Reading and Walking

Walking, Reading, and Reading about Walking

Tag: Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience

32. Eudora Welty, “A Worn Path”

eudora welty

I used to teach Eudora Welty’s story, “A Worn Path,” and I still love it anyway. The story’s main character, Phoenix, is “an old Negro woman” (142) walking from her home somewhere “away back off the Old Natchez Trace” (147) into the town of Natchez, Mississippi. The narrator tells us that Phoenix

was very old and small and she walked slowly in the dark pine shadows, moving a little from side to side in her steps, with the balanced heaviness and lightness of a pendulum in a grandfather clock. She carried a thin, small cane made from an umbrella, and with this she kept tapping the frozen earth in front of her. This made a grave and persistent noise in the still air, that seemed meditative like the chirping of a solitary little bird. (142)

Phoenix is poor; her apron is made of “bleached sugar sacks” (142). She is unable to tie her shoes, because her laces “dragged” as she walked, and her eyes are “blue with age,” a description that suggests cataracts (142). As the story unfolds, it also becomes clear to us that she is experiencing some form of age-related cognitive impairment. For most of the story, we don’t know why she has embarked on her journey. All we know is that she is determined to get to Natchez. We don’t know how long her walk is, exactly, but it might be as long as four or five hours, which would mean she walks as far as 20 kilometres. That’s a good morning’s walk for anyone, never mind someone whose wrinkled face suggests that she might be in her eighties. When I taught this story, I knew that none of my students had ever made such a walk—that they couldn’t even imagine walking that far—and that their understanding of the difficulty of Phoenix’s walk was incomplete as a result.

While I was reading Yi-Fu Tuan’s book, Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience, I thought about “A Worn Path,” and the way the distinction Tuan makes between space and place could be mapped onto this story. “‘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)

The path of Phoenix’s walk might suggest that it is a space between two places: her home, and her destination in Natchez. But I would argue that because Phoenix is walking, and because that walk is the occasion of a story, and because she knows stories about that path from her repeated journeys along it, her path is actually made up of a series of places linked closely together. Walking and narration, then, turn space into place in this story. But so too does the fact that Phoenix has made this walk many times before. She is following a path worn (at least in part) by her own feet; she knows the obstacles and difficulties she will encounter; and, as we learn at the end of the story, she has been making this walk regularly for two or three years. From what I’ve read over the past months, I’ve determined that turning space into place requires storytelling, repetition, and slow movement (like walking). Tuan thinks that pauses are essential, and I think he’s correct, but I would extend his argument a little: walking is slow enough to enable us to experience space as place, and it also allows for the frequent pauses which Tuan argues are necessary for this transformation to occur.

What places does Phoenix experience? The first is a thicket where Phoenix perceives animals “quivering” (142). She warns the animals not to obstruct her progress:

“Out of my way, all you foxes, owls, beetles, jack rabbits, coons and wild animals! . . . Keep out from under these feet, little bob-whites. . . . Keep the big wild hogs out of my path. Don’t let none of those come running in my direction. I got a long way.” Under her small black-freckled hand her cane, limber as a buggy whip, would switch at the brush as if to rouse up any hiding things. (142)

The next place she encounters presents another challenge: a hill. “Seem like there is chains about my feet, time I get this far,” Phoenix says. “Something always take a hold of me on this hill—pleads I should stay” (143). The climb is difficult, but so too is the descent: “Her eyes opened their widest, and she started down gently” (143). Two things are worth noting about this hill. First, Phoenix identifies it by the trees she encounters: “‘Up through pines,’ she said at length. ‘Now down through oaks’” (143). That identification is part of what helps to make this location a place, rather than undifferentiated space. But the multiple challenges she experiences—the climb, the descent, and a bush that catches her dress—also help to define this hill as place. Phoenix faces these challenges with equanimity, even though her eyesight is clearly a source of difficulty for her: addressing the thorn bush that has caught her dress, she says, “Old eyes thought you was a pretty little green bush” (143).

