Besźel and UI Qoma: Unseeing, the Brutality of Borders and the re-interpretation of Psychogeography in China Miéville’s The City and the City”. (It’s published on The University of Lancaster’s online, open access journal The Luminary.) If you are a fan of Mièville’s City and the City or the concepts of psychogeography and the flâneur, or even simply the politics of urban space, it’s an interesting read. I may reference it a few times within this site as I’ve printed it out and it’s covered in marginalia of my own making.
In some ways, this pieces speaks of privilege in the idea of looking down on the “ordinary practitioners of the city” – if you think about who has the most access to “hundredth-floor windows”. He also references Borlú, a detective from the novel “City and the City” and we generally think of detectives as being in positions of power, if not always people of privilege themselves. (Not all detectives and police are white and/or male, after all.) If you are familiar with the novel, Borlú does not hail from the more affluent of the two cities in question. However, in his position of power, he is eventually granted access and more power to see what others cannot. This led me to think about other readings which I will include in other posts here – such as Awad Ibraham’s piece on “The New Flâneur” – as francophone African youth in Canada. The flâneur is described as one who blends and disappears within a crowd. How does the idea of assimilation play into it? Assimilation is not the same as blending and disappearing. The line that leads me to link these two is where Conor says (below) that “walking becomes a central factor for deciphering the codification of the twinned urban landscapes.” How does this connect to those who Awad calls “subaltern” groups (subaltern being a group who are marginalized to the point of being outside of even the “oppressed” groups in an oppressor/oppressed model.) How does the act of flâner-ing change in meaning, what does it mean to decipher the codification of a “twinned urban landscape” as a marginalized, oppressed, or subaltern group? The meaning that is divined from architecture and social structure is vastly different for someone from one of these groups as opposed to, for example, a white tourist hopping on and off the tram in Berlin to “get a feel for” the city.
“In The City and the City the protagonist is a detective, literally ‘walking the beat’ in order to solve the crime at the centre of the novel’s plot. In Mièville’s urban landscape, Borlú is a walker, experiencing the city in a primal way from the ground up, assimilating himself into the urban landscape. This is reminiscent of Michel de Certau’s reflection of New York as a city of voyeurs and walkers whose opposing perceptions of the city are controlled by the dominant urban feature of the skyscraper. The voyeurs, who look down upon the city from the viewing platforms and hundredth-floor windows, are completely separated from the walkers on the streets: ‘The ordinary practitioners of the city live ‘down below,’ below the threshold at which visibility begins. They walk – an elementary form of this experience of the city: they are walkers’ (93). De Certau’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.
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 expectation 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 interpretation 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’.”
Citation: O’Connor, Rob. ““A Tourist Guide to Besźel and Ul Qoma”: Unseeing, the Brutality of Borders and the Re-Interpretation of Psychogeography in China Miéville’s The City and the City.” The Luminary, no. 7, 2016, pp. 75–87., http://www.lancaster.ac.uk/luminary/issue%207/Article%206.pdf.