Reading and Walking

Walking, Reading, and Reading about Walking

Month: February, 2019

26. Tim Cresswell, In Place/Out of Place: Geography, Ideology, and Transgression

in place out of place

I wasn’t planning on reading this one–yes, I’ve strayed from my list again–but Tim Cresswell referred to it in his book on place, and I realized that there’s a connection between walking and transgression. When I was walking to Wood Mountain last summer, the looks I usually got from passing motorists—their facial expressions typically registered shock and surprise—suggested that walking in Saskatchewan is transgressive. So too did the reaction of some boys who were admiring each other’s bicycles when I trudged into the village of Mossbank after a long, hot day of walking. “My mom says that guy’s a hitchhiker,” one of them said. There was disgust in his voice, no doubt an echo of his mother’s tone, and I quickly imagined their conversation: “Mom, what’s that guy doing walking on the road?” “Son, he’s a hitchhiker.” Never mind that I was walking against the traffic, not with it, and that I wasn’t trying to thumb a ride: I was walking on a highway in Saskatchewan, and that must have meant I was a hitchhiker, or something even worse—a transient, a vagrant, a bum. I thought I would try to correct that impression. I called out, “no, boys, I’m walking, I’m not hitchhiking.” They were having none of that. They hopped on their bikes and rode along behind me, crying “hitchhiker! hitchhiker!” the way a New England Puritan might have shouted “blasphemer!” I was out of place, and I was being reminded of it. For those boys—or their mothers—I was out of place walking on the road. I was transgressing the rule that highways are for motor vehicles. So, when I picked up Cresswell’s book in the library, I remembered that episode and realized I would have to read it.

And so I did—but not all of it. For once, I took my supervisors’ advice, and “skinned” the book, reading just the introductory and concluding chapters: the theoretical parts. The main part of the book—Cresswell’s studies of graffiti artists in New York City, the occupations of Stonehenge by so-called “hippies,” and the peace camp established by women at the U.S. Air Force base at Greenham Common to protest the presence of nuclear weapons there—I decided I could skip. As interesting as those examples might be, my reading list isn’t getting any smaller, and I haven’t been very productive in the past two weeks, so I’d better get cracking.

Not surprisingly, some of the discussion of place in this book echoes the one in Place: An Introduction, but not entirely. For example, Cresswell suggests that the way geographers use the term “place” is similar to Henri Lefebvre’s term “social space” (1), which suggests that I might need to read Lefebvre’s The Production of Space. There is a relationship between spatial divisions of various kinds and ideology and power (1). Cresswell emphasizes the importance of Pierre Bourdieu in thinking about the ideological and political implications of place and/or space—unfortunately for me, in this book Cresswell doesn’t necessarily distinguish between these two terms, and making a distinction between space and place is important for my own research. “Spatial structures structure representations of the world as they are held in a taken-for-granted way,” he writes, explaining Bourdieu’s argument in Outline of a Theory of Practice. “But value and meaning are not inherent in any space or place—indeed they must be created, reproduced, and defended from heresy” (9). That claim is the first theme Cresswell explores in this book.

The second theme of the book is transgression. “Just as it is the case that space and place are used to structure a normative world”—in other words, just as spatial divisions reproduce power relations and ideologies—“they are also used (intentionally or otherwise) to question that normative world,” Cresswell writes (9). That questioning often takes the form of transgression:

Transgression, I shall argue, serves to foreground the mapping of ideology onto space and place, and thus the margins can tell us something about “normality.” I am also interested in thinking through the implications of transgression as a form of politics. (9)

Cresswell’s method is to focus on examples of transgression. “My approach is to examine situations where things appear to be wrong, those times when we become aware of our immediate environment,” he writes. “One way to illustrate the relation between place and behavior is to look at those behaviors that are judged as inappropriate in a particular location—literally as actions out of place” (10). When those out-of-place actions transpire, “the everyday, commonsense relationships between place and behavior become obvious and underlined,” and “the always already existing normative geography” of that place is revealed (10). “In other words,” he continues,

transgressive acts prompt reactions that reveal that which was previously considered natural and commonsense. The moment of transgression marks the shift from the unspoken unquestioned power of place over taken-for-granted behavior to an official orthodoxy concerning what is proper as opposed to what is not proper—that which is in place to that which is out of place. (10)

Here Cresswell is anticipating his discussion in the book’s second chapter of Bourdieu’s notion of doxa and the way that revealing ideological positions that are taken for granted forces an explicit defence of those positions.

Places, Cresswell suggests in his second chapter, are “centers of meaning”: they are neither completely ideological or socially constructed, nor are they purely material or spatial or geographic (13). “Places are duplicitous in that they cannot be reduced to the concrete or the ‘merely ideological’; rather they display an uneasy and fluid tension between them,” he writes (13). Places are sometimes metaphorically equated with texts, a metaphor that is useful, according to Cresswell, if we remember that texts can be read in multiple ways, despite the fact that some readings are encouraged more than others. “We can thus talk of a hierarchy of readings, with favored, normal, accepted readings and discouraged, heretical, abnormal readings—dominant readings and subordinate readings,” he argues (13). This claim leads to the concept of ideology. Cresswell follows sociologist Göran Therborn in his division of ideology into three levels: it defines, first, what exists and does not exist; second, what is good, just, and appropriate, and what is none of those things; and third, what is possible and what is impossible (14). “It is my claim here that place plays a role in the constitution of ideology at all three levels,” Cresswell writes. “In general, though, I shall concentrate on the role of place at the second mode of interpellation—the definition of what is good, just, appropriate, and so on” (14). Ideologies, he continues, are important “because they affect what people do”; they aren’t just sets of ideas, but rather they are ideas “that influence and guide actions” (16). For that reason, there is a relation between ideologies and places, because places also force people to relate beliefs to actions. “People read places by acting in them,” Cresswell contends. “Our actions in place are evidence of our preferred reading” (16). Moreover, “[p]lace is produced by practice that adheres to (ideological) beliefs that produce it in a way that makes them appear natural, self-evident, and commonsense” (16). Places are therefore “active forces in the reproduction of norms—in the definition of appropriate practice. Place constitutes our beliefs about what is appropriate as much as it is constituted by them” (16). “Meaning is invoked in space through the practice of people who act according to their interpretations of space,” Cresswell argues, and in turn that space “gives their actions meaning. This is a fluid process that changes over time. Any given set of interpretations of space can be and have been overthrown historically” (17).

Cresswell then reviews crude theories of ideology and indicates his preference for the more sophisticated theory of hegemony, the notion that a group cannot dominate unless it claims common sense as its own (18). This idea, he suggests, is expressed by Antonio Gramsci, Raymond Williams, and Bourdieu—although I am certain that there are nuanced differences between the claims these writers make about hegemony. Cresswell seems to find Bourdieu’s description of hegemony the most persuasive. Bourdieu sees ideology in terms of limits, according to Cresswell. Those limits are called “doxa” (18-19). When the fit between one’s objective position and one’s subjective beliefs is almost perfect, then experience becomes doxa: the social world comes to appear self-evident and without alternatives (19). There is no conflict in when experience becomes doxa, because people “aspire to that which fits with what their objective position allows” (19). In Cresswell’s summary of Bourdieu’s argument, “the commonsense world of doxa is the key to the most ineradicable adherence to the established order, while the questioning of doxa is one of the most fundamental and effective forms of struggle” (20). That’s because questioning doxa forces the dominant group to defend in an explicit way the limits which the doxa has internalized, and that defence turns those limits into boundaries or barriers which can be seen and then, potentially, removed or overcome (20). 

Transgression is one way that doxa can be made explicit and therefore questioned, according to Cresswell:

It is hard to tell what is considered normal without the example of something abnormal. Transgression, and the reaction to it, underlines those values that are considered correct and appropriate. By studying the margins of what is allowed we come to understand more about the center—the core—of what is considered right and proper. Transgression is also important in itself as an example of possible tactics for resistance to established norms. No hegemonic structure is ever complete, and it is always important to study the ways in which hegemonies are contested in everyday life. (21)

Transgression is often defined in geographical or spatial terms, Cresswell notes (21); we may have to experience a geographical transgression before we realize that there even was a boundary in the first place (22). 

Cresswell is clear to distinguish between transgression and resistance. Resistance implies an intention, a “purposeful action directed against some disliked entity with the intention of changing it or lessening its effect” (22). Transgression, in contrast, isn’t defined by the intentions of its actors by according to the results of their actions: “To have transgressed in this project means to have been judged to have crossed some line that was not meant to have been crossed. The crossing of the line may or may not have been intended” (23). “Transgression is judged by those who react to it,” Cresswell argues, “while resistance rests on the intentions of the actor(s)” (23). However, there is some crossover between resistance and transgression. “Some acts of resistance . . . are judged as transgression,” he writes. “Similarly some actions judged as constituting transgression are intended by the actors and thus also constitute resistance. . . . Intentional transgression is a form of resistance that creates a response from the establishment—an act that draws the lines on a battlefield and defines the terrain on which contestation occurs” (23). 

Transgression, Cresswell concludes, is important because “it breaks from ‘normality’ and causes a questioning of that which was previously considered ‘natural,’ ‘assumed,’ and ‘taken for granted’”:

Transgressions appear to be “against nature”; they disrupt the patterns and processes of normality and offend the subtle myths of consensus. These deviations from the dominant ideological norms serve to confuse and disorientate. In doing so they temporarily reveal the historical and mutable nature of that which is usually considered “the way things are.” The way the world is defined, categorized, segmented, and classified is rendered problematic. Such provocations result in highly charged attempts to diffuse the challenge presented by the transgressors. (26)

I’m not sure that my transgression last summer—my action of walking down a highway—necessarily resulted in an attempt to diffuse—or defuse—the challenge that walking down a highway presented. On the other hand, maybe it did. It certainly offended the way the world was defined and classified for some people. Highways are only for motor vehicles, and that’s “the way things are”—that is how most of us in this province would see the world. Other uses of a public thoroughfare are transgressive. Maybe that’s why I was identified as a hitchhiker, then—as a way to contain the challenge that walking in Saskatchewan presents to the common sense notion of what roads are for. Or maybe I’m reading too much into that experience, although I think it’s pretty clear that it was a transgression of a sort.

Like his introduction, Cresswell’s conclusion spans two chapters. He begins by thinking about what his three case studies suggest about the importance of attending to the ideological relationship to place:

The geographical ordering of society is founded on a multitude of acts of boundary making—of territorialization—whose ambiguity is to simultaneously open up the possibilities for transgression. In order to fully understand the range of a society’s geographical values, it is enlightening to map out geographical deviance and transgressions. By concentrating on the marginal and the “low,” the “other,” we achieve a novel perspective upon its central workings. The geographical classification of society and culture is constantly structured in relation to the unacceptable, the other, the dirty. (149)

To return to my Mossbank reception, I was certainly understood as unacceptable and dirty (of course, after several days of walking, I actually was dirty). I was also, perhaps, to paraphrase Cresswell, a marginal, grotesque, and extraordinary phenomenon, and therefore I played a role in defining what is considered normal: “The center could not exist without the margin” (149). 

According to Cresswell, his case studies present two principal lessons: “One concerns the way place is implicated in the creation and maintenance of ideological beliefs; the other is about the uses and limits of transgression as a way of challenging and transforming these beliefs. The former is a lesson in continuity and the latter a lesson in change” (150). Why, he asks, is place “such a powerful container of social power?” (150). And what is it about place “that makes it an effective signifier of ideological values?” (150). Asking such questions is an attempt “to link the literature on ‘society and space’ with the tradition in geography of closely examining the nature of place (151). Space and place, he argues, “are such fundamental categories of experience that the power to specify the meanings of places and expectations of behavior in them is great indeed” (152). Space and place are primary forms of classification, and as they are classified, they become doxa: definitions as to the behaviours that are appropriate in specific spaces and places are powerful and unstated, and they are recognized not discursively—indeed, to recognize doxa discursively is to acknowledge their existence—but practically and experientially (and perhaps even phenomenologically) (152). One set of classifications is differentiation: the distinction between “us” and “them” through which people create themselves as subjects (153). Differentiation, Cresswell writes, is “a characteristic mechanism by which ideological values are transmitted” (153), and places are “fundamental creators of difference” (154):

It is possible to be inside a place or outside a place. Outsiders are not to be trusted; insiders know the rules and obey them. . . . An outsider is not just someone literally from another location but someone who is existentially removed from the milieu of “our” place—someone who doesn’t know the rules. (154)

Obviously, walking on a highway marked me as an outsider—as someone who doesn’t know the rule that highways are only for driving on.

Cresswell also considers the connection between place and practice, drawing upon Raymond Williams’s term “structure of feeling” and Bourdieu’s “habitus” as ways of considering the social as flux and movement and experience, as ways to connect theory and practice (155-56). Ideology consists of ideas related to practices; places connect the mental to the material in a similar way, “as our actions in them constitute interpretations” (157). For Cresswell, there is a link between ideology and place—a parallel or homology—that is present in the metaphor of places as texts—as objects of interpretation. “The interpretation of a place is, in everyday life, a practical interpretation,” he writes. “Our beliefs about place are usually indistinguishable from actions in place. Ideology seeks to link the concrete and the abstract. What better way than through place?” (157-58). 

Finally, places often appear to be natural. “An ideology that seeks to conceal its own historical roots uses the physical naturalness of place to make claims about the essential nature of place and forgets the social realm,” Cresswell writes. “An ideology emphasizes the realm of nature and conceals the realm of social relations” (160). Because the materiality of place gives it an aura of “nature,” “place can thus be offered as justification for particular views of what is good, just, and appropriate” (161). 

In summary, then, because they are forms of classification and differentiation, places and spaces have ideological functions (161). The same is true because places and spaces connect beliefs or interpretations with “the material context of our lives” and the actions we take in those material contexts (161). And because places and spaces appear to be natural, they can be used as justifications “for particular views of what is good, just, and appropriate” (161). For these reasons, Cresswell writes, place “plays an important role in the creation and continuation of ideological beliefs” (161). However, he continues, ideologies “are also challenged, resisted, and transgressed, leading to revisions, adaptations, and denunciations” (162). Places and spaces play roles in these resistances as well, as Cresswell’s case studies suggest. “[M]aking space a means of control is to simultaneously make it a site of meaningful resistance,” he argues at the beginning of his final chapter. “[T]he qualities of space and place that make them good strategic tools of power simultaneously make them ripe for resistance in highly visible and often outrageous ways,” he continues. “The creation of property leads to the existence of trespass. The notion of ‘in place’ is logically related to the possibility of being ‘out of place’” (164). When people act “out of place,” their behaviour suggests new interpretations of place—and, indeed, rewrite those places as well, so that “[t]he consumption of place becomes the production of place” (165). This idea leads to the central question he wants to explore in his final chapter: “To what degree can transgression provide a blueprint—a dress rehearsal—for radical change?” (165).

To begin to answer this question, Cresswell returns to the uses and limits of transgression:

Transgression, as I have defined it, depends on the preexistence of some form of spatial ordering. Forms of transgression owe their efficacy to types of space, place, and territory. Transgressions do not form their own orders. Boundaries are critiqued, not replaced. This observation is symptomatic of a bigger question—the question of construction versus deconstruction, creation versus critique. Resistance, deconstruction, criticism—all of these are reactions, hostages to wider events and topographies of power. Temporally they always come second or third. Transgression has limits. Constant transgression is permanent chaos. (166)

“Yet,” he continues, “within transgression lie the seeds of new spatial orderings” (166). What kinds of transgressions suggest the possibilities of these “new spatial orderings”? Art is one area. Cresswell explores the photography (and performance) of British artist Ingrid Pollard, who uses her own body in photographs and collage works to ask questions about the racialized assumptions British people make about their rural landscapes (especially the landscapes of the Lake District) (167-69). He also discusses the work of Krzysztof Wodiczko, an artist who projects images onto the walls of public buildings, memorials, and monuments, attacking them with symbols in order to jar our consciousness and make “the familiar (and thus unnoticed) strange and worthy of attention” (169). He also looks at the graphics and demonstrations of ACT-UP, and at the demolition of the Vendôme Column during the Paris Commune, as examples of transgression and resistance (170-74). 

All of these examples, Cresswell suggests, display “the power of transgression” (175). The result of these transgressions is to question existing spaces and places, and to suggest alternatives (175); such transgressions are political acts which “divert and manipulate the power of established geographies” (175). “While this is a source of strength,” Cresswell argues,

it is also transgression’s main limit. Transgression’s efficacy lies in the power of the established boundaries and spaces that it so heretically subverts. It is also limited by this established geography; it is always in reaction to topographies of power. (175)

“The power of transgression lies in its ability to reveal topographies of power that surround us,” he continues. “The limits to transgression lie in the fact that it is not enough to constantly deconstruct and destabilize” (176). There is a need to move beyond transgression, he suggests, “to the possibilities of social transformation” (176). But, he asks, “[w]hat happens when transgression becomes permanent?” (176). “The new social spaces that result from the transgression of old social spaces will themselves become old social spaces pregnant with the possibility of transgression,” he concludes, undercutting what he describes as “a utopian dream” of social transformation (176). It’s a surprisingly downbeat ending to the book—a case of “meet the new boss, same as the old boss,” or perhaps more appropriately, “meet the new place—same as the old place.”

So, was reading (at least part of ) In Place/Out of Place worthwhile? Yes, I think so. It didn’t help me to keep working on the distinction between space and place, although in his references Cresswell points towards other writers who do think through that question. But his discussion of Ingrid Pollard’s work was very important for me. I had heard about her photography, but for the first time I began thinking about it in relation to my own work. And In Place/Out of Place helped me to consider walking as a transgressive act in a more thorough and rigorous way. So I’ve come away from this book with a new set of things to read and think about—and that’s the point of doing this work, isn’t it?

Works Cited

Cresswell, Tim. In Place/Out of Place: Geography, Ideology, and Transgression. U of Minnesota P, 1996.

25. Tim Cresswell, Place: An Introduction

cresswell place


It took me a long time to finish reading Tim Cresswell’s little introduction to the concept of place. It wasn’t because it’s a difficult book—it isn’t—but because it’s the middle of the semester and I’m tired and distracted. I have to start studying for my Cree midterm today, so I won’t get back to this reading until the middle of next week. Perhaps I’ll discover that a change is as good as a rest.

According to Cresswell, place is perhaps the most important term in the discipline of geography (1). It’s also an interdisciplinary concept as well, however, and possibly the key term for interdisciplinary research in the arts, humanities, and social sciences (1). For that reason, Place: An Introduction is “both a disciplinary account of a key geographical concept and an interdisciplinary introduction to an issue that transcends geography, philosophy, or any other discipline,” Cresswell writes (1). Place is a challenging term to define, because it’s not a specialized word, but one used by ordinary people every day. For that reason, Cresswell writes, “[i]t is the purpose of this book to scrutinize the concept of place and its centrality to both interdisciplinary academic endeavor and everyday life” (6-7).

Cresswell begins with political geographer John Agnew’s argument that there are three fundamental aspects of place: location, locale, and sense of place (12). Locations are physical spots on the surface of the planet where things exist, although those physical locations are not always stationary (13). Locale, on the other hand, refers to “the material setting for social relations—the actual shape of place within which people conduct their lives as individuals” (13-14). Finally, sense of place means “the subjective and emotional attachment people have to place” (14). These three aspects of place are central to Cresswell’s ideas about place.

Place needs to be distinguished from two related terms: space and landscape. Space, as Yi-Fu Tuan argues, is more abstract than place: spaces have areas and volumes, but places have spaces between them (15). “Space,” Cresswell writes, “has been seen in distinction to place as a realm without meaning—as a ‘fact of life’ which, like time, produces the basic coordinates for human life. When humans invest meaning in a portion of space and then become attached to it in some way (naming is one such way) it becomes a place” (16). However, since the 1970s, this distinction in human geography has become confused by the notion of social space, or socially produced space, particularly as articulated by Henri Lefebvre in The Production of Space; social space is, in many ways, similar to notions of place (16-17). Landscape, on the other hand, is a term that derives from landscape painting. It refers “to a portion of the earth’s surface that can be viewed from one spot” (17). It is an intensely visual idea, Cresswell argues. Moreover, in most definitions of landscape, the viewer is positioned outside of the landscape. “This is the primary way in which it differs from place,” he suggests. “Places are very much things to be inside of” (17). “We do not live in landscapes—we look at them,” he concludes (18).

