Reading and Walking

Walking, Reading, and Reading about Walking

Tag: phenomenology

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

yi-fu tuan space and place


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Works Cited

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

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

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

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

queer phenomenology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Works Cited

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Works Cited

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

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

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

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

cotswolds day 1.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Works Cited

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

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

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