Reading and Walking

Walking, Reading, and Reading about Walking

Tag: place

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

rethinking mythogeography

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The route becomes the walker. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Work Cited

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

47. Doreen Massey, For Space

for space

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For Massey, these propositions regarding space are important: 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This essentialist version of space

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is the event of place. (140)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is at issue in politics, she continues,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Works Cited

Borges, Jorge Luis. “On Exactitude in Science.” Collected Fictions, translated by Andrew Hurley. https://kwarc.info/teaching/TDM/Borges.pdf.

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

Massey, Doreen. For Space. Sage, 2005.

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

40. Rubén Camilo Lois González, Belén María Castro Fernández, and Lucrezia Lopez, “From Sacred Place to Monumental Space: Mobility Along the Way to St. James”

From Sacred Place to Monumental Space Mobility Along the Way to St James

Sometimes an article turns out to be not quite what I expected. That’s the case with “From Sacred Place to Monumental Space: Mobility Along the Way to St. James,” co-authored by three academics from the University of Santiago de Compostela in Spain. I had hoped it would help me think about the relationship between space and place along along the Camino Francés pilgrimage route in Spain. Instead, it revealed aspects of the Camino’s twentieth-century political history that I would rather not have known.

The authors state their purpose at the outset: they intend to think about tangible and intangible religious cultural products in relation to the Camino. Their approach is interdisciplinary. “From a geographical perspective, we explore how the progressive anthropisation of sacred spaces has transformed them into monumental spaces, where cultural assets have become references symbols for a particular identity,” they write (771). But, from an art history perspective, they “seek to fill the current vacuum regarding the monumental history of the twentieth century, based on identifying interventions made along the Way of St. James in Spain and in the historic centre of Santiago de Compostela” (771). Their interest is in “how the heritage of St. James has contributed to creating the imagery of Santiago de Compostela and of the Way within the cultural landscape,” and in “the contemporary revitalization of the Way of St. James,” particularly the restorations and embellishments of sites along the Way and in Santiago de Compostela in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s (771). These sites became “tourist attractions . . . as they became part of international networks that share the common purpose of rediscovering artistic and cultural heritage,” they write, and as a result, “many historic-artistic sacred places ended up becoming touristic-artistic places” (771). These “physical interventions have allowed the successful recovery of the Way of St. James as the leading pilgrimage route in Western Europe” (771).

First, our authors discuss the figure of the contemporary pilgrim, “someone whose entire tourist perspective . . . is developed based on the countryside and visual milestones of the route, and who deliberately chooses slow movements that establish a new relationship between body and place” (771). “This pilgrim enjoys walking,” they continue, “as part of a spiritual, codified experience, both as a metaphor for new values inspired by the nineteenth century (romanticism, reflection and escapism) and with recourse to a series of consumer products associated with trekking (e.g. walking trousers, maps, anoraks and shorts)” (771). I see myself in that description: walking trousers are important because they dry quickly, maps keep you from getting lost, waterproof jackets are helpful when it rains, and so forth. Those “consumer products” are helpful if one is to stay relatively warm and dry during one’s “spiritual, codified experience.”

Next comes a definition of pilgrimage: it is “a movement and a journey of people and ideas, which keep the sacred value of the space and place alive, and which create spatial relationships” (772). “By means of these logics of spatial creation,” they continue, “pilgrimage creates a sacred space in which religious and secular discourses are encountered, in addition to debates within a religion itself” (772). The journey, the authors write, “is essential in this sacred space, a journey made on foot by pilgrims, in most cases, as a spiritual and leisure activity” (772). “In this regard,” they suggest,

it has been observed that the perception of the place–a central concept–on this contemporary pilgrimage resides in the idea that the landscape cannot be properly appreciated unless there is a true expenditure of energy to understand it, and without returning to the slow mobility of our ancestors. (772)

Here they cite John Urry’s 2000 book, Sociology Beyond Societies: Mobilities for the Twenty-First Century, which I should probably look at, since I am convinced that understanding the land does require a slow movement, such as walking.

The Way of St. James is, they contend, a sacred space, but it is also one of the world’s first tourist itineraries, and since it was recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987, it has become a new tourism product, with hospitality provision and infrastructure. “The sacred space linked to St. James”–that is, the pilgrimage path and the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela–“is a polysemic space. In other words, it performs a number of different functions: a sacred space, a current pilgrimage route and an extremely important cultural tourism route” (774-75).

