Reading and Walking

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Tag: Felix Guattari

85. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, “Geophilosophy”

deleuze guattari what is philosophy

I really ought to be reading Anti-Oedipus, the massive tome Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari wrote in the 1970s and by which so many walking artists and postmodern geographers seem to be influenced. I’ll get there, eventually, but its length and difficulty encouraged me to spend part of the afternoon wrestling with one of their shorter texts, the essay “Geophilosophy,” included in the collection What is Philosophy?–a book which was, surprisingly, a best-seller in France when it came out: surprisingly, that is, because of its difficulty. I added “Geophilosophy” to my reading list because it was influential on the dissertation of another walking artist, Carolina Santo, who says that she was inspired by the essay to name her practice (and her recent dissertation) “geoscenography” (1). I must say that I’m not sure there’s a connection between “Geophilosophy” and my own work, but perhaps, after reading texts that look ahead to a future revolution, there is a link. The subject of “Geophilosophy” is philosophy itself, but as it is situated in history and in geography. And, as I always find when I’m reading Deleuze and/or Guattari, I always have the feeling that I’m just about to grasp what they’re talking about, but that I never quite get there. So this summary is, of necessity, going to rely on quotations (because I can’t possibly paraphrase their difficult prose) and my attempts at understanding those quotations will be confused and, perhaps, confusing. That’s the experience of reading their writing.

The essay begins with these words: “Subject and object give a poor approximation of thought. Thinking is neither a line drawn between subject and object nor a revolving of one around the other. Rather, thinking takes place in the relationship of territory and the earth” (85). Deleuze and Guattari suggest that the thinking of Kant and Husserl is grounded in this way; the work of those very different philosophers is in a relationship with the earth (85). “Yet we have seen that the earth constantly carries out a movement of deterritorialization on the spot, by which it goes beyond any territory: it is deterritorializing and deterritorialized,” they write (85). “The earth is not one element among others but rather brings together all the elements within a single embrace while using one or another of them to deterritorialize territory” (85).  In fact, “the process of reterritorialization is inseparable from the earth, which restores territories” (86)—so it both deterritorialized and reterritorializes. “Territory and earth are two components with two zones of indiscernibility—deterritorialization (from territory to the earth) and reterritorialization (from earth to territory)”—and it’s not possible to say which of those zones came first (86). 

From here they turn to “States” and “Cities,” which turn out to be distinctions between empires, on the one hand, and the political forms that characterized ancient Greece. States and Cities are often defined as territorial, “as substituting a territorial principle for the principle of lineage,” that that statement is inexact, because “lineal groups may change territory, and they are only really determined by embracing a territory or residence in a ‘local lineage’” (86). But, on the contrary, States and Cities “carry out a deterritorialization because the former juxtaposes and compares agricultural territories by relating them to a higher arithmetical Unity, and the latter adapts the territory to a geometrical extensiveness that can be continued in commercial circuits” (86). Both are forms of “a deterritorialization that takes place on the spot when the State appropriates the territory of local groups or when the city turns its back on its hinterland. In one case, there is reterritorialization on the palace and its supplies; and in the other, on the agora and commercial networks” (86). “In imperial states deterritorialization takes place through transcendence: it tends to develop vertically from on high, according to a celestial component of the earth” (86). This sentence is important, because it connects States and empires to hierarchy and religion. In contrast, in the city “deterritorialization takes place through immanence,” and it frees “a power of the earth that follows a maritime component that goes under the sea to reestablish the territory,” which they term an Autochthon (86). (I’m not sure why they use that word.) The “imperial Stranger” that reterritorializes the earth needs surviving Autochthons and “the citizen Autochthon calls on strangers in flight,” which makes the relationship between State and City more complicated (86). 

At this point I paused. The terms “earth” and “territory,” and the notions of deterritorialization and reterritorialization, are not being defined in this essay, so they must have been defined earlier in the book; I check the index. “We already know the importance in animals of those activities that consist in forming territories, in abandoning or leaving them, and even in re-creating territory on something of a different nature,” Deleuze and Guattari write in an earlier essay in the volume, “Conceptual Personae”:

All the more so for the hominid: from its act of birth, it deterritorializes its front paw, wrests it from the earth to turn it into a hand, and reterritorializes it on branches and tools. A stick is, in turn, a deterritorialized branch. We need to see how everyone, in the smallest things as in the greatest challenges, seeks a territory, tolerates or carries out deterritorializations, and is reterritorialized on almost anything—memory, fetish, or dream. (“Conceptual Personae” 67-68)

“We cannot even say what comes first, and perhaps every territory presupposes a prior deterritorialization, or everything happens at the same time,” they continue (“Conceptual Personae” 68). “The merchant buys in a territory, deterritorializes products into commodities, and is reterritorialized on the means of production; whereas labor becomes ‘abstract’ labor, reterritorialized in wages” (“Conceptual Personae” 68). “But are there not also territories and deterritorializations that are not only physical and mental but spiritual—not only relative but absolute in a sense yet to be determined?” they ask:

What is the Fatherland or Homeland invoked by the thinker, by the philosopher or artist? Philosophy is inseparable from a Homeland to which the a priori, the innate, or the memory equally attest. But why is this fatherland unknown, lost, or forgotten, turning the thinker into an Exile? What will restore an equivalent of territory, valid as a home? What will be philosophical refrains? What is thought’s relationship with the earth? (“Conceptual Personae” 68-69)

So in the terms “deterritorialization” and “reterritorialization,” Deleuze and Guattari seem to be talking about tangible things becoming evanescent and then returning to tangibility; or perhaps (to say it slightly differently) about the concrete becoming abstract and then concrete again. Objects—or perhaps concepts—become representations and then returning to being objects or concepts. At least, I think that’s what’s happening. Perhaps, then, in the movement from earth to territory, specific places become abstract spaces, idealized, mapped, represented, before becoming specific places again? Doesn’t the word “earth” suggest something grounded in that way? That was my first attempt at understanding their terminology, although because they abandon the term “earth” almost immediately, it’s not quite correct. My strategy in attempting to understand this essay became one of following the various (undefined) shifts in the terms “deterritorialization” and “reterritorialization.”

Back to “Geophilosophy”: the next paragraph considers ancient Greek city-states as developing “a particular mode of deterritorialization that proceeds by immanence; they form a milieu of immanence” (87). That milieu—a crucial word in this essay—“is like an ‘international market’ organized along the borders of the Orient between a multiplicity of independent cities or distinct societies that are nevertheless attached to one another and within which artisans and merchants find a freedom and mobility denied to them by empires” (87). Those city-states are different from the “imperial states” and perhaps similar to the “Cities” they discussed earlier (86)—or, as is more likely the case, identical to them. Those city-states are inhabited by “strangers in flight,” artisans, merchants, and philosophers who are emigres; and those emigres find three things in the Greek city-states, things which are “the de facto conditions of philosophy”:

a pure sociability as milieu of immanence, the “intrinsic nature of association,” which is opposed to imperial sovereignty and implies no prior interest because, on the contrary, competing interests presuppose it; a certain pleasure in forming associations, which constitutes friendship, but also a pleasure in breaking up the association, which constitutes rivalry . . . and a taste for opinion inconceivable in an empire, a taste for the exchange of views, for conversation. (87-88)

“We constantly rediscover these three Greek features,” they write: “immanence, friendship, and opinion” (88). Those are the historical features that enabled the creation of philosophy. At the same time, though, I sense perhaps a political emphasis (given the discomfort, if that’s the word, that European countries have with immigrants and refugees) on the importance of migrants and migration, although I could be completely wrong about that.

“Whether physical, psychological, or social,” Deleuze and Guattari continue, “deterritorialization is relative insofar as it concerns the historical relationship of the earth with the territories that take shape and pass away on it, its geological relationship with eras and catastrophes, its astronomical relationship with the cosmos and the stellar system of which it is a part” (88). That concept, “relative deterritorialization,” is opposed (or at least juxtaposed) to “absolute deterritorialization”:

But deterritorialization is absolute when the earth passes into the pure plane of immanence of a Being-thought, of a Nature-thought of infinite diagrammatic movements. Thinking consists in stretching out a plane of immanence that absorbs the earth. . . . Deterritorialization of such a plane does not preclude reterritorialization but posits is as the creation of a future new earth. Nonetheless, absolute deterritorialization can only be thought according to certain still-to-be-determined relationships with relative deterritorializations that are not only cosmic but geographical, historical, and psychosocial. There is always a way in which absolute deterritorialization takes over from a relative deterritorialization in a given field. (88)

Here they raise a question: does relative deterritorialization take place through immanence or through transcendence? Is it characteristic of philosophy, in other words, or of religion? “When it is transcendent, vertical, celestial, and brought about by the imperial unity, the transcendent element must always give way or submit to a sort of rotation in order to be inscribed on the always-immanent plane of Nature-thought” (88-89). (What “Nature-thought” means I have no idea.) “Thinking here implies a projection of the transcendent on the plane of immanence,” they continue. “Transcendence may be entirely ‘empty’ in itself, yet it becomes full to the extent that it descends and crosses different hierarchized levels that are projected together on a region of the plane, that is to say, on an aspect corresponding to an infinite movement” (89). This seems to align transcendence with empire and oppose it against the Greek city-states and immanence (89). Indeed, they continue, “the transcendence that is projected on the plane of immanence paves it or populates it with Figures”—and figures are “essentially paradigmatic, projective, hierarchical, and referential” (89). So this is about religion rather than philosophy, and the examples of figures they provide are all religious ones. I’m seeing how these ideas cluster together, and how religious transcendence is distinct from philosophical immanence.

The Greeks “invented an absolute plane of immanence,” Deleuze and Guattari state, but their originality “should rather be sought in the relation between the relative and the absolute” (90). “When relative deterritorialization is itself horizontal, or immanent, it combines with the absolute deterritorialization of the plane of immanence that carries the movements of relative deterritorialization to infinity, pushes them to the absolute, by transforming them,” and “[i]mmanence is redoubled” (90). The concept—and if I had read the first essay in this volume, I would be more certain that when they say “concept,” they are referring to philosophy—“comes to populate the plane of immanence. There is no longer projection in a figure but connection in the concept. This is why the concept itself abandons all reference so as to retain only the conjugations and connections that constitute its consistence” (90). The concept’s only rule, the only thing that governs or restrains it, is its “internal or external neighborhood” (90): “Its internal neighborhood or consistency is secured by the connection of its components in zones of indiscernibility; its external neighborhood or exoconsistency is secured by the bridges thrown from one concept to another when the components of them are saturated” (90). That suggests that the creation of concepts really means making connections between “internal, inseparable components to the point of closure or saturation so that we can no longer add or withdraw a component without changing the nature of the concept; to connect the concept with another in such a way that the nature of other connections will change” (90). In addition, they state, the concept is thus plurivocal, and its plurivocity “depends solely upon neighborhood (one concept can have several neighborhoods)” (90). Also, “[c]oncepts are flat surfaces without levels, orderings without hierarchy”—so they are opposed to the transcendent and to the imperial, which are vertical (90). So the questions “What to put in a concept?” and “What to put with it?” are important in philosophy (90). “The concept is not paradigmatic but syntagmatic; not projective but connective; not hierarchical but linking; not referential but consistent,” they claim (91). For that reason, “it is inevitable that philosophy, science, and art are no longer organized as levels of a single projection and are not even differentiated according to a common matrix but are immediately posited or reconstituted in a respective independence, in a division of labor that gives rise to relationships fo connection between them” (91).

Is the conclusion to take from this the notion that “there is a radical opposition between figures and concepts?” (91). I think so. Deleuze and Guattari argue that “disturbing affinities appear on what seems to be a common plane of immanence” (91)—so they may have similarities if not connections or relationships. However, correspondences between figures and concepts “do not rule out there being a boundary, however difficult it is to make out. This is because figures are projections on the plane, which implies something vertical or transcendent. Concepts, on the other hand, imply only neighborhoods and connections on the horizon” (91-92). “All that can be said is that figures tend toward concepts to the point of drawing infinitely near to them”—which suggests all the more reason to distinguish between them (92). The distinction between figures and concepts leads to the question of whether Christianity creates concepts, which is another way of wondering if there is a Christian philosophy, and despite the examples of Kierkegaard and Pascal, they suggest that it “only produces concepts . . . through its atheism,” because “[t]here is always an atheism to be extracted from a religion,” which they suggest is true in Jewish thought, in the work of Spinoza (92). (I don’t understand how atheism gets extracted from religion, but that doesn’t matter.) “And if it is true that figures tend towards concepts in this way,” they continue, 

the converse is equally true, and philosophical concepts reproduce figures whenever immanence is attributed to something. The three figures of philosophy are objectality of contemplation subject of reflection, and intersubjectivity of communication. It should be noted that religions do not arrive at the concept without denying themselves, just as philosophies do not arrive at the figure without betraying themselves. There is a difference of kind between figures and concepts, but every possible difference of degree also. (92)

In fact, they claim that religious philosophy is actually prephilosophical, because such “thinking takes place on a plane of immanence that can be populated by figures as much as by concepts” (93). 

