Category Archives: non-places

The poetics of Underground

Text: Bill Psarras © 2014

..Tourists climb the Eiffel Tower to see Paris. Parisians know that to really see the city you must descend into the metro‘ (Augé, 2002)

Metro systems are rapid transit train systems that extend throughout a large number of cities around the world. London Underground is the oldest metro system in the world, along with the ones of Paris, Moscow, New York and Shanghai that constitute the busiest and longest ones. However, for the purposes of this post, I will use the British term of Underground when referring to such issues. Approaching Underground through metaphorical lenses, let me think of such transit system as a network of extending neurons throughout the urban skin. Lines of different colours are entangled; touching different areas of social, ethnic, historical and cultural hues. People – the passengers; the commuters – form the moving enlivened ingredients that set the city in motion each day. Indeed, if we think of London Underground, it is characterized by a cultural and historical significance after 150 years. A intermeshed network of lines and tunnels beneath London’s skin that has been used even during the World War. Such stations and lines have been inscribed upon the British urban. Underground means much more than the obvious – of moving someone from A to B. The use of underground contributes on the mobility of the contemporary city.

Unpacking the concept of metro (underground), Jensen (2008: 8) identifies 3 main aspects of it: i) the technical (trains, platforms, tickets), ii) the social (user groups, public experience of it) and iii) the aesthetic (art, signs, symbols, advertising). Stations are in-between spaces that bring together the surface with what is beneath it. The transient character in relation to the consumerism of such spaces makes them potential ‘non-places‘ (Augé, 1995) – namely spaces that do not hold any particular memory or history and their purpose is only to serve transition. A non-place is an ambiguous space that a person may feel self-suspended – a mixture of pleasure and uncertainty (Conley, in Augé, 2002: xviii). This concept is something I’ll go through details in future post.

Yet, the everyday layer of such spaces cannot just label them as ‘non-places’. On the other hand, the experience of riding the tube in another city may show a level of sameness and in-authenticity – what Relph (1976) calls ‘placelessness‘. So, the experience depends on the positionality of the person. Reflecting on this, the repetitive everyday use entails an emerging intimacy and attachment, which contributes to a certain level of ”insiderness‘ – to borrow Relph’s (1976) concept. Such insiderness can potentially magnify the poetics of mundane within such spaces. The repetition of patterns in advertisements, electronic voices, names, symbols, smells, colours and sits’ textures – seem to create a kind of poetics.

Underground and tube stations encompass hundreds of thousands (even millions) of anonymous mobile souls. Traveling minds in different combinations of clothes, colours and styles. Bodies and frictions that affect the emotional “ratio” of carriages and stations – transforming metro from a complex machinic assemblage to a pulsating mobile network. The maps of each metro reveal a different organism – a different potential system of neurons ready to be in motion. The transitional topographies that are interwoven in the urban consciousness. Riding the tube, changing lines and stations becomes a “weaving” of the (underground) everyday tissue. ‘In the subterranean experience of riding the tube through different lines as well as walking through stations’ spaces, the walking subject becomes a sensuous moving “terrain” always situated between arrival and departure poles‘ (Psarras, 2013: 420)

This version -  © Maxwell J. Roberts (2013)

This version – © Maxwell J. Roberts (2013)

Bibliography

  • Augé, M. (1995). Non-Places: An Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity. London: Verso.
  • Augé, M. (2002). In the Metro. University of Minessotta Press.
  • Relph, E. (1976). Place and Placelessness. London: Pion Limited.
  • Jensen, O. B. (2008). ‘European Metroscapes’ Paper presented at Mobility, the City and STS workshop, 20-22 November, Copenhagen, The Technical University of Denmark, pp. 1-24.
  • Psarras, B. (2013). ‘Hybrid walking as art: Approaches and art practices on revealing the emotional geographies of Tube stations’ In Charitos, D. et al. (eds.) Proceedings of 2nd Hybrid City International Conference ‘Subtle Revolutions’, 23-25 May 2013, Athens, The University Research Institute of Applied Communication, pp. 415-422.
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