For Cresswell, one of the important themes in this book is the idea that “place is not just a thing in the world but a way of understanding the world” (18):

When we look at the world as a world of places, we see different things. We see attachments and connections between people and place. We see worlds of meaning and experience. Sometimes this way of seeing can seem to be an act of resistance against a rationalization of the world that focuses more on space than place. To think of an area of the world as a rich and complicated interplay of people and the environment—as a place—is to free us from thinking of it as facts and figures. . . . At other times, however, seeing the world through the lens of place leads to reactionary and exclusionary xenophobia, racism, and bigotry. . . . This book is as much about place as a way of knowing as it is about place as a thing in the world. It is as much about epistemology as it is about ontology. (18)

Place, Cresswell continues, “is how we make the world meaningful and the way we experience the world. Place, at a very basic level, is space invested with meaning in the context of power. This process of investing space with meaning happens across the globe at all scales, and has done throughout human history” (19). One of the main tasks of geography as a discipline, in fact, has been to make sense of place. At the same time, Cresswell notes, place is a contested concept, and what it means is the subject of debate in many disciplines; the purpose of this book is to think through these various ways of defining place (19).

Cresswell’s second chapter explores the genealogy of place as a concept and a theme. This exploration, he notes, requires considering place as “a philosophical object of enquiry as well as a geographical one” (23). Place, he reminds us, can refer both to an object—“a thing that we can look, research, and write about” (23)—and a way of looking at and knowing the world (23), so place is “both an act of defining what exists (ontology) and a particular way of seeing and knowing the world (epistemology and metaphysics)” (23). Place is therefore “not simply something to be observed, researched, and written about but is itself part of the way we see, research, and write” (24). 

The first explicit philosophies of place appear in the work of Plato and Aristotle; place was the fundamental basis of existence for anything else, according to Aristotle, because in order for something to exist, it had to be somewhere (26). However, it wasn’t until the work of Martin Heidegger that place regained its importance as a philosophical concept, particularly in his essay “Building Dwelling Thinking” and his book Being in Time (27). Heidegger’s concept of Dasein, or being there, evokes a strong connection between a thing and its place, and dwelling, which suggests a continuity between a thing and its place, describes being as being-in-the-world (27). For Heidegger, place invokes nearness and care in relation to the world, and those qualities result “in an authentic being-in-the-world—a kind of being based on humility and nurture” (29). Heidegger’s notions of dwelling and building are picked up by Gaston Bachelard, who suggests that the interior spaces of a home provide appropriate places for the psyche (29-30). 

The phenomenology of Heidegger and Bachelard become important for humanistic geographers in the 1970s, particularly the work of Yi-Fu Tuan and Edward Relph (35). Tuan argues that place is the product of a pause, and that it is therefore presents a chance for attachment (35-36). Relph, on the other hand, argues that the characteristics of place include visuality, a sense of community, a sense of the time involved in developing an attachment to a place, and rootedness as a value (36-37). For Relph, consciousness is situated, and place determines our experience (38). For these (and other) humanistic geographers, home was an exemplary kind of place—one “where people feel a sense of attachment and rootedness” (39)—a claim that feminist geographers, like Gillian Rose, resist. Those feminist geographers represent only one form of critical engagement with ideas of place. Marxist and poststructuralist geographers also questioned the celebration of place in the work of humanistic geographers (41). For example, geographer David Harvey argued that notions of place are ambivalent: they are threatened by the mobility inherent in postmodern forms of capitalism, but at the same time “struggles for place identity also appeal to the parochial and exclusive forces of bigotry and nationalism” (41-42). Harvey claims that place is a social construct, which places him at odds with philosophers of place, such as Edward Casey and J.E. Malpas, and geographer Robert Sack, who argue that place “is a force that cannot be reduced to the social, the natural, or the cultural. It is, rather, a phenomenon that brings these worlds together and, indeed, in part produced them” (47). However, there is little empirical detail in the work of Sack, Malpas, or Casey; their discussions tend to be generalized rather than specific (50). Cresswell’s position attempts to bridge these various approaches to place; he argues that place “is a construction of humanity but a necessary one—one that human life is impossible to conceive of without. In other words there was no ‘place’ before there was humanity but once we came into existence then place did too” (51).

Cresswell next turns to assemblage theory: the idea that there is a process of gathering—of things, emotions, people memories—which suggests a relationship between the inside of a place (which gathers) and an outside (from where things are gathered). This conception of place underlines its relational nature, Cresswell suggests: “the necessity of a place being related to its outside” (52). This notion also therefore suggests a relationship between place and things that are on the move, or between place and mobility (52). Assemblage theory is derived from the work of Deleuze and Guattari, particularly A Thousand Plateaus (and that sound you just heard was my realization that I’ll have to read that difficult and lengthy book as part of this project), but it is developed by Manuel DeLanda in his book, A New Philosophy of Society: Assemblage Theory and Social Complexity. An assemblage, in Cresswell’s summary, is a unique whole, and its properties emerge from the relationships that exist between its parts (52). Assemblages are distinct from organic structures, however, which are also composed of parts. Organic structures depend on each part in order to exist, and if a constituent part is removed, an organic structure will cease to exist in a recognizable way (52). In an assemblage, on the other hand, “constituent parts can be removed and replaced,” and those parts “can then enter other assemblages and contribute to new ‘unique wholes’” (52-53). “The ways in which parts are combined in an assemblage are not structurally necessary of preordained,” Cresswell suggests. “They are not directed by some higher force. Their combination is contingent” (53). Places, Cresswell continues, “are ideal candidates for the status of assemblages” (53). Assemblages involve two key axes. The first axis connects the two key roles played by elements of an assemblage: expressive roles and material roles. “[T]hese are easily mapped on to the ways we [think] about a place having a material existence (locale, landscape) and an expressive existence (in so far as places are meaningful, cultural entities),” Cresswell writes (53-54). The second axis, Cresswell suggests, “links forces that make a place cohere (territorializing forces) and those that pull it apart (deterritorializing forces)” (54). In a home, for example, there are forces that stabilize its identity (both legal and physical—a deed, a main beam) and processes that make that identity less stable (entropy, the lines that lead out from the home to the wider world) (54). For Cresswell, the poststructualist notion of assemblage suggests a way of seeing “how places are syncretic wholes made up of parts and how any particular place is connected to the wide world beyond from which things are gathered and to which things are dispersed. Any consideration of the unique collection of parts that makes up a place has to take into account the relations between that place and what lies beyond it” (54).

In the conclusion to this chapter, Cresswell argues that these various approaches suggest that place can be apprehended at three levels. The first level consists of a descriptive approach to place, which focuses on the distinctiveness and particularity of places. The second is the social constructionist approach to place, where the particularity of places are instances of more general underlying social processes. Finally, there is a phenomenological approach to place, which “seeks to define the essence of human existence as one that is necessarily and importantly ‘in-place’”; this approach is not interested in specific places at all, but in place as a general phenomenon (55-56). According to Cresswell, in creative writing about place “we see all of the three levels of place theory in action simultaneously” (58). Place-writing practices provide descriptive accounts of individual places, but at the same time they also grapple with the phenomenological significance of places to their inhabitants and the ways in which power and society produce and are produced by places (58). I like the sudden shift to writing practices at the end of this theoretical chapter, and I will remember Cresswell’s remarks when I start reading examples of place-writing later on this year.

One of my interests is the connection between place and mobility—particularly walking—and so I was most interested in Cresswell’s third chapter, which addresses this topic. How is the idea of place, and actual places, related to the idea of mobility, and to actual mobilities? he asks (62). He begins to discuss this question by referring to David Seamon, a phenomenological geographer who, drawing on the work of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, believed that bodily mobility, rather than rootedness and authenticity, was “the key component to the understanding of place” (63). Seamon’s aim was to give an account of place as embodied (63), and he argued that “[t]he mobilities of bodies combine in space and time to produce an existential insideness—a feeling of belonging within the rhythm of life in place” (64). Seamon developed a notion of “place-ballet”: a way of thinking about how “many time-space routines” combine in “a particular location,” which Cresswell describes as “an evocative metaphor for our everyday experience of place” which “suggests that places are performed on a daily basis through people living their everyday life. . . . It is through participating in these daily performances that we get to know a place and feel part of it” (64). 

From Seamon’s “place-ballet,” Cresswell moves to Lefebvre’s arguments about the way rhythm is produced in a city—both the rhythm of individual bodies and the rhythm demanded by advanced capitalist society (64). Lefebvre was primarily interested in the rhythms that are imposed on bodies, rather than the ones they develop themselves. “Clearly the things people do in place—the practices that, in turn, produce a lively sense of place—are not always the result of free will,” Cresswell notes. “Some actions are freer than others and it is therefore necessary to take into account restraints on action that are the product of social hierarchies and power relations within society” (65). Lefebvre’s account of urban rhythms became the subject of geographers influenced by structuration theory. Allan Pred, for instance, argues that place is too often thought of “in terms of fixed visible and measurable attributes,” and instead of this kind of fixity, place should be thought of in ways that emphasize “change and process” (65). Structuration theory, which Cresswell associates with the work of sociologists Anthony Giddens and Pierre Bourdieu, is an attempt 

to describe and understand the relations between the overarching structures that influence our lives (ranging from big structures such as capitalism and patriarchy to smaller-scale structures such as national and local institutions) and our own ability to exercise agency in our everyday lives. Structurationists say that our actions are neither determined by structures above and beyond us, nor completely the product of free will. Structures depend on our actions to exist and our actions are given meaning by the structures that lie beyond them. (66)

Applications of structuration theory to geography acknowledge that we inhabit material landscapes that we had little say in constructing. “These landscapes have walls, doors, windows, spaces of flow (roads, paths, bridges, etc.) that we have to negotiate in order to live,” Cresswell writes:

We cannot walk through walls and we are unlikely to wander down the middle of the road without endangering our lives. Places also have less concrete structures. Laws and rules pervade space. . . . At any given moment in time, place provides a geographically specific set of structures. But even with layer upon layer of structuring conditions no one can safely predict what you or I are going to do. (66)

Desire lines (or desire paths) across lawns are one everyday example of the way that agency is expressed in places. At this point, Cresswell returns to the work of Allan Pred. “Places are never finished but always the result of processes and practices,” Cresswell suggests, summarizing Pred’s argument. “As such, places need to be studied in terms of the ‘dominant institutional projects,’ the individual biographies of people negotiating a place, and the way in which a sense of place is developed through the interaction of structure and agency” (68). Along with Pred, geographers Nigel Thrift and Derek Gregory have been influential in developing notions of process and practice in human geography (69).

The distinction between place and space is what poststructuralists call a binary opposition, and Edward Soja’s work, according to Cresswell, represents a challenge to the binaries that have been at the centre of geographical discourse. Soja argues that “Thirdspace,” or lived space, disrupts the opposition between Firstspace (positivist space, which is empirically measurable and mappable phenomena) and “Secondspace” (humanist space, which is perceived, perceived, subjective and imagined, the domain of representations and image) (69). “Thirdspace, or lived space,” Cresswell writes,

is therefore a different way of thinking. Thirdspace is practiced and lived rather than simply being material (conceived) or mental (perceived). Thirdspace is always both/and—always in excess of the ability of dualistic space to discipline it. The focus on the lived world does seem to provide theoretical groundwork for thinking about a politics of space based on place as lived, practiced, and inhabited space. (69-70)

“In these terms,” Cresswell continues, “places are never established. They only operate through constant and reiterative practice” (70). Places are like desire paths, then, or even footpaths, which grow over, eventually, if they are not used. They are practices, rather than things.

Another writer who focuses on place as a practice is Michel de Certeau, whose book The Practice of Everyday Life is, Cresswell suggests, “[o]ne of the books that has proved most useful to thinking about the issue of practice in relation to space and place”—even though de Certeau uses those terms in ways that upend the normal distinction geographers make between those two terms. For de Certeau, “place is the empty grid over which practice occurs while space is what is created by practice” (70). For Cresswell, the “central tension” in de Certeau’s work “is between a systemic grammar of place—an order that we inhabit and is not constructed by us—and our ability to use this grammar in ways which are not predetermined” (70). The work of Soja and de Certeau, Cresswell writes, 

shows us how place is constituted through reiterative social practice, how place is made and remade on a daily basis. Place provides a template for practice—an unstable stage for performance. Thinking of place as performed and practiced can help us think of place in radically open and non-essentialized ways, where place is constantly struggled over and reimagined in practical ways. Place is the raw material for the creative production of identity rather than an a priori label of identity. Place provides the conditions of possibility for creative social practice. (70-71)

Place becomes an event, rather than a thing, and is therefore “marked by openness and change rather than boundedness and permanence,” Cresswell continues. “This significantly alters the value put on place as it is constructed from the outside rather from the inside” (71). 

Another geographer who has written about place and mobility is Marc Augé, who suggests that in postmodernity, which is marked by circulation, consumption, and communication, has revealed the traditional definition of place as being anchored in one location as a fantasy (78). Rather than places, “non-places” are typical of the postmodern world—sites marked by transience and a preponderance of mobility, by the fleeting, temporary, and ephemeral (78). Tuan suggested that such experiences of place are superficial (78-79), but in the 1990s, geographers like Augé and Thrift abandoned Tuan’s and Relph’s implicit moral judgements about the inauthenticity and lack of commitment involved in mobility (80-81). “Augé’s thesis of non-place as a new kind of spatial arena, distinct from the deep map of anthropological place, is mirrored in the work of anthropologists and others who locate the production of identities in cosmopolitan forms of mobility rather than in stable and bounded places,” Cresswell writes, noting that terms like “transnational,” “diasporic,” “hybrid,” and “cosmopolitan,” which imply a critique of the idea that identities are formed in specific places, became central to geographical discourse. However, Cresswell argues, such terms are complicated. For example, a “cosmopolitan identity may be formed through mobility and a decrease in the importance of one’s own place, but it simultaneously depends on continued variation in the world—the existence of recognizably different places inhabited by ‘locals’” (83). Cresswell cites the work of anthropologist Anna Tsing in this regard, who argues that there is friction in the encounter between “mobile universals” and “the ‘sticky materiality of practical encounters’” (83-84). Cresswell concludes that mobility has always been part of place, citing Lucy Lippard’s suggestion that when we enter new places, we become one of the ingredients of their existing hybridity, since that’s what local places consist of (84-85). It’s an interesting thought, and it suggests that I need to reread at least the introduction to Lippard’s The Lure of the Local as part of this project.

Cresswell’s fourth chapter focuses on the way place has been thought about in one influential reading: Doreen Massey’s “A Global Sense of Place,” which has been described as “a plea for a new conceptualization of place as open and hybrid—a product of interconnecting flows—of routes rather than routes,” according to Cresswell (88). Massey’s “extroverted notion of place,” he continues, “calls into question the whole history of place as a center of meaning connected to a rooted and ‘authentic’ sense of identity forever challenged by mobility. It also makes a critical intervention into widely held notions of the erosion of place through mobility, globalization, and time-space compression” (88). Cresswell chose this reading, he continues, “because it allows for reflection on all of the central themes surrounding the notion of place, and points towards a new way of thinking” (88).

Cresswell begins this discussion with a description of the context of the early 1990s, when Massey’s essay was first published. “It seemed that two complementary changes were occurring at a global scale—the repetition of outlets owned by multinational corporations everywhere across the globe (homogenization) and the flowering of a diverse array of international cultural products in urban areas everywhere,” he writes. “Both of these appeared to threaten the notion of unique places” (89). One response to this situation was David Harvey’s argument that while the idea of place is ambiguous: it is both a potential resistance against global capitalism, but it can also be an exclusionary force in a world when people define themselves against threatening others “who are not included in the particular vision of place being enacted” (96-97). According to Cresswell, Massey’s essay is a response to that kind of thinking; it “hinges on a redefinition of place as an inclusive and progressive site of social life” (97). 

Massey’s first move—her essay, by the way, is available online and is well worth reading—is to question the assumptions about time-space compression and globalism that were dominant at the time. Global processes, she notes, involve gender and race as well as capitalism, and the reasons people move are not homogenous: some are forced to move, while others are forced to stay still. The point, she argues, is to recognize the specificity of people’s experiences of mobility (99). “To simply see place as a static and rooted reaction to a dynamic and mobile world holds several problems for Massey,” Cresswell writes. “First, it may be the case that people do need some sense of place to hold on to—even a need for rootedness—and this need not always be reactionary. Second, the flow and flux of global movement might not necessarily be anxiety-provoking” (102). A reactionary sense of place is marked by at least three interconnected ways of thinking, according to Massey: “a close connection between place and a singular form of identity”; “a desire to show how the place is authentically rooted in history”; and finally, “a need for a clear sense of boundaries around a place separating it from the world outside” (102). However, Massey argues, using her own London neighbourhood, Kilburn, as an example, there are no singular identities; history is a complex series of “journeys and connections”; and boundaries are not places but rather divisions between “them” and “us” (102-04). Kilburn, according to Massey, is “a celebration of diversity and hybridity” (105). Massey’s extroverted, progressive, global sense of place sees it as a process, defined by the outside, a site of multiple identities and histories, with a uniqueness defined by its interactions with other places (108). This idea, Cresswell notes, is a very different definition of place than the ones that went before it—both in the phenomenological geography of Tuan and Relph, where place does not involve movement, and in the work of Augé, who contends that movement creates non-places (108). 

However, Cresswell argues, there is a problem in Massey’s definition of place: “it is hard to point to anything specific about it” (108). Massey’s version of Kilburn as a place is “no more than an accidental coming together of many different flows in one location” (108). Moreover, he continues, people do “invest (in non-reactionary ways) in a search for comparative fixity,” and there exist places where “a little more globalization would be welcome” for the people who live in them (108-09). Cresswell turns to Jon May’s research in another London neighbourhood, Stoke Newington, to suggest that we ought to be careful about “putting all our eggs in one theoretical basket in regards to place” (110). Some residents of Stoke Newington see that neighbourhood as possessing an “iconography of Englishness,” while others see it as lacking those very qualities (111). Some residents enjoy the neighbourhood’s diversity in an aestheticized way: “the stand back from the crowd and enjoy it in all its variety,” so that the diversity they behold becomes “a picturesque scene that gives those who look on a sense of cultural capital—a sense of their own self-worth in being able to appreciate difference” (112). This aesthetic appreciation can’t be reconciled with either Harvey’s or Massey’s sense of place, Cresswell argues (112). “May’s engagement with Stoke Newington and its residents provides a third example of the politics of place in a globalized world,” he writes, one in which “[t]he simple, observable, fact of diversity does not necessarily produce a progressive sense of place and the search for roots in history does not have to be reactionary” (113).

Cresswell’s fifth and sixth chapters are of less interest to me. Chapter five looks at the ways that place an be used in research and practice (115). In the work Cresswell discusses in this chapter, place is used “as an analytical concept in accounts of the process of shaping meaning and practice in material space”—in other words, the ways that meanings, practices, and material spaces are produced and consumed (115). Places are in process, in this work; they are never finished and “produced through the reiteration of practices—the repetition of seemingly mundane activities on a daily basis” (116). Among the examples of research Cresswell discusses are Geraldine Pratt’s examination of the lives of Filipina contract workers in Vancouver, anthropologist Arturo Escobar’s research into the ways that global processes can be questioned by a focus on place, and Nina Wakeford’s study of a cybercafé in the 1990s. He also looks at Miwon Kwon’s discussion of site-specific art, in which she suggests that “site” or place can be understood in three different ways: phenomenological or experiential, social or institutional, and discursive (154). The sixth chapter looks at things and people that are out of place—on anachorism, to use Cresswell’s neologism (165-66). Among the examples he thinks about here are sexually diverse people in public spaces, the homeless, refugees, tramps, and animals that are out of place. Interestingly, he refers to anthropologist Liisa Malkki’s notion of “sedentarist metaphysics”—the notion that there are fixed, bounded, rooted conceptions of culture and identity (173-74). I’d read that phrase before, in Cresswell’s On the Move: Mobility in the Modern Western World, but I didn’t realize that he hadn’t coined it himself. The conclusion to this chapter functions as a conclusion to the rest of the book: “Place is constantly evoked in the world at large and has an extraordinary impact on the way in which people, animals, and all manner of things are represented and treated,” he writes (191). While place is not just an academic preoccupation, it is “one of the most important interdisciplinary concepts for the twenty-first century” (191).

