Footprint (A Makeshift Legend)
There is a rhetoric of walking. —Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Living 1
Recently Footprint has been showing more and more error messages in response to my motions. I started to notice this about three months ago—an error is typically a very unusual thing, but during the week of May 2nd alone, I logged three non-negligible recalibrations in my Footpath. Before this May, I averaged around one recalibration a year since I turned eighteen; even during developmental years, annual recalibrations never exceeded 6-8 in total, which is already on the high end.
In the past month, I have logged twenty-two recalibrations. This is far out of the norm, according to my GP. She referred me to a technician, who was just as puzzled, because there was apparently nothing wrong with my Footprint. All systems were up to date, she said, and the hardware was fine too. The technician referred me to a psychiatrist, who cleared me from the only real syndrome that excessive Footprint error is an indicator for—schizophrenia. I was then referred back to a second technician, who promptly referred me to yet another psychiatrist. I didn’t bother to schedule an appointment.
But I think I figured out why I’ve been getting so many errors.
This past year, my information feed has been overloaded with constant notifications and news reports on violent crimes committed against people whose phenotypic characteristics mark them to be socially classified as “Asian”—therefore, diseased, foreign, dirty. The violence is gratuitous, horrific, and directed at the most vulnerable members of the demographic body. It’s completely devastating and still somehow feels abstract, even as my own body is implicated in this same calculus of violence. It’s completely devastating, how same we are, even in our incommensurably different lifelines—how same we are in our bodies, our classification, our disciplining within and by this city.
For nearly half a year, I hunched over in a perpetual flinch. In that time, I learned the exact air density in a space where there is an expectation of violence, which is to say that all public space suddenly became viscous: not like honey, more like tar. I wondered for long periods of time about the sculptural formation of a human skull—if it takes around eight decades for a human skull to be made, what is made in its place when the body does not live for the necessary time of its sculptural incubation? I thought it might resemble a turtle shell—architecturally deformed, functioning neither as trap nor armor, but somehow both at once.
I am certain, had I gathered the courage to see a doctor in those early months, that I would have been diagnosed with a slew of neuroses. But even then, as deeply as I had sunk into depression, Footprint was logging an average recalibration to motion ratio.
And then, in April, Yao Pin An was brutalized. 2 A 61-year-old man who had immigrated from China only two years ago to this city, Yao Pin An was collecting cans on the streets, having recently lost his apartment to a fire and his job to the unforgiving motion of business cycles. He was assaulted while picking up bottles to pay his rent, his head repeatedly stomped into the curb at 3rd Ave & East 125 St. In the news report, his wife of 31 years, Baozhu Chen, said, “My husband is a hard-working man. He picks up bottles to help pay the rent and the bills. He is innocent. He did not do anything wrong. He is a very kind person. He is quiet. He doesn’t cause trouble to make people mad.” 3 He suffered a cerebral contusion and multiple facial fractures. I do not know where he is now. The last time I remember a news update, Yao Pin An was in critical condition in a medically induced coma. The half-life of information is so tragically short now—even news on life, on death, and on catastrophic human violence begins to decay within a week.
I could not move my body for twenty-three minutes after viewing the news report. I was paralyzed, thinking about (1) How exactly the contours of a human skull might change in form when crushed between a concrete curb and a human sole. (2) How much Yao Pin An resembled my father. (3) How, fuck, he was just picking up bottles, (4) How much sadness was contained in Baozhu Chen’s quiet insistence that he was kind. How crushing the grief in her plea, he doesn’t cause trouble. (5) How dare this country call itself Beautiful in its own naming in our language. 4 (6) And how there must be something wrong with the Footprint data, which the press released in an oddly intrusive reporting decision. There were 0 recalibrations and 0 deviations in the six months before Yao Pin An was assaulted.
Everyone knows how Footprint works in the abstract, but no one knows how Footprint works in actuality. Its precise mechanism is entirely opaque, which is remarkable in this moment of explosive information circulation. Everything about Footprint seems vaguely out of grasp. No one knows anyone that works for Footprint, but everyone knows someone who knows someone who is Footprint-affiliated.
