Reading and Walking

Walking, Reading, and Reading about Walking

Category: Reading

34. Robert Bringhurst and Jan Zwicky, Learning to Die: Wisdom in the Age of Climate Crisis

learning to die

Honestly, I should be working on the final assignment for my Cree course today. And I’m not sure that Learning to Die: Wisdom in the Age of Climate Crisis, a sobering little book by Robert Bringhurst and Jan Zwicky, who are both poets and philosophers, belongs on my reading list. Perhaps by writing about it, I’ll come to some sort of decision about the connection between this book and my research. If nothing else, reading Learning to Die: Wisdom in the Age of Climate Crisis is timely. After all, in the past couple of weeks, reports have been issued (or leaked) suggesting that global carbon emissions reached an all-time high in 2018, despite our half-hearted attempts at slowing them down, and that Canada itself is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet, which is going to have devastating effects here. Meanwhile, our provincial premier addressed a rally of people protesting the one policy our federal government has come up with to address this catastrophe: the carbon tax. That tax, Premier Scott Moe told the crowd, will restrict the growth of our province and our economy. If only someone had explained to him that the only thing that lives in an expectation of limitless growth is cancer.

Learning to Die: Wisdom in the Age of Climate Crisis consists of three essays: the first, by Robert Bringhurst, considers the fraught relation between our capitalist, technological civilization and what Bringhurst calls “the wild” (8); the second, by Jan Zwicky, turns to Plato to uncover the virtues we need to cultivate at a time when “[c]atastrophic global ecological collapse is on the horizon” (43); and the third, co-written by Bringhurst and Zwicky, attacks the work of professional optimist Stephen Pinker—especially his 2018 book Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress—for playing fast and loose with the facts about the grave ecological situation that faces human civilization. Both Bringhurst and Zwicky take as given that the earth’s sixth great extinction event is likely to wipe us out as well—and, if our species, certainly our civilization. “If there are any human survivors of the next mass extinction,” Bringhurst writes, “their cultural slate will be wiped pretty clean. No one may have heard of Shakespeare or Bach, Picasso or Plato. No one may get the joke if a survivor digs up a fragment of a book and, as he rips it up for fuel, sees there beneath his dirty thumb the cheerful title Political Geoecology for the Anthropocene” (20-21). We are at an end, Bringhurst and Zwicky argue, and we need to face up to the situation we have created—not only for ourselves, but for every other species that calls this planet its home.

Bringhurst begins his essay, entitled “The Mind of the Wild,” with a comment Mark Twain made about Columbus’s landfall in the Bahamas in October 1492: “It was wonderful to find America, but it would have been more wonderful to miss it” (8). “Meditating on how good it might have been for European sailors not to discover America is one way of stepping a little outside ourselves and starting to learn to see things with precolonial eyes, and with nonhuman eyes—or, as David Abram would say, with more-than-human eyes,” Bringhurst writes (8). The people who lived in the Americas before the arrival of Europeans “knew a great deal about the wild because they lived in intimate contact with it all their lives,” he continues. “We have mountains of hard evidence that they studied it and respected it, and that it served as the foundation for their educational practices” (8). Their stories tell us that “they didn’t aspire to run the world or tame it,” that “they understood that the land has a mind of its own, that the wild is in control of itself and has room within it for humans but does not need and cannot tolerate human domination” (8-9). Compare that way of thinking to the one revealed in the first chapter of the Book of Genesis, or at least the translated version that Columbus’s sailors would have carried, which promises, without irony, that humans can “subdue” and “have dominion over” every living thing on the planet (10). Perhaps, Bringhurst suggests, it was the speed at which the Europeans crossed the ocean that was the problem:

If the European colonists and traders had come here by meandering over a land bridge, or by paddling, over several generations, along a chain of islands, then their stories, dreams, and songs would have shifted step by step and had ample time to change. Instead, they came in fast little ships: carracks, caravels, and galleons. Like people who fly in airplanes today, they travelled too fast ever to get where they were going. So they stepped ashore and walked right by the wild. (11-12)

When those Europeans noticed the wild at all, “they routinely misconstrued it as a barrier and a challenge” (12).

What does Bringhurst mean by “the wild”? It is “everything that grows and breeds and functions without supervision or imposed control. It is what lives in the long term without being managed” (12). It is not “a portfolio of resources for us or our species to buy and sell or manage or squander as we please” (12). Rather, “[t]he wild is earth living its life to the full” (12). “The earth’s life is much larger than our own life,” he continues, “but our lives are part of it. If we take that life, we take our own” (12). But the wild is also inside of us, at least as a possibility: if we can see “how profoundly complete and self-sufficient, how intricate and beautiful” the wild is, “how little it can benefit and greatly it can suffer from human interference,” we will actually come to discover this place (13). And yet, 

We will never know the wild completely, because the wild is sufficient to itself—self-directed, self-sustaining, self-repairing, with no need for anything from us. Yet because we are a part of it—and cannot, even in death, be disconnected from it completely—we always know a little bit about it, however tame or urbanized we are. The little we know is not nearly enough to recreate it if it goes—but in a sense that does not matter. When it goes, we will not be here to try. (13)

We depend on the wild. We need it, even though we typically don’t recognize that is the case. That lack of recognition feeds the rapid growth of our population and the “feverish building and trashing” that accompanies it (15). “Roughly fifty years ago, we as a species started using the planet’s accumulated resources faster than they are replenished,” Bringhurst writes, even though the wild always generates a surplus (15). “A billion more people per decade, each with machinery in tow, is more than the wild will bear,” he concludes (16).

Our planet has seen several mass extinctions. One, at the boundary between the Paleozoic and Mesozoic eras, some 250 million years ago, wiped out more than 80% of all existing genera and species (17-18). Another, at the boundary between the Mesozoic and Cenozoic eras, 65 million years ago, killed three quarters of all existing plant and animal species, including the dinosaurs (18). “Depending on where you set the bar—at 50% or 30% extinction—there have been at least five, or at least nine such planetary holocausts or global mass extinctions in the last 600 million years,” Bringhurst writes (18). At least one of them was caused by cyanobacteria, which developed a form of photosynthesis that produced oxygen as a waste product, killing off the majority of species of bacteria on the planet, which could not tolerate oxygen (18-19). The mass extinction we have set in motion “by overbreeding, overbuilding, overexploiting, overhunting, overfishing, and by relentlessly overconsuming fossil fuel, can claim to be unique,” Bringhurst argues: it will be the first mass extinction “provoked by a single species”—homo sapiens.

From the perspective of geological time, Bringhurst suggests, this may not matter very much. Our sun will eventually run out of fuel, and as it does, it will consume the planets closest to it (25-26). And given the frequency of mass extinction events, it’s unlikely that humans would be able to continue to exist until that happens, some 500 million years from now (26-27). “Even if life were going to live forever—which it isn’t—all forms of life are mortal,” Bringhurst argues:

Few, if any, animal species have survived for half a billion years. No species of placental mammal has lived for more than a few million. So if we’re thinking about maximizing our future, on this all-too-mortal planet, circling that all-too-mortal star we call the sun, we should be thinking about our descendants, not ourselves as individuals nor ourselves as a species either. And those descendants are far more likely to be our species’ nieces and nephews, rather than our species’ daughters and sons. (29)

“In other words, if we want to polish our hopes for the future,” he concludes, “we should take a broader view: an avuncular rather than strictly grand-parental view” (29). 

Humans, Bringhurst argues, are “liminal creatures” who “live on the edge of the wild,” like “hive-building and nest-making and lodge-building and burrow-digging” creatures, and like lichen (because of their use of algae) and trees (because they “congregate in forests” (32). All of these creatures modify the wild, domesticate “some tiny part of it,” and therefore “contribute to its richness and complexity” (33). “The wild, you could say, is a big, self-integrating system whose edges are everywhere and whose centre is nowhere,” he writes, noting that humans have so many creatures living inside and on them “that their cells outnumber our own. Inside and out, we are dwarfed by the wild and reliant upon it” (33). If we live on the boundary of the wild, what is on the other side of that boundary? Nothing, Bringhurst replies. Death: “the lifeless world that was here before the wild came to be—and will be here still when the wild has vanished” (34).

“Because we are liminal creatures, we often get closer to the wild by pushing against it—brushing out a trail, for example, or catching and cleaning a trout, or killing and gutting a deer,” Bringhurst writes. But by pushing harder—by constructing a highway or running a salmon farm—we paradoxically find that we’ve pushed ourselves farther away (34). “We as an increasingly globalized culture have tried to turn the delicate and permeable membrane between us and the wild into a wall,” he continues (36). Now we are up against that wall, and “it’s more important than ever before that we learn to think like an ecosystem, not like a spoiled brat or a biological singularity” (36). Why? “One reason is, so we can go down singing, happy to know what we know, hopeful that the earth will go on living its life to the full as long as it can,” Bringhurst suggests. “The other reason is, so that we as individuals and small groups, with limited resources, can do what it is possible to do on the wild’s behalf—on being’s behalf—and thereby on ours” (37). Civil disobedience is one action we can take (37-38). But we can also side with older, more sustainable cultures against “the unsustainable mainstream, and with other species against our own” (38). He concludes by citing a Haida proverb that translates as “The ground might see me” (38). “It’s a moral and ethical benchmark,” he explains. A benchmark with eyes. . . . the basic moral reference is the ground beneath your feet” (38-39). Attending to that benchmark “won’t enable you to save the world, but you might just manage to save your self-respect. And that is something” (39).

In a way, Zwicky picks up where Bringhurst left off: with the kinds of moral virtues that are necessary for us at the end of our civilization. With catastrophic climate change beginning to transform our planet, and without coherent political action to stop it, and with our demand for fossil fuels increasing, we are going to go—and “take a lot of innocent beings with us” (43-45). Zwicky turns to Plato, or to Socrates, about whom Plato wrote, to discover what constitutes virtue in such circumstances. “The answer is surprisingly straightforward,” she writes: “what has constituted virtue all along. We should approach the coming cataclysm as we ought to have approached life” (45). 

The core Socratic virtues, Zwicky writes, are “knowing what’s what,” which means having an awareness of the world “coupled with humility regarding what one knows”; courage; self-control; justice; contemplative practice; and compassion (49). For Zwicky, “knowing what’s what,” or awareness, involves a “limpid recognition of mortality” (50). “It is to look at the world openly and to see it, and one’s own actions, and the actions of others, for what they are: gestures that vanish in the air like music,” she writes (50). “Being will be here,” she states, quoting one of Bringhurst’s poems. “Beauty will be here.” But we may not be (50-51). This recognition does not mean wallowing in despair, however. The natural world “is still, in many ways, very much alive,” and we need to remember that after other mass extinctions, “life has proliferated again” (51). 

Courage will be required to face what is coming—both physical courage and the moral courage “to continue to exercise the virtue of awareness” (54). “Humility—a deep unconcern for the social fate of the self—is the foundation of courage as well as wisdom: it frees one to see the truth,” she writes. And part of that wisdom involves another virtue: self-control. That is something contemporary humans—“consumers”—lack (55). Self-control “allows a joyous simplicity, a delight in living as lightly as possible on the earth” (55). “It is an embrace of simplicity,” a shift in our understanding of happiness (56). 

Another virtue we will need, according to Zwicky, is justice. For Plato, justice was one of the cardinal virtues, along with awareness, courage, and self-control. Those four virtues are “facets of an integrated whole” (57). Justice “is manifest in the whole soul or state, Plato argues, when each part submits willingly to the direction of the intellectual faculty or class,” Zwicky writes (57). It is interior harmony:

Justice as interior harmony effectively summarizes the internal relations we’ve already noticed among awareness, humility, courage, and self-control. Humility—getting the ego and its fears out of the way—gives one the courage to seek truth; it helps one discern where one must press further. Awareness makes self-control easy: it turns it from an onerous task into a series of self-reinforcing behaviours that allow one to feel at home. The resulting simplicity supports humility; awareness widens and courage builds. (59)

“If ‘justice’ seems the wrong name for this virtue,” she continues, “call it something else: nobility; integrity; shiningness. What produces it is the self-sustaining interdependence of awareness, humility, courage, and self-control” (59).

Compassion is also important—“compassion for those struggling to come to awareness,” that is (63). There is no point in feeling contempt for those whose fear prevents them from coming into awareness, she writes; such contempt is both graceless and damaging. It “intensifies anxiety, thereby intensifying denial” (63). I ought to feel compassion for the carbon-tax protestors and for our premier, then, instead of frustration and anger. That is a tall order. Perhaps the final virtue, contemplative practice, would help me be compassionate. For Zwicky, contemplative practice is an attention “to the real, physical world, its immense and intricate workings, its subtlety; it’s power, its harshness, and its enormous beauty” (64). It means attending to the “miracle” of the physical world, by slowing down so that we can sense its rhythms (64-65). It is also an attention “to the world’s extraordinary surprise: its refusal to quit, the weed flowering in tar, the way beauty and brokenness so often go together” (65). “The more we attend to the world, the less we find ourselves wishing to control it,” she continues. Instead, we find ourselves desiring to become a member of the community of the physical world (65). Along with the wonder we begin to feel comes respect and “a willingness to take intuitive forms of knowing seriously” (65). And contemplative practice can help us understand and acknowledge what we have destroyed, which “can free us into real and cleansing grief” (66).

We don’t possess those virtues, individually or collectively, of course. Why? For Plato, we misjudge the facts of the case. For instance, we incorrectly judge that the pleasure of immediate gratification outweighs the pain of the future suffering to which that immediate gratification will contribute. So we fly to Mexico for a holiday without thinking of the global warming that goes along with air travel (67). But ignorance isn’t our only failing. Even when we know what virtue is, that knowledge does not “seem to compel most of us, most of the time. This may simply be a brute fact about the species” (68). So people like me, citizens of the rich, technocratic nations on this planet, have been unwilling to “impose mindful constraints on our own consumption when the science came in decades ago” (68). “We knew, we knew well enough to be made uncomfortable by our knowledge, but we didn’t want to know” (69). We pretended the problem would just go away. “We see once again that there is no sharp distinction between awareness and justice conceived as integrity; it routinely takes courage and self-control—steadiness of vision in the face of fear or shock or disbelief—to admit what we know, just as it takes courage and humility to admit what we don’t know,” Zwicky writes (69). For virtues to be virtues, in other words, they must be practised together. “Becoming an excellent human being requires one to adopt a moral ecology,” and “[m]oral ecologies, like biological ones, are organic wholes, whose distinguishable aspects—the virtues—stand in internal relations to one another” (69-70). In other words, none of the Socratic virtues “can be acquired without acquiring the others” (70).

So, Zwicky asks, “[h]ow are we to die?” (70). With a sense of humour, she answers, with a “lightness of touch that comes from not taking one’s self too seriously. We will sense it as a smile: the absence of fear and the refusal of despair. Even in the face of death” (70-71). I don’t know, though. Why would we suddenly acquire and begin practicing these virtues as we die, if we haven’t acquired or practiced them during our lives? In our last moments as a species, or as a civilization, will we suddenly change our ways? I doubt it. 

Do these two essays—I’m skipping over their critique of Pinker’s optimism, his lack of awareness, and his inability to sympathize with people “who sense that a genuine connection to the natural world is fundamental to human flourishing” (90), because I haven’t read Pinker’s work and so cannot measure their response to it—connect to my research? I wasn’t sure before I began writing this summary, but now, I am convinced they do offer something. Perhaps, by walking, I can begin to become aware of the wild, in Bringhurst’s term, or “the real, physical world,” in Zwicky’s (64). At the same time, I will likely come to understand the degree to which the ecosystems through which I will walk have been damaged. Perhaps that walking could become a form of contemplative practice that could lead to “deep acknowledgement” and “cleansing grief” at what we have wrought (66). And no doubt my attempt at learning Cree will help me, even in a limited way, come to understand the notion that “the land has a mind of its own, that the wild is in control of itself and has room within it for humans but does not need and cannot tolerate human domination” (8-9). I don’t know. I feel a connection between my project and this book, and while I am aware of the need not to let my research sprawl out of control, at the same time I want to remain open to important connections and possibilities, and those are what this little book offers.

Work Cited

Bringhurst, Robert, and Jan Zwicky. Learning to Die: Wisdom in the Age of Climate Crisis. U of Regina P, 2018.

33. Katherena Vermette, North End Love Songs

north end love songs

I’m not totally convinced that I’m the best person to write about Governor General’s Award-winning poet and novelist Katherena Vermette’s book North End Love Songs, since I’ve never spent much time in Winnipeg and I’ve never made the trip up Main Street to Winnipeg’s North End, the place explored in these poems. And I always feel some trepidation, as a môniyâw, whenever I set out to say anything about a book by an Indigenous writer. But North End Love Songs is a book about place, and I’ve been reading and thinking about and writing about books about place, so it might not be completely out of line for me to think out loud about these poems in this space.

Like Chelsea Coupal’s Sedley, another book of poems about place I’ve been reading, North End Love Songs is an autobiographical portrait of what it’s like to grow up as a young woman in a particular space. But whereas Sedley is about growing up in a rural and white community in Saskatchewan, North End Love Songs is about a very different experience, urban and Indigenous. There are four sections in North End Love Songs. The first, “Poised for Flight,” imagines the good and bad experiences of an Indigenous girl growing up in Winnipeg’s North End through birds. Not all of the poems in that section of the book draw on that conceit, but most of them do. There is a fragility suggested in these poems, as well as a potential for something else, realized or not. But most of all, there’s a sense of foreboding as in “chickadee”:

chickadee loves sun
sits in it all summer
singing the song
that is
her name:

when she’s thirteen
she stays at her granny’s
for a summer
the house has a long
screened in porch
that smells like
spilt beer and old people
the floor crunches
with sunflower seed shells

an old man hangs out there
watches the sun
through the screen
when she meets him
he looks her up and down
and up again

well he sighs through
toothless gums
you must be your mother’s (20)

The sun-loving chickadee is transformed into a girl in a musty (and, I assume, shady) screened-in porch, confronting a nameless old man. Who is this old man? If he were her grandfather, wouldn’t he be identified as such? Is he her grandmother’s partner? Someone else? Isn’t there something creepy, even lascivious, in the way he looks at the girl? How does he know her mother? There is a sense of innocence that’s perhaps about to be lost in this poem, as in the other poems in this section. The lines, here and elsewhere in the book, are short, blunt, straight-forward, but the movement from one stanza to the next is what gives the poem its power.

Many of the poems in the book are named after streets in Winnipeg’s North End, and that city’s elm trees are ubiquitous. (I had never seen an elm tree until driving through Winnipeg on the way to Regina.) Take, for example, the first part of “bannerman avenue,” the first poem in the book’s second section, “nortendluvsong”:

girl looks down
bannerman avenue
elms tower
branches overhead
interlaced like fingers
cup around her
hold her in

grey street goes
bone straight
right under
fingers making a steeple
a church adorned

black leaves
across pavement

branches wave
in the sun (41)

The suggestion that the elms grasp or hold the human figures in these poems is repeated throughout this section, much like the way that birds returned in the book’s first section: “girls walk back down / bannerman avenue / sip big gulps/ talk too loud // elms curve / above them / like a roof” (55), or “she is with a boy / in the heavy / summer rain / they are dry / under a shroud of trees // impossible elms / so intertwined / the concrete / underneath / barely changes colour // where the boy / leans her against / the soft bark / cups his palms / to her cheeks” (65). But the elms aren’t always so comforting: “in summer the elms / gentle / thick / intertwined / block out sun” (49), or “in winter the elms / black / skeletons” (50).

In fact, the place of the natural world in Winnipeg’s North End is uneasy, troubled: wildflowers, despite their beauty, are poisoned before they “take over / choke out all those / poppies and marigolds / roses and daffodils / no planted flower / stands a chance / against a pack of weeds” (57), and an elm tree, its bark spray painted with a “bright orange / X / a kill mark,” is cut into pieces by a city work crew “as if carving a sculpture / or trimming hair,” not stopping “until the tree is barely / taller than the grass” (63-64). The lives of the people in the North End are similarly threatened. In “Guy,” a classmate of a young girl is repeatedly beaten by his father: “when he shows up / at school all bruised / tells everyone / how he got jumped / she just nods / like everyone else” (47-48). But it’s not all doom and gloom. A quartet of girls sits on the steps of a church, drinking Big Gulps and eating chips and sharing cigarettes, their conversation both a catalogue of bad experiences and a communal sharing. Like the wildflowers setting seed in flower beds, there is life here as well as death; the poems reproduce that vitality even as they suggest the things that threaten it.

In “November,” the book’s third section, Vermette turns to the disappearance of her brother. He loved 1980s pop metal—one poem, “mixed tape,” is structured through a series of song titles by bands like Poison and Mötley Crüe (78-80)—and, the night he disappeared, wore a concert t-shirt and checked “his reflection / in the mirror” (70), agreeing to let his sister borrow one of his sweaters before he left the house. He didn’t come home. His family put up posters, the photo of him “holding the teddy bear / her mother bought / last christmas” (72) undercutting the newspaper headline: “Native Man Missing After Binge” (71). The police do little:

indians go missing
they tell the family
indians go missing
everyday
blue suits shrug
no sense looking
they said
he’ll turn up when
he gets bored
or broke (90)

His body was found in the spring, in the river, and identified through dental records. He had tried to cross “a frozen river / not quite frozen” and hadn’t made it “to the other side” (90). The section ends with the poem “epitaph,” the story of a journey to visit the dead boy’s grave. The speaker leaves a rose there, although she doesn’t know if her brother liked roses, “but somehow / it reminds her of / long haired boys with / good intentions / and mischevious smiles // brothers annoying / and kind // lost little boys / just trying to find / their way / home” (97).

The book’s final section is “I Am A North End Girl,” which I understand to be a documentary poem that reproduces the voices of girls and women living in Winnipeg’s North End. Those voices speak of children, of addiction and the sex trade, of illness and domestic violence, but they also speak of graduating from high school, of celebrating “each full moon with a / drum circle” (103), and of strange and comical acts of resistance to the city’s racism and to being undesired at the same time:

. . . when the night’s been too long, when I get bored or
just mad and cold I run out into early morning traffic,
down by Aikins where those fucking white people are
going to their fucking jobs and I yell, “Hey you know
you want some of this!?” or something. The looks on
those faces, shit, you should see, it’s fucking hilarious.
Have to get some attention some time fuck, they all
stopped noticing me there long ago. (103)

Most importantly, though, those voices—or at least the last one—speak of unflinching witness: “but I’ve never / not once / not for one second / looked away” (105). Nor, apparently, has Vermette herself.

These are powerful poems, but they also reiterate the necessity to know a place intimately before trying to write about it. North End Love Songs would have been impossible without a deep knowledge of that place and its people, a knowledge that could only come from growing up there. In that way, North End Love Songs is similar to Warren Cariou’s Lake of the Prairies: A Story of Belonging, or Sarah de Leeuw’s Unmarked: Landscapes Along Highway 16, which are also books that come from the experience of being raised in a particular place (or, in de Leeuw’s case, in particular places). Nevertheless, Nora Gould’s I see my love more clearly from a distance suggests that an outsider to a place can also gain such an intimate knowledge over time. Perhaps that’s the equation for writing about place? Time + experience = knowledge. Could it be that simple? Somehow I doubt it: nothing is ever that simple. I am going to have to continue my research.

Works Cited

Cariou, Warren. Lake of the Prairies: A Story of Belonging. Anchor, 2003.

Coupal, Chelsea. Sedley: Poems. Coteau Books, 2018.

Gould, Nora. I see my love more clearly from a distance. Brick Books, 2012.

de Leeuw, Sarah. Unmarked: Landscapes Along Highway 16. Newest, 2004.

Vermette, Katherena. North End Love Songs. The Muses’ Company, 2012.