At the bottom of the hill, the narrator tells us, “was a place where a log was laid across the creek” (143). Phoenix knows this log bridge is there: “Now comes the trial,” she says (143):

Putting her right foot out, she mounted the log and shut her eyes. Lifting her skirt, leveling her cane fiercely before her, like a festival figure in some parade, she began to march across. Then she opened her eyes and was safe on the other side.

“I wasn’t as old as I thought,” she said. (143)

Now comes a pause: a brief stop to rest, during which she either hallucinates, or falls asleep and dreams about, a little boy offering her “a slice of marble-cake” (143). When she returns to her walk, she immediately comes to another place of difficulty: she has to crawl through a barbed-wire fence. Once past the fence, she encounters a stand of “[b]ig dead trees,” on which “sat a buzzard” (144). Both the trees and the buzzard suggest death, which (given Phoenix’s age) is not far off, but the words Phoenix directs at the buzzard—“Who you watching?” (144)—suggest her tenacious hold on life despite her age and apparent infirmity.

Phoenix passes through a field of old cotton—notable because, in winter, it doesn’t contain the hazards of bulls or snakes, as it did earlier in the year, when she saw a two-headed snake (144)—into a field of dead corn. The sense of repetition—of having stories to tell about the locations through which she walks—is an important aspect of the rendering of those locations as place. This corn field presents another obstacle, because there is no path through the field. “Through the maze now,” Phoenix says to herself (144). She mistakes a scarecrow in the field for a ghost, and when she realizes her error, she laughs at herself—“I ought to be shut up for good,” she says (144)—and dances with the scarecrow. At the end of the corn field, Phoenix comes across quail “walking around like pullets, seeming all dainty and unseen” (144). Their movement reminds her of the quality of the path at this point in her walk: “‘Walk pretty,’ she said. ‘This is the easy place. This is the easy going’” (144). She follows “the track” past cabins with boarded-up windows and doors, “all like old women under a spell sitting there” (144). “I walking in their sleep,” Phoenix observes, “nodding her head vigorously” (144). Then she encounters a spring “silently flowing through a hollow log” (144) and stops for a drink. This spring appears to be a well-known place on her route, because she notes, “Nobody know who made this well, for it was here when I was born” (144). Clearly this well is a place she shares with others, all of those who do not know the well’s origin.

After crossing a swamp—“Sleep on, alligators, and blow your bubbles,” Phoenix says (145)—the track goes up into a road, where Phoenix is knocked down by a black dog: “Over she went in the ditch, like a little puff of milkweed” (145). She briefly loses consciousness and, when she recovers, finds she cannot stand without help. That assistance comes from a white man who has his own dog on a chain. He patronizes her, calling her “Granny” and dismissing her desire to go to town as a mere desire “to see Santa Claus” (145), but he does help her up. More importantly, Phoenix notices that a nickel dropped out of the man’s pocket onto the ground. She encourages the man to chase the black dog away by praising its courage and size, and while he is doing that, she carefully bends over and pockets the nickel. “God watching me the whole time,” she says. “I come to stealing” (146). When the man returns, he points his rifle directly at Phoenix and asks if she is frightened. “No sir, I seen plenty go off closer by, in my day, and for less than what I done” (146)—a reference to her theft of the nickel, I presume. The man departs with a warning: “you take my advice and stay home, and nothing will happen to you” (146). The point of retelling this event is that Phoenix’s encounter with the hunter will (assuming she remembers it) become another story she will tell herself the next time she is walking along that road, like the two-headed snake or the well where she drank. Spaces become places as they are experienced and as stories are told about them, and that otherwise nondescript roadside will become another story for Phoenix.

