On Speculative Walking: From the Peripatetic to the Peristaltic
by Randy Lee Cutler
I can only meditate when I am walking. When I stop I cease to think; my mind only works with my legs.
All enjoyment, all taking in and assimilation, is eating, or rather: eating is nothing other than assimilation.
How does motion affect consciousness? What are the ways in which motility — slowness or speed — alter one’s experience of space and time? A most personal form of transportation, walking induces mind travel and flows of the imagination. In Confessions, Jean Jacques Rousseau suggests that there is something about walking that stimulates and enlivens thoughts. He adds that, for him, meditation could only happen when walking; when he would stop, thinking would cease, which conjectures that the movement of his mind depended on the movement of his legs. Rousseau has a role in a long and richly variegated history connecting walking with speculative thought in literature and philosophy where the process engenders conscious and unconscious states of becoming, opening towards a fluid sense of embodiment where surroundings are taken in and assimilated. This edifying passage is durational, occurring in real time, which is of course unique to each instance, to each happening, and indeed, to each walk.
Numerous terms capture an experience that is simultaneously corporeal and cerebral, including perambulation, peregrination and wayfaring.1 A personal favourite is “peripatetic,” which means “one who walks from place to place.” This word originates with Aristotle, who taught philosophy while walking in the Lyceum of ancient Athens. The Peripatetic school was founded around 335 BC, the name taken from the Lyceum’s covered walkways or paths known as peripatoi.2 One might even conjecture that walking and speculating are core elements of metaphysics, and of reasoning in general. As Rebecca Solnit tells us, “…the association between walking and philosophizing became so widespread that central Europe has places named after it: the celebrated Philosophenweg in Heidelberg, where Hegel is said to have walked; the Philosophendamm in Königsberg, where Kant passed on his daily stroll (now replaced by a railway station); and the Philosopher’s Way Kierkegaard mentions in Copenhagen.”3 In her book Wanderlust: A History of Walking, Solnit lists an impressive array of people who walked as a way of developing their imagined terrains, including Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, Thomas Hobbes, Friedrich Nietzsche and Ludwig Wittgenstein. In the 18th century, William Wordsworth and his sister, Dorothy, advanced the taste for walking long distances in the countryside. Their walks are central to our perceptions of Romantic poetry and particularly its adulation of nature. Numerous pathways can be traversed through a study of walking and its expanded relationship to thinking. Memorable writings on the subject include Rousseau’s Reveries of a Solitary Walker (1782), Henry David Thoreau’s “Walking” (1862),4 Charles Baudelaire’s The Painter of Modern Life (1863), Virginia Woolf’s “Street Haunting: A London Adventure” (1930), Walter Benjamin’s “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire” (1939), and W.G. Sebald’s novel The Rings of Saturn (1995).
Walking has also given rise to emergent and radical ways of being in the world: protests, public demonstrations and social formations are engaged in, and indeed are produced, through the democratic use of public space. Walking as political and collective action has played a role in many significant historical events such as the Women’s March on Versailles in 1789 to protest the high price and scarcity of bread, an important precursor to the French Revolution; Gandhi’s 240mile Salt March in 1930, also known as the Salt Satyagraha, protesting the British salt monopoly and taxation system and leading to the Indian independence movement; Martin Luther King Jr.’s 54 mile march in 1965 from Selma, Alabama to the state capital of Montgomery to protest unjust voting laws; and Cesar Chavez’s 340 mile March for Justice from Delano to Sacramento in 1966 to protest mistreatment of farm workers in California.5 More recent is the 1,600 kilometre walk of a group of James Bay Cree youth from Whapmagoostui, Quebec to Parliament Hill in 2013. And Nelson Mandela’s 1995 autobiography is titled Long Walk to Freedom. Such a commonplace activity, walking can both feed the soul and alter the course of history.