“The true protagonist of contemporary revival of the Way is, unarguably, the pilgrim,” they write, who must walk at least 100 kilometres of the route and can be awarded a certificate for having done so (775). “These attributes differentiate them”–pilgrims–“from a conventional tourist, even though both groups share the characteristics of being motivated by relaxation, contact with nature and the countryside, rediscovering the self and discovering a community of people with similar interests” (775). “The modern pilgrim,” they continue, “is a wholly contemporary individual, very different to the medieval one as far as their values and perceptions are concerned” (775). The contemporary pilgrim’s context is post-secular, and they share many characteristics with tourists, although at the same time “they form part of a clearly differentiated group” (775). The motivations of contemporary pilgrims are varied, “although returning to the place and a yearning to walk and reassert themselves in the environment form part of their personality and staunch search” (775). They tend to be more interested in the journey than their destination, the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela, and many continue walking on to Cape Finisterre (775).

Here, the authors shift into a discussion of the monumentalization of sacred values, which is, they write, a “form of appropriation and symbolisation” (775). In human geography, monuments are considered emblems and symbols of a place, and they contain “a system of values and beliefs” which contribute “to representing the geographical space and its contents” and evoke “a particular view of the world and safeguards the permanence of values” (775). The “sacred structures dedicated to St. James,” along with “other artistic, historic, human and cultural elements found along the Way of St. James[,] symbolism and sanctify this space,” they write (775-76).

However, the twentieth-century monumentalization process, the restoration of the Way of St. James, began under the dictatorship of Francisco Franco “as a tool for creating and transforming collective memory” (776). This is the part about the Camino that nobody talks about: the way its revival is rooted in Spain’s Fascist past. During the restoration process in the 1950s and 1960s in particular, monuments were altered extensively, particularly at Padrón, O Cebreiro, Tui, and Portomarin (776-77). From the 1960s onward, the Spanish government promoted the way as a tourist route, and it therefore took on political connotations (777). Travel on foot was discouraged; the emphasis was on modern means of transportation, which were suitable to the modern nation-state Spain had become (777). Hotels were built, tourism information offices opened, and historic sites along the way received aesthetic improvements, including sites located as far as 50 kilometres off the traditional pilgrimage path (777). I suppose everyone wanted part of the tourism bonanza the government was expecting. Meanwhile, aesthetic improvements were made in the centre of Santiago de Compostela (780): historical heritage sites were restored, pavements improved, signage installed, and “electric cabling removed from the façades of buildings” (781). The airport at Santiago de Compostela was upgraded as well, and historic buildings were restored and embellished. As a result, the Camino “became immersed in political discourse. The State used the Way to convey messages of a patriotic nature and show that people, even when scattered, were united through faith” (783-84).

None of this seems to shock the article’s authors, although it surprises me, and leaves me wondering how I could have been so ignorant of what appears, in hindsight, to be quite obvious, particularly in places like Portomarin and O Cebreiro. In fact, their conclusion is quite neutral:

The polysemy of St. James and the Way has been ever-present throughout the history of their existence. In scarcely 50 years, the Way has re-emerged from the oblivion in which it found itself at the start of the twentieth century and its identity has continued to flourish. During the Franco era, the discourse it faced was nationalistic, autarchic and religiously traditionalist. With the arrival of democracy, the phenomenon of St. James, far from weakening, has enjoyed a new golden era, in this case with a series of references that are more open, more contemporary and more diverse. The ideological framework that, from the end of the 1970s, sustained the discourse of the Santiago pilgrimage movement is no longer an authoritative discourse regarding pilgrimage to St. James, and the Way has now recovered the European nature that characterised it from the Middle Ages. Today, the Way of St. James is a pilgrimage route in fine health. It consists of a personal journey, whose essence is somewhat unique. The warrior St. James has unequivocally given way to the pilgrim St. James. Today, an alliance of experts on the Way, associations of friends of St. James scattered all over Europe and public bodies keen to contribute to the promotion of cultural and historical tourism for their towns and regions have built a powerful movement, which justifies the present success of the Way of St. James and all that is Jacobeo. (784-85)

So, although I did not find in this article a clear articulation of the distinction between space and place in pilgrimage, I learned a lot about the history of the Camino de Santiago, and I discovered references to books by John Urry that will likely prove useful in my research. I’ll call that a win on this rainy afternoon.

