A Bodily Sign of “Doing Nothing”: Loitering or the Silence before the Storm

Loitering as a Sign of “Doing Nothing”

How to Cite

Timur, S., & Bagli, M. T. (2006). A Bodily Sign of “Doing Nothing”: Loitering or the Silence before the Storm: Loitering as a Sign of “Doing Nothing”. M/C Journal, 9(3). https://doi.org/10.5204/mcj.2634
Vol. 9 No. 3 (2006): 'street'
Published 2006-07-01

One of the writers of this paper visited America at the end of the ‘90s and came across a curious translation dilemma as a foreigner. In some of the seemingly inauspicious districts of the city, there were signs saying “No Loitering” on the displays of shops or walls of residencies. These signs were causing anxiety for her, because she did not know the actual meaning of the phrase of “No Loitering”. (Her dictionary was still packed away.) Apart from being curious about the meaning of the phrase, she was rather afraid of performing “the act of loitering” since she had no idea what it meant.

When she was settled she looked up to the meaning of the term “loitering”: “waiting, hanging around, lingering, dallying, etc…” (Oxford Encyclopedia). The Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary of Current English defined “to loiter” as “to stand in a public place, usually with no particular or obvious purpose.” Based on this, if a person spends time hanging around or dallying in a public place with no purpose, the act of this person is called “loitering”. In the eyes of the newcomer, we suggest that “loitering” might be equal to more or less “doing nothing”. A person who is acting in the way described is almost inactive. When we view the issue from this framework, the person does not seem to be doing anything dangerous or precarious. In essence, what right or reason does someone have to command another “do not stand here”? Actually, a person who comes across such a warning can comfortably (if ironically) say that they are doing “nothing”.

Loitering as a Sign of “Doing Nothing”

From a semiological point of view, loitering can be seen as an honest act that reveals its intent of doing nothing by itself, because by definition loitering indicates to a lack of purpose and inactivity. On the other hand, loitering does not conjure up innocence associated with a natural state of inactivity. In fact, it conjures up possible danger, threat and crime. It does not signify doing nothing, but on the contrary it points to the possibility of being able to do “a very bad thing”. Closest to its definition, loitering might seem like an honest act; it can also be considered as the interval between inactivity and possible negative action. In this respect, loitering can be seen as the double-layered mythological sign of Barthes: namely, loitering at a denotative level is coded as innocent and honest – doing nothing signifies doing nothing. However, ideologically at a connotative level, loitering reveals itself as an action by which doing nothing is turned into doing something. Within this setting, if we accept that the subject does loiter with a “bad intention”, we can observe that the seemingly innocent acts of “lingering” and “dallying” can easily turn into proper camouflage instruments that conceal these “bad intentions”. Doing nothing can be considered to function as a curtain that briefly conceals the act of doing something or the possibility of doing something.

Within this scope, loitering can also be a direct representation of a slippery possibility. We recall a specific type of postcards which was once quite fashionable. The characteristic of these postcards is to allow us to see two different images on the same surface. When those postcards are viewed from a definite angle you can see a picture of, for example, New York which is taken in daylight, and when viewed from another angle, this time the night vision of the same setting can be observed. When loitering is in question, there is a similar mechanism at work.

The idea that we want to point out is that, due to the slippery nature of the category of the term loitering, neither of these pictures – each one depicting one side of the term – can be absolute. This is because of the permeable nature of these pictures. In fact, what is “real” is the very act of changing the angle while viewing the pictures: to be able to see the two pictures/definitions simultaneously. Loitering is a real conjunction point, a transformation point that we can not grasp between the two pictures/definitions: an interval point of innocent acts of dallying, lingering, and a threatening act of crime. In other words, between being a mythological and a denotative sign, loitering is the sign of possibility itself.

The dominant paradigm of modern urban life defines “non-functionality” as inauspicious, immobile and therefore risky. Loitering can also be coupled with non-functionality, and this association would have two consequences: firstly the perception of the term alters toward a negative tone; secondly it opens up an area where we can discuss the body, the city and the concept of movement respectively:

  1. The loitering human body which is alive but non-functional in the public space brings to mind a series of possibilities that originate from a potential energy which is not in use. This is usually taken to be something “bad”. Namely, a person who loiters is not expected to give money to a beggar, but is often seen as likely to seize money from another person by violence.

  1. A city is a system depending on flow. In other words, it is a system depending on the flow of vehicles, people, goods, money and waste. For such a system depending on movement there is no place for stability. Thus, individuals should either take part in this flow or they should not act as a point of resistance that would be an obstacle to the movement.

