Public Disturbance

David Ignazewski for Koboy
Lauren Elkin

‘Space is a doubt. I have constantly to mark it, to designate it. It’s never mine, never given to me, I have to conquer it.’

— Georges Perec, Species of Spaces

            The city is not open. Space is not neutral. The space we occupy - here, in the city, we citydwellers - is constantly remade and unmade, constructed and wondered at. Cities are made up of invisible boundaries, intangible customs gates that demarcate who goes where: certain neighbourhoods, bars and restaurants, parks, all manner of apparently public spaces are reserved for different kinds of people. We become so accustomed to this that we hardly notice the values underlying these divisions. They may be invisible, but they determine how we circulate within the city.

            They exist in between buildings. On either sides of walls. Around fences and railings, down steps and past stoplights and road signs and bollards.

            They take shape in underground railways and overground trolleys, skating over and through the earth, tracked to the ground, harnessed to power cables.  They live in the negative space of alleyways and dead ends and side streets and courtyards.

            They take up space. Spaces within spaces, species of spaces, spaces with the force of social convention as concretely embedded as a stop sign:

            Private park. Don’t go in unless you have a key. Definitely don’t jump the fence. Trespassing.

            Public park. Don’t go into the park at night. Park’s closed after dusk.

            Open park. Populated by homeless people who would be very surprised if you sat down beside them on their bench beds. Unless you are a homeless person too. In which case you’d be sitting on your own bench bed.

            City plaza. Place. Piazza. Platz. How you use it depends on who you are, as the ethnographer Nadja Monnet found when she undertook a study of the Plaça de Catalunya in Barcelona. Although the plaça is one of the most famous sights in the city, the locals avoid it, preferring to meet in the nearby bars. Monnet spoke with a (female) tourist who felt uneasy sitting in the plaça— an uneasiness Monnet herself shared. ‘It’s really not a good place to meet up with anyone. You don’t know where to put yourself. If you wait in the middle, you feel stupid. You feel exposed.’ Monnet quickly realised that fewer women than men used the space, ‘although there were peaks in female attendance at the times when school let out or at the end of the work day.’ Women alone rarely sit on the benches, ‘and when they do, they don’t stay long.’

            Sometimes this is an issue of use and sometimes one of safety. Rebecca Solnit explains the way people ‘helpfully’ try to reconcile her gender with the dangers of walking at night in her neighbourhood in San Francisco:

           I was advised to stay indoors at night, to wear baggy clothes, 
           to cover or cut my hair, to try to look like a man, 
           to move someplace more expensive, to take taxis,
           to buy a car, to move in groups, to get a man to escort 
           me – all modern versions of Greek walls and Assyrian veils.

            It’s been 40 years since the women’s liberation movement was launched in the UK, but since then, we’ve gained surprisingly little liberty of movement. Women still can’t walk in the city the way a man can. Across cultures, in the cities I’ve lived in - New York, Paris, London, Tokyo - a woman alone on the street occasions all kinds of commentary, some complimentary, some not. Mainly it’s harmless; for some women (and I won’t excuse myself from this category) it can be flattering. But it belongs to a system which genders women differently from men, and it is an effect of a basic public inequality that in other manifestations can be much less inoffensive. In 2012 a Belgian film student called Sophie Peeters made international news when she took a camera with her out on the street and captured men propositioning her, discussing her amongst themselves, hassling her, and then berating and insulting her when she ignored them. A recent commercial made by an Indian group called Whistling Wood International meant to draw attention to casual objectification showed four men leering at pretty young women, only to have the woman’s body reflect back to them their own images in a quartet of neat rebuffs: a pair of sunglasses, a mirrored handbag, a sun visor, a shiny locket.

            Also in 2012, a survey of 1,047 Londoners commissioned by End Violence Against Women revealed that 43% of women between the ages of 18 and 34 had been sexually harassed on the street. The founding director of the UK Anti Street Harassment Campaign told The Guardian that ‘Local councils and the police need to convey a strong message that this behaviour will not be tolerated by perpetrators. A good example was the “Flirt/Harass: Real Men Know the Difference” poster campaign by Lambeth council in partnership with the Metropolitan police, which conveyed a no-tolerance message.’

