Reading and Walking

Walking, Reading, and Reading about Walking

Tag: bell hooks

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

gould i see my love more clearly from a distance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Works Cited

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

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

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

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

human geography today

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The best contemporary human geographies, Soja continues, are

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

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

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

Works Cited

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

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

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

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

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

9. bell hooks, “Choosing the Margin as a Space of Radical Openness”

hooks yearning

Not everything that’s on my reading list is a 600-page doorstopper. bell hooks’s essay “Choosing the Margin as a Space of Radical Openness” is only a few pages long. To be honest, I’m not sure how this essay ended up on my reading list. I ran across a reference to it somewhere, I think, and I was impressed. In any case, I had time this afternoon to read something short, and so I chose this essay.

hooks begins by asking questions about “the realities of choice and location”:

Within complex and ever shifting realms of power relations, do we position ourselves on the side of colonizing mentality? Or do we continue to stand in political resistance with the oppressed, ready to offer our ways of seeing and theorizing, of making culture, towards that revolutionary effort which seeks to create space where there is unlimited access to the pleasure and power of knowing, where transformation is possible? (145)

That choice is crucial, because it determines “our capacity to envision new alternative, oppositional aesthetic acts” and “informs the way we speak about these issues, the language we choose” (145). Place is both literal and metaphorical for hooks: it is “not just who I am in the present but where I am coming from, the multiple voices within me,” a confrontation with “silence, inarticulateness,” and the words that emerge from suffering (146). Identifying “the location from which I come to voice—the space of my theorizing” is, she continues, a “personal struggle” (146).

For hooks, language is a “place of struggle” (146). “Often when the radical voice speaks about domination we are speaking to those who dominate,” she writes. “Their presence changes the nature and direction of our words” (146). Is it possible to speak in a different way? “Dare I speak to the oppressed and oppressor in the same voice?” she asks. “Dare I speak to you in a language that will move beyond the boundaries of domination—a language that will not bind you, fence you in, or hold you?” (146). One of the questions these words raise—a question that is answered later in the essay—is who “you” is in these questions. She appears to be addressing the oppressor here, although she wants to speak in a language that moves beyond the binaries or boundaries of oppression. One way to do that, she writes, would be to use “black vernacular speech,” something she wants to do in this essay: “Private speech in public discourse, intimate intervention, making another text, a space that enables me to recover all that I am in language,” she writes. But that recourse to the vernacular seems impossible. As a result, she continues, “I find so many gaps, absences in this written text. To cite them at least is to let the reader know something has been missed, or remains there hinted at by words—there in the deep structure” (147). 

hooks’s relationship with her community of origin and her family is ambivalent. Her home community and her family were places of silencing and censorship (147-48), and so she needed to leave them, “to move beyond boundaries,” and “yet I needed also to return there” (148). “Indeed,” she continues,

the very meaning of “home” changes with experience of decolonization, of radicalization. At times, home is nowhere. At times, one knows only extreme estrangement and alienation. Then home is no longer just one place. It is locations. Home is that place which enables and promotes varied and everchanging perspectives, a place where one discovers new ways of seeing reality, frontiers of difference. (148)

This “dispersal and fragmentation” must be both confronted and accepted in order to construct a new world “that reveals more fully where we are, who we can become” (148). 

Part of the reason that home is so complex for hooks is her experience of privilege—her entry into the university, which she describes as a place of privilege. People without privilege who enter such places “must create spaces within that culture of domination if we are to survive whole, our souls intact. Our very presence there is a disruption” (148). There is constant pressure to silence or undermine the voices of people like her within places of privilege, like universities. “Mostly, of course, we are not there,” she writes—not in those places of privilege:

We never “arrive” or “can’t stay.” Back in those spaces where we come from, we kill ourselves in despair, drowning in nihilism, caught in poverty, in addiction, in every postmodern mode of dying that can be named. Yet when we few remain in that “other” space, we are often too isolated, too alone. We die there, too. Those of us who live, who “make it,” passionately holding on to aspects of that “downhome” life we do not intend to lose while simultaneously seeking new knowledge and experience, invent spaces of radical openness. Without such spaces, we would not survive. (148-49)

Such a space of “radical openness,” hooks continues, “is a margin—a profound edge” (149). But marginality is more than just a site of deprivation; it’s the site of “radical possibility, a space of resistance,” “a central location for the production of a counter-hegemonic discourse that is not just found in words but in habits of being and the way one lives” (149). Therefore, this marginality isn’t something one would wish to surrender or lose as part of moving into the centre; rather, it’s “a site one stays in, clings to even, because it nourishes one’s capacity to resist. It offers to one the possibility of a radical perspective from which to see and create, to imagine alternatives, new worlds” (150). This is what interests hooks: “what it means to struggle to maintain that marginality even as one works, produces, lives, if you will, at the center” (150). This margin is different from “that concrete space in the margins” she left behind when she entered the centre (150). Nevertheless, she writes, “I kept alive in my heart ways of knowing reality which affirm continuously not only the primacy of resistance but the necessity of a resistnce that is sustained by remembrance of the past, which includes recollections of broken tongues giving us ways to speak that decolonize our minds, our very beings” (150). It’s not necessary to surrender one’s self to learn from places of domination, such as universities; one needs to maintain “that radical perspective shaped and formed by marginality” (150)—both the “concrete” marginality of her home community, I think, and the “profound edge” she finds inside places of privilege.

