Reading and Walking

Walking, Reading, and Reading about Walking

Category: Reading

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

ways of walking

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Works Cited

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

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

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

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

22. Tim Ingold, “Culture on the Ground: The World Perceived Through the Feet”

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Yesterday I started reading a collection of essays edited by Tim Ingold and Jo Lee Vergunst on walking, but I got sidetracked by a reference to this essay in that book’s introduction. Why not turn to that essay, I asked myself, before carrying on with the book? And so here I am, quickly writing a summary of another article before going to meet friends and watch the Super Bowl.

Ingold begins with an epigraph from Balzac’s essay on walking—an essay which apparently has yet to be translated into English: 

Is it not truly extraordinary to realise that ever since men have walked, no-one has ever asked why they walk, how they walk, whether they walk, whether they might walk better, what they achieve by walking, whether they might not have the means to regulate, change or analyse their walk: questions that bear on all the systems of philosophy, psychology and politics with which the world is so preoccupied? (315)

These are very much the questions that preoccupy Ingold in this essay, although he acknowledges that he has more questions than answers (330). That’s fine; my sense is that many of the questions Ingold asks are likely to be extraordinarily difficult to answer—if they can be answered at all.

“Culture on the Ground: The World Perceived Through the Feet” is divided into sections. The first section discusses the way we have come to see our heads and hands as more important than our feet. Ingold begins with nineteenth-century evolutionary biologists and anthropologists—Darwin, Huxley, and Tylor—and their theories about how humans came to walk upright, and how that movement accounts for the differences between our feet and those of other primates. For Darwin, walking upright liberated our hands to use tools—an idea that Ingold traces back to the ancient Greeks. Standing on our feet, our arms and hands “become answerable to the call of reason” (318), and this understanding of the human body leads to its physical division into upper and lower parts: “Whereas the feet, impelled by biomechanical necessity, undergird and propel the body within the natural world, the hands are free to deliver the intelligent designs or conceptions of the mind upon it” (318). T.H. Huxley, however, noted that in cultures where people do not wear shoes, people use their feet in extraordinary ways, and he suggested that shoes and boots imprisoned our feet, constricting their freedom of movement, and blunting their sense of touch (319). Edward Tylor agreed; he suggested that shoes and boots shaped our feet by restricting them (319). These observations lead to the main questions Ingold wants to ask: 

Is the conventional division of labour between the hands and feet, then, as ‘natural’ as Darwin and his contemporaries made it out to be? Could it not be, at least in some measure, a result of the mapping, onto the human body, of a peculiarly modern discourse about the triumph of intelligence over instinct, and about the human domination of nature? And could not the technology of footwear be understood, again in some measure, as an effort to convert the imagined superiority of hands over feet, corresponding respectively to intelligence and instinct, or to reason and nature, into an experienced reality? (321)

“In what follows,” Ingold continues,

I shall argue that the mechanization of footwork was part and parcel of a wider suite of changes that accompanied the onset of modernity—in modalities of travel and transport, in the education of posture and gesture, in the evaluation of the senses, and in the architecture of the built environment—all of which conspired to lend practical and experiential weight to an imagined separation between the activities of a mind at rest and a body in transit, between the space of social and cultural life and the ground upon which that life is materially engaged. (321)

So those are the questions Ingold intends to explore, and that is a brief summary of the argument he will make in addressing them.

Next, Ingold thinks about the history of travel in Europe. Beginning in the eighteenth century, travel became distinguished from walking: walkers did not travel, at least not very far, and travellers did not walk, or at least they walked as little as possible, preferring horses or carriages, even though neither was much faster nor more comfortable than walking. “”Travel was an activity of the well-to-do, who could afford such things,” Ingold writes. “They considered walking to be tedious and commonplace, a view that lingers in the residual connotations of the word ‘pedestrian.’ If they had to walk, they would do their best to blot the experience from their memories, and to erase it from their accounts” (321)—that is, the accounts they wrote of their journeys. The difficulty of travel had to be endured for the sole purpose of reaching a destination: “What mattered was the knowledge to be gained on arriving there” (321-22). So Samuel Johnson, in his journal of travelling to the Hebrides in Scotland, describes the views from specific places, rather than explaining how he got to those places:

For men like Johnson, a trip or tour would consist of a series of such destinations. Were the experience of place-to-place movement to intrude over much into conscious awareness, they warned, observations could be biased, memories distorted, and above all, we might be distracted from noticing salient features of the landscape around us. . . . Only when the mind is at rest, no longer jolted and jarred by the physical displacements of its bodily housing, can it operate properly. As long as it is in between one point of observation and another, it is effectively disabled. (322)

These remarks remind me of the distinctions Yi-Fu Tuan draws between space and place; places are what tends to be considered important, while space is simply what one moves through between places. 

In the eighteenth century, Ingold continues, “[t]he embodied experience of pedestrian movement was, as it were, pushed into the wings, in order to make way for a more detached and speculative contemplation. Walking was for the poor, the criminal, the young and above all, the ignorant” (322). It was only in the nineteenth century when, following the examples of the poets William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, people of leisure began to be interested in walking as an end in itself, outside of the landscaped garden or gallery (322). Yet such walking tours depended on the development of public transportation, which carried people to the scenery in which they wanted to walk. The alternative of sitting down was therefore always available, and “the most enthusiastic of peripatetics, even while extolling the physical and intellectual benefits of walking, did so from the comfortable vantage point of a society thoroughly accustomed to the chair” (323). The same phenomenon occurs today: who in their right mind would walk to Grasslands National Park, for example, to hike across the native prairie, when it’s possible to drive there in just a few hours? 

Chairs and boots, together, “establish a technological foundation for the separation of thought from action and of mind from body—that is for the fundamental groundlessness so characteristic of modern metropolitan dwelling,” Ingold writes (323). Most people in the world squat to rest, but in the West, we sit in chairs. “It seems that the chair has blocked the development of the normal capacity of the human being to squat,” Ingold continues, “just as the boot has blocked the development of the prehensile functions of the foot” (324). Moreover, the way of walking that is typical in Western cultures—an upright posture and a gait with long, measured strides and straight legs—originates with the ancient Greeks (324). Ingold compares this modes of walking in Europe and in traditional Japanese culture: Europeans walk from the hips while keeping the legs as straight as possible, while Japanese people walked form the knees while minimizing the movement of the hips, resulting in a kind of shuffle that is effective on rough or hilly terrain, and which produces a lowered centre of gravity that reduces the risk of tripping or falling (325). That shuffling gait is also ergonomically consistent with the traditional Japanese technique of carrying heavy loads suspended from a long pole resting athwart the shoulder. Japanese anthropologist Junzo Kawada traces these differences, Ingold notes, and relates them to traditional styles of dancing, ways of working, and practices of child rearing (325). “All in all, Japanese posture and gesture seem to be strongly and positively oriented towards the ground, in striking contrast to European efforts to rise above it,” Ingold suggests (325).

The introduction of paved streets in eighteenth-century Europe also changed the way Europeans walked. Pedestrians no longer had to pick their way along potholed, cobbled, or rutted streets, littered with filth and excrement. Instead, paved streets “offered pedestrians a street surface that was smooth and uniform, regularly cleaned, free from clutter and properly lit,” as well as “open and straight, creating a fitting environment for what was considered the proper exercise of the higher faculty of vision—to see and be seen” (326). From here, Ingold shifts to a discussion of sociologist Erving Goffman’s work on walking in the late twentieth century. “What Goffman shows us, through his study, is that walking down a city street is an intrinsically social activity,” Ingold writes. “Its sociality does not hover above the practice itself, in some ethereal realm of ideas and discourse, but is rather immanent in the way a person’s movements—his or her step, gait, direction and pace—are continually responsive to the movements of others in the immediate environment” (328). We look ahead, but we also look down to check for obstructions—especially women, perhaps because they wear (or tended to wear in the 1970s, when Goffman was studying walking) high-heeled shoes, and children (328). Children, in fact, are the real walkers in contemporary society; most of those who walk are under 15 years of age (329). At this moment in the text, Ingold summarizes his argument, which has gotten somewhat diffuse:

the reduction of pedestrian experience that has perhaps reached its peak in the present era of the car, is the culmination of a trend that was already established with the boot’s mechanization of the foot, the proliferation of the chair, and the advent of destination-oriented travel. (329)

Moreover, boots leave no tracks on a paved surface, which speaks volumes about the way people in contemporary Western societies occupy space:

People, as they walk the streets, leave no trace of their movements, no record of their having passed by. It is as if they had never been. There is, then, the same detachment, of persons from the ground, that runs as I have shown like a leitmotif through the recent history of western societies. It appears that people, in their daily lives, merely skim the surface of a world that has been previously mapped out and constructed for them to occupy, rather than contributing through their movements to its ongoing formation. To inhabit the modern city is to dwell in an environment that is already built. But whereas the builder is a manual labourer, the dweller is a foot-slogger. And the environment, built by human hands, should ideally remain unscathed by the footwork of dwelling. To the extent that the feet do leave a mark—as when pedestrians take short cuts across the grass verges of roads, in cities designed for motorists—they are said to deface the environment, not to enhance it, much as a modern topographic map is said to be defaced by the itineraries of travel drawn upon it. This kind of thing is typically regarded by urban planners and municipal authorities as a threat to established order and a subversion of authority. Green spaces are for looking at, not for walking on; reserved for visual contemplation rather than for exploration on foot. The surfaces you can walk on are those that remain untouched and unmarked by your presence. (329)

According to Ingold, “the corresponding elevation of head over heels as the locus of creative intelligence” that is suggested by our society’s groundlessness is “deeply embedded in the structures of public life in western societies,” as well as having spilled over into the “mainstream thinking in the disciplines of anthropology, psychology, and biology” (330). Here Ingold reviews the three thematic areas into which this overspill has occurred. The first concerns the perception of the environment, the second the history of technology, and the third the formation of the landscape. Ingold asks what the effect of overturning prevailing assumptions and of adopting a fundamental orientation toward the ground might be. “What new terrain would be opened up?” (330). 

First, regarding the perception of the environment, Ingold notes that the Western tradition “has consistently ranked the senses of vision and hearing over the contact sense of touch” (330). “[A] more literally grounded approach to perception should help to restore touch to its proper place in the balance of the senses,” he continues. “For it is surely through our feet, in contact with the ground (albeit mediated by footwear), that we are most fundamentally and continually ‘in touch’ with our surroundings” (330). Studies of haptic perception, he notes, have focused on how we touch with our hands: 

The challenge is to discover special properties of pedestrian touch that might distinguish it from the manual modality. Is it really the case for example, as intuition suggests, that what we feel with our hands, and through the soles of our feet, are necessarily related as figure and ground? In other words, is the ground we walk on also, and inevitably, a ground against which things “stand out” as foci of attention, or can it be a focus in itself? What difference does it make that pedestrian touch carries the weight of the body rather than the weight of the object? And how does the feel of a surface differ, depending on whether the organ of touch is brought down at successive spots, as in walking, or allowed to wrap around or slide over it, as can be done with the fingers and palm of the hand? (330)

These are interesting questions, and my experience as a walker might suggest at least one preliminary answer. Different surfaces register very differently during a long walk: the hardness of pavement, while its smoothness is initially beguiling, soon becomes painful to walk on, compared to the softness of a dirt track or trail. In other words, we definitely do touch the ground with our feet, even feet that are encased in hiking boots. Ingold is suggesting, however, that more work needs to be done to explore these questions fully, rather than relying on such anecdotal responses.

“The bias of head over heels influences the psychology of environmental perception in one other way,” Ingold continues:

We have already seen how the practices of destination-oriented travel encouraged the belief that knowledge is built up not along paths of pedestrian movement but through the accumulation of observations taken from successive points of rest. Thus we tend to imagine that things are perceived from a stationary platform, as if we were sitting on a chair with our legs and feet out of action. To perceive a thing from different angles, it is supposed that we might turn it around in our hands, or perform an equivalent computational operation in our minds. But in real life, for the most part, we do not perceive things from a single vantage point, but rather by walking around them. (331)

Here Ingold refers to the work of ecological psychologist James Gibson, who noted that our visual perception always takes place along a continuous itinerary of movement (331). (Gibson is also one of the fathers of embodied cognition, according to my reading on that subject.) “But if perception is thus a function of movement,” Ingold continues, 

then what we perceive must, at least in part, depend on how we move. Locomotion, not cognition, must be the starting point for the study of perceptual activity. Or more strictly, cognition should not be set off from locomotion, along the lines of a division between head and heels, since walking is itself a form of circumambulatory knowing. (331)

This recognition, Ingold continues, opens up a new area of inquiry, one concerned with “the ways in which our knowledge of the environment is altered by techniques of footwork and by the many and varied devices that we attach to the feet in order to enhance their effectiveness in specific tasks and conditions” (331).

Ingold’s second theme is the history of technology. Here he returns to the notion that our hands are superior to our feet; in the classic, dualistic view of humanity, we are in nature from the waist down, while our hands and arms “impress the mind’s intelligent designs upon the surface of nature form above” (332). From this point of view, the foot is itself a force of nature rather than of human agency:

Men have made history with their hands; they have mastered nature and brought it under control. And the nature thus controlled includes the foot, increasingly regulated and disciplined in the course of history by the hand-made technology of boots and shoes. (332)

For Ingold, overturning this bias of head over heels also means getting rid of the dualism that underpins that bias (332):

Rather than supposing that the hand operates on nature while the feet move in it, I would prefer to say that both hands and feet, augmented by tools, gloves and footwear, mediate a historical engagement of the human organism, in its entirety, with the world around it. For surely we walk, just as we talk, write and use tools, with the whole body. Moreover, in walking, the foot—even the boot-clad foot of western civilization—does not really describe a mechanical oscillation like the tip of a pendulum. Thus its movements, continually and fluently responsive to an ongoing perceptual monitoring of the ground ahead, are never quite the same from one step to the next. Rhythmic rather than metronomic, what they beat out is not a metric of constant intervals but a pattern of lived time and space. It is in the very ‘tuning’ of movement in response to the ever-changing conditions of an unfolding task that the skill of walking, as that of any other bodily technique, ultimately resides. (332)

Walking is a highly intelligent activity, Ingold continues, but its intelligence “is distributed throughout the entire field of relations comprised by the presence of the human being in the inhabited world” (332).

That discussion leads to Ingold’s third them: the formation of the landscape. For Ingold, “the forms of the landscape—like the identities and capacities of its human inhabitants—are not imposed upon a material substrate,” as in conventional accounts of the historical transformation of nature, in which the land is “supposed to present itself as a palimpsest for the inscription of cultural form” (333). Instead, he argues, the forms of the landscape “emerge as condensations or crystallizations of activity within a relational field”:

As people, in the course of their everyday lives, make their way by foot around a familiar terrain, so its paths, textures and contours, variable through the seasons, are incorporated into their own embodied capacities of movement, awareness and response—or into what Gaston Bachelard calls their “muscular consciousness.” But conversely, these pedestrian movements thread a tangled network of personalized trails through the landscape itself. Through walking, in short, landscapes are woven into life, and lives are woven into the landscape, in a process that is continuous and never-ending. (333)

Bachelard’s book The Poetics of Space is on my reading list, and the reference from it here might suggest I should read it sooner rather than later.

