Urban surrealisms in the metro

There are times when I feel like ethnography should be less about seeing the local point of view and more about prying free all those sights, events, phenomena that are locally invisible. For everyday life, in my fieldsite at least, is full of little absurdities and small surrealisms that seem to pass without notice.

For example, consider the metro station that I was talking about in my previous post.

As the train approaches on the far track, a decent thicket of people accumulate on the facing platform. They face every which way. They form a long line with denser and emptier patches. They jockey for position on the platform or traverse it aimlessly.

The train inevitably pulls into the station.

After which it inevitably leaves.

And after it departs, the crowd is erased as if a rolling eraser had been wiped along the platform leaving nothing but a few stray bodies where formerly there was a horde.

Needless to say, my point here isn’t to be naive and pretend that something magical happens when a bunch of people get on a train. My point, however, is that at a sheerly visual level it’s quite a strange phenomenon. Visually, the people just vanish. Are effaced with the roar of the clattering wheels.

Not to mention that the social situation in the station is transformed in a matter of moments. Suddenly there’s solitude. The initial sense of getting scratched up by the thorns of a thicket of a crowd’s anonymous gazes gets replaced by an almost peaceful loneliness. One feels the absence of that curious mass expectation that always mounts up as a train approaches; all there is, instead, is a handful of plaintive souls hastening to climb back up the stairs to the street level. The large group that formerly waited together for the train in a mass demonstration of collective purpose gets replaced by a cluttered mass of individuals who immediately go off in separate directions.

This phenomenon occurs, repeats, repeats, repeats again. The light shifts on the arched roof of the station and shifts again, as the crowd casts shadows and the train catches the light. But you don’t see that, because your own train has probably arrived before you can observe many trains pass on the opposite track.

On the metro, there are further surrealisms that everyone ignores for the greater glory of the cause of minding their own business. Lights and lost spaces streak by in the tunnel. Hisses and roars and sometimes the smell of anomalous chemicals, like the intense smell of sulphur just north of Carrefour Pleyel in St-Ouen, come and go without comment.

It’s enough to make me feel that there needs to be some sort of theory of mass inattention to the mysterious. A theory of the regimentation and sterilization of urban perception. A theory of the way things become mundane.