32. Eudora Welty, “A Worn Path”

eudora welty

I used to teach Eudora Welty’s story, “A Worn Path,” and I still love it anyway. The story’s main character, Phoenix, is “an old Negro woman” (142) walking from her home somewhere “away back off the Old Natchez Trace” (147) into the town of Natchez, Mississippi. The narrator tells us that Phoenix

was very old and small and she walked slowly in the dark pine shadows, moving a little from side to side in her steps, with the balanced heaviness and lightness of a pendulum in a grandfather clock. She carried a thin, small cane made from an umbrella, and with this she kept tapping the frozen earth in front of her. This made a grave and persistent noise in the still air, that seemed meditative like the chirping of a solitary little bird. (142)

Phoenix is poor; her apron is made of “bleached sugar sacks” (142). She is unable to tie her shoes, because her laces “dragged” as she walked, and her eyes are “blue with age,” a description that suggests cataracts (142). As the story unfolds, it also becomes clear to us that she is experiencing some form of age-related cognitive impairment. For most of the story, we don’t know why she has embarked on her journey. All we know is that she is determined to get to Natchez. We don’t know how long her walk is, exactly, but it might be as long as four or five hours, which would mean she walks as far as 20 kilometres. That’s a good morning’s walk for anyone, never mind someone whose wrinkled face suggests that she might be in her eighties. When I taught this story, I knew that none of my students had ever made such a walk—that they couldn’t even imagine walking that far—and that their understanding of the difficulty of Phoenix’s walk was incomplete as a result.

While I was reading Yi-Fu Tuan’s book, Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience, I thought about “A Worn Path,” and the way the distinction Tuan makes between space and place could be mapped onto this story. “‘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)

The path of Phoenix’s walk might suggest that it is a space between two places: her home, and her destination in Natchez. But I would argue that because Phoenix is walking, and because that walk is the occasion of a story, and because she knows stories about that path from her repeated journeys along it, her path is actually made up of a series of places linked closely together. Walking and narration, then, turn space into place in this story. But so too does the fact that Phoenix has made this walk many times before. She is following a path worn (at least in part) by her own feet; she knows the obstacles and difficulties she will encounter; and, as we learn at the end of the story, she has been making this walk regularly for two or three years. From what I’ve read over the past months, I’ve determined that turning space into place requires storytelling, repetition, and slow movement (like walking). Tuan thinks that pauses are essential, and I think he’s correct, but I would extend his argument a little: walking is slow enough to enable us to experience space as place, and it also allows for the frequent pauses which Tuan argues are necessary for this transformation to occur.

What places does Phoenix experience? The first is a thicket where Phoenix perceives animals “quivering” (142). She warns the animals not to obstruct her progress:

“Out of my way, all you foxes, owls, beetles, jack rabbits, coons and wild animals! . . . Keep out from under these feet, little bob-whites. . . . Keep the big wild hogs out of my path. Don’t let none of those come running in my direction. I got a long way.” Under her small black-freckled hand her cane, limber as a buggy whip, would switch at the brush as if to rouse up any hiding things. (142)

The next place she encounters presents another challenge: a hill. “Seem like there is chains about my feet, time I get this far,” Phoenix says. “Something always take a hold of me on this hill—pleads I should stay” (143). The climb is difficult, but so too is the descent: “Her eyes opened their widest, and she started down gently” (143). Two things are worth noting about this hill. First, Phoenix identifies it by the trees she encounters: “‘Up through pines,’ she said at length. ‘Now down through oaks’” (143). That identification is part of what helps to make this location a place, rather than undifferentiated space. But the multiple challenges she experiences—the climb, the descent, and a bush that catches her dress—also help to define this hill as place. Phoenix faces these challenges with equanimity, even though her eyesight is clearly a source of difficulty for her: addressing the thorn bush that has caught her dress, she says, “Old eyes thought you was a pretty little green bush” (143).

At the bottom of the hill, the narrator tells us, “was a place where a log was laid across the creek” (143). Phoenix knows this log bridge is there: “Now comes the trial,” she says (143):

Putting her right foot out, she mounted the log and shut her eyes. Lifting her skirt, leveling her cane fiercely before her, like a festival figure in some parade, she began to march across. Then she opened her eyes and was safe on the other side.

“I wasn’t as old as I thought,” she said. (143)

Now comes a pause: a brief stop to rest, during which she either hallucinates, or falls asleep and dreams about, a little boy offering her “a slice of marble-cake” (143). When she returns to her walk, she immediately comes to another place of difficulty: she has to crawl through a barbed-wire fence. Once past the fence, she encounters a stand of “[b]ig dead trees,” on which “sat a buzzard” (144). Both the trees and the buzzard suggest death, which (given Phoenix’s age) is not far off, but the words Phoenix directs at the buzzard—“Who you watching?” (144)—suggest her tenacious hold on life despite her age and apparent infirmity.

Phoenix passes through a field of old cotton—notable because, in winter, it doesn’t contain the hazards of bulls or snakes, as it did earlier in the year, when she saw a two-headed snake (144)—into a field of dead corn. The sense of repetition—of having stories to tell about the locations through which she walks—is an important aspect of the rendering of those locations as place. This corn field presents another obstacle, because there is no path through the field. “Through the maze now,” Phoenix says to herself (144). She mistakes a scarecrow in the field for a ghost, and when she realizes her error, she laughs at herself—“I ought to be shut up for good,” she says (144)—and dances with the scarecrow. At the end of the corn field, Phoenix comes across quail “walking around like pullets, seeming all dainty and unseen” (144). Their movement reminds her of the quality of the path at this point in her walk: “‘Walk pretty,’ she said. ‘This is the easy place. This is the easy going’” (144). She follows “the track” past cabins with boarded-up windows and doors, “all like old women under a spell sitting there” (144). “I walking in their sleep,” Phoenix observes, “nodding her head vigorously” (144). Then she encounters a spring “silently flowing through a hollow log” (144) and stops for a drink. This spring appears to be a well-known place on her route, because she notes, “Nobody know who made this well, for it was here when I was born” (144). Clearly this well is a place she shares with others, all of those who do not know the well’s origin.

After crossing a swamp—“Sleep on, alligators, and blow your bubbles,” Phoenix says (145)—the track goes up into a road, where Phoenix is knocked down by a black dog: “Over she went in the ditch, like a little puff of milkweed” (145). She briefly loses consciousness and, when she recovers, finds she cannot stand without help. That assistance comes from a white man who has his own dog on a chain. He patronizes her, calling her “Granny” and dismissing her desire to go to town as a mere desire “to see Santa Claus” (145), but he does help her up. More importantly, Phoenix notices that a nickel dropped out of the man’s pocket onto the ground. She encourages the man to chase the black dog away by praising its courage and size, and while he is doing that, she carefully bends over and pockets the nickel. “God watching me the whole time,” she says. “I come to stealing” (146). When the man returns, he points his rifle directly at Phoenix and asks if she is frightened. “No sir, I seen plenty go off closer by, in my day, and for less than what I done” (146)—a reference to her theft of the nickel, I presume. The man departs with a warning: “you take my advice and stay home, and nothing will happen to you” (146). The point of retelling this event is that Phoenix’s encounter with the hunter will (assuming she remembers it) become another story she will tell herself the next time she is walking along that road, like the two-headed snake or the well where she drank. Spaces become places as they are experienced and as stories are told about them, and that otherwise nondescript roadside will become another story for Phoenix.

When she arrives in Natchez, Phoenix is exhausted and confused by the coloured Christmas lights; she “would have been lost if she had not distrusted her eyesight and depended on her feet to know where to take her” (146). That embodied knowledge is another way in which undifferentiated space becomes place: Phoenix knows the way with her body, rather than her eyes or her conscious mind. In Natchez, she once again triumphs over a white person, stopping a well-dressed woman carrying presents to ask she would tie her shoes. That woman also patronizes Phoenix, calling her “Grandma,” but she does as Phoenix asks (147). Then Phoenix continues walking “until her feet knew to stop” (147). She has arrived at her destination: a doctor’s office. However, tired from her walk, she has forgotten the purpose of her journey, a lapse which frightens her. Nevertheless, prompted by the nurse, she recalls the purpose of her long walk. She receives medicine for her grandson and demands another nickel from the “attendant” (148-49). Now that she has 10 cents, she intends to buy her grandson “a little windmill they sells, made out of paper. He going to find it hard to believe there such a thing in the world” (149). 

“A Worn Path” is about a lot of things: love, determination, the need for objects capable of generating wonder along with more practical things. But it is also about place, I think, and the way that repeated walking journeys have made the path that Phoenix travels into a place or, at least, into a series of contiguous places. Movement, in this story, is not divorced from place-making, as it is in Tuan’s discussion of place, and that makes “A Worn Path” a useful (if fictional) example of the potential for mobile forms of place-making, especially place-making through walking.

Works Cited

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

Welty, Eudora. “A Worn Path.” The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1980, pp. 142-49.

31. Nora Gould, I see my love more clearly from a distance

gould i see my love more clearly from a distance

I was asking around about contemporary poetry about place a while back, and my friend Michael Dennis (who blogs about contemporary poetry here) suggested I take a look at Nora Gould’s I see my love more clearly from a distance. I’m so glad he did. It’s a wonderful evocation of place, similar to but so different from the works of creative nonfiction I’ve written about here in the past couple of weeks.

One of the reasons I see my love more clearly from a distance is so powerful is the relationship Gould creates between herself and the ranch in central Alberta where she and her family live, and which is the subject of these poems. In many of the poems, Gould reads (or writes) herself (and particularly her bout of endometriosis and the surgery it occasioned) into the land or the cows she and her husband raise. Take, for example, the poem “Downer cow”:

The bellow, the swing of the head,
scrabble of front legs, the breath,
points north.

Coyotes uncork the belly south,
magpies follow
and if the season’s right, blowflies.

In the hospital room I opened
my eyes to blues, dull gold, white
cranes flying behind the morphine

pump, across the moon: a swath
of fabric I’d tacked on the wall.
And Cousin Matt with yellow tulips. (36)

So much is happening in this poem. The dying and then dead cow in the first two stanzas is written against two of the cardinal directions (“north” when it is dying, “south” after it is dead and the food of coyotes, magpies, and blowfly larvae). But that animal is juxtaposed against Gould herself (these poems are personal and confessional, and it’s clear to me that Gould is speaking of her own experience here) in hospital, waking up after (I think) her operation to the sight of “a swath” of fabric—and “swath” is an important word here, suggesting the way that grains or oilseeds are harvested—and the oddly springlike “yellow tulips” her cousin (or more likely her husband’s cousin, since “Matt” seems to be a common name in his family) had brought to brighten up the room. One animal dies, and another comes back to life. One animal is perhaps dead in winter—isn’t that why she suggests that “blowflies” will only lay their eggs in the dead cow “if the season’s right”?—and the other, given the colours of the fabric and the tulips, is possibly in spring. In that case, the “cranes flying behind the morphine / pump” would be returning: sandhill cranes, perhaps, flying north in spring to mate and breed—an ironic counterpart to Gould’s (I think) hysterectomy.

So that’s one remarkable aspect of these poems: the way Gould writes her own body into the land and its inhabitants (wild and tame). Another is the personification of the land as “Prairie,” the lover of Orion, a homebred mythology of fecundity and, in the current moment, environmental destruction:

Now, pipes in sections, each joint rigid,
drilled deep in her parenchyma, have shifted, mixed
her fluids, frayed, broken her. Her hills
cut down, long scars converge
where flares stillbirth her northern lights

in sorrow. Sorrow, in the silences between her
measured phrases, she tastes air-
borne emissions, switches from her native

tongue. Frac fluid benzene H2S sulphur
dioxide cannot be spoken with coneflower,
ascending milk-vetch; drilling mud with scarlet

mallow. Prairie turns to Orion, toluene blue
in his blood, his fluids
in her, her blood
loose in her body. (12)

The enjambment here suggests, for me, urgency; the brief catalogue of pollutants that “cannot be spoken” with the catalogue of indigenous prairie forbs suggests what is being lost. Such catalogues—of plants, birds, animals—are one of Gould’s default procedures. But she does not only catalogue the natural environment; her use of ranching and farming language brings her readers directly into a world they might know little about, as in “Roundup Ready® canola”:

Jim says if he didn’t use chemicals, his fields would be all
dandelions and other weeds, some of them noxious.
There’s the pre-burn, the in-crop—hopefully only once—and
the desiccant pre-harvest.
He has ag advisors, GPS and weather monitoring.
He juggles degrees of tillage, crop rotation, seed banks and windows
of opportunity with rainfall, frost and his account balance.
He has a washer in his shop for the clothes he wears under his disposable
coveralls, goggles, hat and nitrile gloves. Otherwise the recommendation
is to wash these clothes alone, then run the washer empty
with detergent, the water level set for an extra large load.
Roundup® extended control product prevents weed control in your yard
for up to four months. The label says to wash your hands after use. (19)

Did you know that farmers would keep a washing machine in their shops for the clothes they wear when spraying? I didn’t. The last two lines of the poem shift away from the fields, either to farm yards or, perhaps, urban yards. How many of us have used some version of glyphosate ourselves? How many of us remembered to wash our hands afterwards?

Another aspect of these poems is their openness to thinking about life and death. Both are part of Gould’s world, and both are intrinsic to the place about which she is writing. Here’s a paragraph from “Allan discerns Psalm 29:6,” a prose poem about a hired man, a “preacher’s kid from Burlington” (68) who helps with calving:

Somehow, live birth after live birth: head back, backwards, leg back,
twins. Allan saw nothing dead until he’d fallen in love with the brown
of Prairie’s throat, her collar open to the sun that dried the calf, its head
twisted under a front leg. The open eyes echoed the crescendo of his
prayer nailing flawless imperfection. Selah. (68)

It’s not just dead calves: everything dies, or must be killed. Gould’s four-year-old daughter asks of a dead horse, “how does Deadstock get Lady to heaven?” (96). A “neighbour kid” shoots a coyote and gets $25 for the frozen body: “didn’t have to skin it” (69). Sometimes in these poems death is an assault, and other times it is a mercy, but it is always a part of life, something that cannot be avoided or turned away from.

I find all of this all the more remarkable because Gould, although she hails from Alberta, does not seem to have grown up on a farm. In “Thank you for Seed Catalogue”—the poem’s title references Robert Kroetsch’s epic prairie poem—Gould seems to acknowledge that fact:

With Robert Kroetsch, and Roger Tory
Peterson, and Vance Jowsey and McLean’s
revised and expanded Wild Flowers Across
the Prairies, and Poisonous Plants Agdex 666-2,
you could grasp the prairies, almost, okay you couldn’t,
but they could remind you if you knew,
if you were, through it all, still, gazing
at three-flowered avens, still startled by Horned Larks. (78)

Like the person referred to here—whom I take to be Gould herself, although I could be wrong—I’ve come to know the grassland through Peterson’s Field Guide to Western Birds (which lists all of the birds that live west of the 100th meridian) and Wild Flowers Across the Prairies. That book knowledge is one thing, but it’s not the same as the men she has met—Art Spencer and Jim—who “knew,” with a knowledge other than “book knowing,” the prairie (78). But the speaker in this poem, and the two men she refers to, are very different from others whose approach to the prairie is domination and destruction: “Men, who think they’re familiar / with what they think is theirs, / figure they can school Prairie with a D9 cat, push / the Great Horned Owls to other land” (78). “Prairie,” here, is a return to the earlier poems in which the grassland is personified, but more importantly, the suggestion this poem makes seems to be that using a bulldozer to teach that the prairie a lesson, or push the birds that live in grassland somewhere else, is worse than futile. Their familiarity with the prairie is superficial; their attempts at teaching involve its destruction.

I wanted to think about this book through Edward Soja’s “trialectics” (262) of Firstspace (perceived space), Secondspace (conceived space), and Thirdspace (lived space). I’ve been wondering if the distinction Soja makes between perceived space and conceived space could be mapped onto the usual distinction made in the social sciences between quantitative and qualitative inquiry. If that’s the case—and it might not be—then we can see elements of both of these in Gould’s poems. Quantitative approaches are suggested in poems which describe the way the ranch is mapped and named, such as “Our place is medium-sized: the school board deals with sparsity and distance issues”:

This land where we till the soil, raise a few
chickens, pasture cattle, goats, horses, is all named
officially by number. The north half of twenty-eight
we call Johnny’s, after the man who stacked his hay
and when he finished that load, let his fork slide
to the ground, slid down after it. The handle
entered him through his groin.

The northwest of four, the Nelson Place with the little girl’s
grave. The northwest of seventeen is where the Scot
built his stone house to overlook the Watson Coulee.
The steep depression that was Johnson’s cellar, where we
found the calf, the cow worrying us during the rescue.
The old shed on thirty-five where we found the steer
dead behind the shut door, the same way
the neighbours had found Kistner in the house. (17)

The quantitative elements of numbering land according to sections and grids (I’m bluffing, of course: I’m no expert on how land is identified for taxation purposes—isn’t that the reason for the reference to “school board” in the poem’s title?—in Alberta) is, of course, overwhelmed by the fragments of stories about those places, the accounts of deaths and rescues that are referred to, obliquely, here. But if I understand Soja correctly, it seems that both Firstspace and Secondspace are present in this poem.

But what of Thirdspace? Can these poems be understood as representations of lived space? As representations, they are pulled back into Secondspace, no doubt, but to what degree can they be read as lived space? Thirdspace, for Soja, is politically engaged; it is a combination of “a strategic attachment to a new cultural politics of difference and identity, and a radical postmodernist critical positioning” that has become the source of writing “from the wider fields of feminist and post-colonial criticism” (272). Gould’s work is not post-colonial, but I would argue that it is engaged in a feminist politics, in the way it looks, without flinching, at the experiences of farm women, and especially in its focus on the body of its author. Does that mean this book could fall into Soja’s definition of Thirdspace? Since bell hooks’s essay “Choosing the Margin as a Space of Radical Openness” is Soja’s paradigmatic example of Thirdspace, perhaps I need to return to that essay before I can begin to formulate an answer to that question.

What a disappointment: to find myself drawn back into a text I’ve already read. And yet, how inevitable as well. What is not a disappointment, though, is having read Gould’s poems. I wonder how teachable they might be. I’ve been thinking about teaching a course on literary representations of place, and this book would fit that topic very well—so long as the difficulty of these poems does not overwhelm their beauty. That’s something I will have to think about.

Works Cited

Gould, Nora. I see my love more clearly from a distance. Brick, 2012.

hooks, bell. “Choosing the Margin as a Space of Radical Openness.” Yearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural Politics, Between the Lines, 1990, pp. 145-53. 

Soja, Edward. “Thirdspace: Expanding the Scope of the Geographical Imagination.” Human Geography Today. Edited by Doreen Massey, John Allen, and Philip Sarre, Polity, 1999, pp. 260-78.

30. Edward W. Soja, “Thirdspace: Expanding the Scope of the Geographical Imagination”

human geography today

Tim Cresswell’s book on place could send its readers in any number of different directions. It sent me in at least two, and possibly three: I read Michel de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life because of Cresswell’s discussion of it, and I just finished an essay by Edward Soja, “Thirdspace: Expanding the Scope of the Geographical Imagination,” for the same reason. The third text I want to read as a result of reading Cresswell’s book—Henri Lefebvre’s The Production of Space—is a big part of Soja’s argument as well, which reinforces the need for me to read it sooner rather than later. Our library, unfortunately, doesn’t have a copy of the anthology which contains Soja’s essay, and it took ages for a used copy to find its way to me, so while I would rather have read “Thirdspace” back when I was reading de Certeau, better late than never. Right?

Soja’s essay is a condensation of the argument he makes in his 1996 book Thirdspace: Journeys to Los Angeles and Other Real-and-Imagined Places. That book sounds interesting, but because I’m on a deadline, I’m happy to have this compressed version available to me. Soja establishes his purpose at the very start of the essay: he intends “to encourage the development of a different way of thinking about space and the many associated concepts that compose, comprise and infuse both the inherent spatiality of human life” and in the contemporary study of human geography (260). He encourages geographers to question “familiar notions” like “space, place, territory, city, region, location, and environment,” with the aim of “opening up and expanding the scope and critical sensibility of your already established spatial imaginations” (260). That’s a tall order, perhaps, but in this essay Soja presents five theses or “summative arguments”: “Each is rather boldly stated, addressed specifically to an audience of human geographers, and expansive and open in its implications for human geography today” (260). Moreover, Soja intends to provide “cumulative and fugue-like variations on the many ways of defining Thirdspace,” a term which is (as his title suggests) at the centre of his argument. “There is no singular definition presented for this different way of thinking about space and spatiality, but rather an open-ended set of defining moments, every one of which adds potential new insights to the geographical imagination and helps to stretch the outer boundaries of what is encompassed in the intellectual domain of critical human geography” (260). I’m not a human geographer, of course, and so I am not part of the essay’s audience, but I will forge ahead anyway, to see what I can take from Soja’s five theses.

Thesis number one argues that there has been “an unprecedented spatial turn” in the humanities and social sciences (261). “In what may in retrospect be seen as one of the most important intellectual developments in the late twentieth century,” Soja writes, “scholars have begun to interpret space and the spatiality of human life with the same critical insight and interpretative power as have traditionally been given to time and history (the historiality of human life) on the one hand, and to social relations and society (the sociality of human life) on the other” (261). This turn, Soja continues, constitutes “a third critical perspective”; it represents “a growing awareness of the simultaneity and interwoven complexity of the social, the historical and the spatial, their inseparability and often problematic interdependence” (261). This spatial turn, for Soja, is associated with “the emergence of a Thirdspace perspective and an expansion in the scope and critical sensibility of the geographical imagination” (261). It is part of “an ontological shift, a fundamental change in the way we understand what the world must be like in order for us to obtain reliable knowledge of it” (261). Spatiality is being recognized as “an assertive third term” in “the ontology of human existence” (262), creating “an ontological trialectic of spatiality-sociality-historicality, or more imply, a three-sided rather than two-sided way of conceptualizing and understanding the world” (262). In other words, “the social production of human spatiality or the ‘making of geographies’ is becoming as fundamental to understanding our lives and our life worlds as the social production of our histories and societies” (262). For Soja, none of the three terms he identifies here—spatiality, sociality, or historicality—is privileged. “Studying the historicality of a particular event, person, place or social group is not intrinsically any more insightful than studying its sociality or spatiality,” he writes. “The three terms and the complex interactions between them should be studied together as fundamental and intertwined knowledge sources, for this is what being-in-the-world is all about” (262). A combination of perspectives is the best way to make “theoretical and practical sense of the world” (262). All three perspectives are equivalent, and there is always a possibility that they are “working interdependently together” (263).

Soja’s second thesis argues against the “encompassing dualism, or binary logic, that has tended to polarize spatial thinking around such fundamental oppositions as objectivity v. subjectivity, material v. mental, real v. imagined, things in space v. thoughts about space” (264). “Expanding the scope of the geographical imagination to the breadth and depth that have been achieved for historicality and sociality,” he writes, “and hence rebalancing their critical empowerment, requires a creative deconstruction and rethinking of this bifurcation into two modes of spatial thinking and analysis” (264). The “trialectics of spatiality,” according to Soja, identifies “‘lived space,’ an alternative mode of spatial enquiry that extends the scope of the geographical imagination beyond the confining dualism of . . . spatial practices or ‘perceived space’ on the one hand, and the representations of space or ‘conceived space’ on the other” (265). 