What does Ingold mean by suggesting that landscapes are woven into life, and lives into the landscape? His example is footprints:

pedestrian activities can mark the landscape. When the same paths are repeatedly trodden, especially by heavy boots, the consequences can be quite dramatic, amounting in places to severe erosion. Surfaces are indeed transformed. But these are surfaces in the world, not the surface of the world. Indeed strictly speaking, the world has no surface. Human beings live in the world, not on it, and as beings in the world the historical transformations they effect are part and parcel of the world’s transformation of itself. (333)

Ingold lives in Aberdeen, Scotland, and given the importance of footpaths in the U.K., he would likely have direct experience of the ways that the land is transformed by our feet. Footpaths need to be used—the must be walked on—or they will disappear. And footpaths that are overused often become rutted and muddy, or even braided, as walkers look for ways to keep their feet dry. Moreover, the use of the metaphor of weaving suggests his discussion of textiles in his later book Lines, which I read last week.

In his conclusion, Ingold returns to Darwin, Huxley, and Tylor. Is the wearing of footwear the reason for the variance of human feet in different cultures? Scientific evidence suggests that the feet of people who do not wear shoes or boots are formed differently from the feet of those who do (334). Even the simplest footwear rearranges the bones of our feet (334). So European, or Western, feet are peculiar, because we wear shoes. However, our gait is also peculiar—even though that upright, striding gait has been universalized by anthropologists (335). In fact, “with their oddly formed feet and eccentric gait,” Westernized men and women are exceptions, rather than the rule (335):

It is not just that people around the world walk in all sorts of ways, depending on the surface and contours of the ground, the shoes they are wearing (if any), the weather, and a host of other factors including culturally specific expectations concerning the postures considered proper for people of different age, gender and rank. They also use their feet for sundry other purposes such as climbing, running, leaping, holding things down, picking them up, and even going about on all fours. (335)

There is no such thing as a natural way of walking, in other words, and the Western ideal of posture and walking are both practically unattainable outside of a laboratory—even though that’s where most systematic studies of bipedal locomotion have been conducted (335). Those studies attempt to reveal an essence of human walking, but in truth there is no essence: “For the experimental subjects of gait analysis already bring with them, incorporated into their very bodies, the experience of architecture, dress, footwear and baggage drawn from life outside the laboratory” (335). We cannot, Ingold continues,

attribute bipedality to human nature, or to culture, or to some combination of the two. Rather, human capacities to walk, and to use their feet in countless other ways, emerge through processes of development, as properties of the systems of relations set up through the placement of the growing human organism within a richly textured environmental context. (336)

For Ingold, this means that there is no standard form of the human foot, apart from the forms it actually takes as we walk in different ways. “Two points of capital importance follow,” he writes:

First, an explanation of the evolution of bipedality has to be an account of the ways in which the developmental systems through which it emerges are reproduced and transformed over time. And second, by way of their activities, their disciplines and their histories, people throughout history have played—and continue to play—an active role in this evolutionary process, by shaping the conditions under which their successors learn the arts of footwork. Thus the evolution of bipedality continues, even as we go about our business on two feet. We have been drawn, in sum, to an entirely new view of evolution, a view that grounds human beings within the continuum of life, and that situates the history of their embodied skills within the unfolding of that continuum. (336)

The only way to study the techniques of the body when the technology of footwear is already implicated in our ideas of the body and its evolution, Ingold concludes, would be to imagine a world without footwear: “For our earliest ancestors did not stride out upon the land with heavy boots, but made their way within it lightly, dextrously, and mostly barefoot” (337).

Ingold’s essay suggests just how complex and rich the study of walking can be. I’m not particularly interested in gait analysis, or the differences between the feet of humans and those of other primates, but the range of topics Ingold discusses here indicates the many different directions my research could take. I’m particularly interested in the notion that different cultures walk in different ways. In this part of the world, when the sidewalks are covered in winter ice, we are advised not to walk with our usual upright stride, but to instead imitate penguins, putting our centre of gravity over each foot and not bringing our feet heels-first down on the ground. Walking the way we normally do leads to slipping and falling. I wonder how other cultures, aside from the traditional Japanese culture Ingold discusses, walk, and whether European or Western styles of walking have become another example of colonialism—if they have destroyed other modes of walking. I’m also interested in the notion that our feet make the landscape, even though that’s hard to imagine in this place, where walkers are confined to roads, at least outside of the city. When I think about the footsteps I leave behind when I’m walking, I’m almost always speaking of imaginary footsteps, since the surfaces on which I walk are typically paved or covered with gravel. In fact, I’m usually surprised when my feet leave a mark. In the introduction to Ways of Walking, the book I was reading yesterday, Ingold and Vergunst suggest that roads tend to be associated with the form of living on the land they refer to as occupation, while the paths made by one’s feet are part of the way of living they call habitation (12-14). Occupation is characteristic of colonial powers, and habitation is characteristic of the traditional societies that are colonized. That might suggest that walking on roads is, as I’ve been told, a form of colonialism. However, I wonder if the opposite argument could be made: is appropriating a road intended for vehicles and walking on it not perhaps a way of reacting against the forces of occupation and colonization? I hope so. At least, that’s the response I would make to such a critique—at least, that’s the response I would make at this point in my research. The more I read, the better that response is likely to become. And now, it’s time to drive—not walk, because I’ve injured a tendon in my foot and have been told that walking is out of the question until it heals—to meet my friends and watch the Super Bowl.

Works Cited

Ingold, Tim. “Culture on the Ground: The World Perceived Through the Feet.” Journal of Material Culture, vol. 9, no. 3, 2004, pp. 315-40. DOI: 10.1177/1359183504046896.

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Works Cited

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

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

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

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

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

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

yi-fu tuan space and place


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Works Cited

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

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

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

19. Tim Ingold, Lines


After reading Sara Ahmed’s book, with its emphasis on the image or figure of the line, I decided to take on Tim Ingold’s Lines, which attempts, according to its author, “a comparative anthropology of the line” (1). For Ingold, lines are phenomena in themselves, not metaphors or theories (xv). “They are really there, in us and around us,” Ingold writes. “Indeed, there is no escaping them, for in any attempt to flee we only lay another one” (xv). Lines, for Ingold, are everywhere, and they are part of what makes us human: 

As walking, talking and gesticulating creatures, human beings generate lines wherever they go. It is not just that line-making is as ubiquitous as the use of the voice, hands and feet—respectively in speaking, gesturing and moving around—but rather that it subsumes all these aspects of everyday human activity and, in so doing, brings them together into a single field of inquiry. (1)

That field is what Ingold sets out to “delineate” (1) in this book; its aim is to “open up lines of inquiry that others might be inspired to pursue, in whatever directions their nowledge and experience might take them” (5). Among the topics this interdisciplinary study examines are the divorce between music and speech; the links between textiles and textuality; the distinction between pedigrees and family trees as vehicles for tracing lines of descent; the link between writing and drawing; and the predominance, in the modern world, of straight lines over curved ones. I skimmed those chapters, though, and focused my attention on Ingold’s third chapter, “Up, Across and Along,” which (among other things) explores the lines we make as we travel.

At the beginning of that chapter, Ingold argues that, in our contemporary world, lines are no longer continuous gestures. Rather, they have become fragmented into successions of points and dots. “This fragmentation,” he writes, “has taken place in the related fields of travel, where wayfaring is replaced by destination-oriented transport, mapping, where the drawn sketch is replaced by the route-plan, and textuality, where storytelling is replaced by the pre-composed plot” (77). The same process of fragmentation has affected our understanding of place: while there was a time when we considered places to be knots “tied from multiple and interlaced strands of movement and growth,” now we think of places as nodes “in a static network of connectors” (77). “To an ever-increasing extent,” Ingold contends,

people in modern metropolitan societies find themselves in environments built as assemblies of connected elements. Yet in practice they continue to thread their own ways through these environments, tracing paths as they go. I suggest that to understand how people do not just occupy but inhabit the environments in which they dwell, we might do better to revert from the paradigm of the assembly to that of the walk. (77)

Walking, for Ingold, is both literal and metaphorical, but more importantly, his argument is structured around a number of oppositions: walking versus assembly; wayfaring versus transport; the drawn sketch versus the route-plan; and places as knots versus places as nodes. Luckily for his readers, Ingold clearly explains the particular ways in which he is using these terms. I’m not going to review all of them here—just the ones I find to be of particular interest.

There are, Ingold suggests, “two modalities of travel”: wayfaring and transport (78). “The wayfarer is continually on the move,” he writes. “More strictly, he is this movement” (78). (Yes, the memo about gender-neutral pronouns has never reached Ingold’s desk.) As wayfarers proceeds through the forest or grassland or tundra, they need to sustain himself (or herself), “both perceptually and materially, through an active engagement with the country that opens up along his path” (78). As they travel, wayfarers need to actively monitor the trail they are following and its surroundings, looking out for useful plants or traces of animal activity (78). Wayfarers are not, in other words, merely getting from one place to another, but their travels are conduits of activity (78). Unlike wayfaring, however, transport is “destination-oriented”: 

not so much a development along a way of life as a carrying across, from location to location, of people and goods in such a way as to leave their basic natures unaffected. Even the wayfarer, of course, goes from place to place, as does the mariner from harbour to harbour. He must periodically pause to rest, and may even return repeatedly to the same abode or haven to do so. Each pause, however, is a moment of tension that—like holding one’s breath—becomes ever more intense and less sustainable the longer it lasts. Indeed the wayfarer . . . has no final destination, for wherever he is, and so long as life goes on, there is somewhere further he can go. For the transported traveller and his baggage, by contrast, every destination is a terminus, every port a point of re-entry into a world from which he has been temporarily exiled while in transit. This point marks a moment not of tension but of completion. (79-80)

The wayfarer’s movement—his orientation and pace—“is continually responsive to his perceptual monitoring of the environment that is revealed along the way,” Ingold continues. “He watches, listens and feels as he goes, his entire being alert to the countless cues that, at every moment, prompt the slightest adjustments to his bearing” (80). Transport, on the other hand, is distinguished “by the dissolution of the intimate bond that, in wayfaring, couples locomotion and perception. The transported traveller becomes a passenger, who does not himself move but is rather moved from place to place. The sights, sounds and feelings that accost him during the passage have absolutely no bearing on the motion that carries him forth” (81).

This distinction between wayfaring and transport—with wayfaring associated (primarily but not entirely) with tribal cultures, and transport associated (primarily but not entirely) with modern cultures and their modes of movement—is very interesting. It made me think of the distinction between pilgrimages that are focused on reaching a destination, by whatever means, and pilgrimages that are focused on the experience of the journey. The relation between those forms of pilgrimage to wayfaring and transport is complex, but Ingold is providing a language with which one could talk about those different forms of travel. 

Take, for example, the differences between what happens at places where wayfarers or transported passengers pause. Where the wayfarer stops to rest, the transported passenger experiences sites of activity:

But this activity, confined within a place, is all concentrated on one spot. In between sites he barely skims the surface of the world, if not skipping it entirely, leaving no trace of having passed by or even any recollection of the journey. Indeed, the tourist may be advised to expunge from memory the experience of getting there, however arduous or eventful it may have been, lest it should bias or detract him from the appreciation of what he has come to see. In effect, the practice of transport converts every trail into the equivalent of a dotted line. (81)

The distinction between the trail, as a continuous gesture, and the dotted line, as a series of interrupted moments, is central to Ingold’s argument. For me, however, the distinction he is drawing here between the wayfarer and the transported passenger describes my experience of walking to Wood Mountain last August. The three-hour drive back to the city was entirely unmemorable. The nine-day walk, on the other hand, was a powerful experience of the environment around me. And while there were places I wanted to reach—not just the village of Wood Mountain, but different towns along the way—I would argue that walk was closer to wayfaring than it was to transport. I would continue to make that argument even though, since I was walking along roads, I was arguably walking along what Ingold calls “point-to-point connectors,” the lines that link “successive destinations” and that are characteristic of transport (81-82). Those lines “differ from lines of wayfaring in precisely the same way that the connector differs from the gestural trace,” Ingold argues. “They are not trails but routes” (82). That difference is important. Wayfarers contribute to the construction and maintenance of trails: “the wayfarer, in his perambulations, lays a trail on the ground in the form of footprints, paths and tracks” (82). Routes, on the other hand, are premade by others. Routes take the form of networks, Ingold suggests, while the lines produced by wayfaring become a meshwork (a word he borrows from the French philosopher Henri Lefebvre) (82-83): “woven into their very texture, and thence into the country itself, are the lines of growth and movement of its inhabitants,” Ingold writes. “Every such line is tantamount to a way of life” (82). For Ingold, wayfaring is “the most fundamental mode by which living beings, both human and non-human, inhabit the earth” (83). Habitation does not mean taking one’s place in a world that has been prepared in advance for those who live in it (like the roads I walked along in August), but rather the inhabitant is “one who participates from within in the very process of the world’s continual coming into being and who, in laying a trail of life, contributes to its weave and texture. These lines are typically winding and irregular, yet comprehensively entangled into a close-knit tissue” (83). Such lines, he continues, “have no ultimate destination, no final point with which they are seeking to link up” (83).

The lines that are characteristic of wayfaring would include the trails that First Nations and Métis people used on the prairies—trails that have been either been destroyed or appropriated through the processes of settlement. The distinguishing feature of this part of the world, in fact, is the imposition of a grid—both a grid of roads, and a grid of land-ownership—over the land, an imposition that ignored the practices of the people who lived here before settlers began to arrive. Ingold’s description of this process is worth reading:

From time to time in the course of history, imperial powers have sought to occupy the inhabited world, throwing a network of connections across what appears, in their eyes, to be not a tissue of trails but a blank surface. These connections are lines of occupation. They facilitate the outward passage of personnel and equipment to sites of settlement and extraction, and the return of the riches therefrom. Unlike paths formed through the practices of wayfaring, such lines are surveyed and built in advance of the traffic that comes to pass up and down them. They are typically straight and regular, and intersect only at nodal points of power. Drawn cross-country, they are inclined to run roughshod over the lines of habitation that are woven into it, cutting them as, for example, a trunk road, a railway or a pipeline cuts the byways frequented by humans and animals in the vicinity through which it passes. . . . But lines of occupation do not only connect. They also divide, cutting the occupied surface into territorial blocks. These frontier lines, too, built to restrict movement rather than to facilitate it, can seriously disrupt the lives of in habitants whose trails they happen to cross. (85)

Those imposed lines are everywhere in this province, and it is in fact impossible to walk here without using them, given the difficulty of walking along rivers and creeks, the way First Nations people would have done, because of the province’s laws about trespassing and the difficulties involved in getting permission to walk on private land—and in this part of the world, almost all of the land is private.

Ingold returns to this point in his summary of the contrast he has drawn between wayfaring and transport:

the path of the wayfarer wends hither and thither, and may even pause here and there before moving on. But it has no beginning or end. While on the trail the wayfarer is always somewhere, yet every “somewhere” is on the way to somewhere else. The inhabited world is a reticulate meshwork of such trails, which is constantly being woven as life goes on along them. Transport, by contrast, is tied to specific locations. Every move serves the purpose of relocating persons and their effects, and is oriented to a specific destination. The traveller who departs from one location and arrives at another is, in between, nowhere at all. Taken together, the lines of transport form a network of point-to-point connections. In the colonial project of occupation, this network, once an undercurrent to life and constrained by its ways, becomes ascendant, spreading across the territory and overriding the tangled trails of inhabitants. (85)

I should point out that I am not arguing that walking to Wood Mountain was simply wayfaring, and that being driven back to Regina was transport. Rather, what I’m trying to say is that, if one can imagine a continuum with wayfaring on one end, and transport on the other, that walk was closer to the wayfaring side of the continuum. I would say something similar about other walks I’ve made—in Spain, or in England, or here in Saskatchewan. There is something about the pace of walking, and about the amount of time walking takes, and about the way one tends to experience one’s surroundings through one’s senses while walking, that places it on the wayfaring side of that continuum.