It isn’t just because I’m a ceramicist, rather than a systems engineer, a physicist, or an information scientist. Even those in the relevant fields seem to have no concrete sense of the actual workings of Footprint. What I do know, or what I think I know, is that Footprint works by mapping motion, in the most expansive definition of the word. It tracks all of your motion, and all of the motion that is you.
My mother used to tell me stories about the magic of the ancients—how, in classical times, those trained in divination would use a turtle shell and bone fragments carved with trigrams to look to the I Ching for directional directives on living. Face this way when you sleep. Face this way when you work. Be careful when you walk in this direction. The Book of Changes would guide you in your motions; align you directionally towards a virtuous, auspicious life. It’s funny that more of my knowledge of feng shui comes from my white colleagues than from my mom. They think they know a lot about how to save yourself with magical realignments; I don’t think I know very much about anything, especially about Change. But from what little I have gathered in my crude impression of what the I Ching is, Footprint strikes me as its post-modern, substantially more brutal iteration.
And, unlike feng shui, it’s not magic. Footprint could not be further from magic, even though there’s something phantasmic about how cleanly it’s disappeared its own innards; any trace of its mechanics. There are no bones and shells; just a sleek watch-surface that offers a set of optimized potential motions at any given moment. It doesn’t just tell time; it tells you all your possible timelines. And it doesn’t just map motion; it maps all possible motion—not just what has already been enacted, but also what is to come. I won’t pretend to know how it works. But I think there’s probably some kind of quantum logic involved.
Sometime in the days of college, I stumbled across a theoretical physics class. I remember myself wedged between the hard green plastic of my seat and the splintered wood of the desk in the dizzying humidity of early fall, listening to the professor speak about wave-particle duality. I was lost in the math, but I still remember with remarkable clarity how he explained that a particle’s location consists of probabilities. At any given moment, he explained, it is this likely the particle will be here; it is that likely the particle will be there. This set of probabilities, in turn, can be described with a mathematical function—a wave function. Until the moment of measurement (which, in physics, means an encounter with a possible observer), the particle is somehow splintered, at once located at all points on the wave. When you look at it, its infinite possibilities collapse into a single location. Infinity becomes singularity; you gaze upon it and suddenly it gets fixed. Which is the same as saying that with one look you can stop the entire world; with one look, with one motion, you cohere infinite possible iterations of what you encounter into one. I remember thinking, how beautiful, really, and how sad. How beautiful to think of space as filled by infinite possibilities, so that we are constantly walking through echoes of what could have been. I remember thinking what a beautiful way to think about existence, to understand that to be is to cohere yourself in every moment. I remember thinking, maybe it’s all worth it. In each miniscule gesture, I am somehow being reconstituted by an infinity of possible Is. How gorgeous, that in every step I am writing myself into being.
This is how Footprint works, I think, in a very provisional, crude sense—which is the only sense in which I understand it. Footprint traces the infinite possible motions of “you” in the next instant and calculates the likelihood of you carrying out each action, given the constitution of “you” in all your past and present motions. Within these possibilities it selects a curated few and presents them to you as your Footpath, displayed on your screen alongside each of their probabilities, which have been determined by computing indices such as past motions, biological composition, and experiential making. Many times, the Footpath is how you would have moved anyway. The curation of your Footpath happens through optimization—somehow, “they” decide which of your possible actions would be best for you and for the entire world. No one knows how the optimization algorithm works or who writes it. No one knows who “they” is, only that they are constantly making “you.”
