Writing urban from STS

To write is an extension of walking. Yes, it is merely that. To write is organizing memories in a semantic structure with the aim of translating emotions to a solid state where those can be preserved and reutilized how many times the reader consider necessary. To walk is an exercise of capturing and collecting moments, scenarios, and feelings. But to walk is also a space for thinking and discussing those caught memories and derived concepts of the act of looking and walking itself. 

When we write, we stabilize and name things. This ontological activity is helping us to give meaning to what is there in front of us. But to write is a performative act that is going further than a merely nominative task; it is a process of creating. When we write we build a spatial and temporal scenario that is holding everything that is necessary for existing and cohabiting and that also it contains itself.

The act of writing about the world outside we have in our contemporaneity has been labeled as ”urban writing.” Baudeliere, Simmel, Döblin, Lefebvre, Joyce, Park et al, Mahfouz, and Cortazar are urban men tied to the same object, that is, in fact, an unsteady and always changing bunch of things. Its multiplicity, turmoil, novelty, and effervescence have attracted them. As urban writers, they are sharing a similar interest in what is happening in those big accumulations of things we call, in a hurried way, as a city. 

From literature to academic writing, the urban, as a scenario opposed to the rural, has been acted as a platform for launching a sort of questions regarding the “how” and the “why” of this way of organizing ourselves. But also it has served for more philosophical and more profound inquiries about human nature as individuals and as part of collective life. What do we gain and what do we lose living together? Who is determining the social order? Do cities have souls? What is the meaning of being a part of my place?

Continuing with the same line of the urban, we can agree on an urban narrative is holding a particular way of looking, walking and being in touch with what is outside. More than acting as a specific aesthetic style of writing, it represents a position from where to interpret the world and the way how is it changing and being transformed. The urban is not just a context of things happening together; it is also a metaphor for ordering that heterogeneity occurring in a determined place and time.

When we write, we are dealing with how putting side by side, in the same story, an eclectic multiplicity of elements. Together, but not at the same level, those elements could be humans, animals, devices, ideas, actions, groups, beliefs. The way how the components can be organized obeys to a particular logic granted by the one who is writing. The writer, the walker, the viewer, is, furthermore, deploying a set of cognitive infrastructures with the aim of locating the narrative into a particular theoretical structure.

So, at the moment of doing ”urban writing,” we are (1) displaying a set of methods regarding the way how we capture what is outside. (2) Using a metaphor —the urban— for interpreting how that multiplicity of disparate elements in front of us are getting together. (3) Organizing and giving meaning to that heterogeneity through its posterior stabilization in the shape of a document. (4) Applying a theoretical construction for discussing with those elements about their process and intentions. 

In my case, and during each one of those four steps, there is a sociological intention —more a kind of associology— with a strong component from STS: the Actor-Network Theory (ANT). My work, from walking to writing, is based on an ethnographic exploration of the urban using the ANT as a way of thinking. This situation implies a sort of displacement of the STS to other fields. 

The result of that displacement, among other things, is the implementation of a set of notions and conceptions that are bringing new perspectives to old issues in different disciplines. The urban under the gaze of STS, talking about my primary research interest, has been approached by three different traditions: Social construction of technology (SCOT) Actor network-theory (ANT) and Large technical systems (LTS) (Hommels, 2005) giving the field of “urban studies” a twist to a sociotechnical interdisciplinary.

However, during my urban explorations under the label of ANT, the STS has been subordinated to a secondary level. I mean, I use it, but I do not talk about it. That invisibilization signifies an implementation of the STS/ANT as a model for interpreting the world, and not just conceiving it as my field for working. The difference is huge. In the first scenario, there is a flexible set of intellectual tools for approaching reality; in the second one, there is only a disciplinary stage. 

Using the ANT as a model for “looking outside” enriches our descriptions through the linkage of new actors to more heterogeneous and temporal stabilization, focusing our efforts in understanding (1) why those actors are assembling associations and (2) how do they experience a collective life. Nevertheless, those advantages offered by the ANT represents a challenge at the time of writing due to the size and depth of their descriptions. 

In the end, to write turns out to be a hypermedia activity of walking in many directions at the same time, an articulated movement of decomposing and stabilizing elements and associations. To create STS-ethnographies about the urban is acquiring a position where observation, creativity (in the Wright-Mills way) and astonishment results crucial to the elaboration of artifacts, those kind of palimpsests, where the collective life is projected.