The distinction between wayfaring and transport is echoed in the distinction Ingold draws between sketch maps and cartographic maps. Most maps in human history, he suggests, have been drawn up in the context of storytelling, in which people describe their journeys, or those of characters of legend or myth (85-87). “Retracing their steps in narrative, storytellers may also gesture with their hands and fingers, and these gestures may in turn give rise to lines”—mostly ephemeral ones scratched into the earth or snow or drawn on a readily available surface (87). Such maps are not unlike the sketch maps one might draw to give a new friend directions to get to one’s house. “[T]he lines on the sketch map are formed through the gestural re-enactment of journeys actually made, to and from places that are already known for their histories of previous comings and goings,” Ingold writes. “The joins, splits and intersections of these lines indicate which paths to follow, and which can lead you astray, depending on where you want to go. In effect, the “walk” of the line retraces your own “walk” through the terrain” (87). Sketch maps, he continues, do not claim to represent the territory or to mark the spatial locations of the features they include. “What count are the lines, not the spaces around them,” he argues:

Just as the country through which the wayfarer passes is composed of the meshwork of paths of travel, so the sketch map consists—no more and no less—of the lines that make it up. They are drawn along, in the evolution of a gesture, rather than across the surfaces on which they are traced. (87)

The distinction between “along” and “across” is important to Ingold’s argument: the first is characteristic of both wayfaring and sketch maps, and the second is characteristic of transport and cartographic maps. 

Cartographic maps, he continues, are completely different than sketch maps. They have borders separating the space inside the map, which is part of it, from the space outside, which is not. And although there are various kinds of lines on cartographic maps, representing roads and railways and administrative boundaries, “these lines, drawn across the surface of the cartographic map, signify occupation, not habitation. They betoken as appropriation of the space surrounding the points that the lines connect or—if they are frontier lines—that they enclose” (87). This quotation clarifies another of Ingold’s distinctions: that between occupation and habitation. Occupation is characteristic of the world defined by transport and cartography. Habitation, on the other hand, belongs to wayfaring and sketch maps—and to storytelling as well. Ingold writes,

When, drawing a sketch map for a friend, I take my line for a walk, I retrace in gesture the walk that I made in the countryside and that was originally traced out as a trail along the ground. Telling the story of the journey as I draw, I weave a narrative thread that wanders from topic to topic, just as in my walk I wandered from place to place. The story recounts just one chapter in the never-ending journey that is life itself, and it is through this journey—with all its twists and turns—that we grow into a knowledge of the world about us. (90)

That is one way of coming to know the world. However, in the dominant framework of modern thought, it is supposed that knowledge is assembled by joining up, into a more complete picture, observations taken from a number of separate, fixed points, as in the construction of a cartographic map: “According to this view, knowledge is integrated not by going along but by building up, that is by fitting these site-specific fragments into structures of progressively greater inclusiveness” (91). Building up is thus related to going across, but it is a way of coming to knowledge rather than a way of representing that knowledge. 

The connection between wayfaring, habitation and story are important for Ingold, who argues “that it is fundamentally through the practices of wayfaring that beings inhabit the world” (91). “By the same token,” he continues, “the ways of knowing of inhabits go along, and not up. Or in a word, inhabitant knowledge . . . is alongly integrated” (91). As an example to illustrate this claim, Ingold suggests that place names in Indigenous cultures are integrated into the processes of journeys—which are both stories and examples of wayfaring. “Such names, however, mean nothing on their own, and rarely appear on cartographic maps,” he writes. That’s because surveying “is a mode of occupation, not habitation:

The names the surveyor seeks are indexed to locations in terms of their distinctive features, but without regard to how one arrives there. These named locations are the components that are then assembled into a larger totality. Occupant knowledge, in short, is upwardly integrated. And this finally brings us to the crux of the difference between these two knowledge systems, of habitation and occupation respectively. In the first, a way of knowing is itself a path of movement through the world . . . along a line of travel. The second, by contrast, is founded upon a categorical distinction between the mechanics of movement and the formation of knowledge, or between locomotion and cognition. Whereas the former cuts from point to point across the world, the latter builds up, from the array of points and the materials collected therefrom, into an integrated assembly. (92)

The differences between sketch and cartographic maps helps to illustrate the point Ingold is making. Drawing a line on a sketch map is like telling a story: 

the storyline goes along, as does the line on the map. The things of which the story tells . . . do not so much exist as occur; each is a moment of ongoing activity. These things, in a word, are not objects but topics. Lying at the confluence of actions and responses, every topic is identified by its relations to the things that paved the way for it, that presently concur with it and that follow it into the world. Here the meaning of the “relation” has to be understood quite literally, not as a connection between pre-located entities but as a path traced through the terrain of lived experience. Far from connecting points in a network, every relation is one line in a meshwork of interwoven trails. To tell a story, then, is to relate, in narrative, the occurrences of the past, retracing a path through the world that others, recursively picking up the threads of past lives, can follow in the process of spinning out their own. But rather as in looping or knitting, the thread being spun now and the thread picked up from the past are both of the same yarn. There is no point at which the story ends and life begins. (92-93)

When I read the word “relation” here, I thought of a Cree phrase I learned last semester, one that is central to the Cree worldview: kahkiyaw niwâhkômâkanak, “all my relations.” Isn’t that what Ingold is talking about here—the distinction between Western and Indigenous ways of seeing and experiencing the world? “[I]n storytelling as in wayfaring, it is in the movement from place to place—or from topic to topic—that knowledge is integrated,” Ingold writes (93), and that statement reminded me of Lee Maracle’s insistence that Indigenous knowledge is contained in and expressed by stories. It is a different way of looking at the world—one that has been denigrated by the twin forces of modernity and colonialism, but one that deserves more respect.

The last thing Ingold discusses in this chapter that is connected to my research interests is the difference he sees between concepts of place: between places understood as hubs, as containers for life, and places as knots, formed of the very lines along which life is lived (103). The first is characteristic of the world that has given us transport and cartography, the world that separates us from our environment in fundamental ways; the second is about connection. The know is the privileged term in that particular binary, I would argue. The lines that make up the knot “are bound together in the knot, but they are not bound by it,” Ingold writes. “To the contrary they trail beyond it, only to become caught up with other lines in other knots. Together they make up what I have called a meshwork. Every place, then, is a knot in the meshwork, and the threads form which it is traced are the lines of wayfaring” (104). That is why, Ingold continues,

I have consistently referred to wayfarers as inhabitants rather than locals and to what they know as inhabitant rather than local knowledge. For it would be quite wrong to suppose that such people are confined within a particular place, or that their experience is circumscribed by the restricted horizons of a life lived only there. It would be equally wrong, however, to suppose that the wayfarer wanders aimlessly over the surface of the earth, with no place or places of abode. The experience of habitation cannot be comprehended within the terms of the conventional opposition between the settler and the nomad, since this opposition is itself founded on the contrary principle of occupation. Settlers occupy places; nomads fail to do so. Wayfarers, however, are not failed or reluctant occupants but successful inhabitants. They may indeed be widely travelled, moving from place to place—often over considerable distances—and contributing through these movements to the ongoing formation of each of the places through which they pass. Wayfaring, in short, is neither placeless nor place-bound but place-making. (104)

The differences between the way the wayfarer travels, and the type of movement that is characteristic of destination-oriented transport, help to clarify the point Ingold is making:

For the wayfarer whose line goes out for a walk, speed is not an issue. It makes no more sense to ask about the speed of wayfaring than it does to ask about the speed of life. What matters is not how fast one moves, in terms of the ratio of distance to elapsed time, but that this movement should be in phase with, or attuned to, the movements of other phenomena of the inhabited world. The question ‘How long does it take?’ only becomes relevant when the duration of a journey is measured out towards a pre-determined destination. Once however the dynamics of movement have been reduced, as in destination-oriented transport, to the mechanics of locomotion, the speed of travel arises as a key concern. The traveller whose business of life is conducted as successive stopping-off points wants to spend his time in places, not between them. While in transit he has nothing to do. Much of the history of transport has been taken up with attempts to attenuate these liminal, in-between periods, by devising ever-faster mechanical means. . . . Thus unlike the wayfarer who moves with time, the transported traveller races against it, seeing in its passage not an organic potential for growth but the mechanical limitations of his equipment. If he had his way, every point in his entire network of connections, laid out on the plane of the present, could be accessed simultaneously. And so, driven by an unattainable ideal, our individual hurries form point to point, both trying and inevitably failing to be everywhere at once. The time it takes is a measure of his impatience. (104-05)

“Perhaps what truly distinguishes the predicament of people in modern metropolitan societies is the extent to which they are compelled to inhabit an environment that has been planned and built expressly for the purposes of occupation,” Ingold continues. “Life will not be contained, but rather threads its way through the world along the myriad lines of its relations. But if life is not enclosed within a boundary, neither can it be surrounded.” What, then, becomes of our ideas about our environment? he asks.

Literally an environment is that which surrounds. For inhabitants, however, the environment does not consist of the surroundings of a bounded place but of a zone in which their several pathways are thoroughly entangled. In this zone of entanglement—this meshwork of interwoven lines—there are no insides or outsides, only openings and ways through. An ecology of life, in short, must be one of threads and traces, not of nodes and connectors. And its subject of inquiry must consist not of the relations between organisms and their external environments but of the relations along their severally enmeshed ways of life. (106)

If our culture thought that way, would we be in the midst of the planet’s sixth great extinction? Would we have adopted technologies that are altering our climate in ways that might make our continued presence on this planet impossible? I don’t think so.

I included a couple of Ingold’s books on my reading list, and Lines makes me want to move on to them sooner rather than later. But his repeated references to his 2000 book The Perception of the Environment: Essays on Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill make me want to add that book to my list. I’m not sure that there’s much of a connection between Ahmed’s lines and Ingold’s, but that is something for me to think about as I continue to read. In the end, it doesn’t matter if those connections aren’t there; I see enough in Ingold’s writing to help me think more clearly about walking in this particular place.

Works Cited

Ingold, Tim. Lines. Routledge, 2016.

———. The Perception of the Environment: Essays on Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill. Routledge, 2000.

18. Sara Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others

queer phenomenology

After reading Sara Ahmed’s Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others, I am convinced that my brief foray into embodied cognition was an error, and that phenomenology will give me a language I can use to talk about embodiment. “Error” is probably the wrong word: I know now that embodied cognition isn’t what I need to study, and it’s better to know that’s the case rather than wonder whether it might be useful. Phenomenology provides a conceptual framework that can be used to think about embodiment. I had a hunch that would be the case, but Ahmed’s book has confirmed it. My discussion of Ahmed’s book in this post is long, but her argument is both complex and important to my work, and so I want to attempt to explain it in detail, if only so that I come to understand it better. 

Ahmed begins Queer Phenomenology with the question of orientation: “how is it that we come to find our way in a world that acquires new shapes, depending on which way we turn[?]” (1). What does it mean, in other words, to have our bearings, to know how we get somewhere, to be turned toward objects that help us find our way, whether those objects are landmarks or other familiar signs which function as anchoring points? Such objects, Ahmed writes, “gather on the ground, and they create a ground upon which we can gather. And yet, objects gather quite differently, creating different grounds. What difference does it make ‘what’ we are orientated toward?” (1). Those sentences give a sense of Ahmed’s poetic prose, which (from my experience reading Heidegger) seems to be common in texts about phenomenology. She also uses the verb “orientate” throughout the book, rather than its synonym, “orient,” because (I think) she wants to keep “orient,” or “Orient,” as a generic name for the east (following Edward Said’s classic book, Orientalism). She also uses what I’ve been taught are “scare quotes” throughout as a way of (I think) questioning the language she uses, or perhaps the language that English provides for her to use; she also uses italics for emphasis. Reading Ahmed’s book means getting used to these quirks, and quickly getting accustomed to her somewhat idiosyncratic writing style, but that’s no different from reading other theorists or philosophers who use language in similarly unique ways: Derrida, Deleuze, Foucault, Heidegger, etc. But that style makes it difficult to summarize, paraphrase, or synthesize Ahmed’s thinking; that’s something to bear in mind if you’re reading this post. It’s also important to note that Ahmed’s book is deeply personal; her writing is autobiographical, or perhaps autotheoretical, and her references to her own experience are an important part of her argument.

In her introduction, Ahmed notes that her particular interest is in the orientation of sexual desire; for her, foregrounding the concept of orientation will give us the ability to retheorize the sexualization of space and the spatiality of sexual desire (1). Her primary research question (I think) is this: “What would it mean for queer studies if we were to pose the question of ‘the orientation’ of ‘sexual orientation’ as a phenomenological question?” (1). Ahmed returns to this a question in her second chapter, and in her conclusion. Phenomenology is important to queer studies, she writes, because it “makes ‘orientation’ central in the very argument that consciousness is always directed ‘toward’ an object, and given its emphasis on the lived experience of inhabiting a body” (2). Such orientations involve our emotions, which are “directed to what we come into contact with: they move us ‘toward’ and ‘away’ from such objects” (2). We are orientated towards others as well as objects (that is, people as well as things), and our orientations towards others, she continues, “shape the contours of space by affecting relations of proximity and distance between bodies” (3). Ahmed is very interested in what we perceive as being close to us, and what we perceive as being far away; what we move toward, and what we move away from. These questions, she suggests, are important questions in phenomenology, particularly the work of Maurice Merleau-Ponty.

Orientation, Ahmed argues, begins with disorientation (5). We notice orientation through its absence, and that leads to questions about orientation (6). Being oriented in space is about the way we inhabit space with our bodies, about the way we move through space by situating ourselves in relation to the objects in that space (6). For Ahmed, the concept of orientation allows us to rethink the phenomenality of space—“that is, how space is dependent on bodily inhabitance” (6). “Orientation involves aligning body and space: we only know which way to turn once we know which way we are facing,” she writes, and the concepts of alignment and direction are essential to her thinking. So, too, is the concept of familiarity: “[f]amiliarity is shaped by the ‘feel’ of space or by how spaces ‘impress’ upon bodies,” she writes (7). “The work of inhabiting space involves a dynamic renegotiation between what is familiar and unfamiliar, such that it is still possible for the world to create new impressions, depending on which way we turn, which affects are within reach,” she continues (7-8). Along with the way we inhabit space, Ahmed is interested in the way our bodies extend into space; when we extend ourselves into space, what is almost familiar, or almost within reach, is also extended. Being orientated, then, extends the reach of the body. “Orientations are about how we begin,” Ahmed writes: “how we proceed from ‘here,’ which affects how what is ‘there’ appears, how it presents itself” (8). But our central perspective is provided by our own bodies; we begin with our body, the point from which we begin and from which the world unfolds (8). All space, however, is not relative to the subject’s position; some spaces are defined socially (13): “[i]n this book,” Ahmed continues, “I hope to explore what it means for ‘things’ to be orientated, by showing how ‘orientations’ depend on taking points of view as given,” a givenness that is provided by our social horizon(s) (14).