Described this way, Footprint seems overwhelming in its complexity. But it’s really a smooth, liquid motion. In each moment, Footprint presents you with your Footpath. Your watch screen continuously repopulates with a set of optimal movements. You learn to read the screen quickly. You make small movements easily, without looking. It’s likely, anyways, that an inconsequential movement is within your Footpath. A breath, a slight lean of your body, an adjustment of the angle at which your elbow rests on the table. For bigger movements you glance first. Then you act. A step in this direction, a turn of your head, a decision about which job offer to accept. I always feel a little bit behind, like I’m constantly catching up to the temporal location of my own body. But even this constant, slight lag is smooth: a continuous motion with no beginning and no end.
No one is obligated to take Footprint’s suggestions. A Footpath is a gift—an offering. A general trajectory that has been determined to be optimal not just for you, but everyone in the world. Every being reverberates; every motion ripples throughout everything that exists and everything that will ever exist. This is one reason that most people never think to deviate from the Footpath. It is beyond you. The consequences, in fact, are cosmic. But mostly people follow the Footpath because it is good. When you are young, you learn quickly that Footprint is really good at what it does. Deviations always result in injury. You trip. You get a small scrape or a bruise. Sometimes, you die. Sometimes, your cat dies.
Footprint is the blueprint of this city—and of every city. It has many versions around the world: Wu Gui (“Turtle”) in China, Link in the Middle East and North Africa, and Deca in Cuba. But they are all Footprint. The program optimizes human motion. It tracks motion—the motion of every single being in the world. Its calculus is organized by zoning, by local aggregation. Each city is insular, a system of motion that is at once open and closed. In his PhD dissertation, Takashi Murakami made a map of the art world as a multiverse: many disciplinary lineages, many spheres of cultural production, many philosophical impulses, and many different inheritances of technique—countless systems of artmaking, constantly colliding. They coexist and intertwine, yet they have their own gravitational pull—have their own boundaries, no matter how unstable.
Human cities are the same way. Each individual motion ripples unpredictably through the fabric of our world, but it does so unevenly. There is a kind of pull towards large collections of human motion, so that cities begin to cohere not just in topography, but also in cause-and-effect. Footprint pays a privileged attention to your immediate locality—that is to say, your city. Because they are whirlpools of human motion and emotion, even the momentum of “you” gets caught. Human cities and Murakami’s art worlds are the same thing: constellations of people and concepts ordered by aesthetic principles. How to live is an aesthetic question, and Footprint is humanity’s final answer. Somehow, in the messy web of constantly colliding human orbits, in the crossing and enfolding paths of everyone in this city and in this world, there is an optimum. You can see how this might have enormous implications for governance, city planning, and the practice of everyday life. This is why Footprint has become so universally integrated into all of our lives. It is an ethical administrator of futures. There must have been so much casual disaster before Footprint. I cannot even imagine what it would be like.
There really is something indisputably beautiful about Footprint—about how coherent, how synchronized our collective existence has become. Footprint has made one giant, harmonized map out of every possible human future. Spatial design has always been about making futures—Cellini thought of disegno (design) “as a tool for ordering human endeavors toward virtue. Man cannot act virtuously without disegno.” 5 Footprint is a kind of designed spatial ordering, but not meant as Cellini had hoped, as a mode of ethical self-transformation. You no longer invent “yourself.” Ours is a new age of cartography where the map makes you.
Footprint accounts for all possible instantiations of “you,” including the sub-optimal. Sometimes, people move in a direction outside of what has been offered by Footpath. This is a deviation. It can occur intentionally or by accident. Deviations are within Footprint’s comprehension. A deviation does not trigger an error message. But people rarely decide to deviate. No one wants the cat to die.
Recalibration is more difficult to explain. It is a motion so substantially outside of Footprint’s calculus that you receive an error message—a small red notification on the right side of your watch screen. I’m not sure even the people behind the empty-centered infrastructure of Footprint, the engineers writing ghost code in their ghost chairs, know exactly what triggers a Footpath recalibration. Even specialists, like my technician, whose services are wildly overpriced on account of the many certifications and degrees she’s racked up, could not explain what a recalibration is. Unlike a deviation, a recalibration happens when something gets messed up—even when you undergo a motion that has been offered by Footprint as your optimal Footpath. Somehow, somewhere in your motion, Footprint’s projected trajectories for the “you” that comes into being as you move get reconfigured in a way that is unexplainable. It means, ostensibly, that you have constructed a possible future that was impossible. So the system recalibrates.
