Desire Paths: Reading, Memory and Inscription

by Daniel Rourke

The urban landscape is overrun with paths. Road-paths pulling transport, pavement-paths and architectural-paths guiding feet towards throbbing hubs of commerce, leisure and abode.Beyond the limits of urban paths, planned and set in tarmac or concrete, are perhaps the most timeless paths of all. Gaston Bachelard called them Desire Paths, physical etchings in our surroundings drawn by the thoughtless movement of human feet. In planning the layout of a city designers aim to limit the emergence of worn strips of earth that cut through the green grass. People skipping corners or connecting distinct spaces vote with their feet the paths they desire. Many of the pictures on the right (from this Flickr group) show typical design solutions to the desire path. A delimiting fence, wall or thoroughfare, a row of trees, carefully planted to ease the human flow back in line with the rigid, urban aesthetic. These control mechanisms have little effect – people merely walk around them – and the desire path continues to intend itself exactly where designers had feared it would.

The technical term for the surface of a planetary body, whether urbanised, earth covered or extra-terrestrial, is regolith. As well as the wear of feet, the regolith may be eroded by wind, rain, the path of running water or the tiny movement of a glacier down the coarse plane of a mountain. If one extends the meaning of the term regolith it becomes a valuable metaphor for the outer layer upon or through which any manner of paths may be inscribed.

The self-titled first Emperor of China, Qín Shǐhuáng, attempted, in his own extravagant way, to re-landscape the regolith of time. By building the Great Wall around his Kingdom and ordering the burning of all the books written before his birth Qín Shǐhuáng intended to isolate his Kingdom in its own mythic garden of innocence. Far from protecting his people from the marauding barbarians to the West or the corrupting knowledge of the past Qín Shǐhuáng's decision to enclose his Kingdom probably expanded his subject's capacity for desire beyond it. There is no better way to cause someone to read something than to tell them they cannot; no better way to cause someone to dream beyond some kingdom, or attempt to destroy it, than to erect a wall around it. As we demarcate paths we cause desire to erupt beyond them. The regolith, whether physical or ethereal, will never cease to degrade against our wishes.

Paths that signify freedom and power to some may, to those under their jurisdiction, signify just the opposite. The corridors of schools and prisons are good examples of this. Paths built as a leverage of control can, in the hands of a rebellious student or prisoner, become desirable avenues of opportunity. The line of desire in these cases is laid directly over the enclosed path. Desire becomes subversion and the means of flight – a way to reverse the roles of power.

In a central scene from the 1991 film, Terminator II, Sarah Connor attempts escape from the high-security asylum in which she has been incarcerated. For a patient, deemed to be dangerously unstable, an asylum is a rigid tangle of limits, barriers, locked-doors and screeching alarms. Sarah Connor's escape is notable because of its affirmation of the paths of the asylum. Far from moving beyond it, Connor uses the rigidity of the system to aid her movement through the building. From the very beginning of the scene Connor's dancing feet, her balletic violence, inscribe into the sterile, linear regolith of the asylum a pattern of the purest desire. A paper-clip, a broom and a container of bleach – all systematic of order and closure – become in turn a lock-pick, a weapon and a kidnapping ploy. A key, usually a symbol of access and movement between limits, is snapped in its lock and instantly becomes a barrier. Only upon the arrival of The Terminator and her son, John, does Sarah's freedom over the asylum finally ebb back towards the traditional limits of fear and isolation.

These dualistic notions of the path, where control and desire can overlap and even change places with one another, are beginning to become integral to the online text. As a blog reader you are no doubt aware of the article as a network of possibilities, as a loose guide to your writerly desire, rather than a strict parent. In time the definition of the path as a memory through web spaces and digital texts will lead us to see all movement as inscription and play. Where reading an article leaves on the surface of its regolith another faint trail of breadcrumbs. A single inscription, criss-crossing with a million more, each exactly similar but also entirely unique.

The Tower of BabelPaths engineered by a writer do not destine the realities of readership. Rather, a text can be seen as a surface reality, a regolith formed from substrates of reading, memory and cultural inscription. Reading carves furrows into a text through which the writer's world can be glimpsed, all be it momentarily, in the lattice of possibilities beneath. The writer themself is a mythos, a patchwork of the possible, spiralling away from the reading eye. Whether a reader follows an intended path, or begins to draw desire paths of their own, all depends on the limits they believe the writer set for them.

Upon a close reading of Genesis 11:1-9, Athanasius Kircher calculated that the Tower of Babel could not have existed as described, for it would have torn the very Earth from its axis. Kircher's examination of the myth seems comical, but by taking his reading as purely literal we burden our interpretation with the same limiting logic we attribute to him. Like Adam's grasping of the forbidden fruit the attempt by humanity to build a path to heaven was thwarted by their growing proximity to God. The apple embodies the limits of our God-given knowledge; the Tower of Babel our aspiration to walk beyond paths of the natural order. There is something infinitely creative involved in the act of demarcation, something forever open about the figure of closure. Athanasius Kircher's demonstration should perhaps be seen as a parable of the highest mythic truth: that however hard we try to walk beyond a given path, we will always tend to inscribe another in our wake.

by Daniel Rourke