Much of Ahmed’s introduction, then, is about introducing us to the key terms she uses in her book, and perhaps the central concept in her thinking is that of lines: “[t]he lines that allow us to find our way, those that are ‘in front’ of us, also make certain things, and not others, available” (14). Lines are the products of the direction we take, and they exclude possibilities as well as enable them. The lines that we follow also function as forms of alignment, of being in line with others: when we face the direction already faced by others, we are orientated along with them, and this orientation allows our bodies to extend into spaces that have already taken their shape (15). The claim that we face in certain directions and follow certain lines because of ideological interpellation (she cites French Marxist theorist Louis Althusser), Ahmed writes, is a key argument in her book:

the body gets directed in some ways more than others. We might be used to thinking of direction as simply which way we turn, or which way we are facing, at this or that moment in time. Direction then would be a rather casual matter. But what if direction, as the way we face as well as move, is organized rather than casual? We might then speak of collective direction: of ways in which nations and other imagined communities might be “going in a certain direction” or facing the same way, such that only some things “get our attention.” Becoming a member of such a community, then, might also mean following this direction, which could be described as the political requirement that we turn some ways and not others. We follow the line that is followed by others: the repetition of the act of following makes the line disappear from view as the point from which “we” emerge. (15)

Moreover, by turning in particular directions, or moving along particular lines, “the surfaces of bodies in turn acquire their shape. Bodies are ‘directed’ and they take the shape of this direction” (15-16). Those lines are both created by being followed, and followed by being created, Ahmed notes, and the lines that direct us, “as lines of thought as well as lines of motion, are in this way performative: they depend on the repetition of norms and conventions, of routes and paths taken, but they are also created as an effect of this repetition” (16). Following these lines, following the directions they indicate, takes work, but that work is often hidden from view. Nevertheless, the commitment and social investment involved means that the line we follow ends up hewing closely to the lines of our lives: 

We then come to “have a line” which might mean a specific “take” on the world, a set of views and viewing points, as well as a route through the contours of the world, which gives our world its own contours. So we follow the lines, and in following them we become committed to “what” they lead us to as well as “where” they take us. (17)

Because following lines is a form of social investment which promises a return, subjects reproduce the lines that they follow (17). Thinking of the politics of lines leads Ahmed to think about the notion of inheritance, “the lines that are given as our point of arrival into familial and social space,” and reproduction, “the demand that we return the gift by extending the line” (17). “It is not automatic that we reproduce what we inherit, or that we always convert our inheritance into possessions,” Ahmed writes. “We must pay attention to the pressure to make such conversions” (17). We might be hailed or interpellated by a particular line or direction, but we needn’t turn in that direction; we might inherit a particular line or direction, but we needn’t face in that direction or follow that line. Much of Ahmed’s book explores refusals to accept such inheritances.

Following a particular line involves uncertainty, and lines are not always linear: there are forks in the road and different paths to follow, moments of both hope that one is headed in the right direction, and doubt which leads one to want to turn back or give up or look for another path (19). Such moments are not always conscious, Ahmed argues: “At times, we don’t know that we have followed a path, or that the line we have taken is a line that clears our way only by marking out spaces that we don’t inhabit” (19). And yet, she continues, “accidental or chance encounters do happen, and they redirect us and open up new worlds” (19). For Ahmed, such an encounter was her decision to leave her husband and come out as a lesbian. “Such moments can be a gift,” she writes, “or they might be the site of trauma, anxiety, or stress about the loss of an imagined future” (19). They can be disorienting: “disorientation is a way of describing the feelings that gather when we lose our sense of who it is that we are” (20). But moments of disorientation are vital, according to Ahmed: “to live out a politics of disorientation might be to sustain wonder about the very forms of social gathering” (24), a point she returns to in her conclusion.

Ahmed’s second chapter is an exploration and critique of the phenomenological theory, particularly the work of Edmund Husserl, that will make her third and fourth chapters possible. Phenomenology’s radical claim, she writes, is that consciousness is directed toward something; therefore, it is intentional (27). “If consciousness is about how we receive the world ‘around’ us,” she continues, “then consciousness is also embodied, sensitive, and situated” (27). This thesis “can help show us how bodies are directed in some ways and not others, as a way of inhabiting or dwelling in the world” (27). Receiving the world involves perceiving the world, and to perceive something, you need to have taken an orientation toward it: “[t]he object is an effect of towardness; it is the thing toward which I am directed and which in being posited as a thing, as being something or another for me, takes me in some directions rather than others” (27). But perceiving objects also means taking a direction toward them, and that direction is affective: “I might like them, admire them, hate them, and so on. In perceiving them in this way or that, I also take a position upon them, which in turn gives me a position” (27-28). Taking a direction appears to be another way of speaking about orientation, and being oriented towards an object affects what we do and how we inhabit space (28). However, not everything is available to us as an object. Some objects—such as the domestic labour required to maintain Husserl’s example of the table at which he writes—are relegated to the background in order to sustain a particular direction: “in other words, in order to keep attention on what is faced. Perception involves such acts of relegation that are forgotten in the very preoccupation with what it is that is faced” (31). Not everyone can sustain an orientation towards the writing table; such attention involves a political economy, “an uneven distribution of attention time,” and that uneven distribution is part of that background (32). “The objects that we direct our attention toward reveal the direction we have taken in life,” Ahmed writes. “Other objects, and indeed spaces, are relegated to the background; they are only ever co-perceived”—that is, perceived along with other background objects. If phenomenology were to attend to this background, she continues, “it might do so by giving an account of the conditions of emergence for something, which would not necessarily be available in how that thing presents itself to consciousness” (38). Ahmed’s version of phenomenology, in other words, historicizes objects, by attending to how they arrived in the place where they can be perceived. 

That arrival requires at least two entities, a subject and an object, and these have to “co-incide”: the hyphen suggests the way that different things happen at the same moment, “a happening that brings things near to other things, whereby the nearness shapes the shape of each thing” (39). We are affected by objects, and objects are affected by us. But these simultaneous arrivals aren’t necessarily matters of chance: they are at least partially determined (by their histories, it seems), even though that determination doesn’t determine what will happen as a result of their nearness, how the object will be affected by the encounter, or how we will be affected (39). In addition, according to Ahmed, things only become themselves by being cut off from their own arrival—from their histories of arrival, histories that involve multiple forms of contact with others: “Objects appear by being cut off from such histories of arrival, as histories that involve multiple generations, and the ‘work’ of bodies, which is of course the work of some bodies more than others” (41-42). Objects are not neutral or ahistorical, in other words. They have been affected by actions performed on them in the past, actions which have shaped them; and those objects, in turn, shape what we do (43). But such histories are “spectral,” not available on the surface of the object, but rather behind it (44). 

One subset of objects are tools, which are object that allow us to extend our bodies (49). Such extensions allow us to work, but in order for that work to happen, we, along with our tools, need to be orientated, or facing the right way: “in other words,” Ahmed writes, “the objects around the body allow the body itself to be extended. When things are orientated, we are occupied and busy” (51). However, not all objects, or spaces, fit all kinds of bodies:

Objects, as well as spaces, are made for some kinds of bodies more than others. Objects are made to size as well as made to order: while they come in a range of sizes, the sizes also presume certain kinds of bodies as having “sizes” that will “match.” In this way, bodies and their objects tend toward each other; they are oriented toward each other, and are shaped by this orientation. When orientation “works,” we are occupied. The failure of something to work is a matter of a failed orientation: a tool is used by a body for which it was not intended, or a body uses a tool that does not extend its capacity for action. (51)

How we reside in space with objects determines our action, and that means that the relation between action and space is crucial: “spatial relations between subjects and others are produced through actions, which make some things available to be reached” (52). Moreover, our bodies themselves take shape by moving through spaces, and as we move through spaces, objects also move, in the sense that our orientation to them changes (53). “Phenomenology hence shows how objects and others have already left their impressions on the skin surface,” Ahmed writes, and by “skin surface” she means the surface of the skin of the subject who perceives:

The tactile object is what is near me, or what is within my reach. In being touched, the object does not “stand apart”; it is felt “by” the skin and even “on” the skin. In other words, we perceive the object as an object, as something that “has” integrity, and is “in” space, only by haunting that very space; that is, by co-inhabiting space such that the boundary between the co-inhabitants of space does not hold. The skin connects as well as contains. The nonopposition between the bodies that move around objects, and objects around which bodies move, shows us how orientation involve at least a two-way “approach,” or the “more than one” of an encounter. Orientations are tactile and they involve more than one skin surface: we, in approaching this or that table, are also approached by the table, which touches us when we touch it. (54)

What is near us, in other words, is shaped by what we do, and affects what our bodies can do (54). There is also a mutuality in Ahmed’s formulation of the relationship between bodies and objects: they touch each other, which is, I think, a way of reasserting that they affect each other

But bringing objects near to our bodies also involves acts of perception: decisions about what can be brought near to us (55). “Objects are objects insofar as they are within my horizon,” Ahmed contends; “it is in the act of reaching ‘toward them’ that makes them available as objects for me” (55). The bodily horizon, she continues, establishes a line beyond which bodies cannot reach, and that horizon determines what is reachable for us:

what “comes into” view, or what is within our horizon, is not a matter simply of what we find here or there, or even where we find ourselves as we move here or there. What is reachable is determined precisely by orientations that we have already taken. Some objects don’t even become objects of perception, as the body does not move toward them: they are “beyond the horizon” of the body, and thus out of reach. The surfaces of bodies are shaped by what is reachable. Indeed, the history of bodies can be rewritten as the history of the reachable. (55)

This point is central to much of Ahmed’s argument, particularly in relation to sexual orientation. “Orientations are about the direction we take that puts some things and not others in our reach,” she contends. “So the object, which is apprehending only by exceeding my gaze, can be apprehended only insofar as it has come to be available to me: its reachability is not simply a matter of its place or location . . . but instead is shaped by the orientations I have taken that mean I face some ways more than others” (56). 

In other words, our histories, the orientations we have taken, limit the objects we are capable of perceiving. History happens in the repetition of gestures, and such repetitions give bodies their tendencies, which gives them potential orientations:

It is important that we think not only about what is repeated, but also how the repetition of actions takes us in certain directions: we are also orientating ourselves towards some objects more than others, including not only physical objects . . . but also objects of thought, feeling, and judgment, as well as objects in the sense of aims, aspirations, and objectives. (56)

Repetition is not neutral: our bodies are shaped by repetition, and “it orients the body in some ways rather than others” (57). As a result, “we get stuck in certain alignments as an effect of this work” (56). Our bodies acquire orientations through the repetitions of some actions rather than others, and since actions have certain objects in view, the nearness of objects becomes a sign of orientations we have already taken towards the world (58). Action, moreover, also defines the field of inaction, “actions that are possible but that are not taken up, or even actions that are not possible because of what has been taken up”: 

Such histories of action or “take up” shape the bodily horizon of bodies. Spaces are not only inhabited by bodies that “do things,” but what bodies “do” leads them to inhabit some spaces more than others. If spaces extend bodies, then we could say that spaces also extend the shape of the bodies that “tend” to inhabit them. (58)

“The point is simple,” Ahmed writes: “what we ‘do do’ affects what we ‘can do’” (59). Gender is one example. Because gender shapes what we do, and because gender is a factor in how we inhabit some spaces rather than others, it also shapes what we can do. Gender, then, is a bodily orientation, “a way in which bodies get directed by their actions over time” (60). As Ahmed suggests in the following chapters, sexual and racial orientations also shape the way bodies are directed by their actions over time. Even so, other possibilities remain: “bodies can take up spaces that do not extend their shape, which can in turn work to ‘reorientate’ bodies and space” (61). 

This discussion of phenomenological theory informs Ahmed’s discussion of sexual orientation, which she begins with a reflection on what she calls “queer moments” in the work of Merleau-Ponty—moments where the subject has to work to overcome a perception that things are on a slant, rather than oriented according to the vertical axis (65). The relation between the normative and that vertical axis interests Ahmed. The normative, she writes, is “an effect of the repetition of bodily actions over time, which produces what we call a bodily horizon, a space for action, which puts some objects and not others in reach” (66). That notion can be redescribed, she continues, “in terms of the straight body, a body that appears ‘in line’” (66). A straight body is one that is aligned with other lines, and so instead of taking the vertical line as a given, we ought to see it as an effect of this process of alignment (66). “The vertical axis is itself an effect of being ‘in line,” Ahmed argues, “where the line taken by the body corresponds with other lines that are already given. The vertical is hence normative; it is shaped by the repetition of bodily and social actions over time” (66). This claim is important. Bodies that are aligned with the vertical axis (and perhaps also the horizontal one?) are bodies that can extend into space, bodies that appear the right way up, bodies that do not appear out of line. Queer bodies—and Ahmed exploits both senses of the word “queer” throughout her book—are bodies that are not aligned, and such bodies can have a powerful effect:

Importantly, when one thing is “out of line,” then it is not just that thing that appears oblique but the world itself might appear on a slant, which disorientates the picture and even unseats the body. If we consider how space appears along the lines of the vertical axis, then we can begin to see how orientations of the body shape not just what objects are reachable, but also the “angle” on which they are reached. Things look right when the approach us from the right angle. (67)

The problem with this argument, I think, is that the vertical and horizontal axes are not simply matters of perception: they can be determined through the use of a plumb bob or a level. However, the reference to vertical lines is in Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception, and since Ahmed begins with that reference, it’s no surprise that she ends up making this argument. The image of bodies being expected to align themselves with straight lines becomes central to her discussion of queer sexual orientations, which are, according to this model, oblique or slanted, not vertical, not mapped according to a grid of horizontal or vertical lines. As I read this chapter, I found myself wondering why the lines she describes are always straight, never curved, whatever their relationship to that grid—might that not have been a better visual image? Again, by starting with her particular reference to Merleau-Ponty, the image seems to have been predetermined, which is an interesting example of the very phenomena she is describing.

According to Ahmed, sexuality is crucial to the orientation of bodies, and therefore to the way we inhabit spaces; therefore, “the differences between how we are orientated sexually are not only a matter of ‘which’ objects we are orientated toward, but also how we extend through our bodies into the world” (67-68). In other words, it’s about “differences in one’s very relation to the world—that is, in how one ‘faces’ the world or is directed toward it” (68). Different ways of directing our desires, different orientations, mean “inhabiting different worlds” (68). In this chapter of the book, Ahmed states, she wants to rethink the spatiality of sexual orientation by formulating what she calls a “queer phenomenology” (68). That phenomenology, she continues, “might offer an approach to sexual orientation by rethinking how the bodily direction ‘toward’ objects shapes the surfaces of bodily and social space” (68). After all, that’s what phenomenology is about, as the earlier chapters of the book have demonstrated: how the directions we face shape us, and how we are shaped by them, within the context of social or historical space.

Cupid and his arrows are, for Ahmed, a metaphor of the directionality of sexual orientation: Cupid’s arrows travel in lines, lines of desire. “So sexual desire orientates the subject toward some others (and by implication not other others) by establishing a line or direction,” she writes. “Sexual orientation involves following different lines insofar as the others that desire is directed toward are already constructed as the ‘same sex,’ or the ‘other sex.’ It is not simply the object that determines the ‘direction’ of one’s desire; rather, the direction one takes makes some others available as objects to be desired” (69-70). Therefore, she continues, to be directed towards the same sex, or the other sex, “becomes seen as moving along different lines” (70). And, since heterosexuality is normalized and naturalized in our culture, same-sex desire “reaches objects that are not continuous with the line of normal sexual subjectivity (71). Ahmed cites Adrienne rich on compulsory heterosexuality, the institutional practices that require men and women to be heterosexual (84), through which “subjects are required to ‘tend toward’ some objects and not others as a condition of familial as well as social love” (85). Heterosexuality functions as a background, “as that which is behind actions that are repeated over time and with force, and that insofar as it is behind does not come into view” (87). 

In fact, heterosexuality appears to be a function of the prohibitions against same-sex desire in Ahmed’s formulation: “[t]he nearness of objects to each other comes to be lived as what is already given, as a matter of how the domestic is arranged. What puts objects near depends on histories, on how ‘things’ arrive, and on how they gather in their very ability as things to ‘do things’ with” (88). Objects and bodies might seem oblique or slanted, according to Ahmed, but that will be the case “only insofar as they do not follow the line of that which is already given, or that which has already extended in space by being directed in some ways rather than others” (92). For that reason, “[s]paces as well as bodies are the effects of such straightening devices” (92). The notion of straightening devices returns later, in Ahmed’s discussion of racialized bodies.

