THE TIGHTROPE WALKER AND THE OCCUPATION OF SPACE
Michel de Certeau’s eloquent portrayal of the panorama city, the visual simulacrum of Manhattan removed from the migrational city and its ordinary practitioners, registers an unusual presence in Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin. McCann opens the novel with an air occupation that shocks the early walkers of Manhattan. An unpredictable space practitioner takes the migrational city up above and manages to slip into the texturology of gigantic masses. Shaped dark against the gray morning, the man stands at the edge of one of the World Trade Center towers. He could be a window washer, an artist, a construction worker, a jumper, or a dark decoy perched on the edge of the building. McCann’s syntax splits the perception of this rigid man and mobile mystery, traversed by an array of options or ors. The man meticulously prepares the wire for the walk, cleaning and oiling it, calculating the math, the aligning, the straightening, and the assuaging, for the cable had its own moods. In laying down a wire between the towers he creates a line dividing the sky, separating sides and possible outcomes: will he fall, smash upon the ground, or will he be able to make it? This splitting or doubling will accompany the funambulist throughout the novel. Up there in the sky he represents an elevated hori- zontality as opposed to the watchers, chained to a Daedalus city, yet suddenly released from the city din and the urban symphony of the subway, the buses, or the taxi doors being slammed. Perched on the wire and gracefully walking on it, the funambulist appears as a new version of the flaneur that has replaced the arcades as the representation of capitalist luxury for the space in between the two pillars of capitalism. His is a space that does not exist until he occupies it and makes it part of his trajectory. By occupying it, by mapping it, by stringing it, by making it visible, and by limiting it between two ends, he immediately conceptualizes it as such. The flaneur is at home in the city, but the tightrope walker is at home in this newly created space, a vacuum of sorts. Walking becomes a form of dwelling for him, and he deploys a series of homely postures that are described by the watchers throughout the novel. He walks, lies, and kneels down or salutes without going anywhere. He is just happy to walk and occupy at the same time. In the air, defying gravity, and floating, “he was pureness moving,” belonging only “to the air” (McCann 2009, 164). His is a way of penetrating the air, dissecting a place outside space and the coordinates of time, for there was “no future, no past.” In carrying “his life from one side to the other” (ibid.), the funambulist finds the un-place and the un-time. The reasons for the walk, the “whyness” of it, are explained as an aesthetic practice: “The core reason for it all was beauty. Walking was a divine design. Everything was rewritten when he was up in the air. New things were possible with the human form. It went beyond equilibrium” (ibid.).
The stringing of the wire opens a new horizontality that crosses the verticality of the towers and the investment of power they represent. As opposed to their monumental verticality, this elevated flaneur offers the intimate place of his body as the only vertical vector, an I that reassesses the giganticness of the WTC and negotiates the void below. For forty-five minutes, the migrational intersects with the monumental to create a new X, a new cross, elevated and distant. This live graffiti echoes other intersections in the novel, such as the irregular X of the plane flying next to one of the towers as it appears in the Vic DeLuca photograph attributed to one of the characters in the novel, Fernando Yunque Marcano. Significantly, the crossing allows McCann and the reader to create an immediate intersection between past and present, between the plane that never hit the tower and the images of the two planes exploding into the towers. At the same time, the tightrope walker allows the watchers to resituate their perspective and discover unexpected lines of flight.
