There are two different strategies I use to apply for developing epistemic devices and multimodal artifacts: the first one is going to walk with the concepts and ideas I am currently working with. The second one is taking a nap with them. Today, I will talk about the first one.
Before being an ethnographer, even before being a journalist, I was a walker. I like to walk without a plan, without a route, just walking and watching, and watching and listening, and listening and making pauses for taking a random picture, for observing something in a more detailed way. Walking is my primary and favorite source for discovering what is happening outside. I like walking, just walking for the pleasure of moving myself and being in touch with the world that is there.
But walking is also a methodological resource for doing (any kind of) intellectual work. From the Aristotelian Peripatetics to Baudelaire’s flâneur, walking has been a way of potentiating and stimulating human creativity. It was, perhaps, Walter Benjamin who turned the act of walking into sort of structured epistemic device for describing and discussing urban life.
Taking the idea of the flâneur, that “passionate spectator” who is constantly strolling the streets to get first hand information about the things occurring around him, Benjamin developed a methodological proposal of walking the city for studying and decomposing particular urban places. In Benjamin’s proposal social theory and the spontaneous attitude of who is watching the world through a curious eye are mixed into a set of descriptive vignettes and short essays.
The objective of those products were pretty specific: to make a critic of the effects of capitalism and modernity in his contemporary (urban) society. And it is precisely here were one can appreciate the power of going to walk as a device for translating the world outside. But walking has a trick. Going to walk with an idea it is not to force the idea to fit into the world outside, or even worse, it is not to try to fit the world outside into a theoretical construction.
In that way, walking is a complex movement where the epistemic attitude must prevail. And this is, properly, the trick: one should avoid confusing theoretical constructions with epistemological ones. Although the debate theory-epistemology is a discussion that exceeds the limits of this post, an epistemological concept is a device that is elaborated “in situ” and that only works for a specific and located kind of particular situation. A theoretical one, on the other side, is designed for being “universal”, for being applied in any context.
In that way going to walk, following Walter Benjamin steps, results to be more than either a leisure activity or a just merely informative one. Walking is a powerful tool for observing and translating particular places through the elaboration of descriptions of the connections and the temporal assemblages one is seeing outside. Also, walking as a device for exploring the world is a political instrument that is defeating the inertia and blindness of who is working about urban life from a laboratory.
Of course it is possible to go to walk with the intention of producing theory, however, the process of walking itself is far from being a theoretical one. Walking is, thus, an epistemic device for producing both epistemic constructions (for instance devices and artifacts) as well as theoretical concepts. Both situations are situating the one who is walking in a specific location but from a mobile position.
// This post is an introduction to a series of four entries about walking, doing ethnography and constructing epidemic devices and multimodal artifacts.