Homosexuality, for Ahmed, results in the queer subject’s rejection by his or her or their heterosexual family, because it cannot lead to reproducing the gift of heterosexuality. “It is not that the heterosexual subject has to turn away from queer objects in accepting heterosexuality as a parental gift,” Ahmed writes:

compulsory heterosexuality makes such a turning unnecessary (although becoming straight can be lived as a ‘turning away’). Queer objects, which do not allow the subject to approximate the form of the heterosexual couple, may not even get near enough to ‘come into view’ as possible objects to be directed toward. (91)

“The body acts upon what is nearby or at hand,” she continues, “and then gets shaped by its directions toward such objects, which keeps other objects beyond the bodily horizon of the straight subject” (91). I’m not sure I’m understanding Ahmed correctly here, but she seems to be suggesting that heterosexuals are only heterosexual because they have not been able to consider same-sex bodies as objects of desire. That interpretation is strengthened by her suggestion that heterosexuality is a repetitive strain injury that shapes what bodies can do:

Bodies take the shape of norms that are repeated over time and with force. Through repeating some gestures and not others, or through being orientated in some directions and not others, bodies become contorted: they get twisted into shapes that enable some action only insofar as they restrict the capacity for other kinds of action. Compulsory heterosexuality diminishes the very capacity of bodies to reach what is off the straight line. It shapes which bodies one “can” legitimately approach as would-be lovers and which one cannot. In shaping one’s approach to others, compulsory heterosexuality also shapes one’s own body as a congealed history of past approaches. Hence, the failure to orient oneself “toward” the ideal sexual object affects how we live in the world; such a failure is read as a refusal to reproduce and therefore as a threat to the social ordering of life itself. (91)

Perhaps heterosexuality is a repetitive strain injury for someone like Ahmed, who was married to a man before ending that relationship and coming out as a lesbian (a story she tells at the beginning of the book), and if she is describing the experience of others like herself, that’s one thing. If, however, she’s suggesting that heterosexuals are only heterosexual because of the repetition of norms that have established heterosexuality as compulsory, that’s something else. I’m not sure that calling into question the authenticity of heterosexual desire—if that’s what Ahmed is doing—is either useful or true, but I might be misreading her text. I suppose I would have to read Adrienne Rich on compulsory heterosexuality, and Judith Butler on heteronormativity, before I could really understand Ahmed’s argument here. And yet, Ahmed’s discussion of heterosexuality as a form of “contact sexuality” reinforces my reading. She contends that 

straight orientations are shaped by contact with others who are constructed as reachable as love objects by the lines of social and familial inheritance. . . . Indeed, I have suggested that compulsory heterosexuality functions as a background to social action by delimiting who is available to love or ‘who’ we come into contact with. (94-95)

At the same time, she acknowledges “that (luckily) compulsory heterosexuality doesn’t always work” (94), and that many who are hailed or interpellated by compulsory heterosexuality do not turn around to respond (107). I find myself wondering why she grants queer bodies such agency, but apparently denies it to straight bodies. Perhaps I am only asking that question because, as a straight male, I am not a member of Ahmed’s audience—the people whom she imagined while she was writing this chapter. I don’t know.

Both queer bodies and black bodies (Ahmed’s terms, not mine) have difficulty inhabiting spaces that are defined as straight or white: such spaces do not allow those bodies to be extended, because they do not allow those bodies to take their shape. Ahmed begins her chapter on phenomenology and racialized bodies with a quotation from Frantz Fanon about his physical response to meeting the eyes of a white man. “For Fanon,” she writes,

racism “stops” black bodies inhabiting space by extending through objects and others; the familiarity of “the white world,” as a world we know implicitly, “disorients” black bodies such that they cease to know where to find things—reduced as they are to things among things. Racism ensures that the black gaze returns to the black body, which is not a loving return but rather follows the line of the hostile white gaze. The disorientation affected by racism diminishes capacities for action. (111)

“If the world is made white,” she continues, “then the body at home is one that can inhabit whiteness”:

As Fanon’s work shows, after all, bodies are shaped by histories of colonialism, which makes [sic] the world “white” as a world that is inherited or already given. This is the familiar world, the world of whiteness, a world we know implicitly. Colonialism makes the world “white,” which is of course a world “ready” for certain kinds of bodies, as a world that puts certain objects within their reach. Bodies remember such histories, even when we forget them. Such histories, we might say, surface on the body, or even shape how bodies surface. . . . In a way, then, race does become a social as well as a bodily given, or what we receive from others as an inheritance of this history. (111)

In this chapter, Ahmed writes, she wants to reflect on processes of racialization and consider “racism as an ongoing and unfinished history, which orientates bodies in specific directions, affecting how they ‘take up’ space. Such forms of orientation are crucial to how bodies inhabit space, and to the racialization of bodily as well as social space” (111). 

Ahmed begins with an analysis of the spatial formations of Orientalism and the ways that geographic space is orientated such that near and far, or proximity and distance, are associated with specific bodies and places (112). Then she considers how we inherit “the proximities that allow white bodies to extend their reach,” while “such inheritances shape those who do not or cannot ‘possess’ such whiteness” (112). She then explores the effects of racism on bodies that are not white or not quite white, and the way that mixed orientations “might allow us to reinvestigate the ‘alignments’ between body, place, nation and world that allow racial lines to be given” (112). That question is personally important to Ahmed, as the daughter of a Pakistani father and a white English mother. “The ‘matter’ of race is very much about embodied reality,” she writes:

seeing oneself or being seen as white or black or mixed does affect what one “can do,” or even where one can go, which can be redescribed in terms of what is and is not within reach. If we begin to consider what is affective about the “unreachable,” we might even begin the task of making “race” a rather queer matter. (112)

Here, of course, Ahmed is using “queer” to mean “strange” or, as her etymology suggests, “twisted” (67). 

She begins by thinking about the relationship between the words “orientate” and “Orient,” and suggests, following Said, that the Orient is constructed as “not-Europe” (114). The “not-ness” of the Orient,” she writes, “seems to point to another way of being in the world—to a world of romance, sexuality, and sensuality,” as well as its “farness”, its distance from the West, which makes it exotic. The fact that the Orient is an object of desire for the West is complex: “[d]esire confirms that which we are not (the object of desire), while it pushes us toward that ‘not,’ which appears as an object on the horizon, at the edge of our gaze, getting closer even when it is not quite here” (114). This desire for the other can be described as a way to extend the body, according to Ahmed. “The body extends its reach by taking in that which it ‘not’ it, where the ‘not’ involves the acquisition of new capacities and directions—becoming, in other words, ‘not’ simply what I am ‘not’ but what I can ‘have’ and ‘do.’ The ‘not me’ is incorporated into the body, extending its reach” (115). This incorporation is certainly a feature in the history of the Orient, at least since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the discovery of oil in the Middle East.

But Ahmed goes on to distinguish between being oriented toward something, in the sense of desiring it, and orientated around something, in the sense of making that thing central, at the centre of one’s being or action (116). “The Orient here would be the object toward which we are directed, as an object of desire,” she writes. “By being directed toward the Orient, we are orientated ‘around’ the Occident. Or, to be more precise, the Occident coheres as that which we are organized around through the very direction of our gaze toward the Orient” (116). The Orient is both far away and reachable, and it can therefore be brought home and domesticated, while still being defined by difference (116-17). “The object function of the Orient, then, is not simply a sign of the presence of the West—of where it ‘finds its way’—but also a measure of how the West has ‘directed’ its time, energy, and resources,” she continues (117). “We could even say that Orientalism involves a form of ‘world facing,’” Ahmed suggests, “that is, a way of gathering things around so they ‘face’ a certain direction” (118). In that way, Orientalism involves phenomenal space: “it is a matter of how bodies inhabit spaces through shared orientations” (118). The Orient as the desired other, then, is part of what helps the West define itself, by directing its citizens’ attention toward a shared object, creating a collective force, a collective that takes shape through the repetition of the act of facing, of putting one in line with others (119). 

How, Ahmed asks, does this help us retheorize the orientation of Orientalism? “To direct one’s gaze and attention toward the other, as an object of desire, is not indifferent, neutral, or casual: we can redescribe ‘towardness’ as energetic,” she answers:

In being directed toward others, one acts, or is committed to specific actions, which point toward the future. When bodies share an object of desire, one could say they have an “affinity” or they are going in “the same direction.” Furthermore, the affinity of such bodies involves identification: in being directed toward a shared object, as a direction that is repeated over time, they are also orientated around a shared object. So, for instance, in being directed toward the oriental object or other, they may be oriented around “the West,” as what the world coheres around. Orientalism, in other words, would involve not just making imaginary distinctions between the West and the Orient, but would also shape how bodies cohere, by facing in the same direction. Objects become objects only as an effect of the repetition of this tending “toward” them, which produces the subject as that which the world is “around.” The orient is then “orientated”; it is reachable as an object given how the world takes shape “around” certain bodies. (120)

As I read this passage, I wondered whether something similar might be said about First Nations, Métis, and Inuit people in Canada. To what extent are those nations objects of Canada’s desire? To what extent does Canada cohere—to the extent that it does cohere—around those nations as objects? Could we produce a phenomenology of Canadian orientations towards First Nations, Métis, and Inuit people that would generate a similar result to Ahmed’s phenomenology of Orientalism? I would love to read something that addresses those questions, with or without the phenomenological flavour. The paper David Garneau gave on the Indian Pavillion at Expo 67 at the University of Regina on Friday afternoon gestured in that direction, but that wasn’t his primary focus.

Next, Ahmed turns to the reproduction of whiteness. She writes, “spaces become racialized by how they are directed or orientated, as a direction that follows a specific line of desire” (120), and that racialization includes whiteness. “The alignment of race and space is crucial to how they materialize as givens, as if each ‘extends’ the other,” she continues:

In other words, while “the other side of the world” is associated with “racial otherness,” racial others become associated with the “other side of the world.” They come to embody distance. This embodiment of distance is what makes whiteness “proximate,” as the “starting point” for orientation. Whiteness becomes what is “here,” a line from which the world unfolds, which also makes what is “there” on “the other side.” (121)

Echoing her earlier comments regarding straightening devices, Ahmed suggests that whiteness is more than just a straight line against which nonwhite bodies are seen as oblique or askew. Rather, “whiteness is ‘attributed’ to bodies as if it were a property of bodies; one way of describing this process is to describe whiteness as a straightening device” (121). Whiteness gets reproduced, she continues, “through acts of alignment, which are forgotten when we receive its line,” especially through the white family—not in a biological sense, but through the cultural expectation that children resemble their parents, even if they look quite different (121-22). Whiteness is therefore a form of bodily inheritance, but one based on expectations of “shared attributes,” which are taken up, retrospectively, as evidence of family or even community linkages (122). Another way to think about the relationship between inheritance and likeness, Ahmed writes, is to consider that “we inherit proximities (and hence orientations) as our points of entry into a familial space, as ‘a part’ of a new generation. Such an inheritance in turn generates ‘likeness’” (123). The notion of likeness or resemblance between parents and children is therefore an effect of proximity (nearness) or contact, which is then taken up as a sign of biological inheritance, rather than likeness or resemblance being the cause of that proximity (123). Moreover, while proximity is inherited, that inheritance can be refused and does not determine any future course of action (123). “Rather than thinking about the question of inheritance in terms of nature versus nature, or biology versus culture, we should be thinking in terms of contingency or contact (touch),” Ahmed writes (124). “[T]hings are shaped by their proximity to other things, whereby this proximity itself is inherited in the sense that it is the condition of our arrival into the world” (124). 

This is a difficult argument to understand, because it resists our commonsense notions of family resemblances as having a biological basis, and I wonder if Ahmed doesn’t push it too far. I look very much like my father, for example, and I don’t think it is because of proximity or contact, but because I have inherited genetic characteristics from him. Perhaps Ahmed is merely talking about whiteness as an inheritance, though. “In the case of race, we would say that bodies come to be seen as ‘alike’—for instance, ‘sharing whiteness’ as a ‘characteristic,’ as an effect of such proximities, where certain ‘things’ are already ‘in place’” (124). Those things, perhaps, include the expectation that children will resemble their parents, in a racialized sense, and Ahmed’s argument seems to be that those expectations are constructed on the basis of proximity. At least, I think that’s the argument. I find it very hard to follow.

The question of inheritance and whiteness as a social phenomenon is clearer than Ahmed’s discussion of family resemblances. “To inherit whiteness is to become invested in the line of whiteness: it is both to participate in it and to transform the body into a ‘part’ of it, as if each body is another ‘point’ that accumulates to extend the line,” she writes. “Whiteness becomes a social inheritance: in receiving whiteness as a gift, white bodies—or those bodies that can be recognized as white bodies—come to ‘possess’ whiteness as if it were a shared attribute” (125). But for Ahmed, inheritance can be rethought in terms of orientations:

we inherit the reachability of some objects, those that are “given” to us or at least are made available to us within the family home. I am not suggesting here that “whiteness” is one such “reachable object” but rather that whiteness is an orientation that puts certain things within reach. By objects, we would include not just physical objects, but also styles, capacities, aspirations, techniques, even worlds. In putting certain things in reach, a world acquires it[s] shape; the white world is a world orientated “around” whiteness. This world, too, is “inherited” as a dwelling: it is a world shaped by colonial histories, which affect not simply how maps are drawn, but the kinds of orientations we have toward objects and others. Race becomes, in this model, a question of what is within reach, what is available to perceive and to do “things” with. (126)

This quotation reminds me of Peggy McIntosh’s essay on white privilege, in which she argues, “White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools and blank checks” ([10]). What is different about Ahmed’s version, though, is the notion that along with inheriting whiteness, white people inherit colonial histories that shape their orientations, the directions they face and the things they are able to perceive—and the things they cannot perceive, like whiteness itself, which forms part of the background of a white person’s life, even as it circulates in political and affective economies, generating rates of return for bodies that are considered to be white (129).

Ahmed argues that whiteness is a habit, not unlike her claim that heterosexuality is the product of repetition:

We might be used to thinking of bodies as “having” habits, usually bad ones. We could even describe whiteness as a bad habit: as a series of actions that are repeated, forgotten, and that allow some bodies to take up space by restricting the mobility of others. I want to explore here how public spaces take shape through the habitual actions of bodies, such that the contours of space could be described as habitual. I turn to the concept of habits to theorize not so much how bodies acquire their shape, but how spaces acquire the shape of the bodies that “inhabit” them. We could think about the “habit” in the “inhabit.” (129)

The habitual can be thought of as a bodily and spatial form of inheritance, because we acquire our tendencies—“the repetition of the tending toward is what identity ‘coheres’ around,” Ahmed writes—from what we inherit (129). “To describe whiteness as a habit, as second nature, is to suggest that whiteness is what bodies do, where the body takes the shape of the action,” she continues. “Such habits are not ‘exterior’ to bodies, as things that can be ‘put on’ or ‘taken off.’ If habits are about what bodies do, in ways that are repeated, then they might shape what bodies can do” (129-30). That shaping doesn’t only affect what such bodies can do, but it also restricts their possibilities for action as well (130).

