The Queen West, my shoe, my box, and my site, engaged with one another in a few diverse ways. First, they explore the De Certeau’s concept of walking through a gendered and feminist lens. Second, they engage with the city as palimpsest; the concept of bringing together separate historical moments through a personal engagement with the city. And finally, as both the shoe and box are dialectically engaged with themes of female bodies in the city, as well as this (my?) female body in this (my?) city, The Queen West offers another merging of dialectics: that of theory and practice. The goal of this reflection is to outline these first two engagements, and merely hint at the third. It attempts to ask questions rather than give answers.
The first thing you hear when you listen to The Queen West soundscape is high heels, walking down the street. Immediately our experience of The Queen West box is gendered. Yet there are no catcalls, as we might expect, or other instigators to hint that there is any danger in walking down Queen West. On the contrary, a female voice describes it as a “power strut” with a “heel-toe-heel-toe” confidence. The music that plays as she walks reinforces this narrative: We can’t Stop, by Miley Cyrus; Flawless, by Beyoncé; Blank Space, by Taylor Swift. These are our contemporary heroines, perhaps. Are we reminded of Benjamin’s and Baudelaire’s prosti-tute— the epitome of the commodity in urban space (Wilson 105; Benjamin 56-57)? Or are we more engaged with Elizabeth Wilson’s engagement with the “woman of the streets”— a metaphorical ‘flaneuse’ in her own right (105)? We think of De Certeau, and we see, as he does, a search for place— one that performs the City. This heel-toe-heel-toe is perhaps just a “social experience of lacking a place” (103). Here, the City is a “universe of rented spaces haunted by a nowhere or by dreamed-of places”; in other words, not only does walking the city allow for a unique engagement or embodiment of the city, but it also allows for a fantasy-scape, a “fictional reality” (Janssen 163).
Maybe our mind jumps back to the broken glass slipper— the heel that got us here— and see in it the fairytale promise of cinderella. A broken promise though; a closer look at the shoe shows jagged shards sticking outwards, pieced together bits of (found) car window and beer bottle. But here too, another contradiction: the sole of the shoe is knitted. It is white, soft cotton, like a real slipper, that begs to be touched. And the peep hole, just a little pink (cotton too!) poking out. Is it a tongue being playful? Or is it something else being sexual? Then we see, the peep hole has teeth, a vagina dentata perhaps, as we are pushed away again, even in the moment we reach out our hands to touch the soft sole. We have here a series of conflicting im-ages of femininity. The shoe and it associated the walk down Queen West is as dangerous as it is soft, as and confident as it is anxious. The final lines from the soundscape reinforce a complex view of gender, when our narrator is asked: “did you change like Odysseus, while I was here waiting”. Who then is Odysseus, male or female? Who is Penelope, me or you (the lis-tener/the city)? And what are the gendered assumptions we have of both? Maybe this is my own attempt at Benjamin’s Dialectic Fairy Scene; one that presents the female as dialectic, and her relationship with the city, and specifically Queen West, as both palace and cellar, both Odysseus and Penelope (Buckmorss 34).
The box itself shows a familiar Queen West Mural: “You’ve Changed”. Painted on a brick wall just west of Queen and Ossington, this marks the border between Queen West and Parkdale. In the context of our anxious storyteller, who has been away from the city, it sits as a confrontation: Who has changed; what has changed? In the context of the broken glass slipper, the question shifts: what is the nature of this change; it’s duration? Are we only changed till midnight, for instance. We hear, in the audio accompaniment, a song from Into The Woods: “You’ve Changed/You’re Daring/ You’re different in the woods”. Again here, we have the fairytale promise, but one that, for those familiar with Stephen Sondheim’s hit, unravels in the second act.
This mural holds the moment of historical dialectic. Here, we see the palimpsest of past, present, and perhaps even future, as our narrator is caught by that sign, “the one that seems to reach down my throat and give my heart a squeeze whatever the season,” and remembers.
She remembers three memories. Memory 1: Queen West was where my father lived and died when I have 15 years old. It’s a place I would visit for the few summers leading up to his death. I would walk from his apartment near Queen and Landsowne to the Eaton Centre at Queen and Yonge. Now, the neighbourhood is very hip; it has changed. Memory 2: I am walk-ing along Queen West with my then-boyfriend during my first week living in Toronto. New to town, I remember that walk, and how I was looking for things that I might recognize. I did not recognize much. Memory 3: I walk to the Theatre Centre, where that same boyfriend, now ex-boyfriend, works. I am going to see a show there. I walk, and feel sad. I am remembering walk-ing down Queen west years before, remembering both the boyfriend and my father. And then I see the sign: “You’ve Changed”. And I wonder if it’s me or him who has changed. And I hope that I’ve changed, but I’m not sure.
These are the memories that haunt that mural and Queen west for me. These memories of loss, heartbreak, and hope. Here, the present in infused with the past. This is what Shauna Janssen calls the “dialectical moment,” where past, present and future come together (157). It’s what De Certeau calls palimpsest, in which memory is locked not in place, but in “the every day acts of walking, eating” (108). I’m trying to make memory material, through poetry and broken glass, just as De Certeau does through making memory performance through walking and eat-ing. I’m trying to re-perform my memories of Queen West, as well as my experience in seeing the city through new eyes, as an absent friend. Perhaps this is akin to Buckmorss proposal that in the arcade, these “commodity graveyards,” we find a complex, dialectical relationship be-tween past and present (37-38). What then, if we make memory material? Or better, how even to do this?
This leads elegantly to the final question of this reflection: how to bring together theory and practice. Certainly, the two met, as clumsy lovers, in this class. I have nothing against clumsy lovers; I am one, most of the time. And theory and practice come together most often in this way. (They meet in my own research like this, though one of them— practice— still can’t re-ally explain what she is doing here). I‘ve yet to be satisfied with one way of bringing together these two dialectics. What’s beautiful about practice is that it escapes words; what’s useful about theory is in grounds thought. And so, can we bring the two together, without negating (prostituting?) one to the other? I think the answer lies in having the ‘yes-and’ body of an im-provisor, with the critically generous brain of Jill Dolan (who derives this idea from José Muños’ Disidentifications); it asks us to say yes to both ideas and movement, to be interdisciplinary, an to mix metaphors. In this way, the class has explored this coming together of absent friends very well. I have seen students say yes when they didn’t really know what they were doing. I have seen facilitators say yes when they had doubts. I myself have said yes to trying a meth-ods, to playing, to exploring, to being wrong. While these closing thoughts are somewhat more poetic than necessarily intended, they are mean earnestly… because there seems something essential— especially for this class— about saying yes to poetry as theory, theory as poetry.
De Certeau, Michel. “Walking in the City.” In The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley: University of California Press. 91-110. Print.
Dolan, Jill. The Feminist Spectator as Critic. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1991. Print.
Benjamin, Walter. “The Flaneur.” In The Paris of the Second Empire in Baudelaire. Trans. Harry Zohn. London: Verso, 1983. 35-66. Print.
Buck-Morss, Susan. “Introduction, Part One.” In The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project. London and Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1989. 3-57. Print.
Janssen, Shauna. “darlingARCADE: Queering the Postindustrial Landscape.” Disserta-tion Chapter + Images. Print.
Wilson, Elizabeth. “The Invisible Flâneur.” In Postmodern Cities and Spaces. Eds. So-phie Watson and Katherine Gibson. Oxford: Blackwell, 1995. 59-79. Print.