Accepting Invitations: Desire Lines as Earthly Offerings

Matthew Tiessen

[1] This paper is about desire lines and about how the earth itself—its topography, its flows, its tactility, its smell—compels us to follow particular trajectories as we go about our everyday lives. Conventionally desire lines are defined by architects and urban planners as those trampled-down footpaths that deviate from official (i.e. pre-planned and paved) directional imperatives. These pathways of desire—physically inscribed on the earth due to the passage of people—cut across the fields of university campuses, they carve up the urban grid, they exceed the boundaries of the sidewalk; in so doing desire lines express the excess that premeditated constructions cannot foresee or contain. Frequently, desire lines are regarded as "eye-sores" by city planners—as "scars upon the landscape"; however, they can also be thought of as solutions to the problem of how to efficiently and pleasurably respond to and navigate the terrain that constitutes our sensorially mediated world.

[2] I would like to suggest that desire lines are not merely the product of a human-desiring, nor are they merely a material expression of some aspect of the human imagination; rather, desire lines are the product of an earth—a natural environment—that desires us, an earth that beckons to us and that offers to us new pathways and potential circuits that expand the interconnected network—the interdependent relationship—between us and itself. To trace a desire line, then, is to respond to an invitation, to accept that a particular trajectory has been revealed. We could describe desire lines as being in excess of human-centered desire or as something in excess of the lines that are inscribed by terrestrial flows themselves; however, to do so would be to suggest that desire lines are somehow not inherent to the give and take that already exists between people and their environment.

[3] Desire lines can express many things. They often emerge to satisfy a Paul Virilio-esque need for speed, for they efficiently cut corners; but they are also, at times, expressions of playfulness, perhaps meandering to and fro amidst flowers or trees. The desire line's creator, when s/he blazes through newly fallen snow, is, quite literally, a trail blazer in whose steps others will follow; conversely, when, as a bike messenger, s/he navigates the inscription-resistant paved surfaces so ubiquitous in urban settings, his/her desire lines are undetectable. Lines of desire, then, can both be visible and invisible, material and immaterial, semi-permanent and transitory. They are trajectories (as are moving a hand to a mouth, pointing a finger, blowing out a candle, or making a journey).

[4] Even the most recent desire lines trace a history. If a desire line is fortunate enough to have been inscribed onto the landscape, its history can be read or inferred (from our particular vantage point). Georges Bataille once stated that man's "disregard for the material basis of his life still causes him to err in a serious way" (Bataille, 1998, p. 21). In this paper I will be exploring how an augmented understanding and appreciation of desire lines can help us to understand the material basis of life and how such an understanding can contribute to the narratives we use to understand where we've come from and where we're going.

[5] Gilles Deleuze wrote, regarding history, that: "In reality, history is the history of desire" (Deleuze, 2004, On Capitalism, p. 263). The earth-bound, material desire line is an interesting site or metaphor for investigating how we come to create the future, as well as how we come to understand and represent the past. Architect Luis Fernandez-Galiano notes that just as we remember, and just as our pasts shape who we are in the present, the material world "also 'remembers,' also files information. The earth's layers remember geological ages, the rings of a tree recall past springs and autumns, and the archeological mound is a reminder of the passage of cultures" (Fernandez-Galiano, 2000, p. 66).

[6] Of course, such observations about our world are not especially revealing. For instance, philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty's suggestion that behavior "has its roots and its ultimate effects in the geographical environment" (Merleau-Ponty, 1965, p. 133) does not cause us much excitement. Others have suggested that our collective histories, as they come into being, are not so much chosen by the trajectories we choose as by their being, in a sense, chosen on our behalf by material constraints, by our physical limitations, and by our having to navigate our various paths not in terms of our desire but in accordance with what the earth—"nature"—offers up to us. Urban planner Kevin Lynch has noted that the environment "suggests distinctions and relations, and the observer [me, you] ... selects, organizes, and endows with meaning what he sees" (Lynch, p. 6). This somewhat deterministic mode of discourse brings the role of "nature"—its rules, its possibilities, its prescriptions—to the fore.