Works Cited

González, Rubén Camilo Lois, Belén María Castron Fernández and Lucrezia Lopez. “From Sacred Place to Monumental Space: Mobility Along the Way to St. James.” Mobilities, vol. 11, no. 5, 2016, pp. 770-88.

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

human geography today

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The best contemporary human geographies, Soja continues, are

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

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

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

Works Cited

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

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

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

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

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

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

cariou lake of the prairies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Works Cited

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Works Cited

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

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

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

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

25. Tim Cresswell, Place: An Introduction

cresswell place

 

It took me a long time to finish reading Tim Cresswell’s little introduction to the concept of place. It wasn’t because it’s a difficult book—it isn’t—but because it’s the middle of the semester and I’m tired and distracted. I have to start studying for my Cree midterm today, so I won’t get back to this reading until the middle of next week. Perhaps I’ll discover that a change is as good as a rest.

According to Cresswell, place is perhaps the most important term in the discipline of geography (1). It’s also an interdisciplinary concept as well, however, and possibly the key term for interdisciplinary research in the arts, humanities, and social sciences (1). For that reason, Place: An Introduction is “both a disciplinary account of a key geographical concept and an interdisciplinary introduction to an issue that transcends geography, philosophy, or any other discipline,” Cresswell writes (1). Place is a challenging term to define, because it’s not a specialized word, but one used by ordinary people every day. For that reason, Cresswell writes, “[i]t is the purpose of this book to scrutinize the concept of place and its centrality to both interdisciplinary academic endeavor and everyday life” (6-7).

Cresswell begins with political geographer John Agnew’s argument that there are three fundamental aspects of place: location, locale, and sense of place (12). Locations are physical spots on the surface of the planet where things exist, although those physical locations are not always stationary (13). Locale, on the other hand, refers to “the material setting for social relations—the actual shape of place within which people conduct their lives as individuals” (13-14). Finally, sense of place means “the subjective and emotional attachment people have to place” (14). These three aspects of place are central to Cresswell’s ideas about place.

Place needs to be distinguished from two related terms: space and landscape. Space, as Yi-Fu Tuan argues, is more abstract than place: spaces have areas and volumes, but places have spaces between them (15). “Space,” Cresswell writes, “has been seen in distinction to place as a realm without meaning—as a ‘fact of life’ which, like time, produces the basic coordinates for human life. When humans invest meaning in a portion of space and then become attached to it in some way (naming is one such way) it becomes a place” (16). However, since the 1970s, this distinction in human geography has become confused by the notion of social space, or socially produced space, particularly as articulated by Henri Lefebvre in The Production of Space; social space is, in many ways, similar to notions of place (16-17). Landscape, on the other hand, is a term that derives from landscape painting. It refers “to a portion of the earth’s surface that can be viewed from one spot” (17). It is an intensely visual idea, Cresswell argues. Moreover, in most definitions of landscape, the viewer is positioned outside of the landscape. “This is the primary way in which it differs from place,” he suggests. “Places are very much things to be inside of” (17). “We do not live in landscapes—we look at them,” he concludes (18).

For Cresswell, one of the important themes in this book is the idea that “place is not just a thing in the world but a way of understanding the world” (18):

When we look at the world as a world of places, we see different things. We see attachments and connections between people and place. We see worlds of meaning and experience. Sometimes this way of seeing can seem to be an act of resistance against a rationalization of the world that focuses more on space than place. To think of an area of the world as a rich and complicated interplay of people and the environment—as a place—is to free us from thinking of it as facts and figures. . . . At other times, however, seeing the world through the lens of place leads to reactionary and exclusionary xenophobia, racism, and bigotry. . . . This book is as much about place as a way of knowing as it is about place as a thing in the world. It is as much about epistemology as it is about ontology. (18)

Place, Cresswell continues, “is how we make the world meaningful and the way we experience the world. Place, at a very basic level, is space invested with meaning in the context of power. This process of investing space with meaning happens across the globe at all scales, and has done throughout human history” (19). One of the main tasks of geography as a discipline, in fact, has been to make sense of place. At the same time, Cresswell notes, place is a contested concept, and what it means is the subject of debate in many disciplines; the purpose of this book is to think through these various ways of defining place (19).

