Self proclaimed phyco-geographer and new Professor of contemporary thought at Brunel University Will Self used his inaugural lecture as Professor of contemporary thought at Brunel university to proclaim that ‘walking is political’.  Drawing upon the relationship that walking engenders to the city Self notes that, with a shift away from walking over the last 200 years that we have seen a ‘fundamental alteration in the nature of human connectivity’ towards our environments equating a walk to a ‘physical possession of the built environment and that ‘that to walk the city and its environs is, in a very powerful sense, to use it’ and the flâneur as a ‘democratising force who seeks equality of access, freedom of movement and the dissolution of corporate and state control’ and in so doing relegates suburbs to locations that ‘no longer convey any sense of place’.

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However here I’d like to follow Creswell 2010 and assert that all forms of mobility are political and that whilst I agree with Self that walking allows one to see and experience the city in ways that other forms of movement do not a true ‘democratisation’ of the city would see an aim of access, impact, engagement through all forms mobilties and in so doing would have to fundamentally address questions such as the levels of investment in various forms of movement and the spatial structures of settlements and who these investments and changes benefit.

“Importantly, these forms of mobility (walking, Driving, etc) and these aspects of mobilities (movement, representation and practice) are political – they are implicated in the production of power and relations of domination.”

Further cycling, catching a train and so on have their own emancipatory political potentials of moving our bodies in a phenomological and performative sense, becoming one with machine and zooming past traffic jams is in itself its own experience of interacting with the city as is the train ride along corridors of graffiti or moterway drive.  Everyday ‘tactics’ of walking, routes rhythms and speeds are used by both social systems and individuals simultaneously as outlined by Michael De Certeau in The Practice of Everyday Life and Self pays attention to the politics of rhythm.

In a direct way he equates a body’s connection to territory in a philosophy of rhythm where consideration comes in a tangible stillness (or slowness) that allows a material connection to the land and in doing so the train, car and bus are rhythm stealers that distort this connection.  The questions this raises then is why is that the walk gives us a connection to the city that the train does not?  Is the train, its blurring of the buildings it passes, the collection of people it gathers in ephemeral moments of collective individually not a form of movement that can be considered as part of the city and are the collective entanglements of body and car (see Edensor) or bicycle (see Spinney 2010) as engaging of bodies place and movement?

Henri Lefebvre’s Rhythmanalysis offers explorations into notions of timespace and the politics of body object interactions in respect of all types of rhythm.   The equation of slowness with control moves us from a politics of rhythm to a philosophy of rhythm in Self’s piece where thought, experience and conection to territory comes only with the wander on foot.  Whilst reading David Bissell’s 2011 paper Thinking habits for uncertain subjects: movement, stillness, susceptibility  I was brought to think that such an equation is predicated on notions of rationality and self determination embedded in western rationalism that perhaps is ill equipped to deal with the speedy bodily experiences we have today.

Walking itself has taken various forms of politics in relation to conection to territory.  Historically the parish boundaries of London where marked out in bi-annual processions or ambulation’s as described by Micheal Housemans’s 1998 article Painful Places: ritual encounters with one’s homelands  where the boundaries of the parishes which persit today were walked by a crowd of adults and children, led by a community representative (usually a clergyman).  The crowd would halt at vital landmarks for readings rememberances of the boundriy lines for the “taking of pains”. This is where the body experience the landscape in direct sense so… “if the boundary be a stream, one of the boys is tossed into it; …. ….if a hedge, a sapling is cut out of it and used in afflicting the body…”.

This act, dating to at least the 6th century faded away around the time of the enclosure act of 1800 although it is often remembered  today.  Boundaries were protected in future disputes through the string formative bonds of childhood memory and bodily pain.  Many of the boundaries in London today are marked by these walks as Alan Warwick notes of Norwood and the boundary between Croydon and Lambeth

“Tracing that broken dotted line along church road and down Fox Hill, it is almost as through one can follow the reluctant footprints of Revd. Richard Finch, walking close as he dared to the disputed property” (Warwick 1972:14)

Walking also creates paths and which have turned into ‘rights’ and laws.  Olwig (2008) notes the act of walking causes lines of ‘desire’ (see Tiessen 2011) causing material traces in the land and such paths in land have been the basis for common law.

So walking is political historically as territory maps onto bodies and bodies onto territory and such material moves shift the realm of value which sediment in law, culture and social norms.  Practices of movement are productive in fixing place and types of place.  Today we walk for protest, to think, to experience places we shouldn’t go as kids, as adults  yes walking  IS political but  so are all forms of movement are.  What Self’s article asks me is how to we beat the bounds today?  How to we engage with the polotics of our bodies and the relationship to territory.  In an age of almost unquestioned private land ownership, land that is often revered in very public ways how is control achieved and maintained.  What is the role of the body, of memory and how does this communicate to the burocratic halls of councils, planners and to wider scales of city forms?

Today perhaps it is the historical tour that ties us to place through shared memory and learning of place value.  Where the material trace is harder to leave as asphalt refuses to fade or boundaries refuse to move being locked behind bureaucratic filing cabinets new forms of body politics emerge.  Walking is, was and always will be political but we are constantly trying to find new ways to reclaim the politics are we not?

Spinney, J. (2010) “Resisting rhythms: re-reading urban times and spaces through everyday practices of cycling” in Edensor T (Ed) Geographies of Rhythm (Ashgate, Aldershot)

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