A phenomenological sketch on the experience of place during lockdown
The space around me is shrinking. Indoors, the reason for this spatial collapse is probably because the rooms are exhausted of being constantly occupied. Everyone in the house needs a room in which to work remotely, so even when I have the chance of finding an empty room, I am keenly aware that someone else in the house is now waiting for the room to be vacated. Either the space is occupied, or else I am occupying the space. The house itself wishes for nothing other than to be rid of its occupants and breathe again at ease.
I have not been measuring things properly, but I am near certain that the rooms are conspiring to push us out. The ceilings have never been this low. The walls are very discrete, and always stop approaching each other when I am looking. The only time when the lack of space becomes conspicuous is when I am really in need of moving. Then, the rooms show themselves unabashedly reduced. If I start to worry about my precarious financial situation and stand up to pace around the room and unwind, I find myself trapped between tight walls. It might be that the house banks on these moments of distress for a final push. And indeed (when I don’t crumble, trying to make myself small in order to fit), I usually end up stumbling outdoors. Once outside, I am always surprised not to find myself suddenly larger than the house, because my narrow escapes are remarkably like Alice’s after drinking the growth potion in the White Rabbit’s house.
Outdoors, the space is shrinking away from me. The world itself has drifted off, as if I were left stranded on this receding island. Voices of passers-by come and go from the street below, but they are long gone before I can fully place them. It is like trying to tune a radio in a tunnel, when melodies flare up ephemerally amidst a river of buzzing. Only the path to the supermarket has managed to hold onto existence, like a fallen trunk in between two cliffs. But the need to gear up with mask and gloves (and to avoid unnecessary trips) has robbed the path of its immediacy, and thus, of its possibility. It now seems impossible to just stand up and walk out on a whim to go shopping. All other paths have vanished: There is no path that takes me to work, no way to get to my favourite café, and the houses of our friends are not to be found in any direction — I still have to work remotely, I can call my friends anytime, and I can no doubt make myself a coffee in the kitchen, but none of these things happen in space any longer. Their spatiality, their placeness, has fallen away.
In Oxford, we are relatively lucky in that we are allowed to go for a walk once a day, and I am also privileged to be young, healthy and free of care responsibilities. What is hard is often figuring out where to walk to, now that the world has drifted off. The first couple of minutes I simply rejoice at being outside without thinking much. After that, I have to figure out a direction in which to walk, but I tend to think of a direction as a direction to somewhere, and all of the possible destinations no longer apply. I could walk left to the supermarket (without entering, because I don’t have my mask), or right to my favourite café (to see it closed), or right then left to a friend’s house (which is now as foreign as any other house on that street). The only thing that’s left for us to do in such a disjointed space is wandering.
At the heart of wandering is being open to the attractions of the terrain. In normal times, those attractions go unnoticed because we have places to go to and a clear mental map of the terrain, so we tell ourselves that we already know what lies in such and such direction and that those places are—at the moment—of no interest to us. Going on a stroll is easy, because we end up treading on well-worn routes, even if we had not planned to do so. Truly wandering is much harder, which is why Guy Debord and other members of the Situationist International had such elaborate ways of ensuring the right wandering spirit during their psychogeographic dérives. For me, true wandering often happens only when I have gotten lost and the shedding of my spatial schemas precipitates a new way of relating to my surroundings.
In a way, the present lockdown provides a propitious climate for wandering. We have been left with nowhere to go, and whatever map of our surroundings we had sketched in our minds has now been tattered. And yet, I have found wandering incredibly complicated. It is always hard to forget all concerns and engage in a pointedly pointless activity, but even more so with the background stress that the pandemic has imposed on us all. In light of the severity of the situation, the tricks of psychogeography can seem like a somewhat frivolous intellectual game. On top of that, unless we live in the heart of the taiga, most of us would be wandering through dehumanised man-made landscapes. Much urban wandering is about hidden pockets of human activity and about chance encounters — we discover an interesting bookstore in the least expected corner, or we end up engaging in conversation with a stranger. Today, everything is closed up and closed off, and social distancing ensures that strangers remain so.
When I manage to wander through the current landscape, I fall in the grip of a sense of unreality. I guess I’m not the only one, because the Rolling Stones have captured the feeling rather well in their latest single , Jagger lamenting being “a ghost living in a ghost town”. Oxford makes for a very particular ghost town. With the students mostly gone, and the University closed, the city centre is deserted. There are people on the river walk, and in the parks. There are even some people on Cowley Road, but once you cross Magdalen Bridge, there is no one in sight. I go along the High Street, and right to the Radcliffe Camera. I walk on the cobblestones and then along Broad Street, down Turl Street… I eventually circle back and weave my way under the skyway of the Bridge of Sighs and continue back to the High Street without finding anyone else.
The effect is uncanny, but not in the postapocalyptic sense of walking through a deserted metropolis. What is particularly uncanny here is that I could be walking through an empty Oxford of the past and I would hardly notice. Maybe I turn a corner to walk towards the old Turf Tavern and for some steps I stumble into the 17th century and back out again, and it would make no difference to me. In non-lockdown days, Oxford is a historic town, but during lockdown, it transforms itself into an atemporal town. Without the bustling of cars to fix it to the 21st century and without the tourists flashing their cameras to confirm that we are all looking at the same buildings from bygone times, it is hard to believe that I am truly here, stepping on the cobblestones in between libraries and colleges. Unreal. Time will suddenly start ticking again and the whole city will be sucked in, or else the world will go on moving and I will remain in this dream set forever, trapped outside of existence.
Wandering here and now in this crisis is unlike wandering anywhere else, or rather anywhen else. The attraction of the terrain is not the usual magnet that pulls you now here, now there, so that you are constantly on the move, scouting, snout first. The attraction of this out-of-time terrain is a slight breeze and you roll along like a tumbleweed or drift like a cloud — a detached spectator being shown a foreign culture that he can’t even begin to grasp. What kind of wandering is that? It might be the rocking back and forth of a flailing pugilist that’s one punch away from being knocked out, or the contained energy of a swimmer about to jump triumphantly off the springboard. I cannot tell, but I know that we don’t have any space left other than the timeless fog of unreal cities, and I know that all we can do here is wandering.
The way I see it, this is only the first act of a much bigger catastrophe of our own making. Some say this crisis is a turning point, in which neoliberal ideology falters and oil consumption finally goes down. Others point in fear to the power grabs of autocrats and the loss of individual freedom. I for one look at the future and I see nothing. Not because it is empty, but because it is too full. There is an overwhelming cacophony of futures fighting each other to exist. How could the space around us not be shrinking when the time ahead of us is swelling up so violently?
And here I find myself, at times encircled by constricting walls, uncontrollable buzzing in my ears, and at times floating in a precarious balance out of time. Not everybody has the privilege to ignore the buzzing and wander, but those of us who do should try, and try to listen better than I have done so far, for it is out of this suspended time that the future will emerge.
At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; At the still point, there the dance is,
—T.S. Eliot, The Four Quartets.
Pablo Fernández Velasco  is a writer, philosopher and dramaturge. He is a doctoral researcher at the Institut Jean Nicod of École Normal Supérieure and a visiting researcher at University College London. The overall focus of his work is on how space structures our experience of the world and of ourselves.