Cresswell’s second chapter explores the genealogy of place as a concept and a theme. This exploration, he notes, requires considering place as “a philosophical object of enquiry as well as a geographical one” (23). Place, he reminds us, can refer both to an object—“a thing that we can look, research, and write about” (23)—and a way of looking at and knowing the world (23), so place is “both an act of defining what exists (ontology) and a particular way of seeing and knowing the world (epistemology and metaphysics)” (23). Place is therefore “not simply something to be observed, researched, and written about but is itself part of the way we see, research, and write” (24). 

The first explicit philosophies of place appear in the work of Plato and Aristotle; place was the fundamental basis of existence for anything else, according to Aristotle, because in order for something to exist, it had to be somewhere (26). However, it wasn’t until the work of Martin Heidegger that place regained its importance as a philosophical concept, particularly in his essay “Building Dwelling Thinking” and his book Being in Time (27). Heidegger’s concept of Dasein, or being there, evokes a strong connection between a thing and its place, and dwelling, which suggests a continuity between a thing and its place, describes being as being-in-the-world (27). For Heidegger, place invokes nearness and care in relation to the world, and those qualities result “in an authentic being-in-the-world—a kind of being based on humility and nurture” (29). Heidegger’s notions of dwelling and building are picked up by Gaston Bachelard, who suggests that the interior spaces of a home provide appropriate places for the psyche (29-30). 

The phenomenology of Heidegger and Bachelard become important for humanistic geographers in the 1970s, particularly the work of Yi-Fu Tuan and Edward Relph (35). Tuan argues that place is the product of a pause, and that it is therefore presents a chance for attachment (35-36). Relph, on the other hand, argues that the characteristics of place include visuality, a sense of community, a sense of the time involved in developing an attachment to a place, and rootedness as a value (36-37). For Relph, consciousness is situated, and place determines our experience (38). For these (and other) humanistic geographers, home was an exemplary kind of place—one “where people feel a sense of attachment and rootedness” (39)—a claim that feminist geographers, like Gillian Rose, resist. Those feminist geographers represent only one form of critical engagement with ideas of place. Marxist and poststructuralist geographers also questioned the celebration of place in the work of humanistic geographers (41). For example, geographer David Harvey argued that notions of place are ambivalent: they are threatened by the mobility inherent in postmodern forms of capitalism, but at the same time “struggles for place identity also appeal to the parochial and exclusive forces of bigotry and nationalism” (41-42). Harvey claims that place is a social construct, which places him at odds with philosophers of place, such as Edward Casey and J.E. Malpas, and geographer Robert Sack, who argue that place “is a force that cannot be reduced to the social, the natural, or the cultural. It is, rather, a phenomenon that brings these worlds together and, indeed, in part produced them” (47). However, there is little empirical detail in the work of Sack, Malpas, or Casey; their discussions tend to be generalized rather than specific (50). Cresswell’s position attempts to bridge these various approaches to place; he argues that place “is a construction of humanity but a necessary one—one that human life is impossible to conceive of without. In other words there was no ‘place’ before there was humanity but once we came into existence then place did too” (51).

