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“Walking in the City” by Michel de Certeau Essay

The notions of time and space are some of the most abstract notions the humanity came up with. These concepts are simultaneously clear and confusing, simple and incredibly complex. Space and time can be viewed as fixed and standard measures, but at the same time they are unique for every single viewer and the point of perception of time and space matters a lot. The reflections of space and time in literature are some of the most interesting subjects to study and discuss.

A skillful writer is able to engage with the changeability of space and time notions, their flexibility and abstraction. This allows an author add emotional uniqueness to the story and create a very personal description any reader would be likely to relate to. Space can serve as a critique of the linear time because one can give their own meaning to the space, turning space into a practiced place.

These practiced places thus become different from what they used to be, because they get under the influence of people’s perceptions and their ideas of the space. In his work Certeau explored the idea of the possibility of space to critique time in his own perspective, addressing the importance of “walking the city”, and this way possibly turning every single space into a practiced place.

Certau’s idea of “walking the city” introduces motion into the interaction between space and time and their relationship. He writes that Ney York’s present “invents itself from hour to hour” and that it is like “a universe that is constantly exploding”.1

These descriptions create a vision that walking the city turns every step into a Big Bang serving as a beginning to a new space and new time, a starting point for a new dimension. Certau writes, “New York has never learnt the art of growing old by playing on all its pasts”, this way the author views tie as a linear matter, while space serves a function to critique time. Being perceived by the individuals that are mobile and can move around the places, space is given the capacity to resist the rationalization of linear time.

This mobile nature of people generates the conceptualization of space as something abstract and time as something linear. At the same time, since time exists in people’s mind in the form of memories, and since humans have the capacity of voluntary memory retreat, space around them is able to influence the time they live in. Shin Kyong-suk demonstrates this in the scene where the narrator tells about the habit of washing hands every time before visiting and leaving the village.

The author writes, “If I washed my hands before going into the village, would I forget everything that happened in the city? And if I washed my hands before I left, would I forget all that happened here?”.2

Hand washing procedure became something like a ritual helping the narrator’s mind adjust to the two realities they travelled between, because the world and the life of the city were completely different from the environment of the village not only because of the space but mainly because of time and the memories it awakened. This way, changing the location a person had to change their whole mindset, which was not easy, as time is perceived as a liner matter, and travelling in time even in one’s mind is stressful.

Speaking about the disquietude that affects her in the village, the narrator of Kyong-suk’s “Where the Organ Once Stood” expresses her regrets about this visit to that place.

This is a great demonstration of how the space surrounding the person, the change of place altered their perception of time, subverted the linear matter of time turning the village into a newly perceived practiced space where the narrator experiences the worries and negative emotions of her past, the pressure of her father’s depressive state and heavy drinking, his sufferings about the woman he lost.

Even though all of these events happened in the past and the narrator is aware of it, they still influence the surroundings, the mood and the perception of the place directly, so the person becomes unhappy in with the space brought under the influence of time. In Certeau’s “Walking in the City” the concept of movement is crucial to the change of space and its influence by time.

The perception of linear time is something human being carry within themselves, this way each and every one of us becomes a lens seeing the surroundings differently, altering them by our points of view, writing new realities. Certeau writes, “the networks of these moving, intersecting writings compose a manifold story that has neither author nor spectator, shaped out of fragments of trajectories and alterations of spaces: in relation to representations, it remains daily and indefinitely other”.3

In the “Walking in the City” by Certeau, just like in Kyong-suk’s “Where the Organ Once Stood” human beings are viewed as living and breathing projectors. They capture the time, carry the memories about the past within themselves and often let their past be influenced by what happened some time ago. Basically, any space can be influenced by whatever period of time is affecting the people’s minds at the moment.

There are cases when a certain space is connected to a specific period of time, as in “Where the Organ Once Stood” the village is the place that is affected by the depressive and unpleasant memories of the past, which makes it very different from the city, which is the present of the narrator. Torn apart between the two realities created by the interactions of space and time, she feels the need to change herself physically, to prepare herself for dwelling in the new surroundings for a while for this she washes her hands.

There are also situations when spaces become influenced by time carried within the minds of the viewers. In Certeau’s “Walking in the City” New York alters depending on its spectators, perceived differently by every one of them. The spaces that become practiced places under the influence of memories we associate with them are impossible to avoid.

Human mind works in a way that when something from the past really bothers us, we keep finding connections between our present surroundings and our past experiences. Even if we exclude all the reminders of a certain event or period of time from our lives, we would still move around and encounter new spaces activating the memories in our minds and falling under the influences of the linear time.

It is interesting that the reality is perceived by every person individually, this means that everyone has their own special reality. Two people in the same room may be in two very different spaces and this happens only because they are under the influence of two different periods of time. Linear time that is our past affects our self-identifications, shapes our characters, and directly impacts our moods. This way one person may perceive the same place as a happy place and another one may think of it as a very depressing place.

Since for one there can only be one reality, and this reality is perceived by them though the lens of their linear time, it seems like linear time is what defines every space one may encounter in their life. In Certeau’s “Walking in the City” New York constantly changes, just like the universe that is all the time exploding because it is constantly perceived by millions of individuals carrying around their own sets of memories and perspectives, viewing the city in a variety of different ways.

This way, every moment New York changes, some of the perceptions influence it, leaving a print of the lens, and thus affecting the ways others would perceive this city in the future. This is a never ending cycle of changes and outcomes, views and reflections, alterations and results.

Certeau portrays New York as space that is a practiced place of millions of individuals at a time, which makes it practically infinite in the multitude of its reflections and the effects in makes on people’s minds every single second. The author skillfully showed the multidimensional nature of place that is given to it by linear perception of time.


Certeau, Michel de “Walking in the City.” In The Practice of Everyday Life, 91–130. Berkeley: University of California, 1988.

Kyong-suk, Shin. Where the Organ Once Stood. Berkeley: Autumn Press, 1994.


1. Michel de Certeau, “Walking in the City,” in The Practice of Everyday Life (Berkeley: University of California, 1988), 91

2. Shin Kyong-suk, Where the Organ Once Stood (Berkeley: Autumn Press, 1994), 114

3. Michel de Certeau, “Walking in the City,” in The Practice of Everyday Life (Berkeley: University of California, 1988), 93

This Essay on “Walking in the City” by Michel de Certeau was written and submitted by user Ryann Gordon to help you with your own studies. You are free to use it for research and reference purposes in order to write your own paper; however, you must cite it accordingly.

Ryann Gordon studied at the University of Kansas, USA, with average GPA 3.48 out of 4.0.

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Gordon, R. (2020, March 25). "Walking in the City" by Michel de Certeau [Blog post]. Retrieved from

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Gordon, Ryann. ""Walking in the City" by Michel de Certeau." IvyPanda, 25 Mar. 2020,

1. Ryann Gordon. ""Walking in the City" by Michel de Certeau." IvyPanda (blog), March 25, 2020.


Gordon, Ryann. ""Walking in the City" by Michel de Certeau." IvyPanda (blog), March 25, 2020.


Gordon, Ryann. 2020. ""Walking in the City" by Michel de Certeau." IvyPanda (blog), March 25, 2020.


Gordon, R. (2020) '"Walking in the City" by Michel de Certeau'. IvyPanda, 25 March.

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