The last chapter is an extended bibliography, which lists books and articles on place that aren’t included in the bibliographies Cresswell provides at the close of each chapter. I found this bibliography quite useful, particularly the short list of creative non-fiction about place, and although I really don’t need more books and articles to read, I’ve managed to find cheap used copies online. Once again I’m reminded of the need to rework my reading list—to incorporate some of the texts I’ve learned about in my reading, and to demote others to the “secondary” list—the books, in other words, I’m not likely to get around to reading this year.

Cresswell’s discussion of place is helpful, because it adds to what I’ve learned by reading Tuan. In fact, as a primer on place, it helps contextualize Tuan’s work, and it identifies critiques of that work—and both of those are very important for me. I’m working on a proposal for a conference paper on pilgrimage, walking, and place, and Cresswell’s book has given me a wider sense of the literature on the topic of place that is extremely valuable for that project. So for that reason alone I’m happy I read this book.

Works Cited

Cresswell, Tim. On the Move: Mobility in the Modern Western World. Routledge, 2006.

———. Place: An Introduction. 2nd ed., Wiley Blackwell, 2015.

Massey, Doreen. “A Global Sense of Place.” Marxism Today, June 1991, pp. 24-29.

24. Phil Smith, Mythogeography: A Guide to Walking Sideways, and “Crab Walking and Mythogeography”


In his essay “Walking Through Ruins,” part of the Ways of Walking anthology, cultural geographer Tim Edensor writes about the failure of linear narratives to adequately convey the experience of walking. “Stories that are fragmented, non-linear, impressionistic and contingent are better suited than traditional linear narratives to the experience of walking in ruins,” Edensor contends (137). I’m willing to bet that Edensor would like Phil Smith’s book Mythogeography: A Guide to Walking Sideways. It’s a deliberately fragmentary, iterative, playful, and non-linear text, one that both defines and performs the term “mythogeography.” (I’m betting that Edensor would like Smith’s book, but I know Smith likes Edensor’s essay: he cites it approvingly several times.) All of these qualities are going to make it difficult—well, impossible, actually—to summarize effectively, but I’m going to make the attempt, because although my own walking practice isn’t an example of mythogeography, it’s an important term in art walking, and there are aspects of mythogeography that I’d like to incorporate in my walks.

Mythogeography begins with a lengthy account of a walk Smith made, following in the footsteps of Charles Hurst, a man who, early in the twentieth century, set out to plant oak trees during a 200-mile walk in England. At first, I wasn’t sure that Hurst was real, or that he actually set out on that oak-planting expedition, and although the book Hurst wrote about the experience, The Book of the English Oak is real (I’ve ordered a copy, in fact), I’m not convinced that Hurst’s walk ended when his dog, Pontiflunk, was run over by a car. In fact, I’m not quite certain where the line between fiction and fact in Smith’s account might be, and that’s deliberate—it’s part of the point of mythogeography to construct what Smith describes as “limited myths” and other fictions about walking, and while walking. Smith’s account of his walk focuses on what he saw and experienced along the way, as well as on his interactions with other people. It’s also a performance text (at least, it identifies itself as such at its conclusion), which suggests one way of circulating or presenting the results of mythogeographic research: through performance, with one performance (the walk) leading to another (the talk). I find it interesting that Smith begins with an account of a solo walk, because the primary mythogeographic method, the “drift” or dérive, is a form of walking that tends to involve groups of pedestrians, and I wonder if that means that other solo walks could fall into this category. In any case, most of the mythogeographic techniques or practices described later in the book don’t seem to be related to solo walking, which makes the opening text seem rather unique. 

Smith’s story of walking is interrupted by footnotes as well, which refer to other walkers and/or writers, and otherwise comment on the experience. For example, he describes the walks of visual artists Richard Long and Hamish Fulton, as well as the circumambulation of Britain carried out by Chinese performance artist He Yun Chang, as “exceptionalist walks, solo and gargantuan,” and therefore somewhat exclusive (by which I think he means non- or anti-democratic) (24). Sometimes Smith’s references to other writers are frustrating, because he doesn’t identify specific sources: he suggests that Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari describe the qualities of the everyday as being resistant to power by their very nature, and therefore automatically subversive—an interesting idea, but I don’t know where it came from (probably their book A Thousand Plateaus, which I’m afraid that I’m going to have to add to my list—afraid, because it’s long and notoriously difficult) (35). Even if those references are somewhat oblique, he reveals the authors who have influenced him in the footnotes: Slavoj Žižek, Mike Pearson, Doreen Massey. He summarizes Massey’s ideas about space, for instance (95). Smith also comments on aspects of his walk that are theoretically or methodologically important; for instance, he describes his way of relating to others while walking as “practicing strangerhood, and suggests that it leads to civility from others (46). 

Following this example of mythogeography, the book begins to theorize this term—to explain what it means. It presents “the nearest to theory . . . that mythogeography has got so far” (108). Smith’s account of mythogeography here refuses to systematize it. Mythogeography, he writes, 

must always be a mixture of thoughts and actions, and not so much a theory, but a series of approaches, a set of modest survival strategies, a bran tub of perfigurative behaviours plus the honesty to say that no one knows what is going to happen. So this is more a toolbag of ideas for those wanting to create their own mythogeographical practice and less a guide to the philosophy that may one day strangle it. (110)

Mythogeography started in site-specific theatre (particularly the work of Wrights & Sites, the site-specific theatre group Smith has been involved with for years), in a struggle “to expose people to what was most immediate rather than what was distant and desired on behalf of others” (110). Rather than have actors perform in specific places, the goal of Wrights & Sites was to make those places perform themselves. 

Smith then presents an 18-point manifesto of mythogeography. It is an “experimental approach to the site of performance . . . as a space of multiple layers,” Smith writes (113). It is also “a geography of the body” that involves seeing the world “from multiple viewpoints at any one time,” and a philosophy of mobile perception that uses the senses to actively seek information and to perceive differences rather than objects (113). Its space “is neither bounded nor sliced by time, but is made up of trajectories, routes, lines of journey and cargo” and aspires to “a new, mobile architecture of exchange where strangers are changed into friends” (113). It is an exploratory practice that is “guided by its periphery” (114). It mythologizes the mythographer (114). It is a reaction against the labeling of “historic” places by the heritage industry and “agencies of national and municipal identity-making” (114), and it deliberately sets out to transform “quotidian spaces into sites of wonder” (115). Its “weapons against the monocular”—mythogeography is all about multiple perspectives—include “the politics and theatre of the everyday,” psychography (more about that in a moment), and “geological, archaeological and historiographical methods,” or at least parodies or reversals of such methods (115). Mythogeography is self-reflexive, because “it regards the mythogeographer, the performer and the activist as being just as much multiplicitous and questionable sites as the landscapes they move in” (115). It is part of a practice of disruptions and explorations by performers, walkers, urban explorers, and artists of the everyday (Smith provides a list of names of such people who are either exemplars or models) (115). It “uses techniques of collection, trespass and observation, and a mapping that upsets functional journeys,” and it sets out “to heighten or change perception” (116). “It subjects the layers of meaning in any place to a rigorous historiographical (or alternative and appropriate) interrogation, while connecting the diverse layers and exploiting the gaps between them as places of revelation and change,” while avoiding “scientific” aloofness and any collapse into “a monocular satire or a capitulation to safe and policed forms of eccentricity” (116). It practices a “hermeneutics of fear” and uses “a low-level paranoia” to test “the over-explanation of things” (116). It doesn’t “discriminate between respectable and non-respectable types of knowledge,” mixing together popular culture, trash, and autobiographical or non-rational associations, while reaching “for a poetics of the Spectacle” (one of many references Smith makes to Guy Debord’s book The Society of the Spectacle). Mythogeography studies dynamic forms and patterns of patterns. Its tool kit is made up of fanciful, conceptual, or microscopic practices, and its material components are banal (116). It’s a hyphenated practice, and rather than being a finished model, it is rather a general approach that emphasizes hybridity without determining what combination of elements constitutes that hybridity (116). It is, finally, “an invitation to practise, to share and to connect, but also to take the risk of comparison and to practise implicit and explicit criticism of each other’s practices and theories” (116).

Many of the ideas in that manifesto are reiterated throughout the remainder of the book; the manifesto, then, is a summary (of sorts) of what is coming. After the manifesto, Smith presents a 25-point extract from what I am taking to be an imaginary text (this book is essentially a compilation of imaginary texts) called “The Handbook of Drifting.” These 25 points describe the drift or dérive, the primary method of psychogeography, following the walking practices developed by the Situationists (a group led, sort of, by Guy Debord) in the 1950s. These points are also reiterated later in the book: like walking itself, which is an iterative activity (one footstep follows another), Mythogeography’s repetitions are an essential aspect of its form. Smith suggests that drifting is not a leisure activity, and that drifts should end abruptly, left “raw, amputated, ready to feed back into the next drift” (118). Drifters should begin with a theme of some kind (Smith provides a few examples). They should sensitize themselves to their activity and abandon rational way-finding in favour of instinct. “Allow the narrative of your walk to develop,” Smith advises, and as events and experiences collect, use them to “compose” the drift (119). Drifting is “a way to rewind, to review, to re-infuriate, to see as if for the first time all the things you already know, as good myth should help you to do” (119). Drifters should self-consciously play with their senses, watch for mistakes and decay in commercial or bureaucratic signage, watch for accidential architecture (such as pulpits or theatres), and explore ruins. Drifters should compile their own complex taxonomy of places (120). However, they should avoid art unless it has been damaged, and they should avoid shops, cinemas, and other common destinations in favour of public places “that are ‘hidden in plain sight’ and visited by few people,” particularly sites that are not accessible (120). A good drift doesn’t have a leader or a guide; rather, it is “led by its periphery” (120). Drifting is an activity for small groups (between two and seven people), and the members of the group should contact participants after the drift has finished with “fanciful maps,” images, cryptic games based on the drift’s findings (120). Documentation or mementoes of the activity, however, should contain provocations for another drift, rather than being straightforward, descriptive accounts (120). Smith suggests that drifters should displace their “erotic feelings for each other” onto the landscape (121), and yet they should also regard their dialogue while drifting as something precious (121). Listen carefully to strangers, Smith advises—something that his account of repeating Charles Hurst’s walk demonstrates. Ask strangers open questions and leave gaps and silences “so they speak of what they want to tell you” (121). Make monuments with mutable things, but also with mutable situations: the latter form of play is the most important and precious thing, since the opportunity rarely arises, although it is the purpose of the drift (121). Finally, take things along to leave behind, or carry chalk to write symbols (121). 

A series of end notes follows. They reflect or expand upon the previous sections of the book. For instance, Smith suggests that an interest in occult or esoteric knowledge can play a positive role in mythogeography, although “the fate of anglo-psychogeography” presents a caution—not because of its “dalliance with the occult,” but because the effect of that dalliance “has been to attach its dérive to literature” (129). (Such dalliances are apparently characteristic of the writing of psychogeographer Iain Sinclair, whose book Lights Out for the Territory ought to be on my reading list.) Smith also sets out to explain his use of the term “myth” in these notes. He definitely does not mean myth in an ideological sense. Instead, he suggests that myth is useful because of its irrationality, its repetition, and its celebration of excesses that signal life (131). Myth is “a performance of society-building, promising a performing of worlds without the disappointment of a resolution” (131). The kind of myth he advocates is a “limited myth” rather than an absolutist myth (132), and such limited myths are fragmentary and unstable:

Instead of regeneration or renewal, the myth of mythogeography is that of its own non-equilibrium, its temporary interruption of its own decay, and that both these instabilities, (of decay and interruption, and their temporariness) are necessary and desirable. (132)

To avoid “the attentions of an absolutist myth,” mythogeography must “act as if both the subject of itself and the act of criticism that it makes of itself contain reciprocally reacting catalysts” (132). “The trick of this reciprocal catalysis,” Smith writes,

is to make the temporary appear universal through the reciprocity of fragmentation and universality (like two facing mirrors generating an apparently infinite set of repetitions), but never completely observable (having no absolutely correct point of view), so that an act of calculation or imagination is always required to continue (but never complete) the reciprocal sequence: creativity (only at the very end of the process) replaces repetition, while the energy of criticism runs down. (132-33)

To be honest, I’m not sure what this means, but it has something to do with the way Smith values repetition in “contemporary philosophical walking,” such as Deidre Heddon’s re-walking of Mike Pearson’s autobiographical performance Bubbling Tom, or Esther Pilkington’s re-walking of Richard Long’s sculpture Crossing Stones. These are “touchstone of limited mythic creativity” (133).

The notion of limited myth is crucial to mythogeography. Limited myth “eradicates the mapping of ourselves by an external pattern, proposing instead, that the forgotten within, the absences, silences and Not I darknesses are the materials from which our maps can be constructed” (133). These materials, rather than the mythogeographer’s reflections, “trigger the non-equilibrium from which to make a presence of absences,” a non-equilibrium which is “a mark of life, not only in the biological sense that all human activity occurs far from thermodynamic equilibrium, but also in Gilles Deleuze’s sense of the ‘surplus value of destratification,’ the usable energy residual from a process; in other words, creativity” (133). Limited myth acts out a “vertiginous suspendedness,” a suspension over an abyss that is an excess of life (133), and in doing so it is disrupted, in a Brechtian sense, “but not yet revealing the process disrupted; it is a moment of forgetfulness in which only a gesture towards the non-mimetic shadow of what is forgotten briefly flickers before the catalyst retriggers the corporeal senses, and re-opens and unfolds the map of ourselves in the external world” (134). For Smith, it’s in the creases and foldings in that map—and I’m reminded once again of Deleuze’s book, The Fold—that “a damaged, mythic characterisation can be performed” (134). I’m not entirely sure what all of this means, although I can tell that this concept is crucial to mythogeography (I mean, it’s in the name itself, right?). What Smith is after is “[a] rhizomic reaching out for fingerholds on the edges of chaos” (there’s Deleuze and Guattari and A Thousand Plateaus again), a “disrupted myth” suspending “uncontrolled formlessness, chaos, orgy, darkness and water so they become culturally accessible, transferable and repeatable” (136). 

This is a lot to ask of something as simple as walking, but Smith finds in the practice of walking and “within this account of suspended excess” an “opportunity for a revival of a modest utopianism”:

The mythogeographical model for connecting such voids is the land of Cockaigne, a fantasy of superabundant economy with no aspiration to realise itself practically, and yet unable to fully divert the urge for change. It is just such an inversion of an ‘absent cause’; what, Frederic Jameson has argued, history has come to (not) be, that mythogeography now explores in forgotten gaps and voids and interconnecting tunnels, performing an anticipatory text, a series of ‘magic what ifs’ which it does not intend to realise; Cockaignes and détournements. This is not an escape from ideology, for there is none. A mythogeographical, limited myth needs to be able to work, not with a view to the triumph of the utopian over the ideological, but rather to creating a set of mobilities and motions that tend to the utopian, persuading Jameson’s uber-binary of utopia/ideology to operate like one of Levi-Strauss’s antinomies; not quite reconciled in myth, but reconfigured together as the moving parts of a damaged (by forgetting) practice. (136)

So the “modest utopianism” of limited myth is not an escape from ideology—there is no such escape—but instead a gesture towards the utopian that somehow folds these binary opposites (ideology and utopia) together. At least, that’s where I think Smith is going here: I would have to reread Jameson’s The Political Unconscious, I think, to really unpack what’s being argued in this paragraph. “There is a missing piece here—hope,” Smith concludes. “But we have gone as far as—probably further than—present mythogeographical research allows” (136). I wonder if this is an admission that, as a theoretical construction, limited myth might outstrip the possibilities of walking or drifting. I certainly don’t harbour any utopian fantasies about my own walking. Maybe Smith is arguing that, to some limited extent, I should.

A few pages on, Smith discusses another key term in mythogeography: the Spectacle (a word which is always capitalized). My sense is that this term is derived from Debord. The Spectacle is “a critique of the relations between people driven by the production and exchange of images, accelerated by a culture of visuality in which the image has replaced the commodity as the main object of desire” (138). Now, I’m a little confused: I thought that the Spectacle consisted of those relations, rather than of a critique of them; I will have to read Debord’s book to straighten out my confusion. “There is nothing ethereal or mystical about the operations of the Spectacle,” Smith continues:

They are the same relations of consumption as those of spectral finance capital with its addictive relationship to de-centred banking, out-sourcing and the general hollowing out of every available institution and organization. . . . Walking out on the Spectacle has nothing (yet) to do with hope. It is about being paranoid and ready. Learning to be cockroaches. Learning to create theatre in cracks in the pavement, parliaments in back rooms. Acting the aftermath of apocalypse now. (138)

The notion of paranoia returns later. What is clear, again, from this discussion is how much Smith believes walking (or perhaps drifting as a specific kind of walking) can accomplish.

There is a crossover between drifting and performance, Smith suggests. Performance—walking performance, I think, is what is meant here, although I could be wrong—is “a co-operative, but not collective, form of improvisation and ‘devising’”:

A facilitator (often under the guise of an auteur) constructs an orrery of narratives and images, a fluid map of certain, limited thematic trajectories. An anti-team of collaborators then responds to this provocation, restricting themselves to working within the terms of the orrery, but not in a connected collaboration. Instead, they allow their own making to spiral around (but within limits) in as subjective, instinctive and intuitive a manner as the limits allow. (The impulses and associations that fuel these makings will remain private to the individual makers, whose integrity is assured.) (141)

Then the facilitator (usually the facilitator) will construct a montage of those individual productions (141). “The different productions will ‘tell’ their stories at different speeds,” Smith writes. “These relations of different velocities constitute THE STORY” (141). These principles, he concludes, “can apply equally to the composition of a drift . . . as to performance or political intervention or R & D or whatever” (142). I find myself wondering if this description depicts the creative process of Wrights & Sites, and if that process is being held up as a potential model. 

Next comes a “Toolbag of Actions and Notions”—a long series of ideas to help readers come up with ways to begin their own drifts. For instance, one can choose a book from a library at random, then select a page and a word on that page, and then drift until one finds that word (or a word associated with it); then one can choose a second word and continue drifting, and so on (146). Or one can focus on grids: “Create a journey made from lines, vectors, boundaries, border, crossroads, centres, crash barriers, squares and plinths,” recording “the strategies of power and their fractures” as one encounters them (148). Another approach is something Smith calls “Gum Galaxy”: where the sidewalk is covered in discarded chewing gum, one can use chalk to connect the pieces of gum into constellations and then label them using Latin (or a made-up version of Latin) (148). Or one can try “Pilgrimages To A Future Self”: choose a site that represents where you are now, and another site that represents who you want to be, and then create a performance or walk that moves from the first to the second (154). As practical suggestions, the 20 pages of this toolbox are quite useful, and I can see readers of Mythogeography—particularly people who live in a city large enough to hold surprises—returning to them again and again for ideas about new ways to walk (or drift).

In the middle of that toolbox, though, there is an interpolated text by a fictional character, Norma Nomad, who responds to what has been discussed so far, presenting (or performing) a sort of auto-critique of Smith’s entire project in this book. Norma represents a different kind of walker from the drifter Smith is giving suggestions to: a more politically engaged and down-to-earth pedestrian.(Norma’s text is written quickly, she says, and is therefore filled with typographical errors; it is included in the book, she claims, because she bribed the printer.) She writes,

Perhaps if this book was written by women or more women then it might have more to do with most of the walking that goes on—the refugees, the water carriering. Or gong to the garden centre. Thye just boring going to the shops, gfoing to work, the people who have to that are ignored in this book. Now, ehen they begin to walk philosophically, then . . . they will put the deriving zombies in the shade! (156)

Norma seems to demand that history be taken seriously, although the history that interests her is the history (or more likely pseudo-history) of pirates (157). She ends with a call for walking (or mythogeography) to be more inclusive:

I’m not saying ours is the only way, I’m saying there should be room for all the different kinds and no one in mythogography should be snobbish about the different walkers—refugee walkers, queer walkers, street walkers, ‘walkers’ who are escorts, ‘walkers’ in shops, Dongas, ramblers even. . . . Let everyone in! Don’t let anything divide us, even our own stupidity. Nobody fits the pattern of patterns! The whole point is that walking is open to almost everyone. (157-58)

The position of this interruption within Smith’s toolbag for drifters makes me wonder how seriously we should take that toolbag, and to what extent Norma’s words are intended to undercut everything Smith has written in the book. This interruption is definitely an example of auto-critique, but how far should we take that auto-critique? Pretty far, I would think: later on, Smith notes that in many parts of the world, people walk out of necessity and are held in contempt as a result:

In this sense the dérive is an obscenity and a privilege. Philosophical walkers should always walk with extreme sensitivity to the feelings of others. And with an obligation, for they will never be able to walk comfortably until walking is a choice for everyone physically able to make that choice. Nor until those who are not physically able have, wherever possible, access to equivalent mobility. (200)

Moreover, when the toolbag includes suggestions like “Death Walks”—“Draw up the route to your burial or incinerations, along ways and through places that are important to you. It’s good for your health” (161)—how seriously should we take the suggestions it makes? I think the text here is performing the instability that, Smith argues, is an inherent part of mythogeography. Norma’s words aren’t the only time the text introduces a contradicting voice: later, during what is billed at the outset as an important theoretical text, “The Orrery,” the publisher interrupts, telling us that he hates this part of the text, and that the truth is that “there is no ‘mytho.’ And there is no ‘geography.’ The once cancels out the other. Two stones swapped” (182-83). 