[7] The latent potential of such a discursive emphasis has recently compelled environmental historians such as Ellen Stroud to wonder why "environmental history remains on the periphery" of her profession, suggesting that environmental stories "are more likely to turn up in introductions, sidebars, and footnotes to political, social, and economic histories than they are to be incorporated into those narratives in a transformative way" (Stroud, 2003, p. 75). Stroud continues: "Colleges and universities have begun hiring environmental historians, we have an excellent journal devoted to our field, and U.S. history textbooks have begun to include sections and sidebars on environmental history. But the new scholarship ... rarely finds its way into the classrooms of non-environmental historians, into the pages of mainstream journals, or into the main body of textbooks" (Stroud, 2003, p. 76). In Stroud's estimation, environmental historians "pay attention to dirt, and others should too" (Stroud, 2003, p. 76).

[8] Another environmental historian, Theodore Schatzki, notes that history is conventionally "widely construed as the realm and course of past human activity" [1] and that historians "study human actions, what determines [these] actions, and what [brings about these] actions" (Schatzki, 2003, p. 82-3). He wonders why that which is deemed to determine history "has usually been considered to be mental phenomena such as beliefs, hopes, and desires, whereas what results from human activity has typically been taken to be artifacts and further activity" (Schatzki, 2003, p. 83). Why is it, he wonders, that apart from "environmental determinists and historical ecologists or environmentalists of various stripes, nature has largely been ignored" (Schatzki, 2003, p. 83). At best, he suggests, nature generally forms "a backdrop against which (human) history takes place" (Schatzki, 2003, p. 83). Both Stroud and Schatzki identify the ongoing struggle to inject nature and the environment into historical discourses not merely as terrain or site, but as actor and agent. By attempting to detail the symbiotic relationship between humans and the terrestrial environment Stroud and Schatzki foreground the fact that humans are not hermetically sealed machines that exist separately from the natural flows "out there"; rather, their aim is to have us (and their fellow historians, for example) recognize that humans are in fact permeable membranes that process and are processed by, that manipulate and are manipulated by, "nature." In sum, despite conventional efforts to marginalize it, there is no culture, no history, no society, without the natural environment. This observation, of course, does not so much expose the reality and significance of the natural environment (which exists whether we notice it or not), as it does the ontological commitments that have tended to define Western culture and academia for generations. Deleuze and Guattari (1987) would describe such anthropocentric ontologies as reflecting a commitment to "top down" reasoning that restricts the proliferation of emergent and "bottom up" understandings of the world; they would suggest that these "top down" ontologies prefer to reason according to constraining systems of reified abstractions and representation rather than according to the Spinozist understanding of the world as a field of forces that affect and are affected on a plane of immanence.

[9] If we consider Hayden White's suggestion that much of history's history has been one of writing narratives, of ordering the past from the vantage point of the present, it might follow that since nature resists teleological narratives, it is frequently deemed historically superfluous. Of course, if that be the case nature's apparent absence from history could instead reflect the repressed awareness of nature's irrepressible power. Has nature been repressed because it is so difficult to tame? Is it now making its uncanny return to a discipline wherein it has, for the most part, been disavowed? My initial thought here is that nature does not sit comfortably alongside narratives, stories, or linear and parceled notions of time. More recently, the ground-breaking historical research of Manuel DeLanda (2002, 1997) and Hardt and Negri (2000) (all of which are heavily indebted to Deleuze and Guattari, not to mention Nietzsche) has articulated the significance of non-linear, "bottom up" historical narratives and how such narratives contribute to our understanding of becoming. Not only do these new narratives reintegrate nature into our understanding of human societies and histories, they describe human society itself as a sort of organic process. In their estimation, both nature and culture—or nature-culture—defy the top down narratives we too often use in our efforts to discern its teleological motives. Instead, nature-culture is process, becoming, flow. It proceeds indeterminately—with no discernable beginning or end. Indeed, if we were to overly emphasize nature's role perhaps we would find ourselves as much determined as determining. If agency and narrative are removed from history's vast swath what remains? What stories can we tell?

