Random Encounters

What would it be like to enter into other people’s heads and find out what they are thinking: the person sitting next to you on the bus; the girl sitting in the corner of the café; the man staring at the pigeons in the park. What would it be like to be able to listen to the inner conversations, hopes, fantasies and worries of the people we see in the city? What daydreams, ideas and opinions would we uncover? What would we learn about human-beings?
For New York Stories, funded by the ESRC and Wenner Gren Foundation, I collected more than 100 interior dialogues of random strangers as they moved around the city. The method was very simple: I stood at different points in the city and asked people what they were thinking about in the moment immediately before I approached them. I then invited them to wear a small microphone and narrate the stream of their thoughts as they continued their journey. I found it surprising not just the level of interest in the nature of the project but by the amount of people, from all walks of life, who said yes. Below are 3 short excerpts of people randomly encountered in the city taken from the full-length recordings that range from 15 minutes to 1.5 hours.

As with any crowded city street, people may be engaged in diverse, or even radically different, forms of inner speech and imagery, with one person trying to remember if they locked their front door while others are respectively fantasising about an actor, deciding where to go for lunch, communing with a dead spouse or negotiating a major life change, such as having lost their job. In Ethnography, Art and Death (Irving 2007) I try to enter into the consciousness of a man walking around a city looking for a place to commit suicide, while Dangerous Substances and Visible Evidence: Tears, Blood, Alcohol Pills (2010) and Strange Distance: Towards an Anthropology of Interior Dialogue (2011) both concern persons who have received an HIV diagnosis and attempt to understand the experience of someone confronting the radical uncertainty of their own existence in public: a person who remains a social being and is required to act accordingly as they walk along the street, but whose inner dialogues and lifeworlds are not always made apparent to the wider world. The extent to which the people we see in streets, parks, cafes, bridges and vehicles are engaged in the same practice remains an open question but once urban life is understood as a whole-body phenomenon—indivisibly combining inner speech and imagery, muscle movement, the circulation of blood, heart-rate and the nervous system—it reinforces the idea that the seemingly congruent social activities we observe in a city are differentiated by diverse inner lifeworlds that remain uncharted across the social sciences and humanities.

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