Perceived space, for Soja, is “Firstspace”: it “refers to the directly experienced world of empirically measurable and mappable phenomena. This materialized spatiality, which presents human geographies primarily as outcomes, has been the dominant and familiar focus for geographical analysis, often to the exclusion of other ways of thinking about space and geography” (265). Firstspace, Soja continues, “forms the geographer’s primary ‘text’ or subject matter,” and it is read in one of two ways. The first mode of reading is constituted by endogenous approaches, which provide “accurate descriptions of patternings and distributions,” “the search for recurrent empirical regularities,” and “the correlation or spatial covariation of one geographical configuration with another” (265-66). In endogenous approaches, “empirical analysis, theory building and explanation remain internal to geography, that is, geographies are used to explain other geographies” (266). In comparison, exogenous approaches “explain material geographies by focusing on the underlying social or physical processes that produce them” (266). In exogenous approaches, human geographies are seen “as the product or outcome of forces which are not themselves geographical or spatial, but are derived from the inherent sociality and historicality that lie behind empirical patternings, distributions, regularities and covariations” (266).

“Secondspace,” on the other hand, is conceived space. It is “more subjective and ‘imagined,’ more concerned with images and representations of spatiality, with the thought processes that are presumed to shape both material human geographies and the development of a geographical imagination” (266). Secondspace “concentrates on and explores more cognitive, conceptual and symbolic worlds. It thus tends to be more idealist than materialist, at least in its explanatory emphasis” (266). Therefore, Secondspace focuses on discourses and ideologies about space (266). According to Soja, Henri Lefebvre argues in The Production of Space that conceived space is not secondary; rather, it is dominant, because “it powerfully controls the way we think about, analyse, explain, experience, and act upon or ‘practice’ human spatiality” (266). The word “practice” here reminds me of de Certeau’s argument that “space is practiced place” (de Certeau 117), and I wonder to what extent Cresswell’s claim that Lefebvre’s notion of social space—and I think that’s what Soja is talking about here—is very close to the typical definition of place in human geography (Cresswell 19). It’s possible, then, that “conceived space” is related to place, but I’m reluctant to make that claim, because Soja is trying to break out of binary oppositions like space versus place, and I don’t want to jam his ideas back into that  kind of dualism—at least not right away: I would want to be very sure that Soja’s conceived space is actually place before trying to make that argument.

“Most human geographers do not work at the extremes of these two approaches, but somewhere in between, conceiving of ‘pure’ materialism/objectivity and idealism/subjectivity as opposite poles of a continuum of approaches,” Soja writes (267). There has been a tendency, though, to see Firstspace and Secondspace as a dualism, a situation which “has been primarily responsible for the difficulty many geographers have in accepting the deeper meaning of the ontological restructuring” that is required in order to understand “Thirdspace,” or lived space (267). “Instead of responding to the growing spatial turn as a profound challenge to develop a new mode of understanding the spatiality of human life . . . that is commensurate in scope and critical insight with life’s intrinsic historicality and sociality,” Soja concludes, “many geographers, pleased with the growing attention being given to their discipline, simply pour the new wine into the same old double-barrelled containers, thus reinforcing the constraints and illusions of the Firstspace-Secondspace dualism” (267).

That comment leads to Soja’s third thesis: “A radical break from this confining dualism was initiated in France in the late 1960s, largely through the works of Michel Foucault and Henri Lefebvre,” and Soja attributes “to their challenging geographical imaginations the origins of Thirdspace as a radically different way of looking at, interpreting, and acting to change the embracing spatiality of human life” (267). Confined within the Firstspace/Secondspace dichotomy, “the geographical imagination could never capture the experiential complexity, fullness and perhaps unknowable mystery of actually lived space,” Soja continues (268). Thirdspace, as lived space, 

is simultaneously (1) a distinctive way of looking at, interpreting, and acting to change the spatiality of human life (or, if you will, human geography today); (2) an integral, if often neglected, part of the trialectics of spatiality, inherently no better or worse than Firstspace or Secondspace approaches to geographical knowledge; (3) the most encompassing spatial perspective, comparable in scope to the richest forms of the historical and sociological imaginations; (4) a strategic meeting place for fostering collective political action against all forms of human oppression; (5) a starting point for new and different explorations that can move beyond the “third term” in a constant search for other spaces; and still more to come. (269-70)

Clearly Soja has immense, even utopian, hopes for the possibilities of Thirdspace; the possibilities it offers are, in his conception, nearly limitless.

Soja’s fourth thesis suggests that “the most creative explorations of Thirdspace, and hence the most accomplished expansions in the scope of the geographical imagination, ahve come from the broadly defined field of critical cultural studies,” rather than geographers, particularly “the work of feminist and post-colonial critics who approach the new cultural politics of class-race-gender from a radical postmodernist perspective” (270). As a result, human geography has become more transdisciplinary than ever before (270). The most important figure in this transdisciplinary work is bell hooks, whose work, particularly the essay “Choosing the Margin as a Space of Radical Openness,” “enriches our understanding of lived space by infusing it with a radical cultural politics and new political strategies to deal with the multiple axes of oppression built around race, class and gender” (270). (You may recall that I wrote about that essay here.) For Soja, hooks’s work “does this in part by empowering lived space with new communicative meaning and strategic significance” (270). It provides

many glimpses of a different kind of human geography, one that combines the grounded and politically conscious materialism of Firstspace analyses and the rich, often metaphorical representations of space and spatiality characteristic of Secondspace geographies; and at the same time stretches beyond their mere additive combination to create “Other” spaces that are radically open and openly radicalized, that are simultaneously material-and-metaphorical, real-and-imagined, concretely grounded in spatial practices yet also represented in literary and aesthetic imagery, imaginative recombinations, epistemological insight, and so much more. hooks literally cracks open lived space to new insights and new expectations that extend well beyond the long-established boundaries of the traditional geographical imagination. (271-72)

Other exemplars of Thirdspace analysis include Rosalyn Deutsche, Teresa de Lauretis, Barbara Hooper, Gillian Rose, Gloria Anzaldúa, Edward Said, and Homi Bhabha (271-75). Most of those writers and thinkers are not geographers, but that speaks to the transdisciplinary nature that Soja sees in Thirdspace analyses. 

In his fifth and last thesis, Soja suggests that “the new human geographers emerging from critical cultural studies” whom he identifies with Thirdspace analysis have continued and expanded Henri Lefebvre’s work. They are

explicitly spatializing radical subjectivity and political practice, imbuing both with a critical spatial consciousness that extends far beyond what has existed in the past. Reflecting what was earlier described as an ontological shift and a critical thirding-as-Othering, these scholars are opening up a new and still relatively unexplored realm of radical political action centred and sited in the social production of lived space, a strategic choice that is aimed at constituting a community of resistance which can be as empowering and potentially emancipatory as those formed around the making of history and the constitution of human societies. (275)

The best contemporary human geographies, Soja continues, are

more comprehensive in scope, more empowered and potentially empowering, more explicitly politicized at many different levels of knowledge formation, from ontology to praxis, from the materially concrete to the imaginatively abstract, from the body to the planet. They are made more “real” by being simultaneously “imagined.” The metaphorical use of space, territory, geography, place and region rarely floats very far from a material grounding, a “realandimagined” that signals its intentional Otherness from more conventional geographies. Thirdspace as Lived Space is portrayed as multi-sided and contradictory, oppressive and liberating, passionate and routine, knowable and unknowable. It is a space of radical openness, a site of resistance and struggle, a space of multiplicitous representations, investigatable through its binarized oppositions but also where il y a toujours l’Autre, where there are always ‘other’ spaces, heterotopologies, paradoxical geographies to be explored. It is a meeting ground, a site of hybridity and mestizaje and moving beyond entrenched boundaries, a margin or edge where ties can be severed and also where new ties can be forged. It can be mapped but never captured in conventional cartographies; it can be creatively imagined but obtains meaning only when practised and fully lived. (276)

This is high praise, but Soja has a tremendous belief in the capabilities of this radically postmodern “new socio-spatial movement or ‘community of resistance’” that “is beginning to develop around what I am describing as a Thirdspace consciousness and a progressive cultural politics that seeks to break down and erase the specifically spatial power differentials arising from class, race, gender, and many other forms of the marginalizing or peripheralizing . . . of particular groups of people” (276-77). This movement represents “a shared spatial consciousness and a collective determination to take greater control over the production of our lived spaces that provide the primary foundation—the long-missing ‘glue’—for solidarity and political praxis” (277). The “new coalitions” represented by this movement add to previous “empowering sources of mobilization and political identity” a “reinvigorated spatial consciousness and subjectivity, an awareness that the spatiality of human life, the making of human geographies, the nexus of space-knowledge-power also contain the sources of continued oppression, exploitation and domination” (277). That sentence might be a surprise, but Soja is tempering his optimism with the recognition that “the new spatial politics is not exclusively confined to progressive forces” (277). Therefore, there is a need for “progressive thinkers and activists” to “recognize and participate in the expanding sites and communities of resistance and assertion that bell hooks and others invite us to enter, to move in consciously spatial solidarity and begin a process of re-visioning the future” (277). Soja concludes, “[t]his opportunity to reassert the expanded theoretical and strategically political importance of the critical spatial imagination may be what is most new and different—and most challenging and exciting—about human geography today” (277).

Twenty years later, I wonder if Soja is as excited about the possibilities offered by Thirdspace geography. Cresswell’s discussion of this essay in Place: An Introduction suggests that other geographers may still find Soja’s intervention valuable. But what do I make of it? I have been working with the dualism of space/place for several months now, thinking about the distinction that Yi-Fu Tuan draws between space and place and considering what is necessary for space to be transformed into place. Soja would probably say that thinking about spatiality through such a binary is a problem. Does the notion of Thirdspace, lived space as opposed to perceived or conceived space, help me to break out of that binary? Isn’t lived space just another way of referring to place, as Tuan defines it? Or can place be thought of using the combination of these approaches, which Soja calls a “trialectic”? I’m honestly not sure. One thing I am certain of, though, is that I definitely need to read Henri Lefebvre’s The Production of Space. Perhaps by studying that text, which has been so influential for Soja, I will begin to be able to find answers to my questions about his argument. I am also curious about the other essays in this anthology, and what they might have to offer for my research. Perhaps it contains more challenging and provocative essays and ought to be added to my reading list. There’s only one way to find out.

Works Cited

Cresswell, Tim. Place: An Introduction. Second edition, Wiley-Blackwell, 2015.

de Certeau, Michel. The Practice of Everyday Life. Translated by Steven F. Rendall, U of California P, 1984.

hooks, bell. “Choosing the Margin as a Space of Radical Openness.” Yearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural Politics, Between the Lines, 1990, pp. 145-53. 

Soja, Edward. “Thirdspace: Expanding the Scope of the Geographical Imagination.” Human Geography Today. Edited by Doreen Massey, John Allen, and Philip Sarre, Polity, 1999, pp. 260-78.

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

29. Warren Cariou, Lake of the Prairies: A Story of Belonging

cariou lake of the prairies

I met Warren Cariou once. I was volunteering at a conference on Indigenous performance and ended up driving him to the airport for his flight back to Winnipeg. I suppose that encounter is part of the reason I put his book Lake of the Prairies: A Story of Belonging on my reading list—that, and the fact that it’s a book about the way that stories are how we come to understand both place and identity, in all of their complexity.

The book begins with a question that brings together the complexities and contradictions of identity, origin, and place: “Where do I come from?” (3):

We always have to take someone’s word for it, that mystery of origins. Maybe that’s why I believed I was not so much from a place as from a story—or rather a collection of stories, mutually contradictory and continually evolving in the mouths of my many relatives. (4)

Stories were important in Cariou’s family and in his extended family; they were competitions, “word-wars” (4-5), and entertainment provided by his Cariou uncles and especially by his father, Ray, a monumental figure in Cariou’s life. “Bedtime was in fact renamed storytime,” Cariou recalls (6). There were stories about his mother’s memories of growing up in Ituna, Saskatchewan; stories about Meadow Lake, Saskatchewan, where Cariou grew up; animal stories; and stories about characters invented by his father, “Simpleton Simon Sasquatch” and “Rosie Belly” (7-10). “I don’t remember all of Dad’s stories, but what remains in my memory is the magic of lying there in the dark and witnessing the tale as it came into being, out of nothing, at the very moment we heard it,” Cariou recalls. “No two were ever the same, even when we asked for repeat performances” (10). 

No wonder Cariou became a writer. In fact, he tried to write down his father’s stories before he could even read: “Many evenings I sat on the couch with a Giant scribbler on my knees, serious as a stenographer, inscribing row after row of curlicues, which represented the collected stories of Simpleton Simon Sasquatch and Rosie Belly and all my aunts and uncles” (11). “And now Dad is gone,” Cariou continues,

and I’m still scribbling. Not only to preserve but also to understand those stories and the people and places that inspired them. And to continue on in Dad’s tradition, turning life into stories and stories into life. Because if they are where I come from, then maybe they can tell me something about where I belong. (11)

The link Cariou sees between identity and place is clear here, but he also understands that our relationship to place can be complex. He writes of the way people move around in the contemporary world, an experience he shares, but he suggests that it’s not necessary “to stay in one place all our lives in order to reconnect with our environments. We need instead to re-examine our stories, to discover a more fluid kind of belonging, one that melds memory and voice and sensation into the complex geometry of our lives” (11). And that is what he sets out to do in this book:

It is a story of belonging, an account of the myriad connections to the place I come from and the family that brought me there. Meadow Lake might be an insignificant place in the eyes of the larger world, but it has been crucially important to me, and I want to explore that personal experience. I suspect that most people have a Meadow Lake of their own, a place they can’t let go of. They need not have been born in that place, or still live there now, but somehow it has taken hold of them and shaped them so irrevocably that they can’t imagine who they would be without it. That’s how it is for me. I have lived away form Meadow Lake for almost half my life, and I will probably never live there again, yet it is still unquestionably the place I mean when I say “home.” (12)

The question of determining one’s origins has turned out to be “one of the most difficult and necessary questions” he has asked himself, “not because origins provide the answers but because origins must be questioned deeply and continually if we are to be at home in the world in a meaningful way” (12). “The closer we look at our stories of origin,” he continues, “the more likely we are to find other and sometimes contradictory stories beneath them. And it can be a lifelong task, to learn the many histories of the place and the family you come from” (12). Cariou’s book examines the contradictory stories he has learned about his own identity and about Meadow Lake, the place he is from; in other words, it presents the complex answers that have resulted from his questioning.

Cariou next turns to Meadow Lake—or at least to the significance of its name, and what that name can tell us. As a child, he was confused about what Meadow Lake was; different people called the town different things, and different neighbourhoods had different names (15). In the past, Métis people had called the place Lac des Prairies, and the Cree had called it paskwâw sâkâhikan, because of the large area of grassland or meadow beside the lake (16). Logging had obliterated the boundaries of the meadow (18), which had been, Cariou writes, a patch of tall-grass prairie: 

When I try to picture the meadow now, it’s like imagining an entirely different place, a place I have never been. Based on the photos taken by Frank Crean’s surveying expedition in 1909, I know it was a tall-grass prairie, a rare spot in this northern forest where sunlight could penetrate nearly to the ground. In summer it would have hosted big bluestem grasses and daisies and prairie lilies, and perhaps delicate lady’s slippers. It would have been populated at times by woodland caribou, elk, moose, white-tailed deer, and dozens of smaller animals and birds. The Cree people would have hunted along the perimeter of the meadow, and they would have gathered berries and roots there. (18-19)

That patch of grassland was mostly destroyed when settlers arrived, but Cariou notes that not all of it has been lost: “Almost all the plants and animals that once lived here can still be found in the area,” he writes, although “everything has had to adapt to the changes that deforestation, cultivation, fencing, and road building brought along with them” (19). Many of the species of plants and animals that once lived in the area are now struggling. “Recognizing this is enough to make me lament the coming of the farmers and foresters and community builders who pushed so many things out of the way in order to make a settlement,” he continues. “But this thought puts me in an uncomfortable position. If those people hadn’t come and hadn’t brought those changes, then I could never have called this place home” (19).

The Meadow Lake that Cariou knows is “a sleepy town, a violent town, a town with secrets, a town of simple beauty and brazen ugliness. It resonates with contradictions, like many other communities” (20). One of those contradictions or conflicts is between settlers and the Cree people who live in the area, including the Flying Dust Cree Nation, whose reserve is right next to the town. As a child, Cariou always sensed that the reserve was “somehow off-limits,” a place where he “felt conspicuous, vulnerable. Like a trespasser” (22-23). There are ten First Nations in the Meadow Lake area, along with other Métis and non-status communities, and Cariou notes that it’s possible that Indigenous people now outnumber the whites (23). “The district is far from being a utopia of racial harmonization,” he writes. “Most of the time the tension just simmers, fuelled by racism and inequality and long-held grudges” (23). But the town is also home to new immigrants and their hopes for a safe place where they can start new lives (24-25). “I get the impression that people are flowing like some volatile liquid over the globe, seeking a place to cling onto, a place to belong,” Cariou writes. “A few of them have found that here. They have learned their own ways of coming to terms with the place, making it a home, even if they have other faraway homes too” (25). While many people want to find a home in Meadow Lake, Carious notes that others, especially the young, have “a burning ambition” (25) to leave the town. Others, who want to stay in the community, often cannot: “Jobs and loves and plain old restlessness can take people away, and can make it very difficult to return. I know this from experience. But I still like to think it’s possible to retain that attachment from a distance, to take a place with you when you leave. Stories, after all, are portable” (26). Again we see Cariou’s belief that stories are an essential part of place-making; indeed, stories about a place can even substitute for being present in that place.

As a child Cariou realized that Meadow Lake, like his family, was made of stories. Gossip, he writes, was “the fabric of the community. We gossiped each other into being” (29). Most of the stories that circulated were about illnesses or disasters of various kinds (29), but there were also fish stories (30-31); stories about poaching, racist stories about Indigenous people, and stories about fights and pregnancies (35-37); stories learned from books in the town library (37-38); and stories in other languages, including Cree, Ukrainian, German, Cantonese, and French (38-39).  Cariou did not hear all of these stories, and not all of them made sense to him. “But I knew that even the people I did hear and did understand were not telling everything there was to be told,” he writes:

I saw that every story grew on top of another story, covered it up, and telling one thing was always a way of not telling something else. Sometimes I wanted to pry underneath, to dig up those stories that were buried under the layers. But that was for the most part an idle desire. I did little to seek out the hidden stories. I had enough to keep me busy with the ones that were obvious. (40)

Cariou had his own secrets and assumed that other people had theirs as well. “I suppose all of that explains why I grew up in such remarkable ignorance of my hometowns’s past,” he continues. He had been told about Big Bear and Gabriel Dumont and the events of 1885, but those stories didn’t seem real to him (41). What did seem real were stories about homesteading, “the closest thing to our creation myths. I couldn’t imagine what would have existed in Meadow Lake before the homesteaders came and cleared the land, broke the soil, built roads, dug wells” (42). “It was only much later that I realized how much had been left out of this story,” he continues. “No one told me, for instance, that Meadow Lake had been a settlement of sorts for at least a hundred years before the arrival of the first homesteaders” (43). And he didn’t understand that only a few generations earlier, all of the land had belonged to the Cree (43). He didn’t know about the pass system, residential schools, or an attempt to relocate the reserve away from the town. “For years, no one told me any of this,” he writes (43-44). 

In the next chapter, “The Height of Land,” Cariou writes about the boundary between the Churchill River watershed and the Saskatchewan River watershed, a boundary visible to the south of Meadow Lake: “These two watersheds are different worlds, with distinct climates, geographies, ecosystems, and cultures” (47). But for Cariou, the Height of Land was “more of a cognitive construct than a geological formation”:

As far back as I can remember, it was the most important defining feature of what was home and what was not. It was the place of transition between our way of life and all the incomprehensible ways of life that I imagined, and sometimes saw, in the outside world. But it was always an elusive boundary, one that slipped away as we approached. (47-48)

Cariou’s father had told him a story about the area around Meadow Lake having once been an inland sea, and for Cariou the existence of muskeg was evidence that story was true. Muskeg, he writes, is “a thin layer of turf floating on the water, an earthy membrane that fuses land and liquid” (49). His fatherused to tell a fishing story about a floating island of muskeg (50). Muskeg defined the country around Meadow Lake; there was no muskeg south of the Height of Land. “There is a corresponding psychological difference between the south and the north too,” Cariou writes. “In the south, facts matter more than stories” (53).

Along with muskeg, the north is defined by wildfire. Every spring, residents of Meadow Lake could smell smoke in the air (59-60). “Smoke was the medium we lived in during fire season, sometimes for weeks at a time,” Cariou writes. “We breathed it. It soaked into our clothes. Usually we couldn’t see it at all, except perhaps as a slight haze in the distance, a blurring of the Height of Land” (60). He recalls the sight of a forest after a fire: “The trees became their own tombstones, standing in craggy reminiscence of themselves” (61). But wildfires were mostly represented in his childhood imagination by the figure of “The Scorcher,” which was painted on a billboard at the Height of Land. “The Scorcher” was

a naked, smirking, red-skinned comic-book devilkin with orange and yellow flames bursting out of his head. The Scorcher’s eyes were the most successful representation of mischief I had ever seen, expressing a combination of askance malevolence and caught-in-the-act startlement. In one hand he clutched a lit match, which he held down toward the lower edge of the billboard, as if to ignite the real forest in the background. (61)

Cariou and his siblings, Glenn and Michelle, “loved the Scorcher even as we scorned him. His defiant flouting of the most sacred rule of our fire-paranoid culture made him attractive, as only a bad-boy rebel can be. He made arson seem almost fun” (61). But more than that, The Scorcher “was the gatekeeper of the north, the usher and gargoyle and menacing giant who signalled to everyone that this was a place where things were different. This was the kingdom of fire” (62). Cariou tells other stories about fire—playing with matches as a child, the racist suspicions that First Nations people set fires in order to get work on fire-fighting crews, and his father’s belief that careless campers were responsible for fires (63-65)—but the most important story he tells is of the Great Fire of 1919 (66-69). This story demonstrates the research he did for the book, travelling in northern Saskatchewan and gathering stories. That fire, he writes, made life easier for the homesteaders who followed it: “In the ashes of the fire the place became a different place, with new inhabitants and new stories and new ways of relating to the land” (69). In the process of settlement, however, the story of that fire was somehow forgotten, and like so many stories about Meadow Lake, Cariou only heard it after he became an adult.

In the next chapter, “The Blood Magnet,” Cariou recalls how, as a boy, he often reflected on the coincidence and improbability of his own existence. After all, if his parents hadn’t met, he wouldn’t have been born (71). That leads to the story of how they met, married, and settled in Meadow Lake (71-75). “But that knowledge didn’t fully answer my questions about where I came from and why,” Cariou recalls. “I wondered what it was that held me to my parents—or to any of my family—and the myriad choices they had made in the past. I wanted to have some say in the matter, to plant my own flag on my chosen place and claim it as my point of origin. But it didn’t work that way. I couldn’t choose my family either” (75-76). One consolation came from the question of family origin—“a question of ethnicity, of blood allegiance” (76)—which led young Cariou to proclaim, “I’m French, German, and Norwegian,” although sometimes he added “English” to the list as well (76). “I knew almost nothing about those European countries that I claimed as ancestral homelands,” he writes, “but nevertheless I understood that it was important to claim them, to have an uncomplicated answer to that question of allegiance that was thrown out at me so often” (76). That purported connection to the places of origin of his grandparents becomes important, even though he wondered what linked the various members of his extended family together:

At weddings and funerals and anniversaries, I surveyed the assembled relatives and wondered what they really had in common, these farmers, oilfield workers, mechanics, carpenters, bank clerks, wheeler-dealers, card sharks, housewives, raconteurs, and retirees. Their hair, their eyes, and even their skin colour were just about everything on the spectrum. And yet there was definitely something that linked them all together, and linked me to them: some magnetism of the blood or some collective delusion of tribal affiliation. But I couldn’t pinpoint it. (78)

Cariou and his cousins were fascinated by the family’s secrets, even though they didn’t know any and ended up relying on innuendoes and outright lies (78-79). They might have been “sensitized” to the existence of such secrets, he writes, because “as recent arrivals in the fold, we knew more clearly than the adults that family was a tenuous arrangement, even an absurd one” (78-79). Cariou recalls that he didn’t really believe the stories he and his cousins shared, but once again he is highlighting the importance of stories, even made-up ones, in the construction of identity.