There was no philosophy until the Greeks—although it was “brought by immigrants” (93):

The birth of philosophy required an encounter between the Greek milieu and the plane of immanence of thought. It required the conjunction of two very different movements of deterritorialization, the relative and the absolute, the first already at work in immanence. Absolute deterritorialization of the plane of thought had to be aligned or directly connected with the relative deterritorialization of Greek society. The encounter between friend and thought was needed. In short, philosophy does have a principle, but it is a synthetic and contingent principle—an encounter, a conjunction. It is not insufficient by itself but contingent in itself. Even in the concept, the principle depends upon a connection of components that could have been different, with different neighborhoods. The principle of reason such as it appears in philosophy is a principle of contingent reason and is put like this: there is no good reason but contingent reason; there is no universal history except of contingency. (93)

For this reason, “[p]hilosophy is a geophilosophy in precisely the same way that history is a geohistory”: the question of why philosophy arose in Greece is similar to the question of why capitalism arose in certain places and not others (95). “Geography wrests history from the cult of necessity in order to stress the irreducibility of contingency. It wrests it from the cult of origins in order to affirm the power of a ‘milieu’” (96).Geography also wrests history “from structures in order to trace the lines of flight that pass through the Greek world across the Mediterranean” (96). Finally, 

it wrests history from itself in order to discover becomings that do not belong to history even if they fall back into it: the history of philosophy in Greece must not hide the fact that in every case the Greeks had to become philosophers in the first place, just as philosophers had to become Greek. ‘Becoming’ does not belong to history. History today still designates only the set of conditions, however recent they may be, from which one turns away in order to become, that is to say, in order to create something new. (96)

However, they argue that 

[p]hilosophy cannot be reduced to its own history, because it continually wrests itself from this history in order to create new concepts that fall back into history but do not come from it. How could something come from history? Without history, becoming would remain indeterminate and unconditioned, but becoming is not historical. (96)

I think that argument comes from the idea that history is the realm of necessity: “[p]hilosophy appears in Greece as a result of contingency rather than necessity, as a result of an ambiance or milieu rather than an origin, of a becoming rather than a history, of a geography rather than a historiography, of a grace rather than a nature” (96-97). 

Philosophy and capitalism have parallel relationships to history, and capitalism involves deterritorializations and reterritorializations: “for always contingent reasons, capitalism leads Europe into a fantastic relative deterritorialization that is due first of all to city-towns and that itself takes place through immanence. Territorial produce is connected to an immanent form able to cross the seas,” and the two “principal components of capitalism,” labour and capital, are brought together and adjusted in the West: 

Only the West extends and propagates its centers of immanence. The social field no longer refers to an external limit that restricts it from above, as in the empires, but to immanent internal limits that constantly shift by extending the system, and that reconstitute themselves through displacement. External obstacles are not only technological, and only internal rivalries remain. A world market extends to the ends of the earth before passing into the galaxy: even the skies become horizontal. This is not a result of the Greek endeavor but a resumption, in another form and with other means, on a scale hitherto unknown, which nonetheless relaunches the combination for which the Greeks took the initiative: democratic imperialism, colonizing democracy. (97)

In other words, this combination consists of productive contradictions, since empire and democracy (in the terms in which they’ve discussed them), as vertical and horizontal, contradict each other. “Modern philosophy’s link with capitalism, therefore, is of the same kind as that of ancient philosophy with Greece: the connection of an absolute plane of immanence with a relative social milieu that also functions through immanence” (98).

There is a relationship between capitalism’s deterritorialization and the reterritorialization of the State: “The immense relative deterritorialization of world capitalism needs to be reterritorialized on the modern national State, which finds an outcome in democracy, the new society of ‘brother,’ the capitalist version of the society of friends” (98). What’s missing here, though, is a recognition that capitalism is overpowering those states as it becomes more and more powerful. “The man of capitalism is not Robinson”—Robinson Crusoe, that is—“but Ulysses, the cunning plebeian, some average man or other living in the big towns, Autochthonous Proletarians or foreign Migrants who throw themselves into infinite movement—revolution” (98). Capitalism, in this argument, is revolutionary, which is true, I suppose, if the word “revolution” is purged of positive teleological connotations and understood as meaning radical change.

There is also a connection between contemporary philosophy and capitalism: “the connection of ancient philosophy with the Greek city and the connection of modern philosophy with capitalism are not ideological and do not stop at pushing historical and social determinations to infinity so as to extract spiritual figures from them” (99). In addition, while “it may be tempting to see philosophy as an agreement commerce of the mind,” that idea would turn it into marketing or advertising: “What is most distressing is not this shameless appropriation but the conception of philosophy that made it possible in the first case” (99). “But what saves modern philosophy is that it is no more the friend of capitalism than ancient philosophy was the friend of the city,” they argue. “Philosophy takes the relative deterritorialization of capital to the absolute; it makes it pass over the plane of immanence as movement of the infinite and suppresses it as internal limit, turns it back against itself so as to summon forth a new earth, a new people. But in this way it arrives at the nonpropositional form of the concept in which communication, exchange, consensus, and opinion vanish entirely” (99). I wonder if by “philosophy” here they are talking about Marx, or if they are talking about themselves and other postmodern philosophers. I’m really not sure. What is clear, I think, is that  philosophy is utopian; that’s what links it to its own epoch (99). “In each case it is with utopia that philosophy becomes political and takes the criticism of its own time to its highest point” (99). And yet philosophy (like utopia) needs to be wary of the return of transcendence:

In utopia (as in philosophy) there is always the risk of a restoration, and sometimes a proud affirmation, of transcendence, so that we need to distinguish between authoritarian utopias, or utopias of transcendence, and immanent, revolutionary, libertarian utopias. But to say that revolution is itself utopia of immanence is not to say that it is a dream, something that is not realized or that is only realized by betraying itself. On the contrary, it is to posit revolution as plane of immanence, infinite movement and absolute survey, but to the extent that these features connect up with what is real here and now in the struggle against capitalism, relaunching new struggles whenever the earlier one is betrayed. The word utopia therefore designates that conjunction of philosophy, or of the concept, with the present milieu. (100)

Utopia and revolution are connected, despite the failures of historical examples: “That the two great modern revolutions, American and Soviet, have turned out so badly does not prevent the concept from pursuing its immanent path” (100). 

Revolution or utopia is closely connected to the concept, which is to say (I think) to philosophy:

The concept frees immanence from all the limits still imposed on it by capital (or that it imposed on itself in the form of capital appearing as something transcendent). However, it is not so much a case of a separation of the spectator from the actor in this enthusiasm as of a distinction within the action itself between historical factors and ‘unhistorical vapor,’ between a state of affairs and the event. As concept and as event, revolution is self-referential or enjoys a self-positing that enables it to be apprehended in an immanent enthusiasm without anything in states of affairs or lived experience being able to tone it down, not even the disappointments of reason. Revolution is absolute deterritorialization even to the point where this calls for a new earth, a new people. (100-01)

At this point, Deleuze and Guattari return to the relationship between deterritorialization and reterritorialization: “Absolute deterritorialization does not take place without reterritorialization. Philosophy is reterritorialized on the concept. The concept is not object but territory” (101). (I’m not sure what that distinction means.) However, because we are “misled” by “Christian transcendence,” “we lack a genuine plane” where we could put our concepts (101). 

“Philosophical reterritorialization therefore also has a present form,” they continue, but not in the modern democratic state and human rights, because they are not universal (102). We do have concepts, but “possession of the concept does not appear to coincide with revolution, the democratic State, and human rights” (103). “If there is no universal democratic State,” they write,

it is because the market is the only thing that is universal in capitalism. In contrast with the ancient empires that carried out transcendent overcodings, capitalism functions as an immanent axiomatic of decoded flows (of money, labor, products). National States are no longer paradigms of overcoding but constitute the ‘models of realization’ of this immanent axiomatic. (106)

“It is as if the deterritorialization of States tempered that of capital and provided it with compensatory reterritorializations,” they suggest (106). While the “models of realization” of States might be diverse and heterogenous, “they are nonetheless isomorphous with regard to the world market insofar as the latter not only presupposes but produces determinate inequalities of development” (106)—so it’s the market that’s dominant, it seems, even though that market is bound to result in unequal development.

According to Deleuze and Guattari, human rights are merely axioms—which is to say, I think, that they are not concepts:

Human rights are axioms. They can coexist on the market with many other axioms, notably those concerning the security of property, which are unaware of or suspend them even more than they contradict them. . . . Who but the police and armed forces that coexist with democracies can control and manage poverty and the deterritorialization-reterritorialization of shanty towns? What social democracy has not given the order to fire when the poor came out of their territory or ghetto? Rights save neither men nor a philosophy that is reterritorialized on the democratic State. Human rights will not make us bless capitalism. A great deal of innocence or cunning is needed by a philosophy of communication that claims to restore the society of friends, or even of wise men, by forming a universal opinion of “consensus” able to moralize nations, States, and the market. Human rights say nothing about the immanent modes of existence of people provided with rights. (107)

This is the case not only in the extreme situations (genocide) described by Primo Levi, but also “in insignificant conditions, before the meanness and vulgarity of existence that haunts democracies, before the propagation of these modes of existence and of thought-for-the-market, and before the values, ideals, and opinions of our time” (107). 

Here they start to think about shame, perhaps the kind of shame the unwilling colonizer might feel—I’m not entirely sure. “We do not feel ourselves outside of our time but continue to undergo shameful compromises with it,” they write:

This feeling of shame is one of philosophy’s most powerful motifs. We are not responsible for the victims but responsible before them. And there is no way to escape the ignoble but to play the part of the animal (to growl, burrow, snigger, distort ourselves): thought itself is sometimes closer to an animal that dies than to a living, even democratic, human being. (108)

What is required, they suggest, perhaps as a way of overcoming or sidestepping shame, is a resistance to the present, which will, it seems, inevitably lead to revolution or utopia: 

If philosophy is reterritorialized on the concept, it does not find the condition for this in the present form of the democratic State or in a cogito of communication that is even more dubious than that of reflection. We do not lack communication. On the contrary, we have too much of it. We lack creation. We lack resistance to the present. The creation of concepts in itself calls for a future form, for a new earth and people that do not yet exist. (108)

At this point, art-making makes a reappearance, as a potentially revolutionary act: “Art and philosophy converge at this point: the constitution of an earth and a people that are lacking as the correlate of creation” (108). However, there are limits to what art or philosophy can accomplish. They cannot create a people—by which I think they mean a nation:

The artist or the philosopher is quite incapable of creating a people, each can only summon it with all his strength. A people can only be created in abominable sufferings, and it cannot be concerned any more with art of philosophy. But books of philosophy and works of art also contain their sum of unimaginable sufferings that forewarn of the advent of a people. They have resistance in common—their resistance to death, to servitude, to the intolerable, to shame, and to the present. (110)

Works of art, like philosophy, are (or at least can be) acts of resistance, including to the shame of being complicit, and to the inequities in iniquities of the present.

Now Deleuze and Guattari return to deterritorialization and reterritorialization, which “meet in the double becoming” between “stranger” and “Autochthon”:

The Autochthon can hardly be distinguished from the stranger because the stranger becomes Authchthonous in the country of the other who is not, at the same time that the Autochthon becomes stranger to himself, his class, his nation, and his language: we speak the same language, and yet I do not understand you. Becoming stranger to oneself, to one’s language and nation, is this not the peculiarity of the philosopher and philosophy, their ‘style,’ or what is called a philosophical gobbledygook? (110)

Could “gobbledygook” be a self-reflective evaluation of their prose style?

In short,” they conclude, philosophy is reterritorialized three times: on the Greeks in the past, on the democratic State in the present, and on the new people and earth in the future. Greeks and democrats are strangely deformed in this mirror of the future” (110). That “mirror of the future” is, I think, a way of imagining what the present or past would look like from the vantage of a future utopia—although utopia is not “a good concept”:

Utopia is not a good concept because even when opposed to History it is still subject to it and lodged within it as an ideal or motivation. But becoming is the concept itself. It is born in History, and falls back into it, but is not of it. In itself it has neither beginning nor end but only a milieu. It is thus more geographical than historical. Such are revolutions and societies of friends, societies of resistance, because to create is to resist: pure becomings, pure events on a plane of immanence. What History grasps of the event is its effectuation in states of affairs or in lived experience, but the event in its becoming, in its specific consistency, in its self-positing as a concept, escapes History. (110)

History, as necessity, is not becoming or “coming about”: 

What is in the process of coming about is no more what ends than what begins. History is not experimentation, it is only the set of almost negative conditions that make possible the experimentation of something that escapes history. Without history experimentation would remain indeterminate and unconditioned, but experimentation is not historical. It is philosophical. (111)

What is the connection between experimentation and becoming, between experimentation and the concept, between experimentation and philosophy and art? Are philosophy and art forms of experimentation? Are they ways to potentially escape history? I don’t know. The text ends and I’m left feeling that I was on the brink of understanding something that didn’t quite materialize—or perhaps reterritorialize. In any case, after reading texts like Emma Battell Lowman’s and Adam J. Barker’s Settler and Clare Land’s Decolonizing Solidarity, both of which posit the possibility or indeed necessity of a revolution that will come out of political activism, it was in some ways helpful to read Deleuze’s and Guattari’s thinking about revolution and its connection to art and philosophy. Could art itself be a form of political resistance or activism? They seem to suggest that’s the case. That might be what’s useful about “Geophilosophy,” although to be honest, I’m left thinking that it was a mistake to include it on my reading list. I’m also left with the realization that it’s not enough to pull one essay out of a book like What Is Philosophy? because the ideas are developed throughout the book. On the other hand, I’m on a deadline, and reading all of What is Philosophy? might take more time than it’s worth, particularly since it seems to be somewhat outside my research. I’m also left with the realization (once again) that I’m going to have to tackle Anti-Oedipus, and that a shorter text like “Geophilosophy” isn’t going to be sufficient. Somehow, then, I’m going to have to find the time to read that notoriously difficult work.

Works Cited

Deleuze, Gilles, and Félix Guattari. “Conceptual Personae.” What is Philosophy?, translated by Hugh Tomlinson and Graham Burchell, Columbia University Press, 1994, pp. 61-83.

——. “Geophilosophy.” What is Philosophy?, translated by Hugh Tomlinson and Graham Burchell, Columbia University Press, 1994, pp. 85-113.

Land, Clare. Decolonizing Solidarity: Dilemmas and Directions for Supporters of Indigenous Struggles, Zed, 2015.

Lowman, Emma Battell, and Adam J. Barker. Settler: Identity and Colonialism in 21st Century Canada. Fernwood, 2015.

