When I was in my early 20s and at the height of my intellectual hubris, I made a zine. It was called Now It’s All Behind You—appropriate, right, for something you pick up again years later and feel really embarrassed about? The whole thing is vaguely themed around physical space (and by extension, time), from comics about maggot real estate to artsy analyses of industrial displacement in Eraserhead and Daydream Nation. But the feature that’s really stuck around—both for the shame it causes and because it articulates a way of thinking I still haven’t outgrown—is something called the Pedestrian Manifesto.
Have you ever tried to write a manifesto? Well, this was my only stab at it, and I have to say it was kind of fun. I can feel it when I read it today: as cringe-worthy as it is, there’s actually a sort of energy that makes me want to keep going.
I may have been young and dumb, but I was smart enough to take a certain precaution: Irony (after all, this was the late ‘90s; what other stance could I really take?). I knew the other meaning of the word pedestrian, and how at odds it was with the urgency I was trying to create, as well as how perfectly that other meaning described the style of most political screeds. So excuse me while I pat my younger self on the back.
Because there’s A LOT in the Pedestrian Manifesto that’s not so pat-worthy. I make questionable use of quotes from Wim Wenders’s Wings of Desire to advance my argument. I write lines like this: “How can the modern-day walker … waltz drunkenly amid the urban confines of right angles?” My levels of condescension are at an all-time high. I don’t allow for the privilege inherent in walking, and for the existence of physical disabilities. I also don’t get much further than a lengthy introduction before bringing out that lazy old standby: To be continued . . .
But, yes, irony: here you are, just like I knew you would be. Here to represent, to offhandedly deflect my shame. Because I didn’t really mean it!
And because all the while I must have secretly believed I would outgrow this idea.
And thus, irony has rewarded me. Can you blame me then, for the detachment I maintain today, as I pick up where I left off twelve years ago and write these Letters from Pedestrianica? Because it remains something I feel passionate about: The stale, unceasing onslaught of car, after car, after car, after car, after car. I mean this. I do. It’s a feeling I have yet to outgrow.
It’s hard to approach a utopian project without a certain level of ironic distance. Humor is protective. The levels of dysfunction and cruelty are staggering, the odds unbelievably low. I’ve been watching, a little at a time, Chris Marker’s protest documentary, A Grin Without a Cat, and have come away from it pretty discouraged. Patterns are on display here—popular calls for change and resulting state suppression—patterns we’re once again in the midst of repeating. But there is hope still, there in the moment, just before the cops show up with their scowls and their batons. And while A Grin Without a Cat is far from being laughably earnest, its disconnect is not to the extent that it doesn’t mean what it says.
But: By simply envisioning a different world, will it come to fruition? No. Especially if your utopia is as logic-less as mine.
Maybe utopias aren’t meant to physically exist, at least not in the ways they’re first imagined. And perhaps they’re better conjured, anyway, through a series of letters rather than a systematically propagandic presentation of logic. Especially, I guess, for a brain that’s twelve years further frayed.
So this utopia—the one I’ve named Pedestrianica—is a personal place, but it’s not exclusive, and while I’d like to see profound changes in the way we move, I’m not trying to start a movement (or am I?). When it comes down to it, I guess what I’m hoping for is some sort of confirmation I’m not nuts. Perpetually hyperbolic, yes. But not nuts.
Is it nuts to address a letter to a carless nation?