Cariou then turns to the house in Meadow Lake where he grew up: the yard, the ice rink his father would make every fall and the hockey games he and his friends would play on it, the summer garden and the taste of fresh peas and of carrots stolen from the neighbour’s garden (83-88). The notion of boundaries and trespassing puzzled young Cariou (88). He and his friends idolized criminals, because they seemed to be able to go anywhere they wanted (89). There were other “nomads” in Meadow Lake, though: mentally ill people who walked the streets and were mocked by children and adults alike (89-91). Another nomad was the Rototiller Man, Mr. Fontaine, who travelled the town’s muddy streets every spring, offering to turn over vegetable gardens (91-92). In winter, Cariou and his friends would make tunnels in the snow (93-94); in the summer, they would capture bees in glass jars (94-95). Once he fell face-first into a hornet’s nest, and hornets became an addition to his list of fears: bees, large dogs, horses, bears, hypodermic needles, bombs, and God (99). “There were stories behind each of these terrors,” he recalls (99). For instance, his fear of bombs came from his awareness of the Cold War and the weapons testing that took place at the nearby Cold Lake airforce base (99-102). But he also had a secret fear: “I was afraid of Native people. Not so much the women, and certainly not the girls, but the men and especially the boys” (102). There was a separation in Meadow Lake between the Cree and the settlers, something he took for granted as a kid: “I didn’t wonder where it had come from, how it had developed,” he writes. “It’s clear to me now that there was a vast history to my fear, one that began generations before my birth and that I would not become aware of for many years. It was built on stereotypes of savages and heathens that dated back to a time when Meadow Lake was known only as Paskwâw Sâkâhikan” (103-04). 

“I think that simply by being who they were, aboriginals made everyone else question their own belonging, and that questioning tended to raise the most fundamental kinds of fears and insecurities,” Cariou writes. “I absorbed those fears unconsciously and began to enact them, to give them my own personal reality” (104). He had heard, and sometimes repeated, racist stories about Indigenous people, for example (104). In addition, his relations with “the Native boys” were not good: “Everything about my relationship with them was conditioned by the environment at school, where I was often favoured and usually the Native kids were not” (105). Some of the teachers were obviously prejudiced, but the racism was more visible among the school’s children (106). White boys would taunt the Indigenous girls—and, in a different way, the Indigenous boys, who would fight back (106-07). Particular boys—Billy Tootoosis and the Fiddler boys—frightened him, and he was never good at disguising his fright (107-08). Now, though, he doesn’t blame those boys for their hostility. “I had been blessed with all kinds of things that they were excluded from: relative wealth, the respect of teachers, an expectation in the community that I would make something of myself,” Cariou recalls. “And I took it all for granted. I can see how blithely annoying I must have been” (109). The conflicts, he continues, were really about the question of belonging: 

In Meadow Lake, belonging was written on our skin. We all shared a knowledge of this difference between brown faces and white, knowledge that came complete with a whole series of lessons in racism: rules about whom we could associate with, where we could feel safe, what we could become when we grew up. Everyone lived by those rules. I knew I belonged in school and in our backyard, whereas theirs was the kingdom of the roadways, the stampede grounds, the reserve. We all patrolled our territories, watching for each other. (109)

The question of belonging was partly territorial, a matter of places, but it was also a matter of stories as well. 

Cariou’s family liked to spend weekends exploring the farm and ranch country around Meadow Lake, where the question of belonging was simpler than it was in the town. “Despite the profusion of No Trespassing signs on the road allowances,” Cariou writes, “I felt like a visitor rather than a trespasser whenever we roamed the countryside” (111). They particularly like to walk around on ranches: “Around any corner we might see prairie lilies, lady’s slippers, a deer, a coyote, a family of partridges. It seemed there was little difference between ranchland and wilderness” (111). Much of the family’s wandering took place on a place called Leonard’s Ranch, owned by Leonard Evans, a friend of Cariou’s father, a place “nearly the size of a township: twenty-two quarter sections strewn along the Meadow River north of the river” (111-12). Leonard had a big collection of arrowheads, and Cariou and his siblings became interested in finding some of their own (115-17). Once they found a caribou skull and a stone hammer, and Cariou imagined what life might have been like when that hammer had been made (118-21). 

Given their interest in the countryside, it’s not surprising that the family eventually moved to a farm three miles from the edge of Meadow Lake. The farm, Cariou writes, “was a revelation” (127). The farm had 20 acres of bush, and Cariou and his siblings enjoyed walking there. “There was no end to the possibilities for exploration, and we dedicated ourselves to experiencing all of it, in every season,” he recalls. “Over the coming years I came to know that place more intimately than anywhere I have ever been” (127). “It was an elemental life,” he continues. “We learned to appreciate the minutest progress of the seasons by watching the growth and eventual death of the plants, the movements of the sun on the horizon, the smells in the air” (127-28). Cariou would eat snow, and learned that it has different flavours and aromas at different times of the winter (128). “We came to know the place by feeding on it, absorbing it into ourselves,” he writes (128), recalling the profusion of wild fruit that grew on the farm: wild strawberries and raspberries, dewberries, chokecherries, saskatooons, pin cherries, and blueberries: “We foraged all summer long, if not on wild fruit, then on rhubarb pulled from the garden or dried wheat straight from the granary,” or on rosehips in the fall, “the leathery skin with its rich red paste on the underside” (128-29). “To be there was to always have our senses full,” he writes (129), noting that the sky was “more immense and more sharply focused than in town” (129). But the farm was also a place of death: kittens, dogs, an old horse. “On a farm, death can’t be avoided,” Cariou writes. “We had heard the agricultural gothic of Dad’s farm stories for years, and now we saw that it was true” (132). “Death was a constant presence, and I think we were affected by that, by the physicality of it, even the necessity of it,” he continues. “Being at home there meant coming to terms with the omnipresence of mortality, and understanding that we were often responsible for the lives of the creatures that lived there with us” (132).

“We formed a bond with the place almost immediately,” Cariou recalls, “but this was not the same thing as being accepted into the farm community” (132). He was afraid of being proven inept and wimpy and fearful (as town kids were imagined to be, compared to their rural counterparts) (132). He delved into the history of the farm, digging through accumulated garbage like an archaeologist, and looking in the shop and the granaries (133-35). “Whatever their delusions may have been, it was clear that the homesteaders had indeed worked slavishly for most of their lives to make a living here, to make a home,” he notes. “I wondered if that was still the case, if there would be some test of belonging that I might have to endure” (135-36). His parents didn’t have to take such a test; they learned to farm with the help of their neighbours, who welcomed the family “with a hospitality and a generosity that was far beyond what anyone could have expected” (136-37). The neighbours often volunteered to help out with jobs on the farm without any expectation of reciprocation (137). Cariou raised a calf for the 4-H Club, and he bought a dirt bike with the money he made from selling it. That dirt bike, it seems, helped him to disprove the notion that town kids were wimps.

As Cariou and his siblings got older, the family’s weekend rambling became more elaborate; they ranged further afield and explored new places. Each place they passed “was connected to the others through webs of stories,” he recalls (146). His parents often knew farmers or ranchers, but even more, “a place was marked in Dad’s stories by the disasters that had occurred there” (146). Cariou begins to accumulate his own stories: having his boot torn off by the spiked chain that carried bales of hay into the loft of the barn (148-49), or getting lost during a deer hunt (154-59). Some of his father’s stories were connected to his work as a lawyer in Meadow Lake, although it took years before Cariou began to understand what a lawyer actually did for a living. Part of being a small-town lawyer involves making enemies: at the end of every trial, “there would always be at least one person who hated him,” Cariou recalls. “He accepted this with equanimity most of the time, but it must have been difficult, especially in such a small community where everyone knew him, and where certain grudges were passed down through the generations” (165-66). Virtually everyone knew Ray Cariou: “Native and non-Native, young and old, farmers and town dwellers” (166). Cariou’s father “was regularly exposed to the most violent and depraved aspects of our community and yet he still clearly loved the place. Not everyone would have been able to do so” (167). Ray Cariou regularly received threats—some anonymous, some not—and once someone made a threat against Cariou himself just as he was graduating from high school, something he didn’t learn about until years later (167-72). “It makes me wonder,” Cariou writes: “what else do I not know about myself?” (172). 

“I think I was always going to leave Meadow Lake, at least from the age of six or seven when I discovered that it was not, after all, the centre of the universe,” Cariou writes. But when he did leave, it didn’t feel like he was leaving, because he was only going away to university and planned to return for the summer:

It’s difficult to mark a time or place or event at which I crossed from Meadow Lake to the outside world. There was no moment when I chose exile, no last look back, no great boat journey to separate me finally from the place. There were no real goodbyes; only see-you-laters. I don’t remember ever surveying the countryside with a sense of loss, of regret. I would always be back soon, and the place would be the same. There was none of the poignancy and drama of a clear break. I simply began to exist in two places: one a real home, and the other temporary, contingent, moveable. I have lived like that ever since. (176)

Nowhere he lived after leaving Meadow Lake—Regina, Saskatoon, Toronto—was home, but at the same time, his feelings of being distant from Meadow Lake gradually increased, even though he still felt that town was where he belonged (176-78). When he returned to Meadow Lake, changes were disconcerting. Sometimes the new buildings or businesses or people in the town would be welcome, but more often “they were disturbances, interruptions in the clean orderliness of my memory. Things were not supposed to change there. Perhaps complete exile from Meadow Lake would have been more comfortable than these repeated returns to a place that was no longer exactly what I remembered” (178-79). 

Cariou tells a story about going to the annual Meadow Lake stampede one year, when he was working in Regina:

I was a little big smug then, a little too proud of myself for having made my way past the Height of Land, having “escaped,” as some of my fellow escapees liked to say. I had started to think of Meadow Lake as a quaint but backward place—“a good place to come from,” I told my city friends. (179)

He recalls his childhood visits to the stampede—the games, the rides, the sights and sounds and smells, and notes that after being away for eight or nine years, much of the experience was the same: “The smells of pine chips and cotton candy and cow shit were there as always” (183). He goes to watch the bull riders, and looking up into the stands, he realizes that he has become a stranger to the others watching the event (184-86): “I was no longer one of them; I was an outsider, a city boy. . . . I had become a tourist in my hometown” (187). That feeling intensifies when a group of boys calls him a “fag” and sprays the back of his pants with barbecue sauce (187-88). “I almost had to admire their gleeful, reckless xenophobia,” Cariou recalls. “How many other people in town would think the same thing as these boys, but not express it?” (188). 

Up to this point in the memoir, Cariou hasn’t mentioned his Métis heritage, something I was waiting for him to do. He finally does so in a chapter entitled “Blockade.” He is living in Toronto now, going to graduate school, feeling “more and more isolated from Meadow Lake” (191). “Meanwhile,” he writes,

in Meadow Lake, things were happening. A group of Native protestors started a blockade on a logging road adjacent to a large clearcut on the way to Canoe Lake. They objected to clearcutting and refused to allow the forestry company, Mistik Management, to have access to a stockpile of logs that had been cut the previous winter. They vowed to stay there in their roadside encampment until the company changed its policies. (192)

Ray Cariou was the chair of Mistik Management and the local sawmill, which was jointly owned by the mill employees and the tribal council of ten local First Nations. “In a town where the racial divide had often kept people apart, the mill was a monument of community cooperation,” Cariou writes. “But the alliance had never been easy, and now it looked like the whole enterprise might collapse” (192). His father, he continues, “found himself at the nexus of all the major conflicts in the town: racial, economic, environmental, legal” (194). Cariou watches the situation develop on the television news and in the papers. In one report, he reads this about his father: “Cariou himself has recently affirmed his Metis heritage” (196). Cariou describes his response:

This information wasn’t entirely a shock to me, but seeing it there in the newspaper was mystifying. Dad had never “reaffirmed his Metis heritage” to us, at least not in so many words. There had been rumours in the family and comments about the dark features of some of the relatives. But Dad himself had red hair and freckles, and so did Glenn, and so did many of our cousins. The idea of publicly claiming Metis heritage was bizarre. (196-97)

Previously, Ray Cariou had said that one of their ancestors had been a voyageur, a coureur de bois, and that that ancestor, François Beaulieu, had married an Indigenous woman (197-98), but Cariou had assumed that was the end of the story. Cariou leaves that part of his story for a moment, and explains that not long after the RCMP arrested the protestors for trespassing, his father had a heart attack. “The blockade had almost killed my father,” he writes. “That was what I thought and what I knew Mom was thinking” (200).

The next chapter, “Remembering Clayton,” tells the story of Cariou’s relationship with Clayton Matchee, the soldier who participated in the murder of Shidane Arone, a Somali teenager, in 1992 in an event that led to the disbanding of the Canadian Airborne Regiment. Cariou went to school with Matchee and knew him, although not well, perhaps. But he knew him well enough to offer this analysis: “I can’t help remembering that Clayton had learned all about racism and power during his childhood and youth in Meadow Lake” (206). It is only after this discussion of racism in the town that Cariou returns to the topic of his Métis heritage. One of his aunts tells him that all of his ancestors on his father’s side had been Métis (219). “Where do I come from?” Cariou asks himself. “The story I had been telling myself all of my life was incomplete, incorrect. Norway, France, Germany, my mother’s belly, my hometown, yes. But Indian? How could that be?” (219-20). The silence in his family about their background, he continues, “is not at all surprising, given the prejudices against Native people and against the Metis in particular” (220):

Many Metis were pushed off their lands after the rebellion, by soldiers and then by settlers. After this, most of them had absolutely nothing: no home, no pride, no status in the eyes of the nation. They were at the absolute bottom of the social scale, lower even that the Status Indians, who at least had some land and the dubious honour of treaties. In the great dispersal of Metis people after the rebellion, it was no wonder that many of them chose to suppress their Metis identity when they moved to new places. Passing as white was a survival technique; those who couldn’t do that would often try to pass as Cree. The result was that generations of Metis were born into a vast canyon of forgetting. (221)

Different members of his family responded to having “been shaken into remembering” (221) in different ways. “For me,” Cariou writes,

the knowledge did matter. I started to wonder if I really was the person I had thought I was, if I really belonged where I had assumed I did. I found myself in a between-space, a location that the logic of Meadow Lake didn’t allow. It was impossible to be both a Native Person and a non-Native person; the two notions were mutually exclusive. (222)

Cariou sensed he might not be believed if he told others the story, but the secrecy left him feeing guilty, and while he wondered if it was hypocritical to make a public announcement about his Métis heritage, “to keep that aspect of my family’s past a secret also felt wrong, was a perpetuation of the racial divide that had existed for so long in Meadow Lake and across the continent” (222). 

“Once I had mentioned the family secret to a few people,” he recalls, “it began to take on a life of its own, and I started to wish I had kept it to myself” (223). That was particularly true when he became a published writer:

A few years later, when I ended up being called “a Metis writer” in the national media, I realized that I had to think seriously about the ways I would advertize my identity. And the more I thought about it, the more it became clear to me that I simply don’t feel like I am exclusively an aboriginal person. I have some Metis ancestry, and I have been raised among many Native people, but I didn’t grow up with the sense that I was one, and I have never learned their cultures from the perspective of an insider. I feel closely connected to Native people, and particularly to the Metis, but it doesn’t seem quite right to claim that I am one. I am instead a little of this and a little of that; a child of the heterogenous multitudes. I come from half the globe, and I come from Meadow Lake. (224)

This feeling isn’t unusual, he suggests, since demographers have estimated that hundreds of thousands of Canadians have some Indigenous ancestry but either don’t know it or don’t care to admit to it. Cariou then returns to Clayton Matchee’s story:

I think of this in relation to myself and Clayton Matchee. When we were growing up, people were considered either Native or white, and that distinction went a long way toward deciding what you were going to do in life. Clayton and I had been placed on different sides of the division. But the more I have learned about us, the more I see that the very idea of this division is a falsehood. I have gleaned all the benefits, while Clayton and many others have suffered devastating discrimination. What is the real difference between us? (226)

Then he returns to his Métis grandmother, a powerful presence in his memory: 

I wonder if she was consciously keeping her Metis past a secret, or if she had simply moved on to another way of thinking about herself. Perhaps she did still think of herself as Metis all along but saw no need to make an issue of it, to declare it repeatedly and publicly. It’s hard to know whether there was ever really a secret at all. (229)

While Cariou does not know how his grandmother identified herself, he does note that when he went to bingo with her, it was “the one public occasion when I wasn’t afraid of Indians” (238).

In subsequent chapters, Cariou explores his memories of his maternal grandparents; tells the story about how he met Alison, his wife; and tells the story of his father’s death. When he returned to Meadow Lake for the funeral, he experienced an outpouring of support from the town:

I saw something that made me understand why Mom and Dad lived there. The people know each other in small towns, and while that knowledge can be grating at times, at other times it is the basis of a necessary community support. There were friends, relatives, and neighbours with us for days, cooking and cleaning and talking, just working to keep the household going. (297)

After the tears came stories: “we overflowed with stories,” Cariou recalls. “Dad was intensely, palpably present. He had become his stories” (298). He also became the farm itself: “He became this place, too, as the days went on. He had in fact spent his life becoming this place, and it was only now that we really understood it” (298). As the mourners walked around the farm, taking in Ray’s garden and the trees he had planted, they realized that “[t]he whole place was imprinted with him, and as we walked, separately and in groups, we came to understand the geography of mourning” (298-99). 

After the funeral, Cariou returned to Vancouver, where he was teaching. “Whenever I got back home I was overwhelmed by the place and the memories that were waiting there for me,” he recalls. “It was no longer just a home; it was also the scene of a vague and inescapable fear” (308). One day he returned to the house in Meadow Lake where the family had lived before moving to the farm. That house, he writes, “had become little more than a symbol of my childhood, an empty structure to be furnished with stories” (312). Something similar is true about the farm: it is now a place of stories as well, not only of the Cariou family but of the people who lived there before as well:

I like to think that the land doesn’t forget, that our stories echo somewhere around our places, and that it only takes an inquisitive soul to come along and listen for them.

Yes: places have voices. I listen more carefully than I used to. I seek them out, especially the ones that might have been forgotten. Last summer I learned about one such place in the heart of my hometown. (313)

That place was the town’s Old Cemetery, part of the original meadow, where the original homesteaders had been buried. “I felt unaccountably like I was visiting the oldest part of my home, the place with the most history, the most voices,” Cariou writes (314). And he ends by thinking of his father walking in that place: “I wondered what stories he told himself about these people and their place. For a moment, I thought I could hear his voice” (315).

Place and identity are complex, in Cariou’s rendering. They are enmeshed, and they exist in story. That is what connects this book to my own research. I’m not planning to return to the place where I grew up, and I’m not sure that my research will enable me to come to know any places as intimately as Cariou knows Meadow Lake or his parents’ farm. And I’m more certain now that spaces become places through repeated encounters, through the existence of multiple narratives, through an investment of time and energy. But surely there are different kinds of places. I’m not sure Cariou is correct when he dismisses other places where he’s lived as non-places in comparison to Meadow Lake. I mean, I’ve lived in Regina for 20 years now, longer than I’ve lived anywhere else, and I wouldn’t say that this place is unimportant compared to the place where I grew up. Perhaps there are places one knows intimately, the way Cariou knows Meadow Lake, and then there are other places one knows less well. Maybe that’s okay. Maybe, if those places, have voices, they would be able to tell stories about us even if we don’t know them the way Cariou knows his home town. In any case, Lake of the Prairies is a powerful account of the complexities of identity and place and their relation to stories, and it’s given me a lot to consider in relation to these issues.

Works Cited

Cariou, Warren. Lake of the Prairies: A Story of Belonging. Anchor, 2003.

28. Sarah de Leeuw, Unmarked: Landscapes Along Highway 16

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After I finished reading Michel de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life—or, at least, after I finished reading the chapters I had set out to read—I decided to change things up, to give myself a break as the semester is coming to an end and my marking load is getting heavier, by reading some creative nonfiction about place. If nothing else, I ought to be able to increase my production, since works of creative nonfiction about place tend to be shorter than books of theory and philosophy. That was the logic behind this shift in focus, anyway.

In Place: An Introduction, Tim Cresswell recommends Sarah de Leeuw’s 2004 book Unmarked: Landscapes Along Highway 16 as an exemplary book on place, and so I decided to begin there. Since de Leeuw is a geographer, it might not be surprising that Cresswell likes her book so much. As her online c.v. indicates, though, de Leeuw came to geography by a circuitous route: first, she completed a BFA in creative writing at the University of Victoria; then she finished an interdisciplinary MA at the University of Northern British Columbia; and finally, she graduated from Queen’s with a PhD in cultural historical geography. Today, she teaches at UNBC, and she publishes academic articles as well as creative nonfiction and poetry (she won the 2013 Dorothy Livesay Poetry Award for her book Geographies of a Lover).

I was particularly interested in Unmarked: Landscapes Along Highway 16, because I imagined it might be a book about transforming a textbook example of space—a highway—into place. That’s not what the book does, however. It is a memoir about growing up in logging towns along that highway. That tells me something, though; perhaps it’s impossible for space to become place unless one invests time and effort and energy in coming to know that location. Also, unlike de Certeau, who makes an important distinction between stories about places and the ways that maps provide visual representations of places, de Leeuw conflates those two forms of representation—perhaps because she’s a geographer and understands the function of maps. “In my mind, story of place is inseparable from geography of place,” she writes. “The telling of stories is the creation of maps, words following a finger tracing the thin red lines of roads, the curvatures of topographic lines, the stories of landscapes passed through and passed on” (2). Like de Certeau, then, de Leeuw identifies narrative as the central process involved in turning space into place. When stories are told about a location, and when those stories display an intimate knowledge and involvement with that location, then it becomes place.

I am working through Unmarked sequentially, chapter by chapter, which is the easy way to summarize it, rather than bundling the references to its various themes together in a careful analysis, which is harder and would take more time, something I just don’t have at the moment. That’s the downside of these immanent readings. Besides, the text is presented for the most part (as far as I can tell) in chronological order, so following the chapters in sequence is a way of following the course of de Leeuw’s life. The book begins with de Leeuw’s family’s move to northern British Columbia—to the unincorporated community of Port Clements, on Haida Gwaii, to be specific, where her father was about to start a job connected to the logging industry. (What exactly his work was is not revealed.) Everything has a beginning, but she asks where her connection to Port Clements begins:

A bend in the road or a particular telephone pole? The highway kilometre sign? White letters on green, letting you know a place occurs farther down the road; this might be a beginning, a starting point. Or perhaps at the announcement of its (un)incorporation: small white sign, black letters reading “Port Clements: Unincorporated.” No date, no population number. (4)

That, she continues, is “definitely one beginning” (4), suggesting there are others: the junk-filled yard of a local eccentric named Jack, for instance. “Jack’s house is a good beginning,” de Leeuw writes. “It speaks of continual loss yet infinite hope, an absolute certainty that in nothing there exists something” (6). If we were looking for an announcement of Unmarked’s main theme, that statement might just be it.

