22. Tim Ingold, “Culture on the Ground: The World Perceived Through the Feet”

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Yesterday I started reading a collection of essays edited by Tim Ingold and Jo Lee Vergunst on walking, but I got sidetracked by a reference to this essay in that book’s introduction. Why not turn to that essay, I asked myself, before carrying on with the book? And so here I am, quickly writing a summary of another article before going to meet friends and watch the Super Bowl.

Ingold begins with an epigraph from Balzac’s essay on walking—an essay which apparently has yet to be translated into English: 

Is it not truly extraordinary to realise that ever since men have walked, no-one has ever asked why they walk, how they walk, whether they walk, whether they might walk better, what they achieve by walking, whether they might not have the means to regulate, change or analyse their walk: questions that bear on all the systems of philosophy, psychology and politics with which the world is so preoccupied? (315)

These are very much the questions that preoccupy Ingold in this essay, although he acknowledges that he has more questions than answers (330). That’s fine; my sense is that many of the questions Ingold asks are likely to be extraordinarily difficult to answer—if they can be answered at all.

“Culture on the Ground: The World Perceived Through the Feet” is divided into sections. The first section discusses the way we have come to see our heads and hands as more important than our feet. Ingold begins with nineteenth-century evolutionary biologists and anthropologists—Darwin, Huxley, and Tylor—and their theories about how humans came to walk upright, and how that movement accounts for the differences between our feet and those of other primates. For Darwin, walking upright liberated our hands to use tools—an idea that Ingold traces back to the ancient Greeks. Standing on our feet, our arms and hands “become answerable to the call of reason” (318), and this understanding of the human body leads to its physical division into upper and lower parts: “Whereas the feet, impelled by biomechanical necessity, undergird and propel the body within the natural world, the hands are free to deliver the intelligent designs or conceptions of the mind upon it” (318). T.H. Huxley, however, noted that in cultures where people do not wear shoes, people use their feet in extraordinary ways, and he suggested that shoes and boots imprisoned our feet, constricting their freedom of movement, and blunting their sense of touch (319). Edward Tylor agreed; he suggested that shoes and boots shaped our feet by restricting them (319). These observations lead to the main questions Ingold wants to ask: 

Is the conventional division of labour between the hands and feet, then, as ‘natural’ as Darwin and his contemporaries made it out to be? Could it not be, at least in some measure, a result of the mapping, onto the human body, of a peculiarly modern discourse about the triumph of intelligence over instinct, and about the human domination of nature? And could not the technology of footwear be understood, again in some measure, as an effort to convert the imagined superiority of hands over feet, corresponding respectively to intelligence and instinct, or to reason and nature, into an experienced reality? (321)

“In what follows,” Ingold continues,

I shall argue that the mechanization of footwork was part and parcel of a wider suite of changes that accompanied the onset of modernity—in modalities of travel and transport, in the education of posture and gesture, in the evaluation of the senses, and in the architecture of the built environment—all of which conspired to lend practical and experiential weight to an imagined separation between the activities of a mind at rest and a body in transit, between the space of social and cultural life and the ground upon which that life is materially engaged. (321)

So those are the questions Ingold intends to explore, and that is a brief summary of the argument he will make in addressing them.

Next, Ingold thinks about the history of travel in Europe. Beginning in the eighteenth century, travel became distinguished from walking: walkers did not travel, at least not very far, and travellers did not walk, or at least they walked as little as possible, preferring horses or carriages, even though neither was much faster nor more comfortable than walking. “”Travel was an activity of the well-to-do, who could afford such things,” Ingold writes. “They considered walking to be tedious and commonplace, a view that lingers in the residual connotations of the word ‘pedestrian.’ If they had to walk, they would do their best to blot the experience from their memories, and to erase it from their accounts” (321)—that is, the accounts they wrote of their journeys. The difficulty of travel had to be endured for the sole purpose of reaching a destination: “What mattered was the knowledge to be gained on arriving there” (321-22). So Samuel Johnson, in his journal of travelling to the Hebrides in Scotland, describes the views from specific places, rather than explaining how he got to those places:

For men like Johnson, a trip or tour would consist of a series of such destinations. Were the experience of place-to-place movement to intrude over much into conscious awareness, they warned, observations could be biased, memories distorted, and above all, we might be distracted from noticing salient features of the landscape around us. . . . Only when the mind is at rest, no longer jolted and jarred by the physical displacements of its bodily housing, can it operate properly. As long as it is in between one point of observation and another, it is effectively disabled. (322)

These remarks remind me of the distinctions Yi-Fu Tuan draws between space and place; places are what tends to be considered important, while space is simply what one moves through between places. 