When she arrives in Natchez, Phoenix is exhausted and confused by the coloured Christmas lights; she “would have been lost if she had not distrusted her eyesight and depended on her feet to know where to take her” (146). That embodied knowledge is another way in which undifferentiated space becomes place: Phoenix knows the way with her body, rather than her eyes or her conscious mind. In Natchez, she once again triumphs over a white person, stopping a well-dressed woman carrying presents to ask she would tie her shoes. That woman also patronizes Phoenix, calling her “Grandma,” but she does as Phoenix asks (147). Then Phoenix continues walking “until her feet knew to stop” (147). She has arrived at her destination: a doctor’s office. However, tired from her walk, she has forgotten the purpose of her journey, a lapse which frightens her. Nevertheless, prompted by the nurse, she recalls the purpose of her long walk. She receives medicine for her grandson and demands another nickel from the “attendant” (148-49). Now that she has 10 cents, she intends to buy her grandson “a little windmill they sells, made out of paper. He going to find it hard to believe there such a thing in the world” (149). 

“A Worn Path” is about a lot of things: love, determination, the need for objects capable of generating wonder along with more practical things. But it is also about place, I think, and the way that repeated walking journeys have made the path that Phoenix travels into a place or, at least, into a series of contiguous places. Movement, in this story, is not divorced from place-making, as it is in Tuan’s discussion of place, and that makes “A Worn Path” a useful (if fictional) example of the potential for mobile forms of place-making, especially place-making through walking.

Works Cited

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

Welty, Eudora. “A Worn Path.” The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1980, pp. 142-49.

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.

27. Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life

de certeau

My productivity has diminished lately, partly because it’s that time of the semester when other tasks, like marking, take up much of my time, and partly because it’s that time of the winter when I’m particularly exhausted and anxious for spring to arrive. The winters here are long, and this one has been very cold, and I haven’t been able to walk at all because of an injured tendon in my foot. “These injuries take a long time to heal,” my podiatrist said, and he was right. So perhaps this wasn’t the best time to tackle Michel de Certeau’s abstruse theoretical text, The Practice of Everyday Life. It had to be done, though, since I’ve been accepted to a conference in Ireland, and the paper I will give is supposed to draw on de Certeau’s discussion of space, place, and walking. I’d read his chapter on walking in the city before, but that was years ago, and I had forgotten what he had to say about it. Besides, I hadn’t read the theoretical framework in which that chapter is situated and felt that I needed to do that work. So here I am, two weeks later, sorting through my notes and trying to figure out what to say about this difficult, poetic, and insightful book—or at least the sections that I read, since I stopped reading after the chapters on walking and on place, since those are my primary interests for this project. I have to warn you: The Practice of Everyday Life is a complex book, and in trying to track those complexities, this post is going to be quite long—perhaps longer than anyone might care to read. It’s actually more than complex: it is by turns insightful and confusing, and the repetitiveness of this summary reflects the repetitiveness of de Certeau’s text. After all, the fourth or fifth time he says something, it might be (and sometimes is) significantly different from the first iteration, and I want to make sure I track those subtle (or not-so-subtle) shifts in his argument.

In the preface to the English translation, de Certeau states that he is interested in “a science of the relationship that links everyday pursuits to particular circumstances” (ix). Those “everyday pursuits” include things like shopping, cooking, and walking, and de Certeau sets himself the next-to-impossible task of considering the circumstances in which such activities in all of their variety and complexity function as forms of ideological or political resistance. But those activities constitute more than just forms of resistance: “only in the local network of labor and recreation can one grasp how, within a grid of socio-economic constraints, these pursuits unfailingly establish relational tactics (a struggle for life), artistic creations (an aesthetic), and autonomous initiatives (an ethic)” (ix). De Certeau’s goal for this book, he continues, is to assist readers in uncovering for themselves “their own tactics, their own creations, and their own initiatives” (ix). In other words, de Certeau writes in his lengthy general introduction, he wants “to indicate pathways for further research” (xi). In order to achieve that goal, it will be necessary for “everyday practices, ‘ways of operating’ or doing things” to “no longer appear as merely the obscure background of social activity,” and for “a body of theoretical questions, methods, categories, and perspectives, by penetrating this obscurity,” to “make it possible to articulate them” (xi). De Certeau isn’t interested in those who produce cultural products, but rather in those who use or consume them (and thereby produce culture in a different way). “The purpose of this work,” he writes, 