Santo, Carolina E. Geoscenography. Scenography from the milieu of Development-Forced Displacement and Resettlement (DRDR). PhD dissertation, University of Vienna, 2018.

54. John Schott and Phil Smith, Rethinking Mythogeography in Northfield, Minnesota

rethinking mythogeography

Rethinking Mythogeography in Northfield, Minnesota, a collaboration between John Schott and Phil Smith, helps to explain what mythogeography (Smith’s walking practice) is, and suggests the ways that practice is still developing and changing. In that way, it’s a companion to his earlier book on mythogeography, perhaps as an example of practice to accompany that text’s theory. In his introduction, Schott explains the book’s context: in 2016, Smith spent two weeks at Carleton College as artist-in-residence at WALK!: A Festival of Walking, Art & Ideas, a ten-week celebration of walking as an artistic practice (4). The festival’s high point, for Schott, Smith’s mythogeographic exploration of Northfield, “The Blazing Worlds Walk,” the focus of this publication (4). During that walk, 15 people walked for three hours, stopping at locations Smith selected; at each location, he spoke about “a wide range of ideas provoked by our discoveries” (4). “His technique—and this walk was both a demonstration of mythogeographic procedure and an invitation for participants to devise their own walks in future—was a bravura enactment of personal place-making,” Schott writes:

At each stopping point Phil undertook an archaeology of the devalued and ‘invisible’ that blended post-modern theory and a well-studied command of local history—Phil did his homework!—in an ebullient, spontaneous performance. With its mix of theoretical playfulness and improvisatory poetic association, Phil’s mythogeography of Northfield modeled for participants ways to excavate their own invisible cities. (4-5)

This book consists of  two independent but parallel texts: Schott’s photographic documentation of the walk, with brief explanations of essential ideas presented at each location with which the participants engaged; and Smith’s essay reflecting on mythogeography and his Northfield experience (5). My response is going to focus on Smith’s essay. Schott’s photo documentation and descriptions, however, are an important part of the book, because they help me to understand what a mythogeographical guided walk might look like.

In the second introduction, Smith writes, “In Northfield I realised just how serious the magic of the ordinary is” (6). On his first morning in the city, a small college community in eastern Minnesota, he met a maintenance man repairing signals in the Union Pacific yard—“a man mending signals! How much more symbolic could it get?”—and gave him a map of Northfield, UK: 

I knew that such poetic moments were not exceptional in themselves, Not even in their accumulation were they special. It was their resolute meaningfulness in the face of all odds that was remarkable; they come to us in bits and pieces, in the blur of a chance moment or in the miasma of sleep, but somehow we still “get” them. (6-7)

Such moments, he continues, give access to “a sur-reality”—“a space where things make their own connections and we must wait our turn for the trucks to pass” (7). The reference to “trucks” here might be part of this passages use of trains as an extended metaphor:

The magic of the ordinary may at first strike you in flashes or by the sudden falling of a shadow across a scene; but if you can hold onto those moments for a while, stay calm and not grab for the first wonder, then—like the passing freight train—the magic will begin to stream around you in unfolding loops. (7)

In Walking’s New Movement, Smith eschews an emphasis on the magic in the everyday in favour of political engagement, but in this book, he returns to what seems to be the primary purpose of mythogeography: discovering a sense of wonder in the quotidian.

Smith’s essay. “Rethinking Mythogeography in Northfield, Minnesota,” begins with another story about his first morning there. He bluffed his way into a prayer room and the congregants laid hands upon him for a prayer; in the words of that prayer, he was “re-imagined in ways that were fantastical for their ordinariness; so far from my intentions I felt wholly unharmed. Being turned into something like an erudite and caring octopus with a fan of praying tentacles, I was lifted up in the arms of a community within a community” (9). “Such encounters,” he writes,

when entered into mythogeographically, as part of one’s questing journey to understand and intervene in places that are strange or deeply unfamiliar, leave one touched, sometimes deeply, yet unobliged. There is no surrender of one’s nomadic slipperiness, no surrender to the grand narratives that are all around. Even in places where belief and worldview are strictly codified, the mythogeographical pilgrim presents such a benign ambiguity that even the language of faith struggles to get any grip on the edge of the abyss we all hang onto. (9)

Such “unbalanced but efficacious connections” are ambivalent, even when they are intense:  “They rely on the mythogeographer paying close, polite and respectful attention to everything and yet being ‘not quite there’; and so able to make a deft, intuitive connection to the big picture beyond (or beneath and within) the big pictures” (9). When he left Northfield, he continues, he was “more determined than ever to be an evangelist for this mythogeography; to encourage more people to take its path—its pilgrimage, even—beyond the big things, through the small things, to the even bigger picture, the picture before decisions” (9). That residency in Northfield changed Smith and his thinking about mythogeography—hence the essay’s title. You really have to admire someone who, 20 years into an art practice, is still rethinking its fundamental characteristics.

For example, Smith mentions pilgrimage (one of my interests) for the first time (that I know of) in this essay:

The walking I practice (some call it “walking art,” some “psychogeography”) is a kind of pilgrimage, though not in a usual sense. It is less of the “special” thing that is usually understood by pilgrimage. I am not on pilgrimage all the time, but I switch in and out from everyday life more regularly than a traditional pilgrim. This is a pilgrimage that anyone can take, that anyone can weave in and out of their daily lives dependent on the pressures and limits that bear upon you. It is a sporadic journey in which you, the pilgrim, seek two things: firstly, to appreciate the sacredness (in the sense not of any religion, but of its need and right to be venerated) of the road itself; secondly, to find in oneself the edge of the hidden and unrepresentable part and to learn how to protect its borders from algorithms and other attractive invasions. (11)

Such a pilgrimage has no set destination (11); the road the pilgrim takes is more important:

The route of a spiritual, alchemical or psychogeographical pilgrimage—the actual road with its signposts and potholes, hedgerows and roadkill—is sacred in itself, but is only discovered as sacred by the pilgrim’s own transcendence (or just plain thinking) that might occur at any point in a quest. (11)

Smith’s walking practice, which he calls “disrupted walking, walking that breaks from an everyday and functional walk,” adopts the idea of the road as sacred, but drops the singularity of a unique sacred destination “in favour of a multiplicity, a quantum dance with super-positioned elements” (11). “The mythogeographical pilgrim,” he writes, “is much less about arriving at a shrine or a mystical state and more about entangling, physically and psychically, with a (not ‘the’) bigger picture” (11). Such pilgrimages aren’t special or rarefied events: “On any walk, a stroll or a walk to the shops, there is some engagement with those bigger pictures,” such as a view that resembles a particular period of oil painting, or anticipating the taste of “a particular processed food” (11). 

How is Smith’s version of pilgrimage different from ordinary pilgrimage—or, for that matter, ordinary walking? “The difference in what I am proposing is that the walker acknowledges and works in the big pictures they walk with: critiquing, enthusing, embracing, wrecking . . . whatever it is you need to do to achieve your two primary aims of veneration and wary self-discovery,” he writes (11). That means every disrupted walk is reflexive, “messing with its own pretensions, setting out for things never done or never experienced or not even entertained, all in a wobbly dance across volatile fields” (11). Such reflexivity is joined up with “a serious desire to understand what the hell is going on in the world,” and the result is the beginning “of a journey walked in relation to distant particles, in relation to the adopted, rejected or assimilated personal of your role as ‘pilgrim-knight’”—Smith’s example of pilgrimage is a quest for the Holy Grail—“on a quest without an object, yet packed with objects” (11)—objects, I think, that the pilgrim discovers along the way, because he emphasizes the need to attend to “the resilient weirdness of bland things,” to know how “to tap the magic in the ordinary” (11). He also stresses “stillness, enigma and quietly reflecting, and reflecting upon, things” (13). There is a tremendous value, he continues, in 

[k]nowing and loving the darkness in ourselves, mapping the spaces the Spectacle cannot see and re-encoding its codes in our own symbolist doings in the streets. If that seems self-absorbed or indulgent, then see it as the fuel you need to hold yourself in that “not quite there” that gives you a deftness and intuition necessary for connections to the big picture beyond, beneath and within the big pictures. (13)

The reference to “the Spectacle” is yet another suggestion that Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle is, along with A Thousand Plateaus by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, essential theoretical background to understanding Smith’s work. 

Understanding the big picture in Northfield begins with realizing that there are no stories in the town about anything prior to 1855: “Even about the survey of 1851 or the Dakota Treaty of the same year which removed the Siouan-speaking people from the region, yet along any kind of narrative of geological time. Yet almost every garden in some suburbs sported a glacial boulder” (13). The bigger picture can connect disparate things, “while attending to the effects of the parts of an object (like those parts of ourselves) that are, and should be, entirely hidden and inaccessible” (15). According to Smith, 

in mythogeography the “bigger picture” skirts the obsessive narrowness of the “local historian” (and other anti-interdisciplinary expertises) and the reductionism of those religions, materialisms, and so on that boil everything down to the unitary of a great 1 (or Great One). A mythogeographical pilgrim, instead, attends to the multiplicity of the bigger picture (which may, of course, include local history and “Great Ones,” but only as parts, layers or substrates of its swirling orrery of events). (15)

“Such connections and meanings, relations and scales can be directly intuited from the realm perceivable by a body’s senses,” he continues (15). Smith sensed that, in Northfield, the city’s genesis story was the source of the blank void in its self-representations before 1855: 

a genesis story generates an excessive idealism and energy as a result of the denial of things destroyed in order to begin from “nothing,” from “empty space.” In Northfield the origin story has an ideal nature, and John North’s grid plan for the town is certainly utopian in flavour, settling onto the land as if descending from the sky, only to be kinked at its centre by the river. (17)

In such ideal spaces—and the suggestion that the imposition of a grid on the landscape is a utopian gesture surprised me, used as I am to thinking of a similar imposition onto the entire southern part of this province as an affront—“the silencing of what was there before their creation is the generator for their troubled mythogeographies” (17). In other words,

It is the zero that determines their complex set of ones; the sum left after extraction and destruction, concealed and silenced by tales of a Great One or a single idealistic and magic form. This zero, this revenant of the obliteration prior to a place’s genesis, if reclaimed and repaired, is also a machine of future change. (17)

Deletions of prior histories “are often shadow silences; they obscure the overspeaking of even older narratives of geological action” (19):

Mythogeography’s generalisation motor, its big picture making, is powered by these absences and difficulties in historical and geological time. We are back at the zero, or the hidden part of any matter; that seems to be at work in stories of genesis and in overarching general descriptions. So here is a mythogeographical principle that I learned for the first time in Northfield: as you assemble all the multiplicity of informations about a place, look for the zeroing and silencing, large and small, originary and incidental, that these chunks of narrative and idea have been produced (at least partly) in order to obscure. Just as you have precious hidden parts, so does a place. (19)

All of this is pertinent to thinking about Saskatchewan, a place marked my many examples of zeroing and silencing, many gestures towards a blank slate upon which the settler apparatus is built. It might be pertinent to any place that where the ground zero was the genocide and displacement of other peoples. It would be very interesting to bring Smith to Regina to walk in spaces where that genocide and displacement are tangible.

The excess one senses in places, “a blurting out of things generated by the suppression of something else,” is “one of the languages of mythogeography; one that you can intuit in the streets and then back up with a little desk-based research or other kinds of nosey-ing around” (21). That excess, he continues,

is the reason why, on a mythogeographical mis-guided tour of such places, it is always necessary to under-tell the narrative, to dampen it down a little, to mimic the grander narrative of sinking into silence in order to draw the audience into its extreme taciturnity, to which much has already been lost and because of which much may still be at stake. (21)

Smith’s discussion of this excess heads in an existential direction:

In general terms, this silence is the historical manifestation of the mythic abyss, the void around the rim of which we all hang existentially. Hence the personal importance and the social necessity for good faith, fidelity and witness in respect of the accidental poetries, the eroded signs and the textural ironies to be found in every place (and I have found them in every place I have ever visited) which are generated by the silencing of colonialism and other place-making forces; it is not enough to fasten on just any cipher going or to use these things for effect. Hence the need for dampening down; fidelity means connecting to a bigger picture, not always through complexity, but always by a sinking beneath the event horizon of the surface Spectacle, by putting oneself, at least a little, at the mercy of the hidden zero. (21)

I’m not entirely sure how one might put oneself “at the mercy of the hidden zero,” or what that might mean in practical terms, or the connection between those “accidental poetries” and the underground narratives that exist in places like Northfield—or Regina; that’s something I’m going to consider.

Smith moves to a discussion of space that is clearly derived from Deleuze (and possibly Guattari): “There are no borders in space; a border is the antithesis of space. There is small and there are margins in places; but in space there is only folding and unfolding” (21). The same theoretical background informs his discussion of space versus power:

Power is necessarily concentrated and bounded, otherwise it would not be power, it would be free energy vulnerable to democratic uses. Space is dispersive and subject to democratic abstraction. Space can be grasped imaginatively and imagination requires no armies. A refugee in a Jordanian camp can invade England if they have access to a translation of H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds. (21)

I wouldn’t downplay the power of the imagination, but isn’t it important to realize that, in reality, Smith’s refugee remains in a camp, whatever he or she is reading? People who read Tolkien don’t actually—and this might surprise some of them—end up in the Shire. In any case, Smith’s discussion of space is definitely indebted to Deleuze and Guattari:  “space is finely interconnected; it is both material and imagined,” he writes (21). “The margin folds back to the centre. Those of us who feel left out are doubly tricked—first geographically, then subjectively—any marginalization is only partly real and partly a belief enforced upon us. We have been recruited into a conspiracy against ourselves” (21). Mythogeographers, he continues,

do not escape from one place to the other, but find and explore them curled up inside each other. Openness is not in one place and narrowness in another; they are different characteristics of the same places. This is part of the ‘and and and’ characteristic of mythogeography; of speaking of one’s own place as if it were space, never completed, always in motion, floated free from the binding and restraining power of identity and the binding and restraining identity of power. What is usually narrated as a doubleness or an opposition, in the space of mythogeography returns as a series of folds and loops, writhing and connecting and embracing the open within the narrow and the narrow within the open. The array of reflective surfaces created by this interweaving illuminates the narrow self-interests at work in the open space of grand narratives; the churning of their curved edges excavates the grandeur in the common symbols painted on the sidewalk by maintenance workers. If only we were to start pulling on the connections, the whole thing might swing around. (23)

Perhaps, then, rather than an opposition between space, as Yi-Fu Tuan proposes, one might assert an enfolding of them together? What would that look like? Would I have to return to the Deleuze’s The Fold or read A Thousand Plateaus to figure that out?

