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

by breavman99

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.