“Understanding marginality as position and place of resistance is crucial for oppressed, exploited, colonized people,” hooks writes:

If we only view the margin as sign marking the despair, a deep nihilism penetrates in a destructive way the very ground of our being. It is there in that space of collective despair that one’s creativity, one’s imagination is at risk, there that one’s mind is fully colonized, there that the freedom one longs for [is] lost. (150-51)

The margin, she continues, is both a site of repression and a site of resistance, but it is typically only spoken about as repression, as deprivation. “We are more silent when it comes to speaking of the margin as site of resistance,” she argues. “We are more often silenced when it comes to speaking of the margin as site of resistance” (151).

Who silences those who speak of the margin as site of resistance? Scholars within places of privilege, it seems—“especially those who name themselves radical critical thinkers, feminist thinkers,” because they “now fully participate in the construction of a discourse about the ‘Other’” (151). This paragraph is difficult, the words slippery, but it is central to her argument:

I was made “Other” there in that space with them. In that space in the margins, that lived-in segregated world of my past and present. They did not meet me there in that space. They met me at the center. They greeted me as colonizers. I am waiting to learn from them the path of their resistance, of how it came to be that they were able to surrender the power to act as colonizers. I am waiting for them to bear witness, to give testimony. . . . I am waiting for them to stop talking about the “Other,” to stop even describing how important it is to be able to speak about difference. . . . Often this speech about the “Other” is also a mask, an oppressive talk hiding gaps, absences, that space where our words would be if we were speaking, if there were silence, if we were there. This “we” is that “us” in the margins, that “we” who inhabit marginal space that is not the site of domination but a place of resistance. Enter that space. Often this speech about the “Other” annihilates, erases. (151)

What hooks appears to be calling for, here, is twofold. First, these scholars and thinkers need to speak about their own experience—“how it came to be that they were able to surrender the power to act as colonizers”—and by doing that, by ceasing to speak about the “Other” but rather to engage in a dialogue with the “Other,” they will actually be performing the decolonization they pretend to speak about. Second, they need to listen, to create space and silence for the “Other” to speak. The command, “Enter that space”—the space of marginality—is directed at those scholars and thinkers: by decolonizing themselves through silent listening, they will enter that space and stand alongside the “Other” who is waiting for them there. “This is an intervention,” hooks writes:

A message from that space in the margin that is a site of creativity and power, that inclusive space where we recover ourselves, where we move in solidarity to erase the category colonized/colonizer. Marginality as site of resistance. Enter that space. Let us meet there. Enter that space. We greet you as liberators. (152)

That last statement is ambiguous: who is liberating whom? I think it is those who are already within the space of marginality who are liberating whose who are entering that space for the first time, but hooks’s syntax could have the opposite meaning as well. 

hooks’s concluding paragraph describes her location in the margin, a marginality she has chosen as a site of resistance, as a “location of radical openness and possibility” where “resistance is continually formed in that segregated culture of opposition that is our critical response to domination”:

We come to this space through suffering and pain, through struggle. We know struggle to be that which pleasures, delights, and fulfills desire. We are transformed, individually, collectively, as we make radical creative space which affirms and sustains our subjectivity, which gives us a new location from which to articulate our sense of the world. (153)

That space seems to be available not only to those who are oppressed or dominated or colonized, but also to those (presumably white) scholars and thinkers who are willing to speak to, rather than about, the colonized and listen to their responses, who are willing to tell their own stories of decolonization and to meet with the colonized in that marginal space of resistance and transformation.

“Choosing the Margin as a Space of Radical Openness” makes me think about how some of my students relate to the university as a place of power and domination. Moreover, it also makes me consider how my research might enable me to enter the margin hooks describes at the end of the essay. Can I follow her command to “Enter that space” by telling the story of my own decolonization? Do I have that kind of story to tell? I don’t know—or rather, I do, but at the same time, I don’t think it’s much of a story. Not yet. Perhaps someday. Perhaps this research will lead to that kind of narrative. That’s a possibility I will hold on to.

Work Cited

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