I once had a conversation with a chemist about Epicurus’s theory of the swerve. Swerves, he said, are unexplained moments of randomness within largely orderly systems. 6 I remember him showing me a mathematical function, speaking quickly in his excitement. He was telling me how even the most recent research could not explain why a smooth function like this might suddenly have a jump like that. I remember that while he gestured at the function, I was having the greatly unscientific thought that maybe math was a kind of poetry; that maybe the function chose to jump, because it, like Pascal, was terrified by “the eternal silence of these infinite spaces.” 7 I couldn’t tell you why we were talking about Epicurus, much less why I would ever be speaking to a chemist. I think we were standing under green-gray tinged scaffolding. I think there was rain, and I think it was quite humid. But I’m not sure about any of these impressions; everyone that’s lived here for a while tends to locate lost memories under a non-specific piece of scaffolding. There’s something about this place that’s a bit loose and hazy. Things are not good at happening in specific places—events, like people, often get lost in space.
I remember the chemist describing how contemplating the swerve was an exercise which had much to reveal about the infinite unpredictability of the world, and of us, even within the statistical likelihoods created by universal laws. I didn’t know that chemists could be so elegant in their words; I didn’t know that functions could stutter so much in smooth motion. I guess even a mathematical function can’t resist the staccato inertia of the whole world hurtling through time. Andrew Hui has written in A Theory of the Aphorism that “it is the halting, broken fragment…that is the only viable form of expression…not so much a distillation of doctrine as an expression of the impossibility of any formal systems.” 8 What if the universe only speaks in fragments? What have we done to ourselves, to reconstitute humanity in a formal system of constant, unending motion? I truly could not tell you what a recalibration is. But I imagine it to be a swerve, of sorts, in all my possible futures. If even the best mathematician cannot predict the swerve of a function, how could Footprint’s algorithm ever account for the swerve of a person?
These are the reasons I was rendered immobile when I saw Yao Pin An’s released Footprint data. 0 deviations and 0 recalibrations in the past six months meant that he had followed, exactly, his Footpath. He is innocent. He did not do anything wrong. He is a very kind person. In what kind of world is the optimal trajectory of Yao Pin An’s life one which ends with his skull crushed against the pavement? How was it decided that the structural deformation of Yao Pin An’s skull against the concrete curb was necessary for the architecture of this city? If Yao Pin An’s brutalization took place along his Footpath, how many of the previous string of murdered and assaulted Asian people had also been optimized?
I could not move for twenty-three minutes, fixed to my bed. According to my biomarkers, this was the longest time I have ever been still, even in my sleep. Me, fixed in my bed in all my abstract grief for something that had been lost since the birth of human civilization; Baozhu Chen, fixed on the screen in the heartbreak of having lost her husband.
1 Michel de Certeau, “The Practice of Everyday Living,” Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984, p. 101.
2 All names have been changed in the piecing together of this legend, but all details, including Baozhu Chen’s words, have not been altered.
3 Tina Moore, Georgett Roberts and Dean Balsamini, “Wife of Asian man stomped on NYC street pleads for just tice,” New York Post, April 24, 2021, Wife of Asian man stomped on NYC street pleads for justice (nypost.com)
4 United States of America translates to 美国 in Chinese, literally meaning “beautiful country.”
5 Susana Berger, “The Visible Order of Student Lecture Notebooks” in “The Art of Philosophy: Visual Thinking in Europe from the Late Renaissance to the Early Enlightenment,” Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017, p. 119.
