Ghosts in a real setting: running through cities

The situationist movement of artists, intellectuals and revolutionaries were great fans of what they called the dérive – literally, the ‘drift’. This is an aimless, wandering walk through an urban environment in which the flâneur – the idler or stroller – comes across and reacts to their surroundings and whatever events and characters present themselves, thus gaining a fuller appreciation of the ‘psychogeography’ of a place.

At a recent Associates meeting we discussed, in a less cerebral way, something which on some levels seems similar to the dérive, but, in fact is quite different: the experience of running through urban environments.

Unlike the directionless wander that is the dérive, which actually contains within it the hope of interacting in a random way with whatever you might come across, a run through a city is a way to experience it invisibly. The speed and the purpose of a run – to keep going at a fast pace and cover a number of miles – almost does the opposite of the flâneur’s walk. It prevents the runner from interacting with those stationary objects and locations – the places where people collect, such as shops, workplaces, cafes etc. Instead, the runner experiences the city in terms of routes between these places. And, simply because it is easier to run along paths used by fewer people, often these routes are through the less populated, more remote, more unseen districts.

The runner also thinks in terms of distances. Whereas the idle stroller can keep going, stop, take a break, interact, the runner’s goal is to cover an amount of miles – to increase that distance or to run it in a shorter time. All of which means the runner experiences a place in a visceral way – a way expressed, often, by the stresses on the knees, ankles, and feet. For those of us who do a lot of thinking about places and about how people use them – running offers a completely new perspective: a way to experience places through our bodies.

But perhaps there isn’t an either/or debate here. Many writers are great fans of running. It might seem that the attraction is in taking a break from the sedentary habit of sitting at a desk, transferring your thoughts onto a page or a screen, and going outside to use your body instead. But it seems there is more to it. In a New York Times article the American writer Joyce Carol Oates says:

In running the mind flies with the body … Ideally, the runner who’s a writer is running through the land- and cityscapes of her fiction, like a ghost in a real setting.

Here Oates seems to think of herself as imaginary – ‘a ghost’ – whereas her fictional places are the ‘real setting(s)’. But isn’t running through an actual place the same? For a moment you have the sensation that you’re a ghost, or wearing a cloak of invisibility – from under which you can view your surroundings in a very different light. And that new light can tell us a lot more than reading about a place in a report, or even strolling through it as a visitor.

Perhaps in order to understand places better, we should all put on our running shoes.

Background image created by Freepik