From the toolbag, the text slides into theoretical fragments about mythogeography which echo and amplify what we have already read. For example: “Mythogeography does not create new objects (there are already enough objects: Arte Povera), it makes gaps, hybrids, intervals—it operates in holey space” (170). Or this statement on paranoia:

By cultivating a low level paranoia the explorer can develop a super-sensitivity to the textures, details, signage and symbols of the street. The paranoid walker over-interprets the street, countering ideology’s . . . effect of under-explanation. It is the reverse of the principle of Occam’s Razor. (178)

Smith also refers to “Kierkegaardian ‘dread’” as well, “a fear without cause” that “might also trigger anxieties for which there is no material cause, only virtual ones,” which leads to the conclusion that “paranoia is the whippet that chases ideology to its deepest tunnels” (178). But the mythogeographer also needs to cultivate “a complementary depressive consciousness . . . one of weaving and healing,” which sews together “segments, fragments and compartments,” and the “coruscating price to pay for this” is a future “constructed from threads of fakery, plagiarised diagrams and mistaken charts, the compartments are woven together with the thrill of simulation” (179). Footnotes here reference an essay on paranoia by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, and Jacques Lacan’s use of knots—perhaps in an essay in Écrits (I’m not entirely sure). Smith also describes what he means by wormholes—“wrinkles in the fabric of space [that] bring far away places very close,” the way that we can imagine, while trying on clothing in a store, “the workshop of the child labourers who made the garment in your hand” (204). He also explains the term “holey spaces”: “unsurveilled or partially surveilled spaces, typically on the edges of cities (206). These repetitions are important, because they clarify points Smith made earlier; they are also, no doubt, performances of mythogeography as well.

“Walking is important as a form of activism,” Smith writes “Because it is an anachronism in many parts of the world (the adjective ‘pedestrian’ is often used to mean dull, old-fashioned), it has a certain purchase, a resistance to fashion” (198). The relationship between walking and mythogeography, he continues, is “entirely accidental,” although he also suggests that “[m]ythogeographical walking is an act of resistance to wayfinding” and that it is “a participatory, rather than immersive or distanced, flow state, in which self and world and time slide within each other. . . . Changes of step and rhythm effect changes of consciousness” (198). These contradictory statements once again, I would think, perform the instability and auto-critique that is built into mythogeography, something Smith more or less admits: “The mythogeographical dérive is a detour, a diversion from the functional journey. . . . In this sense play and irony are already built into the practice” (199).

Smith’s book doesn’t reach a conclusion. Instead, it ends with a series of lists of books and other texts about mythogeography and related topics. I think this anticlimax is another performance. This time, it’s a performance of the way Smith suggests a dérive ought to end: abruptly. Its unfinished nature, he contends, will lead to the need for another dérive (118).

I like the playfulness and performative quality of this book, but at the same time, I’m on a mission—today, to understand precisely what Smith means by “mythogeography”—and so I turned to his essay “Crab Walking and Mythogeography,” an exegesis of his performance texts The Crab Walks and Crab Walks Again. That essay presents his ideas about mythogeography in a more linear fashion. He begins autobiographically, noting that when he shifted from writing and making plays in traditional theatre spaces to creating site-specific performances, he dragged “the limitations of the theatre” along with him (81). He considered the landscape in which performances were staged to be a mere backdrop: “I had yet to understand that a site might—and might be encouraged to—perform,” he writes (81). The result, he continues, “was an aesthetic practice of walking”:

This walking began as an anti-theatrical act, and while elements of theatricality have resurfaced in its practice, that tension remains. And interdependency, too: for the site-based performances of Wrights & Sites revealed places to be as performed as the performances in them. This understanding—at first as a problem to be removed—would eventually inform the development of walking into something more tactical. (82)

Smith recalls moments during Wrights & Sites 1997 production The Quay Thing when 

the sites would perform at the expense of and despite the performance. It took a long time to realize that this was the performance. This was the specificity. And that the site-artist’s work was simply to provoke these specificities, to accelerate their decay, to destabilize their poise. And that we should not only make the performances that ‘performed’ us, not importing themes or fictions, but at most our associations, memories, misunderstandings: our mythogeographies just like those of our sites. (82)

“It was necessary, certainly for me, to be forced to move further from theatre before I could begin to grasp the theatricality of sites themselves,” Smith writes. This realization led him to the psychogeographic writing of Iain Sinclair, the walking performances of Mike Pearson, and the Situationist dérive, which he describes as “a spontaneous and playful travelling and research through cities, seeking out those spaces where ambiance resists the imperatives and spectacle of capital; seeking through a process of détournement (the redeployment of sclerotic art forms) to make ‘situations,’ locations where people can make experiments in new ways of urban living” (82-83).

The term “mythogeography” came from Wrights & Sites, and was a shorthand for a resistance “to the monocular-identity manufactured by Tourist Boards and Local Councils” (84). Mythogeography, he continues, is

a pseudo-discipline that equally values unbuilt proposals, murders, victims, lies and rumours, subjective associations, places of intense atmosphere, lost histories, unusual sightings, gossips, ghosts, diaphanous traces of the secrete state, reserve collections, library stacks, wormholes, old signage that has become hieroglyphic and the banal details of mass production as much as any official historiography. (84)

Smith says that he wanted to push the category further, both as a set of generalized principles and as a practice (85), and several books—including Stephen Graham’s The Gentle Art of Tramping, Geoffrey Murray’s The Gentle Art of Walking, and Arthur Machen’s The London Adventure or the Art of Wandering—were helpful in this project. He began to read scientific literature as well, something he had ignored in school (86), and that reading, I think, is the source of some of the statements in Mythogeography that I found hard to understand. Smith became increasingly aware of the different ways that walking is practiced by artists in many places; walking art, he notes, is an “eclectic practice, as likely to wander in from architecture, social activism or visual arts as from performance” (88). Smith was particularly inspired by the Situationists, “whose critiques of tourism and art have both philosophically denied legitimacy to and waved on a self-consciously aesthetic walking” (88). Many walking artists raid situationist terminology, using “drift” or “dérive” to describe exploratory walks, and “psychogeography” to talk about both the subconscious of the landscape and its mapping, although Smith notes that the terms “spectacle” and “the critique of everyday life” are rarely used (88). “Contemporary ‘drifters’—both solitary and in groups—may be sympathetic to much of the situationists’ social critique, but are nervous of their coruscating history of exclusionary antics,” Smith writes. “There is little enthusiasm for their revolutionary ‘situation’-making to which ‘drifts’ were intended to lead, nor for the situationists’ wider collective organizational aspirations” (88). 

Smith’s own theoretical project, as it has developed into mythogeography, is, he writes, 

an attempt to map the vicious monopolization of human possibilities described in the situationists’ critique of everyday life with exceptional, détourned, disrupted, increasingly patterned and emergent (rather than everyday) “tactics” necessary for the diffusion of that monopoly, seeking these from within (or not far from) the present range of walking and site-related aesthetic practice. (88)

He wants to address the disparity between “the theoretical hegemony of the situationists” and “the actual practices of contemporary walking artists” by “increasing the theoretical and technical ideas in orbit” (88). The point of a mythogeographical drift, he writes, is to set “different and contradictory elements in motion about each other in order to confront patterns of meaning usually invisible to physically static contemplation” (88). To do this, he continues, requires the use of autobiography: “the artist-walker must set self and route in motion through the shapes and the narratives of the landscape, each threatening the others with dissolution in the acceleration of their actions” (88). In the drift and “in the motion of mythogeographic theory, the subjective loses its authority, unleashing the everyday from its industrialization into eccentricity . . . releasing pleasure into a socialized ‘whirl’” (89). 

For Smith, The Crab Walks and Crab Steps Aside are examples of this approach. In those performances, he writes,

I set out to place the autobiographical in an instrumental role, as the emotional motor for destabilizing the assumed, as a diffusion, not for its own sake, but one that allowed me to dismantle certain narratives and ideas before an audience, and as a rhetoric for encouraging them to disrupt themselves and diffuse their own dismantling. The performances sought to challenge the authenticity of their own autobiographical voice. In both pieces I often say that I cannot remember things, that strong emotional memories evaporate in the face of their supposed sites, that what I felt most strongly mine came to feel alien and shared. (90)

His aim was to mythologize the autobiographical, he continues: “And not my own in particular, but anyone’s. To bring the autobiographical into a play of generalities” (90). 

Smith wants to explore patterns and fluctuations in patterns, and his scientific reading is a rich source of metaphors to describe that focus. For example, he describes his interest in changes that

involve very small transfers of energy, because there are patterns of information rather than force, just as off-course satellites with minimal propulsion resources have been successfully transferred from one orbit to another by “playing” their low “card” just at the point where the entanglement of extremely powerful gravitational forces will yield a disproportionate effect. It is mostly the understanding of the dynamic patterns at work that “causes” change. In order, then, for equivalent social patterns to be successfully provoked, it requires artists or anti-artists who are “informed” in the non-empirical patterns (basins) of attraction in their city or society and who are able to appropriately deploy the small transfers of energy to provoke the “sinking” of a basin or tunnelling into an existing basin necessary to trigger the city/system to change, particularly—to follow this model—when the tunnelling is to an attraction that cannot be easily satisfied. This is the return of a situationist strategy, a provocation of site working itself along the continuum of theatrical site-specificity to its most radical edge: goading the city (or rural system) into “performing itself.” (93)

I have to admit that I don’t fully understand this idea, but the advantage of the essay over the book is that Smith provides a full bibliography in the essay, so that it’s possible to read his sources in order to understand how those (metaphorical?) transfers of energy might work.

The destabilization or contortion of the self that is produced by mythogeography, Smith argues, can be playfully projected into a utopia:

The ruins of self evoke the possibilities of everything else—autobiography made mythical, made mythogeographical. Space, place, environment, route and way are not passive surfaces for traversal nor blank pages on which the active walker writes nor accomplished texts awaiting reading, but are active: both psychical and physical, but also something that is neither. They are “characters” that the “drifter” seeks to provoke into performances of themselves, through the rearrangement of signs, the placing of objects, the carrying of “burdens,” the leaving of messages, the re-constructing of rubbish-heaps: theatricalities that, in turn, theatricalize quotidian behaviours around them, re-performing space into something resistant to the intentions of its planners, designers and controllers. (98)

The playfulness involved in the mythogeographic drift is a provocation. “It sets off a political reaction: the a-functionality of play offers no ‘real’ threat to the functions of the space, but as the antithesis of these functions the managers of space often seem ‘forced’ to ‘take it seriously,’ to shadow the frivolity of the ‘player,’” Smith writes. “In doing so these controllers are forced to ‘play’ their roles in order to hang onto them; they speak their subtexts, expose their training, their orders, their own psychogeographies” (98-99). Here, as in Mythogeography, Smith expresses a belief in the political function of drifts and, by extension, walking performances. In both drifts and performances, he argues, participants need to take on leadership roles. The resulting “fraying of authority becomes, by necessity, exploratory, but is equally necessarily fraught with disturbance,” he writes. “Walking becomes disorienteering, its internal uncertainty offering, at worst, opportunities for a re-development of power geometries” (101). 

Smith emphasizes the role of play in mythogeography, and while reading his words I realized how my own walks are not playful. The histories to which I typically respond don’t allow for playfulness as an appropriate response. Nor does the difficulty of the land in which those walks take place. My walks are closer to the “gargantuan” solo walks of Long or Fulton or He Yun Chang. And yet I think I have something to learn from Smith’s work, and from his theorization of mythogeography. How can I create walks that are disorienteering, that provide opportunities for challenging geometries of power? Can long, solo, rural walks do those things? What political impact might such walks have? Can I theorize their potential effects? Or is Smith’s sense of what walking or drifting might accomplish too ambitious? I find myself drawn back to the long, rural walk with which Smith begins Mythogeography. What is the relationship between that walk and my own practice—and how might either relate to Smith’s theoretical framework? These are important questions, I think, and I anticipate that I will find myself writing about them later on in this project. It’s important that I’ve read these texts now, because I can start thinking about these questions and how to respond to them.

Works Cited

Debord, Guy. The Society of the Spectacle. Trans. Fredy Perlman, Black & Red, 1983.

Deleuze, Gilles, and Felix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Trans. Brian Massumi. U of Minnesota P, 1987.

Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: The First Complete Edition in English. Trans. Bruce Fink, Norton, 2006.

Jameson, Fredric. The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act. Cornell UP, 1982.

Smith, Phil. “Crab Walking and Mythogeography.” Walking, Writing and Performance: Autobiographical Texts by Deidre Heddon, Carl Lavery and Phil Smith. Ed. Roberta Mock, Intellect, 2009, pp. 81-114.

———. Mythogeography: A Guide to Walking Sideways. Triarchy, 2010.

23. Tim Ingold and Jo Lee Vergunst, editors, Ways of Walking: Ethnography and Practice on Foot

ways of walking

You might be surprised to read this—at least as surprised as I am writing it—but while I was reading Ways of Walking: Ethnography and Practice on Foot, an interdisciplinary collection of essays on walking edited by Tim Ingold and Jo Lee Vergunst, I realized for the first time just how rich the subject of walking actually is. Walking goes in all directions (pardon the pun), according to these essays, from the way that hunting and gathering people walk, to walking as an aesthetic practice, to the so-called “Munro-baggers,” who aim to climb as many mountains in Scotland as they possibly can. Walking by itself—even without the other aspects of my research—is an important field of inquiry, and even though I’ve been thinking about the subject for over a year, it was only this week, with this book, that I came to realize the scope of what I’m doing. I’m both relieved and terrified by that realization.

The first chapter of Ways of Walking is essentially an introduction by the volume’s editors that includes a short essay on walking as well as remarks on the importance of the essays they have chosen. Walking, like talking, is a quintessential feature of “what we take to be a human form of life,” Ingold and Vergunst write at the outset. “Our principal contention is that walking is a profoundly social activity: that in their timings, rhythms and inflections, the feet respond as much as does the voice to the presence and activity of others,” they continue. “Social relations, we maintain, are not enacted in situ but are paced out along the ground” (1). This statement, they contend, follows in the footsteps (the walking puns are unavoidable) of Marcel Mauss, whose 1934 essay “Techniques of the Body” made him the first to suggest walking as a serious topic for ethnographic study (1). Like the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, Mauss was interested in the social formation of body techniques (1), but unlike his predecessor, Bourdieu put his notion of habitus “firmly in the space of the body’s active engagement in its surroundings, in the ‘practical mastery’ of everyday tasks involving characteristic postures and gestures, or a particular bodily hexis” (2). A way of walking, for Bourdieu, doesn’t just express thoughts and feelings imparted “through an education in cultural precepts and proprieties,” Ingold and Vergunst write; a way of walking is “itself a way of thinking and of feeling through which, in the practice of pedestrian movement, these cultural forms are continually generated” (2). Oh dear, I thought when I read these words. I’m going to have to add Bourdieu’s discussion of habitus, found in his book Outline of a Theory of Practice, to my reading list. (I really need to put together a revised reading list that leaves out some things and adds others.)

According to Ingold and Vergunst, “to think and feel is not to set up a relation of external contact or correspondence between subjective states of mind and objectively given conditions of the material world, but rather to make one’s way through a world-in-formation, in a movement that is both rhythmically resonant with the movements of others around us—whose journeys we share or whose paths we cross—and open-ended, having neither a point of origin nor any final destination” (2). We not only walk because we are social beings, they continue, but we are social beings because we walk:

That walking is social may seem obvious, although it is all the more remarkable, in this light, that social scientists have devoted so little attention to it. However, to hold—as we do—that social life is walked is to make a far stronger claim, namely for the rooting of the social in the actual ground of lived experience, where the earth we tread interfaces with the air we breathe. It is along this ground, and not in some ethereal realm of discursively constructed significance, over and above the material world, that lives are paced out in their mutual relations. Thus careful, ethnographic analysis of walking, we suggest, can help us rethink what being social actually means. (2)

Ingold and Vergunst are making a gigantic claim here, and if you know anything about French theory and philosophy of the past 50 years, you will have picked up on the way they are arguing against the suggestion that social life is constructed in discourse, and instead arguing that it is corporeal or even phenomenological. “Walking is not just what a body does,” they write; “it is what a body is” (2). Their aim, they continue, is “to embed our ideas of the social and the symbolic within the immediate day-to-day activities that bind practice and representation, doing, thinking and talking, and to show that everything takes place, in one way or another, on the move” (3). The contributors to this book “share an ambition to pay attention to the experiences of tactile, feet-first, engagement with the world” (3). So, for Ingold and Vergunst, the key themes of this book are movement, tactile engagement, rootedness, and the everyday—and those themes are explored through a variety of perspectives on the relatively commonplace activity of walking as conducted by a variety of different individuals and groups, in many different contexts, and drawing upon a surprising number of walking techniques.

As is always the case in collections of essays, I found some more useful or relevant than others, so I’m not going to discuss every single one in this summary. The collection begins with discussions of walking among traditional groups of hunter-gatherers, which suggest just how different both the styles of walking of those groups are from the styles of walking that are characteristic of Western (post)modernity, and how different their relationships to land are as well. In “Before a Step Too Far: Walking with Batek Hunter-Gatherers in the Forests of Pahang, Malaysia,” Lye Tuck-Po explores an apparent paradox in the walking practices of the Batek people: 

On the one hand, the Batek are confident and even proud of their ability to make their way around the forest. . . . On the other hand, listening to Batek talk about their emotions, what is most commonly voiced is fear . . . of specific dangers in the forests, and of particular kinds of walking experiences—giving the impression that fear is everywhere around and even inside them as well. How, then, can we reconcile these expressions of fear and confidence? (21)

“Walking is one of the primary means for interacting with the forest, but it also engenders an awareness of its dangers,” Lye continues. “Where walking takes the body forward, fear draws it back, and it is this tug between opposing directions of movement that characterizes the practices of hunting and gathering” (21)—at least among the Batek, that is. This analysis “implies a disjunction between body and mind, knowing and fearing, self and environment, and coming and going,” Lye writes, but she notes that such a disjunction may be false (21-22).

To determine whether that disjunction is true or not, Lye explores what walking in a tropical rainforest actually entails. First of all, one needs to follow a path or a route (23). But that path or route, for the Batek people, is typically improvised: the desired harvest of fruit or nuts may not materialize, or other opportunities to harvest may appear (24). Nevertheless, forest expeditions among the Batek follow a pattern. First, they walk to the farthest point in the forest using a series of shortcuts. Then they begin to search for and harvest food, which necessitates many detours, while slowly moving back in the direction of their camp. During such walks, “a complex suite of bodily performances is involved,” Lye writes:

Along the way, we were . . . observing, monitoring, remembering, listening, touching, crouching, and climbing. . . . in addition to stepping on the ground, wading across rivers, pushing vegetation aside, cutting fruit-laden boughs, eating the fruits, navigating the way, orienting ourselves to the camp, the Tahan River, and the stands of fruit trees, and, of course, talking and discussing the fruit harvest. We might have looked ahead most of the time . . . but we were also scanning the tree-tops . . . and looking sideways and backwards . . . for signs of fruits and the fauna associated with them. (25)

In the thick forest, the trails are not always easy to remember, and members of the group stop to discuss their path—among other subjects—continually. “Talking and walking are inseparable,” Lye suggests; “[i]f walking creates the path and if walking itself is an act of sociality, then can the path have any meaning without the stories of the people using it?” (26). In other words, paths are social phenomena and remembered in relation to social events (26). Moreover, walking is rarely a linear movement. Instead, it is cyclical—a process of going out and returning, even if the group is relocating its camp. “Moving forward in time and space is also about moving back—to old camps and pathways, the past, and history,” Lye suggests (26).