            Urban planning conspires against women, a 2008 Cambridge University study found. Noted Viv Groskop in The Guardian: ‘the vast majority of town planners are ignoring the gender equality planning regulations that were brought in last year. This is significant, because if public spaces were designed with women in mind, they would look entirely different, with much more lighting, better-situated car parks and more areas where residential and office spaces are mixed, making it far easier to juggle work and childcare.’ From bus shelters to insufficient toilet space to public transport, the built environment is a man’s world.

            No one experiences the city in a gender-neutral way. But it’s women who stand out from their surroundings, like the naked woman in Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’herbe, her unclothed skin blinding in its singularity. Men are visual creatures, it’s true; their fantasies take place right there in front of you, in their mind’s eye or on the canvas. Think of that scene in Eric Rohmer’s film Love in the Afternoon (1972), in which Frédéric imagines that every woman he approaches on the street suddenly finds him irresistible, abandoning all their plans, their friends, their boyfriends, to drape themselves over him. He looks; they appear, to paraphrase John Berger.

            So what can we do to rewrite the script? What are some ways that women can take possession of the city on their own terms? What do we want our experience of the city to be? We have to shake things up somehow. And because I spend all my time on/in/amongst books, I’m going to suggest we start with those.

            The French avant-garde group Oulipo [Ouvroir de littérature potentielle, or Workshop of Potential Literature] disrupts our conventional ideas about creativity by applying constraints to their writing, which, as the youngest Oulipian Daniel Levin Becker has explained, results in ‘novels without certain vowels,’

            love stories without gender, poems without words, books that
            never end, books that do nothing but end, books that would 
            technically take longer to read than most geological eras 
            have lasted, books that share the exercise of mourning, 
            books that aim to keep the reader from reading them, books 
            that exist for no particular reason other than to amuse and 
            perplex, books that may not actually exist at all

Georges Perec, greatest of the Oulipians, was asked by an architect friend in the early 1970s to consider the relationship between public and private spaces, and he responded with the essay collection Species of Spaces. (Did he see the Rohmer film? What did Perec make of it?) From the city to the study to the bed, Perec forces us to think about the way we use the spaces we live in. He writes of wanting to chart a route across Paris ‘from one side to the other taking only streets beginning with the letter C,’ or would have us organise our cities around function:

            Instead of living in just one place, and trying in vain to gather
            yourself together there, why not have five or six rooms 
            dotted about Paris? I’d go and sleep in Denfert, I’d write in 
            the Place Voltaire, I’d listen to music in the Place de Clichy 
            (…) etc. Is that any more foolish (…) than putting all the 
            furniture shops in the Faubourg Saint-Antoine, all the 
            glassware shops in the rue de Paradis, all the tailors 
            in the Rue du Sentier.

Perec critiques our tendency to accept things around us as they are, to notice only the extraordinary happenings in the world, and to ignore the ‘infraordinary.’ ‘Interrogate the habitual,’ he urges; ‘Question your tea-spoons. What is there under your wallpaper?’ Species of Spaces is as interested in wallpaper as it is in boulevards, and this movement from inside to outside and back again is really crucial - the one is meaningless without the other.

            Building on Perec’s ideas, his fellow Oulipian Anne Garréta more recently suggests a cogent approach for women to take possession of the city on their own terms. What Garréta has to offer has to do with the way we think about literature and language: for Garréta, as for Perec, the personal library is a microcosm for social conventions and arrangements. Perec’s essay ‘Brief Notes on the Art and Manner of Arranging One’s Books’ confronts the ‘problem of a library’ as ‘twofold’: ‘a problem of space first of all, then a problem of order.’  Perec distinguishes between stable classifications and provisional ones: ‘Stable classifications are those which, in principle, you continue to respect; provisional classifications are those supposed to last only a few days, the time it takes for a book to discover, or rediscover, its definitive place. This may be a book recently acquired and not yet read, (…) or else a book whose reading has been interrupted and that you do not want to classify before taking it up again and finishing it,’ etc. As the rules he establishes prove insufficient (there is always a book that slips the net) they must be modified, expanded, and adjusted, until they can be applied to an entire library.