is to make explicit the systems of operational combination (les combinatoires d’opérations) which also compose a “culture,” and to bring to light the models of action characteristic of users whose status as the dominated element in society (a status that does not mean that they are passive or docile) is concealed by the euphemistic term “consumers.” (xi-xii)

“Everyday life invents itself by poaching in countless ways on the property of others,” de Certeau continues, and it’s this poaching that seems to particularly interest him, especially in his later discussion of the perruque or wig, a form of resistance in which workers use company time and/or resources to do things for themselves (25-26).

The Practice of Everyday Life grew out of a study of popular culture, and three aspects of de Certeau’s research into that area, he writes, are important. First, he’s interested in usage or consumption—what a cultural consumer “makes” or “does” while consuming cultural products. Such making or doing is a production, but it is a hidden one, “because it is scattered over areas defined and occupied by systems of ‘production’ (television, urban development, commerce, etc.) and because the steadily increasing expansion of these systems no longer leaves ‘consumers’ any place in which they can indicate what they make or do with the products of these systems” (xii). The consumption of cultural products is devious and dispersed; it is everywhere; and it manifests itself “through its ways of using the products imposed by a dominant economic order” (xii-xiii). What is necessary is an analysis of the manipulation of such products by users who are not their makers, in order to “gauge the difference or similarity between the production of the image and the secondary production hidden in the process of its utilization” (xiii).

For de Certeau, the model of this “secondary production” is language—particularly the distinction semioticians make between langue, the entire complex of vocabulary and rules of grammar, and parole, individual acts of enunciation or speech. The construction of such utterances “operates within the field of the linguistic system; it effects an appropriation, or reappropriation, of language by its speakers; it presents a present relative to at time and place; and it posits a contract with the other (the interlocutor) in a network of places and relations” (xiii). Those four characteristics of the speech act (which de Certeau derives from the semiotician Émile Benveniste) can be found in many places, including walking (xiii). The parallel between the use of cultural products and speech suggests, he continues, that users make “innumerable and infinitesimal transformations of and within the dominant cultural economy in order to adapt it to their own interests and their own rules. We must determine the procedures, bases, effects, and possibilities of this collective activity” (xiii-xiv).

De Certeau’s also intends to investigate the “miniscule” and “quotidian” resistances to power and discipline that are constituted by these uses of cultural products, the “ways of operating” that “form the counterpart,” for consumers, “of the mute processes that organize the establishment of socioeconomic order” (xiv). According to de Certeau, “These ‘ways of operating’ constitute the innumerable practices by means of which users reappropriate the space organized by techniques of sociocultural production” (xiv). The goal of this aspect of de Certeau’s research is “to perceive and analyze the microbe-like operations proliferating within technocratic structures and deflecting their functioning by means of a multitude of ‘tactics’ articulated in the details of life,” and “to bring to light the clandestine forms taken by the dispersed, tactical, and makeshift creativity of groups or individuals already caught in these nets of ‘discipline.’ Pushed to their ideal limits, these procedures and ruses of consumers compose the network of an antidiscipline which is the subject of this book” (xiv-xv). If you note the influence of Michel Foucault here, you are correct; in some ways, de Certeau is an enthusiastic (if sometimes incorrect) disciple of Foucault’s work, and The Practice of Everyday Life would be unimaginable without the theoretical framework Foucault provides in his writing.