Actual and Virtual Lines

[10] Before we engage this question let's return to the desire line. A given desire line, one could argue, has as many histories as there are people who have walked along it (the figure who creates the first inscription of the path and those who later re-trace this inscribed path is matter for another paper). At a basic level, a desire line might be said to serve at least two purposes: business and pleasure. The desire line that is all about business is the one that cuts corners in straight lines, its trajectories are shaped by a goal, it carves space especially efficiently. Desire lines that are about pleasure are less goal oriented, they are less about going from point A to B. These ones meander, they document dilly-dallying, they succumb to the beckoning of the untravelled and unknown. Gaston Bachelard evokes such a desire line when he writes: "We do not have to be long in the woods to experience the always rather anxious impression of 'going deep and deeper' into a limitless world. Soon, if we do not know where we are going, we no longer know where we are" (Bachelard, 1964, p. 185).

[11] Generally, when we think of these desires we imagine the physical traces left by footsteps and spatial trangressions. Such desire lines, insofar as they are physically inscribed, can be read; we can actually see that they have a history (of some sort)—they are palpable. But what of the untraceable desire line? The elusive ones that leave no material record of their passing? The ones that never left a perceptible trace to begin with? The desire lines that melt with the snow, that disappear beneath the waves, that are swept away or overgrown? How can we read these histories? How do we trace what we could, in any conventional sense, regard as the untraceable?

[12] Certainly these untraceable desire lines have a history as well. The footsteps in the snow or the canoe's cleaving of the water did exist. For philosopher Gilles Deleuze that which has passed—whether material or immaterial—does not, in fact, disappear. It does not become, suddenly, unreal, does not become—pardon the term—history. Rather, the past continues to exist, it remains real, and it continues to affect the so-called present. "The past," writes Deleuze, "does not have to survive [merely] ... in our brains, because it has not ceased to be, it has only ceased to be useful—it is; it survives in itself" (Deleuze, 2004, Bergson, p. 29). This ongoing existence of the past, notes Deleuze (invoking Henri Bergson), is part of the past's becoming what it is because, he notes, "if the past had to wait to be no more, if it were not immediately and henceforth past ... it would never be able to become what it is, it would never be this past" (Deleuze, 2004, Bergson, p. 29). The past, he goes on, is therefore "the in-itself, the unconscious or more precisely ... the virtual" (Deleuze, 2004, Bergson, p. 29). The virtual, for Deleuze, exists alongside the actual. The virtual is something like an entity's potential to actualize, existing latently in anticipation of being called upon; an entity's virtual potential is the product, after all, of the productivity of its past actualizations. The ontological categories of virtuality and actuality are, for Deleuze, the interconnected categories that constitute the fabric of reality. As Bonta and Protevi observe, for Deleuze the virtual is "the modal status of the set of possible states of [any] system, along with the probabilities of attaining a particular sub-set of those states. In other words, the concept of the virtual is a way to understand the relation of any system to the patterns and thresholds of its intensive processes and actual behaviors" (2004, p. 17). So how, again, is the past virtual? It is virtual, suggests Deleuze, because the past "is not constituted after it has been present"; rather, "it coexists with itself as present. ... At each degree everything is there, ... everything coexists with everything, that is to say with the other degrees. We see therefore finally what is virtual" (Deleuze, 2004, Bergson, p. 29).