Cresswell next turns to assemblage theory: the idea that there is a process of gathering—of things, emotions, people memories—which suggests a relationship between the inside of a place (which gathers) and an outside (from where things are gathered). This conception of place underlines its relational nature, Cresswell suggests: “the necessity of a place being related to its outside” (52). This notion also therefore suggests a relationship between place and things that are on the move, or between place and mobility (52). Assemblage theory is derived from the work of Deleuze and Guattari, particularly A Thousand Plateaus (and that sound you just heard was my realization that I’ll have to read that difficult and lengthy book as part of this project), but it is developed by Manuel DeLanda in his book, A New Philosophy of Society: Assemblage Theory and Social Complexity. An assemblage, in Cresswell’s summary, is a unique whole, and its properties emerge from the relationships that exist between its parts (52). Assemblages are distinct from organic structures, however, which are also composed of parts. Organic structures depend on each part in order to exist, and if a constituent part is removed, an organic structure will cease to exist in a recognizable way (52). In an assemblage, on the other hand, “constituent parts can be removed and replaced,” and those parts “can then enter other assemblages and contribute to new ‘unique wholes’” (52-53). “The ways in which parts are combined in an assemblage are not structurally necessary of preordained,” Cresswell suggests. “They are not directed by some higher force. Their combination is contingent” (53). Places, Cresswell continues, “are ideal candidates for the status of assemblages” (53). Assemblages involve two key axes. The first axis connects the two key roles played by elements of an assemblage: expressive roles and material roles. “[T]hese are easily mapped on to the ways we [think] about a place having a material existence (locale, landscape) and an expressive existence (in so far as places are meaningful, cultural entities),” Cresswell writes (53-54). The second axis, Cresswell suggests, “links forces that make a place cohere (territorializing forces) and those that pull it apart (deterritorializing forces)” (54). In a home, for example, there are forces that stabilize its identity (both legal and physical—a deed, a main beam) and processes that make that identity less stable (entropy, the lines that lead out from the home to the wider world) (54). For Cresswell, the poststructualist notion of assemblage suggests a way of seeing “how places are syncretic wholes made up of parts and how any particular place is connected to the wide world beyond from which things are gathered and to which things are dispersed. Any consideration of the unique collection of parts that makes up a place has to take into account the relations between that place and what lies beyond it” (54).

In the conclusion to this chapter, Cresswell argues that these various approaches suggest that place can be apprehended at three levels. The first level consists of a descriptive approach to place, which focuses on the distinctiveness and particularity of places. The second is the social constructionist approach to place, where the particularity of places are instances of more general underlying social processes. Finally, there is a phenomenological approach to place, which “seeks to define the essence of human existence as one that is necessarily and importantly ‘in-place’”; this approach is not interested in specific places at all, but in place as a general phenomenon (55-56). According to Cresswell, in creative writing about place “we see all of the three levels of place theory in action simultaneously” (58). Place-writing practices provide descriptive accounts of individual places, but at the same time they also grapple with the phenomenological significance of places to their inhabitants and the ways in which power and society produce and are produced by places (58). I like the sudden shift to writing practices at the end of this theoretical chapter, and I will remember Cresswell’s remarks when I start reading examples of place-writing later on this year.

One of my interests is the connection between place and mobility—particularly walking—and so I was most interested in Cresswell’s third chapter, which addresses this topic. How is the idea of place, and actual places, related to the idea of mobility, and to actual mobilities? he asks (62). He begins to discuss this question by referring to David Seamon, a phenomenological geographer who, drawing on the work of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, believed that bodily mobility, rather than rootedness and authenticity, was “the key component to the understanding of place” (63). Seamon’s aim was to give an account of place as embodied (63), and he argued that “[t]he mobilities of bodies combine in space and time to produce an existential insideness—a feeling of belonging within the rhythm of life in place” (64). Seamon developed a notion of “place-ballet”: a way of thinking about how “many time-space routines” combine in “a particular location,” which Cresswell describes as “an evocative metaphor for our everyday experience of place” which “suggests that places are performed on a daily basis through people living their everyday life. . . . It is through participating in these daily performances that we get to know a place and feel part of it” (64). 

From Seamon’s “place-ballet,” Cresswell moves to Lefebvre’s arguments about the way rhythm is produced in a city—both the rhythm of individual bodies and the rhythm demanded by advanced capitalist society (64). Lefebvre was primarily interested in the rhythms that are imposed on bodies, rather than the ones they develop themselves. “Clearly the things people do in place—the practices that, in turn, produce a lively sense of place—are not always the result of free will,” Cresswell notes. “Some actions are freer than others and it is therefore necessary to take into account restraints on action that are the product of social hierarchies and power relations within society” (65). Lefebvre’s account of urban rhythms became the subject of geographers influenced by structuration theory. Allan Pred, for instance, argues that place is too often thought of “in terms of fixed visible and measurable attributes,” and instead of this kind of fixity, place should be thought of in ways that emphasize “change and process” (65). Structuration theory, which Cresswell associates with the work of sociologists Anthony Giddens and Pierre Bourdieu, is an attempt 

to describe and understand the relations between the overarching structures that influence our lives (ranging from big structures such as capitalism and patriarchy to smaller-scale structures such as national and local institutions) and our own ability to exercise agency in our everyday lives. Structurationists say that our actions are neither determined by structures above and beyond us, nor completely the product of free will. Structures depend on our actions to exist and our actions are given meaning by the structures that lie beyond them. (66)