In the eighteenth century, Ingold continues, “[t]he embodied experience of pedestrian movement was, as it were, pushed into the wings, in order to make way for a more detached and speculative contemplation. Walking was for the poor, the criminal, the young and above all, the ignorant” (322). It was only in the nineteenth century when, following the examples of the poets William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, people of leisure began to be interested in walking as an end in itself, outside of the landscaped garden or gallery (322). Yet such walking tours depended on the development of public transportation, which carried people to the scenery in which they wanted to walk. The alternative of sitting down was therefore always available, and “the most enthusiastic of peripatetics, even while extolling the physical and intellectual benefits of walking, did so from the comfortable vantage point of a society thoroughly accustomed to the chair” (323). The same phenomenon occurs today: who in their right mind would walk to Grasslands National Park, for example, to hike across the native prairie, when it’s possible to drive there in just a few hours? 

Chairs and boots, together, “establish a technological foundation for the separation of thought from action and of mind from body—that is for the fundamental groundlessness so characteristic of modern metropolitan dwelling,” Ingold writes (323). Most people in the world squat to rest, but in the West, we sit in chairs. “It seems that the chair has blocked the development of the normal capacity of the human being to squat,” Ingold continues, “just as the boot has blocked the development of the prehensile functions of the foot” (324). Moreover, the way of walking that is typical in Western cultures—an upright posture and a gait with long, measured strides and straight legs—originates with the ancient Greeks (324). Ingold compares this modes of walking in Europe and in traditional Japanese culture: Europeans walk from the hips while keeping the legs as straight as possible, while Japanese people walked form the knees while minimizing the movement of the hips, resulting in a kind of shuffle that is effective on rough or hilly terrain, and which produces a lowered centre of gravity that reduces the risk of tripping or falling (325). That shuffling gait is also ergonomically consistent with the traditional Japanese technique of carrying heavy loads suspended from a long pole resting athwart the shoulder. Japanese anthropologist Junzo Kawada traces these differences, Ingold notes, and relates them to traditional styles of dancing, ways of working, and practices of child rearing (325). “All in all, Japanese posture and gesture seem to be strongly and positively oriented towards the ground, in striking contrast to European efforts to rise above it,” Ingold suggests (325).

The introduction of paved streets in eighteenth-century Europe also changed the way Europeans walked. Pedestrians no longer had to pick their way along potholed, cobbled, or rutted streets, littered with filth and excrement. Instead, paved streets “offered pedestrians a street surface that was smooth and uniform, regularly cleaned, free from clutter and properly lit,” as well as “open and straight, creating a fitting environment for what was considered the proper exercise of the higher faculty of vision—to see and be seen” (326). From here, Ingold shifts to a discussion of sociologist Erving Goffman’s work on walking in the late twentieth century. “What Goffman shows us, through his study, is that walking down a city street is an intrinsically social activity,” Ingold writes. “Its sociality does not hover above the practice itself, in some ethereal realm of ideas and discourse, but is rather immanent in the way a person’s movements—his or her step, gait, direction and pace—are continually responsive to the movements of others in the immediate environment” (328). We look ahead, but we also look down to check for obstructions—especially women, perhaps because they wear (or tended to wear in the 1970s, when Goffman was studying walking) high-heeled shoes, and children (328). Children, in fact, are the real walkers in contemporary society; most of those who walk are under 15 years of age (329). At this moment in the text, Ingold summarizes his argument, which has gotten somewhat diffuse:

the reduction of pedestrian experience that has perhaps reached its peak in the present era of the car, is the culmination of a trend that was already established with the boot’s mechanization of the foot, the proliferation of the chair, and the advent of destination-oriented travel. (329)

Moreover, boots leave no tracks on a paved surface, which speaks volumes about the way people in contemporary Western societies occupy space:

People, as they walk the streets, leave no trace of their movements, no record of their having passed by. It is as if they had never been. There is, then, the same detachment, of persons from the ground, that runs as I have shown like a leitmotif through the recent history of western societies. It appears that people, in their daily lives, merely skim the surface of a world that has been previously mapped out and constructed for them to occupy, rather than contributing through their movements to its ongoing formation. To inhabit the modern city is to dwell in an environment that is already built. But whereas the builder is a manual labourer, the dweller is a foot-slogger. And the environment, built by human hands, should ideally remain unscathed by the footwork of dwelling. To the extent that the feet do leave a mark—as when pedestrians take short cuts across the grass verges of roads, in cities designed for motorists—they are said to deface the environment, not to enhance it, much as a modern topographic map is said to be defaced by the itineraries of travel drawn upon it. This kind of thing is typically regarded by urban planners and municipal authorities as a threat to established order and a subversion of authority. Green spaces are for looking at, not for walking on; reserved for visual contemplation rather than for exploration on foot. The surfaces you can walk on are those that remain untouched and unmarked by your presence. (329)

According to Ingold, “the corresponding elevation of head over heels as the locus of creative intelligence” that is suggested by our society’s groundlessness is “deeply embedded in the structures of public life in western societies,” as well as having spilled over into the “mainstream thinking in the disciplines of anthropology, psychology, and biology” (330). Here Ingold reviews the three thematic areas into which this overspill has occurred. The first concerns the perception of the environment, the second the history of technology, and the third the formation of the landscape. Ingold asks what the effect of overturning prevailing assumptions and of adopting a fundamental orientation toward the ground might be. “What new terrain would be opened up?” (330). 

First, regarding the perception of the environment, Ingold notes that the Western tradition “has consistently ranked the senses of vision and hearing over the contact sense of touch” (330). “[A] more literally grounded approach to perception should help to restore touch to its proper place in the balance of the senses,” he continues. “For it is surely through our feet, in contact with the ground (albeit mediated by footwear), that we are most fundamentally and continually ‘in touch’ with our surroundings” (330). Studies of haptic perception, he notes, have focused on how we touch with our hands: 

The challenge is to discover special properties of pedestrian touch that might distinguish it from the manual modality. Is it really the case for example, as intuition suggests, that what we feel with our hands, and through the soles of our feet, are necessarily related as figure and ground? In other words, is the ground we walk on also, and inevitably, a ground against which things “stand out” as foci of attention, or can it be a focus in itself? What difference does it make that pedestrian touch carries the weight of the body rather than the weight of the object? And how does the feel of a surface differ, depending on whether the organ of touch is brought down at successive spots, as in walking, or allowed to wrap around or slide over it, as can be done with the fingers and palm of the hand? (330)

These are interesting questions, and my experience as a walker might suggest at least one preliminary answer. Different surfaces register very differently during a long walk: the hardness of pavement, while its smoothness is initially beguiling, soon becomes painful to walk on, compared to the softness of a dirt track or trail. In other words, we definitely do touch the ground with our feet, even feet that are encased in hiking boots. Ingold is suggesting, however, that more work needs to be done to explore these questions fully, rather than relying on such anecdotal responses.

“The bias of head over heels influences the psychology of environmental perception in one other way,” Ingold continues:

We have already seen how the practices of destination-oriented travel encouraged the belief that knowledge is built up not along paths of pedestrian movement but through the accumulation of observations taken from successive points of rest. Thus we tend to imagine that things are perceived from a stationary platform, as if we were sitting on a chair with our legs and feet out of action. To perceive a thing from different angles, it is supposed that we might turn it around in our hands, or perform an equivalent computational operation in our minds. But in real life, for the most part, we do not perceive things from a single vantage point, but rather by walking around them. (331)

Here Ingold refers to the work of ecological psychologist James Gibson, who noted that our visual perception always takes place along a continuous itinerary of movement (331). (Gibson is also one of the fathers of embodied cognition, according to my reading on that subject.) “But if perception is thus a function of movement,” Ingold continues, 

then what we perceive must, at least in part, depend on how we move. Locomotion, not cognition, must be the starting point for the study of perceptual activity. Or more strictly, cognition should not be set off from locomotion, along the lines of a division between head and heels, since walking is itself a form of circumambulatory knowing. (331)

This recognition, Ingold continues, opens up a new area of inquiry, one concerned with “the ways in which our knowledge of the environment is altered by techniques of footwork and by the many and varied devices that we attach to the feet in order to enhance their effectiveness in specific tasks and conditions” (331).