Smith argues that the dérive is always the motor of mythogeography, “the sociable, leaderless and destinationless wander with shifting themes and pilgrimage-like symbolisms” (25):

This derive is a simple way to take back some of the missing pleasure-surplus that has been subtracted from us—and from our public spaces—by various means including rent, exploitative labour and a Spectacle that turns its consumers into unpaid producers. In the “drift” this recovered surplus reappears like the nervous emergence of things the Spectacle has never “seen” before, spectres and unexchangeable artefacts, and an “under-selling” (a restrained telling) of the route. (25)

A dérive in Northfield took place entirely in a parking lot (25); the route can be anywhere. That dérive left behind an ad-hoc site-specific sculpture made with materials found on the edges of the parking lot; I wonder whether that is common in dérives. In any case, what Smith wants from being a walking artist, he discovered in Northfield, is for people “to walk mythogeographically, but under their own steam; not led, not guided by anyone, least of all by me” (27). He wants to be a part of walking groups but not as a leader; instead he wants “a place among the irresponsibilities and sociabilities of the mob” (27).

In fact, in Northfield, Smith found himself having to reconfigure ideas he had thought of as fixed and fundamental to what he does: 

I became aware of the need to work through pleasure more, to evangelise more and to reconstruct mythogeography as something sociable and convivial, as something people do together. I learned (and continue to learn since) to attend more, not less, to my own body as a site of inadequacy and illness that provides its own route for itself as a vehicle and agent of pleasure. (31)

He suggests as a goal he suggests for leading group walks (I think), a form of “talented” walking, with “talented” meaning a suspendedness or structural capability: 

by repeatedly walking, the walker learns to become ‘transparent,’ practising a calm and extreme openness to the experiences and capabilities of the route, so the walks increasingly take on the quality of narratives without walkers. 

The route becomes the walker. 

The prepared walker, by becoming transparent, passes through places as if he or she were the ignored ghost of it. The prepared walker becomes a haunting but not a frightening or interesting presence. The prepared walker’s transparency allows others to see the place through the walker; not by their leading or narrating, but by emptying themselves of leadership and narrative. . . . So, by their preparedness and transparency, a “talented” walker illuminates their route; and their deferral of action allows those they are with to imagine their own fading into “talented” agency. (31-33)

I’m not sure how a walker in this part of the world—or in Northfield—could become “transparent,” given the fact that so few people walk in these places, but if he is talking about a way of leading walks, this might make sense.

Indeed, Smith notes what while walking in Northfield he was often alone; few others out walking (35)—so he “mostly had meetings with things” (35). He thinks of Margaret Cavendish’s 1666 book The Blazing-World, in which the main character is marooned after a shipwreck on an island of bear-men, bird-men, fly-men, all physicists and philosophers; she is made empress and asks for a spirit amanuensis, the spirt of her own author, Margaret Cavendish (37). “Here was the model for me as a lone walker, washed up in alien suburbs and subject to a storm of my own reveries and unfamiliar resident objects,” he writes. “Be the spirit-amanuensis of your own earthbound ventures. Walking alone is a fine way of learning how to blend hard things with soft imaginings in the same journey” (37).

Here Smith returns to the notion of pilgrimage. He notes that medieval nuns engaged in virtual pilgrimages (they were not allowed to leave their convents to go on actual ones); he imagines that this could be a provocation for his walking (37). Since medieval guidebooks for pilgrims ignore the road and focus on the shrines along the way, that might suggest the road was “a profane obstacle to be overcome” (37). He sees a different extreme in what he calls “neo-romantic and contemporary pilgrimage: “its walk is privileged and democratised . . . and arrival is no longer realised by the transformation of space at the opening of the shrine, but by the transformation of the self along the way” (37). The pilgrim’s arrival at the shrine, he continues, 

is little more than an opportunity to celebrate the apotheosis that has already happened. What this removes is the “otherness”—weirdness, numinous and alien divine—from the heart of pilgrimage; relegating it to a consumable, if uncomfortable, exotic surplus. Ordinariness and the route remain burdens to be endured; this means that all neo-romantic pilgrimages are partly virtual, whether they are walked in a cell or across a continent. For the shrine of the neo-romantic pilgrimage—the transformable self—is always present and might be reached at any time. Pilgrimage becomes, then, a smooth and mobile space. The soul is not saved, but relocated to the ego. (39)

The reference to “smooth” space suggests Deleuze and Guattari again, but more importantly, I’m not convinced that Smith’s description fits my experience on the Camino—a walk that, not surprisingly, radical or art walkers who talk about democratizing walking sneer at. 

Mythogeography, Smith continues, sets out to push romanticism “to be itself but more extremely so,” so why not “privilege the way of the pilgrim not primarily as a metaphorical or psychological way,” but rather focus on tangible things? “Only by walking with and through such stinking things and squeezy organisms can a sacred way open up for this pilgrim,” he writes (39). Such a pilgrimage, “along the road of things,” would reorient one’s focus 

to the ugly matter of work and production, to medieval clumsiness and striation, to the hierarchy as well as the dispersal of space. On such a rough journey the pilgrim is no longer obliged to progressively dematerialise (emptying her rucksack as she goes), but instead to take on a new thickness, becoming increasingly loaded in the sustenance and resilience of things of the way, an ecological pilgrim wading through, and held up by, sloughs of responsive things. (39)

The drift, like the pilgrimage, is “a colonial revenant, appropriating the surplus of pleasure not from giant corporations but from passers-by, which survives inside even the most radical of walkings” (39). When I saw the word “colonial,” I perked up, but Smith is using is as a metaphor, not a literal term.

“The next step for everyday pilgrimage, if it is to escape neo-romantic, new-age opportunism, is towards ambulant architecture,” Smith writes, giving examples of disrupting the path, or creating new ones (39-41). That’s where he notes that a discussion on the Walking Artists Network focused on ways to disrupt the Camino. I’m not sure that impulse isn’t anti-democratic, given the number of people who walk that pilgrimage route every year. Why can’t they do that if they want to? Others can make more adventurous or philosophical walks if they want to, find different routes, or disrupt their own path by leaving objects behind, as Smith suggests (although where one would get those objects is an open question). There is a sociability and conviviality on the Camino—and sometimes a competitiveness—that might be worth exploring; sneering at it is not engaging with it.

“‘New menhirs’ are accidental versions of the ambulatory architecture that once combined as waymarking signs and ritual objects for prehistoric people in Europe,” Smith notes, suggesting that they “were probably the first architecture” (43)—if you ignore the shelters they lived in, perhaps that might be true. He describes the strange, typically discarded or unnoticed things he discovers when he is walking as “new menhirs” (43):

The pole of attraction of a new menhir swings things back towards junctions and magic squares, towards connectivity. It is a facilitating symbol of the human octopus and the social web; a mark that—despite its apparent isolation and its relation to journeying—connects and reconciles. While the general motor of the void is driven by loss and trauma, the new menhir is all about reparation and the reconciliation of opposites. (43)

Honestly, I’m not convinced that those objects, however strange, can actually generate connectivity—unless a group of walkers stop to examine them, perhaps. But Smith makes larger claims for these objects: 

A new menhir marks the spot where ideology touches the ground and becomes substantial. It marks the spot where deregulated images put down a footprint and can be caught. They are there to be touched, leaned against and held as connectors to something or somewhere else, channels to thinking and wands for moving things by something other than broadband. (45)

The reference to “broadband” suggests that he is talking about the Spectacle again; he is putting a great deal of weight on these “new menhirs,” but his poetic prose isn’t quite explaining—to me, anyway—their importance. Perhaps I’m too dull to pick up on it.

Smith’s experiences in Northfield “illuminated the process by which a mythogeography connects texture and detail to the big picture and how, as a common practice it can change situations and not just comment on them” (51). The essay ends with a call for readers to do “this stuff” in their own ways; one final section, “How Can We Do This Stuff In Our Own Ways?” consists of one sentence: “It wouldn’t be your way if there was anything under this heading, would it?” (51). That’s a good question. What I take, immediately, from my reading of this essay is that I ought to pay more attention to the objects and places I encounter on my walks—I am thinking right now of a hay bale at the side of the highway with a water bottle embedded in the centre—as well as to the people. And, again, I realize that my solo walking practice is probably not Smith’s cup of tea, although perhaps, after walking in Minnesota, he realizes how focused North America is on automobiles, how much it has turned its back on self-propelled motion. I am also more convinced than ever that I need to read Deleuze and Guattari—particularly if the relationship between space and place can be expressed as an enfolding rather than an opposition. I sense that such an idea has possibilities, but I would need a better grasp on the fold, and an understanding of the different kinds of space Deleuze and Guattari explore. 

Work Cited

Schott , John, and Phil Smith, Rethinking Mythogeography in Northfield, Minnesota, Triarchy Press, 2018.

47. Doreen Massey, For Space

for space

I’ve meant to read Doreen Massey’s 2005 book For Space for quite some time now. My friend Rachelle Viader Knowles, who teaches at Coventry University, has told me that For Space was very influential on her PhD work. Also, while I’m very interested in the distinction Yi-Fu Tuan makes between space and place, I’m also aware that any such binary opposition is begging to be deconstructed, and from the title of Massey’s book, I thought that might be part of her project. If I’m going to think about space and place, I thought, I’m going to need to be aware of critiques of that opposition, and if that’s what Massey’s up to, then I would have to read her book.

Massey isn’t primarily interested in distinctions between space and place, but that doesn’t mean that her book isn’t important for my research. (Also, I had better point out at the very beginning that For Space is a complex book, and because I’m trying to follow the turns of Massey’s argument in detail, this post is going to be rather long.) Massey begins by saying that she’s been thinking about space for a long time, but in an indirect way, “through some other kind of engagement,” including “the politics of space” and “[t]he battles over globalisation,” “the engagements with ‘nature’ as I walk the hills,” and “the complexities of cities” (1)—all themes she returns to later in For Space. “It is through these persistent ruminations—that sometimes don’t seem to go anywhere and then sometimes do—that I have become convinced both that the implicit assumptions we make about space are important and that, maybe, it could be productive to think about space differen[t]ly” (1). That is precisely what For Space does: it takes on our “implicit assumptions” about space and thinks about space in a different way.

One of Massey’s primary concerns is the way we imagine space, the way we think about it. She begins with the story of the encounter between Hernán Cortés and Moctezuma, when the Spanish met the Aztecs at their capital, Tenochtitlán, a story that stands in, metonymically, for the history of European exploration and colonization of the globe, a story that depended on a particular conception of space as a surface, “continuous and given,” a way of thinking about space that “differentiates”: “Hernán, active, a maker of history, journeys across this surface and finds Tenochtitlán upon it” (4). This “unthought cosmology,” Massey writes, “carries with it social and political effects” (4):

So easily this way of imagining space can lead us to conceive of other places, peoples, cultures simply as phenomena “on” this surface. It is not an innocent manoeuvre, for by this means they are deprived of histories. Immobilised, they await Cortés’ (or our, or global capital’s) arrival. They lie there, on space, without their own trajectories. Such a space makes it more difficult to see in our mind’s eye the histories the Aztecs too have been living and producing. What might it mean to reorientate this imagination, to question that habit of thinking of space as a surface? If, instead, we conceive of a meeting-up of histories, what happens to our implicit imaginations of time and space? (4)

A related phenomenon is “the story of the inevitability of globalisation,” by which its proponents mean “the inevitability of that particular form of neoliberal capitalist globalisation that we are experiencing at the moment—that duplicitous combination of the glorification of the (unequally) free movement of capital on the one hand with the firm control over the movement of labour on the other,” which leads to the claim that other countries are “behind” wealthy nations and will eventually follow on the same path (4-5). This “proposition,” Massey argues, “turns geography into history, space into time,” a shift that, again, has political and social effects: other countries are imagined as if they do not have “their own trajectories, their own particular histories, and the potential for their own, perhaps different, futures. They are not recognised as coeval others. They are merely at an earlier stage in the one and only narrative it is possible to tell” (5). That “cosmology of ‘only one narrative,’” Massey writes, “obliterates the multiplicities, the contemporaneous heterogeneities of space. It reduces simultaneous existence to place in the historical queue” (5). “What if,” she asks, “we refuse to convene space into time? What if we open up the imagination of the single narrative to give space (literally) for a multiplicity of trajectories? What kinds of conceptualisation of time and space, and of their relation, might that give on to?” (5)

Then Massey turns to place. “In the context of a world which is, indeed, increasingly interconnected the notion of place (usually evoked as ‘local place’) has come to have totemic resonances,” she writes:

Its symbolic value is endlessly mobilised in political argument. For some it is the sphere of the everyday, of real and valued practices, the geographical source of meaning, vital to hold on to as “the global” spins its ever more powerful and alienating webs. For others, a “retreat to place” represents a protective pulling-up of drawbridges and a building of walls against the new invasions. Place, on this reading, is the locus of denial, of attempted withdrawal from invasion/difference. It is a politically conservative haven, an essentialising (and in the end unviable) basis for a response; one that fails to address the real forces at work. (5-6)

Place is, or at least it can be, about “nationalisms and territorial parochialisms characterised by claims to local specificity and by a hostility to at least some designated others” (6). Place, in contemporary terms, is the motivating force for Brexit, or for Trump’s desired border wall. And yet, is it always “a politically conservative haven”? “[W]hat of the defence of place by working-class communities in the teeth of globalisation,” she asks, “or by aboriginal groups clinging to a last bit of land?” (6). Place is ambiguous: “Horror at local exclusivities sits uneasily against support for the vulnerable struggling to defend their patch” (6). Nevertheless, there are “often shared undergirding assumptions” of place:

as closed, coherent, integrated as authentic, as “home,” a secure retreat; of space as somehow originarily regionalised, as always-already divided up. And more than that again, they institute, implicitly but held within the very discourses that they mobilise, a counterposition, sometimes even a hostility, certainly an implicit imagination of different theoretical “levels” (of the abstract versus the everyday, and so forth) between space on the one hand and place on the other. (6)

Again, Massey offers a number of questions in response to these distinctions between space and place:

What if we refuse this imagination? What then not only of the nationalisms and parochialisms which we might gladly see thereby undermined, but also of the notion of local struggles or of the defence of place more generally? And what if we refuse that distinction, all too appealing it seems, between place (as meaningful, lived and everyday) and space (as what? the outside? the abstract? the meaningless)? (6)

What, indeed, would happen if we abandoned the distinction between place as meaningful and space as abstract? That is Tuan’s distinction: how else could one assert the difference between locations one knows and that have meaning, and locations one does not know or understand? 