[13] Desire lines, then, even the ones that disappear or that leave merely an ephemeral trace to begin with, continue to be real, existing as they do, for instance, in effects, memories, or déjà vu. The question, however, is how best to capture this real immateriality? How can we describe the reality that befalls the object? Theories of virtuality, then, add another dimension to our conception of time, one that confounds conventional notions of past, present, and future. Such theorizing potentially compels narrative to move in a multitude of directions in its defiance of conventional temporal linearity. So let's return now to the question with which we began: If agency and narrative are removed from history's vast swath what are we left with? What stories can we tell?

Where does desire come from?

[14] If someone once named them "desire lines" we can guess that this name was given because they were thought, at some level, to be manifestation of human desire. The story of human desire, certainly, is one that can be told (such a story would include the mythologies of, for instance, love, nationalism, or consumerism). But what are some of the things that compel this desire? There are, of course, no definitive answers to such a question; however, we can posit that one of the things that compels us, in turn influencing the shaping of history, is this thing called "nature." Indeed, if we believe someone like Nietzsche, nature is, in fact, us. He writes: "When one speaks of humanity, the idea is fundamental that this is something which separates and distinguishes man from nature. In reality, however, there is no such separation: 'natural' qualities and those called truly 'human' are inseparably grown together. Man, in his highest and noblest capacities, is wholly nature" (Nietzsche, 1976, p. 32). Our relationship to nature (or culture, or our own subjectivity) is one that has recently been thought by some as being rooted in a series of systems that are perpetually in a state of emergence. Theorists such as Brian Massumi, expanding on Deleuze, would go so far as to argue that the subject "does not express the system. It is [, rather,] an expression of the system. The system expresses itself in its subjects' every 'chosen' deed and mystified word—in its very form of life" (Massumi, 2002, Shock, p. xvi). In such a scenario conventional notions of narrative, that which has heretofore given structure and meaning to our understanding of these systems, seem an inappropriate lens through which to look. What narrative assumes is that we read our past backwards in order to re-rehearse it as we move forward. We do this by using our agency and in accordance with our so-called desire. But again, from where does this desire emerge? Deleuze suggests that: "Desiring consists in interruptions, letting certain flows through, making withdrawals from those flows, cutting the chains that become attached to the flows. ... Desire does not depend on lack, it's not a lack of something, and it doesn't refer to any Law. Desire produces" (Deleuze, 2004, Capitalism, pp. 232-33). Desire, if we are to believe Deleuze is a capturing and letting go of flows, a process of ongoing production that, if we are so inclined, need meaning to be added later. Where is narrative in such an ontology? What, then, is creating our desire lines? Certainly, in such a scenario narrative—in which historical storytelling gives rise to or facilitates teleological conclusions—would be regarded as an effort to reinforce the disciplinary desire to believe, as art historian Donald Preziosi says, "that something really does exist behind [our representations]" (Preziosi, 2003, p. 138).

[15] Deleuze's ontology targets the reductive tendencies of ontologies of representation in order to articulate an augmented ontological framework that foregrounds the instrumental role that nature plays when it comes time to account for and assess the forces that shape our bodies, our day-to-day everyday lives, and, in turn, what we come to experience as history. The figure that Deleuze uses to depict the emergent, anti-heirarchical processes and structures of the world's systems and networks is the rhizome. For Deleuze, the rhizome is a model not only for how nature operates, but also for how human societies operate. The interconnectivity of the nature-human rhizome is expressive of a non-teleological unfolding of processes that are compelled not so much by a reason as by inherent capacities and affordances. Merleau-Ponty too is a theorist who regards the chiasmatic relationship amongst human and non-human actors as playing a determining role in our lives, observing that human "agents" prefer to follow trajectories of least resistance; for example, we tend to prefer to take the easiest path up the mountain (a path determined, surely, in some senses by the mountain!). He writes that such preferred behavior "is the simplest and most economical with respect to the task in which the organism finds itself engaged ... [and] is the one which permits the easiest and most adapted action" (Merleau-Ponty, 1965, p. 147-48). Our actions, he continues, are "understandable and predictable ... if we conceive of them ... as acts which are addressed to a certain milieu, present or virtual" (Merleau-Ponty, 1965, p. 151). Similarly, environmental historian Theodore Schatzki observes that the very physicality of humans and things "shapes human practices, for instance, which actions can be and are carried out, which goals can be and are pursued, which tasks can be and are carried our for the sake of those goals, and how they can be executed when and where"; he notes that the very "properties of wood ... lay down sequences of actions that must be followed if trees are to be felled, axe handles produced, ... houses built, and paper produced. ... [M]ateriality determines and anchors arrangements" (Schatzki, 2003, p. 89). Too often, suggests Schatzki, we "abstract ... things and those who use them" from "the broader and richer reality that is the history-composing social site" (Schatzki, 2003, p. 90). We must guard, then, against unnecessarily inhabiting a discipline that, as Hayden White notes, presumes that "society is radically other than the rest of the natural world; that it is a product of human work, labor, and creativity; and that the understanding of any of its processes must ... be directed at the search for its origins" (White, 1999, p. 318). Nature, then, can serve as a necessary bulwark against such reifying and classificatory tendencies. After all, as environmental historian Holmes Rolston III has suggested, "Forests are never very modern or postmodern, or even classical or premodern. They explode such categories and move outside [what has typically been described as] culture" (Rolston III, 2004, p. 191).