In addition, de Certeau wants to look at the formal structures of these practices of consumption in order to uncover their logic through two kinds of investigations: “The first, more descriptive in nature, has concerned certain ways of making that were selected according to their value for the strategy of the analysis, and with a view to obtaining fairly differentiated variants,” including “practices related to urban spaces,” such as (perhaps) walking (xv). The second sort of investigation looks at a range of writing by sociologists and linguists that elaborates a theory of such practices (xv-xvi). It’s really the first kind of investigation that interests me, but I did read (at least some of) the chapters in which de Certeau examines and critiques potential theoretical models for the kind of research he wants to conduct. 

These three determinations, he continues, “make possible an exploration of the cultural field” that sets out “to situate the types of operations characterizing consumption in the framework of an economy, and to discern in these practices of appropriation indexes of the creativity that flourishes at the very point where practice ceases to have its own language” (xvi-xvii). This “cultural activity of the non-producers”—in other words of those who consume cultural products (and de Certeau’s definition of cultural products seems to be fairly broad)—is “an activity that is unsigned, unreadable, and unsymbolized,” yet it “remains the only one possible for all those who nevertheless buy and pay for the showy products through which a productivist economy articulates itself” (xvii). Those non-producers are marginal to that “productivist economy,” and yet their marginality is now universal (xvii). That universal marginality, however, doesn’t mean that consumers are homogenous; there are differences between the ways members of different groups respond creatively to cultural products (xvii). For de Certeau, “culture articulates conflicts and alternately legitimizes, displaces, or controls the superior force”—that is, the force (or forces) aligned with the production of those cultural products, the dominant economic order or “productivist economy” (xvii). “It develops an atmosphere of tensions, and often of violence, for which it provides symbolic balances, contracts of compatibility and compromises, all more or less temporary,” he continues. “The tactics of consumption, the ingenious ways in which the weak make use of the strong, thus lend a political dimension to everyday practices” (xvii). So, although de Certeau doesn’t use the word “resistance” here (yet), his language suggests that resistance is precisely what he intends to explore.

All of that—consumer production—is de Certeau’s first topic or theme. His second is the tactics of practice (xvii). He intends to diversify the overly simplistic relationship between consumers and the mechanisms of production in relation to three concerns: “the search for a problematics that could articulate the material collected; the description of a limited number of practices (reading, talking, walking, dwelling, cooking, etc.) considered to be particularly significant; and the extension of the analysis of these everyday operations to scientific fields apparently governed by another kind of logic” (xviii). He is interested, he writes, in the “‘indirect’ or ‘errant’ trajectories” produced through the signifying practices of consumers—note the shift in language, from production to signification—which “trace out the ruses of other interests and desires that are neither determined nor captured by the systems in which they develop” (xviii). The word “trajectory” here suggests movement, but for de Certeau it also suggests “a plane projection, a flattening out. It is a transcription” or a graph, “a line which can be reversed (i.e., read in both directions)—and therefore, for de Certeau, a reduction (xviii-xix). Because “trajectory” suggests a reductive process, de Certeau intends to use the words “tactics” and “strategies” instead (xix).

Those two words—“tactics” and “strategies”—constitute the primary binary opposition which organizes de Certeau’s thinking in The Practice of Everyday Life. Strategies, to speak crudely (which de Certeau never does), belong to power:

I call a “strategy” the calculus of force-relationships which becomes possible when a subject of will and power (a proprietor, an enterprise, a city, a scientific institution) can be isolated from an “environment.” A strategy assumes a place that can be circumscribed as proper (propre) and thus serve as the basis for generating relations with an exterior distinct from it (competitors, adversaries, “clientèles,” “targets,” or “objects” of research). Political, economic, and scientific rationality has been constructed on this strategic model. (xix)

A tactic, on the other hand, refers to “a calculus which cannot count on a ‘proper’ (a spatial or institutional localization), nor thus on a borderline distinguishing the other as a visible totality. The place of a tactic belongs to the other” (xix). Tactics are thus linked to resistances to power. (A note here suggests that Pierre Bourdieu’s Outline of a Theory of Practice is the source of this distinction—yet another reason I need to read that book.) But more than just resistances to power, tactics use the strategies of the other as vehicles for resistance:

