Sites of Thoroughfare

George Akhvlediani, Carl Burnitz, Tandria Fireall

Our modern world can be interpreted as a network of places. The ‘place’ abstracts space, overlaying it with identity. Places range from the size of a country to a bus stop. Humans orient themselves in relation to places and the notion of traveling between them. They are either in a place, or in transit to one. We will use ‘traffic’ to describe the collective motion of entities within space as they arrive and depart from places. The junctions and intersections of traffic form thoroughfares, sites that exist between places, but lack their distinctions.

We monitored several sites of thoroughfare in Columbia, South Carolina in a group exercise. We employed techniques of mass observation to analyze the technologies and practices of surveillance particular to a site of thoroughfare.

A site of thoroughfare can be modeled as an assemblage consisting of structures, bodies, machines, practices, and motion. In this regard, we consider J. Macgregor Wise’s definition of assemblage from Attention and Assemblage in the Clickable World. He describes assemblages as “multiple and diverse collections of objects, practices, and desires functioning across a broad landscape of devices.” We can use this concept to dissect thoroughfares, to parse out imbedded aspects of surveillance, behavior, and governance. To study thoroughfares, we must explore how they perform and are performed upon, and the purpose(s) for which they function.

Intersections of varying magnitudes propagate wherever paths of traffic intertwine. In an urban context, this traffic consists of vehicles and pedestrians as they move along streets and sidewalks. They are the ‘bodies’ of the thoroughfare assemblage, producing independent motions. Structures including streets and sidewalks delimit navigable terrain, anchoring the assemblage in space. As constructs, they delineate designated paths as areas of movement. In order to preserve these qualities, the United States makes the obstruction of an intersection illegal. A greater discourse of law establishes the practices by which vehicles and pedestrians traverse urban space.

These laws operate as a system of discipline upon and within the conscious minds of humans. Subjects perceive their relations with the external space by observing signals from devices, signs, and other commuters. Those who deviate from the established norms risk reprisal in the form of citations that siphon a parcel of their wage hours to compensate for the ‘damage’ their actions produce. Minor delinquency is tolerated within a threshold, which may fluctuate in regards to time and space. Therefore, laws primarily function as guidelines. Subjects abide them whenever it is appropriate and convenient to do so, as stringent enforcement is a logistic impossibility.

Thoroughfares permit the passage of bodies in spite of traffic. When a site fails to facilitate the forces of traffic, the bodies collide and form congestion. Since their destination is their goal (not the thoroughfare), they will alter their path to avoid unnecessary delays. They cease to go ‘through’ the site, circumventing it with an alternative. The site of thoroughfare becomes an obstruction in this instance. To maintain thoroughfare status, a site must ensure a consistent flow of objects, practices, and desires.

Thoroughfares cultivate an atmosphere of stability conducive to the continuous flow of traffic. This quality is compatible with the notion of ‘smoothness’ Jonathan Crary proposed within Late Capitalism and the End of Sleep:
“To be bland is a becoming “smooth,” as distinct from the idea of a mold that the word “conformity” often implies. Deviations are flattened or effaced(29-60).

The variability of thoroughfares in both design and function defies any association with a static mold. A site of thoroughfare must possess the ability to adapt to its circumstance. All of its components operate concurrently and influence each other to create a smooth flow. The image
of circularity is imbued in smoothness through the constant cycle of people entering and exiting transit. The act of traversing the thoroughfare carries its own significance.

However, thoroughfares are a far cry from the circularity-derived notions of perfection and uniformity. Aberrations in traffic coordination provide unique insight into the mechanics and failings that plague thoroughfares. The pursuit of smoothness is a neverending struggle, and any lapse invites crippling congestion. We can explore ways to deliberately sabotage this endeavor, to determine its weaknesses and strengths. Such techniques may reveal the true efficacy of thoroughfare mechanics.

The following analysis serves to ratify the arguments and concepts established thus far.