Paths in the forest are unstable, muddy, and marked by pits and dips concealed in the vegetation. “Stepping on Batek paths means dealing with the ecology of these paths, such as the slopes and the profusion of roots and vines that grew over and across them,” Lye writes (28). There are also visual constraints on the forest walkers, because one can rarely see more than 10 metres in any direction. In addition, the environment changes constantly, with new plant growth and new obstructions (such as fallen trees). The frequent rain also makes for muddy and slippery paths, adding a layer of difficulty. “Batek and other forest dwellers adapt by being hyper-alert to sound shifts and changes,” Lye writes (28). They also regard walking as a commonplace activity and laugh at outsiders, like Lye, who have difficulty (28). Indeed, Lye discusses the difficulty of walking in the forest at length, comparing her travails with the competence of the Batek, who made her walk with the children, at the front of the line, so they could keep their eyes on her progress.

In the stories the Batek tell, they reveal their few, deeply embedded, fears, Lye writes: fears of tigers, strangers, violence, floods, and falling trees. “What is the effect of fear on walking practices?” Lye asks. The answer is that the opposition between fear and confidence illusory:

Confidence means having trust in the ability to get a job done. It is the result of knowledge and improvisation: trying out variations, experimenting, informed by knowledge of what worked last time. Fear comes from having a realistic appreciation of what doesn’t work and is therefore also born of knowledge. Having confidence does not negate fearfulness; a confident person is one who is sufficiently fearful to be cognizant of potential danger and what to do should it arise. (32)

This question is, for me, far less interesting than Lye’s discussion of walking techniques among the Batek, the variety of ways they move through the forest, and I think Ingold and Vergunst would agree with me: they suggest that it is through the variety of “bodily performances” that constitute walking for the Batek, “along the way, that their knowledge is forged” (5). 

Knowledge and movement is central to the next essay: Allice Legat’s “Walking Stories: Leaving Footprints,” which explores walking among the Tłı̨chǫ people of Canada’s Northwest Territories. Legat describes her essay’s purpose at the outset:

I will consider walking as the experience that binds narrative to the acquisition of personal knowledge. Walking, then, validates the reality of the past in the present and in so doing, continually re-establishes the relation between place, story, and all the beings who use the locale. When walking a person can become intimate with a locale, creating situations in which one can grow intellectually while travelling trails under the guidance of predecessors who have both followed and left footprints. (35)

For the Tłı̨chǫ, there are clear relations between oral narratives and place: for them, to be knowledgeable involves gaining experience by working and listening to those who have more skill, including by walking with such people. But there are other ways to learn for the Tłı̨chǫ, including through dreams and visions (35-36). For the most part, though, one learns “during activities with, and in the presence of, others” (36). “For the Tłı̨chǫ,” Legat writes,

significant components include human as well as non-human beings, implying that learning is always situated and guided, even if there are no humans around. What I call “guided learning,” for the Tłı̨chǫ, entails a combination of receiving information—through hearing stories and travelling trails while carrying out tasks at particular locales. Information, then, is not to be extracted as the content of the story, but is the story itself, namely the happenings and occurrences that are related and fit together. The stories tell of places as they are associated with political and social endeavours. (36)

Stories are knowledge, then, and they are also related to specific places to which the Tłı̨chǫ have relations—relations which begin when children first hear stories about them:

Most stories have been heard many times before travelling to the sites named and experiencing them directly. Through visiting, walking and performing tasks at a locale individuals both take something of the place with them and leave a bit of themselves. In so doing, individuals add their narrative to that of others while refining the deeper levels of their perception. (36)

Stories reside in places along trails, and the names of those places serve as mneumonic devices for the stories that convey knowledge. According to Legat, though, “the period between listening to stories and walking them marks an in-between phase of learning during which people who have heard ‘talk’ do not yet know the ‘truth’ or reality of a narrative” (36-37). Walking, then, is a guarantor of narrative truth. It is also rarely linear; Tłı̨chǫ walks tend to be circular, a movement to a place and then a return from that place.

For the Tłı̨chǫ, the land is a living entity with powers, and it needs to be shown respect. One way to show that respect is by “paying the land,” leaving a useful item behind, particularly at places known to have supernatural power. “I have never known any Tłı̨chǫ travellers to pass these places without stopping and showing respect,” Legat writes (37), and to show respect to a place is connected to telling stories about it:

This often entails walking around the location to determine if all is as it was, and tidying burials if there are any in the vicinity. Individuals who have visited the place before tell the stories that dwell in the location to those who are travelling with them, and a “picnic”—which usually includes feeding predecessors by putting favoured foot in the fire—is enjoyed before continuing the journey. The process allows everyone to know the place and the story a little better. These actions validate the story in the present while maintaining relations with predecessors who continue to be attached to Tłı̨chǫ places. (37)

When travellers return from such places, they share their experience with others through stories. “Elders often respond by telling stories that clarify, enhance or add to them,” Legat writes. “Listeners grow and change as they are drawn to the places, walking through the footprints of others through their minds as they are drawn down the trails once again” (37). Moreover, she continues, “[f]or the Tłı̨chǫ, predecessors’ footprints are embedded in places and trails that continue to be used and travelled. Thus the stories they think with are steeped with detailed and accurate accounts of trails and locales. These stories form the basis for building one’s perception of reality” (37). Adults constantly tell stories, especially to children, so that “they can grow from the place they call home, eventually travelling trails and walking locales where they can experience the stories for themselves” (37):

Tłı̨chǫ individuals, then, are forever listening to stories whose truth is subsequently validated through experience. Retelling the story in light of this experience, the teller builds on the original by incorporating her or his own occurrences and happenings. Once one has gained personal knowledge, one tells one’s own stories and eventually leaves one’s own footprints for the future. (37-38)

Tłı̨chǫ elders encourage people to learn from places and to use “stories to think with” when they face new situations: “They use stories to structure the contexts within which their juniors perceive new experiences” (38). 

Footprints and knowledge are interchangeable for the Tłı̨chǫ. Listening to stories is important for the future, not only as a way to recognize the knowledge of one’s ancestors, but also to validate the truth of that knowledge and then perform a task (38). Moreover, stories are connected to the phenomenological experience of walking and of the land itself:

Listening to stories and following the footprints of those who are more knowledgeable allows one to think by drawing on philosophical understanding and practical knowledge that originated in the past. This is a perspective that encourages everyone to acknowledge that there is much to learn. It also provides people with an understanding of the importance of walking and observing—watching for the unexpected—while thinking about all that dwells within the land. Children are taught to watch as they grow to adulthood. As they walk, they are to think about what they smell, see, feel, always looking behind them to see how the trail will look on their return trip. (39)

The Tłı̨chǫ walk slowly, not hurrying, which leads to being disconnected from their surroundings.  Attention is of paramount importance, and attention requires slow forms of movement. Indeed, one of the stories Legat hears during her fieldwork is about how children were taught to hurry when they were in residential school—an alien form of movement for the Tłı̨chǫ children.

The Tłı̨chǫ people Legat lived and worked with frequently discussed the importance of the relationship between stories, walking the land, experiencing places, and knowledge, and they spent a lot of time and energy finding opportunities to share stories with those who were younger or less aware than themselves (40):

Adults are constantly telling ‘old time stories’ as well as stories of what they have seen and experienced. They also tell of when, where and how they experienced the stories that came from ancient times, or ‘when the world was new.’ Adults continually encourage those younger or less experienced than themselves to walk the land, to experience the truth of the stories for themselves, and to share what they experience—including what they saw, heard and felt, and with whom (including non-human beings) they shared the experience. Telling a series of stories is, inevitably, the most appropriate way to proceed. (40)

But stories need to be confirmed through walking, preferably walking with someone who has walked that path before and knows about the events and the place. That walking is part of becoming more knowledgeable:

Tłı̨chǫ individuals are encouraged to “walk the land” so that they can experience and validate information in the stories that reside in and grow from places. Through listening to narratives and walking with one’s predecessors, the process of guided learning is continuous. It provides individuals with the information and knowledge necessary to keep life going, and to maintain harmonious relations by showing respect to all entities that dwell within the land. Furthermore, the Tłı̨chǫ understand that one always has more to learn, more stories to experience and, therefore, more places to walk. Individuals learn that the world is in constant change and that they must remain flexible and willing to think about new and unexpected situations. (46-47)

Following the footprints of one’s predecessors is not necessarily meant in a literal sense. Rather, it means that 

the wayfarer’s movement should be at once knowledgeable, task-oriented and attentive to relations with other beings in the environment through which it passes. . . . [F]ollowing footprints is about gaining knowledge through action and the ability to use that knowledge. Individuals who walk the land are respected because they have experience, the interpretation of which is based on continual social interaction. (47)

According to Legat, personal knowledge is produced when the story and one’s experience converge in a narration. While the focus of the story remains the same, the story itself can change, depending on whom it is being shared with. “In the telling, the stories reach out to other individuals, drawing them back down the trail, back to the places where individuals can experience the stories for themselves,” Legat writes. “Thus, individuals grow outward at the same time as they become rooted within the several locales of Tłı̨chǫ country” (47). All Tłı̨chǫ people are encourage to grow through the knowledge they have been offered by their parents, grandparents, and others. “In other words,” Legat continues, “being knowledgeable is the culmination of listening to stories and following footprints. This provides the foundation for leaving one’s own footprints for future generations” (47). 

In “The Dilemmas of Walking: A Comparative View,” Thomas Widlok examines two very different walking (or travelling) practices: those of the so-called “confluencers,” who aim to visit confluences, points where latitude and longitude meet; and the Akhoe Hai//om people of northern Namibia. Widlok engaged in “itinerant participant observation” with the confluencers (52), but I’m more interested in the Akhoe Hai//om people and what their experiences have to say about the place where I live. “Like other ‘San’ groups,” Widlok writes, the Akhoe Hai//om people “move more or less regularly within a land that they consider to be theirs but which has been appropriated by other groups” (54). Today, most Akhoe Hai//om have a semi-permanent residence from which they make visits to other places, although sometimes they will also move their home base as well (54). Widlok makes two points about this movement: first, “visits and moves are not only intended to get to a certain place, with a certain resource or a relative living there, but also and at least as often, are a means to get away. Social disruption and conflict of any kind, including the attempt to avoid conflict, are common motives for trying to leave” (54). Like the Batek and the Tłı̨chǫ, Akhoe Hai//om movements are rarely linear, and they often underline the circularity of their movements by leaving a hut or some possessions behind when they leave a place as material place-holders which promise their return (58). Moreover, their frequent movements back and forth testify to a commitment to more than one place, sometimes stretching out their movements in time to the point where they appear to be co-present in two places and moving in two directions (58). Moreover, the Akhoe Hai//om stress their autonomy when moving from one place to another (58).

The confluencers, in contrast, are not unlike explorers; they share some of the colonial or imperial ambitions to get to a place before others, occupy it, and make it “tame” (54). Moreover, the grid of latitude and longitude that interests the confluencers is not abstract or innocent. Rather, that grid “has informed how colonial forces organized space, delimited the land and divided,” Widlok writes. “Local boundaries were either not known or understood, or were deliberately disregarded in the colonial ordering of space” (58). That imposition of a grid was manifest in Saskatchewan as well, and just like this place, in Namibia the grid is marked on the land in the form of roads and fences which separate “private” from “communal” land, or national parks from farms. “Once markers such as roads and fences are constructed on the mapped ground they gain a force of their own,” Widlok continues, “spawning new divisions oriented with regard to these ‘given’ features” (58-59). The South African government constructed roads to both open up land (for the deployment of soldiers) and to close it off (by restricting the movements of others) during the struggle against apartheid, and today in Namibia people are expected to use roads instead of crossing farms by using footpaths: “Anyone found crossing a privately owned farm is suspected of slaughtering or stealing livestock, of introducing diseases and of making unlawful use of the land,” and such trespassers are frequently shot (59). 

“Road makers,” Widlok writes, “not only want to keep people from their land, they also want to control access to places more generally”:

If a road leads to a place—a farm homestead for instance—anyone using that road had better be invited or welcome by the owner of the place. Being the first to make a road is not necessarily tantamount to opening up space, it may also be a means to close it. (59)

The Akhoe Hai//om, in contrast, have neither the opportunity nor the power to restrict the movements of others:

Their main concerns are potential conflicts and dilemmas arising from the restrictive behaviour of farmers. Often they have to ask themselves whether they should take the road or a short cut with the possible danger of being shot at. (59)

Widlock notes the importance of paths to the Akhoe Hai//om, and the complexity of their use of paths:

Foraging nearly always entails some degree of trail blazing in that, since food sources are quickly depleted next to a path, it usually pays to venture a little further. . . . On the other hand established paths not only make walking easier and save the trouble of constantly having to orient oneself, they also lead to resources with seasonal reliability such as water sources, termite mounds or groves of trees. These paths are not deliberately cut but rather emerge as a consequence of regular use. Moreover, at least in some cases, the regular movement also generates the reason for using these paths, through a process that involves the unwitting cooperation of humans, animals and plants. (59-60)

On the other hand, Widlok continues, “[r]oads follow the intention to regulate movement, to open up access for those following the road, and at the same time to close it to others and to bar other areas next to the road from trespass” (60). However, in an environment where so many people are pedestrians, “there is a limit to the degree of control that road-makers can exert over people’s movements” (60).

The differences between the way the Akhoe Hai//om and the farmers think about the land is related to their very different uses of it—both their ways of living and their ways of looking at the world:

For the Akhoe Hai//om at least part of the answer is to be found in foraging as their erstwhile dominant mode of subsistence. With no livestock to steal and no fields that could be destroyed, Akhoe Hai//om have been fairly relaxed about anyone crossing their land or leaving a path. In hunting animals that move, gathering plants that provide edible roots and collecting nuts and berries, it pays both to roam widely and to leave well-trodden paths. . . . Unlike farmers who guard their enclosed fields and herds against outsiders, among hunter-gatherers everyone is free to go whatever way they will, whether this means following in the footsteps of others or striking out in unorthodox directions. So long as population densities remained fairly low, forager groups were open to seasonal or other visits by neighbouring groups who wanted or needed to make use of local resources and who might also bring other resources and trade items from neighbouring regions. In sum, with a fairly abundant resource base and social relations based on mutual assistance and equal rights of access, the path-dilemma of walking lost its relevance in practice, except perhaps in times of severe food shortage. (60-61)

When powerful colonizing groups arrived seeking exclusive access to the land, however, things changed dramatically. During colonial times, the Akhoe Hai//om and other “San” groups were hunted and killed; today there are frequent clashes between “San” and landowners and accusations of cattle theft, and “various degrees of force are being used to compel ‘San’ to use official roads and resettlement sites” (61). All of this echoes the history of Saskatchewan, as well as its present: the imposition of a grid on the land, the enclosure of that land, the threat of trespassing charges (or violence) to maintain control of that land. Those parallels interested me much more than Widlok’s discussion of the confluencers, as odd as their activities are.

Pernille Gooch discusses the walking practices of the Van Gujjars, a pastoral group in the Himalayas of India, in “Feet Following Hooves.” The Van Gujjars are just one of the pastoral communities who have historically walked “the altitudes of the Himalayas with their herds in accordance with the changing seasons,” and they continue to do so: men, women, and children walk in the forests with their herds of milk buffaloes (67). “The walk goes through a terrain intimately known and consisting of movements and places apprehended through an embodied knowledge possessed by people as well as animals,” Gooch writes. “It is a use of the body brought into being through a common history where movement has always been undertaken on foot at the rear of the herd as part of the great pastoral migrations through the region” (67). Today, however, those movements are hindered by “physical and discursive” barriers in the landscape, demonstrating the politicization of that landscape, “where the power over movement and the apprehension of space in the landscape is, to a great extent, dictated by policies originating in other places” (67). As a result, the seasonal migrations of the Van Gujjars are under threat.

According to Gooch, the buffalo cows of the Van Gujjars know the routes taken by the community: they walk at the front, and the people follow. “The Van Gujjars thus see their buffaloes as agents in the walk and not as objects to be moved,” Gooch writes, comparing the buffaloes to goats she herded in Sweden, who follow their herder (70). Because of the size of the buffaloes, the Van Gujjars often have to follow main routes, which have become busy highways in recent decades, which is dangerous for both people and animals. That danger is one restriction on their freedom of movement. Another restriction is the attempt by authorities, since the colonial period, to control buffalo nomadism. “The result was that the forest areas, both in the summer and winter pastures, were divided up between individual heads of households as permits to keep a specified number of animals within a delimited area,” Gooch writes. “After independence the Indian forest department continued with this policy. Van Gujjar movements are thus now restricted to particular migration routes during specified periods and their winter and summer grazing is tied to delimited areas of the forest” (72). Despite these restrictions, the Van Gujjars still make use of the freedom of movement they have left (72).

Gooch argues that the Van Gujjars’ nomadic way of life involves more skill than sedentary farmers require, because the Van Gujjars need to control their animals when they are on the move. “[S]uch mastery is situated within a life-world,” Gooch writes. “Successful pastoralism demands a strong feeling of understanding between herders and the animals they herd, tantamount to a shared world-view, whereby the world can be perceived through the senses of the animals in question” (73). This shared world-view is reflected in the Van Gujjars’ style or technique of walking: they make long but very slow strides, and take frequent pauses (73). It is also reflected in their habit of travel. The buffalo herders begin their walking early in the morning, while the children and (usually) women follow with pack animals and possessions later in the day, moving more quickly, so that everyone arrives at the same place at the same time (75).This way of life is now under threat:

The Indian administration has put up more and more hindrances to pastoral nomadism, both as actual barriers on the routes of transhumance and as laws and regulations, the latter often physically manifested in the former. The traditional campsites in state forest[s] are now encroached upon by other people, making it difficult to find fodder. Often the Van Gujjars have to buy it from local farmers at exorbitant prices. Tents made from a sheet of black plastic give little shelter from the rain or during nights of freezing cold. The walk goes through what the Van Gujjars often perceive as a hostile landscape. (75)

For the Van Gujjars, the landscape becomes ambiguous; they are caught between theirn own narratives, “ingrained in the practical use of the landscape,” and “the discourses of power that come to regulate that usage,” Gooch writes. Their pastoral walking practices are “everywhere hampered by barriers set up by the discourses of power” (78). “There is thus a political dimension to the continuance of the walk, a resistance by moving feet and hooves,” Gooch contends. “But being forced to live in a constant state of revolt against the norm of sedentism is exhausting for people whose understanding of the world is grounded in moving through forests and hills on the yearly rounds of transhumance” (79). 

I know that anthropology and ethnography have a bad reputation these days, but the ethnographies of the Batek, Tłı̨chǫ, Akhoe Hai//om, and Van Gujjars collected in Ways of Walking suggest two important issues related to my research. First, different groups of people have different relations to land, which is an obvious point, but one worth making. Certainly tribal or traditional peoples, whether they are hunters and gatherers or pastoralists, have markedly different ways of thinking about land than those of us in (post)modern, Western societies. But more importantly for my research is the way that these groups also have different styles or techniques of walking. This idea came up in the essay by Tim Ingold that I read last weekend, but it is reaffirmed by the ethnographies included in this book, and it’s something I hadn’t thought about before.

Kenneth R. Olwig’s “Performing on the Landscape versus Doing Landscape: Perambulatory Practice, Sight and the Sense of Belonging” considers landscape in two senses. The first, he writes, “is concerned with the landscape of earth, fields, pastures, country and ground,” involving “binocular vision, movement, and knowledge gained from a coordinated use of the senses in carrying out various tasks” and “engenders a sense of belonging that generates landscape as the place of dwelling and doing in the body politic of a community” (81). The second, “the landscape of space,” “derives primarily from a monocular perspective that is fixed and distant from the body” and “constructs a feeling of possession and staged performance in a hierarchical social space” (81). I would have called that first sense “land” rather than “landscape,” because the latter term suggests to me a visual or aesthetic response to the land as scenery—something suggested in a quotation from Yi-Fu Tuan’s Topophilia: A Study of Environmental Perception, Attitudes, and Values, a text to which Olwig refers: 

The meaning of scene or scenery has suffered the least change. The scene is the stage, originally of the Greek or Roman theater. A second meaning, now the most widely accepted, is that of a landscape or view, a picturesque scene, or the pictorial representation of a landscape. . . . Scenery and landscape are now nearly synonymous. . . . The difference is that landscape, in its original sense, referred to the real world, not to the world of art and make-believe. (Tuan 133)

The scenic landscape, or the land perceived pictorially, is related to maps. According to Olwig, “The techniques of perspective drawing were derived, in large measure, from the techniques of cartography, and hence also from the techniques of the cadastral property map” (83). The difference between pictorial representations of landscape, and cartographic representations of landscape, is that “maps tend to have a perpendicular projection, focusing directly downward,” while pictorial representations have a different “angle of projection,” typically from the side (83). Olwig takes the relationship between the word “scene” and the theatre seriously, suggesting that for the landowner, gardens and agricultural fields, or recreation and labour, “are performed, as in a theatre” (83). 