6 From a conversation between the author and Professor Logan McCarty.
7 Andrew Hui, “A theory of the aphorism: from Confucius to Twitter,” Princeton University Press, 2019, p. 10.
8 Andrew Hui, “A theory of the aphorism: from Confucius to Twitter,” Princeton University Press, 2019, p. 10.
The habitable city is thereby annulled. —Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Living 9
Master You said: When practicing the ritual, what matters most is harmony. This is what made the beauty of the way of the ancient kings; it inspired their every move, great or small. Yet they know where to stop: harmony cannot be sought for its own sake, it must always be subordinated to the ritual, otherwise it would not do. —The Analects 1.12
When my mother wanted me to clean my room, she would recite this one Chinese proverb: If the old doesn’t leave, the new cannot come. It was a lesson on many things, especially on letting go—on making room for the uncertainty of the unknown. But contained within those words is also the understanding that there must always be something lost when there is something gained. For so long, I didn’t stop to think about what might have been lost in the grand spatial-temporal mapping of human futures.
That night, I was so ashamed that I thought I would simply die, right then. There was grief and a deep shame at my own inurement towards the obvious necessary violence of optimization. I was so shocked by my own shock at what was so exceedingly obvious that I began vomiting violently.
It was so easy to miss the brutality of Footprint. The way Footprint makes “you” and “I” who we are, reconstitutes us in our planned collective motions, seems so benign, disegno where control is not centralized in a person, but dispersed—collectively configured. Each one of us is optimized for everyone else and for ourselves. We had given up the arduous task of self-transformation through the disciplining of our bodily comportment to they who knew how to do it better. It doesn’t matter, really, whether this way of thinking about Footprint was right or wrong. Whether the systems of Footprint disaggregated power—whether it truly was a decentralized, collectively choreographed motion towards optimum—or collected it into the spectral hands of the invisible they; whether they were really us or not; none of this mattered because there is nothing to be done. The required subject is absent. The center, even if it exists, cannot be located or held responsible. All of us are held by the inertia of this deep structure.
The night the news of Yao Pin An aired, I walked all the way from my closet-sized apartment in Brooklyn to 3rd Ave & East 125 St, pitching through the dark in unclean motions. Imagine the desperation, the vicious anger, the grief of someone who is trapped in something unescapable, who has no choice but to subject themselves to something to which they had always and would always be subjected. I was overcome, violently, with an urge to do everything wrong—to deviate in all of my motions as a giant fuck you to them. But I could not. Everything I do is beyond myself. There will be consequences for someone else.
I remember once reading an anthropological text on the wisdom of the Apache. The anthropologist wrote:
The past is a well-worn ‘path’ or ‘trail’ (‘intin)…the past has disappeared—and…must be constructed—which is to say, imagined—with the aid of historical materials, sometimes called ‘footprints’ or ‘trails’ (biké’goz’áá) that survived into the present. 10
The Apache imagined that we would grow in wisdom by looking for footprints—directives for path-building found in the stories told by memories, places, and moments past. Footprint eliminates the need to look for footprints. No one is involved in the construction of their own paths. No one is involved in their own making.
How will you walk along this trail of wisdom? Well, you will go to many places. You must look at them closely. You must remember all of them…You must learn their names. You must remember what happened at them long ago. You must think about it and keep on thinking about it. Then your mind will become smoother and smoother. 11
I was thinking about how people go places but do not look, or remember, or learn any names; Footprint eliminates this need. I was thinking about the rhetoric of walking, how the sounds of all our motions have cohered into one single harmony. I was thinking about Yao Pin An and his broken skull.
I was thinking about this when I arrived at 3rd Ave & East 125 St.
I was thinking about how the price for optimization was the annexation of all of our selves and all of our possible selves.
I was thinking that somehow, at this moment that is by all “objective measures” the height of human development, we are coming upon the end of the world.
9 Michel de Certeau, “The Practice of Everyday Living,” Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984, p. 106.
10 Keith Basso, “Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Language Among the Western Apache,” Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1996, p. 31.