Thoroughfares are designed to allow traffic to move freely whilst avoiding congestion and collision. In some cases, roads even meet at an intersection divided by traffic lights.The lights signal oncoming traffic to go, slow down, and stop. The traffic lights dividing each intersection are also accompanied by street signs for drivers and pedestrians. These signs allow pedestrians to move freely across the intersection without disturbing the flow of traffic. Citizens are expected to understand the meaning of the street signs and follow them accordingly. Surveillance cameras were added to encourage honesty and the strictest form of order, obedience. Often, the cameras placed at intersections are positioned at angles designed to identify the drivers of vehicles and vehicle license plate numbers. This form of identification not only ensures obedience, but also acts as a disciplining guide to manage citizens, deter defiant acts and encourage law-abiding behaviors.

The government insists that the laws and surveillance are in place to prevent chaos and ensure safety; however, a closer look at this system of movement reveals that the order to thoroughfares is imposed to ensure a constant flow of traffic more than anything else. The roads, constitutive of thoroughfares lead to restaurants, business, and other roads that lead to other restaurants and businesses -- which is no accident. The order and flow of thoroughfares are needed to maintain order.

Thoroughfares aid the cyclical nature of consumerism and population management. Without the flow of traffic, consumers would not be able to move freely from one business establishment to the next. The flow of traffic also allows travelers to arrive at areas of administration where attendance is recorded. Notice, all of these destinations aim to record the presence of the traveler. When citizens are recorded, their information is preserved in a system, and used not only to track their every move, but also as a way of mapping their future actions. In Premediation: Affect and Mediality after 9/11, Grusin writes, “Premediation is in this sense distinct from prediction. Unlike prediction, premediation is not about getting the future right. In fact it is precisely the proliferation of competing and often contradictory future scenarios that enables premediation to prevent the experience of a traumatic event by generating a low level of anxiety as a kind of affective prophylactic” (46). Premediated precautions are used to manage the population. Drivers and pedestrians are made fully aware daily from news stories, police presence, and etc., that disobeying laws set in place to maintain a flow of traffic would not only result in punishment but could possibly cause injury to the citizen himself or other citizens.

In an effort to manage massive groups of people, certain behaviors are encouraged and discouraged. As mentioned above, thoroughfares are designed to ensure efficiency and a seamless flow of traffic. However, the space of the intersection is also designed as an apparatus for managing populations. Thoroughfares allow easy passage from one road to another. The creation of this system not only allows the course of travel to be controlled, but it also allows

travelers and pedestrians to be guided into action. Surveillance and the laws in place steer travelers and pedestrians away from deviant acts and encourage them to behave as law-abiding citizens.Thoroughfares work because the system of movement can be easily understood and managed, but this could change if the system was more complex and citizens behaved as a defiant criminal body.

Citizens have to follow rules to maintain continuous movement within the system. Ann Marie Mol provides a relevant example in “The Citizen and the Body,” in which she considers the place of authority in hospitals and freedom of diabetic patients. She writes;

“That they [patients] feel no freedom is not because they have been submitted to the force of authority. Something else is going on. Once dead, you have no choices left at all...In that context their first concern is not with who is in charge, but with what to do. How to live” (40)?

The citizens Mol refers to are patients, but citizens are also drivers, pedestrians, and those who move freely through intersections that may not be grouped into these two categories. Disobedience or defiance might very well result in death. This system imposes its power over the drivers and pedestrians -- and patients -- and they must follow if they do not wish to die.

The only aspects of deviance that this system ignores are the conditions of the vehicles and the health of drivers and pedestrians. A person’s ailment cannot be subject to compliance. Diseases and mechanical defects cannot comprehend order.Suppose that the driver of a car experienced sharp pain in the chest at or near an intersection. Would the driver abruptly stop or accelerate? Now imagine if a driver had a flat tire and could not move beyond the traffic lights. Both of these situations would cause confusion and congest the flow of traffic at the point of the intersection and its vicinity. This reveals one of the flaws within this system: that it’s heavily dependent upon the cooperation and obedience of drivers and pedestrians- - as responsible patients and vehicle owner--operators. This system is also dependent upon the knowledge of drivers and pedestrians. Drivers and pedestrians must follow the rules of the traffic lights as well as the signs along the sidewalks of the road. Should this system require citizens to study the laws of the road regardless of their driving abilities, instead of expecting them to follow the social cues of other pedestrians? In what way could this system be more efficient? These questions are productive ways of thinking about this system because they pose suggestions for making the system more productive.