De Leeuw was eight years old when the family moved to Port Clements, and at first that community is defined for her, and for her family, by what it lacks:

Port Clements has no place to buy school supplies, no place to register for and take swimming lessons, no galleries, no restaurants to dine in, no place to watch a movie, no police officers, no malls, no civic centre, no doctor’s office, no corner stores, no video stores or clothing stores, not a single chain-named business. (10)

The community does have two churches, a community hall, one store, a gas station, a bank that opens one afternoon each week, a machinist’s shop, a baseball field, a combination tackle shop/hunting shop/Sears order counter, and a hotel where loggers stay when they get out of camp (10-12), but the adjustment to this new kind of community was difficult: “By Grade Four I know my town by what it is not, by the vacancies and gaps it could not fill” (11). This sense of absence is another theme that is repeated throughout de Leeuw’s memoir. Nevertheless, she continues, “[m]y feet remain welded firmly to the ground of a town overlooked” (11), a statement that suggests how de Leeuw continues to be connected to that place and, perhaps by extension, the other places in northern BC where she lived as a child.

Each chapter in this memoir is focused on de Leeuw’s experiences in a specific place. The second chapter, for instance, deals with her life in a logging camp named Juskatla, where the men, almost all of whom are loggers, spend the weekends drunk, and where de Leeuw and her friend Leaha are able to steal cigarettes from Leaha’s father after he passes out (14). The chapter uses language peculiar to logging communities, terms I had to Google, like “crummy trucks” (16) and “setting chokers” (14-15). It also attempts to reproduce—in language, of course—the smells and especially the sounds of a logging camp:

Scents suggest silence, as if the camp operated in a vapour of smell isolated from any other senses. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Sound erupted from between every piece of stored machinery, from beside every bunkhouse and mess hall, from the dark insides of every company-owned trailer in Juskatla. Sound is the glue of a logging camp, the thick foam insulation squeezed and expanding into every corner, filling in the cracks and back eddies, fat on bones. (16-17)

This emphasis on the sensorium is another recurring theme in Unmarked: de Leeuw wants to evoke, for people who have never been in northern BC, the sights and sounds and smells of those communities. At the same time, de Leeuw does not shy away from the violence that exists in places like Juskatla—both the personal violence directed against spouses and children, and the corporate violence of the community’s eventual eradication when the logging company decides to shut down its operations. De Leeuw recalls the “stunned look of resignation” on her friend’s father’s face, “the same look I had always imagined might flash across a faller’s face the instant he cut into a widow maker, those terrible trees who in such a long split second rip out to take a man down” (20). The use of the pronoun “who” in that sentence is fascinating, and I had to check to make sure my notes were correct: de Leeuw is attributing agency and animacy to such trees, something that might indicate an engagement of some kind with Indigenous ways of knowing (Taiaiake Alfred edited the book for Newest Press [(120)]), or it might suggest that widow makers are somehow malevolently aware of what they are doing when they kill a man. I’m not sure which way to take that pronoun, and there might be other possibilities as well.

In the following chapter, the family has moved to Tlell, where they are shot at by hunters who mistake them for bears as they walk through the forest near the dump, and where a starving bear, looking for jars of jam or salmon, is shot in the shed just off their house. In Tlell, de Leeuw and her family also begin collecting objects on the beaches, including agates and glass balls, once used as floaters on fishing nets, “one so worn from revolving in waves against invisible particulates that, by touching it, we risked shattering its thin glass sides” (29). Together, de Leeuw and her mother “walked parallel to the sea, forgetting everything but the sand and the sky and the desperately breakable moments and fragile possessions that we all find ourselves momentarily in charge of” (29). That sense of fragility, particularly of human relationships, is another theme that helps to structure Unmarked.

The next chapter focuses on the family’s time in Queen Charlotte City. Here, de Leeuw focuses not only on her experiences of that place, but also of the effect her memories of it, and the stories they lead her to tell, have on her later:

Not until many years later do I come to know that living here was living in a land so real and raw that it slipped into the impossible, a land of legends not to be believed, a place of things not real. No one believes the tales I have to tell, the tales of balancing rocks and whales spitting on highways. Or road fissures so deep that a constant stream of cement cannot fill them, tiny earthquakes always re-opening the pavement. Drink from the water near this fracture and your blood will be charged like a magnet; you will always return, a compass needle veering towards the magnetic north. Sometimes the need to return will fill you with a draw so urgent your teeth will chatter and the joints of your body will ache. (31)

Eight years later, de Leeuw does return to Queen Charlotte City. She is working for Parks Canada for the summer, living on a research boat which happens to anchor offshore so its crew can take a break, shower and launder their filthy clothes. She meets old friends and discovers one of them living in a burned-out house, another tale that is hard to believe: “I am sitting in a house that stands in spite of having been burned from the inside out. I am standing on land full with the impossible, and the water I drank years ago from the spring on the side of the road, kept parted by earthquakes, is suddenly at rest, a quieted compass needle knowing the direction of home” (40). These sentences are such lovely writing, and such a powerful evocation of place and of our relationship to the important places of our childhood. It is that kind of intimate connection to a locale that makes it become place, I think, and that realization causes me to rethink one of my hypotheses, the notion that walking through a space can be part of a process of coming to know it as place. Yes, perhaps, to an extent that is true—certainly walking makes that possible in a way that other, faster modes of transportation would not—but can walking create the same kind of intimacy with a place that living there would generate? I don’t think so.

After Queen Charlotte City, the family moved to Prince Rupert, which de Leeuw describes as “overflowing, flooded, monsters everywhere. There is no shortage of work in this town for social workers and counsellors” (46). Then de Leeuw skips Terrace, where she spent her adolescence—or rather evokes that city from the nearby mining community of Kitimat: “There. You have said it. Gotten it out. You hated it and you wanted to leave and you set upon a plan and you carried out that plan, and now you are here. Here in Kitimat and not in Terrace; not there, but away” (49). De Leeuw’s adolescence was particularly difficult—her parents split up, her brother died in a car accident (48)—and the relative calm of young adulthood in Kitimat is juxtaposed against the boredom and chaos of Terrace. Her husband is Italian, and she wishes she lived in Europe, so that the distance between Terrace and Kitimat would seem even greater: “If this were Europe, you would be in another country, you would be of a different nationality, speak a different language, use a different currency. This is how far you have come, he assures you. You are separated by great distances from the town you grew up in, the town of your family” (50). Even the mills and factories in Kitimat are a form of reassurance: she likes to drive out to the Alcan plant at night and pretend she lives on another planet, one far from Terrace (51). The Alcan plant becomes a living entity by virtue of its distance from Terrace: “It might be only one watershed away, but the distance is a lifetime, and for a moment your breath is deep and calm, listening to Alcan’s heart pulsate, pumping life through aluminum veins” (51).

Now the text jumps backwards, to Kitwanga and her parents’ separation, which is evoked in fragments associated with the task of splitting firewood. Then it begins to move forward again, with a chapter about Terrace. Again, that city is evoked through a comparison to the nearby village of Rosswood, a place that residents of Terrace consider to be “in the outback, far-away, in the middle of nowhere, at the ends of the earth, where no one would want to live anyway,” a place that allows Terrace to construct a vision of itself as a “metropolitan centre” (59-60). De Leeuw relates the stories she heard about Rosswood, and stories about how children from that village were bullied at schools in Terrace, and how they responded to that bullying with brutal violence.

Violence is also a theme in the next chapter, in which de Leeuw tells stories about working as an assistant cook in a logging camp. Those stories coalesce around Glen, the camp cook, and his pregnant (and nameless) wife. Years later, when de Leeuw returns to that community, she encounters that woman in the community’s women’s centre, bearing the marks of her husband’s violence. The chapter ends with a description of the local Salvation Army church, its windows broken and its structure sagging over the Nass River, as if any moment it might fall in, and its foundation of “totem poles, hacked and sawed so that the church could be built on top of them” (72-73). The gender-based violence de Leeuw describes is therefore related to the colonial and religious violence represented by the destruction of those totem poles.

The following chapter describes a seasonal tent city called “The Zoo,” a community of some 300 people: “travellers, tourists, campers, nomads, mushroom pickers, all balanced on the edge of nothing, balanced nowhere” (75). It’s not clear to me whether de Leeuw lived there, or whether she just visited the place, but she tells stories about residents of The Zoo, including stories about how so many of those people are broken by their experiences:

Reaching the outer edge of The Zoo is where the stories reach their limits, and for brief seconds the hurt and running that defines these people is brought to the surface, stories of deep sadness and people who drink before they eat, women who arrive with bodies torn from truck drivers who exchange sex for mileage, families with nothing who arrive here thinking they can pick money from the forest floor, thinking that mushroom picking is easy, not knowing that it breaks the bodies of those who too often have broken spirits. (80)

The Zoo is a place of cynicism and theft and despair, but also love, laughter, and kindness, and de Leeuw’s portrait of that community is careful to be open to both possibilities.

“The Scent of Pulp” is about Prince George. “What are my memories of this town, lived in so fleetingly, yet such an impact made?” de Leeuw asks (83). I think this chapter is about living in that city while she was completing her MA; she is clearly an adult when she gets there. What struck me about this chapter—not surprising, given its title—is the way it evokes the senses: not just sight but also sound and smell. Sound is suggested through onomatopoeia: pickup trucks are “bashed in,” trains “rumble,” the city’s paper mills are “gasping” (86). Smell is even more important, because according to de Leeuw, Prince George is defined by the smell of wood pulp:

The scent of pulp: I remember my parents used to speak of Prince George, of people they once knew who lived in the city, of furniture infused with Prince George smell. Wherever they moved after Prince George, the city would follow them, follow them forever and beyond. (86)

After three years, de Leeuw leaves the city. She receives a letter from a friend about her child, which is about to be born, and the baby’s heartbeat becomes a way in which Prince George becomes a place: “I want to tell you that the heartbeat makes a town become a there, not an away, not an always searching for somewhere else; heartbeats allow us to see from the ground up rather than always looking down from below” (87). Having a child in a city makes it into a place, makes into a location with meaning and significance and story.

The next chapter tells a story about a journey. At some point—perhaps leaving Prince George for Kingston?—de Leeuw is on a train that passes through Burns Lake. It stops there, at the station, and de Leeuw sees graffiti on a fence that angrily responds to the community’s refusal to provide Indigenous people with water:

Perfect then, that the stop this train did make was met with such memorable brilliance, with bright words, a flash point burned on memory in Burns Lake, separating the homes of those whose water has been turned off by the municipality and the homes of those who turned it off.

For a moment, on this train, I was balanced between the two. (92-93)

De Leeuw’s refusal or inability to take sides here is perhaps strange. Why be balanced between oppressor and victim? Why not choose solidarity? Or is de Leeuw perhaps acknowledging her own complicity as a settler? Or is this an honest account of her response, sitting there in relative comfort, looking out of the window of the train at the trace of a conflict she feels she was not part of?

The next chapter is about Fraser Lake, “the site of your second heartbreak” (96), the place where she lived with her father and stepmother after her birth mother decided to return to Oklahoma. “Fraser Lake is loneliness to you,” de Leeuw writes (98). The use of the second-person pronoun here suggests her separation from, or her desire to be separated from, that adolescent heartbreak. The following chapter, “To Preserve the Invisible: Lejac,” relates a story about a man shot dead by his neighbour. That story is juxtaposed against stories about the Lejac Indian Residential School, where boys were yoked together to pull the plow that broke the land for the school’s grain fields, and where Rose Prince, a possible saint, is buried (105-06). The chapter’s final sentences evoke a past that is both marked and unmarked:

All signs of Lejac Indian Residential School have been removed; not a single brick remains to be found in the tall grasses surrounding the cemetery containing Rose Prince. A swing set remains, abandoned, the soft hues of pink, purple, yellow, and green in contrast to boys harnessed like mules. (106-07)

The following chapter, “Unmarked: Terrace,” continues that theme. Terrace, she writes, “was preparation, preparation for how to dream of escape, dream of everywhere but here, a dream of endless motion when you are anchored in absolute immobility” (110). She remembers other northern resource communities, the places she lived when she was a toddler, when her parents moved north for the first time and lived in a motel:

Stories have become memories, truth and fiction inseparable. The stories told to me of our year in the Cedars Motel have implanted themselves so firmly in my sense of the world that it is as if they are my own, always my own, as if the details of stories are remembered details and not ones imagined. Brief flashes do exist of my own memories, memories not culled and assembled from people’s stories, but my own memories are always braided securely with details known only from other people’s stories. It is forever a question: Is this a memory or an image solidified from years of hearing a story? (111-12)

The move from Queen Charlotte City to Terrace was very difficult for the family, and they told themselves and each other stories in order to make that transition:

We told ourselves, told each other, told stories to keep alive and to propel us forward day by day. We created our fictions to survive. We envisioned red lines charting our every movement. New travels were made permanent in our heads by envisioning an etching of red across a map of Terrace. The map was carefully folded inside our minds, a map of roads and hills and lengths of times to walk home; a map of under bridges and beside the lake hoping desperately not to get pregnant. A map of how to navigate being an adolescent in a place like Terrace. A map of how to navigate it together. (114)

The word “together” refers to de Leeuw’s unnamed best friend in Terrace, someone who, like de Leeuw, managed to escape that community. “Oh how we ached to race toward there,” de Leeuw concludes, “the infinite there that was anywhere but the unmarked here” (118). The references to marking and to maps takes us back to the beginning of the memoir, and de Leeuw’s suggestion that maps and stories fulfill similar functions in our lives. The return to Terrace, and to the notion of escape, leaves the memoir’s conclusion open: perhaps, from the perspective of Kingston (where I think de Leeuw was living when she wrote this book), her life seemed to be defined by movements away from places like Terrace. After all, there’s no way she could have known that she would end up returning to Prince George to teach.

So, what do I take from this memoir? I was expecting the highway itself to become place, but that’s not what happened; as in Yi-Fu Tuan’s book on space and place, the highway remains undifferentiated space, for the most part, while the communities along that highway, placed there like beads on a string, become the places de Leeuw explores. Those explorations depend on an intimate knowledge of those communities, the kind of knowledge that can only be generated by living in them. I’m left wondering how much one needs to know about a place before one can experience it as place—a question that is no doubt difficult to answer. Every text about place will be different, and each will no doubt rely on different kinds of experiences of place. Is a general answer possible? I’m not sure. Perhaps I will discover clues, though, as I continue to read creative nonfiction about experiences of place.

Works Cited

Cresswell, Tim. Place: An Introduction. Second edition, Wiley-Blackwell, 2014.

de Certeau, Michel. The Practice of Everyday Life. Translated by Steven F. Rendall, U of California P, 1984.

de Leeuw, Sarah. Unmarked: Landscapes Along Highway 16. Newest, 2004.

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

27. Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life

de certeau

My productivity has diminished lately, partly because it’s that time of the semester when other tasks, like marking, take up much of my time, and partly because it’s that time of the winter when I’m particularly exhausted and anxious for spring to arrive. The winters here are long, and this one has been very cold, and I haven’t been able to walk at all because of an injured tendon in my foot. “These injuries take a long time to heal,” my podiatrist said, and he was right. So perhaps this wasn’t the best time to tackle Michel de Certeau’s abstruse theoretical text, The Practice of Everyday Life. It had to be done, though, since I’ve been accepted to a conference in Ireland, and the paper I will give is supposed to draw on de Certeau’s discussion of space, place, and walking. I’d read his chapter on walking in the city before, but that was years ago, and I had forgotten what he had to say about it. Besides, I hadn’t read the theoretical framework in which that chapter is situated and felt that I needed to do that work. So here I am, two weeks later, sorting through my notes and trying to figure out what to say about this difficult, poetic, and insightful book—or at least the sections that I read, since I stopped reading after the chapters on walking and on place, since those are my primary interests for this project. I have to warn you: The Practice of Everyday Life is a complex book, and in trying to track those complexities, this post is going to be quite long—perhaps longer than anyone might care to read. It’s actually more than complex: it is by turns insightful and confusing, and the repetitiveness of this summary reflects the repetitiveness of de Certeau’s text. After all, the fourth or fifth time he says something, it might be (and sometimes is) significantly different from the first iteration, and I want to make sure I track those subtle (or not-so-subtle) shifts in his argument.

In the preface to the English translation, de Certeau states that he is interested in “a science of the relationship that links everyday pursuits to particular circumstances” (ix). Those “everyday pursuits” include things like shopping, cooking, and walking, and de Certeau sets himself the next-to-impossible task of considering the circumstances in which such activities in all of their variety and complexity function as forms of ideological or political resistance. But those activities constitute more than just forms of resistance: “only in the local network of labor and recreation can one grasp how, within a grid of socio-economic constraints, these pursuits unfailingly establish relational tactics (a struggle for life), artistic creations (an aesthetic), and autonomous initiatives (an ethic)” (ix). De Certeau’s goal for this book, he continues, is to assist readers in uncovering for themselves “their own tactics, their own creations, and their own initiatives” (ix). In other words, de Certeau writes in his lengthy general introduction, he wants “to indicate pathways for further research” (xi). In order to achieve that goal, it will be necessary for “everyday practices, ‘ways of operating’ or doing things” to “no longer appear as merely the obscure background of social activity,” and for “a body of theoretical questions, methods, categories, and perspectives, by penetrating this obscurity,” to “make it possible to articulate them” (xi). De Certeau isn’t interested in those who produce cultural products, but rather in those who use or consume them (and thereby produce culture in a different way). “The purpose of this work,” he writes, 

is to make explicit the systems of operational combination (les combinatoires d’opérations) which also compose a “culture,” and to bring to light the models of action characteristic of users whose status as the dominated element in society (a status that does not mean that they are passive or docile) is concealed by the euphemistic term “consumers.” (xi-xii)

“Everyday life invents itself by poaching in countless ways on the property of others,” de Certeau continues, and it’s this poaching that seems to particularly interest him, especially in his later discussion of the perruque or wig, a form of resistance in which workers use company time and/or resources to do things for themselves (25-26).

The Practice of Everyday Life grew out of a study of popular culture, and three aspects of de Certeau’s research into that area, he writes, are important. First, he’s interested in usage or consumption—what a cultural consumer “makes” or “does” while consuming cultural products. Such making or doing is a production, but it is a hidden one, “because it is scattered over areas defined and occupied by systems of ‘production’ (television, urban development, commerce, etc.) and because the steadily increasing expansion of these systems no longer leaves ‘consumers’ any place in which they can indicate what they make or do with the products of these systems” (xii). The consumption of cultural products is devious and dispersed; it is everywhere; and it manifests itself “through its ways of using the products imposed by a dominant economic order” (xii-xiii). What is necessary is an analysis of the manipulation of such products by users who are not their makers, in order to “gauge the difference or similarity between the production of the image and the secondary production hidden in the process of its utilization” (xiii).

For de Certeau, the model of this “secondary production” is language—particularly the distinction semioticians make between langue, the entire complex of vocabulary and rules of grammar, and parole, individual acts of enunciation or speech. The construction of such utterances “operates within the field of the linguistic system; it effects an appropriation, or reappropriation, of language by its speakers; it presents a present relative to at time and place; and it posits a contract with the other (the interlocutor) in a network of places and relations” (xiii). Those four characteristics of the speech act (which de Certeau derives from the semiotician Émile Benveniste) can be found in many places, including walking (xiii). The parallel between the use of cultural products and speech suggests, he continues, that users make “innumerable and infinitesimal transformations of and within the dominant cultural economy in order to adapt it to their own interests and their own rules. We must determine the procedures, bases, effects, and possibilities of this collective activity” (xiii-xiv).

De Certeau’s also intends to investigate the “miniscule” and “quotidian” resistances to power and discipline that are constituted by these uses of cultural products, the “ways of operating” that “form the counterpart,” for consumers, “of the mute processes that organize the establishment of socioeconomic order” (xiv). According to de Certeau, “These ‘ways of operating’ constitute the innumerable practices by means of which users reappropriate the space organized by techniques of sociocultural production” (xiv). The goal of this aspect of de Certeau’s research is “to perceive and analyze the microbe-like operations proliferating within technocratic structures and deflecting their functioning by means of a multitude of ‘tactics’ articulated in the details of life,” and “to bring to light the clandestine forms taken by the dispersed, tactical, and makeshift creativity of groups or individuals already caught in these nets of ‘discipline.’ Pushed to their ideal limits, these procedures and ruses of consumers compose the network of an antidiscipline which is the subject of this book” (xiv-xv). If you note the influence of Michel Foucault here, you are correct; in some ways, de Certeau is an enthusiastic (if sometimes incorrect) disciple of Foucault’s work, and The Practice of Everyday Life would be unimaginable without the theoretical framework Foucault provides in his writing.

In addition, de Certeau wants to look at the formal structures of these practices of consumption in order to uncover their logic through two kinds of investigations: “The first, more descriptive in nature, has concerned certain ways of making that were selected according to their value for the strategy of the analysis, and with a view to obtaining fairly differentiated variants,” including “practices related to urban spaces,” such as (perhaps) walking (xv). The second sort of investigation looks at a range of writing by sociologists and linguists that elaborates a theory of such practices (xv-xvi). It’s really the first kind of investigation that interests me, but I did read (at least some of) the chapters in which de Certeau examines and critiques potential theoretical models for the kind of research he wants to conduct. 

These three determinations, he continues, “make possible an exploration of the cultural field” that sets out “to situate the types of operations characterizing consumption in the framework of an economy, and to discern in these practices of appropriation indexes of the creativity that flourishes at the very point where practice ceases to have its own language” (xvi-xvii). This “cultural activity of the non-producers”—in other words of those who consume cultural products (and de Certeau’s definition of cultural products seems to be fairly broad)—is “an activity that is unsigned, unreadable, and unsymbolized,” yet it “remains the only one possible for all those who nevertheless buy and pay for the showy products through which a productivist economy articulates itself” (xvii). Those non-producers are marginal to that “productivist economy,” and yet their marginality is now universal (xvii). That universal marginality, however, doesn’t mean that consumers are homogenous; there are differences between the ways members of different groups respond creatively to cultural products (xvii). For de Certeau, “culture articulates conflicts and alternately legitimizes, displaces, or controls the superior force”—that is, the force (or forces) aligned with the production of those cultural products, the dominant economic order or “productivist economy” (xvii). “It develops an atmosphere of tensions, and often of violence, for which it provides symbolic balances, contracts of compatibility and compromises, all more or less temporary,” he continues. “The tactics of consumption, the ingenious ways in which the weak make use of the strong, thus lend a political dimension to everyday practices” (xvii). So, although de Certeau doesn’t use the word “resistance” here (yet), his language suggests that resistance is precisely what he intends to explore.

All of that—consumer production—is de Certeau’s first topic or theme. His second is the tactics of practice (xvii). He intends to diversify the overly simplistic relationship between consumers and the mechanisms of production in relation to three concerns: “the search for a problematics that could articulate the material collected; the description of a limited number of practices (reading, talking, walking, dwelling, cooking, etc.) considered to be particularly significant; and the extension of the analysis of these everyday operations to scientific fields apparently governed by another kind of logic” (xviii). He is interested, he writes, in the “‘indirect’ or ‘errant’ trajectories” produced through the signifying practices of consumers—note the shift in language, from production to signification—which “trace out the ruses of other interests and desires that are neither determined nor captured by the systems in which they develop” (xviii). The word “trajectory” here suggests movement, but for de Certeau it also suggests “a plane projection, a flattening out. It is a transcription” or a graph, “a line which can be reversed (i.e., read in both directions)—and therefore, for de Certeau, a reduction (xviii-xix). Because “trajectory” suggests a reductive process, de Certeau intends to use the words “tactics” and “strategies” instead (xix).

