Despite being an integral part of the lives of countless millions of commuters, tourists and convenience trippers, city metro systems are ambiguous spaces, both familiar and threatening, reliable and unpredictable, crowded yet isolating, resolutely subterranean yet anchored to the geography of the city’s surface. Even the convenience factor they undoubtedly offer is at times questionable—I’m convinced it’s quicker to walk the half-mile above ground from London’s Kings Cross to Euston than to navigate the seemingly endless labyrinth of corridors, escalators and stairs necessary to access the tube line.
Marc Augé‘s book analyses the Paris Metro from the point of view of an anthropologist fascinated by the daily rituals and other repetitive acts that metro users perform, and by the ways in which the metro functions as a distinctive social space, with all the codes, rules and habits that characterise such spaces. There’s no history of the metro as such here—instead, personal memory, meditation and intellectual speculation are combined in a text that mimics in its formal meandering and conjunctive style the lines and crossings of the metro system.
Central to Augé‘s thesis is the recognition that metro users organise their experiences in particular ways that are context-specific. “Subway riders basically handle nothing more than time and space, and are skilled in using the one to measure the other,” he observes. “Most of the singular itineraries in the subway are daily and obligatory.” Time and space are certainly the staple structures of subway riding, but there are also “daily and obligatory” pressures that are experienced individually and also shared with the mass of other riders.
It’s this pervasive tension between the individuated self and the mass of selves that invests the metro with such a potent mythical force in modern culture. Leaving aside the obvious connotations of classical underworlds and descents into hell, we can trace the mythos of the metro through popular culture in song (the tube as a central symbol for London’s punks) and film (The Taking of Pelham 123, Zazie Dans le Metro, the metro chase in Diva, the New York and London subways in numerous horror films). For the subway rider overly aware of these connotations, as well as of the Kings Cross fire and Sarin gas attacks in Tokyo, each ride may be an opportunity for both fortuitous encounter and paranoid descent.
Augé doesn’t concern himself too much with this kind of popular cultural dimension of the metro experience. His focus is rather on the mundane but socially significant uses of the time and space afforded by metro riding, and how these uses accommodate themselves to the specific symbolic matrices that accrue along particular lines, and around particular stations. Pondering the municipal habit of naming metro stations after military victories (Austerlitz and Solférino in Paris, Waterloo in London), he asks if this signifies “the copresence of history in our everyday lives or the irreality of history?” Just as the monuments and squares of the city surface cease to resonate to those who experience them every day, the historical connotations of metro station names fades through familiarity. Augé nevertheless declares, somewhat optimistically, that “the slightest incident can bring back an awareness of our cultural or historical belonging.” However, the metro also gives shelter to the homeless, useful obscurity to drug dealers and a semi-captive market to beggars and buskers, keeping the metro rider in close proximity with cultural and historical exclusion.
Riding the metro is thus a journey taken in accompanied solitude, a voyage through space and through a kind of geographically mapped collective unconscious. The grid of the metro underpins the city, offering (and this is the gist of Augé‘s argument) an experience of Paris (and, by implication, other cities with metro systems) that is somehow more genuine than any other, a panoramic worm’s-eye view reliant on the topographical reduction of the city to a grid of lines and correspondences.
One problem with such ethnological meditation is that the sheer viscerality of metro riding gets largely glossed over in the overarching cerebralisation of the experience. Metro systems are remarkable for their assault on the senses—they are harshly loud, visually confusing spaces of artificial light and gloom, halfway between latrines and genuine railway stations, in which the barrage of smells can be relentless; fumes from train engines, dirty oil, grinding metal and grease, stale urine, fast food, sweat and perfume and alcohol.
Metro riders are bombarded with visual and aural signs and commands (Augé does give some attention to the latter in his concluding remarks), and have to navigate colour codes, alphabetical and numerical codes and the omnipresent injunctions of advertising (subverted by graffiti tags and slogans) in order to navigate their routes through congested, obstacle-ridden walkways. Try it in a metro where you don’t speak the language—I did, in Budapest, and it’s a weird, unsettling experience.
At the same time, of course, this is the paradigmatic experience of the city as recorded by countless observers of modern western urban life for the past century and a half. Augé‘s writing, lucidly translated (and imitated, in the book’s Afterword) by Tom Conley, is a worthy addition to this tradition. My only gripe with this neat little book is its size—it’s really a mid-length essay, fleshed out to short book length by a 40-page Afterword, itself a useful intellectual co-ordinate setter for reading Augé.
The essay itself, while for the most part insightful and instructive, can be a demanding read, as Augé is prone to longish digressions into anthropological theory (Levi-Strauss and total social facts loom large in this author’s intellectual universe). But then, no ride on the metro is complete without an unexplained, unsettling wait in a dark tunnel between stations, just long enough for everyone to start fidgeting, glancing at watches, catch each other’s eyes, and shrug at the momentarily menacing absurdity of their situation.