Applications of structuration theory to geography acknowledge that we inhabit material landscapes that we had little say in constructing. “These landscapes have walls, doors, windows, spaces of flow (roads, paths, bridges, etc.) that we have to negotiate in order to live,” Cresswell writes:

We cannot walk through walls and we are unlikely to wander down the middle of the road without endangering our lives. Places also have less concrete structures. Laws and rules pervade space. . . . At any given moment in time, place provides a geographically specific set of structures. But even with layer upon layer of structuring conditions no one can safely predict what you or I are going to do. (66)

Desire lines (or desire paths) across lawns are one everyday example of the way that agency is expressed in places. At this point, Cresswell returns to the work of Allan Pred. “Places are never finished but always the result of processes and practices,” Cresswell suggests, summarizing Pred’s argument. “As such, places need to be studied in terms of the ‘dominant institutional projects,’ the individual biographies of people negotiating a place, and the way in which a sense of place is developed through the interaction of structure and agency” (68). Along with Pred, geographers Nigel Thrift and Derek Gregory have been influential in developing notions of process and practice in human geography (69).

The distinction between place and space is what poststructuralists call a binary opposition, and Edward Soja’s work, according to Cresswell, represents a challenge to the binaries that have been at the centre of geographical discourse. Soja argues that “Thirdspace,” or lived space, disrupts the opposition between Firstspace (positivist space, which is empirically measurable and mappable phenomena) and “Secondspace” (humanist space, which is perceived, perceived, subjective and imagined, the domain of representations and image) (69). “Thirdspace, or lived space,” Cresswell writes,

is therefore a different way of thinking. Thirdspace is practiced and lived rather than simply being material (conceived) or mental (perceived). Thirdspace is always both/and—always in excess of the ability of dualistic space to discipline it. The focus on the lived world does seem to provide theoretical groundwork for thinking about a politics of space based on place as lived, practiced, and inhabited space. (69-70)

“In these terms,” Cresswell continues, “places are never established. They only operate through constant and reiterative practice” (70). Places are like desire paths, then, or even footpaths, which grow over, eventually, if they are not used. They are practices, rather than things.

Another writer who focuses on place as a practice is Michel de Certeau, whose book The Practice of Everyday Life is, Cresswell suggests, “[o]ne of the books that has proved most useful to thinking about the issue of practice in relation to space and place”—even though de Certeau uses those terms in ways that upend the normal distinction geographers make between those two terms. For de Certeau, “place is the empty grid over which practice occurs while space is what is created by practice” (70). For Cresswell, the “central tension” in de Certeau’s work “is between a systemic grammar of place—an order that we inhabit and is not constructed by us—and our ability to use this grammar in ways which are not predetermined” (70). The work of Soja and de Certeau, Cresswell writes, 

shows us how place is constituted through reiterative social practice, how place is made and remade on a daily basis. Place provides a template for practice—an unstable stage for performance. Thinking of place as performed and practiced can help us think of place in radically open and non-essentialized ways, where place is constantly struggled over and reimagined in practical ways. Place is the raw material for the creative production of identity rather than an a priori label of identity. Place provides the conditions of possibility for creative social practice. (70-71)

Place becomes an event, rather than a thing, and is therefore “marked by openness and change rather than boundedness and permanence,” Cresswell continues. “This significantly alters the value put on place as it is constructed from the outside rather from the inside” (71). 