Philippe Petit’s feat, immortalized in Man on Wire,* and recreated in Let the Great World Spin, combines three of the pillars of this book, the occupation of space,2 the creation or repetition of spatial morphologies, and the situation of bodies between lines. The volume follows the spatial turn in literary theory as fleshed out in Cities, Borders and Spaces in American
Literature and Culture (Manzanas and Benito 2011), and situates itself at the intersection of geography, literary criticism, and cultural criticism. It seeks to clarify the connections between race, space, class, and identity as it concentrates on different occupations and disoccupations, enclosures and boundaries. Like Cities, this book stems from a plethora of works penned by geographers, philosophers, and cultural critics such as Giorgio Agam- ben, Zygmunt Bauman, Gaston Bachelard, Michel de Certeau, Deleuze and Guattari, Michel Foucault, Paul Gilroy, David Harvey, Henri Lefeb- vre, Emmanuel Levinas, Doreen Massey, Patricia Price, Jacques Ranciere, and Slavoj Zizek, among others, who have reshaped the multiple ways in which we think about space, its role in identity-building, and its inextricable ties with society and power. In this volume, space is scaled up and down, from the body, the ground zero of spatiality that occupies or disoc- cupies a particular place, to the texturology of Manhattan that de Certeau describes; from the striated place of the office in Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener” on Wall Street, to the striated spaces of internment camps and reservations; from the lowest of the low, the (human) clutter that lined the streets of Albany, New York, during the Depression, to the new Towers of Babel that punctuate the contemporary architecture of transparencies. Although deeply enmeshed in the spatial histories of the U.S. and its tradition of nomad versus static heroes, this volume widens these literary and cultural canvases as it situates examples of American literature and culture side by side with W. G. Sebald’s Austerlitz and Philippe Lioret’s Welcome. These unprecedented cultural neighbors converge on the nexus of localization, ethnoracialization, displacement, or immobilization (Kandi- yoti 2009), a pattern that has traditionally characterized the process of nation-building in the U.S. and elsewhere. The diverse spatial coordinates and units explored in the book, the office of law in Melville’s masterpiece, the visible and invisible geography of the homeless in Ironweed (Kennedy 1979) and Cosmopolis (DeLillo 2003), the concentration camps punctuating the geography of a complacent Europe, the internment camps where the Japanese and Japanese Americans were relocated, the science fiction reservations awaiting vagrants and “migros,” the Mohawk reservation as described in Frozen River (Hunt 2008), the alleged translocality of Calais as portrayed in Welcome (Lioret 2009), and the open space of Zuccotti Park have in common the fact that they portray bodies between the lines of immobile, striated, and rigid spaces. They are often home to the misfits, “bandits,” or atravesados, whoever cannot be accommodated into the normative vision of space, be it national or not. Whoever does not fit into this stable and “authoritative” vision of space is automatically qualified as un-American or subhuman, and ejected or evicted as such within or without the healthy national body.3 The process, thoroughly tested since the founding of the U.S., confirms the fact that the “coloniality of place” still remains in effect in the country (Kandiyoti 2009, 41). As these evictions take place and enclosures punctuate the urban or national landscape, a simultaneous process of gatedness or self-exemption ensues. The need to fix or immobilize individuals or populations in space does not free the rest of the population, for the enclosing of the exploitable, the undesirable, or the racial Other parallels a process of self-enclosure. As it strings together these spatial narratives, this volume reveals how beyond the boundaries that characterize each space, every location has loose ends that are impossible to contain, and lines may mutate into lines of flight, hence the possibility of realigning spaces into interlocking patterns according to what Sebald calls “a higher form of stereometry.” Webster’s Dictionary defines stereometry as the measurement of volumes and other metrical elements of solid figures, from Greek stereos solid + -metria-metry, as opposed to planimetry, the measuring of the area of a plane figure.4 The distinction is significant, for it introduces a third dimension into a processual representation of place. The analysis of these interlocking spaces may obscure some of the specific features, but it may also contribute to an understanding of the relationship between race, class, space, and society on a wider canvas.
Although this volume follows Henri Lefebvre’s observation in The Production of Space that every society “produces a space, its own space” ( 1991, 31), Occupying Space in American Literature and Culture: Static Heroes, Social Movements, and Empowerment pluralizes Lefebvre’s pronouncement to analyze the kinds of spaces that are produced and reproduced, and the ways they change as they are mapped out onto different arenas. The underlying premises of the volume are eloquently enunciated in Doreen Massey’s For Space. Massey establishes three propositions that articulate her vision of space: first, space is “the product of interrelations” and is constituted “through interactions”; second, space is the sphere in which distinct trajectories coexist; it is the sphere of coexisting heterogeneity. “Without space,” she claims, there is “no multiplicity; without multiplicity, no space.” Third, space is always “under construction,” always “in the process of being made. It is never finished; never closed” (Massey 2005, 9). This mobilization of space allows one to reassess concepts such as places and non-places; striated and smooth spaces; places of liberation, places of coercion, places of abjection, places of exception, and places of self-exemption. The narrative of space is in this way extricated from coherence, stasis, and closure, the constellation of concepts in which it has been traditionally embedded, and settles instead among another constellation of terms such as heterogeneity, relationality, and coevalness (ibid., 13). This conceptual shift is necessary, for, as Massey eloquently explains, conceiving of space as a static slice through time, as a container, backdrop, or closed system, is tantamount to taming it. By taming space, the geographer means the tendency to ignore its real import, the fact that space is a dynamic matrix that harbors “the coeval multiplicity of other trajectories and the necessary outwardlookingness of a spatialised subjectivity” (ibid., 59). This outwardlookingness allows for the conceptualization of space as “open, multiple and relational, unfinished and always becoming.”