The penchant for walking while thinking is a human activity further enhanced by the presence of natural and human made panoramas. Perhaps the quality of imaginative explorations is afforded by geographical place and atmospheric condition: charming vistas, shadows cast, light quality and the arduousness of the terrain. It takes time and distance to unfold an idea or disentangle a motif in one’s imagination. Often ideas come in an oblique yet generative manner while distracted by a setting and the progress of the syncopating beats beneath one’s feet. This evokes what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes as the “flow state,” which ensues when one is engaged in focused and meaningful actions.6 Usually marked by an intensified temporal awareness, there is a sort of free-floating attentiveness afforded by the extended walk where a diffusion of consciousness tends to set the mind to thinking. And a more exact clarity might occur with remapping how a thought has unfurled by returning to the spaces where it was born: an eternal return as eternal cogitation, perhaps. How long does it take to figure an image, develop an idea, or embody a narrative? And in what ways might this form of speculative walking become a luminous reverie, a collaged flow of innovation and recollection? What is fundamental here is the embodied affect of movement on the imagination, the peristaltic waves of the mind. Plus walking is extremely good for you and aids digestion.
The assimilation of one’s surroundings coupled with rhythmic journeying is an intricate process that arouses the potential for metaphor and analogy. For example, a relationship between cities and bodies, and how the former are often described in bodily ways, provides entry into symbolic content. Here, one can point to the metaphors of veins and arteries in relation to lanes and streets. Canals, tracts and ducts have their mirror worlds inside and outside the body. I am especially intrigued by how metaphors of digestion inform and complement our daily peregrinations. Literary critic, essayist and philosopher Walter Benjamin extolled the art of “slow walking” as the instrument of modern urban mapping, as if one is grazing the terrain for pleasure, experience and sustenance.7 Walking becomes a form of rumination where cogitation moves from the literal to the figurative. As peristaltic waves move food through the body by its own motility, the physical movements of walking similarly allow for the slow digestion of thoughts and experiences. Through involuntary nerve impulses, peristalsis helps to draw nutrients from food through a dynamic and circuitous digestive system. Rhythmic contractions allow for passage through the body and, by extension, the imagination. Metabolism moves in mysterious ways.8 Like cows, we also ruminate as we roam. The word “ruminant” comes from the Latin ruminare, which means “to chew over again.” Perhaps perambulation is a method or mode of aerating nascent ideas by breaking down the constituent elements, enabling space between thoughts. And of course, all this takes time and energy. If food takes on average 12 hours to digest, how long does it take to formulate a thought, digest a landscape and incorporate an idea? Consider that walking burns about four calories per minute and the brain, a notorious energy guzzler, can burn a calorie and a half per minute when actively thinking. Quick assimilation is not the ideal; in its place is the deliberate, slow rumination of total digestion.
There are several models for peripatetic engagement. Walking can be said to represent a twofold mediation; between the corporeal movement in space and time, and its provision for the peristaltic waves of reflection afforded by that movement. It is from this double perspective that we explore how walking can be understood as a form of mobile thinking. Walking has long nourished creative urges, whether writing, artmaking or political meditations, and indeed mediations. With its long history, peripateticism characterizes exploratory expeditions that support the unfurling and digestion of an idea. Walking is a form of reflection that generates compelling metaphors. Whether in urban or rural spaces, pathways suggest the folds and multiple passages of a digestive tract where indeterminable and endless contours might be discovered, where frontiers are made porous and turned into thresholds, where motility arouses internal apprehensions. Walking aerates mind, body and the spaces in between so that a sustainable life force emerges between the rhythm of walking and that of a poetic digestion, forming a site and an event where the outside world meets with the interior realm of human reflection and creativity.
Through walking, one ingests or assimilates the landscape for fuel and nourishment. In this way, walking is tied to a kind of productivity, to making something with one’s body and imagination. What does it mean to be attuned to one’s own creative urges via roaming and rumination? And how might we feed lavishly upon all sorts of ambulatory comestibles while on the lookout for the thing that will satisfy our emergent desires? This relation is contingent upon the personal response and cravings of the one who ambles. Walking thus becomes part of a generative cycle of assimilating and absorbing the world around us, taking (without taking) things in with all of the sustenance this process entails; each of us has our own rhythms, ways of moving and responding to the world around us. Some are sluggish, others swift, with one no better than the other. In a metabolic sense, the process involves speculative walking from the peripatetic to the peristaltic, where momentum is simultaneously corporeal and cerebral. Perhaps spatial passages with their continual circulation of nutrients highlight the ways in which the metaphoric and the metabolic are not so easy to disentangle.