The ability to identify and analyze thoroughfares confers a potent vantage point. A key thoroughfare is the lifeline of an urban environment, conveying its cultural, commercial, and industrial tendencies. A stationary observer is able to defy the structure of thoroughfares, placing themselves in unacknowledged, transient space. We might interpret this act as an occupation of the paranode, the space that “resists being assimilated by the network”. Ulises Ali Mejias introduces the paranode in The Outside of Networks as a Method for Acting in the World. He considers the potential for the paranode to influence the nature of networks holistically, though he acknowledges its limitations, “But realistically, today, the paranode might not be able to completely secede from its host and actualize alternatives” (159).

One can test the disciplinary mechanisms in a site of thoroughfare by deliberately violating the norms of conduct. A direct challenge to the disciplinary mechanics of of a site of thoroughfare can procure immense insight, and possibly the means to directly manipulate urban space in some future.


1. Mass Observation Diary excerpt. 347-351.

Communication Matters: Materialist Approaches to Media, Mobility and Networks. Eds., Jeremy Packer and Stephen B. Crofts Wiley. Oxford: Routledge, 2012. 159-172.

3. Crary, Jonathan. “Chapter Two.” 24/7: Late Capitalism and the End of Sleep. London, UK: Verso, 2013. 29-60.

4. Grusin, Richard. “Premediation” and “The Anticipation of Security.” Premediation: Affect and Mediality after 9/11.London, UK: Palgrave/MacMillan, 2010. 38-63 and 122-142.

5. Mol, Annemarie. “The Citizen and the Body.” The Logic of Care: Health and the Problem of Patient Choice. UK: Routledge, 2006. 29-41.


Wise, J. Macgregor. “Attention and Assemblage in the Clickable World.”

Mejias, Ulises Ali. “Outside the Network as a Method for Acting in the World.” Off the

Network: Disrupting the Digital World. Electronic Mediations. Vol. 41.

Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2013. 153-


Burnitz, Carl. Group Route Photo. 


I'm interested in the relation you all have established between what you call a "system of movement" and practices of circumvention. In the moment that the system of movement suffers an obstruction, at what point is one anticipated/expected to defer to an alternate route? How managed are such routes of circumvention?

M's picture
By M

It really depends on the influence imposed upon any subject. One might try to find a way around a train, for example, as the passing of a train completely overrides a throughfare. The extremes of a circumvention are relative to the needs and desires of the affected population. It is a paradigm shift in the relation between site assemblages, as an assemblage is comprised in part by the desires of its occupants. 

If one site cannot satisfy those desires, it must either change to suit them, or change by excluding them. In the latter case, those who bear the desire of traversal (in the case of throughfares) must seek an alternative site if they are to satisfy their needs. Their compulsion to do is relative to the influence of adjoing and overlapping assemblages. 

I super interested in an experimental program that might involving the creation of thoroughfare testing paranodes on Main Street. Do you have thoughts about the details of such a program?  How might ti proceed? The upcoming celebration/memorialization of the burning of Columbia would seem to be ripe for such activity. 

M's picture
By M

In our group article we suggested that observing a thoroughfare could confer insight regarding the culture and function of an urban environment as a whole. I think the key to paranodal positioning is through determining which location resembles our image of a thoroughfare most prominently. We might take advantage of the thoroughfare and discreetly place cameras or other recording devices, which should be ignored by the site's temporary residents.

In particular, it would be best to choose locations that do not 'naturally' attract stationary participants (that really depends on the context of such an event). If it is some sort of procession, this might mean observing both the starting and end points. One could observe underpinning schematics that both form and dissassemble the event, which may reveal more than the actual event itself. 

If there are some common routes by which the public accesses the event, it might also be prudent to observe those as well. It could be a parking lot or a streetcorner.

The act observation in a site of motion may lend its own insight, and could provide examples of the site's reaction to congestion. One's presence as a staionary physical component in the thoroughfare might incite some reaction or another.

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