In the first sense of landscape, the land “is shaped in large measure by doing, and apprehended through the use of two eyes”:

Nowhere is this mode of apprehension more evident than in the practice of walking. The walker experiences the material depth of the proximate environment through binocular vision and through the effect of motion parallax created by the blurring of near objects in contrast to those further away. The touched, smelled and heard proximate material world is thereby woven into the walker’s sensory field, leading him or her to experience the landscape as a topological realm of contiguous places. (84)

In the second sense of landscape, however, the land is viewed from a stationary perspective that emanates from a central point; for the painter, “the walker is an object occupying a fixed location frozen in abstract Newtonian space” (84). In this second sense of the term, Olwig writes,

the viewer is positioned at a given location and uses only the singular perspective of one eye. . . . The eye, moreover, is fixed in space and time. . . . When painting with one eye closed, squinting over your thumb, you flatten out the world so that you can better block it onto your canvas, while simultaneously distancing yourself form the proximate environment in which depth perception depends upon binocular vision. Once the landscape has been thus flattened and distanced, it can be disaggregated into objects located within the geometries of a one-eyed perspectival framework, thereby recreating an illusion of the depth that was lost when you closed one of your eyes. (84)

The second sense of landscape is the dominant one today, although the older one still lurks in dictionaries, if not in our lived experiences (85). Historically, Olwig continues, “the feeling of belonging to the land through movement is as old as the activity of hunters and gatherers in tracking game and finding edible materials along habitual paths woven by the inhabitants of a familiar habitat, or in the exploration of a new one,” activities that are very close to those of pastoralists like the Van Gujjars as well. “[I]t is through this activity,” Olwig writes, “that many of our earliest senses of belonging in relation to landscape have their origin” (85). For me, though, the question is whether walking in our contemporary moment can begin a process of recovering landscape in the first sense Olwig discusses, and whether it is possible to move away from a mere visual or pictorial understanding of the land. I think, or perhaps hope, that it’s possible—Olwig’s reference to the 1932 mass trespass on Kinder Scout in Derbyshire suggests as much (89)—but I would need to do more research into this topic before I would be comfortable making such an argument. (Yes, I’m adding researching that topic to my swollen to-do list.)

In “Taking a Trip and Taking Care in Everyday Life,” Jo Lee Vergunst begins by listing the three purposes of the essay: first, to add “grounded” experiences to the Romantic guide-book representations of walks, “and in so doing to explore ethnographically the ways that walking happens in the city and the countryside in north-east Scotland” (106); second, “to conceptualize the environmental relations of the walker in a way that brings out the mobile and mutually-embedding relations of walking” (106); and third, to think about “the idea of ‘everydayness’ as a way of sensing and knowing the environment” as well as “the emotionality of the everyday” (106). Vergunst sets out to explore these themes through a detailed look “at how everyday walking takes place, paying particular attention to some of the slips, trips and mistakes that can happen” (108). Those errors and accidents, Vergunst continues, “involve a rather different kind of knowledge, a ‘becoming-aware,’” which “is characteristic of everyday walking” (108). In practical terms, Vergunst goes hill-walking with people near Aberdeen, watches how they walk, and talks to them about their experience of walking.

First, though, Vergunst discusses what the word “everyday” means (108-09), drawing on anthropologist Michael Taussig’s explanation of this term. “[W]hat sort of sense is constitutive of this everydayness?” Taussig asks:

Surely this sense includes much that is not sense so much as sensuousness, an embodied and somewhat automatic “knowledge” that functions like peripheral vision, not studied contemplation, a knowledge that is imageric and sensate rather than ideational; as such it not only challenges practically all critical practice, across the board, of academic disciplines but is a knowledge that lies as much in the objects and spaces of observation as in the body and mind of the observer. What’s more, this sense has an activist, constructivist bent; not so much contemplative as it is caught in medias res working on, making anew, amalgamating, acting and reacting. (141-42)

There is a lot going on in this quotation, which Vergunst doesn’t reproduce in full, but the notion of distinguishing the sensual from the studied is important to Vergunst’s desire to separate idealized Romantic walking from what actually happens when people walk—including their slips, trips, and falls. “While environments produce surprises and mishaps, I argue that these can be at the very heart of walking in a way that actually constitutes ‘the everyday,’” Vergunst writes.

Vergunst’s discussion of what happens when walkers slip and trip leads to a consideration of the actual environment in which walking occurs—particularly in the Scottish highlands—and a distinction between “surfaces,” which are relatively flat and smooth, and “textures,” which are not:

The qualities I have emphasized so far are those of protrusion or flatness, stickiness, roughness or smoothness, felt according to the conditions of the feet and the judgement of the eyes. They are textures. Unlike surfaces, textures do not clearly separate what is above from what is below as the person moves along. They are rather experienced relationally, through the degree and kind of friction caused by contact in movement between two substances. (114)

Walking is an interaction between the walker and this textured environment, an interaction which “affords or hinters various kinds of movement” (114). Moreover, texture implies a tactility that “can engender specifically everyday or non-contemplative forms of environmental knowledge” (114). In other words, we learn about the specific aspects of our environment as we walk through it and experience its various textures. Walking on (and off) paths in Scotland with other people engenders social relationships, even if only the warning to others to “take care” (114-15, 117), although the physical effort (especially when walking uphill) and need to concentrate on the task of walking often leads to silence among walkers (116). “The way to walk through a textural environment is carefully: one must take care,” Vergunst writes (115):

Footsteps are the primary means by which walkers take care. . . . [E]ach footstep produces a distinctive relationship through which the walker comes to know something of his or her textural environment. In the reactions of the feet and the body to what is found, we see how taking care happens physically: the adjustments and readjustments of balance, of walking technique and of apparel such as clothing. (115)

More than just the individual footstep is involved, however; the walker performs a “generalized attentiveness that relates to the rhythm of walking” (115). That rhythm, however, is not necessarily regular or evenly timed. Rather, “the rhythm of walking took its lead and its tempo from the environment of which it was part,” Vergunst notes. “In a path of contrasts and unevenness, the rhythm of the body in its movement was precisely attuned to the continuation of movement up the path” (116). From the French philosopher Henri Lefebvre, Vergunst derives the idea that rhythm is not mere repetition, but rather that it allows for the possibility of variety, that it is “continually answerable to perturbations in the conditions of the task as it unfolds” (116). No two steps in a textured, variegated environment, in other words, are exactly the same (116).

Vergunst also asks how finding or losing the way might be a sensuous activity, and what they might reveal about the skills involved in moving around (117). Losing the way is not the same as getting lost, because it suggests that there is a route to follow (117). Vergunst distinguishes between walking in three different environments. Urban walking is often unscripted and improvisational, for instance, and there is a long tradition of dérives and other forms of improvisational walking in cities (117-18). Walkers in rural parts of the Scottish lowlands, on the other hand, have more limited possibilities for taking alternative routes than either urban or hill walkers, partly because of the prevalence of marked paths in those areas and the multiplicity of possible routes one could take. In the lowlands, “the problem lies more in finding a way in the first place than in choosing between options or taking care not to get lost” (118). Hill walkers can choose routes partly according to the physical terrain, but also partly according to the paths that already exist, themselves produced by previous walkers, and alongside the freedom to choose or create routes in the hills comes a much greater possibility of getting lost, which suggests the importance of way-finding and map-reading skills for hill walkers (118). Losing the way, Vergunst suggests, may not be that much different from tripping or slipping: all three are experiences of “a disconnection or a disjunction from one’s surroundings” (119).

Emotions, particularly fear, can in retrospect form part of the joy walkers experience, “in the pleasure of hardship overcome or learnt from” (120). “To inquire into the emotionality of the everyday,” Vergunst writes,

is to ask how these forms of sensuousness engender feeling. If walking is understood to be a relational and textural activity, then where, in experiential terms, is the emotion? To confine it to the body is, after all to fall back on the very distancing of body from environment that is antithetical to everyday living. (120-21)

Here, Vergunst is following Taussig’s suggestion that everyday knowledge—and emotion could be one of those forms of everyday knowledge—“lies as much in the objects and spaces of observation as in the body and mind of the observer” (142). How, though, is it possible for spaces or objects which are inanimate to experience emotion? Isn’t emotion an experience that’s restricted to certain animate beings? Certainly one’s environment can be conducive to emotional experiences, but does that mean it participates in those experiences? And are emotions experienced only by the body, or is the mind involved? 

I don’t want to leave Vergunst’s discussion on such a negative note, however. What I appreciate about that essay is is detailed–granular, to use the term that’s currently in vogue–discussion of walking and the various textures through which one walks. That detail reminds me of my own walks and the different kinds of surfaces and textures I have encountered. I would like to pay such close attention to walking–something I could learn from ethnographers who themselves have studied the method of “thick description” that anthropologist Clifford Geertz famously advocates.

Cultural geographer Tim Edensor considers his experience of walking through derelict industrial sites in “Walking Through Ruins.” “While such sites are frequently vilified as despondent realms, spaces of waste and blights on the landscape,” Edensor writes,

they support a range of human activities and a plethora of non-human life forms, as well as offering aesthetic, somatic and historical experiences at variance to the often over-coded, themed spaces of urban renewal. They are thus able to talk back to these apparently seamless processes of regeneration and provide spaces within which counter-aesthetics and alternative memories might emerge. Different encounters with objects and materiality, peculiar sensations and ineffable impressions may be experienced. Accordingly, I will highlight how travelling by foot through an industrial ruin or derelict site opens up walking to critical speculation and offers a diversity of distinct experiences which defamiliarize the encounter between feet and world. (123)

First, Edensor examines “the possibilities for improvisational walking offered by the industrial ruin, and the ways in which impediments to linear passage and the presence of danger simultaneously defamiliarize space and enervate the walking body” (123). Indeed, as Ingold and Vergunst point out in the book’s introduction, walking in an industrial ruin is not unlike walking in a rainforest: “it would not be far-fetched to regard the ruin as the rainforest’s urban equivalent” (10). Second, Edensor explores “the sensual characteristics engendered by strolling through ruins, drawing attention to the encounter with the ruin’s peculiar affordances and unusual materialities, productive of a range of sensory experiences that coerce the walking body into unfamiliar states” (123). Third, he thinks about “how walking through a ruin involves a particular way of looking at the environment passed through and how this invites speculation about the characteristics of walking and vision” (123). Finally, he interrogates “the much-mooted metaphorical relationship between walking and narration, suggesting that such parallels are overdrawn. The illegible, fragmented experience of passage through a ruin suggests that walking is not usually amenable to authoritative representation” (123).

Before discussing these topics, however, Edensor thinks about the ways in which walking is typically constrained in urban environments—by CCTV surveillance, which identifies things that are considered to be out of place in such spaces, but more importantly by “an internalization of performative conventions among pedestrians themselves,” conventions that govern where and how we may walk, “including preferred techniques, styles of comportment and bearing, and disposition to the surroundings” (125). Other walkers punish deviations from normative modes of walking with disapproving glares and comments, but pedestrians also monitor themselves, “through an embodied self-awareness which delimits the range of potential manoeuvres, gestures and styles” (125). Silly walking is one thing in Monty Python, but quite another on an urban sidewalk. Moreover, in Western cities, pedestrians often follow signposted routes, which is yet another way one’s movements are restricted (125). I think such routes are more common in Europe, though, than in North America, and Edensor might want to be more specific about them. In sum,

In accordance with such assumptions and conventions, outsiders are identified, barriers maintained, notions of property upheld and single-purpose spaces produced. However, irrespective of the prevalence of walking norms, certain alternative realms emerge. (125-26)

Those alternative realms include interstitial and indeterminate spaces outside of the productive structures of the city—particularly industrial ruins (126).

“In contrast to the deliberate channelling of movement in the regulated city,” Edensor writes, 

the physical structure of ruins invites and constrains walking in a distinctive fashion. Under conditions of continuous decay, material structures and routeways are not distributed according to an ordering scheme but emerge according to happenstance. This means that instead of moving towards objects and objectives, those present in ruins tend to walk contingently and improvisationally, their multiple manoeuvres, moods, gestures and rhythms belying any sense of walking as a singular practice. This contingent improvisation is particularly evident because the historical organization of any industrial site required the very opposite, namely the hierarchical, sequential arrangement of space in accordance with the demands of production lines—an intense regulation that scrutinized the movement of bodies, subjecting them to strict regulation and confining their movements across space and time. (127)

Routes are erased or blocked in ruins, and other paths are open because of the collapse of walls or doors, so these sites “often resemble labyrinths in which path-making is arbitrary and open to multiple options” (127). Walkers can follow their own “curiosities, potential channels of movement, tempting surfaces and gradients, and peculiar impulses’ (127). Moreover, rather than limiting the types of available movements, the disarrayed affordances of the ruin prompt the body to stoop, crouch, climb, slither, leap, swerve and pick its way to avoid lurking hazards. Walking cannot follow a regular rhythmic gait because of the variability of the surface underfoot and the uneven textures that force high and either small or extended steps. It is often impossible to progress in an uninterrupted, purposive fashion towards a predetermined destination. (127)

“The constantly evolving anti-structure of the ruin contrasts with the supervised linearity which determines much movement through the city,” Edensor suggests, and despite signs warning of penalties for trespassing, he has encountered little surveillance of any kind in the ruins. Instead, in his experience,

the proprietary codes of walking performance that constrain expression and dramatic improvisation are irrelevant in a space largely devoid of human presence. There are no social impediments to movement, no temporal limits on the appropriate time to be spent there, and no need to adhere to the self-conscious monitoring of one’s own body in a city of surveillant onlookers. All these elements allow visitors to ruins to walk without being regulated by others. We can stop for long periods, dawdle or run, with no objective at all. (128)

Ruins are thus conducive to expressive or playful movement; they are “unsupervised playgrounds” in which visitors can perform feats of balance, agility and bravery (128). Unlike officially designated playgrounds, “which limit the range of permissible practices to ‘appropriate’ and largely risk-free activities,” ruins, however dangerous they may be, “allow a return to a less self-conscious engagement with space and materials without purposive planning or a view to utility” (129).

“Besides liberating bodily movements, ruins can offer strange and disruptive spaces in which to walk,” Edensor contends. Ruins violate “the usual, common-sense boundaries that inform us about the nature of a place—between inside and outside, past and present, rural and urban, natural and cultural” (129). An industrial ruin is therefore

a defamiliarized space in which modes of passage are improvisatory, uninformed by conventions, continually disrupted and expressive. Instead of a self-contained bodily comportment, with fixed stride, steady gait and minimal gestures which limit interaction with the environment, objects and other people, the body is inadvertently coaxed into a more flamboyant and expressive style, awakening performative possibilities beyond those to which it has become habituated. Both the material characteristics of the ruin and the absence of forms of surveillance and social pressures permit ways of walking that foster an extension of bodily experience and expression by contrast to the largely constrained disposition of the urban pedestrian. This defamiliarization is further brought out by the strange sensualities of the ruin. (129-30)

The sensual properties of industrial ruins tend to “counterbalance an emphasis in the literature on the narration of walking as an experience through which the world is looked at and represented” (130). Such accounts “present a curiously disembodied view of what is an intensely somatic experience” and “neglect the fuller sensual experience that walking affords” (130). That claim might be true, but the argument would be much stronger with examples of such disembodied descriptions of walking.

According to Edensor, place impresses itself upon the body, particularly the pedestrian body: “its affordances are inevitably created out of the relationship between its physical and material qualities on the one hand and the social and subjective experience of walking on the other, along with the cultural precepts through which the practice is interpreted” (131). Compared to the controlled places of the city, in a ruined space 

the body is enlivened and challenged by a wealth of multi-sensual effects—including smells, sounds and tactilities—which thwart any distancing manoeuvres that prioritize the visual. I suggest that the affective experiences and expressive activities that centre upon ruins are made possible and pleasurable because they take place in a space replete with rich and unfamiliar affordances. (132)

Such affordances include textures, form, weight, consistency, states of decay, and redistributed material and matter (132). Ruins, however, are not the only places where walkers can experience the effect of place. After a few days of long-distance walking in Scotland, Edensor reports, “a deeper, non-cognitive, sensual form of appreciation developed for the terrain traversed, experienced through the feet and legs, promoting and adaptation to the environment through a heightened sense of corporeal balance” (132). 

Walking in ordinary (that is, regulated) urban spaces leads to the sense of vision becoming dominant, and other forms of sensory experience becoming marginalized (134). Ruins, however,

violate disciplinary aesthetic schemes in which objects are carefully situated, difference is domesticated and contained, ‘clutter’ which might complicate sight-lines and passage is continuously removed, and the bright and the smooth are maintained. . . . The scene is one of disorder, disarray and the mingling of usually unlike categories of things. (134)

This “material excess” is “initially disturbing to habituated aesthetic sensibilities,” but it becomes an encounter with “an alternative aesthetics, one which rebukes the seamlessness of much urban design and opens out heterodox possibilities for appreciating beauty and form” (134). Moreover, this encounter leads to a blending of vision with other senses, and a recognition that there is no reason for vision to be our dominant sense (135). “Looking, in such an environment, is particularly multi-sensual, inextricably embedded in the work of all the other senses in the body’s interaction with its surroundings,” Edensor contends (135). I haven’t walked around the kind of industrial ruin Edensor has experienced—they are relatively uncommon in Saskatchewan—so I can’t comment on the multiple senses that such walking engages, but I am curious about whether the long-distance walking he has done in Scotland led to a similar sensory experience. Perhaps Edensor has written about other forms of walking and their effect on the senses; I will have to look. It’s certainly been my experience that walking engages multiple senses and tends to make vision less important, but I would be curious to learn whether my experience is representative.

Finally, Edensor addresses the assumption that walking is like a narrative. In such narratives, he contends, “walkers in the city are held heroically to inscribe their presence and meanings on space. . . . But by foregrounding the metaphor of walking as narrative inscription, the affective, sensual dimensions of walking are apt to disappear” (136). This claim makes me wonder what Edensor makes of accounts of rural walking, but perhaps he is addressing the genealogy of urban walking from the Dadaists and Surrealists to the Situationists and psychogeographers. In any case, he claims that walking narratives are colonizing manoeuvres: they

assert an authoritative understanding of the land. Through walking, the expert confidently discerns cultural traces in the landscape, and charts its ‘natural history’ along with other ‘key features’ which mark the space traversed, so that otherness—whether natural, cultural, or historical—may be ‘known.’ These walking narratives not only identify preferred ways of understanding space in the realm of the other; they also map numerous routes through which walkers may orient themselves to their surroundings. (136)

Such authoritative assurances, however, are not necessarily part of narratives about walking; again, this argument would be stronger with specific examples instead of sweeping generalizations. Walking can constitute “a narrative technique to defamiliarize the spectacular, regulated, commodified space of the city,” Edensor acknowledges, but surrealist or psychogeographic accounts of walking, such as Iain Sinclair’s Lights Out for the Territory, “curiously decentre corporeal, sensual interaction with the material world” (136). 

Moreover, narrative accounts of walking “typically create the illusion of linear progress through sequential time: this or that feature is passed, discussed, and then the next, and so on until the end of the walk” (136). “Yet while there may be a clear beginning and end,” Edensor continues, “the temporal experience of walking is usually far from a flow of successive, episodic events” (136). Rather, “[w]alking is suffused with a kaleidoscope of intermingling thoughts, experiences and sensations, so that the character of a walk is continually shifting” (136). “In its quest for an orderly account, narrative cannot effectively capture the momentary impressions confronted, the peculiar evanescent atmospheres, the rhythms, immanent sensations and physical effects of walking,” Edensor writes (137). My reaction to this claim was that Edensor hasn’t been reading the right narratives about walking. There are many narratives about walking that do not attempt to present orderly, linear accounts of experiences, including modern or postmodern texts like Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, James Joyce’s Ulysses, William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, or W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn. In fact, I would suggest that Edensor is constructing a straw argument here rather than actually confronting the richness of writing about walking—and not just walking in ruins, either. Eventually, he admits as much: “Stories that are fragmented, non-linear, impressionistic and contingent are better suited than traditional linear narratives to the experience of walking in ruins” (137). Such fragmented narratives are better suited to representing any experience of walking than a traditional linear narrative, whether ruins are involved or not.