            Perec understands the space of the page as an extension of the space of the city; space begins with words on a page, he says. A journal, he writes in Species of Spaces, is a unit of measuring space; it’s ‘the surface area a farm labourer can work in a day.’ And we organise these words in much the same way we organise the city: according to certain agreed-upon rules of grammar and syntax. Library and city are coextensive.

            But where Perec attempted to organise his books logically, just as he tried to reorganise the city space by spaces, in her essay ‘On Bookselves’ Anne Garréta protests that books (and spaces) are not as easily codifiable as Perec imagines. The books are everywhere, multiplying, threatening to overwhelm and consume humanity. The personal nature of the library is at odds with the official systems of categorisation, ‘public rules of classification and their impersonal categories (alphabetical order, genres, etc) [which] have the force of law… To resist them requires a superhuman effort.’ Garréta’s essay insists on and lays out a personal basis of organising one’s books, suggesting the following principles, though the reader should feel free to invent her own:

           Principle #1

            -books in which one remembers having encountered at least 
             once the word ‘book’

            -books that left no memory of having contained the word


            Principle #6

            -books in which one encounters whales;

            -books in which not even the shadow of a whale is to be found;

            -books from which have disappeared, inexplicably, the whales
             one imagined there


            Principle #10

            -books given to you by someone you love, loved, have loved;

            -books you talked about with someone you loved;

            -books you wish you had talked about with someone you

And so on.  If two different people possessed the same library with exactly the same books in it, using Garréta’s system the books would be organised in completely different ways.   Garréta’s system represents a correction of the empiricist, totalising, systems-making of Enlightenment thought, a throwing-off of inherited means of making sense of the world, and of the knowledge it contains. It is anti-hierarchical, imperfect, mobile, intertextual, whimsical, and endlessly re-classifiable; above all, it is subjective.  It suggests we systematise emotionally, arguing for another kind of logic, another kind of rationalism.  Where Perec can only see tangible things, classifying them according to form and shape, Garréta sees the shape of things that aren’t there. There are, of course, the most difficult things to legislate.

            I like this idea of reclassification as a feminist technique, even if the logic underlying this kind of classification will be ‘inscrutable’ to others: for who else could find the book they were looking for in a library organised this way? We are inevitably ‘caught,’ Garréta notes, ‘between ways of finding things in the world and ways of finding things in our minds, between functionality and memorability, use and value.’ Then again it might not be too difficult to find a book in one of these libraries, as long as its owner were there to guide you. I’ve never met a reader who’d turn down the chance to hold forth on the way she’d organised her books.

            Space is a feminist issue. Only in becoming aware of the invisible boundaries of the city can we depart from them. Garréta’s essay ties together these different species of spaces, the interior and the exterior, the home and the city, the mind and the world: ‘I find myself roaming around in my mind, a virtual space comprised of mental maps and imaginary locations.’ The continuity between the interior and the exterior seems to me important to maintain to reclaim our right to occupy - I choose that word deliberately - to occupy the city unhampered and unharrassed. The spaces of the mind are as real as the spaces of the city, and the mind’s subjective modes of classification are as powerful as objective administrative modes.  A female flânerie - a flâneuserie - would be similarly disruptive. Its goal would not only be to change the way we move through space, but to intervene in the organisation of space itself. We claim our right to disturb the peace, to observe (or not observe), to occupy (or not occupy), and to organise (or disorganise) space on our own terms.


Lauren Elkin is a novelist, academic, and literary critic. Her first novel, Une Année à Venise (Editions Héloïse d'Ormesson) was awarded the Prix des Lecteurs at the Rue des Livres literary festival, and will be published in paperback this June. She is co-author, with Scott Esposito, of The End of Oulipo? (Zer0 Books). A frequent contributor to the Times Literary Supplement, The Daily Beast, The White Review, and other publications, she is currently writing a book about women and cities, entitled Flâneuse and forthcoming from Chatto & Windus in 2015.


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