“The imagination of space as a surface on which we are placed, the turning of space into time, the sharp separation of local place from the space out there; these are all ways of taming the challenge that the inherent spatiality of the world presents,” Massey writes (7). But, she continues, these ways of thinking about space are typically unthought or implicit (7). “One of the recurring motifs in what follows is just how little, actually, space is thought about explicitly,” she suggests (7). Nevertheless, “these implicit engagements of space feed back into and sustain wider understandings of the world”:

The trajectories of others can be immobilised while we proceed with our own; the real challenge of the contemporaneity of others can be deflected by their relegation to a past (backward, old-fashioned, archaic); the defensive enclosures of an essentialised place seem to enable a wider disengagement, and to provide a secure foundation. (8)

All of these, for Massey, are examples of failures, intentional or otherwise, of “spatial imagination” (8). They are “inadequate to the challenges of space,” incapable of understanding “its coeval multiplicities,” accepting “its radical contemporaneity,” or dealing with “its constitutive complexity” (8). This statement leads to Massey’s big question, which ends her introduction: “What happens if we try to let go of those, by now almost intuitive, understandings?” (8)

Massey’s next chapter lists three propositions regarding space, all of which follow from the questions she asks in her introduction. First, she suggests “that we recognise space as the product of interrelations: as constituted through interactions, from the immensity of the global to the intimately tiny” (9). Second, we need to understand space 

as the sphere of the possibility of the existence of multiplicity in the sense of contemporaneous plurality; as the sphere in which distinct trajectories coexist; as the sphere therefore of coexisting heterogeneity. Without space, no multiplicity; without multiplicity, no space. If space is indeed the product of interrelations, then it must be predicated upon the existence of plurality. (9)

Third, she suggests “that we recognise space as always under construction”:

Precisely because space on this reading is a product of relations-between, relations which are necessarily embedded material practices which have to be carried out, it is always in the process of being made. It is never finished; never closed. Perhaps we could imagine space as a simultaneity of stories-so-far. (9)

For Massey, these propositions regarding space are important: 

thinking the spatial in a particular way can shake up the manner in which certain political questions are formulated, can contribute to political arguments already under way and—most deeply—can be an essential element in the imaginative structure which enables in the first place an opening up to the very sphere of the political. (9)

The “imagination of the spatial and the imagination of the political” are therefore directly connected (9-10). 

Politics, Massey writes, is “the (ever-contested) question of our being-together” (142). The claim that the spatial and the political are interrelated is an important part of Massey’s argument, and it is therefore worth unpacking. First, she argues that “understanding space as a product of interrelations chimes well with the emergence over recent years of a politics which attempts a commitment to anti-essentialism,” a politics which “takes the constitution of identities themselves and the relations through which they are constructed to be one of the central stakes of the political” (10). “Rather than accepting and working with already-constituted entities/identities,” Massey continues,

this politics lays its stress upon the relational constructedness of things (including things called political subjectivities and political constituencies). It is wary therefore about claims to authenticity based on notions of unchanging identity. Instead, it proposes a relational understanding of the world, and a politics which responds to that. (10)

Such a “politics of interrelations” mirrors Massey’s first proposition, the claim that space “is a product of interrelations”: “Space does not exist prior to identities/entities and their relations”—in fact, “identities/entities, the relations ‘between’ them, and the spatiality which is part of them, are all co-constitutive” (10). There is no simple cause and effect; all three of these things helps to create the others. However, for Massey space is the privileged term: “spatiality may also be from the beginning integral to the constitution of those identities themselves, including political subjectivities,” she contends, and “specifically spatial identities (places, nations) can equally be reconceptualised in relational terms” (10). Questions of these relations, and the ways they are negotiated, are returned to throughout For Space.

Second, Massey argues that “imagining space as the sphere of the possibility of the existence of multiplicity resonates with the greater emphasis which has over recent years in political discourses of the left been laid on ‘difference’ and heterogeneity” (10). This point is related to her second proposition about space: “the very possibility of any serious recognition of multiplicity and heterogeneity itself depends on a recognition of spatiality,” she suggests. “The political corollary is that a genuine, thorough, spatialisation of social theory and political thinking can force into the imagination a fuller recognition of the simultaneous coexistence of others with their own trajectories and their own stories to tell” (11). As with her first argument, this one recurs throughout For Space as well, and it is one of her primary concerns.

Third, Massey contends that “imagining space as always in process, as never a closed system, resonates with an increasingly vocal insistence within political discourses on the genuine openness of the future. It is an insistence founded in an attempt to escape the inexorability which so frequently characterises the grand narratives related by modernity” (11). Indeed, for Massey the existence of future possibilities is the basis of political activity: “only if we conceive of the future as open can we seriously accept or engage in any genuine notion of politics. Only if the future is open is there any ground for a politics which can make a difference” (11). Once again, she sees a parallel between this point and the way she conceives of space: “Not only history but also space is open” (11). Space, she writes, “is neither a container for always-already constituted identities nor a completed closure of holism. This is a space of loose ends and missing links. For the future to be open, space must be open too” (12).

Massey then pauses to register a concern about the connotations of her words; she in effect stops to define her particular use of vocabulary in the book. Her use of the terms “trajectory” and “story,” for instance, is intended to emphasize the process of change—both temporal and spatial—in a phenomenon (12). The terms “difference,” “heterogeneity,” “multiplicity,” and “plurality” are all meant to suggest “the contemporaneous existence of a plurality of trajectories; a simultaneity of stories-so-far” (12). The fact of such heterogeneities is “intrinsic to space,” Massey argues. “Romances of coherent nationhood . . . may operate on precisely such principles of constituting identity/difference,” and “such attempts at the purification of space. . . . are precisely one way of coping with its heterogeneities—its actual complexity and openness” (12). But Massey is interested in positive heterogeneity rather than negative difference, in heterogeneity as a positive alternative to essentialist arguments. That positive heterogeneity will enable one to grasp the “liveliness, the complexity and openness of the configurational itself, the positive multiplicity, which is important for an appreciation of the spatial” (12-13).

“What I’m interested in,” Massey writes, “is how we might imagine spaces for these times; how we might pursue an alternative imagination”:

What is needed, I think, is to uproot “space” from that constellation of concepts in which it has so unquestioningly so often been embedded (stasis; closure; representation) and to settle it among another set of ideas (heterogeneity; relationality; coevalness . . . liveliness indeed) where it released a more challenging political landscape. (13)

“This is a book about ordinary space,” she continues:

the space and places through which, in the negotiation of relations within multiplicities, the social is constructed. It is in that sense a modest proposal, and yet the very persistence, the apparent obviousness, of other mobilisations of “space,” point to its continuing necessity. (13)

Space, she writes, is just as lively and challenging as time, which has tended to occupy the imaginations of philosophers; space is neither dead nor fixed, and “the very enormity of its challenges has meant that the strategies for taming it have been many, varied and persistent” (14). Note Massey’s inclusion of place in this statement of her interests; she wants to consider “the real problems of thinking about, and still more of appreciating, place” (14).

The next section of For Space engages with the way our definition of space is derived from philosophy; in particular, the work of Henri Bergson; the structuralists; and the deconstructionists (primarily Jacques Derrida). Throughout this section, Massey argues that “time and space must be thought together”: “the imagination of one will have repercussions (not always followed through) for the imagination of the other,” and since “space and time are implicated in each other,” thinking them together “opens up some problems which have heretofore seemed (logically, intractably) insoluble” (18). Thinking space and time together also “has reverberations for thinking about politics and the spatial” (18). Although time and space are typically considered in opposition to each other, Massey continues, “[t]he counterpositional labelling of phenomena as temporal or spatial, and entailing all the baggage of the reduction of space to the a-political sphere of causal closure or the reactionary redoubts of established power, continues to this day” (18). Thinking about space will have effects on the way other things are thought about in philosophy:

the excavation of these problematical conceptualisations of space (as static, closed, immobile, as the opposite of time) brings to light other sets of connections, to science, writing and representation, to issues of subjectivity and its conception, in all of which implicit imaginations of space have played an important role. And these entwinings are in turn related to the fact that space has so often been excluded from, or inadequately conceptualised in relation to, and has thereby debilitated our conceptions of, politics and the political. (18-19)

Her goal, she writes, is “to liberate ‘space’ from some chains of meaning (which embed it with closure and stasis, or with science, writing and representation) and which have all but choked it to death, in order to set it into other chains (in this chapter alongside openness, and heterogeneity, and liveliness) where it can have a new and more productive life” (19).

Massey then turns to the idea that there is an association, in philosophy, between “the spatial and the fixation of meaning,” or between spatiality and representation” (20). She is interested in philosophers who imply “another understanding of what space might be,” although “none of them pause very long either explicitly to develop this alternative or to explore the curious fact that this other (and more mobile, flexible, open, lively) view of space stands in such flat opposition to their equally certain association of representation with space” (20). One of those philosophers is Henri Bergson, whose concern was with temporality and duration, the experience of time and ways to resist “the evisceration of its internal continuity, flow and movement” (20). Bergson makes a distinction—as does Gilles Deleuze—“between discrete difference/multiplicity (which refers to extended magnitudes and distinct entities, the realm of diversity) and continuous difference/multiplicity (which refers to intensities, and to evolution rather than succession” (21). These terms are important, because they inform much of Massey’s argument, and she returns to them again and again. Discrete difference/multiplicity, she continues, “is divided up, a dimension of separation,” whereas continuous difference/multiplicity “is a continuum, a multiplicity of fusion” (21). Bergson and Deleuze, she writes, are trying “to instate the significance, indeed the philosophical primacy, of the second (continuous) form of difference over the first (the discrete) form” (21). At stake is “the genuine openness of history, of the future,” which is also central to Massey’s argument.

However, Bergson was interested in time rather than space; in fact, he devalued and subordinated space, in part by associating it with representation, which deprived space of dynamism and counterposed it radically to time (21). In his argument, space comes to be associated negatively against time, as a lack of movement and duration (22). But Massey asks why space must lack duration: “A dynamic simultaneity would be a conception quite different from a frozen instant” (23). Eventually, she continues, Bergson came to recognize “duration in external things,” and “thus the interpenetration, though not the equivalence, of space and time” (24). That notion is, she writes, “what I am calling space as the dimension of multiple trajectories, a simultaneity of stories-so-far. Space is the dimension of a multiplicity of durations” (24). The problem, however, is that “the old chain of meaning—space-representation-stasis—continues to wield its power” (24). Ernesto Laclau and Michel de Certeau both see space in this way, as representation and therefore stasis and ideological closure (24-25). “It is a remarkably pervasive and unquestioned assumption, and it does indeed have an intuitive obviousness,” Massey writes. “But as already indicated perhaps this equation of representation and spatialisation is not something which should be taken for granted” (26). Indeed, her purpose in this book is “to build an argument which will come to a very different conclusion” (26).

There are two propositions in this claim about space, Massey suggests: “first, the argument that representation necessarily fixes, and therefore deadens and detracts from, the flow of life; and second, that the product of this process of deadening is space” (26). She doesn’t entirely disagree with the first proposition, but believes that the equivalence the second makes between space and representation is baseless” (26-27). Representation, she argues, does fix and stabilize, but what it fixes and stabilizes is both history and geography, or “space-time” (27). “It would be better to recognise that ‘society’ is both temporal and spatial, and to drop entirely that definition of representation as space,” she writes, because representation is both spatial and temporal (27). Moreover, while “it is easy to see how representation can be understood as a form of spatialisation”—her example is a map—that map, as a representation of space, is not the territory itself, because “a territory is integrally spatio-temporal” (27-28). Here I found myself recalling Jorge Luis Borges’s story, “On Exactitude in Science,” about an empire whose cartographers made a life-sized map of the empire’s territory, which was, of course, useless: its “Tattered Ruins” are now “inhabited by Animals and Beggars,” and “in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography” (Borges).

