Writing the City

Posted on by Genise Choy

As part of the Global Urban Humanities Initiative Colloquium called Reading Cities, Sensing Cities, we have asked students and visitors to write responses to each of the weekly guest lectures.

September 18, 2014
Reading the City as a Blind Person
Chris Downey, Architect and Georgina Kleege, Department of English

Presentation available here.
Video of the conversation available here.
Downey and Kleege spoke on their experiences navigating cities as a blind person, with perspectives shaped by their professional backgrounds.

By Jaime Gómez

In 1945 the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges wrote “The Aleph,” a short story describing a man who spent his nights and holidays writing a poem, “The Earth¬,” in which he tried to describe the planet. For his poem, he took inspiration from an aleph–“the only place on earth where all places are, seen from every angle, each standing clear, without any confusion or blending”–he discovered in his cellar when he was a child. At the end of the story, Borges himself struggles to describe the aleph because “all language is a set of symbols whose use among his speakers assumes a shared past. How, then, can I translate into words the limitless aleph, which my floundering mind can scarcely encompass?”

Image source: http://oztypewriter.blogspot.com/2012/10/wired-for-typing-talking-machines-and.html

Borges’s story came to my mind while listening to the metaphor used by Georgina Kleege to explain the difference between the way sighted people perceive the visual world, and the linear-narrative experience she goes through when navigating the city. For most of us–sighted people–walking through the same street every day could be a boring experience. Although thousands of images come to us in a different way (a slight change of light, a shadow produced by a leaf flying on the sidewalk), we barely notice it. In fact, if we were asked to write a story everyday of our daily trip, unlike Borges, most of us would probably not struggle as much as he did, since we would repeat the same story without hesitation.

On the contrary, it seems to me that Georgina´s way to navigate the city is that of a committed writer able to write a different story on the same trip everyday. Although for sure her stories would have common elements–the ones that help her to navigate–the subtle differences of everyday life would make each one of her narrations different. Thinking on this hypothetical situation, another text comes to my mind: “Exercises in Style,” written by the French writer Raymond Queneau and published in 1947. In this book, Queneau explores 99 different ways to tell the same story. Each one not only has a different style, but subtle changes too.

Jaime Gómez is a first year PhD student in the Department of Architecture.