Another geographer who has written about place and mobility is Marc Augé, who suggests that in postmodernity, which is marked by circulation, consumption, and communication, has revealed the traditional definition of place as being anchored in one location as a fantasy (78). Rather than places, “non-places” are typical of the postmodern world—sites marked by transience and a preponderance of mobility, by the fleeting, temporary, and ephemeral (78). Tuan suggested that such experiences of place are superficial (78-79), but in the 1990s, geographers like Augé and Thrift abandoned Tuan’s and Relph’s implicit moral judgements about the inauthenticity and lack of commitment involved in mobility (80-81). “Augé’s thesis of non-place as a new kind of spatial arena, distinct from the deep map of anthropological place, is mirrored in the work of anthropologists and others who locate the production of identities in cosmopolitan forms of mobility rather than in stable and bounded places,” Cresswell writes, noting that terms like “transnational,” “diasporic,” “hybrid,” and “cosmopolitan,” which imply a critique of the idea that identities are formed in specific places, became central to geographical discourse. However, Cresswell argues, such terms are complicated. For example, a “cosmopolitan identity may be formed through mobility and a decrease in the importance of one’s own place, but it simultaneously depends on continued variation in the world—the existence of recognizably different places inhabited by ‘locals’” (83). Cresswell cites the work of anthropologist Anna Tsing in this regard, who argues that there is friction in the encounter between “mobile universals” and “the ‘sticky materiality of practical encounters’” (83-84). Cresswell concludes that mobility has always been part of place, citing Lucy Lippard’s suggestion that when we enter new places, we become one of the ingredients of their existing hybridity, since that’s what local places consist of (84-85). It’s an interesting thought, and it suggests that I need to reread at least the introduction to Lippard’s The Lure of the Local as part of this project.

Cresswell’s fourth chapter focuses on the way place has been thought about in one influential reading: Doreen Massey’s “A Global Sense of Place,” which has been described as “a plea for a new conceptualization of place as open and hybrid—a product of interconnecting flows—of routes rather than routes,” according to Cresswell (88). Massey’s “extroverted notion of place,” he continues, “calls into question the whole history of place as a center of meaning connected to a rooted and ‘authentic’ sense of identity forever challenged by mobility. It also makes a critical intervention into widely held notions of the erosion of place through mobility, globalization, and time-space compression” (88). Cresswell chose this reading, he continues, “because it allows for reflection on all of the central themes surrounding the notion of place, and points towards a new way of thinking” (88).

Cresswell begins this discussion with a description of the context of the early 1990s, when Massey’s essay was first published. “It seemed that two complementary changes were occurring at a global scale—the repetition of outlets owned by multinational corporations everywhere across the globe (homogenization) and the flowering of a diverse array of international cultural products in urban areas everywhere,” he writes. “Both of these appeared to threaten the notion of unique places” (89). One response to this situation was David Harvey’s argument that while the idea of place is ambiguous: it is both a potential resistance against global capitalism, but it can also be an exclusionary force in a world when people define themselves against threatening others “who are not included in the particular vision of place being enacted” (96-97). According to Cresswell, Massey’s essay is a response to that kind of thinking; it “hinges on a redefinition of place as an inclusive and progressive site of social life” (97). 

Massey’s first move—her essay, by the way, is available online and is well worth reading—is to question the assumptions about time-space compression and globalism that were dominant at the time. Global processes, she notes, involve gender and race as well as capitalism, and the reasons people move are not homogenous: some are forced to move, while others are forced to stay still. The point, she argues, is to recognize the specificity of people’s experiences of mobility (99). “To simply see place as a static and rooted reaction to a dynamic and mobile world holds several problems for Massey,” Cresswell writes. “First, it may be the case that people do need some sense of place to hold on to—even a need for rootedness—and this need not always be reactionary. Second, the flow and flux of global movement might not necessarily be anxiety-provoking” (102). A reactionary sense of place is marked by at least three interconnected ways of thinking, according to Massey: “a close connection between place and a singular form of identity”; “a desire to show how the place is authentically rooted in history”; and finally, “a need for a clear sense of boundaries around a place separating it from the world outside” (102). However, Massey argues, using her own London neighbourhood, Kilburn, as an example, there are no singular identities; history is a complex series of “journeys and connections”; and boundaries are not places but rather divisions between “them” and “us” (102-04). Kilburn, according to Massey, is “a celebration of diversity and hybridity” (105). Massey’s extroverted, progressive, global sense of place sees it as a process, defined by the outside, a site of multiple identities and histories, with a uniqueness defined by its interactions with other places (108). This idea, Cresswell notes, is a very different definition of place than the ones that went before it—both in the phenomenological geography of Tuan and Relph, where place does not involve movement, and in the work of Augé, who contends that movement creates non-places (108). 