Ingold’s second theme is the history of technology. Here he returns to the notion that our hands are superior to our feet; in the classic, dualistic view of humanity, we are in nature from the waist down, while our hands and arms “impress the mind’s intelligent designs upon the surface of nature form above” (332). From this point of view, the foot is itself a force of nature rather than of human agency:

Men have made history with their hands; they have mastered nature and brought it under control. And the nature thus controlled includes the foot, increasingly regulated and disciplined in the course of history by the hand-made technology of boots and shoes. (332)

For Ingold, overturning this bias of head over heels also means getting rid of the dualism that underpins that bias (332):

Rather than supposing that the hand operates on nature while the feet move in it, I would prefer to say that both hands and feet, augmented by tools, gloves and footwear, mediate a historical engagement of the human organism, in its entirety, with the world around it. For surely we walk, just as we talk, write and use tools, with the whole body. Moreover, in walking, the foot—even the boot-clad foot of western civilization—does not really describe a mechanical oscillation like the tip of a pendulum. Thus its movements, continually and fluently responsive to an ongoing perceptual monitoring of the ground ahead, are never quite the same from one step to the next. Rhythmic rather than metronomic, what they beat out is not a metric of constant intervals but a pattern of lived time and space. It is in the very ‘tuning’ of movement in response to the ever-changing conditions of an unfolding task that the skill of walking, as that of any other bodily technique, ultimately resides. (332)

Walking is a highly intelligent activity, Ingold continues, but its intelligence “is distributed throughout the entire field of relations comprised by the presence of the human being in the inhabited world” (332).

That discussion leads to Ingold’s third them: the formation of the landscape. For Ingold, “the forms of the landscape—like the identities and capacities of its human inhabitants—are not imposed upon a material substrate,” as in conventional accounts of the historical transformation of nature, in which the land is “supposed to present itself as a palimpsest for the inscription of cultural form” (333). Instead, he argues, the forms of the landscape “emerge as condensations or crystallizations of activity within a relational field”:

As people, in the course of their everyday lives, make their way by foot around a familiar terrain, so its paths, textures and contours, variable through the seasons, are incorporated into their own embodied capacities of movement, awareness and response—or into what Gaston Bachelard calls their “muscular consciousness.” But conversely, these pedestrian movements thread a tangled network of personalized trails through the landscape itself. Through walking, in short, landscapes are woven into life, and lives are woven into the landscape, in a process that is continuous and never-ending. (333)

Bachelard’s book The Poetics of Space is on my reading list, and the reference from it here might suggest I should read it sooner rather than later.

What does Ingold mean by suggesting that landscapes are woven into life, and lives into the landscape? His example is footprints:

pedestrian activities can mark the landscape. When the same paths are repeatedly trodden, especially by heavy boots, the consequences can be quite dramatic, amounting in places to severe erosion. Surfaces are indeed transformed. But these are surfaces in the world, not the surface of the world. Indeed strictly speaking, the world has no surface. Human beings live in the world, not on it, and as beings in the world the historical transformations they effect are part and parcel of the world’s transformation of itself. (333)

Ingold lives in Aberdeen, Scotland, and given the importance of footpaths in the U.K., he would likely have direct experience of the ways that the land is transformed by our feet. Footpaths need to be used—the must be walked on—or they will disappear. And footpaths that are overused often become rutted and muddy, or even braided, as walkers look for ways to keep their feet dry. Moreover, the use of the metaphor of weaving suggests his discussion of textiles in his later book Lines, which I read last week.