In any case, that’s not Edensor’s only objection to narratives of walking. Privileging narration, he contends, consigns 

its immanent, embodied sensual characteristics to secondary importance, for the story effaces the physical interaction with space and its sense-making techniques are usually mobilized only in post-hoc, reflexive conceptualization. Words can but feebly allude to sensations and the selective content of an account can refer to no more than a tiny proportion of what is experienced. Tell stories we may do—although their impact typically depends upon the skill of the teller—but we should be aware of their partiality and their peculiar tendency to underestimate temporal, spatial, and somatic experience. (138)

Well, of course a story’s impact depends on the skill of the teller, and of course stories are partial—which either means incomplete, here, or limited to the experience of the walker (or narrator). I don’t think that’s news. It would be interesting to know how walkers ought to communicate their experience to others, if not through narrative. Are other forms of writing appropriate? Is poetry perhaps better suited to temporal and somatic experience? Or ought one turn to other art forms? Edensor’s essay is illustrated with photographs of ruins—does that mean photography is the appropriate medium? Doesn’t that unavoidably end up privileging vision? Isn’t any medium or literary form unlikely to be able to capture all aspects of a walk—or, to be honest, of any experience? Does that mean we ought to forget about trying to make art about experience, however partial or incomplete such art might be? I would say no—in fact, I would suggest that nobody expects any representation of an experience to convey all of the sensory, temporal, or spatial aspects of that experience, including representations about walking. To think that such total representations are possible is to delude oneself.

There are still more essays in this anthology, but I have touched on the ones that spoke to me and that seemed most central to my research concerns. What I learned from reading this anthology, as I suggested at the beginning of this summary, is the breadth and complexity of walking as an interdisciplinary field of inquiry. After all, the authors represented here include anthropologists, landscape architects, geographers, educators and artists. There are many directions my research could take, and many writers whose work I could read. I feel like I am at the beginning of a long journey by foot, a journey which will be mostly uphill. I know from experience, though, that the hills will get easier to climb as I keep walking. That’s a lesson walking has taught me, and one that’s surprisingly applicable to graduate school. 

Works Cited

Geertz, Clifford. The Interpretation of Cultures. Basic, 1973.

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

Taussig, Michael. “Tactility and Distraction.” The Nervous System, Routledge, 1992, pp. 141-48.

Tuan, Yi-Fu. Topophilia: A Study of Environmental Perception, Attitudes, and Values. Prentice-Hall, 1974.

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.

21. Sharanya, “A Manifesto to Decolonize Walking: Approximate Steps



I was having trouble deciding what to begin reading this afternoon. I know what I ought to start to read—something difficult and philosophical and theoretical—but I’m not really in the mood for another book. There was one article left in the “general theory and methodology” section of my reading list, and I decided to take a look at it. That article turned out to be of little use, but in the same journal I ran across Sharanya’s manifesto, and from the title, decided that it was something I should read.

Sharanya, or Sharanya M, as her blog states, is a teacher and researcher with a PhD in drama from the University of Exeter. She is also a walking artist based in Delhi, India. Her article begins with an assertion of the necessity to acknowledge “the genealogies and cultural practices that have been influential in shaping contemporary walking practices”:

The very endeavour of a grand narrative of history of walking that does not explicitly site itself—whether in Europe or elsewhere—indicates and reproduces the familiar reliance upon the non-specificity of site as referring to the hegemony of the “West,” across academic and popular literature. (85)

Among the texts that she suggests reproduce that hegemony are Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust, Merlin Coverley’s The Art of Wandering, and Frédéric Gros’s A Philosophy of Walking—all texts I’ve read and written about on this blog. “Walking as a form of performance ethnography, however, demands an attention to the rituals of the particular,” Sharanya continues. “Walking is influenced not just by where one walks, and who one is, but also by what factors one chooses to situate in the matrix of influence” (85). Moreover, Sharanya argues, “working through the baggage of heritage—architectural, social and cultural—calls for an examination of more local forms of pedestrianism” (85). In her description of her attempts to make psychogeographic dérives in Delhi, she notes that those attempts at following the examples of Situationist walks through Paris didn’t work out, and that apparent failure led to this manifesto.  

“Social identities are partly created and named through signifiers, many of which are architectural, in the realm of the urban public,” Sharanya continues, “and are accessed through pedestrian encounters with them” (85). This approach to walking is somewhat limited—it only applies to urban walks and it is only concerned with the social identities that are created through place—but any approach to any specific practice is going to be limited by its practitioner’s interests, which might be Sharanya’s point. “A call to decolonize walking involves the recognition of, and response to, dominant forms of modernity in the urban everyday, such as architectural heritage”—she seems to be particularly interested in colonial British architecture in Indian cities—“the invisibility/hypervisibility of minority bodies in the street and the dominance of walking narratives from European and American cities” (85-86). Above all, decolonizing walking practices means naming the “hegemonic modes of knowledge-production” in particular spaces, which will necessitate rereading the juxtaposition between modernity and coloniality from a consciousness of race, gender, and sexuality, and to examine the emergence and development of those categories as well. Here Sharanya refers to an article by Gurminder K. Bhambra that discusses an essay on the connection between modernity and colonialism by Anibal Quijano—something I’ll take a look at. For Sharanya, decolonizing walking is an attempt to recast the politics of walking practices through a consciousness of race, gender, and sexuality as categories (86). There’s no question that one needs to think about walking in terms of those categories; I am quite aware that my ability to walk is different from the ability of others whose identities are different from mine.

Sharanya also argues that attention needs to be paid to specific urban forms. The limitations involved in reinscribing new forms of walking within older forms, such as Baudelaire’s (and Benjamin’s) flâneur, “are revealed quickly when one encounters the postcolonial body/city dialectic, which is itself new epistemological ground for walking discourse to be engaged with” (86). That dialectic—the place of the body, and the body in its place—Sharanya calls “locus of enunciation,” following an article by Walter D. Mignolo on epistemology and colonial difference. That article is another discovery I’ll read some other time. “Our walks are created by our loci of enunciation: the you/as, and the you/in,” Sharanya continues. “Find your focus as you articulate it” (86). I’m not sure what that command means, but it seems to be a call for an awareness of both who one is, in all of the complexity of one’s identity, and of where one walks. In addition, one needs to attend to the “temporal details of walking”: “the type of walk the rhythm and pace of the walk; the walk as an exploration; the walk as an experiment; the walk as an accumulation of chance-happenings; the walk as affective discourse. These are just elements of the walk, and must be gathered alongside urban politics—not just over ‘there’ in a strange land, but also ‘here,’ in a place that is familiar” (86). Sharanya praises Cathy Turner’s account of walking in Bangalore both for its richness of detail and for its approximation and incompleteness, qualities she believes are central both to the documentation of walking and to walks themselves (88). What Turner’s notes regarding her walks suggest, Sharanya writes, is “that which cannot be assimilated into text, yet remains a crucial part of the performance (text). Making visible the process of narrativizing the walk in retrospect is crucial to decolonial practices, as it reveals the construction of the locus of enunciation” (88). The short article ends with a description of the page of photographs it contains. Those photos of signs in Delhi are, Sharanya suggests, “a partially legible map of my walks, and an approximate imprint of an attempt to decolonize the form of the walk” (88).

I’ve been told that my walks in Saskatchewan are inevitably colonial. That’s because I am a white settler walking on the land, and therefore I will be understood as being a colonist inspecting the property. That’s why Sharanya’s title grabbed my attention: I want my walking practice to be decolonial, not colonial, and so I am interested in anything that might suggest ways to do that. Sharanya’s manifesto might suggest that, by paying attention to my own locus of enunciation, by being aware of both who I am and where I am, I might be able to address such critiques directly. Her praise of Turner’s poetic notes suggests that it is not impossible, at least from her perspective, for a white person’s walk to be understood as decolonial, although it must be emphasized that while India is a postcolonial country, Canada is not, and the land where I walk in this province is subject to a treaty that has been deliberately misunderstood, as Sheldon Krasowski argues in his recent book. I know my research is fraught with difficulty, and it may be completely misunderstood, but I still believe it it worth carrying on with it. Sharanya’s reminder regarding the locus of enunciation is important, and it’s one I will heed.

Works Cited

Bhambra, Gurminder K. “Postcolonial and Decolonial Dialogues.” Postcolonial Studies, vol. 17, no. 2, 2014, pp. 115-21. DOI: 10.1080/13688790.2014.966414.

Krasowski, Sheldon. No Surrender: The Land Remains Indigenous. U of Regina P, 2019.

Mignolo, Walter D. “I Am Where I Think: Epistemology and the Colonial Difference.” Journal of Latin American Cultural Studies, vol. 8, no. 2, 1999, pp. 235-45. DOI: 10.1080/13569329909361962.

Quijano, Anibal. “Coloniality and Modernity/Rationality.” Cultural Studies vol. 21, no. 2-3, 2007, pp. 168-78. DOI: 10.1080/09502380601164353.

Sharanya. “A Manifesto to Decolonize Walking: Approximate Steps.” Performance Research: A Journal of the Performing Arts, vol. 22, no. 3, 2017, pp. 85-88. DOI:10.1080/13528165.2017.1348596.

20. Yi-Fu Tuan, Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience

yi-fu tuan space and place


Long before I started working on this degree, I knew I was going to need to read Yi-Fu Tuan’s 1977 book Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience as part of my work. Everyone interested in movement and embodiment in places and/or spaces cites this book. A former colleague here used Space and Place as a big part of the theoretical basis of her PhD dissertation. After reading Tim Ingold’s book on lines, this book seemed like a logical place to continue thinking about the human relationship to localities of different kinds. 

Tuan describes this book as an essay—although with 14 chapters, it’s actually more like 14 separate essays—and I think he means essay in its original sense, as an exploration of questions rather than a presentation of answers. His approach is descriptive, aiming to suggest rather than conclude, and to ask questions rather than give questions—an exploratory work, in other words (7). There are three themes in the book, he writes. The first is biology: “The human body lies prone, or it is upright. Upright it has top and bottom, front and back, right and left. How are these bodily postures, divisions, and values extrapolated onto circumambient space?” (6). This concern with embodiment dovetails with the phenomenology I’ve been reading (and will continue to read). The second theme concerns the relations of space and place. “‘Space’ is more abstract than ‘place,’” Tuan writes:

What begins as undifferentiated space becomes place as we get to know it better and endow it with value. . . . The ideas ‘space’ and ‘place’ require each other for definition. From the security and stability of place we are aware of the openness, freedom, and threat of space, and vice versa. Furthermore, if we think of space as that which allows movement, then place is pause; each pause in movement makes it possible for location to be transformed into place. (6)

I’m very interested in the distinction between space and place, and in the ways that space is transformed into place. Can the act of walking through space, for example, enable such a transformation? Can place be defined as a line, to borrow Tim Ingold’s terminology, rather than a dot? The last theme of Tuan’s book is the range of experience or knowledge: “Experience can be direct or intimate, or it can be indirect and conceptual, mediated by symbols,” he writes (6). Intimate experiences are difficult to express, and therefore it can be dismissed as private and idiosyncratic, and therefore unimportant. “In the large literature on environmental quality, relatively few works attempt to understand how people feel about space and place, to take into account the different modes of experience (sensorimotor, tactile, visual, conceptual), and to interpret space and place as images of complex—often ambivalent—feelings” (6-7). Artists, particularly writers, have tended to be more successful than social scientists in representing intimate experiences, although humanistic psychologists, philosophers, anthropologists and geographers have also recorded “intricate worlds of human experience” (7). According to Tuan, this book “attempts to systematize humanistic insights, to display them in conceptual frames (here organized as chapters) so that their importance is evident to us not only as thoughtful people curious to know more about our own nature—our potential for experiencing—but also as tenants of the earth practically concerned with the design of a more human habitat” (7).

Finally, Tuan is interested in “shared traits that transcend cultural particularities and may therefore reflect the general human condition,” rather than exploring explanations based on cultural differences (5). “The purpose of this essay is not to produce a handbook of how cultures affect human attitudes to space and place,” Tuan argues. “The essay is, rather, a prologue to human culture in its countless variety; it focuses on general dispositions of human dispositions, capacities, and needs, and how culture emphasizes or distorts them” (5-6). Tuan uses a lot of examples from anthropology to show how different cultures have different ideas about space, place, time, and other topics discussed in this book, but I’m not convinced that he identifies the universal attitudes about them that he is seeking. Perhaps after I’ve finished writing this summary I’ll have a different response to his book. That, for me, is the value of these immanent readings of texts: I figure out what is happening in a particular text by reviewing my notes and condensing them. “How will I know what I think until I see what I say?” the woman in an anecdote told by the British novelist E.M. Forster reportedly asked (Forster 108). Like her, I don’t know what the authors I’ve read actually think until I see what I’ve written about them.

Tuan’s second chapter discusses what he means by experience, and that discussion involves a particular conception of epistemology. That word, he writes, “is a cover-all term for the various modes through which a person knows and constructs a reality. These modes range from the more direct and passive senses of smell, taste, and touch, to active visual perception and the indirect modes of symbolization” (8). “To experience,” he continues, “is to learn; it means acting on the given and creating out of the given. The given cannot be known in itself. What can be known is a reality that is a construct of experience, a creation of feeling and thought” (9). Feeling, he contends, is not a series of “discrete sensations” (10). Instead, “memory and anticipation”—which are modes of thinking, of cognition—“are able to wield sensory impacts into a shifting stream of experience so that we may speak of a life of feeling as we do of a life of thought” (10). Feeling and thought are not opposed, with the one registering subjective states, and the other reporting objective reality; instead, for Tuan, “they lie near two ends of an experiential continuum, and both are ways of knowing” (10).

We experience the world through our senses, and our experiences of space and spatial qualities relies primarily on kinesthesia, sight, and touch (12). Kinesthesia, or movement, is an essential part of our experience of space; by shifting from one place to another, we acquire a sense of direction. “Forward, backward, and sideways are experientially differentiated,” Tuan suggests, “that is, known subconsciously in the act of motion. Space assumes a rough coordinate frame centered on the mobile and purposive self” (12). “Purposive movement and perception, both visual and haptic”—that is, related to the senses of touch and proprioception—”give human beings their familiar world of disparate objects in space,” he continues. “Place is a special kind of object. It is a concretion of value, though not a valued thing that can be handled or carried about easily; it is an object in which one can dwell” (12). Space, on the other hand, “can be variously experienced as the relative location of objects or places, as the distances and expanses that separate or link places, and—more abstractly—as the area defined by a network of places” (12). Can the space through which I walk become place? Does the act of walking lead to a concretion of value? These are questions I will need to consider.

The distinction between place and space is important for Tuan. “Place is a type of object,” he contends. “Places and objects define space, giving it a geometric personality” (17). We come to know specific spaces as places through experience (17-18). “An object of place achieves concrete reality when our experience of it is total, that is, through all the senses as well as with the active and reflective mind,” Tuan continues (18). Take, for example, a neighbourhood: it only becomes a place as we come to know it, as we become familiar with it, and as we think about and remember it. And yet, people can become attached to places of an enormous size, such as a nation-state, of which they can only have had limited direct experience, because such places are experienced symbolically—through language and other abstract forms of communication (18). 

In his fourth chapter, Tuan returns to the twin themes of space and place. “‘Space’ is an abstract term for a complex set of ideas,” he writes, noting that people of different cultures have different ways of dividing up their world, assigning values to the various segments they identify, and measuring those parts (34). However, there are cross-cultural similarities, and these rest ultimately on taking the human being as the measure of all things. “This is to say,” he continues, “if we look for fundamental principles of spatial organization we find them in two kinds of facts: the posture and structure of the human body, and the relations (whether close or distant) between human beings” (34). We impose a schema—an interpretive framework—on space merely be being present in it, although most of the time we are not aware of doing so. We note the absence of that schema when we are lost, and we mark its presence on ritual occasions that make us aware of our values, including those that are manifest in space (36-37). Our vocabularies for spatial organization and value have common terms, which are ultimately derived from the human body (37). Our senses of front and back, right and left, vertical and horizontal, and high and low, Tuan argues, are derived from the posture and shape of the human body and the way it occupies space (40). Cultures tend to be biased toward the right side of the body, versus the left, and towards the front, rather than what is behind (42-44). “Man is the measure,” Tuan writes. “In a literal sense, the human body is the measure of direction, location, and distance” (44). Not surprisingly, Tuan cites Maurice Merleau-Ponty regarding the anthropocentric nature of spatial prepositions (45). Our bodies, for Tuan, are the source of our understanding of space.

In his fifth chapter, Tuan thinks about spaciousness. Space is related to our sense of spaciousness, as population density is also related to crowding, but ample space is not always experienced as spaciousness, and a high density of population does not necessarily mean feeling crowded (51). It’s the feeling of spaciousness or crowding that interests Tuan, rather than the way they can be measured. What is associated with those feelings? A sense of spaciousness, he suggests, is correlated with feelings of freedom, whereas immobility is related to feelings of confinement and construction (51). Tools—by which Tuan means vehicles, primarily—can enlarge our senses of space and spaciousness as well:

A bicycle enlarges the human sense of space, and likewise the sports car. They are machines at man’s command. A perky sports car responds to the driver’s slightest wish. It opens up a world of speed, air, and movement. Accelerating over a straight road or swerving over a curve, momentum and gravity—these dry terms out of a physics book—become the felt qualities of motion. Small aircrafts of the kind in use during the 1920s are capable of extending man’s freedom, his space, as well as putting the human being into a more intimate relationship with the vastness of nature. (53)

Vehicles allow for gains in speed, overcoming greater distances, and conquering space, although they do not nullify its sensible size: “on the contrary, space continues to open out for him,” meaning the driver or cyclist or pilot. On the other hand, when transportation becomes a passive experience,

conquest of space can mean its diminishment. The speed that gives freedom to man causes him to lose a sense of spaciousness. Think of the jetliner. It crosses the continent in a few hours, yet its passengers’ experience of speed and space is probably less vivid than that of a motorcyclist roaring down a freeway. Passengers have no control over the machine and cannot feel it as an extension of their organic power. Passengers are luxury crates—safely belted in their seats—being transported passively from point to point. (53-54)

I agree with the second part of this argument, but I wonder about the first. Speed may lead to a sense of spaciousness by allowing for a sense of power and control, but I’m not convinced that motorized transportation of any kind is conducive to experiencing space in a sensory or sensorimotor fashion. Moving slowly through a landscape is much more likely to impart a sense of its size, and therefore of its spaciousness. The experience of tearing down a highway in a speeding vehicle is an experience of momentum and gravity and centrifugal force, but not necessarily an experience of spaciousness.

The exploration of spaciousness leads to another discussion of the distinction between space and place:

To be open and free is to be exposed and vulnerable. Open space has no trodden paths and signposts. It has no fixed pattern of established human meaning; it is like a blank sheet on which meaning may be imposed. Enclosed and humanized space is place. Compared to space, place is a calm center of established values. Human beings require both space and place. Human lives are a dialectical movement between shelter and venture, attachment and freedom. In open space one can become intensely aware of place; and in the solitude of a sheltered place the vastness of space beyond acquires a haunting presence. (54)

I doubt that there is any open space without trodden paths or landmarks that function as signposts—not for any culture or civilization. That description of space is a fictional one: it doesn’t exist, and Tuan acknowledges that later in the book. Nevertheless, he points out that different cultures experience open spaces differently: “Americans have learned to accept the open plains of the West as a symbol of opportunity and freedom, but to the Russian peasants boundless space used to have the opposite meaning. It connoted despair rather than opportunity; it inhibited rather than encouraged action” (55-56). But Tuan also argues that solitude is related to feelings of spaciousness. “Solitude is a condition for acquiring a sense of immensity,” he writes. “Alone one’s thoughts wander freely over space. In the presence of others they are pulled back by an awareness of other personalities who project their own worlds onto the same area” (59). As more people appear in a space, a sense of spaciousness will eventually yield to one of crowding (59). Being under the gaze of others can be restricting as well (59). As responses to crowding, “[e]tiquette and rudeness are opposite means to the same end: helping people to avoid contact when such contact threatens to be too intense” (60). I’m not sure any of these observations apply to all cultures at all times; in other words, I’m not convinced that Tuan is finding the human universals he says he seeks in his introduction. And he acknowledges this: “How physically close we tolerate or enjoy the presence of others, for how long, and under what conditions vary noticeably from culture to culture” (62). Nevertheless, he suggests that crowded conditions have a cost: “The cost appears to be a chance to develop deep inwardness in the human personality. Privacy and solitude are necessary for sustained reflection and a hard look at self, and through the understanding of the self to the full appreciation of other personalities” (65). That sounds like an attempt to universalize specifically Western concepts, and I don’t believe that attempt is likely to be borne out by anthropological or historical examples, although I could very well be wrong about that.