However, Cresswell argues, there is a problem in Massey’s definition of place: “it is hard to point to anything specific about it” (108). Massey’s version of Kilburn as a place is “no more than an accidental coming together of many different flows in one location” (108). Moreover, he continues, people do “invest (in non-reactionary ways) in a search for comparative fixity,” and there exist places where “a little more globalization would be welcome” for the people who live in them (108-09). Cresswell turns to Jon May’s research in another London neighbourhood, Stoke Newington, to suggest that we ought to be careful about “putting all our eggs in one theoretical basket in regards to place” (110). Some residents of Stoke Newington see that neighbourhood as possessing an “iconography of Englishness,” while others see it as lacking those very qualities (111). Some residents enjoy the neighbourhood’s diversity in an aestheticized way: “the stand back from the crowd and enjoy it in all its variety,” so that the diversity they behold becomes “a picturesque scene that gives those who look on a sense of cultural capital—a sense of their own self-worth in being able to appreciate difference” (112). This aesthetic appreciation can’t be reconciled with either Harvey’s or Massey’s sense of place, Cresswell argues (112). “May’s engagement with Stoke Newington and its residents provides a third example of the politics of place in a globalized world,” he writes, one in which “[t]he simple, observable, fact of diversity does not necessarily produce a progressive sense of place and the search for roots in history does not have to be reactionary” (113).

Cresswell’s fifth and sixth chapters are of less interest to me. Chapter five looks at the ways that place an be used in research and practice (115). In the work Cresswell discusses in this chapter, place is used “as an analytical concept in accounts of the process of shaping meaning and practice in material space”—in other words, the ways that meanings, practices, and material spaces are produced and consumed (115). Places are in process, in this work; they are never finished and “produced through the reiteration of practices—the repetition of seemingly mundane activities on a daily basis” (116). Among the examples of research Cresswell discusses are Geraldine Pratt’s examination of the lives of Filipina contract workers in Vancouver, anthropologist Arturo Escobar’s research into the ways that global processes can be questioned by a focus on place, and Nina Wakeford’s study of a cybercafé in the 1990s. He also looks at Miwon Kwon’s discussion of site-specific art, in which she suggests that “site” or place can be understood in three different ways: phenomenological or experiential, social or institutional, and discursive (154). The sixth chapter looks at things and people that are out of place—on anachorism, to use Cresswell’s neologism (165-66). Among the examples he thinks about here are sexually diverse people in public spaces, the homeless, refugees, tramps, and animals that are out of place. Interestingly, he refers to anthropologist Liisa Malkki’s notion of “sedentarist metaphysics”—the notion that there are fixed, bounded, rooted conceptions of culture and identity (173-74). I’d read that phrase before, in Cresswell’s On the Move: Mobility in the Modern Western World, but I didn’t realize that he hadn’t coined it himself. The conclusion to this chapter functions as a conclusion to the rest of the book: “Place is constantly evoked in the world at large and has an extraordinary impact on the way in which people, animals, and all manner of things are represented and treated,” he writes (191). While place is not just an academic preoccupation, it is “one of the most important interdisciplinary concepts for the twenty-first century” (191).

The last chapter is an extended bibliography, which lists books and articles on place that aren’t included in the bibliographies Cresswell provides at the close of each chapter. I found this bibliography quite useful, particularly the short list of creative non-fiction about place, and although I really don’t need more books and articles to read, I’ve managed to find cheap used copies online. Once again I’m reminded of the need to rework my reading list—to incorporate some of the texts I’ve learned about in my reading, and to demote others to the “secondary” list—the books, in other words, I’m not likely to get around to reading this year.

Cresswell’s discussion of place is helpful, because it adds to what I’ve learned by reading Tuan. In fact, as a primer on place, it helps contextualize Tuan’s work, and it identifies critiques of that work—and both of those are very important for me. I’m working on a proposal for a conference paper on pilgrimage, walking, and place, and Cresswell’s book has given me a wider sense of the literature on the topic of place that is extremely valuable for that project. So for that reason alone I’m happy I read this book.

Works Cited

Cresswell, Tim. On the Move: Mobility in the Modern Western World. Routledge, 2006.

———. Place: An Introduction. 2nd ed., Wiley Blackwell, 2015.

Massey, Doreen. “A Global Sense of Place.” Marxism Today, June 1991, pp. 24-29. http://banmarchive.org.uk/collections/mt/pdf/91_06_24.pdf

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.