Moreover, because habits are actions we perform without thinking about them, the body itself is habitual because when it performs actions repeatedly, “it does not command attention, apart from the ‘surface’ where it ‘encounters’ an external object” (130). “In other words,” Ahmed continues, “the body is habitual insofar as it ‘trails behind’ in the performing of an action, insofar as it does not pose ‘a problem’ or an obstacle to the action, or it is not ‘stressed’ by ‘what’ the action encounters” (130). In other words, the habitual body is behind the action, in the background (131), which suggests that whiteness itself is in the background, something that is a given that does not have our attention:

White bodies are habitual insofar as they “trail behind” actions: they do not get “stressed” in their encounters with objects or others, as their whiteness “goes unnoticed.” Whiteness lags behind such bodies. White bodies do not have to face their whiteness; they are not orientated “toward” it, and this “not” is what allows whiteness to cohere, as that which bodies are orientated around. By not having to encounter being white as an obstacle, given that whiteness is “in line” with what is already given, bodies that pass as white move easily, and this motility is extended by what they move toward. The white body in this way expands; objects, tools, instruments, and even “others” allow that body to inhabit space by extending that body and what it can reach. Whiteness becomes habitual in the sense that white bodies extend their reach by incorporating objects that are within reach. To make this point simply: what is “within reach” also “extends the reach” of such bodies. (132)

“Whiteness is only invisible for those who inhabit it, or for those who get so used to its inhabitance that they learn not to see it, even when they are not in it,” Ahmed writes (133). Spaces become shaped by and orientated around whiteness, particularly institutional spaces, like universities (132-33). “It is not just that there is a desire for whiteness that leads to white bodies getting in,” Ahmed writes; “rather, whiteness is what the institution is orientated ‘around,’ so that even bodies that might not appear white still have to inhabit ‘whiteness’ if they are to get ‘in’” (134).

Being orientated in this way, for white people, is to feel at home in the world. It is to feel a certain comfort, something we only notice when we lose it and become uncomfortable (134). “To be comfortable is to be so at ease with one’s environment that it is hard to distinguish where one’s body ends and the world begins,” Ahmed contends. “One fits, and in the act of fitting, the surfaces of bodies disappear from view. White bodies are comfortable as they inhabit spaces that extend their shape. The bodies and spaces ‘point’ toward each other, as a ‘point’ that is not seen as it is also ‘the point’ from which we see” (134-35). However, Ahmed is not arguing that whiteness has its own ontological force. It is not something with substance. Nor is it reducible to white skin or even to something we can have or be. After all, nonwhite bodies do inhabit white spaces, although as they do so, they either become invisible or hypervisible. “You learn to fade into the background,” she writes, “but sometimes you cannot. The moments when the body appears ‘out of place’ are moments of political and personal trouble” (135). However, even white bodies can be “out of line” with the institutions they inhabit, particularly if those bodies are queer, or deviate from the vertical axis in some other way (136-37). 

Because they are comfortable in the world, white bodies move with comfort through space, and to experience the world as if it were home (136). “Bodies that are not restricted by racism, or by other technologies used to ensure that space is given to some rather than others,” Ahmed writes, “are bodies that don’t have to come up against the limitations of this fantasy of motility. Such bodies are both shaped by motility, and they may even take the shape of that motility” (136). Whiteness is also a straightening device: “bodies disappear into the ‘sea of whiteness’ when they ‘line up’ with the vertical and horizontal lines of social reproduction, which allows bodies to extend their reach” (137). In fact, whiteness becomes the universal definition of what is human, and so not to be white is to inhabit the negative, the “not,” which for Ahmed is a way of describing “the social and existential realities of racism” (139). “If Merleau-Ponty’s model of the body in Phenomenology of Perception is about ‘motility,’ expressed in the hopefulness of the utterance, ‘I can,’” she continues, “Fanon’s phenomenology of the black body could be described in terms of the bodily and social experience of restriction, uncertainty, and blockage, or perhaps even in terms of the despair of the utterance ‘I cannot’” (139). For Merleau-Ponty, that is, the body is successful if it is able to extend itself through objects in order to act on and in the world, but Fanon reveals that this success is a bodily form of privilege, rather than competence (139). “To be black or not white in ‘the white world,’” Ahmed argues, “is to turn back toward oneself, to become an object, which means not only being extended by the contours of the world, but being diminished as an effect of the bodily extensions of others” (139). 

As I’ve suggested, Ahmed is a mixed-race person, and she suggests that there is “something queer” about that orientation, something that produces discomfort, which paradoxically “allows things to move” (154). Such discomfort is what a queer genealogy would produce: through the affective possibilities of coming into contact with objects that reside on different lines, such a genealogy would open up new kinds of connection. “As we know,” she writes,

things are kept apart by such lines: they make some proximities not impossible, but dangerous. And yet, mixing does happen, and lines to not always direct us. A queer genealogy would be full of such ordinary proximities. This would not be about the meeting point between two lines that would simply create new lines . . . but rather about the “crossing” of existing lines in the very failure to return to them. After all, the gap between what one receives and what one becomes is opened up as an effect of how things arrive and of the “mixtures” of any arrival. This is not to say that some bodies necessarily acquire such orientations as effects of their own arrival. Rather it is to say that the unsettling effect of such arrivals is what allows that which has been received to be noticeable. We don’t always know what might be unsettling; what might make the lines that that direct us more noticeable as lines in one moment or another. But once unsettled it might be impossible to return, which of course means that we turn somewhere else, as a turning that might open up different horizons. (154-55)

As a descendant of settlers, I find the word “unsettling” very thought-provoking. What can unsettle a settler? For me, discovering the history of the place where I grew up—the fact that the land on which I was raised was stolen from the Haudenosaunee—was unsettling. And I have found it impossible to return to what I was before that unsettling experience. I feel the same way about learning about the nature of Treaty Four, the agreement between the Cree and Saulteaux people, on the one hand, and the federal government, on the other. For the Cree and Saulteaux Chiefs who negotiated that treaty, it was supposed to establish kinship relations with the newcomers, and to constitute an agreement to share the land; for the government negotiators, it was a land surrender—even though there’s no evidence that they told the Indigenous negotiators that the treaty would mean surrendering their land. That is another unsettling experience. And those unsettling experiences have opened up new horizons and lines of inquiry for me. The question, though, is how to translate those unsettling experiences into decolonization, given what seems to be the overwhelming power of whiteness. How does one refuse the twin inheritances of whiteness and colonialism, while still being a white settler living on stolen land? Isn’t that what decolonizing, for settlers, would entail? Ahmed seems to suggest that such refusals are possible (155), but I wonder if she means that white bodies can refuse those inheritances. Such a refusal would, she writes, reorient “our” relation to whiteness (155)—but who is included within that plural pronoun? Who is Ahmed’s audience?

In her conclusion, Ahmed suggests that moments of disorientation are vital, even though they are unsettling. In phenomenology, disorientation is followed by reorientation or realignment (159). But what happens if the disorientation cannot be overcome by the force of the vertical (159)? From Fanon, we learn about the experience of disorientation, of being an object among objects, of being shattered, “of being cut into pieces by the hostility of the white gaze” (160). “Disorientation,” Ahmed writes,

can be a bodily feeling of losing one’s place, and an effect of the loss of a place: it can be a violent feeling, and a feeling that is affected by violence, or shaped by violence directed toward the body. Disorientation involves failed orientations: bodies that inhabit spaces that do not extend their shape, or use objects that do not extend their reach. At this moment of failure, such objects “point” somewhere else or they make what is “here” become strange. Bodies that do not follow the line of whiteness, for instance, might be “stopped” in their tracks, which does not simply stop one from getting somewhere, but changes one’s relation to what is “here.” Where such lines block rather than enable action they become points that accumulate stress, or stress points. Bodies can even take the shape of such stress, as points of social and physical pressure that can be experienced as a physical press on the surface of the skin. (160)

In those moments of disorientation, objects slip away or retreat and become strange, as they do for the narrator of Jean-Paul Sartre’s novel, Nausea (165-66). And yet, returning to the theme of sexual orientation, Ahmed suggests that disorientation can be a positive thing. It is possible, she argues, to 

face the objects that retreat, and become strange in the face of their retreat, with a sense of hope. In facing what retreats with hope, such a queer politics would also look back to the conditions of arrival. We look back, in other words, as a refusal to inherit, as a as a refusal that is a condition for the arrival of queer. To inherit the past in the world for queers would be to inherit one’s own disappearance. . . . The task is to trace the lines for a different genealogy, one that would embrace the failure to inherit the family line as a condition of possibility for another way of dwelling in the world. (178)

This queer response to disorientation is also a form of queer politics that would be defined by both joy and hope for the future (178). To be queer is not to follow a line, but rather to ask “what our orientation toward queer moments of deviation will be,” and a queer phenomenology “would involve an orientation toward queer, a way of inhabiting the world by giving ‘support’ to those whose lives and loves make them appear oblique, strange, and out of place” (179). It’s clear that Ahmed is using the word “queer” to refer to sexual orientation here, but I wonder if it would be possible to use that word in its more general sense. Would it be possible, by refusing (or trying to refuse) the inheritance of colonialism and whiteness, to attempt a different kind of queer politics? It’s hard to say.

Queer Phenomenology is an important book, an engaged critique, theorization, and application of phenomenological ideas that provides a way to think about issues related to the body (and therefore embodiment) and space. The next logical step, I know, would be to turn to Merleau-Ponty’s The Phenomenology of Perception, but that’s a big book—some 600 pages of text and footnotes—and it might be wiser to leave it for the spring, when I won’t be teaching or taking a language class. I recently saw a quotation from Phil Smith’s Mythogeography: A Guide to Walking Sideways recently, and it seems to use phenomenology to think about walking, but although I thought I had a copy, it turns out that I don’t. So I could turn to Tim Ingold’s book about lines, following Ahmed’s preoccupation with that image, while I’m waiting for Smith’s book to arrive. I’m not sure. I am sure, though, that I will return to this book in the future, both in an attempt to clarify the points where I was confused by Ahmed’s argument, and to answer the questions I still have about how her argument might be applied to my own research. 

Works Cited

Ahmed, Sara. Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others. Duke UP, 2006.

McIntosh, Peggy. “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” Peace and Freedom, July-August 1989, pp. 10-12.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. The Phenomenology of Perception, translated by Donald A. Landes, Routledge, 2013.

Smith, Phil. Mythogeography: A Guide to Walking Sideways. Triarchy, 2014.

17. Jacquelyn Allen-Collinson, “Sporting Embodiment: Sports Studies and the (Continuing) Promise of Phenomenology”


Jacquelyn Allen-Collinson’s article is a brief introduction to phenomenology and its usefulness for research into sports. “There are relatively few accounts truly grounded in the ‘flesh’ of the lived sporting body,” she writes, “and phenomenology offers a powerful framework for such description and analysis” (279). Phenomenology, the study of things as they present themselves to and are received in our consciousness, emerged in the work of Edmund Husserl “and now spans a wide-ranging, multi-stranded and interpretively contested set of perspectives” (279-80). “In general,” Allen-Collinson continues, “phenomenology seeks highly detailed, in-depth descriptions of subjective human experiences in specific contexts, and aspires to reveal their ‘essences’” (280). Her article is intended to give an overview of key “strands” in phenomenology, “identify central characteristics or qualities of the phenomenological method,” consider some of the ways phenomenology has been applied (particularly in sports studies), and “examine the potential of existentialist phenomenology”—particularly the work of Maurice Merleau-Ponty—“to offer rich analyses of sporting embodiment that evocatively portray the multi-textured experiences of the lived sporting body” (280). According to this article, phenomenology provides a language one can use to write and think about embodiment, and I find that encouraging. Perhaps I’m finally on the right track.

According to Allen-Collinson, who has published widely on embodiment and sports, phenomenology is not simply focused on individual experience:

in addition to overcoming Cartesian mind-body dualism and advancing detailed, grounded descriptions of phenomena (two of Husserl’s original purposes), phenomenology also provides a stance on embodiment that incorporates conceptions of bodies and action as socially and historically located, socially related and interacting from particular structural standpoints. Our bodies are thus acknowledged to be gendered, classed, “sexually oriented,” aged, “raced,” with differing degrees of dis/ability and corporeal variation. (280)

There are four tendencies within phenomenology—realist, constitutive or transcendental, hermeneutic, and existentialist—but Allen-Collinson argues that it is the last tendency that is likely to prove most relevant for investigations of embodiment (281). Existentialist phenomenology, as represented in the writing of Merleau-Ponty, “provides a ‘third way’ epistemologically and ontologically speaking, commencing not from the assumption of an objective world ‘out there,’ nor from a pure, constituting consciousness, but from a dialogic where world, body and consciousness are all fundamentally intertwined, inter-relating and mutually influencing” (283). One’s own body is the subject of perception in existentialist phenomenology, “the standpoint from which all things are perceived and experienced,” and therefore phenomena are not “merely abstract things out there in the world, separate from human consciousness and experience, but are part of our incarnate subjectivity” (283). In other words, we experience phenomena with our bodies, before reflection (thought) or language (283). 

At the same time, existentialist phenomenology also highlights the situatedness of human experience (283). It also argues that embodiment is always mediated by our interactions with other bodies (both human and non-human), something Allen-Collinson calls “inter-embodiment” (283). She also notes Merleau-Ponty’s notion of reversibility: the idea that sense perceptions are reversible, that we both touch and are touched, see and are seen, and that “our embodied subjectivity inheres in both our touching and our tangibility; the two are inextricably intertwined”—not just with other bodies but with objects and the general environment” (283). “Whilst all strands of phenomenology potentially offer insights into the sporting experience,” she concludes, “Merleau-Ponty’s form of existentialist phenomenology, with its focus upon embodiment, is particularly well-suited to the in-depth portrayal of the corporeally grounded experience of sport and physical activity” (284). 

Next, Allen-Collinson describes four themes or qualities that are general within phenomenological theory or research. The first is description, specifically descriptions of things in the world with reference to the person perceiving and recording them. The second is epochē or reduction: the work of suspending taken-for-granted assumptions about a phenomenon, something most contemporary phenomenological researchers acknowledge is an impossibility (286). The third is an interest in essences, the essential structures of experience, in order to derive knowledge in a systematic and disciplined way. The last theme is intentionality, the claim that consciousness is always directed towards something or someone (287). 

One form of phenomenological research that is common in the social sciences, Allen-Collinson continues, is something called interpretive phenomenological analysis (IPA). IPA is a research approach that aims to explore in detail the sense-making activities of study participants in relation to their subjective experiences (288). However, this method has been confused with qualitative research in general, and some IPA projects lack phenomenological grounding and are phenomenological in name only. (I wonder if she includes the article on the phenomenology of long-distance walking that I wrote about yesterday in that category? The authors of that study were clearly more interested in positive psychology than they were in phenomenology.) Another research method that might be more promising is autoethnographic phenomenology, or “autophenomenography,” a rarely used research method, but one that can “provide the rich, evocative, textured descriptions of first-person experience” that are “central to the phenomenological quest to bring to life and to share with others the felt, lived, embodied experience” (291). “Phenomenology seeks to provide highly textured, evocative descriptions that locate the specifics of individual experience within broader, more general structures of human experience,” she continues, and “[a]utoethnography is thus one possible means of generating the rich, bodyful, fleshy, grounded and evocative descriptions of the body in sport and exercise” (292).

“Phenomenology can provide not only a theoretical and methodological framework for examining human subjectivity and embodiment in general,” Allen-Collinson concludes, “but also for investigating the specifics of socially located, socially related and interacting bodies” (293). It can also provide a way of combining personal experience with general or ethnographic categories, and of “creating rich descriptions that produce a feeling of understanding in the reader, of bodily knowing and sense-making as well as cognitive knowledge” (293).

