Do we ever forget our first encounters with the city, that first time out in the convulsive, roaring waves of pedestrians on its downtown streets? In my earliest escalator rides in a downtown mall in Seoul, I remember my small body often being suddenly lifted up by my mother the second before the menacing monster was about to grind my feet at the top. Everyone has memorable moments in her first day-out in the city.
But the fact of the matter is that our memorable experiences lose their magical, incandescent charm in the timeless, unstoppable continuum of everyday life in the city, whose impenetrable texture of motions and signs refuse to accommodate any point of origin or intervention. For as long as we can remember, automobiles have always been thrusting past one another, and pedestrians have always been jostling through street vendors and pavilions. The moment we set foot in the city, we are compelled to adjust to the frantic, yet consistent rhythms of varying movements that encircle us. We soon find ourselves behaving like city folks, which bears an uncanny resemblance to those automaton-like pedestrians in Edgar Allen Poe’s short story, “the Man of the Crowd”:
By far the great number of those who went by had a satisfied business-like demeanour, and seemed to be thinking only of making their way through the press. Their brows were knitted, and their eyes rolled quickly; when pushed against by fellow-wayfarers they evinced no symptom of impatience, but adjusted their clothes and hurried on.
Walter Benjamin’s memorable comparison of the mechanical movement of Poe’s pedestrians to that of factory workers on an assembly line remains relevant today, as it alludes to an increasing level of homogeneous modernization that allows people of different origins and backgrounds to quickly learn to act like sophisticated city folks with cool detachment: “[Poe’s] pedestrians act as if they had adapted themselves to the machines and could express themselves only automatically.” Surely their movements and expressions are part of a trajectory that is destined to reveal something distinct about their lives. But rarely do we get an intimate glimpse of it, as their intentions are concealed underneath the tight-knit web of urban signs and cliches associated with uniformity and detachment. The above excerpt is precisely a glimpse of the operation of these signs that govern their behaviours and expressions from “satisfied business-like demeanour” to “gesticulations.” Thus the first-person narrator’s exhausting pursuit of a solitary walker through streets of London so as to “know more of oneself” ends in failure, since the stranger remains firmly welded into the ever-shifting anonymous urban crowds.
Yet we can still vividly recall our urban experiences, whose memorable details of places and moments tend to challenge the impersonal structure of the urban everyday. In this sense, our urban memories can be seen as an act of intervention in its effort to personalize the city and transform it into an animating web of locales and events. Equally interesting to note is how this act of remembrance spells out a creative strategy of storytelling: without recourse to any verifiable evidence of the details that are all lost in time, the act implicitly establishes a link of suggestions and meanings with the present moments in which it is performed. The past re-enacted then always shifts in meaning, occasioning a kind of subversive operation. Michel de Certeau highlights the challenging dimension of our remembrance, “its capacity to be altered – unmoored, mobile, lacking any fixed position”.
In an urban context, the act of remembrance articulating “unique” moments and consequences takes issue with the impersonal mechanising features of the city. It is out of this critical negotiation that we engender a space unique to our desires and wishes, a creative spatial practice by means of which unremarkable all-grey apartment blocks where we grew up becomes the focal point of inexhaustible narrative expansion and inventions.
Shin Hi-sup is an associate professor at the Department of English Language and Literature. He received his PhD in English literature from the University of Essex.