I’m interested in cryptography and the city, as a way of thinking about the supposed smart city. The graphic part of cryptographic might make us think of drawing, but it has most to do with writing.
Etymonoline.com describes the common abstract noun ending -graphy as a “word-forming element meaning ‘process of writing or recording’ or ‘a writing, recording, or description’.” So we have geography, bibliography, choreography, cryptography, etc, which are primarily writing and describing the earth, books, dance, messages, etc.
How to write a city
An artist might draw a city, but can you write a city? I had to remind myself of some basic English grammar. To draw and to write are similar in that they can both function as either transitive or intransitive verbs, i.e. they function with or without an object: She draws. She draws a tree. He writes. He writes a book.
To draw takes almost any concrete noun phrase as its object and will make immediate sense: He draws a house, a city, a ghost, a blinding supernova, an invisible ghost. (Though it’s less usual to draw an abstract noun object such as physics, the humanities, architecture or geography.)
To write is more restricted. You can write a book, a song, a story, a poem, a play, a manuscript, a plot, a twist, or a story character. But to write a tree, a house, a mountain, an ocean, a city or most other concrete nouns, extends the act of writing beyond its general usage.
Prepositions that tame
That said, though you would not write a mountain, you might write a mountain into your story about the landscape. That’s a case of taming the use of the verb by following its object with a qualifying prepositional phrase.
Prepositions help tame (disambiguate) verbs in any case. Like an engraver, graffiti artist or sign writer you can write on the city. A travel writer can also write about (on) the city. You can sit on a park bench and write in the city. You can write to the city by distributing pamphlets or emails to city residents.
But the use of a prepositional phrase after the verb (starting with on, about, in, to) normalises the use of the verb to write, even if the speaker follows the convention in US English of sometimes dropping the preposition: “I wrote mom (about you)” instead of “I wrote to mom (about you).”
The songwriter Arthur Hamilton seemed to specialise in simple verb “misuse” with the titles I Can Sing a Rainbow and Cry me a river. I say “misuse” as that’s one of the ways philosophers and poets have characterised metaphor, as a deliberate misclassification: putting rainbows in the same category as songs by suggesting they can be sung, and rivers in the same category as tears and emotions as if associated with crying.
To write something that isn’t normally written, like a city, gives us pause. It operates figuratively — as a metaphor. To write a city suggests that the city is a book, song, or poem, or perhaps the second half of the metaphor (the vehicle) is left open to whatever the idea of writing suggests to you.
Writing the city
So to write the city might mean to bring it into existence with something like the creative energy that goes into writing a song or a book. The concept of writing is of course culturally embedded in philosophical and cultural discourse. It’s commonly put in relationship with reading.
So, if you can read the city, its signs, codes and secrets, then there’s an attractive symmetry in the idea that you might also write it. Writing is also set in relationship to speaking, which recalls Jacques Derrida’s account of the cultural and ontological priority of writing, which he explains in his book Of Grammatology. See my post Derrida for stand-ups, and my book, Derrida for Architects.
Not a metaphor
Cities get written about and written on, and cities are to be read, coded, decoded and interpreted. I’m content to think that planners, designers and citizens are authors who not only draw, but who write our cities. You could say that’s just a metaphor, but metaphors are never just metaphors!
We city dwellers are also improv artists who make it up as we go along. We write the city as we go about our daily business, all the more now as we (literally) read and write text messages on the go, and leave digital traces, like pen strokes, as we negotiate the city.
- Calvino, Italo. 1978. Invisible Cities. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich
- Coyne, Richard. 2011. Derrida for Architects. Abingdon: Routledge
- Derrida, Jacques. 1976. Of Grammatology. Trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Baltimore, Maryland: Johns Hopkins University Press
- Headrick Taylor, Katie. 2017. Learning Along Lines: Locative Literacies for Reading and Writing the City. Journal of the Learning Sciences, (26) 4, 533-574.
- Karami, Sepideh. 2019. Stories we can’t tell: On writing dissident architecture. Text: Journal of the Australian Association of Writing Programs, (55)1-15.
- Image above is of The Manuscript of Monte Cassino (1991) by Eduado Paolozzi recently re-instated in Edinburgh’s Picardy Place during refurbishment.