Phenomenology seems much more likely to be a productive area of research for me, if Allen-Collinson is correct, in contrast to embodied cognition, and it’s clear that I need to read Merleau-Ponty if I am serious about exploring embodiment. I’m left wondering, though, if autophenomenography might not just be another word for good writing, writing that evokes sensory experiences effectively, and if there is any relationship between phenomenology and anthropologist Clifford Geertz’s much-cited “thick description.” Isn’t the point of thick description to create feelings of understanding in the reader? Is thick description just a characteristic of any decent autoethnographic writing? I don’t have the answers to those questions—but to be honest, I think those tangents can wait, at least until after I’ve finished reading Sara Ahmed’s Queer Phenomenology. Completing that book is my next goal. I’m glad I read Allen-Collinson’s article, though, because it gives me a sense that I’m heading in the right direction, and that’s a good feeling.

Works Cited

Ahmed, Sara. Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others. Duke UP, 2006.

Allen-Collinson, Jacquelyn. “Sporting Embodiment: Sports Studies and the (Continuing) Promise of Phenomenology.” Qualitative Research in Sport and Exercise, vol. 1, no. 3, 2009, pp. 279-96. DOI: 10.1080/19398440903192340.

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

16. Lee Crust, Richard Keegan, David Piggott, and Christian Swann, “Walking the Walk: A Phenomenological Study of Long Distance Walking”

cotswolds day 1.jpg

So, it’s clear that cognitive science isn’t the place to find a language that will help me write about the experience of walking. What else can I try? What about phenomenology? Yesterday, I started reading Sara Ahmed’s Queer Phenomenology, and it seems promising, but a quick Google search turned up a phenomenological study of long distance walking (available here, outside of the journal’s paywall). Could it be useful? There’s only one way to find out, and that’s to read it.

The authors of this study are more interested in positive psychology than they are in phenomenology; for them, phenomenology provides a methodological context, whereas positive psychology (particularly the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and his various research collaborators) is their primary theoretical context. According to the authors of this study, there are three important concepts in positive psychology. First, there is the life of enjoyment: “savoring positive emotions and feelings” (244). Second, there is the life of engagement, which is an “immersion and absorption in what one is doing,” an absorption that is characteristic of flow experiences, which typically occur “when high levels of skill are matched with high levels of challenge” and are “characterized by feelings of effortlessness and absorption in a task” and tend “to be associated with optimal experiences” (244). Finally, there is the life of affiliation: deriving a sense of well-being, belonging, meaning and purpose through positive relationships (244). Because it seems unlikely to the authors of this study that long-distance walkers would walk only for reasons related to health and fitness, they believe that positive psychology could help us understand their walking experiences (244). The other theoretical context of the study is green exercise, or exercise that takes place in the presence of nature, which other studies have shown to have psychological benefits (244).

Apparently only one psychological study of long-distance walkers had been made prior to this one, a quantitative study involving questionnaires that produced some interesting results. However, the authors of this study believe that quantitative approach “only allowed a somewhat limited understanding of what is likely to be a complex subjective experience,” so qualitative methods that “focus upon the lived experiences of walkers are necessary” (245). They believe that a phenomenological approach to studying walking might also prove useful. Their definition of phenomenology is derived from an article on embodiment in sport by Jacquelyn Allen-Collinson: phenomenology is “an attitude to research rather than specific methods and can promote a contextual re/consideration of physical activity experience and a deeper understanding of how it actually feels to be an exercising body” (245). The theoretical engagement with phenomenology provided here is rather thin, but a quick glance at Allen-Collinson’s list of references demonstrates that she has engaged in the theoretical literature on phenomenology—including books by Sara Ahmed and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, both of whom are on my reading list—and that gives me hope that phenomenology might provide the kind of language or approach I have been looking for. Besides, this study is empirical, not theoretical, and it’s important to focus on what a text set out to do, rather than what it did not.

The purpose of the study described in this article is “to provide rich, descriptive accounts of the experience of long distance walkers,” experiences, the authors write, about which very little is known (245). Their method was straightforward: they conducted retrospective interviews with four long-distance walkers (four men and two women) in the U.K. They had recently completed one of that country’s long-distance footpaths, walks that lasted between six and 11 days and involved walking between 12 and 18 miles (20 to 30 kilometres) per day (245). “The present study employs a phenomenological method,” the authors write, “with the two essential criteria being that the participants have experienced the phenomena being studied and were willing and able to describe their experiences” (245). Their use of phenomenology is “an attempt to provide a completely empirical method that focuses on what an individual experiences,” they continue, noting that the phenomenological method is solely concerned with describing an event, object, or experience (246). “With few previous studies attempting to understand the psychology of long distance walking,” they write, “phenomenology would seem to be an appropriate method in enabling the collection of descriptive information  that could lead to a clearer understanding of the walkers’ lived world” (246). In practical terms, these researchers conducted unstructured interviews in which the participants were considered the experts, a method that generated “rich, descriptive accounts of the walkers’ experiences” (246). The data collected in those interviews was coded and analyzed according to standard qualitative social science procedures.

What were the results of this study? Before the walk, the research participants reported mixed emotions: their planning and preparations demonstrated their investment in the experience of the walk, but they also tended to be apprehensive about logistical issues, their fitness, the distance, and the chances of bad weather. That nervousness was accompanied by anticipation and excitement about the challenge. During the walk, they reported positive feelings, describing the walk as “an immensely enjoyable and rewarding experience,” with that enjoyment derived from many different aspects of the walk: the physical nature of the challenge and the way it tested their resolve (248); the scenic beauty of their route and being close to nature, which generated a sense of connection and reflects the life of affiliation (248, 251); and a sense of meaning derived from being part of something bigger and more permanent than oneself (251). “Participants clearly articulated that some feelings changed as the walk progressed,” the authors report, “and while enjoyment tended to characterize the whole walk, confidence and determination increased the further participants walked” (251). There was a general consensus that the concerns participants had before their walks dissipated and “were replaced by a determination to achieve the goal of finishing as the participants became more aware of how their own capabilities matched the challenge” (251, 253). Participants also reported feeling detached from the complex problems that exist in other areas of life; they “tended to contrast the experience of walking with work to describe a much reduced level of cognitive effort, and a release from responsibilities” (253). The also noted that they were able to reflect upon and solve complex issues by having the time to think through problems, while at the same time they enjoyed the simple tasks related to walking, such as finding their way (254). Reflection, then, was combined with “a focus and engagement with a pleasurable activity,” which “appears to have yielded a fulfilling and meaningful experience” (254). At the same time, the walkers reported that they enjoyed meeting other walkers and becoming part of a walking community (255).

Participants also described being completely absorbed by walking; their exertion often seemed effortless, and they sometimes lost track of time. This response suggests that they experienced what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls flow while they were walking. While they reported numerous challenges—getting lost, bad weather, sore feet, aching muscles and joints—“such issues were regarded as an integral and important part of the whole experience that paradoxically provided greater meaning and a sense of personal achievement at the end of the walk” (255). Overcoming those challenges required the use of a variety of strategies and techniques: some participants relied on personal characteristics, such as resilience, stubbornness, and self-confidence; others visualized the end of the walk; some used humour; some took inspiration from the scenery; and others thought about their walk in terms of “more manageable chunks” rather than thinking of it’s entirety (256). They described bittersweet feelings at the end of the walk: they experienced senses of achievement, pride, satisfaction, and joy, but they also felt sadness and loss because the walk was over (256). “This withdrawal response appeared to reflect a change in focus as the goal of completing the walk was achieved and the reality of returning to more common routines and responsibilities became more central,” the authors note (256). In some cases, though, the positive effects of the experience of walking lasted for many months afterwards, and all of the participants reported “a subjective sense of well-being” at their walk’s conclusion, including having a feelings of psychological well-being (having a clear and relaxed mind, positive attitude, and a sense of mental refreshment), physical well-being (experiencing increased feelings of fitness), and social well-being (having new and enhanced personal relationships) (257). 

“What the participants gained from the experience might best be termed personal growth,” the authors of the study state. “Participants reported a variety of enhanced self-perceptions, which included self-esteem, self-efficacy, and more global self-confidence” (257). Many of the participants in the study reported that they were able to reappraise aspects of their lives and gain new perspectives and new meanings (257). In addition, “[t]he experience of completing the walk, which was challenging and difficult for all, has since been used as a baseline from which to judge other life challenges. The result is that day-to-day problems were often down-graded in perceived difficulty due to more positive evaluations of individual capabilities to overcome challenges” (257). The walkers described their experiences as journeys of self-discovery, and noted that those experiences took place within a “bubble” that was “suitably detached from the stresses of modern life,” and which lasted for the walk’s entire duration and was both “immensely enjoyable and “mentally rejuvenating” (259). 

The study’s authors believe that it provides “a more comprehensive understanding of the potential benefits of long distance walking” (259), which they enumerate in detail. One interesting finding is that the participants reported that walking for a single day did not generate any of these feelings or experiences; it seems that multi-day, long-distance walking appears to have a cumulative effect that’s not possible in the course of a single day, a finding that contrasts with the evidence reporting large benefits from short engagements with green exercise (259). However, they also note that their methodology has limitations, in particular their use of retrospective interviews, which could lead to selective recall, and the small group of walkers who were studied. These findings, they caution, should not be generalized to a wider population of walkers (260).

I doubt that any of the findings of this study would be a surprise to anyone who has made a multi-day walking trip; they seem obvious, although perhaps it’s useful to have one’s own experiences confirmed by such a study. In fact, these responses to long-distance walking are so common that I often wonder why more people don’t engage in this activity. Even a long, challenging walk along highways and grid roads, like my walk to Wood Mountain, produced similar feelings and experiences for me, despite my blisters and exhaustion. More importantly, I have a sense from reading this article that, even though the theoretical perspective offered here is a little thin, the language of phenomenology might be useful for writing about the experience of walking, and so I will take on the phenomenological texts on my reading list with a sense of excitement and anticipation. I think I’ll take on Allen-Collinson’s article next, before returning to Sara Ahmed’s book, though, just to confirm that suspicion.

Works Cited

Ahmed, Sara. Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others. Duke UP, 2006.

Allen-Collinson, Jacquelyn. “Sporting Embodiment: Sports Studies and the (Continuing) Promise of Phenomenology.” Qualitative Research in Sport and Exercise, vol. 1, no. 3, 2009, pp. 279-96. DOI: 10.1080/19398440903192340.

Crust, Lee, Richard Keegan, David Piggott, and Christian Swann. “Walking the Walk: A Phenomenological Study of Long Distance Walking.” Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, vol. 23, no. 3, 2011, pp. 243-62. DOI: 10.1080/10413200.2010.548848.

15. Lee Maracle, My Conversations with Canadians

my conversations with canadians

I’m taking a short break from trying to find a language to talk about embodied knowledge. Sto:lo Lee writer Maracle is speaking here on Saturday night, and so I decided to read her book My Conversations with Canadians, even though, for some strange reason, it got cut from my reading list during one of my attempts at getting down to 130 books, and even though I might not be able to go to her talk, because I’m committed to be at a dinner party. So here I am, reading outside my list again. That’s not helping me reach my goal, is it? I need to start being ruthless about restricting myself to the list, or I’m going to find myself in serious trouble.

At least My Conversations with Canadians isn’t off topic, like some of the books I’ve been reading. It’s a collection of 13 essays: 12 are labelled as conversations (with Canadians, that is), and the final one is an address to the first conference on First Nations literature in India. Maracle—a fiction writer, poet, and self-described word artist (140)—knows a lot about First Nations literature, and she knows a lot about non-Indigenous Canadians (settlers and newcomers), from interacting with them at book launches, panels, and conferences. “Not a single Canadian has ever approached me to say: ‘Why are there so many injustices committed against Indigenous people?’ or ‘Why is there not a strong movement of support for justice and sovereignty for Indigenous people’s sovereignty movement in Canada?’” she writes at the beginning of the book (8). Instead, they ask other questions—ones Maracle finds puzzling or insulting or simply beside the point—and much of the book tracks her responses to them. Canadians, she writes, “are here at our goodwill and by our host laws and by way of honouring our treaties—should that happen. Most Canadians don’t see it that way, however. Nothing that happens to Indigenous people, no matter how unlawful, is of much consequence to many of the people occupying Indigenous territories” (8). In other words, Canadians don’t ask those questions because they don’t care about the answers. We prefer to believe that we are innocent—a myth Maracle describes as “inviolable” (10). Canadians believe, for instance, that Canada gave reserves to First Nations. Maracle’s response to this belief is characteristically blunt: “You cannot give someone something that already belongs to them” (11). “This is our country,” Maracle writes. “You were granted permission to live here and the conditions of that permission are embedded in treaties and recent court decisions. Nowhere in these treaties or court decisions does it say we grant you permission to take over management and control of our territories and lives” (124). But that’s exactly what Canada has done, and Canadians cannot see that taking over as the violation that it is. Our silence, Maracle writes, and our innocence, constitute “Canadian colonial strategy” (10).

That myth of innocence is powerful, according to Maracle: Canadians who protest their innocence in relation to colonialism continue to live more comfortably than Indigenous people. “The question of why settler Canadians get a better life off of my continent than Indigenous people does not pop into white men’s heads,” she writes, “or into the heads of other nice white women either” (75). Innocence, ignorance, and a deliberate lack of curiosity go together:

In Canadian people’s defense, they claim not to know what was going on. Well, everyone knew that Indigenous people came from here and non-Indigenous people came from somewhere else. No one became curious about how the shift from Indigenous authority over the land to Canadian authority over the land occurred, nor did they become curious about how our access to the land and its wealth became restricted. No one became curious about how Canadian law became the law that dominated the entire landscape. No one got curious about what was here before. (34)

When Canadians begin to get curious about any of this, when they begin to educate themselves, they still don’t ask the right questions. They ask Maracle, “What can we do to help?” (49)—a question she finds laughable, because it implies that Indigenous people “are responsible for achieving some monumental task we are not up to and so the offer of help is generous” (49). Maracle turns the question around: “Racism and colonialism and patriarchy are Canadian social formations, not Indigenous ones. We are not the only ones responsible for their undoing. If you participate in dismantling the master’s house and ending all forms of oppression, you are helping yourself. The sooner Canadians realize that, the better. . . . It is their responsibility to change their society, which is racist, colonial, and patriarchal to the core” (49-50). 

“What can we do to help?” is related to the question “What is reconciliation to you?” (137), which someone asked after Maracle gave a talk on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. Maracle’s response to that question is scathing: 

“Well, stop killing us would be a good place to begin,” I answered. The audience laughed. “Then maybe stop plundering our resources, stop robbing us of our children, end colonial domination—return our lands, and then we can talk about being friends. I can’t believe we are having this conversation after you listened to my presentation about the murder of Indigenous women and children. It is embarrassing—not for me, but for you.” (137)

A reading in Hamilton, Ontario, turned out differently. The conversation turned to a discussion of the social responsibility of the arts and, Maracle recalls, “For the first time in my life I was sitting with Canadians I did not know and was having a great time” (64). A Canadian woman asked how to increase her level of curiosity about Indigenous people, and Maracle replied, “Do something about us, with us, and for us” (64). For example, she continued, churches in Owen Sound, Ontario, rang their bells every Friday in honour of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. People in the town got curious and invited her to speak with them, along with John Ralston Saul, and when she was there, she found the town to be warm and friendly (64-65). “Something will happen and curiosity will be sparked up and culture will be exchanged,” she continued. Maracle’s conclusion from these experiences is that Canadians don’t know much about Indigenous peoples (66-67). But Maracle doesn’t seem to dislike Canadians, despite their ignorance and claims to innocence; she even suggests that although it’s hard getting to know us, the journey is worthwhile (66). “Some of our people with Canadians would move back to their original homelands,” she writes. “Not me—I hope they fall in love with the land the way I have: fully, responsibly, and committed for life” (85). 

