Eyes on the street. Looking for dragons in the streets of Berlin, Paris and New York City (II)

One of the things that Paris, Berlin and New York have in common is the ability for seducing (Cochoy, 2016). Those cities, along their history, have attracted (and generated too) a tremendous heterogeneous flow of groups, ideas and processes that have transformed those places into an object of desire, but also a touristic landmark, a center for knowledge, for making business, for living in, and moreover into a continuous and never exhausted reference for the popular culture.

Although a general look at the monuments, at the tourist attractions, at the cliches, at those big things that are already stabilized is also a possibility for experiencing that specific agglomeration of elements we use to call as a city, this alternative is hiding a rich and diverse communal life. That shared life is a continually produced reality composed by many particular, momentary, effervescent, and sporadic things, relationships, and possibilities that a totalitarian gaze cannot reach.

It is naive to think, even nowadays that we have technological aids such as mobile multitask devices and digital maps, that we have the possibility of approaching that entire ecosystem happening outside as a whole. That panoptical attitude is both methodologically and ontologically misguided. My walks through Berlin playing Hic Sunt Dracones, the explorations in Paris and the fieldwork in Manhattan for my Ph.D. taught me that no matter how much one tries to grasp a place, that will never be possible in a complete way. If this is true and we cannot approach a particular place what is the reason for continuing doing traditional urban sociology?

Nevertheless, that impossibility, far of resulting inconvenient and problematic for exploring the effervescent life on the streets, is offering us the possibility of locating our ethnographical efforts into the formation of specific processes, instead of being focused on blurred, unlocatable and abstract totalities. Locating is more than just putting something on a map. Locating implies an exercise for recognizing the particularities of a kind of temporal-spatial association. It is an identification of how something is composed, and why and how is it getting stabilized. “The moral is simple: only partial perspective promises objective vision” (Haraway, 1991, p. 190).

The promise of objectivity is only reachable through the deployment of an indeterminate number of subjective, fragmented and located glances. This activity is a relativist exercise of flattering “the social,” of decomposing it, of tracing the movements and trajectories that are continuously creating and temporary stabilizing new spaces. “If I want to be a scientist and reach objectivity, I have to be able to travel from one frame of reference to the next, from one standpoint to the next. Without those displacements, I would be limited to my own narrow point of view for good.” (Latour, 2005, p. 146)

So, as researchers interested in describing life happening outside, we should be able to understanding and taking advantage of the fragility and instability of our study object. This sort of uncertainty is happening due to its mobility and capacity of simultaneity through the assemblage of continuous associations, among the space. We have, thus, an effervescent framework of possibilities and momentary associations, a challenge in two levels: (1) at the moment of interacting with our study object and (2) at the time of writing about that interaction.

Following the Jane Jacobs’ concept of “eyes on the street”(1961), a proposal for improving the general safety of the neighborhoods, one can also re-interpret her metaphor from the perspective of the analysis of controversies. This translation could be possible in the way that to involve “many eyes on the street” implies to recognize and to include in our descriptions as many perspectives as we can as a part of a simultaneous effort for translating the convulse and hypermedia life in urban agglomerations.

This effort for including those “eyes,” those perspectives, is also a recognition that our role, as researchers, is being both mediators and co-authors of our works. We are mediators because describing we are compiling, organizing and giving some meaning to a set of stories and movements into a well structured and stabilized product, such as a book, a paper or an audiovisual one. We are co-authors in the way that those stories are not just our stories and that the mediation work does not imply per se a dominant position into the specific either net, trajectory or controversy that we are .

With this in mind, describing what is happening outside, is opening the door to a permanent and bidirectional contamination process. Going to the field should be understood as the act of tracing a dialogue between the research and its study object. But the field does not exist preset. It is the under-construction product of a performative collective work. Our task in this environment of mobility is following and describing the trajectories related to the space we want to decompose. That should be our level of intervention; nothing else.

To add more eyes to our work is to increase the level of complexity related to the organization of all those perspectives into a collective story that is constantly being mounted and unmounted in a particular spatial formation. This strategy is also an exercise of flattening the social until the las consequences and at the same time of constructing a kind of temporal stabilization, a sort of multiple artifact shaped as a palimpsest, for displaying the effervescent of the life outside.