Those two words—“tactics” and “strategies”—constitute the primary binary opposition which organizes de Certeau’s thinking in The Practice of Everyday Life. Strategies, to speak crudely (which de Certeau never does), belong to power:

I call a “strategy” the calculus of force-relationships which becomes possible when a subject of will and power (a proprietor, an enterprise, a city, a scientific institution) can be isolated from an “environment.” A strategy assumes a place that can be circumscribed as proper (propre) and thus serve as the basis for generating relations with an exterior distinct from it (competitors, adversaries, “clientèles,” “targets,” or “objects” of research). Political, economic, and scientific rationality has been constructed on this strategic model. (xix)

A tactic, on the other hand, refers to “a calculus which cannot count on a ‘proper’ (a spatial or institutional localization), nor thus on a borderline distinguishing the other as a visible totality. The place of a tactic belongs to the other” (xix). Tactics are thus linked to resistances to power. (A note here suggests that Pierre Bourdieu’s Outline of a Theory of Practice is the source of this distinction—yet another reason I need to read that book.) But more than just resistances to power, tactics use the strategies of the other as vehicles for resistance:

A tactic insinuates itself into the other’s place, fragmentarily, without taking it over in its entirety, without being able to keep it at a distance. It has at its disposal no base where it can capitalize on its advantages, prepare its expansions, and secure independence with respect to circumstances. The “proper” is a victory of space over time. On the contrary, because it does not have a place, a tactic depends on time—it is always on the watch for opportunities that must be seized “on the wing.” Whatever it wins, it does not keep. It must constantly manipulate events in order to turn them into “opportunities.” The weak must continually turn to their own ends forces alien to them. This is achieved in the propitious moments when they are able to combine heterogenous elements (thus, in the supermarket, the housewife confronts heterogenous and mobile data—what she has in the refrigerator, the tastes, appetites, and moods of her guests, the best buys and their possible combinations with what she already has on hand at home, etc.); the intellectual synthesis of these given elements takes the form, however, not of a discourse, but of the decision itself, the act and manner in which the opportunity is “seized.” (xix)

Tactics show how intelligence is inseparable from “the everyday struggles and pleasures it articulates” (xx), while “strategies . . . conceal beneath objective calculations their connection with the power that sustains them from within the stronghold of its own ‘proper’ place or institution” (xx).

These quotations lead me to make two comments. First, de Certeau isn’t interested in discourses but in practices; later, he talks about how difficult it is to write about practices (something I don’t quite understand, since people do it all the time). Second, while it’s true that de Certeau doesn’t use the word “resistance” here, the military overtones of his language—“seized,” “base,” “victory”—suggest a struggle between “strategies” and “tactics,” with one representing forces with significant capital and political power, and the other representing forces mounting a sort of guerrilla struggle against the former. That makes de Certeau’s example—“the housewife” shopping for a dinner party—hard to understand as an example of resistance. A person at a supermarket is certainly navigating or negotiating “heterogenous and mobile data,” but is that kind of navigation or negotiation necessarily resistance to the power that organizes that supermarket and the networks of corporate power in which it is situated? I’m not convinced. Maybe it’s a poor example, or maybe I’ve misunderstood de Certeau on the question of resistance, or maybe he actually does see resistance in practices or activities as banal as “talking, reading, moving about, shopping, cooking, etc.” (xix). These activities, he argues, “are tactical in character,” as are, “more generally, many ‘ways of operating’: victories of the ‘weak’ over the ‘strong’ (whether the strength be that of powerful people or the violence of things or of an imposed order, etc.), clever tricks, knowing how to get away with things, ‘hunter’s cunning,’ maneuvers, polymorphic simulations, joyful discoveries, poetic as well as warlike” (xix). So finding a bargain at the supermarket, if it’s a case of getting away with something or making a joyful discovery, would be resistance to power, according to de Certeau. (I am still wondering, though, what he means by “the violence of things.” What “things”? How are they violent? The point is not developed and remains unclear. Clearly I’m missing something.)

For de Certeau, reading is an example of “everyday practices that produce without capitalizing, that is, without taking control over time” (xx). Although our society encourages “a hypertrophic development of reading” (maybe in the 1970s, but not today, if my students are to be believed), but reading itself is not passive: “the act of reading has on the contrary all the characteristics of a silent production: the drift across the page, the metamorphosis of the text effected by the wandering eyes of the reader, the improvisation and expectation of meanings inferred from a few words, leaps over written spaces in an ephemeral dance” (xxi). The reader, however, “cannot protect himself against the erosion of time,” because “while reading, he forgets himself and he forgets what he has read”; the reader thus “insinuates into another person’s text the ruses of pleasure and appropriation” (xxi). Readers, like renters, make changes to spaces they do not own, as do speakers and pedestrians. In the streets, pedestrians “fill with the forests of their desires of desires and goals” (xxi). In fact, any users of “social codes” turn those codes “into metaphors and ellipses of their own quests,” according to de Certeau (xxi-xxii). He is particularly interested in the uses of space, cooking, and “the many ways of establishing a kind of reliability within the situations imposed on an individual, that is, of making it possible to live in them by reintroducing into them the plural mobility of goals and desires—an art of manipulating and enjoying” (xxii). Any practice that involves the manipulation of an imposed situation, and the production of pleasure through such a manipulation, is thus a subtle (perhaps very subtle indeed) form of resistance and the production of a practice defined by mobility, goals, and desires.

De Certeau describes “the status of the individual in technical systems”—the kinds of systems of power he associates with power (xxiii), and this description gives a clearer sense of the kind of resistance he sees as possible within those “technical systems”:

the involvement of the subject diminishes in proportion to the technocratic expansion of these systems. Increasingly constrained, yet less and less concerned with these vast frameworks, the individual detaches himself from them without being able to escape them and can henceforth only try to outwit them, to pull tricks on them, to rediscover, within an electronicized and computerized megalopolis, the “art” of the hunters and rural folk of earlier days. The fragmentation of the social fabric today lends a political dimension to the problem of the subject. (xxiii-xxiv)

The only possibilities of resistance that are available to individual subjects within the totalized systems of power de Certeau imagines here are tricks, dodges, and ruses—no other opportunities seem to exist in the “vast frameworks” that contain us. This argument explains how everyday practices like shopping or reading or walking might be considered resistance. Such resistances may change very little, but according to de Certeau, they are all that is available now.

The introduction to The Practice of Everyday Life, then, establishes de Certeau’s distinction between strategies and tactics and explains what he means by resistances to power. The first chapter of the book begins elsewhere—in the “cleavage” between science (which seems to mean knowledge more broadly—I think the translation is faulty here) and everyday life which “organizes modernity” (6). That division separates modernity “into scientific and dominant islands set off against the background of practice ‘resistances’ and symbolizations that cannot be reduced to thought” (6). Two figures have been charged with the task of mediating between society—which I think means “everyday life” here—and “a body of knowledge”: the Expert, who “introduces his speciality into the wider and more complex arena of socio-political decisions,” transmuting competence into “social authority,” and the Philosopher, who “re-establishes the relevance of general questions to a particular technique (mathematics, logic, psychiatry, history, etc.),” causing “ordinary questions” to “become a skeptical principle in a technical field” (6-7). Philosophers seem to be conduits for “ordinary questions” to enter scientific discourse, whereas Experts seem to lend their knowledge to institutions of power. For de Certeau, the Expert is more common in today’s society, replacing the Philosopher, but the Expert’s translation of competence into authority has a cost: the more authority the Expert has, the less competence he (or she) possesses, “up to the point where his fund of competence is exhausted, like the energy necessary to put a mobile into movement” (7). That, de Certeau argues, is the “paradox of authority: a knowledge is ascribed to it and this knowledge is precisely what it lacks where it is exercised” (8). I’m not sure if that statement is insightful or cynical, but de Certeau is certain of it’s validity; he suggests that authority “is indissociable from an ‘abuse of knowledge,’” and that there is a “social law that divests the individual or his competence in order to establish (or re-establish) the capital of a collective competence, that is, of a common verisimilitude” (8). Experts, according to de Certeau, cannot limit themselves to talking about things they know, and so they pronounce “on the basis of the place” that their specialties have won for them (8)—a place that gives them the authority to speak. This “overproduction of authority leads to the devaluation of authority, since one always gets more in exchange for an equal or inferior amount of competence” (8). In other words the Expert “confuses social place with technical discourse”; in other words, the Expert is the victim (or perpetrator?) of a mistaken identity (8).

De Certeau argues that Wittgenstein’s “rigorous examination of ordinary language” constitutes “a radical critique of the Expert,” and of the Philosopher as Expert (9). Wittgenstein—whose work I have never read, and so I cannot judge the validity of de Certeau’s argument here—conducts a double combat: “he combats the professionalization of philosophy, that is, its reduction to the technical (i.e., positivist) discourse of a speciality” on the one hand, rejecting “the purifying process that, by eliminating the ordinary use of language (everyday language), makes it possible for science to produce and master an artificial language” (10), while at the same time, he “combats the rashness of metaphysics and the impatience of ethics, which are always led to subsume the rules of correct use and to pay with the meaninglessness of some statements for the authority of their discourse on the language of common experiences” (10). Wittgenstein, de Certeau continues, “attacks the presumption that leads philosophy to proceed ‘as if’ it gave meaning to ordinary use, and to suppose that it has its own place from which it can reflect on the everyday” (10-11). There is no such place of mastery for philosophers in relation to language, however, because ordinary language “encompasses every discourse, even if human experiences cannot be reduced to what it can say about them” (11). “The analyzing discourse and the analyzed ‘object’ are in the same situation,” de Certeau argues:

both are organized by the practical activity with which they are concerned, both are determined by rules they neither establish nor see clearly, equally scattered in differentiated ways of working (Wittgenstein wanted his work itself to be composed only of fragments), inscribed in a texture in which each can by turns “appeal” to the other, cite it and refer to it. There is a continual exchange of distinct places. Philosophical or scientific privilege disappears into the ordinary. This disappearance has as its corollary the invalidation of truths. From what privileged place could they be signified? There will thus be facts that are no longer truths. The inflation of the latter is controlled, if not shut off, by the criticism of the places of authority in which facts are converted into truths. Detecting them by their mixture of meaninglessness and power, Wittgenstein attempts to reduce these truths to linguistic facts and to that which, in these facts, refers to an ineffable or “mystical” exteriority of language. (11)

Such an exteriority is “mystical” because it does not exist: we cannot leave language to find some other place from which to interpret language. Therefore, de Certeau continues, there are “no separate groups of false interpretations and true interpretations, but only illusory interpretations, since in short there is no way out, the fact remains that that we are foreigners on this inside—but there is no outside. Thus we constantly ‘run up against the limits’ of ordinary language” (13-14). For de Certeau, “Wittgenstein’s fragmented and rigorous body of work seems to provide a philosophical blueprint for a contemporary science of the ordinary,” because it recognizes that there is no position outside of what is being studied to guarantee the truth of that study, and “as a theoretical hypothesis,” this model must be compared with other “human sciences” such as sociology, ethnology, history, and what they contribute “to the knowledge of ordinary culture” (14). 

De Certeau’s second chapter begins with the idea that stories about miracles are instances of a popular use of religion, which modifies the functioning of a religion (17-18). “More generally,” he continues, a way of using imposed systems”—like the miraculous stories he describes—“constitutes the resistance to the historical law of a state of affairs and its dogmatic legitimations”:

A practice of the order constructed by others redistributes its space; it creates at least a certain play in that order, a space for maneuvers of unequal forces and for utopian points of reference. That is where the opacity of a “popular” culture could be said to manifest itself—a dark rock that refuses all assimilation. (18)

Such “ways of using” are tactics of “the subtle, stubborn, resistant activity of groups which, since they lack their own space, have to get along in a network of already established forces and representations,” de Certeau continues, and the skill required in such resistances are those of “ceaselessly recreating opacities and ambiguities—spaces of darkness and trickery—in the universe of technocratic transparency, a skill that disappears into them and reappears again, taking no responsibility for the administration of a totality” (18). That, at least, is de Certeau’s hypothesis (18), and it is inspired, as he suggests in the book’s introduction, by the “problematics of enunciation” in linguistics (19). A speech act, he claims, “cannot be parted from its circumstances,” which distinguishes such enunciations from “discourses, the data that can most easily be grasped, recorded, transported and examined in secure places” (20). Those enunciations or speech acts, then, are aligned with popular culture or everyday life, and those discourses are aligned with institutions of power or totalizing authority. 

According to de Certeau, “the complex geography of social ruses” (22) can be found in games, in the stories people tell about games, and in tales and legends, both in their form and content, and in the tactics they reveal (22-24). The tropes employed in those tales and legends “inscribe in ordinary language the ruses, displacements, ellipses, etc., that scientific reason has eliminated from operational discourses in order to constitute ‘proper’ meanings,” but such figures of speech are “ruses” or “the memory of a culture”; they are “tricks” that “characterize a popular art of speaking” (24). “With these examples of terrains on which one can locate the specific modalities of ‘enunciative’ practices (manipulations of imposed spaces, tactics relative to particular situations),”

the possibility is opened up of analyzing the immense field of an “art of practice” differing from the models that (in theory) reign from top to bottom in a culture certified by education (from the universities to the elementary schools), models that all postulate the constitution of a space of their own (a scientific space or a blank page to be written on), independent of speakers and circumstances, in which they can construct a system based on rules ensuring the system’s production, repetition, and verification. (24)

That art of practice is clearly resistant to the system based on “imposed spaces” and on the “rules” that ensure its continued “production, repetition, and verification.” Perhaps, de Certeau suggests, that art of practice can be analyzed by resorting to its very own procedures, which would enable us to “revise our views on both its definition as ‘popular’ and our position as observers” (24). 

By this point, I was eager for a concrete example that would bring de Certeau’s theorizing down to earth, and he provides one: la perruque, the wig, a form of resistance in which workers use company time and/or resources to do things for themselves:

In the very place where the machine he must serve reigns supreme, he cunningly takes pleasure in finding a way to create gratuitous products whose sole purpose is to signify his own capabilities through his work and to confirm his solidarity with other workers or his family through spending his time in this way. (25-26)

Practices like la perruque are penalized or ignored, including by those who study popular culture (26). Nevertheless, they suggest an alternative economy, one based on gifts and tricks, that exists within the larger economy, in its margins or interstices (27). This leads de Certeau to make a call for action:

Let us try to make a perruque in the economic system whose rules and hierarchies are repeated, as always, in scientific institutions. In the area of scientific research (which defines the current order of knowledge), working with its machines and making use of its scraps, we can divert the time owed to the institutions; we can make textual objects that signify an art and solidarities; we can play the game of free exchange, even if it is penalized by bosses and colleagues when they are not willing to “turn a blind eye” on it; we can create networks of connivances and sleights of hand; we can exchange gifts; and in these ways we can subvert the law that, in the scientific factory, puts work at the service of the machine and, by a similar logic, progressively destroys the requirement of creation and the “obligation to give.” (27-28)

To be honest, I’m not entirely sure of what this means, or how to take the workers’ tactic of la perruque and apply it to the academy, “the scientific factory” of which de Certeau speaks. The “scientific factory” where I work and study may be about to go on strike, but that isn’t what de Certeau is talking about. And although our research tends to be given away—at least to the journals where it is published—I doubt that’s his point, either. What might it mean to “make textual objects that signify an art and solidarities”? I just don’t know. But de Certeau believes that such “everyday tactics” would be essential to transforming research into popular culture: they would enable such researchers “to practice an ‘ordinary’ art, to find oneself in the common situation, and to make a kind of perruque of writing itself” (28). The notion of the perruque is interesting and suggestive, but I’m left wondering what one might make of it in the context of research.

De Certeau begins the following chapter with la perruque, claiming that it is “infiltrating itself everywhere and becoming more and more common” (29). Moreover, la perruque “is only one case among all the practices which introduce artistic tricks and competitions of accomplices into a system that reproduces and partitions through work or leisure” (29). “Although they remain dependant upon the possibilities offered by circumstances,” de Certeau continues,

these transverse tactics do not obey the law of the place, for they are not defined or identified by it. In this respect, they are not any more localizable than the technocratic (and scriptural) strategies that seek to create places in conformity with abstract models. But what distinguishes them at the same time concerns the types of operations and the role of spaces: strategies are able to produce, tabulate, and impose these spaces, when those operations take place, whereas tactics can only use, manipulate, and divert those spaces. (29-30)

Strategies of power, de Certeau argues, possess spaces they can impose on ordinary people, and tactics of resistance are limited to using (in different ways) such imposed spaces against those strategies. What matters, for that reason, are “the operational schemas” (30) of resistant actions:

Just as in literature one differentiates “styles” or ways of writing, one can distinguish “ways of operating”—ways of walking, reading, producing, speaking, etc. These styles of action intervene in a field which regulates them at a first level (for example, at the level of the factory system), but they introduce into it a way of turning it to their advantage that obeys other rules and constitutes something like a second level interwoven into the first (for instance, la perruque). These “ways of operating” are similar to “instructions for use,” and they create a certain play in the machine through a stratification of different and interfering kinds of functioning. (30)

For de Certeau, “it is precisely a matter of recognizing in these ‘uses’ ‘actions’ (in the military sense of the word) that have their own formality and inventiveness and that discreetly organize the multiform labor of consumption” (30). At this point, I found myself hungering for an example again, and again, de Certeau provides one: we need to ask what consumers make of the television programs they watch, or the magazines and newspapers they read, or the urban spaces they inhabit: what do they do with them? (31). Those products—what “the consumer-sphinx” makes out of the cultural objects he or she consumes—are 

scattered in the graphs of televised, urbanistic, and commercial production. They are all the less visible because the networks framing them are becoming more and more tightly woven, flexible, and totalitarian. They are thus protean in form, blending in with their surroundings, and liable to disappear into the colonizing organizations whose products leave no room where the consumers can mark their activity. (31)

And yet, by describing these consumers as sphinxes, de Certeau is suggesting that whatever riddles they produce will be impossible to interpret—which might be the reason he offers so few examples: not just because he is setting out to construct a theory of such production, but because examples of that production would be impossible to understand. Nevertheless, he reasserts the claim that the consumption of cultural products is a form of production, and that this form of production is “characterized by its ruses, its fragmentation (the effect of the circumstances), its poaching, its clandestine nature, its tireless but quiet activity, in short by its quasi-invisibility, since it shows itself not in its own products (where would it place them?) but in an art of using those imposed on it” (31).

At this point, de Certeau returns to the claim that linguistic enunciation is a model of the characteristics of acts of cultural consumption, even in practices (like walking) that involve “non-linguistic systems” (33). I’m not sure why he feels compelled to do so: as a metaphor or analogy, this claim seems reasonable, and it’s clear from his use of the word “hypothesis” (33) that de Certeau doesn’t intend to take it further. Consumers are “[u]nrecognized producers, poets of their own affairs, trailblazers in jungles of functionalist rationality,” he argues, and they “trace ‘indeterminate trajectories’ that are apparently meaningless, since they do not cohere with the constructed, written, and prefabricated space through which they move. They are sentences that remain unpredictable within the space ordered by the organizing techniques of systems” (34). Indeed, he continues, consumers “use as their material the vocabularies of established languages,” but “although they remain within the framework of prescribed syntaxes (the temporal modes of schedules, paradigmatic organizations of places, etc.), these ‘traverses’ remain heterogenous to the systems they infiltrate and in which they sketch out the guileful ruses of different interests and desires” (34). The activities of these consumers are like “waves that flow in everywhere,” and they “circulate without being seen, discernible only through the objects they move about and erode. The practices of consumption are the ghosts of the society that carries their name. Like the ‘spirits’ of former times, they constitute the multiform and occult postulate of productive activity” (35). No wonder he doesn’t provide many examples of these practices, given their ghostly and evanescent nature.

De Certeau acknowledges that his use of the word “trajectory” to “suggest a temporal movement through space” is insufficient, “precisely because a trajectory is drawn, and time and movement are thus reduced to a line that can be seized as a whole by the eye and read in a single moment, as one projects onto a map the path taken by someone walking through a city” (35). That flattening out might be useful, but it is reductive, because “it transforms the temporal articulation of places into a spatial sequence of points” (35). That reduction is a serious problem, and therefore he returns to the distinction between strategies and tactics, which “appears to provide a more adequate initial schema”:

I call a strategy the calculation (or manipulation) of power relationships that becomes possible as soon as a subject with will and power (a business, an army, a city, a scientific institution) can be isolated. It postulates a place that can be delimited as its own and serve as a base from which relations with an exteriority composed of targets or threats (customers or competitors, enemies, the country surrounding the city, objectives and objects of research, etc.) can be managed. (35-36)

I realize that de Certeau is repeating himself, but because I am wondering whether such repetitions are identical or whether they contain important differences, I am going to trace them in this immanent reading. You never know—he might add something significant in one iteration or another, or take something significant away. If he does, I want to know that.

Strategy, de Certeau continues, is about distinguishing the place of one’s own power and will from “a world bewitched by the invisible powers of the Other” (36), and there are important effects that accompany this break “between a place appropriated as one’s own and its other” (36). This break is a triumph of place over time; it is a mastery of places through a panoptic practice that transforms “foreign forces into objects that can be observed and measured” and therefore controlled; and it sustains and determines a specific type of knowledge through the power to provide oneself with one’s own place (36). I want to point out here de Certeau’s regular and incorrect elision of the differences between “panoptic” and “panoramic” or even “optic.” A panoptic practice internalizes surveillance in the subject of that surveillance, so that even if the surveillance isn’t happening (or if the subject can’t be certain that he or she is under surveillance), the subject will still behave according to the rules set by the group carrying out the surveillance. It isn’t just a practice of looking or seeing. De Certeau makes this mistake consistently, which leaves me wondering how well he has read the work of Michel Foucault, where the notion of panopticism is elaborated (particularly in his magisterial book, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison). It might seem like a small point, and maybe it is, but in his chapters on Foucault and Bourdieu, that mistake makes me wonder whether he isn’t making similar mistakes in his analysis of the latter’s writing.

In contrast to strategy, “a tactic is a calculated action determined by the absence of a proper locus”:

No delimitation of an exteriority, then, provides it with the condition necessary for autonomy. The space of a tactic is the space of the other. Thus it must play on and with a terrain imposed on it and organized by the law of a foreign power. It does not have the means to keep to itself, at a distance, in a position of withdrawal, foresight, and self-collection. . . . It does not, therefore, have the options of planning general strategy and viewing the adversary as a whole within a [distinct], visible, and objectifiable space. It operates in isolated actions, blow by blow. It takes advantage of “opportunities” and depends on them, being without any base where it could stockpile its winnings, build up its own position, and plan raids. What it wins it cannot keep. This nowhere gives a tactic mobility, to be sure, but a mobility that must accept the chance offerings of the moment, and seize on the wing the possibilities that offer themselves at any given moment. It must vigilantly make sure of the cracks that particular conjunctions open in the surveillance of the proprietary powers. It poaches in them. It creates surprises in them. It can be where it is least expected. It is a guileful ruse. (36-37)

“In short, a tactic is an art of the weak,” de Certeau concludes (37), and what consumers do with the things they consume constitute tactics, because those consumers lack power in comparison to the systems in which the things they consume originate (38). 

This distinction is so important to de Certeau that he returns to it again in order to offer a clarification:

strategies are actions which, thanks to the establishment of a place of power (the property of a proper), elaborate theoretical places (systems and totalizing discourses) capable of articulating an ensemble of physical places in which those forces are distributed. They combine these three types of places and seek to master each by means of the others. They thus privilege spatial relationships. At the very lease they attempt to reduce temporal relations to spatial ones through the analytical attribution of a proper place to each particular element and through the combinatory organization of the movements specific to units or groups of units. The model was military before it became ‘scientific.’ (38)

Tactics, on the other hand,

are procedures that gain validity in relation to the pertinence they lend to time—to the circumstances which the precise instant of an intervention transforms into a favorable situation, to the rapidity of the movements that change the organization of a space, to the relations among successive moments in an action, to the possible intersections of durations and heterogenous rhythms, etc. (38)

Strategy, then, is about the establishment of a place; tactics are about using time and the opportunities time presents as well as the “play” that time “introduces into the foundations of power” (38-39). These “two ways of acting can be distinguished according to whether they bet on place or on time” (39). For de Certeau, tactics can be fruitfully compared to some Freudian ideas, particularly the return of the repressed, metaphors, condensations, and metonymies, all of which “are the indexes of consumption and of the interplay of forces” which “depend on a problematics of enunciation” (39).