It’s hard for me to write about this book—to risk putting myself in what Maracle terms “the Knower’s Chair”: the position of being the one who gets to teach others, a position that, Maracle argues, Canadians refuse to give up in relation to Indigenous peoples (76). “[N]o white men I know have ever given up the Knower’s Chair willingly—they are always trying to educate me. They never seem to notice how annoying that is,” she writes. “I have met a few white women who have given up their Knower’s Chair. That gives me some hope for the future” (77). The person who occupies the Knower’s Chair refuses to reflect on what he (or possibly she, although Maracle’s pronouns suggest otherwise) knows:

You can mention any contentious subject about racism, sexism, or any other form of oppression, and your white male listener will avoid applying it to himself. Those who do that never get to experience the powerful and transformational aha moment of when you see what you are doing to up the stakes in a conflict. They will only go so far as to say yes to what you said. After that, the conversation is over. This agreement is the end of the road, and I suspect they are wanting forgiveness. There will be no discussion of the origin of the admission, no discussion of its history and the effect on the individual. The thing that moves them is forgiveness. For what? To be forgiven, the transgressor has to confess, but that did not happen, so does this mean the tearful white man is shedding tears of relief? After all, his place is intact, the Knower’s Chair is still his, and he does not have to change anything. (77)

Can I write about this book without occupying the Knower’s Chair? Or by writing about it, am I allowing Maracle to occupy that position? In other words, by writing about this book, am I learning from her? I would like to think so, but I could be wrong.

The question of forgiveness is important for Maracle, and her remarks make me wonder about the purpose of the apologies our governments have offered for this country’s colonialist past—especially since those apologies are never accompanied by any change in present or future behaviour. “We do not have forgiveness as a recurring theme in our culture,” Maracle writes:

If you hurt someone, own it, look at yourself, track where it came from, learn from it and make it right, continue to learn from it, continue to deepen your understanding, and grow from it. If you are transgressed, look at how it made you feel, inventory how you behave, and transform yourself—do not let the transgressions of others damage your authentic self. If you were hurt, look at the impact and effect of the hurt on you and make it right inside so that later you will not pass on the hurt to those who are innocent. Continue to learn from the behaviour. (76)

When I asked my Cree teacher how to say “I’m sorry,” he was genuinely stumped. “We don’t have a word for that,” he finally said. I know that, as Maracle says, every Indigenous nation is unique—“a Sto:lo is as much like an Ojibway as a Frenchman is like a Russian,” she writes (67)—but still, the emphasis on action, rather than apology, seems to operate across national and linguistic boundaries. And her remarks make me wonder what value there is in government apologies—especially when they are not accompanied by action. (I’m talking to you, Premier Moe.)

There is a lot more to say about this book: I haven’t discussed the essays about the colonial imposition of gender binaries, or Canada’s fixation with its multicultural identity, or the need to recognize oral literature along with written literature, or cultural appropriation. That last chapter is important, and I think it’s the only one that’s not actually addressed to settler Canadians—at least, not entirely. According to Maracle, all Sto:lo people owned were their stories, songs, and names—“this is our private, clan, family wealth,” she writes; “[t]hat was our private property” (100)—and so for someone to take those stories is a disinheritance (100). Appropriation is stealing, she continues, “so in order for appropriation to occur, theft must travel with it and receive either resale or profit or personal royalties as a benefit from its use,” while “the original owner must lose the use, benefit, authority, and ownership (as control) over the appropriated item; otherwise it is simply sharing” (101). “Appropriation can occur only if the person doing the appropriating has no prior authority or birthright or permission to access the item and no permission from its original owner to use and benefit from the item” (101). Both land and knowledge were appropriated during colonization, and much of that knowledge ended up in universities, from which Indigenous people must buy it back in the form of courses (101-02). Because of the loss of land and knowledge—and it’s clear that these are inextricably linked—Indigenous people began to think they had no knowledge (105). “Today we struggle to reclaim our knowledge, to articulate and create literary and scholarly works from it, and to end the theft through writing that characterized 120 years of prohibition, theft, and abrogation of our ancestors’ authority and ownership of knowledge,” Maracle writes. “For us to reclaim knowledge, we must re-aggregate it and we must build institutions to accomplish this” (106). Those institutions, however, must be open to Indigenous children and young people; the transmission of Indigenous knowledge to them is of paramount importance, even though ensuring transmission of that knowledge while protecting it from those who would appropriate it is difficult and complicated (107). “No one but our children are entitled to our knowledge, stories, law, teachings, science, or medicine,” Maracle argues, and therefore cultural protocols—giving gifts of tobacco to Elders, for example—are only intended for outsiders or foreigners, for non-Indigenous people, and not for Indigenous children. Much of this argument, I think, is directed at other Indigenous people who ask their children and young people for something in exchange for knowledge, or at universities, where that knowledge is commodified. I’m not sure about that, but for much of the chapter on cultural appropriation, I felt like I was overhearing a conversation, rather than being spoken to directly. That’s not a complaint, just an observation.

My Conversations with Canadians is an important book, particularly now, with militarized RCMP officers occupying Wet’suwet’en territory and arresting people who are defending the land and the water. “I have laws, I have politics, I have beliefs, I have story,” Maracle writes:

What I don’t have is access to my land—someone else is preventing me to access my land by dint of the bayonet and maintains it by a host of laws that are enforced by your hired guns (police and army). Do not mistake my kindness in not responding to your hired guns for a deluded belief in your centrality. Do not mistake my kindness for acceptance of the right of access to my land or for the absence of my love for it. Further, do not mistake my kindness for a relinquishment of who I am and who I will always want to be. (132)

“Settlers ought to look at their history, then look in the mirror,” Maracle continues. “After annihilating our populations, and much of the animal life on this continent and on the oceans, and after spoiling the air, the lands, and the waters, who would want to be you?” (132). Put that way, who would? I wouldn’t. How sad that is. I am glad, though, that I read this book, even though it’s not on my reading list. That omission was a mistake and it’s good that I’ve been able to correct it.

Works Cited

Maracle, Lee. My Conversations with Canadians. Book*hug, 2017.

14. Lawrence Shapiro, Embodied Cognition

embodied cognition

After not learning much about embodiment or embodied knowledge from the last book I read, I decided to go outside of my list in order to try to find something more helpful. When I looked at the library’s database, I didn’t find a whole lot about embodied knowledge; however, I did discover that a lot has been published about embodied cognition. Maybe I should read an introductory text on that, I thought. Maybe that’s the field of inquiry I’ve been trying to find. And that decision brought me to Lawrence Shapiro’s book, Embodied Cognition.

Shapiro describes the aims of his book on the first page: “to introduce and develop the central themes of embodied cognition,” and to assess “the relationship between embodied cognition and standard cognitive science” (1). These are important questions, he writes, because what our minds are like matters to our understanding of who and what we are (2). Standard cognitive science is a clearly defined and demarcated field of inquiry which claims that “cognition involves algorithmic processes upon symbolic representations” (2). In other words, for standard cognitive science, cognition is like a computer: our brains are the hardware, and our minds are the software (41). Embodied cognition, however, is different. According to Shapiro, there are three themes in embodied cognition. The first is Conceptualization (the capitalization is Shapiro’s), which argues that 

[t]he properties of an organism’s body limit or constrain the concepts an organism can acquire. That is, the concepts on which an organism relies to understand its surrounding world depend on the kind of body that it has, so that were organisms to differ with respect to their bodies, they would differ as well in how they understand the world. (4)

Humans and, say slugs—if slugs are capable of cognition, that is; sentient slugs, perhaps—would therefore understand the world in different ways because of their different bodies. That’s because that organism’s understanding of the world “is determined in some sense by the properties of its body and sensory organs” (66). The second theme is Replacement:

An organism’s body in interaction with its environment replaces the need for representational processes thought to have been at the core of cognition. Thus, cognition does not depend on algorithmic processes over symbolic representations. It can take place in systems that do not include representational states, and can be explained without appeal to computational processes or representational states. (4)

Our interactions between our bodies and our environment are the key to cognition, according to this theme, rather than computations going on in our brains. For Replacement, “the computational and representational tools that have for so long dominated standard cognitive science are in fact irremediably defective, and so must be abandoned in favor of new tools and approaches”—tools and approaches that don’t use a vocabulary filled with computational concepts (68). The final theme is Constitution: “The body or world plays a constitutive rather than merely causal role in cognitive processing” (4-5). For this theme, our bodies and/or our environment constitute—at least in part—cognition, rather than just whatever is going on in our heads. According to Shapiro, Constitution is “a commitment to the idea that the constituents of the mind might comprise objects and properties apart from those found in the head,” so that “mental activity includes the brain, the body, and the world, or interactions among these things” (68).

Before Shapiro discusses these themes—he calls them “themes” because he doesn’t think embodied cognition has yet acquired to coherence of a theory—he presents an overview of standard cognitive science. This way of looking at cognition claims that our minds are like computers—in fact, since the 1960s cognitive scientists have been trying to create computer software that mimics human cognition. According to this version of cognition, the environment in which an organism exists, and the body of that organism, do not matter to that organism’s cognitive processes: “cognition is computation, computation operates over symbols, symbols begin with inputs to the brain and end with outputs from the brain, so it is in the brain alone that cognition takes place and it is with the brain alone that cognitive science need concern itself” (26-27). In other words, cognition is solipsistic: subjects are merely passive receivers of information, and if you give inputs to their computational processes, the rest of the world makes no difference to those processes—a model many cognitive scientists endorse (26). Embodied cognition, though, takes a very different approach to cognition. It “resists the idea that cognition is solipsistic, and so rejects the idea that subjects are passive receivers of stimulation” (27).  Instead, according to embodied cognition, our bodies and our environments are part of cognition. For Shapiro, embodied cognition raises a couple of key questions: How might the body contribute to or constrain our psychological capacities? Is the body a constituent in psychological processes? What from standard cognitive science can be retained, and what ought to be abandoned? (50).

Shapiro’s next move is to attempt to present a common background of embodied cognition, with reference to several multidisciplinary research projects. For some researchers, cognition is embodied action: it depends on the kinds of experiences that come from having a body with sensorimotor capacities—that is, a body that moves and collects information from its senses—and these sensorimotor capacities are themselves embedded in a wider biological, psychological, and cultural context (52). Other researchers claim that cognition depends on the experiences that come from having a body with specific perceptual and motor capacities that are inseparably linked, and that together form a matrix within which various aspects of cognition take place (56). Still others claim that the body is not merely a container for the brain, or a contributor to the brain’s activities, but is the brain’s partner in cognition (66). 

Following that attempt at a general description of embodied cognition, Shapiro reviews research that, in his judgment, falls into the Conceptualization theme. The research of George Lakoff and Mark Johnson is central to this discussion. According to Lakoff and Johnson, we understand basic concepts with reference to our bodies and their motion (88). Our minds, they contend, are biological and neural, not symbolic; our thought is embodied; the vast majority of our mind’s activity is unconscious; and abstract thought is metaphorical and uses the same sensorimotor system that runs our bodies (92). For Shapiro, the claims of Conceptualization are trivial (112), and standard cognitive science has computational explanations for many of the problems that Conceptualization claims cannot be explained by it (113), and many advocates of Conceptualization do not understand the science they “seek to topple,” especially Lakoff and Johnson (113). For these reasons, Shapiro concludes that Conceptualization is not a promising research theme.

Replacement, for Shapiro, is the theme that is the most self-consciously opposed to the computational framework that is at the core of standard cognitive science (114). Its proponents suggest that dynamical systems theory, rather than computational theory, would provide the right tools to investigate cognition (115) in a way that is committed to embodiment and situatedness—that is, to the body and its place in an environment (116). Dynamical systems theory, however, consists of a complex mathematical apparatus that attempts to describe how things change over time (116), and if it’s true that “[c]ognition emerges from dynamical interactions among brain, body, and world” (125), the resulting equations would be impossibly complicated. “Indeed,” Shapiro notes, “a common criticism of dynamical approaches to cognition is that they are practically intractable except in the simplest cases” (127-28). Shapiro concludes that the Replacement theme also falls short, because the kinds of behaviour that dynamicists have investigated “represent too thin a slice of the full cognitive spectrum to inspire much faith that embodiment and situatedness can account for all cognitive phenomena” (156).

Lastly, Shapiro takes on the Constitution theme. Proponents of this theme argue that cognitive processes extend beyond the brain (158). Some suggest that the body is part of the mind; others that the mind extends beyond the body and into the world—a view known as extended cognition (158-59). Unfortunately, much of the debate over constitution takes the form of a thought experiment, in which a brain is kept alive in a vat. When brains can be separated from the bodies that house them, I’ll take such thought experiments seriously. More sensible is the suggestion that when we write something down in a notebook in order to remember it, the pencil and paper we are using are part of our cognitive processes (185). 

In his conclusion, Shapiro argues that Conceptualization offers poor explanations of cognition (205-06), compared to standard cognitive science, and that while Replacement offers better explanations of particular phenomena, it is best thought of as an extension of standard cognitive science, rather than an alternative (207). Constitution, on the other hand, is not in competition with standard cognitive science, despite the intentions of some of its proponents (208), because “one can pursue Constitution with the assistance of explanatory concepts that are central to standard cognitive science,” something that cannot be said of Conceptualization or Replacement. In fact, Shapiro argues that Constitution pushes the boundaries of standard cognitive science—perhaps farther than many of its practitioners would have expected.

What do I make of this whirlwind introduction to a complex field I barely understand? Well, for starters, I think that standard cognitive science seems to be based on a metaphor that isn’t acknowledged as a metaphor: the brain is a computer, and our minds are that computer’s software. After all, the field seems to have arisen only after the invention of computers, and its first research projects were computer simulations that attempted to mimic our brains. What if the brain is something very different from a computer? What happens to that metaphor in that case? And does it make sense to try to separate mind and body? When I’m walking a long way on a hot day and I start to get heat exhaustion, the first symptoms include irritability and confusion. Doesn’t that suggest the link between my body and my cognitive processes? What about the recent studies that suggest that populations of gut bacteria have an effect on depression? Don’t they suggest that it’s foolish to attempt to separate mind and body? What would happen if cognitive scientists talked to neuroscientists about what’s actually going on in our skulls, instead of relying on thought experiments and simulations? Wouldn’t their theories end up being grounded in something other than a metaphor (and a pretty tired one at that)? My immediate impulse is to side with those who see a connection between mind and body, rather than a separation, and while I appreciate the care with which Shapiro works through the claims made by proponents of the various themes of embodied cognition, I wonder if his conclusions about those themes are warranted. Part of the problem, I think, is that Shapiro wants to see experimental data about embodied cognition, a field that is far too complex to generate such data. After all, if it’s true that our minds, bodies, and environment are interconnected in fundamental ways, how would those interconnections be measured? Maybe those experiments are less useful than Shapiro thinks they are.

Perhaps I need to spend more time investigating embodied cognition. I could, for example, read Lakoff and Johnson’s huge book, Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought, even though it’s not on my list, despite Shapiro’s dismissal of their work. Or I could look at theories of embodied learning. I’m not sure where to proceed, but I still have a sense that embodiment is an important part of my research, and that I need to find a way to think and write about it. 

Works Cited

Lakoff, George, and Mark Johnson. Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought. Basic, 1999.

Shapiro, Lawrence. Embodied Cognition. Routledge, 2011.