11 Ibid, 129.
In the transforming process of the universe, the past has just gone and the future continues to come. They continue without a moment of rest —Chu His, Lun Yu Chi-Chu Ch. 5, comment on Analects 9:16
From the wind, I learned a syntax for forwardness, how to move through obstacles by wrapping myself around them. You can make it home this way. —Ocean Vuong, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous 12
That night, I started to write things down—and Footprint started to recalibrate at an abnormal pace.
Standing there at the corner of 3rd Ave & East 125 St, a day after Yao Pin An’s head was bashed into that spot, I thought about Baozhu Chen and Yao Pin An. I thought about my father. I remember feeling ashamed of the abstraction of my own sorrow. Yao Pin An is in a coma. Baozhu Chen must live. And I am just… here. What was the reason for my arrival in this place?
I don’t know what I expected to see—maybe I thought that a catastrophic event would have changed the terrain of the place, just a little. But there was nothing. No yellow tape, no markings, no trace of where Yao Pin An was crash-landed into the earth. Just a non-descript street corner, the faded yellow paint peeling like tree bark from the curb, the impact of a human skull lost among decades of scrapes and weathering. A bit of grass and a lone, scrawny dandelion broke through the earth where curb met street.
Standing there, watching the dandelion waver in the thick air, I reached in my pocket and wrapped my fingers around the cheap ballpoint pen inside. I popped off the cap and drew a line on my left hand. It felt right, so I kept going. I drew the line all the way from the tip of my left index finger to my elbow. Above the line, I wrote “R.I.P” and below the line I wrote all the names I could remember of everyone who has died in the past year. Yao Pin An is not on the list. If he is dead, I don’t know this. I didn’t put him on the list.
None of these motions were deviations. But the second I lifted the pen from my arm in the gesture of writing, Footprint recalibrated.
One month later, the ink from that night long gone from my arm, finally beginning to relearn the motions of casual happiness again, I stood by a magnolia tree. I watched it blooming in the warm light of the coastal spring, and suddenly, I knew that its name was grace. I marked it down on my hand so as not to forget, using the same pen, stashed still in my jacket pocket. When I lifted my pen, Footprint recalibrated again.
Two days later, I tripped on the sidewalk and fell in a remarkably protracted and ungraceful motion. Not a deviation. I wasn’t injured. I remember seeing the gentle cracks in the pavement of the sidewalk, the thin dusting of a soft tan film over the surface. Overcome with a random, rather airheaded poetic force, I took my pen and marked the spot on the sidewalk with a tiny X. Here I fell. Here I once was. In this moment of small wonder, I let myself make a mark on the street, fancying myself a poet. Footprint recalibrated.
Walter Benjamin wrote that “The value of information does not survive the moment in which it was new. It lives only at that moment; it has to surrender to it completely and explain itself to it without losing any time. A story is different. It does not expend itself.” 13
Let me tell you my stupid little theory about the reason behind the unreasonable number of recalibrations my Footprint has undergone over the last few months. I know already, even as I am writing this down, that it is massively unscientific and makes little to no sense. Probably during my next functionality review with a technician, it’ll turn out that there’s been a small malfunction in the hardware after all. But for now I finally feel as if I might be able to breathe again.
So let me tell you my theory. For us who slip and slide with complete ease and certainty through our lives, knowing that at all moments our Footpath has been optimized, the art of memory has been forgotten. Tolstoy once wrote in his diary “since these movements are habitual and unconscious, I felt that it was already impossible to remember it…if I had acted unconsciously, then this is tantamount to not having done it at all.” 14 Memory is unnecessary when you do not need to learn; Footprint supplants learned wisdom. There is something impeding the development of memory because we are told where to go. It directs us always towards the most appropriate motion. Executing our Footpath is a fluid, unconscious motion. And sometimes the most appropriate motion somehow calculates “you” as expendable. But there is nothing to be done; there is no possible form of revolt. There are ghosts in place of anyone or anything that could have been held responsible. There is nothing to be done. Not following the Footpath devastates not just yourself but everyone else. What can be done?