“Dwelling, moving about, speaking, reading, shopping, and cooking are activities that seem to correspond to the characteristics of tactical ruses and surprises,” de Certeau suggests, because these practices constitute “clever tricks of the ‘weak’ within the order established by the ‘strong’” and are “an art of putting one over on the adversary on his own turf” (40). These practices are nondiscursive, they are part of “a memory without language” that exists, among other places, on “the streets of our great cities,” streets which are the subject of the chapter of this book that is, for me, the most important. More importantly, though, these “clever tricks” are becoming a dominant force. According to de Certeau,

it seems that the generalization and expansion of technocratic rationality have created, between the links of the system, a fragmentation and explosive growth of these practices which were formerly regulated by stable local units. Tactics are more and more frequently going off their tracks. Cut loose from the traditional communities that circumscribed their functioning, they have begun to wander everywhere in a space which is becoming at once more homogenous and more extensive. Consumers are transformed into immigrants. The system in which they move about is too vast to be able to fix them in place, but too constraining for them ever to be able to escape from it and go into exile elsewhere. There is no longer an elsewhere. Because of this, the “strategic” model is also transformed, as it is defeated by its own success: it was by definition based on the definition of a “proper” distinct from everything else; but now that “proper” has become the whole. (40)

This paradox—the notion that strategy has been defeated by its own success—is perhaps a typical movement in 1970s French philosophy or theory, but for de Certeau, it’s clear that strategy needed something outside of itself in order to define itself, and now that it has become totalized and occupies all space, because that necessary “elsewhere” has disappeared, tactics in turn have become omnipresent. I find myself wondering how accurate this account might be; as with much of the rest of this book, de Certeau is making an assertion here without providing evidence. 

The second part of The Practice of Everyday Life is about theories of tactical practices, particularly the work of Foucault and Bourdieu. It begins, however, with a reflection on the procedures on which everyday practices depend—the “schemas of operations and of technical manipulations” (43) that constitute those everyday practices. According to de Certeau, it is possible, if not to define those procedures, then at least to clarify the way they operate relative to discourse or ideology or what Bourdieu calls the habitus. The chapters in this part of the book are a critique of the attempts made by Foucault and Bourdieu to describe the way procedures operate. “Tactics in discourse can . . . be the formal indicator of tactics that have no discourse,” de Certeau writes, and those tactics without discourse are the everyday practices that interest him. “Moreover, the ways of thinking embedded in ways of operating constitute a strange—and massive—case of the relations between practices and theories” (45). This statement seems to represent one of the reasons de Certeau wants to investigate theories about practices.

He begins with Foucault, particularly Discipline and Punish, which he suggests enacts the rhetorical figure of chiasmus, or reversal and substitution: “the place occupied by the reformist projects of the late eighteenth century has been ‘colonized,’ ‘vampirized,’ by the disciplinary procedures that subsequently organize the social space” (45), and “a political technology of the body” wins out, in Foucault’s account, “over the elaboration of a body of doctrine” (46). Foucault comes to this conclusion through what de Certeau describes as a “surgical operation”: “starting out from a proliferating contemporary system—a judicial and scientific technology—and tracing it back through history, isolating from the whole body the cancerous growth that has invaded it, and explaining its current functioning by its genesis over the two preceding centuries” (47). However, de Certeau argues that it is impossible “to reduce the functioning of a society to a dominant type of procedures” (48). There are always practices of resistance, a “multifarious and silent ‘reserve’ of procedures that we should look for in ‘consumer’ practices” (48). In other words, he writes, “[b]eneath what one might call the ‘monotheistic’ privilege that panoptic apparatuses have won for themselves, a ‘polytheismof scattered practices survives, dominated by not erased by the triumphal success of one of their number” (48). 

From here, de Certeau turns to Bourdieu, particularly his book Outline of a Theory of Practice, which he calls “an interdisciplinary operation” that shifts from one genre to another: “from ethnology to sociology” (51). That interdisciplinarity—the confrontations Bourdieu stages between two disciplines—troubles de Certeau: 

These confrontations are supposed to provide a mutual epistemological elucidation: they labor to bring their implicit foundations to light—the ambition and the myth of knowledge. But perhaps what is at stake is different and has to do rather with the otherness introduced by the move through which a discipline turns toward the darkness that surrounds and precedes it—not in order to eliminate it, but because it is inexpungeable and determining? In that case theory would involve an effort on the part of a science to think through its relation to this exteriority and not be satisfied with correcting its rules of production or determining the limits of its validity. (51)

However, de Certeau isn’t sure that’s “the path that Bourdieu’s discourse takes” (51). I honestly don’t understand de Certeau’s objection to what he calls the insertion of “the ‘ethnological’ exception into an empty space in the sociological system” (52). I do understand that Bourdieu’s book brings together an anthropological study of a community in North Africa with theory of how societies function: for de Certeau, that bringing together results in “a twofold deception”: “[w]ith its synthetic tables, scientific method conceals the operation of withdrawal and power that makes them possible,” whereas “practitioners necessarily do not reveal the practical difference created among these ‘data’ by the operations that make use of them” and “thus they collaborate in the production of general tabulations which conceal their tactics from the observer” (53). What is the objection being stated here? I don’t get it, but it’s a fundamental part of de Certeau’s objection to Bourdieu’s work.

Bourdieu’s interest is in strategies, apparently, and not tactics. He argues (according to de Certeau) that strategies involve “‘implicit principles’ or postulates” which are undefined and therefore create “margins of tolerance and the possibility of setting one against the other” (53), as well as “‘explicit rules’ that “are accompanied by a limit that inverts them,” so that every use of these rules must “take into account the possibility of this threatening—because linked to the contingencies of life—rebound against it” (53-54). According to de Certeau, Bourdieu discerns a number of “essential procedures” in strategies. They are polytheistic: “the same thing has uses and properties that vary according to the arrangements into which it enters” (54). They involve substitutability: “a thing is always replaceable by another, because of the affinity of each with the others within the totality that the thing represents” (54). They use euphemism: “one must hide the fact that actions conflict with the dichotomies and antinomies represented by the symbolic system. Ritual actions furnish the model for ‘euphemism’ by combining contraries” (54). And while they are based on analogy, because “[t]hey are camouflaged transgressions, inserted metaphors and, precisely in that measure, they become acceptable, taken as legitimate since they respect the distinctions established by language even as they undermine them” (54-55). 

For de Certeau, two characteristics limit this account of strategies to the characteristics of the community Bourdieu studied, rather than being generally applicable. First, Bourdieu “always presupposes a twofold link between these practices and a proper place (a patrimony), on the one hand, and a collective principle of administration (the family, the group) on the other”—a “double postulate” that may not hold (55). Second, “[t]he use of the term ‘strategy’ is no less limited,” because in Bourdieu’s account, the people making use of those strategies are ignorant of what they are doing and cannot therefore form strategic intentions (55-56). In other words, Bourdieu is claiming that the culture of the people he studied is both coherent and unconscious, which is an impossibility: “The unconsciousness of the group studied was the price that had to be paid (the price it had to pay) for its coherence. A society could be a system only without knowing it” (56). Okay, but de Certeau has described his own society in the same way, as a totalizing system. What’s the difference? How is it that his critique of Bourdieu doesn’t also apply to his own work? 

De Certeau also argues that Bourdieu’s account of society requires it to be stable and unchanging: “As in the traditional image of primitive or peasant societies, nothing moves, there is no history other than that written on them by an alien order” (57-58). Moreover, while the habitus ends up providing “the basis for explaining a society in relationship to structures,” that same habitus, in order to be stable, “must be unverifiable, invisible” (58). Again, coming from someone who generally eschews concrete examples, this is a surprising criticism. Bourdieu, de Certeau continues, is interested in how practices are generated, not how they are produced, but his theory is a circle, moving from structures (a constructed model) to the habitus (an assumed reality) to strategies and conjunctures (interpretations of observed facts) (58). For de Certeau, the habitus thus becomes a totalizing dogma. “Bourdieu’s texts are fascinating in their analyses and aggressive in their theory,” de Certeau writes. “They are full of contrasts. Scrupulously examining practices and their logic . . . the texts finally reduce them to a mystical reality, the habitus, which is to bring them under the law of reproduction,” so that “subtle descriptions” of tactics “suddenly give way to violently imposed truths, as if the complexity so lucidly examined required the brutal counterpart of a dogmatic reason” (59). The habitus, de Certeau concludes, is a fetish (60). I’m rather surprised by this critique, since I’ve mostly heard that Bourdieu’s concept of habitus is useful, and I will perhaps return to it after I read Outline of a Theory of Practice to see if de Certeau’s criticisms make sense. I can’t tell right now, of course, whether he’s on the money or not, since Outline of a Theory of Practice is, for me, an undiscovered country at this point.

De Certeau isn’t finished with either Foucault or Bourdieu yet, however. His next chapter, “The Arts of Theory,” focuses on the problem of theories that deal, perhaps not unlike his own, with practices rather than discourses:

A particular problem arises when, instead of being a discourse on other discourses, as is usually the case, theory has to advance over an area where there are no longer any discourses. There is a sudden unevenness of terrain: the ground on which verbal language rests begins to fail. The theorizing operation finds itself at the limits of the terrain where it normally functions, like an automobile at the edge of a cliff. Beyond and below lies the ocean. (61)

I think this is lovely writing, but as de Certeau goes on to point out, theories of non-discursive practices are common: “since Kant every theoretical effort has had to give a more or less direct explanation of its relationship to this non-discursive activity, to this immense ‘remainder’ constituted by the part of human experience that has not been tamed and symbolized in language” (61). In this chapter, de Certeau wants to think about how theory manages to do that, “[b]y what brilliant strokes or through what ruses” (62).

The work of Foucault and Bourdieu, de Certeau argues, share a “theorizing operation” that “consists of two moments”: “first, cut out; then turn over. First an ‘ethnological’ isolation; then a logical inversion” (62). The first move isolates certain practices from “an undefined fabric” (Foucault’s disciplinary procedures, Bourdieu’s strategies) in such a way that the isolated part metonymically represents the whole (62). “The second move turns over the unit thus cut out,” de Certeau continues. “At first obscure, silent, and remote, the unit is inverted to become the element that illuminates theory and sustains discourse” (63). So the notion of disciplinary techniques, on the one hand, and the habitus, on the other, become keys to explaining everything (63). But this operation presents us with a problem: “by assuming that this isolated element has a metonymic value, and by thus passing over other practices, it forgets those that guarantee its own construction” (63). 

The problem of theorizing “‘know-how’ without a discourse” (65) is another difficulty. Such know-how “is composed of multiple but untamed operativities”:

 This proliferation does not obey the law of discourse, but rather that of production, the ultimate value of physiocratic and later capitalist economics. It thus challenges scientific writing’s privilege of organizing production. It alternately exacerbates and stimulates the technicians of language. It claims to conquer and annex not contemptible practices, but ‘ingenious,’ ‘complex,’ and ‘effective’ forms of knowledge. (65)

As I parse those sentences, I find myself confused as to the referents of the pronouns, particularly the multiple uses of “it.” The proliferation (of practices) is what challenges scientific writing, but is that proliferation the same thing that “stimulates the technicians of language”? But isn’t it scientific writing that “claims to conquer and annex” those forms of knowledge? What is happening here? Is this a clumsy translation or is de Certeau himself responsible? I’m not sure. In any case, there are two moves in scientific writing’s attempt at conquering and annexing practical forms of knowledge: description, which “depends on narrativity,” and “perfection,” which “aims at a technical optimization” (65-66). Through these moves, “the position of the ‘arts’ is fixed, neighboring on but out of the field of science” (66). Well, does description really depend on narrativity? And who actually hopes to achieve perfection? Again, I’m at a loss.

And yet, if I am to finish thinking about this chapter, I must forge on. Art, for de Certeau, is “a kind of knowledge that operates outside the enlightened discourse which it lacks. More importantly, this know-how surpasses, in its complexity, enlightened science” (66). That’s a huge claim to make, and (not surprisingly) de Certeau does not substantiate it. Instead, he moves on:

The “everyday” arts no more “form” a new product than they have their own language. They “make do” (bricolent). But through the reorganization and hierarchization of knowledge according to the criterion of productivity, these arts come to represent a standard, because of their operativity, and an avant-garde, because of their ‘experimental and manouvrier” subtlety. (66)

The arts—and it’s important to note that this term seems to include fine art practices along with more practical manual activities—are outside of scientific languages and represent “an absolute of the power of operating (an efficiency which, unmoored from discourse, nevertheless reflects is productivist ideal) and a reserve of knowledge one can inventory in shops or in the countryside” (66). One place these arts end up being represented is in nineteenth-century realistic fiction and other stories, which results in practical knowledge becoming aestheticized, although it is supposedly not self-conscious because it is non-discursive in its own right (70). It is only in Kant, de Certeau argues, particularly the Critique of Judgement, that theory and practice become related again (72-74). 

De Certeau has one more chapter on theory—this time, the theory of narrativity and the need to recognize its scientific legitimacy—but I’m going to skip ahead to the chapters that actually interest me and are the reason I took on this book: the chapters on spatial practices, including the widely anthologized (and important, for my work) chapter “Walking in the City.” De Certeau begins that chapter with a panoramic view of the streets of New York from the 110th floor of the World Trade Center. He compares that view to the walkers in the city below, “whose bodies follow the thicks and thins of an urban ‘text’ they write without being able to read it”:

These practitioners make use of spaces that cannot be seen; their knowledge of them is as blind as that of lovers in each other’s arms. The paths that correspond in this intertwining, unrecognized poems in which each body is an element signed by many others, elude legibility. It is as though the practices organizing a bustling city were characterized by their blindness. The networks of these moving, intersecting writing compose a manifold story that has neither author nor spectator, shaped out of fragments of trajectories and alterations of spaces: in relation to representations, it remains daily and infinitely other. (93)

The conceit here is that the footprints of these walkers are visible, as if they constituted writing that the walkers themselves cannot see. Of course, footprints are not really visible to anyone, and the walkers are no more blind to what they are doing than is the person on the 110th floor of the World Trade Center, who is too high up to see individual walkers in any case. The notion that pedestrians make writing with their feet is lovely, but it must be acknowledged that it is a fantasy, that those footprints are imaginary and that the walkers actually do know what they are doing and where they are going. The only blind walkers are the ones who have visual impairments, and they know where they are going, too. 

De Certeau’s goal in this chapter is “to locate the practices that are foreign to the ‘geometrical’ or ‘geographical’ space of visual, panoptic, or theoretical constructions” (93). “These practices of space refer to a specific form of operations (‘ways of operating’), to ‘another spatiality’ (an ‘anthropological,’ poetic and mythic experience of space), and to an opaque and blind mobility characteristic of the bustling city. A migrational, or metaphorical, city thus slips into the clear text of the planned and readable city” (93). Ah, now the point of the walkers who are blind to the text they write becomes clear: the readable city is the city of the grid (he’s writing about New York, after all), the city of urban planners, the city of systems and power, and that city is being juxtaposed against another, one constructed through practices, including walking, that are both quotidian and “infinitely other” (93) to that planned and systematized city. 

For de Certeau, “[t]he ‘city’ founded by utopian and urbanistic discourse is defined by the possibility of a threefold operation” (94). First, the city must produce its own space through a “rational organization” that must “repress all the physical, mental and political pollutions that would compromise it” (94). Second, 

the substitution of a nowhen, or of a synchronic system, for the indeterminable and stubborn resistances offered by traditions: univocal scientific strategies, made possible by the flattening out of all the data in a plane projection, must replace the the tactics of users who take advantage of ‘opportunities’ and who, through these trap-events, these lapses in visibility, reproduce the opacities of history everywhere. (94)

Finally, “the creation of a universal and anonymous subject which is the city itself” (94). In this city/subject, “all the functions and predicates that were previously scattered and assigned to many different real subjects—groups, associations, or individuals” become attributed to it, and the city “thus provides a way of conceiving and constructing space on the basis of a finite number of stable, isolatable, and interconnected properties” (94). The city founded by that discourse is, as the word “utopian” suggests, impossible, and yet it would be the triumph of planning and systematizing, a perfect urban machine. De Certeau continues to describe this impossible city:

On the one hand, there is a differentiation and redistribution of the parts and functions of the city, as a result of inversions, displacements, accumulations, etc.; on the other there is a rejection of everything that is not capable of being dealt with in this way and so constitutes the ‘waste products’ of a functionalist administration (abnormality, deviance, illness, death, etc.). To be sure, progress allows an increasing number of these waste products to be reintroduced into administrative circuits and transforms even deficiencies (in health, security, etc.) into ways of making the networks of order denser. But in reality, it repeatedly produces effects contrary to those at which it aims: the profit system generates a loss which, in the multiple forms of wretchedness and poverty outside the system and of waste inside it, constantly turns production into ‘expenditure.’ Moreover, the rationalization of the city leads to its mythification in strategic discourses, which are calculations based on the hypothesis or the necessity of its destruction in order to arrive at a final decision. Finally, the functionalist organization, by privileging progress (i.e., time), causes the condition of its own possibility—space itself—to be forgotten; space thus becomes the blind spot in a scientific and political technology. This is the way in which the Concept-city functions: a place of transformations and appropriations, the object of various kinds of interference but also a subject that is constantly enriched by new attributes, it is simultaneously the machinery and the hero of modernity. (94-95)

That is the (impossible) vision of the modern, functionalist city, “a totalizing and almost mythical landmark for socioeconomic and political strategies” (95). Such a city exists only in discourse. In reality, “urban life increasingly permits the re-emergence of the element that the urbanistic project excluded” (95):

The language of power is in itself ‘urbanizing,’ but the city is left prey to contradictory movements that counterbalance and combine themselves outside the reach of panoptic power. The city becomes the dominant theme in political legends, but it is no longer a field of programmed and regulated operations. Beneath the discourses that ideologize the city, the ruses and combinations that have no readable identity proliferate; without points where one can take hold of them, without rational transparency, they are impossible to administer. (95)

The “Concept-city is decaying,” because there is an “illness affecting both the rationality that founded it and its professionals” (95). In other words, the utopian, functionalist cities are deteriorating “along with the procedures that organized them” (95).

What is that illness? De Certeau suggests that instead of “remaining within the field of a discourse that upholds its privilege by inverting its content”—a swipe at Foucault and Bourdieu—“one can try another path”:

one can analyze the microbe-like, singular and plural practices which an urbanistic system was supposed to administer or suppress, but which have outlived its decay; one can follow the swarming activity of these procedures that, far from being regulated or eliminated by panoptic administration, have reinforced themselves in a proliferating illegitimacy, developed and insinuated themselves into the networks of surveillance, and combined in accord with unreadable but stable tactics to the point of constituting everyday regulations and surreptitious creativities that are merely concealed by the frantic mechanisms and discourses of the observational organization. (96)

In other words, one can study the tactics of resistance, instead of the strategies of power. And so de Certeau asks, “what spatial practices correspond, in the area where discipline is manipulated, to these apparatuses that produce a disciplinary space?” (96). This, he continues, is an important question, because “spatial practices in fact secretly structure the determining conditions of social life” (96). De Certeau’s intention, he writes, is to answer that question:  “to follow out a few of these multiform, [resistant], tricky and stubborn procedures that elude discipline without being outside the field in which it is exercised, and which should lead us into a theory of everyday practices, of lived space, of the disquieting familiarity of the city” (96).

That analysis begins with walking, with footsteps, as a fundamental form of resistance to the apparatuses that produce disciplinary space: 

They are myriad, but do not compose a series. They cannot be counted because each unit has a qualitative character: a style of tactile apprehension and kinesthetic appropriation. Their swarming mass is an innumerable collection of singularities. Their intertwined paths give their shape to spaces. They weave places together. . . . [Pedestrian movements] are not localized; is is rather that they spatialize. (97)

Any attempt to map out or trace the paths or trajectories of pedestrians would miss the point by grasping “only a relic set in the nowhen of a surface projection” (97). Such “fixations,” de Certeau continues, “constitute procedures for forgetting. The trace left behind is substituted for the practice” (97). The way to proceed, then, is to somehow find a way of examining “the operations of walking” themselves, the specific “way of being in the world” they are part of, rather than the relics of their existence (97).

Not surprising, given his earlier use of this analogy, de Certeau suggests that “[t]he act of walking is to the urban system what the speech act is to language or to the statements uttered” (97):

At the most elementary level, it has a triple ‘enunciative’ function: it is a process of appropriation of the topographical system on the part of the pedestrian (just as the speaker appropriates and takes on the language); it is a spatial acting-out of the place (just as the speech act is an acoustic acting-out of language); and it implies relations among differentiated positions, that is, among pragmatic “contracts” in the form of movements (just as verbal enunciation is an “allocution,” “posits another opposite” the speaker and puts contracts between interlocutors into action). (97-98)

Walking is therefore “a space of enunciation” (98), and considered from that definition, “the pedestrian speech act has three characteristics which distinguish it at the outset from the spatial system: the present, the discrete, the ‘phatic’” (98). By spatial system, de Certeau seems to be referring to the system or order represented by the Concept-city, although I could be wrong about that. He begins with the first point, “the present”: 

if it is true that a spatial order organizes an ensemble of possibilities (e.g., by a place in which one can move) and interdictions (e.g., by a wall that prevents one from going further), then the walker actualizes some of these possibilities. In that way, he makes them exist as well as emerge. But he also moves them about and he invents others, since the crossing, drifting away, or improvisation of walking privilege, transform or abandon spatial elements. (98)

I find myself wondering if the words “drifting away” are a reference to the Situationist dérive, something of which de Certeau had to be aware. In any case, de Certeau suggests that “the walker transforms each spatial signifier into something else,” the way that Charlie Chaplin “multiplies the possibilities of his cane” (98). “And,” he continues,

if on the one hand he actualizes only a few of the possibilities fixed by the constructed order (he goes only here and not there), on the other he increases the number of possibilities (for example, by creating shortcuts and detours) and prohibitions (for example, he forbids himself to take paths generally considered accessible or even obligatory. He thus makes a selection. (98)

This leads to de Certeau’s second point: a pedestrian “creates a discreteness, whether by making choices among the signifiers of the spatial ‘language’ or by displacing them through the use he makes of them. He condemns certain places to inertia or disappearance and composes with others ‘spatial turns of phrase’ that are ‘rare,’ ‘accidental,’ or illegitimate. But that already leads into a rhetoric of walking” (98-99). Finally, the “phatic” aspect of walking refers to “the function . . . of terms that initiate, maintain, or interrupt contact, such as ‘hello,’ ‘well, well,’ etc.” (99):

Walking, which alternately follows a path and has followers, creates a mobile organicity in the environment, a sequence of phatic topoi. And if it is true that the phatic function, which is an effort to ensure communication, is already characteristic of the language of talking birds . . . it is not surprising that it also gambols, goes on all fours, dances, and walks about, with a light or heavy step, like a series of “hellos” in an echoing labyrinth, anterior or parallel to informative speech. (99)

Once again, I am left dumbfounded by de Certeau. What does he mean by referring to “talking birds”? How did we get there from walking? How is any of this related to the alleged phatic function of walking? I am confused, although the reference to singing in these sentences might help to clarify his point:

Walking affirms, suspects, tries out, transgresses, respects, etc. the trajectories it “speaks.” All the modalities sing a part in this chorus, ranging from step to step, stepping in through proportions, sequences, and intensities which vary according to the time, the path taken and the walker. These enunciatory operations are of an unlimited diversity. (99)

When I first read these words, I thought that de Certeau’s affirmation of walking’s complexity was an argument against attempting to reduce the pedestrian’s steps “to their graphic trail” by tracing them on a map (99). Now, though, I wonder if the reference to singing picks up on the earlier reference to birds. Maybe it doesn’t. I don’t know.