For Massey, this destabilization of space is a “prerequisite for history to open and thus a prerequisite, too, for the possibility of politics” (ibid.). Not that politics has been a recent addition to the spatial equation. In fact it has always been part of it, from the agora, where democracy resided and manifested itself, to the Prince’s calculated topological display of power from the Renaissance onwards. The imprint of the Prince, a “technologist of public space” (Henaff and Strong 2001, 22) whose knowledge is used to produce the images that determine the stato, can be seen in what we now understand as the production of public space. Politics visibly congeals into space with the drawing of the modern nation and the stabilization of the inherent instabilities of space (Massey 2005, 65). As Butler remarks, “The presumption that spaces are autonomous has enabled the power of topography to conceal successfully the topography of power” (quoted in Massey 2005, 67). Butler’s chiasmus denaturalizes the drawing of spaces, that particular inaugural tracing that has frequently become part and parcel of the anatomy of place. “In the end,” writes Jacques Ranciere, “everything in politics turns on the distribution of spaces. What are these places? How do they function? Why are they there? Who can occupy them?” (2003, 201). For the philosopher, “political action always acts upon the social as the litigious distribution of places and roles. It is always a matter of knowing who is qualified to say what a particular place is and what is done to it” (ibid.). This litigious distribution of spaces may be disrupted when a body shifts “from the place assigned to it or changes a place’s destination.” The change marks the appearance of the political activity and its making “visible what had no business being seen.” Visibility is accompanied by its corresponding audibility. The political activity makes “heard a discourse where once there was only place for noise; it makes understood as discourse what was once only heard as noise” (Ranciere 1998, 30). This requalifying of presumably assigned spaces, this seeing them as open to other figurations and appropriations, is key to the dynamic and open vision of space this volume seeks to explore.
The necessary unpacking and opening of space becomes clear in the image of McCann’s funambulist. His elevated spatiality is an indication that space is not a surface, an example of what Massey terms “the sphere of completed horizontality,” but rather “the sphere of a dynamic simultaneity” (2005, 107). He opens space and time in unprecedented crossings and interconnections between the past, the present, and the future. From this perspective, the walker elides representation, for his walk is a “loose end” in the spatial representation of the city. Walking on an unstable wire, the walker adds a new dimension to walking in the city. Michel de Cer- teau’s concept of spatial practices becomes three-dimensional as different axes converge. The elevated spatiality of the tightrope walker, the hori- zontality of the watchers, the vertical letters of the World Trade Center, and the body, the vector in motion and yet the ultimate generator of space (Lefebvre  1991, 407), intersect to demonstrate that space is more than surface and distance to be covered. The funambulist’s walk also takes us from the carefully crafted intersection of wire and bar to the oblong X of the wings of the plane in the DeLuca photograph, from the line of the sky to its absence, but it also invites us to think about the void below and the eruption of an unprecedented visibility: a body that shifts from its assigned space and changes the place’s destination. The analysis of these spatial intersections is possible because this volume embraces the open and relational vision of space Doreen Massey fleshes out in For Space. Space is no container or vessel; it is not a closed system that delimits and emplaces as if walling in. It is a relational construct. Here lies, in fact, the disruptive characteristic of space and its ability to connect apparently unconnected instances onto a new spatial representation of loose ends.