The habit of the commute

By Jonathan Davies

For the employed city dweller, the daily commute is probably the most significant encounter with the wider urban environment. The commuter must negotiate temporal, spatial and social constructs whilst moving between home and work. Despite these engagements, this regular process soon becomes a mundane routine. The route and time to work becomes so familiar it engenders a muted perception of time and space. In this post I’m interested in exploring how far the habit of a commute endangers the individual’s capacity to affect and be affected within the contemporary urban assemblage. If so, can the role of technology (in particular the visualisation of commuting on bike by GPS computer) stimulate a break or shock from the mundane allowing capacity for, and territory within which, the individual develops new modes of movement and social interaction?

What makes the city a ‘city’? We think of particular spaces, places or moments when imagining the urban (for example the cafés of Paris or London as Hyde Park) yet the contemporary city now sprawls out from its traditional walls, not only incorporating varying networks of settlements but also virtual networks of communication (highways and information highways, airports, seaports and computer ports). This extraordinary slipperiness of the urban phenomenon and the complexity of its growth results in a significant epistemological challenge: how to best make sense, practically and theoretically, of the new urban worlds being created by the commuter for the commuter. The notion of a networked city sees a necessary turn from the traditional binary concept (urban/rural, nature/culture, human/non-human) towards non-Euclidean forms of spatial thinking and the Deleuzo-Guattarian concept of the assemblage (Dewsbury, 2011). Whilst I won’t fully elucidate on this concept here, I would like to briefly explore how the commute of a cyclists is part of a body-technology assemblage which emerges from within the contemporary city.

commuting-bike-10-1463408899368-ofn32g3s014x-1497360226422-9hjblf7lgjxp-630-80

Image source: bikeradar.com [online][1]

The concept of an assemblage is originally presented by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, two French philosophers, in their book A Thousand Plateaus (see [2]). Within this text there is interestingly no smooth consensus or complete chapter on this idea. Instead we find the book itself as an assemblage of heterogeneous elements with rough notions scattered across the pages (avoiding a uniform text with a start and end). Perhaps the closest complete definition we come to is from Deleuze’s conversation with Parnet:

It is a multiplicity which is made up of many heterogeneous terms and which establishes liaisons, relations between them across ages, sexes and reigns – different natures. Thus, the assemblage’s only unity is that of co-functioning: it is symbiosis, a ‘sympathy’. It is never filiations which are important but alliances, alloys; these are not successions, lines of descent, but contagions, epidemics, the wind. (Deleuze and Parnet, 1987 p69 in Muller, 2015 p28)

We find from this passage that an assemblage is a complex structure where its parts are not (and have not been) fragments of a whole. Combined, they do not create a higher unity. It is a collection of uneven heterogeneous entities which cross or engage each other to different extents over time creating new territories, new behaviours and expressions, new actors (Dewsbury 2011; Muller, 2015). By linking the assortment of entities, assemblages cannot be reduced to individuals alone. This thinking recognises the diverse forms and human and non-human agencies whilst avoiding any sort of reductionism and essentialism. It asks how urban ‘things’ – and appropriately the urban itself – are assembled, and how they might be disassembled or reassembled.

When considering how a cyclist is part of a body-technology assemblage we may turn to Dewsbury’s (2011) fitting example of the action of cycling to help us understand this complex concept. The exchange between the human biker and a bike is not simply a connection of defined bodies and identities but a flow between bodies. The body should not be considered as something figuratively suspended upon the bike as this assumes a radical separation of bodies and technologies as discrete entities (a dualistic return). Instead, the flow between bodies allows for the realisation of the connection, the transformation of the environment they are in (becoming-bike), and the experience of movement through new spatial forms (such as the urban environment).