The argument that space is representation has two consequences, according to Massey. First, there is a crisis of representation, since representation is constitutive rather than mimetic; and second, “that space itself, the space of the world, far from being equivalent to representation, must be unrepresentable in that latter, mimetic sense” (28). She notes that in the work of Deleuze and Felix Guattari, there is no “tripartite division between reality, representation and subjectivity”:

Here what we might have called representation is no longer a process of fixing, but an element in a continuous production; a part of it all, and itself constantly becoming. This is a position which rejects a strict separation between world and text and which understands scientific activity as being just that—an activity, a practice, an embedded engagement in the world of which it is a part. Not representation but experimentation. (28)

“As the text has been destabilised in literary theory so space might be destabilised in geography (and indeed in wider social theory),” Massey suggests (28-29). However, the issue is complex:

if scientific/intellectual activity is indeed to be understood as an active and productive engagement in/of the world it is none the less a particular kind of practice, a specific form of engagement/production in which it is hard to deny (to absolve ourselves from the responsibility for?) any element of representation . . . even if it is, quite certainly, productive and experimental rather than simply mimetic, and an embodied knowledge rather than a mediation. It does not, however, have to be conceived of as producing a space, nor its characteristics carried over to inflect our implicit imaginations of space. For to do so is to rob space of those characteristics of freedom (Bergson), dislocation (Laclau), and surprise (de Certeau) which are essential to open it up to the political.” (29)

The problem is that space is in general perceived as “somehow a lesser dimension than time: one with less gravitas and magnificence, it is the material/phenomenal rather than the abstract; it is being rather than becoming and so forth; and it is feminine rather than masculine” (29). Space, in other words, is the “subordinated category,” defined by its lack of temporality and therefore of secondary importance (29).

That is the binary opposition that Massey’s critique of philosophy sets out to deconstruct: space versus time. She points out that space is often seen as conquering time:

the supposedly weaker term of a dualism obliterates the positive characteristics of the stronger one, the privileged signifier. And it does this through the conflation of the spatial with representation. Space conquers time by being set up as the representation of history/life/the real world. On this reading space is an order imposed upon the inherent life of the real. (Spatial) order obliterates (temporal) dislocation. Spatial immobility quietens temporal becoming. (30)

The result, Massey writes, is “the most dismal of pyrrhic victories. For in the very moment of its conquering triumph ‘space’ is reduced to stasis. The very life, and certainly the politics, are taken out of it (30). Her ambition is to return the life and the politics to the concept of space.

Next, Massey takes a look at the way the structuralists imagined space. “Through many twentieth-century debates in philosophy and social theory runs the idea that spatial framing is a way of containing the temporal,” she writes. “For a moment, you hold the world still. And in this moment you can analyse the structure” (36):

You hold the world still in order to look at it in cross-section. It seems a small, and perhaps even an intuitively obvious, gesture, yet it has a multitude of resonances and implications. It connects with ideas of structure and system, of distance and the all-seeing eye, of totality and completeness, of the relation between synchrony and space. And . . . the assumptions which may lie within it and the logics to which it can give rise run off in a whole range of problematical directions. (36)

Structuralism, which aimed to analyze structures, seemed to focus on space, rather than time, because it was in a struggle against historical narratives; it was “in part an attempt to escape precisely that convening of geography and history” (36). To effect that escape, structuralism “turned to the concepts of structure, space and synchrony. Instead of narrative, structure; instead of diachrony, synchrony; instead of time, space” (37). Nevertheless, structuralism “left a legacy of . . . taken-for-granted assumptions” about space, Massey contends, “which have continued to this day to bedevil debate” (37).

Once again, concepts were mistranslated into notions of time and space, according to Massey. The structuralists equated their atemporal assumptions with space; if those structures weren’t temporal, they had to be spatial. Structure and process were thus understood as space and time, and space became the “absolute negation” of time (37). Chains of meaning were thereby established “between narrative/temporality/diachrony on the one hand and structure/spatiality/synchrony on the other” (37). But, Massey asks, are synchronic structures actually spatial?

The argument in some ways parallels that about representation. The “synchronic structures” of the structuralists were analytical schema devised for understanding a society, myth, or language. Structuralism goes further, then, than simply “holding the world still.” . . . Moreover, the (implicit) reason that these analytical structures were dubbed spatial is precisely that they are established as a-temporal, as the opposite of temporality, and therefore without time, and therefore without space. It is, primarily, a negative definition. In the logic of this reasoning space is assumed to be both the opposite of time and without temporality. Once again . . . space is rendered as the sphere of stasis and fixity. It is a conceptualisation of space which, once again, is really a residualisation and derives from an assumption: that space is opposed to time and lacking in temporality. Thought of like this, “space” really would be the realm of closure and that in turn would render it the realm of the impossibility of the new and therefore of the political. (37-38)

Space becomes synonymous with “synchronic closure,” Massey continues, and “such structures rob the objects to which they refer of their inherent dynamism,” eliminating the possibility of real change (38). In addition,

the conceptual synchronies of structuralism are relations imagined in a highly particular way. Above all, they are characterised by relations between their constituent elements such that they for a completely interlocked system. They are closed systems. It is this aspect of the conceptualisation—in combination with a-temporality—which does the most damage. For the stasis of closed systems robs “relational construction” of the anti-essentialism to which it is often claimed to lead. And the closure itself robs “the spatial” . . . of one of its potentially disruptive characteristics: precisely its juxtaposition, its happenstance arrangement-in-relation-to-each-other, of previously unconnected narratives/temporalities; its openness and its condition of always being made. It is this crucial characteristic of “the spatial” which constitutes it as one of the vital moments in the production of those dislocations which are necessary to the existence of the political (and indeed the temporal). (39)

Many of structuralism’s “framing conceptualisations” continue to influence intellectual arguments today, Massey notes, although poststructuralism, she contends, has the potential to imbue those structures with temporality and crack them open “to reveal the existence of other voices” (42). Her examples are the writings of Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, and de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life. However, the work of these philosophers does not fully grasp the potential of a temporalized spatiality: “The broad conceptual thrust is to open up the structures of our imagination to temporality. . . . Yet in the midst of this invigorating concern with time neither author engages in any fundamental critique of the associated terminologies, and concepts, of space” (47). 

Nevertheless, the writing of Laclau and Mouffe, and de Certeau, does point towards “the interconnectedness of conceptualisations of space and conceptualisations of time,” Massey writes. “Imagining one in a particular way should, at least ‘logically,’ imply a particular way of thinking about the other,” because although they are not identical, “they are integral to each other” (47). “At a minimum,” Massey continues, “for time to be open, space must be in some sense open too. The non-recognition of the simultaneity of openended multiplicities that is the spatial can vitiate the project of opening up temporality” (48). “Levering space out of this immobilising chain of connotations both potentially contributes to the dislocations necessary for the existence of the political,” Massey concludes, “and opens space itself to more adequate political address” (48).

Not all poststructuralist writing suggests that the spatial is also the immobilized, but much of it does suggest that time is more valuable, rich, and dialectical than space (49). Nevertheless, Massey argues, space is temporalized in deconstruction, in theory if not always in practice, and poststructuralism “could very easily be spatial” (49-50). Nevertheless, there is “a residual but persistent ‘horizontality’” about deconstruction “which makes it difficult for it to handle . . . a spatiality which is fully integral within space-time” (50). That “emphasis on horizontality can be interpreted as . . . a turn towards spatiality and a spatiality, what’s more, which is open and differentiated” (50-51). However, Massey sees in deconstruction “too much emphasis on the purely horizontal and too little recognition of the multiple trajectories of which that ‘horizontality’ is the momentary, passing, result” (51). In addition, Derrida’s way of conceiving heterogeneity suggests “internal disruption and incoherence rather than . . . positive multiplicity,” which is both politically disabling and a problem for a rethinking of the spatial” (51). For Massey, deconstruction “is not enough to achieve that necessary transcribing of space from the chain stasis/representation/closure into an association with openness/unrepresentability/external multiplicity” (54). 

The purpose of this review of various philosophical definitions of space, Massey writes, is “to point to the problematic repercussions of some associations and to emphasise the potential of alternative views. The hope is to contribute to a process of liberating space from its old chain of meaning and to associate it with a different one in which it might have, in particular, more political potential” (55). I haven’t read Bergson, and its been years since I tackled either the structuralists or Derrida, so I can’t speak to the accuracy of Massey’s discussions of their work. I find myself having to take her response to these philosophers on faith. When she moves to her own arguments about space, however, I find myself on somewhat firmer ground; at least, I can follow her argument without wondering if I should stop and go and read Bergson or Derrida instead. According to Massey, her argument is that space is “an open ongoing production”:

As well as injecting temporality into the spatial this also reinvigorates its aspect of discrete multiplicity; for while the closed system is the foundation for the singular universal, opening that up makes room for a genuine multiplicity of trajectories, and thus potentially of voices. It also posits a positive discrete multiplicity against an imagination of space as the product of negative spacing, through the abjection of the other. (55)

“[N]either time nor space is reducible to the other; they are distinct,” she continues. “They are, however, co-implicated. On the side of space, there is the integral temporality of a dynamic simultaneity. On the side of time, there is the necessary production of change through practices of interrelation” (55). This co-implication is no doubt the reason she sometimes refers to “space-time.” “Conceptualising space as open, multiple and relational, unfinished and always becoming, is a prerequisite for history to be open and thus a prerequisite, too, for the possibility of politics,” she contends. (Yes, her argument, at least they way I am presenting it, is repetitive; but I would argue that it becomes more clear through repetition, or at least that was my experience of it.) “If time unfolds as change then space unfolds as interaction,” Massey argues. For that reason, she describes space as “the social dimension,” as well as “the sphere of the continuous production and reconfiguration of heterogeneity in all its forms—diversity, subordination, conflicting interests” (61). Massey’s goal, she continues, is to develop “a relational politics for a relational space” (61).

Next, Massey turns to the current interest in “the spatialisation of social theory,” using “the postcolonial concern to rework the sociological debates over the nature of modernity and its relation to globalisation” as an example (62). “The implications of spatialising/globalising the story of modernity are profound,” she writes. “The most obvious effect, which has been the main intent, is to rework modernity away from being the unfolding, internal story of Europe alone. The aim has been precisely to decentre Europe” (62-63). Along with the decentring of Europe’s trajectory, it needs to be recognized as only one of the histories being made at that time (63):

Once understood as more than the history of Europe’s own adventures, it is possible to appreciate how the previous way of telling the story (with Europe at its centre) was powered by the way in which the process was experienced within Europe; told through the experience of exploration outward from Europe; told from the point of view of Europe as the protagonist. Spatialising that story enables an understanding of its positionality, its geographical embeddedness; an understanding of the spatiality of the production of knowledge itself. (63)

Indeed, “retelling the story of modernity through spatialisation/globalisation exposed modernity’s preconditions in and effects of violence, racism and oppression” (63). Modernity established “a particular power/knowledge relation which was mirrored in a geography that was also a geography of power,” Massey continues. Postcolonial critique has exposed that geography and therefore has undermined that power/knowledge relation (64). Spatializing the story of modernity has not left its story the same (64). 

One of the outcomes of modernity was “a particular hegemonic understanding of the nature of space itself, and of the relation between space and society,” Massey writes. One characteristic of that understanding was a particular conception of place, in which cultures and nations and local communities were “all imagined as having an integral relation to bounded spaces, internally coherent and differentiated from each other by separation” (64). Those bounded spaces became identified as places, and place came to be defined as bounded space, with its own “internally generated authenticities” which were “defined by their difference form other places which lay outside, beyond their borders” (64). “It was,” Massey continues,

a way of imagining space—a geographical imagination—integral to what was to become a project for organising global space. It was through that imagination of space as (necessarily, by its very nature) divided/regionalised that the . . . project of the generalisation across the globe of the nation-state form could be legitimated as progress, as “natural.” And it continues to reverberate today. (64-65)

Today, this sense of place operates as an imaginary past, a nostalgia for something that never existed, and as a response to globalization “which consists of retreating into its supposed opposite: nationalisms and parochialisms and localisms of all sorts” (65).

The story about space that is told by this particular notion of place is “a way of taming the spatial,” Massey suggests, “a representation of space, a particular form of ordering and organising space which refused (refuses) to acknowledge its multiplicities, its fractures and its dynamism” (65). “It is a stabilisation of the inherent instabilities and creativities of space; a way of coming to terms with the great ‘out there.’ It is this concept of space which provides the basis for the supposed coherence, stability and authenticity to which there is such frequent appeal in discourses of parochialism and nationalism” (65). It is also the starting point for the conceptualization of space in the social sciences: “an imagination of space as already divided-up, of places which are already separated and bounded” (65). And that, Massey contends, is a big problem:

The modern, territorial, conceptualisation of space understands geographical difference as being constituted primarily through isolation and separation. Geographical variation is preconstituted. First the differences between places exist, and then those different places come into contact. (68)

This essentialist version of space

runs clearly against the injunction that space be thought of as an emergent product of relations, including those relations which establish boundaries, and where “place” in consequence is necessarily meeting place, where the “difference” of a place must be conceptualised more in the ineffable sense of the constant emergence of uniqueness out of (and within) the specific constellations of interrelations within which that place is set . . . and of what is made of that constellation. (68)

That latter version of place “as process, as the constant production of the new,” as “neither an essentialised emergence from an origin nor the product of a spacing in the sense of expulsion or attempted purifiation,” “indicates the dubiousness of that duality—so popular and so persistent—between space and place” (68). Here we see one aspect of Massey’s critique of the distinction between space and place; although I’m not sure that it is completely accurate, I am going to have to take it into account when I write about place.

There is, however, a version of place that Massey finds useful, one that recognizes spatiality’s inherent multiplicity and heterogeneity and coevalness:

“Recognising spatiality” involves (could involve) recognising coevalness, the existence of trajectories which have at least some degree of autonomy from each other (which are not simply alignable into one linear story). . . . On this reading, the spatial, crucially, is the realm of the configuration of potentially dissonant (or concordant) narratives. Places, rather than being locations of coherence, become the foci of the meeting and the nonmeeting of the previously unrelated and thus integral to the generation of novelty. The spatial in its role of bringing distinct temporalities into new configurations sets off new social processes. And in turn, this emphasises the nature of narratives, of time itself, as being not about the folding of some internalised story (some already-established identities)—the self-producing story of Europe—but about interaction and the process of the constitution of identities—the reformulated notion of (the multiplicities of) colonisation. (71)

There is a place for place in Massey’s theory, then: it could function as a meeting point for “previously unrelated” trajectories and narratives. 