In his conclusion, Ingold returns to Darwin, Huxley, and Tylor. Is the wearing of footwear the reason for the variance of human feet in different cultures? Scientific evidence suggests that the feet of people who do not wear shoes or boots are formed differently from the feet of those who do (334). Even the simplest footwear rearranges the bones of our feet (334). So European, or Western, feet are peculiar, because we wear shoes. However, our gait is also peculiar—even though that upright, striding gait has been universalized by anthropologists (335). In fact, “with their oddly formed feet and eccentric gait,” Westernized men and women are exceptions, rather than the rule (335):

It is not just that people around the world walk in all sorts of ways, depending on the surface and contours of the ground, the shoes they are wearing (if any), the weather, and a host of other factors including culturally specific expectations concerning the postures considered proper for people of different age, gender and rank. They also use their feet for sundry other purposes such as climbing, running, leaping, holding things down, picking them up, and even going about on all fours. (335)

There is no such thing as a natural way of walking, in other words, and the Western ideal of posture and walking are both practically unattainable outside of a laboratory—even though that’s where most systematic studies of bipedal locomotion have been conducted (335). Those studies attempt to reveal an essence of human walking, but in truth there is no essence: “For the experimental subjects of gait analysis already bring with them, incorporated into their very bodies, the experience of architecture, dress, footwear and baggage drawn from life outside the laboratory” (335). We cannot, Ingold continues,

attribute bipedality to human nature, or to culture, or to some combination of the two. Rather, human capacities to walk, and to use their feet in countless other ways, emerge through processes of development, as properties of the systems of relations set up through the placement of the growing human organism within a richly textured environmental context. (336)

For Ingold, this means that there is no standard form of the human foot, apart from the forms it actually takes as we walk in different ways. “Two points of capital importance follow,” he writes:

First, an explanation of the evolution of bipedality has to be an account of the ways in which the developmental systems through which it emerges are reproduced and transformed over time. And second, by way of their activities, their disciplines and their histories, people throughout history have played—and continue to play—an active role in this evolutionary process, by shaping the conditions under which their successors learn the arts of footwork. Thus the evolution of bipedality continues, even as we go about our business on two feet. We have been drawn, in sum, to an entirely new view of evolution, a view that grounds human beings within the continuum of life, and that situates the history of their embodied skills within the unfolding of that continuum. (336)

The only way to study the techniques of the body when the technology of footwear is already implicated in our ideas of the body and its evolution, Ingold concludes, would be to imagine a world without footwear: “For our earliest ancestors did not stride out upon the land with heavy boots, but made their way within it lightly, dextrously, and mostly barefoot” (337).

Ingold’s essay suggests just how complex and rich the study of walking can be. I’m not particularly interested in gait analysis, or the differences between the feet of humans and those of other primates, but the range of topics Ingold discusses here indicates the many different directions my research could take. I’m particularly interested in the notion that different cultures walk in different ways. In this part of the world, when the sidewalks are covered in winter ice, we are advised not to walk with our usual upright stride, but to instead imitate penguins, putting our centre of gravity over each foot and not bringing our feet heels-first down on the ground. Walking the way we normally do leads to slipping and falling. I wonder how other cultures, aside from the traditional Japanese culture Ingold discusses, walk, and whether European or Western styles of walking have become another example of colonialism—if they have destroyed other modes of walking. I’m also interested in the notion that our feet make the landscape, even though that’s hard to imagine in this place, where walkers are confined to roads, at least outside of the city. When I think about the footsteps I leave behind when I’m walking, I’m almost always speaking of imaginary footsteps, since the surfaces on which I walk are typically paved or covered with gravel. In fact, I’m usually surprised when my feet leave a mark. In the introduction to Ways of Walking, the book I was reading yesterday, Ingold and Vergunst suggest that roads tend to be associated with the form of living on the land they refer to as occupation, while the paths made by one’s feet are part of the way of living they call habitation (12-14). Occupation is characteristic of colonial powers, and habitation is characteristic of the traditional societies that are colonized. That might suggest that walking on roads is, as I’ve been told, a form of colonialism. However, I wonder if the opposite argument could be made: is appropriating a road intended for vehicles and walking on it not perhaps a way of reacting against the forces of occupation and colonization? I hope so. At least, that’s the response I would make to such a critique—at least, that’s the response I would make at this point in my research. The more I read, the better that response is likely to become. And now, it’s time to drive—not walk, because I’ve injured a tendon in my foot and have been told that walking is out of the question until it heals—to meet my friends and watch the Super Bowl.

Works Cited

Ingold, Tim. “Culture on the Ground: The World Perceived Through the Feet.” Journal of Material Culture, vol. 9, no. 3, 2004, pp. 315-40. DOI: 10.1177/1359183504046896.

Ingold, Tim, and Jo Lee Vergunst. Ways of Walking: Ethnography and Practice on Foot. 2008. Routledge, 2016.