on looking

Without an exploration mindset we all have trouble connecting with and immersing ourselves in the environment we find ourselves in, be it city or nature. Consciously paying attention is not so easy for most – myself definitely included. Our evolutionary default is switching to automatic pilot as quickly as possible to free up our very limited resource of conscious attention for something else. The most eloquent, persuasive and helpful guide on such a mindset that I know of is  Alexandra HorowitzOn Looking, a walker’s guide to the art of observation

It’s such a common sensical argument: unless you have retained a childlike openness to what enters your doors of perception, it helps to know stuff about your environment, and about things in general, to get our attentional muscle to flex . The sort of info and stories that make a well-guided walk such a pleasure, and open your eyes to interesting, amazing, aspects of the landscape (whatever the specific focus – historical, botanical, architectural, geological, you name it). Knowledge makes paying attention and seeing easier. And seeing will become its own motivation for exploration.

Once you’ve inhabited the exploratory mindset, and like it, it becomes easier to switch off the automatic pilot when it is not needed. When you explore a cityscape with this mindset (I strongly suggest starting with your own – most of us live in cities don’t we) you find yourself in impressive intellectual company. E.g. Teju Cole whose approach to the city experience is to make long destination-less walks, observing the city as an alien to avoid the blinders of preconception and increase the chances of luck, or urbanating as he calls it. And that places him within a family of affiliated perspectives that includes Baudelaire and Benjamin who describe and theorize the flâneur , the modern urban spectator, an amateur detective and investigator of the city. By way of an important caveat: the specificities of the equally important flâneuse have only recently been highlighted by Laura Elkin. Other family members are the situationists and psychogeographers of the dérive, an unplanned tour through an urban landscape directed entirely by the feelings evoked in the individual by their surroundings.

If that all sounds too ethereal, a more down to earth and pragmatic family member is the god-mother of the city-as-an-eco-system view, Jane Jacobs, whose legacy is befittingly honored and promoted by friends, colleagues and others whom she inspired by organizing walks.

Even less intellectual family members are visual artists, who show rather than tell us what they see when they look around a city that fascinates them. Let me end this post with two of my favorites:

No go out and flex your attentional muscle a bit. You might enjoy it.


6 thoughts on “on looking

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