Philippe Petit in Man on Wire.

In “The Practice of Everyday Life”, Michel de Certeau discusses the multitude of ways in which the pedestrian can walk through the city. Among the possibilities enumerated by de Certeau: “the present, the discrete, the ‘phatic’.” De Certeau’s list appears all-inclusive, but I would like to suggest a fourth possibility. Consider Phillippe Petit:

Phillippe Petit’s “aesthetic assault” on the World Trade Center

In 1974, Petit spent 45 minutes illegally tightrope walking on a wire between the two towers of the World Trade Center. This act of defiant heroism is described at length in the 2008 documentary, Man on Wire. De Certeau begins chapter VII by likening the ascenders of the World Trade Center to temporary Icaruses. If by merely transcending the tower, pedestrians were rendered mythical pioneers, Petit was for 45 minutes the god of New York. The rhetorical gait espoused by Petit’s gambol was omnipresent, anti-discrete, and absolutely emphatic. If city walking is analogous to a speech act, Petit sang the song of the seraphim. His route was instantly non-replicable, and completely unorthodox–the ultimate desire path.

According to De Certeau, walking “alternately follows a path and has followers, creates a mobile organicity in the environment, a sequence of phatic topoi.” Petit’s walk was “phatic” in the sense that it inspired sociability and conversation–the feat transformed the way New Yorkers considered the towers–but its utter lack of conventionality places it in a realm of its own. De Certeau considered the Icaruses of the 110th floor to be voyeurs–the steel, the thick glass panes, and the sheer elevation of the observation deck certainly rendered the average sightseer anonymous, but perhaps not exactly a “solar Eye.” Nor were these voyeurs truly Icarian in the sense achieved by Petit. The flight of Icarus was a cry of rebellion against the restraints of gravity–in terms of rhetoric, Icarus was a Shannon Hoon, a one-hit wonder who melted in the sun of success. Petit was “solar” in that he was as visible as a celestial body against the blue summer sky. He was “solar” in that his ascension bestowed new life unto the planet below. He was “solar” in that, unconcerned with their gaze, he turned each onlooker into an audience member, a voyeur privy to the private poetry of his dream fulfillment.

De Certeau claimed, “To walk is to lack a place.” This is all the more accurate when one is walking on air. Even before he walked, before the towers existed, Petit saw the space between their future locations as a “dreamed place.” He saw the towers as his ticket to immortality. Had he fallen, he would no doubt be remembered (indeed, a fall would have made the Icarus allusions apt and inevitable), but a fall would have made a very different emphatic statement, and would have marred the towers in tragedy as well as aesthetic unpopularity. Petit did not fall. Petit punctuated his speech, already spoken with words unformable by the typical human temporal lobe, with dancing, sitting, bowing, jumping, and conversation with a passing gull. Petit reversed the Icarian discourse–in his quest to elevate himself to the celestial heights of Helios, he immortalized not only himself, but also the Daedalian spires which instilled in him the dream that he made manifest.


De Certeau, Michel. “The Practice of Everyday Life.” The Blackwell City Reader. Ed. Gary Bridge and Sophie Watson. 2nd ed. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010. 111-118. Print.

Man on Wire. Dir. James Marsh. Prod. Simon Chinn. By Igor Martinovic, Michael Nyman, J. Ralph, and Jinx Godfrey. Perf. Philippe Petit. Magnolia Pictures, 2008.

Scott, A. O. “Walking on Air Between the Towers.” Rev. of Man on Wire (2008)New York Times 25 July 2008, New York ed.: E1. Web. 23 May 2012.



by | May 23, 2012 · 7:50 pm

3 responses to “Philippe Petit in Man on Wire.

  1. I love this movie! You connect it to “The Practice of Everyday Life” in a really interesting and convincing way. Do you know a book by Colum McCann called Let the Great World Spin? Petit’s walk is a connecting thread between a bunch of different New Yorkers in the novel.

  2. marximusvance

    A very well written piece on an incredible documentary. This has led me to want to do a post about Bennet Miller’s documentary THE CRUISE. It follows a man named Timothy “Speed” Levitch who is a bus tour guide. His speech of the city is like no one I’ve ever heard or read and he mentions so many literary allusions as he talks about Manhattan’s architecture and street life. He also has a great scene about actually what it means to him to be one of the walkers of a great city and how it makes him feel. De Certeau’s essay really brought extreme flashbacks to this amazing documentary. Speed even walks up random skyscrapers and tries to stand on roofs in order to get that God-like view Certeau was writing about. I can’t recommend the film enough. Here is a link to a great scene.

    • Thanks for the recommendation, Mark! I love Speed Levitch… Have you seen Richard Linklater’s Waking Life? He delivers a really excellent monologue in that movie. Also, spoiler alert… He is one of the ‘witches’ in Scotland, PA, which is a modern take on Macbeth that we’re watching in Dr. Bertolet’s class.

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