In his sixth chapter, Tuan thinks about the relationship between spatial skill or ability and spatial knowledge. “Spatial ability becomes spatial knowledge when movements and changes of location can be envisaged,” he writes (68-69). Spatial knowledge is not necessary for spatial skill: people can find their way around a neighbourhood, for example, while finding it difficult to give a stranger directions. Spatial skill is not conscious; it appears to be embodied—although Tuan does not use that term—because examples of similar skills include touch typing or riding a bicycle, “occasions on which we perform complex acts without the help of mental or material plans” (68). Tuan cites studies where human participants and rats learn to negotiate mazes by integrating tactile, kinesthetic patterns. “They learn a succession of movements rather than a spatial configuration or map,” he notes, and the fact that rats perform just as well as humans in this task suggests that our large brains are redundant to the task of learning pathfinding skills (70). Humans who have participated in such studies find themselves unable to describe or reproduce the mazes they have navigated (72). Such experiments suggest

that when people come to know a street grid they know a succession of movements appropriate to recognized landmarks. They do not acquire any precise mental map of the neighbourhood. Of course, a rough image of spatial relations can be learned without deliberate effort; people do pick up a sense of the starting point here, the goal out there, and a scattering of intermediate landmarks, but the mental image is shaky. Precision is not required in the practical business of moving about. A person needs only to have a general sense of direction to the goals, and to know what to do next on each segment of the journey. (72-73)

Moreover, after making a journey, people seem psychologically predisposed to discount departures from the route they imagine they are taking: in studies, when asked to reproduce their journeys in drawings, people simplify their routes, leaving out or minimizing the angularity of the turns they made (73). What this suggests, Tuan argues, is that “[s]patial ability precedes spatial knowledge. Mental worlds are refined out of sensory and kinesthetic experiences. Spatial knowledge enhances spatial ability” (74). And, I would add, spatial ability is proof that something like embodied knowledge exists—knowledge that is felt and experienced, but that is difficult to express symbolically, in words or images. Tuan seems to agree. “In a narrow sense,” Tuan writes, “spatial skill is what we can accomplish with our body. Its meaning approximates that of agility” (75).

In the next chapter, Tuan discusses mythical space and place. “Two principal kinds of mythical space may be distinguished,” he argues:

In the one, mythical space is a fuzzy area of defective knowledge surrounding the empirically known; it frames pragmatic space. In the other it is the spatial component of a world view, a conception of localized values within which people carry on their practical activities. Both kinds of space, well described by scholars for nonliterate and traditional societies, persist in the modern world. They persist because for individuals as well as for groups there will always be areas of the hazily known and of the unknown, and because it is likely that some people will always be driven to understand man’s place in nature in a holistic way. (86)

The first kind of mythical space, he continues, “is a conceptual extension of the familiar and workaday spaces given by direct experience” (86). The second kind, however, “functions as a component in a world view or cosmology. It is better articulated and more consciously held than mythical space of the first kind” (86). It constitutes a world view, a “more or less systematic attempt to make sense of environment,” and these coherent and complex systems of belief produce a sense of order and of the place of humans within nature. Two common schemata exist in cultures across the world as ways of answering the question of how we are related to the earth: 

In one schema the human body is perceived to be an image of the cosmos. In the other man is the center of a cosmic frame oriented to the cardinal points and the vertical axis. We have here two attempts to organize space, not with any narrow purpose in mind, but to gain a sense of security in the universe. (88-89)

Tuan explores these ideas in detail and presents a number of examples before concluding that mythical space is an intellectual construct that can be very elaborate, as well as being “a response of feeling and imagination to fundamental human needs” (99).

Tuan’s eighth chapter discusses architectural space and how humans, as compared to animals or birds that build structures, are aware of what they are doing. In the ninth chapter, he explores the experience of time and space. The discussion in this chapter of how antiquity tends to be idealized in traditional cultures reminds me of a lecture in my first-year journalism course, and I’m sure that Professor Bird was drawing on Tuan’s thinking in that class. Tuan also suggests that perspectival vision, developed in Europe during the Renaissance, changed our experience of time and space by structuring them to conform to a central human subject: “Under the influence of landscape pictures, painted or captured by the camera, we learn to organize visual elements into a dramatic spatio-temporal structure,” he writes (123), creating a cone-shaped space that “opens up from the point where one stands, to the broad horizon that separates earth from sky” (123). “Every perspective landscape painting or photograph teaches us to see time “flowing” through space,” Tuan contends. “The distant view need not call forth the idea of future time; the view could be our backward glance and the vanishing road the path we have already trodden. Both the past and the future can be evoked by the distant scene” (124). This shift in visual experience has had profound implications for our experience of time: “Historical time and oriented space are aspects of a single experience. Intention creates a spatio-temporal structure of ‘here is now,’ ‘there is then’” (129). If this argument can be supported by evidence, it suggests that the invention of perspectival representation was a momentous step in changing the way we perceive time and space.

Tuan also notes that distance is often measured in time, which means time is not only envisioned as an arrow pointing at the future, but rather that it “is perceived to be repetitious, like the swing of the pendulum, and it is calibrated to internal biological rhythms as well to the observable periodicities of nature” (129). Distance is measured in units of time, he continues, to “convey a clear sense of effort. The useful answer to questions of distance tells us how much effort is needed—what resources of energy are required—to achieve a goal” (129). Short distances (in cultures where people walk) can be measured in paces. Long distances can be expressed in “sleeps” or days—something that is very common during long-distance walks. Tuan draws a sweeping conclusion from this example. “The intention to go to a place creates historical time: the place is a goal in the future,” he argues:

The future cannot, however, be left open and undefined. . . . This constraint on the future, on historical time, is itself a strong reason for estimating distance in time units. . . . Time everywhere regulates human lives and livelihood. The essential difference between technological and nontechnological societies is that in the former, time is calibrated to the precision of the hour and the minute. (130)

Finally, Tuan returns to the theme of his previous chapter, contending that there are three different kinds of mythic or cosmic time: cosmogonic, astronomic, and human. Cosmogonic time tells stories about origins, including the creation of the universe, while human time is the course of a human life. “Both are linear and one-dimensional,” Tuan notes. Astronomic time, on the other hand, “is experienced as the sun’s daily round and the parade of seasons; its nature is repetition” (131). Astronomic time is best represented symmetrically, but human time is directional and asymmetrical: “one’s back is to the past, one’s face to the future. Living is a perpetual stepping forward into light and abandoning what is behind one’s back, cannot be seen, is dark and one’s past” (132-35).

Tuan’s final chapters address our intimate experiences of place. “It is impossible to discuss experiential space without introducing the objects and places that define space,” he writes at the beginning of his tenth chapter (136):

Space is transformed into place as it acquires definition and meaning. We have noted how strange space turns into neighborhood, and how the attempt to impose a spatial order by means of a grid of cardinal directions results in the establishment of significant places, including the cardinal points and center. Distance is a meaningless spatial concept apart from the idea of goal or place. It it possible, however, to describe place without introducing explicitly spatial concepts. “Here” does not necessarily entail “there.” (136)

Places can be locations where we have intimate experiences and occasions (136-37). “Place is a pause in movement,” Tuan suggests. “Animals, including human beings, pause at a locality because it satisfied certain biological needs. The pause makes it possible for a locality to become a center of felt value” (138). Our lasting affection for home—assuming that is experienced universally, which is it not—“is at least partly a result of such intimate and nurturing experiences,” in which our parents—I think Tuan means our mothers—are our primary place (138). “Each intimate exchange has a locale which partakes in the quality of the human encounter,” Tuan writes. “There are as many intimate places as there are occasions when human beings truly connect” (141). This argument would suggest that the path I take, or make, when I walk cannot be experienced as place, because I am not pausing or having intimate experiences along the way. In order to contend that my path is a place, I would have to argue against Tuan’s description of place. That’s good to know. However, that’s not the only way Tuan describes place. “Place exists at different scales,” Tuan writes. “At one extreme a favorite armchair is a place, at the other extreme the whole earth” (149). The armchair suggests a pause and an experience (at least potentially) of intimacy, whereas the earth suggests a very different notion of place, one that could only be understood symbolically. For Tuan, “[h]omeland is an important type of place at the medium scale. It is a region (city or countryside) large enough to support a people’s livelihood,” and our attachment to our homelands can be intense (149). “Human groups nearly everywhere tend to regard their own homeland as the center of the world,” Tuan continues (149):

In diverse parts of the world this sense of centrality is made explicit by a geometrical conception of space oriented to the cardinal points. Home is at the center of an astronomically determined spatial system. A vertical axis, linking heaven to the underworld, passes through it. The stars are perceived to move around one’s abode; home is the focus point of a cosmic structure. Such a conception of place ought to give it supreme value; to abandon it would be hard to imagine. Should destruction occur we may reasonably conclude that the people would be thoroughly demoralized, since the ruin of their settlement implies the ruin of their cosmos. Yet this does not necessarily happen. Human beings have strong recuperative powers. Cosmic views can be adjusted to suit new circumstances. With the destruction of one “center of the world,” another can be built next to it, or in another location altogether, and it in turn becomes the “center of the world.” “Center” is not a particular point on the earth’s surface; it is a concept in mythic thought rather than a deeply felt value bound to unique events and locality. In mythic thought several world centers may coexist in the same general area without contradiction. It is possible to believe that the axis of the world passes through the settlement as a whole as well as through the separate dwellings within it. Space that is stretched over a grid of cardinal points makes the idea of place vivid, but it does not make any particular geographical locality the place. A spatial frame determined by the stars is anthropocentric rather than place-centric, and it can be moved as human beings themselves move. (149-50)

I wonder if this is true, or if it’s true of all cultures in all places. I really don’t know. Tuan suggests that a profound attachment to the homeland is a worldwide phenomenon (154), but is that attachment always experienced mythically? Don’t traditional societies have different attachments to homeland than modern, Western societies? And isn’t that attachment symbolic or even imaginary, as Benedict Anderson argues? 

In his twelfth chapter, Tuan argues that places are often defined according to their visibility:

Place can be defined in a variety of ways. Among them is this: place is whatever stable object catches our attention. As we look at a panoramic scene our eyes pause at points of interest. Each pause is time enough to create an image of place that looms large momentarily in our view. The pause may be of such short duration and the interest so fleeting that we may not be fully aware of having focused on any particular object; we believe we have simply been looking at the general scene. Nonetheless these pauses have occurred. It is not possible to look at a scene in general; our eyes keep searching for points of rest. We may be deliberately searching for a landmark, or a feature on the horizon may be so prominent that it compels attention. As we gaze and admire a famous mountain peak on the horizon, it looms so large in our consciousness that the picture we take of it with a camera is likely to disappoint us, revealing a midget where we would expect to find a giant. (161)

Once again, place is defined as a pause, but this time, these pauses are fleeting and visual. Some places, certainly, are visually striking, such as mountains. Nevertheless, not every place has visual importance:

Many places, profoundly significant to particular individuals and groups, have little visual prominence. They are known viscerally, as it were, and not through the discerning eye or mind. A function of literary art is to give visibility to intimate experiences, including those of place. The Grand Tetons of landscape do not require the services of literature; they advertise themselves by sheer size. Literary art can illuminate the inconspicuous fields of human care such as a Midwestern town, a Mississippi county, a big-city neighbourhood, or an Appalachian hollow. (162)

I like this quotation—so much that I posted it on Facebook—because of its emphasis on the work of writers, and by extension artists, in creating a sense of place. It suggests that perhaps the path I take or make when I am walking could become a place as a result of the writing I produce about it. Perhaps I don’t have to launch an argument against Tuan’s suggestion that places are pauses, if I can claim that a space can become a place through an aesthetic response to it. 

In his thirteenth chapter, Tuan returns to the theme of the relationship between time and place. This relationship presents an intricate problem that invites different approaches, and in this chapter, he tells us, he will explore three such approaches: 

time as motion or flow and place as a pause in the temporal current; attachment to place as a function of time, captured in the phrase, “it takes time to know a place”; and place as time made visible, or place as memorial to times past. (179)

“Place is an organized world of meaning,” Tuan writes:

It is essentially a static concept. If we see the world as a process, constantly changing, we should not be able to develop any sense of place. Movement in space can be in one direction or circular, implying repetition. A common symbol for time is the arrow; others are the circular orbit and the swinging pendulum. Thus images of space and time merge. The arrow represents directional time but also movement in space to a goal. Goal is both a point in time and a point in space. (179)

“Goal is one of the three categories of place that can be distinguished when movement is in one direction, with no thought of return,” Tuan continues; “the other two are home and camps or wayside stations. Home is the stable world to be transcended, goal is the stable world to be attained, and camps are the rest stops for the journey from one world to the other. The arrow is the appropriate image” (180). Movements involve paths, which tend to be circular, in the sense that they are paths to and from places. “As a result of habitual use the path itself acquires a density of meaning and a stability that are characteristic traits of place,” Tuan writes, but such places have the intimacy of home (180-82). As I read this, I wondered if it was true—if, for example, tribal cultures that move seasonally along the same paths might not come to experience those paths as places as well. This is a question Tuan addresses immediately:

The nomad’s world consists of places connected by a path. Do nomads, who are frequently on the move, have a strong sense of place? Quite possibly. Nomads move, but they move within a circumscribed area, and the distance between the two extreme points of their peregrination seldom exceeds 200 miles. Nomads pause and establish camp at roughly the same places (pastures and water holes) year after year; the paths they follow also show little change. For nomads the cyclical exigencies of life yield a sense of place at two scales: the camps and the far larger territory within which they move. It may be that the camps are their primary places, known through intimate experience, whereas the territory traversed by nomads seems more shadowy to them because it lacks a tangible structure. (182)

I’m not sure Tuan’s conclusion is correct: why wouldn’t the “territory traversed by nomads” have “a tangible structure” and therefore be experienced as place? I wonder if anyone has taken on Tuan’s thinking here: if there are any published critiques of his conclusion. It would be worth taking a look.

Next, Tuan thinks about how long it takes to know a place. “Abstract knowledge about a place can be acquired in short order if one is diligent,” he writes. Such knowledge is primarily visual. “But the ‘feel’ of a place takes longer to acquire,” he contends: 

It is made up of experiences, mostly fleeting and undramatic, repeated day after day and over the span of years. It is a unique blend of sights, sounds, and smells, a unique harmony of natural and artificial rhythms such as time of sunrise and sunset, of work and play. The feel of a place is registered in one’s muscles and bones. (183-84)

“Knowing a place . . . clearly takes time,” Tuan continues. “It is a subconscious kind of knowing. In time we become familiar with a place, which means that we can take more and more of it for granted” (184). Tuan’s example is a new house, which becomes familiar over time, but I’m still thinking about those nomads, who might follow the same paths, together, as a culture, for decades or centuries. Why wouldn’t those paths become places for them? 

While it often takes time for a space to transform into a place, that’s not always how things work. We might spend many years in one place which leave few memories, but “an intense experience of short duration, on the other hand, can alter our lives” (185). That is one point that we need to bear in mind. Another is the human life cycle: “ten years in childhood are not the same as ten years in youth or manhood. The child knows the world more sensuously than does the adult. This is one reason why the adult cannot go home again” (185). It is also one reason why a native citizen knows a country better than an immigrant, Tuan continues, an argument that does not stand up to scrutiny, in my opinion. There is no reason why a newcomer cannot develop a powerful sense of place, and the claim that children experience place more deeply is simply derived from Romanticism. It might have been true of Wordsworth, but it is not necessarily true of children who spend their lives indoors watching screens. 

Next, Tuan thinks about collections of objects of the past, as they are gathered together in museums. Museums may help a people develop a sense of history, by surrounding them with artifacts from the past (191). However, that sense is not the same as being rooted in a place. “The state of rootedness is essentially subconscious: it means that people have come to identify themselves with a particular locality, to feel that it is their home and the home of their ancestors,” he writes (194). Musuems, however, reflect “a habit of mind opposed to one that perceives place to be rooted, sacred, and inviolable,” because museums consist entirely of “displaced objects” (194). “A truly rooted community may have shrines and monuments, but it is unlikely to have museums and societies for the preservation of the past,” Tuan concludes. “The effort to evoke a sense of place and of the past is often deliberate and conscious. To the extent that the effort is conscious it is the mind at work, and the mind—if allowed its imperial sway—will annul the past by making it all present knowledge” (198). Museums and historical societies, then, are ironic institutions: they set out to create or demonstrate rootedness, but end up doing the opposite.

Finally, we arrive at Tuan’s brief epilogue. Learning about space and place—or the learning that turns space into place—is largely subconscious, he contends; it does not require analytical thought (200). That doesn’t mean that conscious thought and planning are unrelated to the development of human spatial ability, however: “With the aid of charts and compass (products of thought), human beings have sailed across the oceans,” he notes (200), although it’s also true that people who live on islands in the Pacific Ocean are able to sail across the oceans without such products of thought, as he discussed earlier (81-83). The experiences that are difficult to articulate are the ones that interest Tuan, however. Geographers (his discipline, you may recall, is geography) speak as though knowledge of space is “derived exclusively from books, maps, aerial photographs, and structured field surveys,” he writes, and as a result, “[a] large body of experiential data is consigned to oblivion because we cannot fit the data to concepts that are taken over uncritically from the physical sciences. Our understanding of human reality suffers as a result” (200-01). “Experiences are slighted or ignored because the means to articulate them or point them out are lacking,” a lack that is not inherent to language, since writers and artists have found ways to give form to feelings and intimate experiences, including those of place (200-01). For Tuan, Space and Place is one attempt to systematize human experiences of space and place: “It can claim success if it has made the reader see the range and complexity of experience, and if in addition it has clarified some of the more systematic relationships between and among the wealth of experiential components” (201). “But the essay has a still larger purpose,” Tuan continues:

the kinds of questions it poses (if not the answers) enter the debate of environmental design. The discourse of planners and designers must be enlarged to include questions such as these: What connection is there between space awareness and the idea of future time and of goal? What are the links between body postures and personal relationships on the one hand and spatial values and distance relationships on the other? How do we describe ‘familiarity,’ that quality of “at homeness” we feel toward a person or place? What kinds of intimate places can be planned, and what cannot—at least no more than we can plan for deeply human encounters? Are space and place the environmental equivalents of the human need for adventure and safety, openness and definition? How long does it take to form a lasting attachment to place? Is the sense of place a quality of awareness poised between being rooted in place, which is unconscious, and being alienated, which goes with exacerbated consciousness—and exacerbated because it is only or largely mental? How do we promote the visibility of rooted communities that lack striking visual symbols? What is the loss and gain in such promotion?” (202)

These are difficult questions, Tuan acknowledges, and they are the kinds of questions social scientists and planners have found it convenient to forget. The goal of this book, he concludes, is “to increase the burden of awareness” (203). Social scientists may not be aware of these questions–or as aware as they perhaps ought to be–but, as Tuan has noted repeatedly, they are central to the work of artists and writers. Tuan is trying to bridge very different epistemological approaches to the world, and I wonder if such a bridging is possible.

At the beginning of this immanent reading, I suggested that I would have a better sense of my response to Tuan’s book after summarizing it. I’m not sure I do, though, partly because of the complexity of the two central terms he discusses. On the one hand, I have a much better sense of the distinction between space and place—at least the distinction Tuan draws. On the other hand, the relationship between space and place—or at least between the spaces and places that interest me—remains somewhat confused. Can walking through a space turn it into a place? Is the path one follows a place or a space? In other words, how intimately can one come to understand a space by walking through it? These are questions I will continue to ponder, and no doubt I will find myself returning to Tuan’s book as I do so, both to take things from his analysis and to dispute some of his conclusions.

Works Cited

Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. 1983. 2nd. ed., Verso, 2016.

Forster, E.M. Aspects of the Novel. Penguin, 1968.

Tuan, Yi-Fu. Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience. U of Minnesota P, 1977.