  1. The late capitalist period has a “psychic” effect on urban life and individuals. Recently, this effect has been discussed with other approaches within discussions around the concept of Risk Society. Risk Society starts where the systems of security norms do not function against the threats (Beck). It is located in a new definition of modernity in which risks that are related to economic initiatives, security of employment, health and environment have increased intensively. Abundance of possibilities and uncertainties, and polysemy in Risk Society, create an intensive agenda.

Concerning the psychological implications of Risk Society on individuals and their acts, Beck argues that our horizon also darkens due to risks. Hence, risks say what should not be done, but not what should be done. Risk management demands that precaution is taken through avoidance. A person who designs the world as a risk loses their ability to act in the end. The remarkable aspect of this development is that the increase in the intention of control turns this intention into its opposite (Beck).

In this context, loitering can be considered as one of the risks in everyday life due to its ambiguous definition and perception. Returning to the earlier quote from Beck, the visuality of the “No Loitering” sign which tells what should be avoided or what should not be done in a commanding tone identifies a “risk zone”. In fact, while this sign functions to warn people concerning the area that the act of loitering can take place, it also embodies, constructs and strengthens the possibility of risk.

Is Loitering a Crime?

The prejudice supposing that loitering is dangerous reveals itself strikingly in legal matters. The “Chicago Anti-Gang Loitering” law, which was approved in 1992, allowed police to arrest persons who “remain in any one place with no apparent purpose” (“High Court Rejects Chicago Anti-Gang Loitering Law”) in the presence of a suspected gang member and who then fail to disperse satisfactorily when warned by police.

Thus, it is possible for perceived loiterers to be arrested under the same law, although it is not proven that these people had been previously convicted of a crime, had committed a crime before their arrest, or were planning to commit an offence. “Before lower courts found the law unconstitutional in 1995, Chicago police issued 89,000 dispersal orders under the ordinance and made 42,000 arrests. The majority of people arrested were black or Latino” (“High Court Rejects Chicago Anti-Gang Loitering Law”). A group of justices considers the freedom to loiter a part of constitutional right. For example,

Justice John Paul Stevens said, ‘the freedom to loiter for innocent purposes is part of the liberty’ protected by the U.S. Constitution. People in Chicago who stop to ‘engage in idle conversation or simply enjoy a cool breeze on a warm evening’ should not be subject to police commands. (“High Court Rejects Chicago Anti-Gang Loitering Law”)

The second group claims that “Chicago Anti-Gang Loitering” law did not focus on specific criminal conduct and suggests that Chicago city lawyers redrafted this law to make it illegal to loiter, to “establish control over identifiable areas or to intimidate others from entering those areas” (“High Court Rejects Chicago Anti-Gang Loitering Law”). They argue that the lawyers are obliged to bring onto the agenda a better definition of the conduct for it to be accepted as a criminal act. A U.S. Constitutional Court abolished the “Chicago Anti-Gang Loitering” law in 1999, with ongoing discussions over the complicated nature of the issue.

The legal uncertainty in the concept of loitering proves that the foreigner who had difficulties in understanding the notion was right in her concerns. All these things strikingly point to the possibility that somebody who is hanging around, chatting or lingering on a beautiful day can be arrested at any moment.

The main reason the term “loiter” is obscure to the foreigner is not only because of the definitive meaning of loitering, but because the ambiguity of the term is still preserved after that. Thus, the person still has some hesitations about whether her behavior belongs to this category. The reason for her hesitation is based on the suspicion she has: she only intended to relax, dally and hang around (loiter); however, all those behaviors could be read (perceived) to suggest that she is about to engage in a criminal “bad” act. While the concept of social perception, which refers to the initial stage of evaluating the intentions of others using their body movements, hand gestures, facial expressions, and other biological motion cues (Allison, Puce and McCarthy), would explain the reason behind this reading, it is also possible to suggest that this kind of reading is conveyed by broader social norms. So, the problem which the foreigner experienced is the difficulty to create signs of doing nothing differentiating from the behaviors which are perceived as socially unacceptable.

Last Word

Nothing is the definition of a void. The aim of this essay is to discuss how loitering makes this void visible and representable. As defined earlier, a sign is a surface of meaning, an interface. Doing nothing, which is an intellectual or philosophical category, is represented in different ways in different cultures by some acts which form interfaces, and sometimes it is made visible.

When signs of doing nothing are being discussed, one of the most important problems is related to defining and naming the acts. As congruent with the purpose of doing nothing, loitering would be the best representation of doing nothing. However, even if loitering does not include an intention to harm, it is considered that the state of danger continues since it is rather difficult to make this visible and comprehensible through bodily signs. Loitering is a state of inactivity, incapable of creating the signs that will make its intention obvious. Yet it signifies the storm itself by being perceived as the silence before the storm.

Author Biographies

Sebnem Timur


Melike Turkan Bagli