The next section of the essay is called “Walking rhetorics,” and its discussion was anticipated by de Certeau’s earlier reference to “a rhetoric of walking” (99). “The walking of passers-by offers a series of turns (tours) and detours that can be compared to ‘turns of phrase’ or ‘stylistic figures,’” de Certeau begins. “There is a rhetoric of walking. The art of ‘turning’ phrases finds an equivalent in the art of composing a path (tourner un parcours)” (100). The art of walking, he continues, “implies and combines styles and uses” (100). Here, “style” refers to a linguistic structure that is individualized, where as “use” “defines the social phenomenon through which a system of communication manifests itself in actual fact; it refers to a norm” (100). In other words, walking combines linguistic terms that would typically be considered to be opposites. “Style and use both have to do with a ‘way of operating’ (of speaking, walking, etc.), but style involves a peculiar processing of the symbolic, while use refers to elements of a code,” de Certeau writes. “They intersect to form a style of use, a way of being and a way of operating” (100). 

The notion that “the ‘tropes’ catalogued by rhetoric furnish models and hypotheses for the analysis of ways of appropriating places”—through walking, apparently—is supported by “[t]wo postulates” (100). First, de Certeau is assuming that “the practices of space also correspond to the manipulations of the basic elements of a constructed order,” and second, he is assuming “that they are, like the tropes in rhetoric, deviations relative to a sort of ‘literal meaning’ defined by the urbanistic system” (100). Given those postulates, he continues, there would be “a homology between verbal figures and the figures of walking” (100). The metaphor of rhetoric leads de Certeau back to the distinction between the system of language and the individual utterance:

the geometrical space of urbanists and architects seems to have the status of the “proper meaning” constructed by grammarians and linguists in order to have a normal and normative level to which they can compare the drifting of “figurative” language. In reality, this faceless “proper” meaning (ce ‘propre’ sans figure) cannot be found in current use, whether verbal or pedestrian; it is merely the fiction produced by a use that is also particular, the metalinguistic use of science that distinguishes itself by that very distinction. (100)

“The long poem of walking,” de Certeau continues,

manipulates spatial organizations, no matter how panoptic they may be: it is neither foreign to them (it can take place only within them) nor in conformity with them (it does not receive its identity from them). It creates shadows and ambiguities within them. It inserts its multitudinous references and citations into them (social models, cultural mores, personal factors). Within them it is itself the effect of successive encounters and occasions that constantly alter it and make it the other’s blazon: in other words, it is like a peddler, carrying something surprising, transverse or attractive compared with the usual choice. These diverse aspects provide the basis of a rhetoric. The can even be said to define it. (101)

Would specific ways of walking then correspond to specific rhetorical figures? De Certeau suggests that the “two pedestrian figures” of synecdoche (naming a part rather than the whole) and asyndeton (suppressing linking words, like conjunctions and adverbs) are common in walking—or at least in talking about walking: de Certeau elides the difference between walking as a practice and discourses about walking here by talking about how these figures might be used in “the narration of a trajectory” (101). So one might refer to a hill instead of a the park in which that hill is situated (synecdoche), or one might skip over or omit parts of a walk (asyndeton), (101) but one would do this in narration—in discourse—rather than in practice.

According to de Certeau, synecdoche and asyndeton are related:

Synecdoche expands a spatial element in order to make it play the role of a “more” (a totality) and take its place. . . . Asyndeton, by elision, creates a ‘less,’ opens gaps in the spatial continuum, and retains only selected parts of it that amount almost to relics. Synecdoche replaces totalities by fragments (a less in the place of a more); asyndeton disconnects them by eliminating the conjunctive or the consecutive (nothing in place of something). Synecdoche makes more dense: it amplifies the detail and miniaturizes the whole. Asyndeton cuts out: it undoes continuity and undercuts its plausibility. A space treated in this way and shaped by practices is transformed into enlarged singularities and separate islands. Through these swellings, shrinkings, and fragmentations, that is, through these rhetorical operations a spatial phrasing of an analogical (composed of juxtaposed citations) and elliptical (made of gaps, lapses, and allusions) type is created. For the technological system of a coherent and totalizing space that is “linked” and simultaneous, the figures of pedestrian rhetoric substitute trajectories that have a mythical structure, at least if one understands by “myth” a discourse relative to the place/nowhere (or origin) of concrete existence, a story jerry-built out of elements taken from common sayings, an allusive and fragmentary story whose gaps mesh with the social practices it symbolizes. (101-02)

Once again, I am confused: is de Certeau talking about walking, or about stories about walking? Is a walk a story if that story is not articulated in discourse? Is narration a metaphor for walking, or is it a literal narration?

Perhaps rather than discussing walking or narrating, de Certeau is merely asserting a parallel between them: the beginning of the next section of the chapter, “Myths: what ‘make things go,” begins by asserting a parallelism between walking, discourse, and dreams: “If there is a parallelism, it is not only because enunciation is dominant in these three areas, but also because its discursive (verbalized, dreamed, or walked) development is organized as a relation between the place from which it proceeds (an origin) and the nowhere it produces (a way of ‘going by’)” (103). The problem, of course, is that walking is not discourse; it is a non-discursive practice, and so to claim that walking has a discursive development is therefore a problem. I’m not convinced, then, that what de Certeau is offering here can be anything more than a comparison, parallel, or analogy. There may be similarities between walking, dreaming, and narrating, but there is one central difference: walking isn’t a discourse. That difference is being elided in de Certeau’s argument.

Nevertheless, de Certeau’s next assertion is quite provocative and potentially productive. “To walk is to lack a place,” he begins:

The moving about that the city multiplies and concentrates makes the city itself an immense social experience lacking a place—an experience that is, to be sure, broken up into countless tiny deportations (displacements and walks), compensated for by the relationships and intersections of these exoduses that intertwine and create an urban fabric, and placed under the sign of what ought to be, ultimately, the place but is only a name, the City. The identity furnished by this place is all the more symbolic (named) because, in spite of the inequality of its citizens’ positions and profits, there is only a pullulation of passer-by, a network of residences temporarily appropriated by pedestrian traffic, a shuffling among pretenses of the proper, a universe of rented spaces haunted by a nowhere or by dreamed-of places. (103)

De Certeau doesn’t define the terms “space” and “place” until a subsequent chapter, but it’s important to note here that, as Tim Cresswell points out, he reverses the typical usage—in English, or in geographical discourse, or both—of those two terms: “Confusingly, for geographers, Certeau uses space and place in a way that stands the normal distinction on its head. To Certeau, place is the empty grid over which practice occurs while space is what is created by practice” (Cresswell 70). So, when de Certeau refers to “place” in this quotation, he ought to be interpreted as meaning “space.” Confusing, right? What he seems to be saying, then, is that the City—the utopian, totalizing, systematized entity he defined earlier in this chapter—ought to be a space, but “is only a name.” To walk is to lack a space, but the spaceless city consists only of the movements of its residents. There is a strange circularity to this argument, but it seems clear (I think) that de Certeau is arguing that the City doesn’t exist in reality, that it is actually made up of the movements of its citizens. What particularly interests me is the suggestion that the countless walks made by people in an urban space “intertwine and create an urban fabric” (103). I find myself wondering if the “fabric” of any place, urban or rural, might not be made up by the movements of its inhabitants.

From here, de Certeau begins to discuss the role of proper names in the absent City, and the relationship that exists “between the direction of a walk (le sens de la marche) and the meaning of words (le sens des mots),” a relationship that situates “two sorts of apparently contrary movements, one extrovert (to walk is to go outside), the other introvert (a mobility under the stability of the signifier)” (103). I’m not convinced that de Certeau is talking about actual walking any more; perhaps in this chapter “walk” has come to stand in for any movement in an urban space? In any case, de Certeau is asserting a direct connection between place names and walking:

Linking acts and footsteps, opening meanings and directions, these words operate in the name of an emptying-out and a wearing-away of their primary role. They become liberated spaces that can be occupied. A rich indetermination gives them, by means of a semantic rarefaction, the function of articulating a second, poetic geography on top of the geography of the literal, forbidden or permitted meaning. They insinuate other routes into the functionalist and historical order of movement. . . . People are put in motion by the remaining relics of meaning, and sometimes by their waste products, the inverted remainders of great ambitions. Things that amount to nothing, or almost nothing, symbolize and orient walkers’ steps: names that have ceased precisely to be “proper.” (105)

Why is de Certeau making such a big thing out of place names? He suggests that 

they make habitable or believable the place that they clothe with a word (by emptying themselves of their classifying power, they acquire that of ‘permitting’ something else); they recall or suggest phantoms (the dead who are supposed to have disappeared) that still move about, concealed in gestures and in bodies in motion; and by altering functionalist identity by detaching themselves from it, they create in the place itself that erosion or nowhere that the law of the other carves out within it. (105)

So somehow place names, like the practice of walking, function as a form of resistance to power; they are examples of “‘local authorities’” or “superstitions,” “rich silences and wordless stories,” and so tend to be replaced by numbers (106). Walking about, and travelling generally, come to “substitute for the legends that used to open up space to something different” (107). There is some connection, therefore, between place names, stories, and walking as forms of resistance.

In fact, de Certeau describes walking as a form of exile, and suggests that it produces “precisely the body of legends that is currently lacking in one’s own vicinity; it is a fiction, which moreover has the double characteristic, like dreams or pedestrian rhetoric, of being the effect of displacements and condensations” (107). Again we see a slippage between walking as a non-discursive practice, on the one hand, and discourse, on the other. Such legends—stories, more generally—are “practices that invent spaces” (107):

From this point of view, their contents remain revelatory, and still more so is the principle that organizes them. Stories about places are makeshift things. They are composed with the world’s debris. Even the literary form and the actantial schema of “superstitions” correspond to stable models whose structures and combinations have often been analyzed over the past thirty years, the materials (all the rhetorical details of their “manifestation”) are furnished with leftovers from nominations, taxonomies, heroic or comic predicates, etc., that is, by fragments of scattered semantic places. These heterogenous and even contrary elements fill the homogenous form of the story. (107)

Stories about places (or spaces—note that de Certeau’s use of these terms is not consistent, at least not at this point, despite Cresswell’s analysis), as well as walking, are thus “spatial practices” that offer resistance to “the constructed order”: “The surface of this order is everywhere punched and torn apart by ellipses, drifts, and leaks of meaning; it is a sieve-order” (107). “The dispersion of stories points to the dispersion of the memorable as well,” he continues, describing memory as “a sort of anti-museum” that is not “localizable” (108). Rather, fragments of memory “come out in legends. Objects and words also have hollow places in which a past sleeps, as in the everyday acts of walking, eating, going to bed, in which ancient revolutions slumber” (108). The memories de Certeau is talking about here seem to be memories of what used to be in a particular place but is no longer there. Those memories—de Certeau’s word for them is “demonstratives”—“indicate the invisible identities of the visible,” and “it is the very definition of a place . . . that it is composed by these series of displacements and effects among the fragmented strata that form it and that it plays on these moving layers” (108). Such memories lead to places being haunted: “There is no place that is not haunted by many different spirits hidden there in silence, spirits one can ‘invoke’ or not” (108). I wonder if de Certeau would apply this logic to rural as well as urban places. After all, isn’t rural Saskatchewan haunted by the ghosts of the bison, of the grassland, of the ecosystem that was mostly destroyed in the first 50 years of settlement?

The important thing about such memories is that they remain silent (108): “Places are fragmentary and inward-turning histories, pasts that others are not allowed to read, accumulated times that can be unfolded but like stories held in reserve, remaining in an enigmatic state, symbolizations encysted in the pain or pleasure of the body” (108). I know de Certeau is primarily interested in pleasure as a form of resistance, but “encysted” suggests pain, rather than pleasure.

In the final section of this chapter, de Certeau turns to childhood memories of places. “The memorable is that which can be dreamed about a place,” he writes, arguing that such places are palimpsests, “already linked to the absence that structures it as existence” (109). He has used imagery throughout this chapter that suggests places are palimpsests, and he is clearly interested in layers of memories as part of what defines places as forms of resistance, compared to the unstratified definitions of place that are characteristic of the City-concept and its monological discourses. He goes so far as to claim that our experience of space is ultimately a “decisive and originary experience, that of the child’s differentiation from the mother’s body” (109). “This relationship of oneself to oneself”—he seems to be referring to that “joyful and silent experience of childhood” which defines that process of differentiation from the mother—“governs the internal alternations of the place (the relations among its strata) or the pedestrian unfolding of the stories accumulated in a place (moving about the city and travelling),” he contends (110). “The childhood experience that determines spatial practices later develops its effects, proliferates, floods private and public spaces, undoes their readable surfaces, and creates within the planned city a ‘metaphorical’ or mobile city” (110). De Certeau’s theoretical touchstone here has shifted from Foucault to Lacan, and I’m not well-versed in poststructuralist psychoanalysis, so I find this conclusion difficult to understand. Is de Certeau suggesting that the resistant experience of the city is somehow similar to a child before its entry into the Symbolic Order? I wish I could tell. Do I have to put Lacan’s Écrits on my reading list in order to understand this chapter? Perhaps.

De Certeau’s next chapter compares train travel to walking. Traveling by train is a “travelling incarceration,” an experience of immobility in which the passenger is trapped within a “bubble of panoptic and classifying power, a module of imprisonment that makes possible the production of an order, a closed and autonomous insularity—that is what can traverse space and make itself independent of local roots” (111). The same could be said, I suppose, of travelling by plane. I’m not interested in either mode of transportation, so I skipped ahead to the next chapter, “Spatial Stories.” “Every story is a travel story—a spatial practice,” de Certeau begins (115). Such stories “are not satisfied with displacing” what de Certeau calls “pedestrian enunciations and rhetorics” and “transposing them into the field of language” (116). “In reality,” he continues, “they organize walks. They make the journey, before or during the time the feet perform it” (116). Again there is a curious slippage between walking as a non-discursive practice (or traveling as a non-discursive practice?) and discourse. What does it mean to claim that stories make the journey before it is performed by the pedestrian’s feet? I don’t understand.

By the time I reached this point in de Certeau’s book, I was wondering if he was going to begin distinguishing, in a clear way, between place and space, in the way that Cresswell suggests. The answer, happily, is yes: a place

is the order (of whatever kind) in accord with which elements are distributed in relationships of coexistence. It thus excludes the possibility of two things being in the same location. . . . The law of the “proper’ rules in the place: the elements taken into consideration are beside one another, each situated in its own “proper” and distinct location, a location it defines. A place is thus an instantaneous configuration of positions. It implies an indication of stability. (117)

Cresswell suggests, as I’ve said, that de Certeau uses “place” the way that geographers use “space”—as “a more abstract concept than place” that lacks human investments and attachments (Cresswell 15-16). What I notice, though, about de Certeau’s definition of place is that it is (or seems to be) aligned with strategies and power and the Concept-city: it is ruled by “[t]he law of the ‘proper.’” Moreover, de Certeau’s notion of place is of something that is stable and clearly defined, which might make it closer to the geographer’s use of “place.” Space, on the other hand, is quite different:

A space exists when one takes into consideration vectors of direction, velocities, and time variables. Thus space is composed of intersections of mobile elements. It is in a sense actuated by the ensemble of movements deployed within it. Space occurs as the effect produced by the operations that orient it, situate it, temporalize it, and make it function in a polyvalent unity of conflictual programs and contractual proximities. On this view, in relation to place, space is like the word when it is spoken, that is, when it is caught in the ambiguity of actualization, transformed into a term dependant upon many different conventions, situated as the act of a present (or of a time), and modified by the transformations caused by successive contexts. In contradistinction to the place, it has thus none of the univocity or stability of a “proper.” (117)

What strikes me about this description is not its relationship to the geographer’s notion of “place,” but rather the way that space, for de Certeau, aligns with tactics, utterances, and practices of resistance to power. In fact, the emphasis on mobility might align de Certeau’s version of space with, say, Yi-Fu Tuan’s definition of this term, which involves mobility, at least potentially. In fact, so far de Certeau’s definitions of space and place are connected to the primary binaries that organize this book, rather than related to the way geographers use these terms.

And then—isn’t it important to pay attention to de Certeau’s repetitions?—there is this summary, which makes things much clearer:

In short, space is a practiced place. Thus the street geometrically defined by urban planning is transformed into a space by walkers. In the same way, an act of reading is the space produced by the practice of a particular place: a written text, i.e., a place constituted by a system of signs. (117)

Finally, Cresswell’s explication of de Certeau’s version of space and place makes sense: for Cresswell, and for Tuan, place would be a practiced space, a space that contains stories and memories and, although de Certeau would never say this, meaning and human attachment (see Cresswell 16). And, following this moment of clarity, de Certeau refers to Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s distinctions between “‘geometrical’ space,” which geographers would call space, and “‘anthropological’ space,” which geographers would call place—not that de Certeau is necessarily citing Merleau-Ponty with approval. “In our examination of the daily practices that articulate that experience,” de Certeau writes,

the opposition between “place” and “space” will rather refer to two sorts of determinations in stories: the first, a determination through objects that are ultimately reducible to the being-there of something dead, the law of a “place” . . . the second, a determination through operations which, when they attributed to a stone, tree, or human being, specify “spaces” by the actions of historical subjects. (118)

Place, for de Certeau (space, for geographers) is, unlike space (place, for geographers), dead, because it has no history and no movement—nothing human or anthropological, in other words: only the law of its own configuration. “Between these two determinations,” he continues,

there are passages back and forth, such as the putting to death (or putting into a landscape) of heroes who transgress frontiers and who, guilty of an offense against the law of the place, best provide its restoration with their tombs; or again, on the contrary, the awakening of inert objects (a table, a forest, a person that plays a certain role in the environment) which, emerging from their stability, transform the place where they lay motionless into the foreignness of their own space. (118)

Such “passages” are the reason I am reading this book and the subject of my current research. How does space become place? For de Certeau, the answer seems to be through stories: that would be the reason for his reference to “heroes” and for his description of “inert objects” coming to life. Narration is the key to that transformation, then: space becomes place—and I’m using those terms the way geographers do, not the way de Certeau does—when stories can be told about it. 

Indeed, stories are key to such transformations. They “carry out a labor that constantly transforms places into spaces or spaces into places,” de Certeau writes. “They also organize the play of changing relationships between places and spaces” (118). The forms such play might take are “numberless, fanning out in a spectrum reaching from the putting in place of an immobile and stone-like order . . . to the accelerated succession of actions that multiply spaces” (118). Again one sees the relationship between these terms and the larger binaries that organize de Certeau’s thinking in this book, and I’m really not convinced that his use of these terms (even in reverse) can simply be mapped onto the way geographers use them, but there is some overlap, I think, and perhaps that’s good enough.

The next section of the chapter, “Tours and maps,” distinguishes between stories (a tour, for de Certeau, is a narrative) and descriptions (a map is a visual description). These terms represent “[t]wo poles of experience,” one belonging to “‘ordinary’ culture”—that would be narrative or “tours”—and the other, “maps,” to “scientific discourse” (119). But there appears to be a spectrum between those two poles: “From this angle, we can compare the combination of “tours” and “maps” in everyday stories with the manner in which, over the past five centuries, they have been interlaced and then slowly dissociated in literary and scientific representations of space” (120). Stories about places are clearly aligned with tactics, as de Certeau has defined that term: they are “composed of fragments drawn from earlier stories and fitted together in makeshift fashion (bricolés). In this sense, they shed light on the formation of myths, since they also have the function of founding and articulating spaces” (122-23). The fundamental question, for de Certeau,

is the partition of space that structures it. Everything refers in fact to this differentiation which makes possible the isolation and interplay of distinct spaces. From the distinction that separates a subject from its exteriority to the distinctions that localize objects, from the home (constituted on the basis of the wall) to the journey (constituted on the basis of a geographical “elsewhere” or a cosmological “beyond”), from the functioning of the urban network to that of the rural landscape, there is no spatiality that is not organized by the determination of frontiers. (123)

Stories, de Certeau argues, play a decisive role in the creation of frontiers; they have a “distributive power” and “performative force,” and as a result they establish spaces (123). Where stories are disappearing, he continues,

there is a loss of space: deprived of narrations (as one sees it happen in both the city and the countryside), the group or individual regresses toward the disquieting, fatalistic experience of a formless, indistinct, and nocturnal totality. By considering the role of stories in delimitation, one can see that the primary function is to authorize the establishment, displacement or transcendence of limits, and as a consequence, to set in opposition, within the closed field of discourse, two movements that intersect (setting and transgressing limits) in such a way as to make the story a sort of “crossword” decoding stencil (a dynamic partitioning of space) whose essential narrative figures seem to be the frontier and the bridge. (123)

Frontiers and bridges—objects that set and transgress limits—are the “essential narrative figures” of the way stories construct spaces; the frontier defines a legitimate space, and the bridge defines that space’s “(alien) exteriority” (126). 

But for de Certeau stories also “found” spaces, and “[t]his founding is precisely the primary role of the story. It opens a legitimate theater for practical actions”—social actions, that is, which are both “dangerous and contingent” because they are aligned with tactics, it seems, against strategies (125). A founding story is fragmented and heterogenous; it is miniaturized, because it includes family stories and autobiographies; and it is polyvalent, “because the mixing together of so many micro-stories gives them functions that change according to the groups in which they circulate” (125). For de Certeau, the way founding stories relate to frontiers seems to be their most important function: “A narrative activity, even if it is multiform and no longer unitary, thus continues to develop where frontiers and relations with space abroad are concerned. Fragmented and disseminated, it is continually concerned with marking out boundaries” (125). But frontiers are not simply boundaries. For de Certeau, frontiers are paradoxical: “created by contacts, the points of differentiation between two bodies are also their common points. Conjunction and disjunction are inseparable in them” (127). In other words, frontiers or boundaries mark differences, but they are also points where those different spaces touch, perhaps even where exchanges between them are possible. “What the map cuts up, the story cuts across,” de Certeau states, suggesting the way that narration can create connections as well as borders. And, finally, in case it wasn’t already clear, “in this focalizing enunciation”—and remember the importance of the word “enunciation” in this book as a term that is aligned with tactics of resistance—“space appears once more as a practiced place” (130).

And with the end of that chapter, I stopped reading. The rest of The Practice of Everyday Life is focused on language, particularly reading as a form of tactics, and on belief—not topics that are related to my current work. As my supervisors have told me, the point of reading for comprehensive examinations is to focus on what is related to one’s project. Did reading The Practice of Everyday Life make a contribution to my research? Yes, it did. As confusing and sometimes frustrating as de Certeau’s poetic prose and associative style of argument can be, the notion of walking as a form of resistance is useful to my work, as are the notion of haunted places and the distinction between space and place that de Certeau works out in the chapter on “Spatial Stories.” In fact, that chapter might have been the most important part of this book for me—surprisingly more important than the chapter on walking in the city—and that suggests how important it is to read beyond what I might think will be important. Yes, I realize that by skipping the chapters on reading and belief I might be missing out on other valuable insights, but I can always come back to The Practice of Everyday Life later on. Besides, as I’m sure you will agree, this summary is quite long enough as it is. The Practice of Everyday Life is going to play an important part in the conference paper I am about to write on space and place in walking pilgrimages, and that’s reason enough to have read it.

Works Cited

Cresswell, Tim. Place: An Introduction. 2nd edition. Wiley Blackwell, 2015.

de Certeau, Michel. The Practice of Everyday Life. Translated by Steven F. Rendall, U of California P, 1984.

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

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. http://banmarchive.org.uk/collections/mt/pdf/91_06_24.pdf