[16] But as I mentioned earlier, an increased emphasis on the role of nature in history threatens to take us down a winding and neverending road of decreasing agency and increasing determinacy. History, if it is too heavily placed in the hands of nature, becomes a history that is rife with description and lacking in "story." DeLanda's readings of the past operate in this way. For DeLanda, human history is best thought in terms of physics, forces, and self-organizing systems. DeLanda suggests that matter, or people, for that matter, when confronted with a problem, "spontaneously [generate] a machinelike solution by drawing from a 'reservoir' of abstract ... mechanisms" (DeLanda, Nonorganic, 1992, p. 135). These solutions, though probable are not wholly predictable. They exist, as I was suggesting earlier, virtually—real but not yet actual—or in process. These forces (whether chemical, biological, social, historical) that are in process operate, DeLanda suggests, in so-called "phase spaces" wherein their trajectories will "tend to drift toward certain points (called 'attractors'), or to move away from certain other (called 'repellors'). ... the attractors and repellors in a [phase space] represent the long-term tendencies of a system. For instance, a ball rolling downhill will always 'seek' the lowest point" (DeLanda, Nonorganic, 1992, p. 137). The implications of DeLanda's system—his describing history as a product of "definite structure-generating processes" (DeLanda, Geology) within a series of phase spaces or fields of forces—imply, for instance, that "a State apparatus is not essentially better than a 'primitive' society, since after all, there is nothing intrinsically better about a solid than a liquid" (DeLanda, Nonorganic, 1992, p. 154). They also imply that human desire, as we've tended to understand it, is potentially irrelevant to the mechanistic social processes that envelops it.

[17] We return, then, once more to the desire line. Is it really a line of desire? Or are today's "actual," material desire lines yesterday's virtual pathways that once desired us? While this question may be provocative, it maintains the human vs. nature divisions we have here been discussing. That is, to bestow agency upon the natural world does not, finally, reframe our understanding of the human as that which exists as separate from its environment. Indeed, to overemphasize the agency of the natural environment might be reason enough for some to further subdue it, to further bring it under human control. The challenge, then, is to create structures of thought that can adequately express the nature-human composite without subsuming one into the other, and without perpetuating the notion that the two are separated by some sort of boundary, whether qualitative or quantitative. This problem—how one can be multiple—is the central problem that Deleuze and his interlocutors attempt to grapple with. Perhaps desire lines are an appropriate concept to use in our efforts to map and navigate this divergent and emergent terrain? Perhaps if the nature-human machine can be read as the divergent and multiplicitous expression of an ever-changing unfolding of desire we would be better equipped to account for, understand, and maximize the forces and desire lines that traverse and constitute our world.


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