Yet considering the commute by bike, does this assemblage of practices and encounters (the practice of becoming-bike, the encounter of new spatial forms) over time and through monotonic repetition, synthesise into our own environment? Does this environment, or world, become so familiar or the affect so passive that the desire to encounter this becoming again no longer exists? Do we find that, like the dualistic Cartesian imagination of the body where the active mind directs the docile body, a passive mind is directing an active body through thoughtless repetition? Following traditional social science literature on habit it would be easy to say yes. Yet following Deleuzian thought, and also pointing to the vitalist work of French philosopher Félix Ravaisson (see his seminal thesis Of Habit [3]), we instead engage with a different theory of habit which imagines the concept as a dynamic force which allows for change (Lapworth, 2015). Habit is not just the routine machinic repetition, but rather a permanent way of being which exists beyond the change that created it. It therefore promotes a possible future of yet more change and is the very process through which we can gain sense, understanding and awareness (Ravaisson, 2008). The sense, understanding and awareness that habit generates are not ‘ours’ nor the commuters but are much more distributed effects of the ontological relations with the environment or milieu. The very act of habit allows for the body to make its way in this milieu, or through the city. As David Bissell, whose research draws on cultural geography and mobility, states “habit provides the body with a consistency; a body that would otherwise be worn down by the shock of thought” (Bissell, 2011 p2653). This automatic mechanism allows for complex movement with little investment from the individual. Through repetition, demanding practices such as the commute become graceful and naturalised, sinking into the body-technology assemblage. As such, this naturalisation of routine does not close down the body’s capacity to affect and be affect. Instead we are challenged to view the commute beyond the traditional representation towards a process of ontogenesis which allows for new encounters, new body-technology assemblages and enhances the desire of action. This desire of action causes the individual to seek out a return to the activity, a return to the commute and further capacities to change.

Bristol strava heat map

The assemblage visualises and maps out a territory. In a similar fashion, Strava visualises and maps out routes thousands of cyclists make across Bristol. Image source: screenshot from Strava heatmap [online] [4]

Whilst the habit of the commute may create a capacity for change, I argue that the commuters encounter with the electronically mapped GPS route allows for the actualisation of this change and the creation of new body-technology assemblages. The habit of perception becomes unsettled or redrawn bringing new modes of thinking and feeling into being. This encounter and disturbance allow the individual to develop not only new modes of movement (new modes of movement through the city) but creates further potential for new desires and therefore capacity for further change.

By visualising the commute (in this case virtually recorded on a GPS device and displayed as electronic lines on a screen), we encounter a combination of material forms as a material assemblage of human and non-human entities. This redefined subjective thought can re-animate the surrounding milieu, creating other spatial encounters and revealing further human and non-human interactions. This experience is only capable through performative research methods which “amplify other sensory, bodily and affective registers” (Whatmore, 2006 p606). The performance is the telling of the journey to allow for a new form of situated knowledge to emerge. The commuter may now see the city beyond the traditional binary concept of nature/culture towards an assemblage of heterogeneous entities. This is important as it not only allows the individual to re-think their relationship with temporal, spatial and social constructs within the urban environment but also, as my dissertation will develop upon, question if our contemporary condition has caused a shift of power from the body to a bloodless digital profile.

References

Bissell, D (2011) Thinking habits for uncertain subjects: movement, stillness, susceptibility. Environment and Planning A. 43: 2649-2665

Dewsbury, J.D (2011) The Deleuze-Guattarian assemblage: plastic habits. Area. 43 (2): 148-153

Lapworth, A (2015) Habit, art, and the plasticity of the subject: the ontogenetic shock of the bioart encounter. Cultural Geographies. 22 (1): 85-102

Muller, M (2015) Assemblage and Actor-networks: Rethinking Socio-material Power, Politics and Space. Geography Compass. 9 (1): 27-41

Whatmore, S (2006) Materialist returns: practising cultural geography in and for a more-than-human world. Cultural Geographies 13 (4): 600-609

Notes

[1] Available at: https://www.bikeradar.com/commuting/gear/article/whats-the-best-bike-for-cycle-commuting-29898/ [accessed 03 August 2018]

[2] See Deleuze, G & Guattari, F (1987) A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Trans: Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press

[3] See Ravaisson, F (2008) Of Habit. Continuum, London

[4] Available at: www.strava.com/heatmap [accessed 20 July 2018]

 

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