However, Massey isn’t just disagreeing with human geographers who privilege place over space; she is also disagreeing with those who claim that we live in a world “which is purely spatial,” “a depthless horizontality of immediate connections” (76). That depthlessness is atemporal, which means that, in this way of thinking, history is unthinkable (76). “Just as time cannot adequately be conceptualised without a recognition of the (spatial) multiplicities through which it is generated,” Massey writes,

so space cannot adequately be imagined as the stasis of a depthless, totally interconnected, instantaneity. Any assumption of a closed instantaneity not only denies space this essential character of itself constantly becoming, it also denies time its own possibility of complexity/multiplicity. (76-77)

That assumption would also leave no opening for politics, because it posits a closed system composed, ironically, of apparently open connections (77). 

That idea of “depthless horizontality” is, for Massey, related to the notion of globalization as “a world of flows” (81)—at least, I think it is the theoretical enabling of globalization’s more concrete activities. Like modernity’s notion of progress, globalization presents itself as inevitable, another “grand narrative” with enormous implications, including the idea that everyone will eventually become the same (82). This “aspatial view of globalisation” occludes the potential differences in the trajectories of different spaces” (82). It tells “a tale with a single trajectory,” and the “openness of the future which is in part a consequence of the multiplicities of the spatial is reined in,” so that different spaces have no space in which to tell different stories or to follow another path (82). “The convening of contemporaneous geographical differences into temporal sequence, this turning it into a story of ‘catching up,’” Massey argues, “occludes present-day relations and practices and their relentless production, within current rounds of capitalist globalisation, of increasing inequality” (82). These tales of inevitability, she continues,

require dynamics which are beyond intervention. They need an external agent, a deus ex machina. The unquestioned motors of “globalisation’s” historicising of the world’s geographical inequalities are, in various mixtures, the economy and technology. By this means, a further political result is achieved: the removal of the economic and the technological from political consideration. The only political questions become ones concerning our subsequent adaptation to their inevitability. (82-83)

Neoliberal, capitalist globalization, led by transnational corporations, is taken to be the only possible form of globalization:

Objections to this particular globalisation are persistently met with the derisive riposte that “the world will inevitably become more interconnected.” Capitalist globalisation is equated with globalisation tout court, a discursive manoeuvre which at a stroke obscures the possibility of seeing alternative forms. (83)

This particular form of globalization is taken as inevitable—but Massey’s argument suggests that other forms are possible, if we were only free to imagine them (83).

This way of thinking enables the imposition of structural adjustment programs on the global South and the enforcement of export orientations on countries over local consumption; in the global North, it “becomes the basis for decisions precisely to implement it” because it is “represented as ineluctable—a force in the face of which we must adapt or be cast into oblivion” (83-84). Meanwhile, however, “some of the most powerful agencies in the world are utterly intent on its production” (84). “This vision of global space,” Massey writes,

is not so much a description of how the world is, as an image in which the world is being made. Just as in the case of modernity, here we have a powerful imaginative geography. It is a very different imagination: instead of space divided-up and bounded here is a vision of space as barrier-less and open. But both of them function as images in which the world is made. Both of them are imaginative geographies which legitimise their own production. (84)

“[T]he very fact that some are striving so hard” to make the world globalized “is evidence of the project’s incompletion,” Massey continues (84). But more than that:

There are multiple trajectories/temporalities here. Once again, as in the case of modernity, this is a geographical imagination which ignores the structured divides, the necessary ruptures and inequalities, the exclusions, on which the successful prosecution of the project itself depends A further effect of the temporal convening of spatial difference here again becomes evident. So long as inequality is read in terms of stages of advance and backwardness not only are alternative stories disallowed but also the fact of the production of poverty and polarisation within and through “globalisation” itself can be erased from view. (84)

Once again, Massey suggests, we see “a geographical imagination which ignores its own real spatiality” (84).

With its emphasis on free trade of goods and the mobility of capital, on the one hand, and on strict controls on immigration, on the other, globalization offers us “two apparently self-evident truths, a geography of borderlessness and mobility, and a geography of border discipline,” Massey suggests (86):

No matter that they contradict each other; because it works. And it “works” for a whole set of reasons. First, because each self-evident truth is presented separately. But second, because while neither imagination in its pure form is possible (neither a space hermetically closed into territories nor a space composed solely of flows) what is really needed politically is for this tension to be negotiated explicitly and in each specific situation. . . . Each “pure” imagination on its own tames the spatial. It is their negotiation which brings the question (rights of movement/rights of containment) into politics. The appeal to an imagination of pure boundedness or pure flow as self-evident foundation is neither possible in principle nor open to political debate. (86)

It is, she continues, a “double imaginary, in the very fact of its doubleness, of the freedom of space on the one hand and the ‘right to one’s own place’ on the other,” and it “works in favour of the already-powerful,” who can move anywhere they please while protecting their own homes, while “the poor and the unskilled from the so-called margins of this world are both instructed to open up their borders and welcome the West’s invasion in whatever form it comes, and told to stay where they are” (86-87).

None of this is news, of course. Nor is the argument, which is borne out in news stories about populism every day, that

the discourse of globalisation as free movement is fuelling the “archaic” (but not) sentiments of parochialism, nationalism and the exclusion of those who are different. 

Today’s hegemonic story of globalisation, then, relates a globalisation of a very particular form. And integral to its achievement is the mobilisation of powerful (inconsistent, falsely self-evident, never universalisable—but powerful) imaginations of space. (87)

What is new, however, is the suggestion that “powerful . . . imaginations of space” are behind globalization’s ideological hegemony. Globalization, Massey argues, “convenes spatial difference into temporal sequence, and thereby denies the possibility of multiple trajectories; the future is not held open” (87). Instead of openness,

[i]t installs an understanding of space, the “space of flows,” which, just like the space of places in modernity, is deployed (when needed) as a legitimation for its own production and which pretends to a universality which anyway in practice it systematically denies. For, in fact, in the context of and as part of this “globalisation” new enclosures are right now being erected. (87)

[T]his imagination of globalisation is resolutely unaware of its own speaking position: neoliberal to be sure, but also more generally Western in its locatedness” (87-88). It is also not spatialized (88):

really “spatialising globalisation” means recognising crucial characteristics of the spatial: its multiplicity, its openness, the fact that it is not reducible to “a surface,” its integral relation with temporality. The a-spatial view of globalisation, like the old story of modernity, obliterates the spatial into the temporal and in that very move also impoverishes the temporal (there is only one story to tell). The multiplicity of the spatial is a precondition for the temporal: and the multiplicities of the two together can be a condition for the openness of the future. (88-89)

“If space is genuinely the sphere of multiplicity, if it is the realm of multiple trajectories,” Massey continues,

then there will be multiplicities too of imaginations, theorisations, understandings, meanings. Any “simultaneity” of stories-so-far will be a distinct simultaneity from a particular vantage point. If the repression of the spatial under modernity was bound up with the establishment of foundational universals, so the recognition of the multiplicities of the spatial both challenges that and understands universals as spatio-temporally specific positions. An adequate recognition of coevalness demands acceptance that one is being observed/theorised/evaluated in return and potentially in different terms. . . . Recognition of radical contemporaneity has to include recognition of the existence of those limits too. (89)

Globalization, in its neoliberal form, then, represses the spatial, because it refuses multiplicity and heterogeneity. It is singular and it recognizes no limits—certainly not those demanded by an “adequate recognition of coevalness.” 

“The confusions that exist within current imaginations of the time-spaces of globalisation,” Massey writes, “are, perhaps, at their most acute (and, ironically, least noticed) in the easy coexistence of the view that this is the age of the spatial with the contradictory, but equally accepted, notion that this is the age in which space will finally . . . be annihilated by time” (90). These propositions are obviously at odds with one another, but nonetheless they are related:

On the one hand, more and more “spatial” connections, and over longer distances, are involved in the construction and understanding and impact of any place or economy or culture and of everyday life and actions. There is more “space” in our lives, and it takes less time. On the other hand, this very speed with which “we” can now cross space (by air, on screen, though cultural flows) would seem to imply that space doesn’t matter any more; that speed-up has conquered distance. Precisely the same phenomenon seems to be leading to the conclusion both that space has now won out to the detriment of any ability to appreciate temporality (the complaint of depthlessness) and that time has annihilated space. Neither view is tenable as it stands. (90)

Massey suggests that rather than annihilating space, the increase in speed is simply reducing time, and that, more importantly, “space is not anyway reducible to distance” (90-91). Time and space are mutually implicated, she argues, so how could one annihilate the other? In any case, “[a]s long as there is multiplicity there will be space,” because space “is the sphere of openended configurations within multiplicities” (91). “Given that,” she continues,

the really serious question which is raised by speed-up, by “the communications revolution” and by cyberspace, is not whether space will be annihilated but what kinds of multiplicities (patternings of uniqueness) and relations will be co-constructed with these new kinds of spatial configurations. (91)

Moreover, cyberspace will never take over from physical space. For one thing, mobility and fixity, she writes, “presuppose each other” (95). For another, “[t]he impetus to motion and mobility, for a space of flows, can only be achieved through the construction of (temporary, provisional) stabilisations” that are the result of negotiations “between conflicting tendencies” (95). Besides, cyberspace has material necessities which root it in physical space (96-97).

Next, Massey turns to potential theoretical underpinnings for the struggle against globalization. Valuing the local over the global is not going to work, in her view:

Different places occupy distinct positions within the wider power-geometries of the global. In consequence, both the possibilities of intervention (the degree of purchase upon), and the nature of the potential political relationship to (including the degree and nature of responsibility for) will also vary. It is no accident that much of the literature concerning the defence of place has come from, or been about, either the South or, for instance, deindustrialising places in the North. From such a perspective, capitalist globalisation does indeed seem to arrive as a threatening external force. But in other places it may well be that a particular construction of place is not politically defensible as part of a politics against neoliberal globalisation—and this is not because of the impracticality of such a strategy but because the construction of that place, the webs of power-relations through which it is constructed, and the way its resources are mobilised, are precisely what must be challenged. (102)

What is needed is “a local politics that took seriously the relational construction of space and place,” which would “be highly differentiated through the vastly unequal articulation of those relations,” she writes. “The local relation to the global will vary and in consequence so will the coordinates of any local politics of challenging globalisation” (102).

Massey then returns to maps as representations of space. Maps suggest, she writes, that space is a surface, “the sphere of a completed horizontality” (106-07), which is impossible, since space is “the sphere of a dynamic simultaneity, constantly disconnected by new arrivals, constantly waiting to be determined (and therefore always undetermined) by the construction of new relations” (107). “Loose ends and ongoing stories are real challenges to cartography,” she writes (107). However, there are attempts at representing space that seek to rupture the map’s contention that space is a completed whole, a surface. “Situationist cartographies, while still attempting to picture the universe, map that universe as one which is not a single order,” she notes (109). Such cartographies set out “to disorient, to defamiliarise, to provoke a view from an unaccustomed angle” (109). Other art projects have tried to puncture the apparently smooth surface of space, such as Clive van den Berg’s art events, which “aim to disrupt the complacent surface of white South Africa with reminders of the history on which it is based”; Iain Sinclair’s “dérives through eastern London,” which “evoke, through the surface, pasts (and presents) not usually noticed; and Anne McClintock’s “provocative notion of ‘anachronistic space’—a permanently anterior time within the space of the modern” (117). I know Sinclair’s work, but not van den Berg’s or McClintock’s; I am going to have to learn more about them.

Travel, Massey suggests, is another way of altering space. When you take the train somewhere, “[y]ou are part of the constant process of the making and breaking of links which is an element in the constitution of you yourself,” as well as the locations where your journey begins and ends: “You are not just travelling through space or across it, you are altering it a little. Space and place emerge through active material practices” (118). Massey acknowledges that it is impossible to recognize all of the stories existing at the same time as your journey, but she suggests that recognizing the possibility of simultaneous stories, “the imaginative opening up of space,” can enable one “to retain at least some sense of contemporaneous multiple becomings” (120). 

Such a recognition would be useful in a recognition of the fatuousness and futility of nostalgia or any desire to return to a point of origin:

the truth is that you can never simply “go back,” to home or to anywhere else. When you get “there” the place will have moved on just as you yourself have changed. And this of course is the point. For to open up “space” to this kind of imagination means thinking time and space as mutually imbricated and thinking both of them as the product of interrelations. You can’t go back in space-time. To think that you can is to deprive others of their ongoing independent stories. . . . You can’t hold places still. What you can do is meet up with others, catch up with where another’s history has got to “now,” but where that “now” . . . is itself constituted by nothing more than—precisely—that meeting-up (again). (124-25)

The one-way directionality of space-time is the reason Massey likes to use the word “trajectory,” with its connotations of movement in one direction only. More importantly, we see here Massey’s insistence that spaces are in motion even as we are in motion. I find myself wondering about how this discussion of travel might illuminate my ideas about walking, even my ideas about place itself.

In the next chapter, Massey returns to her discussion of place, and the way that abandoning a notion of space as a surface will affect one’s view of place as well:

If space is rather a simultaneity of stories-so-far, then places are collections of those stories, articulations within the wider power-geometries of space. Their character will be a product of these intersections within that wider setting, and of what is made of them. And, too, of the non-meetings-up, the disconnection and the relations not established, the exclusions. All this contributes to the specificity of place. (130)

Places are not points or areas on maps; rather, they are “integrations of space and time” (130). They are, in other words, “spatio-temporal events” (130). “This is an understanding of space—as open (‘a global sense of place’), as woven together out of ongoing stories, as a moment within power-geometries, as a particular constellation within the wider topographies of space, as in process, as unfinished business” (131). Massey’s example of place as a spatio-temporal event is Skiddaw, a mountain in the Lakes District of northern England. Because of continental drift, the mountain’s geological history,

the rocks of Skiddaw are immigrant rocks, just passing through here, like my sister and me only rather more slowly, and changing all the while. Places as heterogenous associations. If we can’t go “back” home, in the sense that it will have moved on from where we left it, then more more, and in the same sense, can we, on a weekend in the country, go back to nature. It too is moving on. (137)

Geological time is of a different scale than human time, of course, but Massey insists, “quite passionately,” on the idea that

what is special about place is not some romance of a pre-given collective identity or of the eternity of the hills. Rather, what is special about place is precisely that throwntogetherness, the unavoidable challenge of negotiating a here-and-now (itself drawing on a history and a geography of thens and theres); and a negotiation which must take place within and between both human and nonhuman. This in no way denies a sense of wonder: what could be more stirring than walking the high fells in the knowledge of the history and the geography that has made them here today. 

