Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Maintenance Work and the Performativity of Urban Inscriptions: The Case of Paris Subway Signs

Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Maintenance Work and the Performativity of Urban Inscriptions: The Case of Paris Subway Signs

Article excerpt

Abstract. Urban inscriptions are performative devices that play a crucial part in urban assemblages. They mark sites, give places a name, designate directions. This paper questions such performativity by investigating the design and maintenance of subway signs in Paris. Studying backstage activities rather than user tactics, it shows that the semiotic production of space is mainly played out in standardization processes that are both oriented towards signs immutability and fueled by a daily consideration for their vulnerability. Such a posture allows us to take full account of the ontological variations of signs (which can be, for example, stable or unstable, consistent or fragile, immutable or mutable). Maintenance work, through which the agency of urban inscriptions is partially shaped, ensures the articulation of such a multiplicity.

Keywords: maintenance, performativity, urban assemblages, wayfinding systems


Over the last two decades, the object of urban studies has been "decentered" (Farias, 2010), and largely overlooked domains have been investigated. Although differing in many ways, these investigations share a common preoccupation for the sociomaterial complexity of cities (Amin and Thrift, 2002; Brenner, 2004; Cresswell, 2004; Latham and McCormack, 2004; Sonda et al, 2010). The scope of research has thus been widened to such things as technical infrastructures (Graham and Marvin, 2001; Varnelis, 2009), territorialization and security devices (Adey, 2009; Karrholm, 2007), small and mundane objects (Molotch, 2011; Molotch and Noren, 2010), and even aesthetics (Frers and Meier, 2007) and ambiances (Adey et al, 2013; Ash, 2013; Bissell, 2010; Thibaud, 2011). This movement has crystallized in the notion of urban assemblages, which has recently been at the center of debates (Brenner et al, 2011; Farias and Bender, 2010; McFarlane, 2011). Partially influenced by actor-network theory, such an interest for urban sociomateriality probably finds its most striking illustration in the book Paris, ville invisible (Latour and Hermant, 1998), which provides an in-depth investigation of the daily life of a city and explores the multitude of sites and objects that give consistency to Paris. The authors explore the intertwining of mundane artifacts, various materials, and numerous inscriptions that proliferate both backstage (in municipal workshops and offices) and in urban settings themselves, thereby uncovering the heterogeneous networks that participate in the ordering of cities.

Urban signs are among the most important of the objects and devices that make up cities. Besides having cultural and symbolic dimensions, most of them are 'performative' inscriptions in Austin's (1962) sense of the word. They 'do things' and are not genuine signifies that represent an external reality. They contribute to the production of urban reality. Cities are partially performed by semiotic landscapes, made up of monumental lettering as well as more mundane graphical artifacts such as traffic lights, road markings, and mandatory signs. Inscriptions are constitutive of urban assemblages.

In this paper we will focus on directory signs and their performativity. In marking sites, giving places a name, designating directions, these signs are what Garfinkel (1996) terms "territorial organizational things" and what Deleuze and Guattari (1987) call mots d'ordre" ('order words'). They display descriptions that are at the same time instructions, authorizations, and prohibitions. As disciplinary devices (Ureta, 2013), directory signs contribute to "modes of ordering" that perform and maintain "spaces of flows" (Knox et al, 2008) and are crucial components of the "machinery of placement" that equip mobility practices (Amin and Thrift, 2002).

There are multiple ways of studying directory signs' performativity. The most frequent consists in focusing on inhabitants' wayfinding practices and relations to signs. …

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