Because there is nothing to be done about anything, acting is no longer acting. This is the same as not having done it at all. Nachmanovitch, in Free Play, explains how, “by reinterpreting reality and begetting novelty, we keep from becoming rigid. Play enables us to rearrange our capacities and our very identity so that they can be used in unforeseen ways.” 15 There could not be a moment in human history more devoid of play than now. There is nothing unforeseen, because Footprint is the ultimate panoptic operation.
New York is freezing over. It’s cold because of the steel and concrete and ecological disaster which has left almost all areas of the globe inhospitable without great artificial climate controls. It’s cold because it isn’t a home. Here, nothing makes any place special. Everything is unmoored amid a sea of scaffolding. There is nothing special: Nothing is marked with a story or a memory, all legends having been drained from the land by the precise logic of optimization. So what of us, then, who remember nothing? You and I—we drift from place to place in the dictated motions that necessarily configure everything that we are. Turtle shells litter this city—places that are only special because we dwell within them. We make nowhere a home. There are only places in which one can no longer believe in anything. Proper names for places “are the object of a witch-hunt, by the very logic of the techno-structure.” 16 There are no names for places. There are no places, really—just scaffolding.
But what if I left a word behind, as I move, so I could return—anchored myself, somehow, to a spot on my Footpath with poetic force?
What if by naming and remembering—writing down—I can find my way home? What if both you and I could find our way home by making places habitable, and, in doing so, tell our own stories? What if we wrote down our own urban legends, made “a crack in the system that saturates places with signification”? 17
What if the mysterious substance of a swerve is simply the telling of a story?
Stories are makeshift things. They are composed with the world’s debris. 18
All vocabulary is temporary. We only ever find words for an instant. Then everything grows hazy again. Whenever I read poetry, or literature, or anything, I feel, for an instant at a time, that I am coming into my own speech too. It lasts for an hour. A day if I’m lucky. In those times, I can write. Then it’s gone again, and all there is left to do is live.
Nothing I used to write ever triggered a recalibration. The act of writing itself is unmeaningful. Everything is an act of signification; language itself, the practice of writing, is unexceptional. But words can project—they can throw me back into places of meaning. So if I hide a word in a place I visit, the smoothness of the function breaks. Making poetry out of the world, making rhetoric out of my motion—that is something that disrupts something. It’s something meaningful, somehow.
Travel (like walking) is a substitute for the legends that used to open up space to something different. 19
I think I am triggering recalibrations through the simple act of giving names to places. There is a rhetoric of walking which is lost when movement doesn’t require improvisation, play, or thought. Something about Footprint charting my course through the future has taken the language out of my walk. But I am learning, from the stones, the flowers, the cracks in the sidewalk, to make temporary stories from debris. To become anchored, somehow, in a way that Footprint disallows. To stutter in my motion; to swerve.
Places are fragmentary and inward-turning histories, pasts that others are not allowed to read, accumulated times that can be unfolded but like stories held in reserve, remaining in an enigmatic state, symbolizations encysted in the pain or pleasure of the body. 20
I do not know what happened to Yao Pin An. Am I allowed to swerve, when nothing has changed for anyone else? When my Footpath recalibrates, what happens to the rest of the world? Does my stuttering cause others to stagger in their footprints as well? Am I allowed to learn to swerve from my secondhand mourning for a man crushed against the New York streets? Am I allowed to let my depression lift, when Footprint still crushes us all with its gravity?
I don’t know. I don’t know what I am allowed to have, but I’m going to let myself have this: these words.
12 Ocean Vuong, “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous,” New York: Penguin Press, 2019, p. 185.
13 Walter Benjamin, “The storyteller; reflections on the works of Nikolai Leskov,” in Illuminations, New York: Schocken Books, 1969, p. 88.
14 From Tolstoy’s diary.
15 Stephen Nachmanovitch, “Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art,” Putnam’s, 1991, 43.
18 Ibid., 107.
19 Michel de Certeau, “The Practice of Everyday Living,” Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984. 20 Ibid, 109