This is the event of place. (140)

Place is constantly changing (140-41): it is an event, it is “the simple sense of the coming together of the previously unrelated, a constellation of processes rather than a thing. This is place as open and as internally multiple. Not capturable as a slice through time in the sense of an essential action. Not intrinsically coherent” (141). In fact, she continues, place “is simply a coming together of trajectories”:

But it is a uniqueness, and a locus of the generation of new trajectories and new configurations. Attempts to write about the uniqueness of place have sometimes been castigated for depoliticisation. Uniqueness meant that one could not reach for the eternal rules. But “politics” in part precisely lies in not being able to reach for that kind of rule; a world which demands the ethics and the responsibility of facing up to the event; where the situation is unprecedented and the future is open. Place is an event in that sense too. (141)

For Massey, reconceptualizing place in this way generates “a different set of political questions”:

There can be no assumption of pre-given coherence, or of community or collective identity. Rather, the throwntogetherness of place demands negotiation. In sharp contrast to the view of place as settled and pre-given, with a coherence only to be disturbed by “external” forces, places as presented here in a sense necessitate invention; they pose a challenge. They implicate us, perforce, in the lives of human others, and in our relations with nonhumans they ask how we shall respond to our temporary meeting-up with these particular rocks and stones and trees. They require that, in one way or another, we confront the challenge of the negotiation of multiplicity. The sheer fact of having to get on together; the fact that you cannot (even should you want to, and this itself should in no way be presumed) “purify” spaces/places. In this throwntogetherness what are at issue are the terms of engagement of those trajectories (both “social” and “natural”), those stories-so-far, within (and not only within) that conjuncturality. (142)

I could be completely wrong, but I’m not convinced that Massey’s version of place can’t be reconciled with Tuan’s. After all, there is a sense of process in his notion of place, a sense that one comes to understand place over time. I am going to have to think about this question very carefully over the coming days.

Massey’s notion of place is not dissimilar to her notion of politics; both are about the negotiation of relations. She wants to argue, she writes, 

for a politics, perhaps better an angle of vision on politics, which can open itself up in this way to an appreciation of the spatial and the engagements it challenges us to. That is to say, less a politics dominated by a framing imagination of linear progression (and certainly not singular linear progression), and more a politics of the negotiation of relations, configurations; one which lays an emphasis on . . . practices of relationality, a recognition of implication, and a modesty of judgement in the fact of the inevitability of specificity. (147)

What is at issue in politics, she continues,

is the constant and conflictual process of the constitution of the social, both human and nonhuman. Such a view does not eliminate an impetus to forward movement, but it does enrich it with a recognition that movement be itself produced through attention to configurations; it is out of them that new heterogeneities, and new configurations, will be conjured. This is a temporality which is not linear, nor singular, nor pregiven; but it is integral to the spatial. It is a politics which pays attention to the fact that entities and identities (be they places, or political constituencies, or mountains) are collectively produced through practices which form relations; and it is on those practices and relations that politics must be focused. But this also means insisting on space as the sphere of relations, of contemporaneous multiplicity, and as always under construction. It means not falling back into those strategies of evasion which fail to face up full on to the challenge of space. (147-48)

She tells a story about a large glacial erratic found in the Elbe River in Hamburg, Germany, and the way that this rock became an icon of openness to the world outside the city, because it was, itself, from somewhere else (149-51). The point of this story is, as with the story about Skiddaw, that even the rocks are moving; no place, no space, is stable or fixed if the rocks and the ground beneath our feet are mobile.

Like the meaning of the Hamburg erratic, the meanings of places, and spaces, must be negotiated. Public spaces are one example: “The very fact that they are necessarily negotiated, sometimes riven with antagonism, always contoured through the playing out of unequal social relations, is what renders them genuinely public” (153). More ordinary places, “temporary constellations of trajectories,” or “events which are places,” also “require negotiation” (153):

The daily negotiation and contestation of a place does not require . . . the conscious collective contestation of its identity (however temporarily established) nor are there the mechanisms for it. But insofar as they “work” at all places are still not-inconsiderable collective achievements. They are formed through a myriad of practices of quotidian negotiation and contestations; practices, moreover, through which the constituent “identities” are also themselves moulded. Place, in other words does—as many argue—change us, not through some visceral belonging (some barely changing rootedness, as so many would have it) but through the practising of place, the negotiation of intersecting trajectories; place as an arena where negotiation is forced upon us. (154)

This is true of both urban and rural places; the countryside is just as prone to change and disturbance as the city, although “reimagining countryside/Nature is more challenging still than responding to the changing spatiality (customarily figured as predominantly human) of the urban” (160). She notes the “biotic impact” of colonization—something that is inscribed on the land here in Saskatchewan, where an ecosystem has been almost entirely destroyed since the 1880s—a destruction that is ongoing—in order to establish a modern economy based on agriculture, at first, and then resource extraction (mining and oil production). But “negotiation” might be the wrong word to use to describe the effect of colonization on Indigenous peoples here; although treaties were negotiated, essential aspects of those treaties were, Sheldon Krasowski argues, kept hidden by the government negotiators. The land remains Indigenous, Krasowski contends, and so “contestation,” rather than negotiation, might be a more appropriate term to use in this part of the world. (Several months ago, I blogged about Krasowski’s book on treaties in western Canada here.)

“A relational politics of place,” Massey writes, “involves both the inevitable negotiations presented by throwntogetherness” (181). At the same time, “a global sense of places evokes another geography of politics too: that which looks outwards to address the wider spatialities of the relations of their construction. It raises the question of a politics of connectivity” (181). The local is in a relation to the global, and therefore “each local struggle is already a relational achievement, drawing from both within and beyond ‘the local,’ and is internally multiple” (182). The potential is “for the movement beyond the local to be rather one of extension and meeting along lines of constructed equivalence with elements of the internal multiplicities of other local struggles,” Massey continues:

The building of such equivalences is itself a process, a negotiation, an engagement of political practices and imaginations in which ground is sought through which the local struggles can construct common cause against a (now differently constructed) antagonist. And the ground will itself be new; politics will change in the process. Moreover, within that process—precisely through the negotiation of a connection and the constitution of a common antagonist—the identities of the constituent local struggles are themselves subject to further change. (182)

“[R]ather than providing a template of answers,” Massey argues, this notion of local struggles “forces the posing of questions about each specific situation” (182). The politics that would result from this sense of the relation between local and global struggles would be integrally and significantly spatial:

The differential placing of local struggles within the complex power-geometry of spatial relations is a key element in the formation of their political identities and politics. In turn, political activity reshapes both identities and spatial relations. Space, as relational and as the sphere of multiplicity, is both an essential part of the character of, and perpetually reconfigured through, political engagement. And the way in which that spatiality is imagined by the participants is also crucial. The closure of identity in a territorialised space of bounded places provides little in the way of avenues for a developing radical politics. (183)

Nevertheless, the “prevailing attitude towards place” works against that kind of political engagement, Massey claims:

Spatial imaginaries both in hegemonic and counter-hegemonic political discourses, and in academic writing, hold it back. Of prime importance here is the persistent counterposition of space and place, and it is bound up with a parallel counterposition between global and local. . . . Over and over again, the counterposition of local and global resonates with an equation of the local with realness, with local place as earthly and meaningful, standing in opposition to a presumed abstraction of global space. It is a political imaginary which, in a range of formulations, has a powerful counterpart in reams of academic literature. (183)

Included among the “reams of academic literature” is Tuan, whose claim that space is more abstract than space, and that place is more meaningful than space, is held up by Massey as an example of the wrong way to approach definitions of these terms (183). Such a division, she writes, “rests upon a problematical geographical imagination”:

To begin with, it is to confound categories. The couplets local/global and place/space do not map on to that of concrete/abstract. The global is just as concrete as is the local place. If space is really to be thought relationally then it is no more than the sum of our relations and interconnections, and the lack of them; it too is utterly “concrete.” (184)

Such a division is also bound up with “that dualism between Emotion (place/local) and Reason (space/global)” (184). For Massey,

[a]n understanding of the world in terms of relationality, a world in which the local and the global really are “mutually constituted,” renders untenable these kinds of separation. The “lived reality of our daily lives” is utterly dispersed, unlocalised, in its sources and in its repercussions. The degree of dispersion, the stretching, may vary dramatically between social groups, but the point is that the geography will not be simply territorial. . . . In such approaches words such as “real,” “everyday,” “lived,” “grounded” are constantly deployed and bound together; they intend to invoke security, and implicitly—as a structural necessity of the discourse—they counterpose themselves to a wider “space” which must be abstract, ungrounded, universal, even threatening. Once again the similarity between the conception of information as disembodied and of globalisation as some kind of other realm, always somewhere else, is potent. . . . It is a dangerous basis for a politics. One cannot seriously posit space as the outside of place as lived, or simply equate “the everyday” with the local. If we really think space relationally, then it is the sum of all our connections, and in that sense utterly grounded, and those connections may go round the world. (184-85)

“My argument is not that place is not concrete, grounded, real, lived, etc.,” Massey writes. “It is that space is too” (185). So Massey would vehemently disagree with my sense that her argument and Tuan’s are not so far apart. However, I wonder if a careful reading of Tuan’s book on space and place might not find points of connection. It might be worth at least attempting to see if there is any possible rapprochement between these two versions of space and place—and if there isn’t, then I will have to take note of Massey’s arguments here.

One related concern Massey has is our tendency to connect our ethical imaginations to the local rather than the global. Does ethical concern have to be connected to place? she asks. “Does it have to be territorial at all? Perhaps it is not ‘place’ that is missing, but grounded, practised, connectedness” (187). “A full recognition of the characteristics of space also entails the positive interconnectivity, the nature of the constitutive relationality, of this approach,” she argues:

this is a relational ontology which avoids the pitfalls both of classical individualism and of communitarian organicism; just so a full recognition of space involves the rejection both of any notion of authentic self-constituting territories/places and of the closed connectivities of structuralism as spatial (and thus evokes space as always relational and always open, being made) and implies the same structure of the possibility of politics. (189)

Such an approach to understanding the social, the individual, and the political, Massey continues,

itself implies and requires both a strong dimension of spatiality and the conceptualisation of that spatiality in a particular way. At one level this is to rehearse again the fact that any notion of sociability, in its sparest form simply multiplicity, is to imply a dimension of spatiality. This is obvious, but since it usually remains implicit (if even that), its implications are rarely drawn out. The very acknowledgement of our constitutive interrelatedness implies a spatiality; and that in turn implies that the nature of that spatiality should be a crucial avenue of enquiry and political engagement. Further, this kind of interconnectedness which stresses the imaginative awareness of others, evokes the outwardlookingness of a spatial imagination. . . . In other words, to push the point further, the full recognition of contemporaneity implies a spatiality which is a multiplicity of stories-so-far. Space as coeval becomings. Or again, an understanding of the social and the political which avoids both classical individualism and communitarian organicism absolutely requires its constitution through a spatio-temporality which is open, through an open-ended temporality which itself necessarily requires a spatiality that is both multiple and not closed, one which is always in the process of construction. Any politics which acknowledges the openness of the future (otherwise there could be no realm of the political) entails a radically open time-space, a space which is always being made. (189)

To be honest, I’m not sure this version of an ethics of connection is likely to outweigh the draw of the local and parochial. Maybe it should, but it seems too abstract, as compared to the call of communities close to home, however imagined those communities might be.

Massey’s concluding paragraph brings together space, place, and time in a way that relates all three to her argument about ethics and connection:

Space is as much a challenge as is time. Neither space nor place can provide a haven from the world. If time presents us with the opportunities of change and (as some would see it) the terror of death, then space presents us with the social in the widest sense: the challenge of our constitutive interrelatedness—and thus our collective implication in the outcomes of that interrelatedness; the radical contemporaneity of an ongoing multiplicity of others, human and nonhuman; and the ongoing and ever-specific project of the practices through which that sociability is to be configured. (195)

This argument describes what ought to be, but it does not describe what is: we might be interrelated with a “radical contemporaneity of an ongoing multiplicity of others, human and nonhuman,” but it seems that selfishness and selfcentredness and parochialisms of all kinds have the upper hand at the moment, and I see nothing in Massey’s argument that would help us to turn that situation around. It is simply too abstract to appeal to most people, I am afraid.

Nevertheless, For Space is an important book, and I am happy to have another definition of place, aside from Tuan’s, to draw upon. If nothing else, I know one of the main arguments against Tuan’s conceptions of space and place, and knowing those arguments, I can build a defence of my use of Tuan—because, despite Massey’s objections, I do think there is something useful in his argument. I like Massey’s definition of politics, and her commitment to openendedness and her abhorrence of closure, and I like the way she brings the spatial and the temporal together. Her discussion of postcolonialism and multiple narratives is also important for my work. I have to say, though, that because For Space is a challenging book, I will probably have to reread it to truly understand Massey’s arguments. That’s fine; reading is (always) rereading. This (lengthy) summary is only my first attempt at understanding her ideas; at some point in the not-too-distant future, I’m going to have to try again.

Works Cited

Borges, Jorge Luis. “On Exactitude in Science.” Collected Fictions, translated by Andrew Hurley.

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

Massey, Doreen. For Space. Sage, 2005.

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