A tactic insinuates itself into the other’s place, fragmentarily, without taking it over in its entirety, without being able to keep it at a distance. It has at its disposal no base where it can capitalize on its advantages, prepare its expansions, and secure independence with respect to circumstances. The “proper” is a victory of space over time. On the contrary, because it does not have a place, a tactic depends on time—it is always on the watch for opportunities that must be seized “on the wing.” Whatever it wins, it does not keep. It must constantly manipulate events in order to turn them into “opportunities.” The weak must continually turn to their own ends forces alien to them. This is achieved in the propitious moments when they are able to combine heterogenous elements (thus, in the supermarket, the housewife confronts heterogenous and mobile data—what she has in the refrigerator, the tastes, appetites, and moods of her guests, the best buys and their possible combinations with what she already has on hand at home, etc.); the intellectual synthesis of these given elements takes the form, however, not of a discourse, but of the decision itself, the act and manner in which the opportunity is “seized.” (xix)

Tactics show how intelligence is inseparable from “the everyday struggles and pleasures it articulates” (xx), while “strategies . . . conceal beneath objective calculations their connection with the power that sustains them from within the stronghold of its own ‘proper’ place or institution” (xx).

These quotations lead me to make two comments. First, de Certeau isn’t interested in discourses but in practices; later, he talks about how difficult it is to write about practices (something I don’t quite understand, since people do it all the time). Second, while it’s true that de Certeau doesn’t use the word “resistance” here, the military overtones of his language—“seized,” “base,” “victory”—suggest a struggle between “strategies” and “tactics,” with one representing forces with significant capital and political power, and the other representing forces mounting a sort of guerrilla struggle against the former. That makes de Certeau’s example—“the housewife” shopping for a dinner party—hard to understand as an example of resistance. A person at a supermarket is certainly navigating or negotiating “heterogenous and mobile data,” but is that kind of navigation or negotiation necessarily resistance to the power that organizes that supermarket and the networks of corporate power in which it is situated? I’m not convinced. Maybe it’s a poor example, or maybe I’ve misunderstood de Certeau on the question of resistance, or maybe he actually does see resistance in practices or activities as banal as “talking, reading, moving about, shopping, cooking, etc.” (xix). These activities, he argues, “are tactical in character,” as are, “more generally, many ‘ways of operating’: victories of the ‘weak’ over the ‘strong’ (whether the strength be that of powerful people or the violence of things or of an imposed order, etc.), clever tricks, knowing how to get away with things, ‘hunter’s cunning,’ maneuvers, polymorphic simulations, joyful discoveries, poetic as well as warlike” (xix). So finding a bargain at the supermarket, if it’s a case of getting away with something or making a joyful discovery, would be resistance to power, according to de Certeau. (I am still wondering, though, what he means by “the violence of things.” What “things”? How are they violent? The point is not developed and remains unclear. Clearly I’m missing something.)

For de Certeau, reading is an example of “everyday practices that produce without capitalizing, that is, without taking control over time” (xx). Although our society encourages “a hypertrophic development of reading” (maybe in the 1970s, but not today, if my students are to be believed), but reading itself is not passive: “the act of reading has on the contrary all the characteristics of a silent production: the drift across the page, the metamorphosis of the text effected by the wandering eyes of the reader, the improvisation and expectation of meanings inferred from a few words, leaps over written spaces in an ephemeral dance” (xxi). The reader, however, “cannot protect himself against the erosion of time,” because “while reading, he forgets himself and he forgets what he has read”; the reader thus “insinuates into another person’s text the ruses of pleasure and appropriation” (xxi). Readers, like renters, make changes to spaces they do not own, as do speakers and pedestrians. In the streets, pedestrians “fill with the forests of their desires of desires and goals” (xxi). In fact, any users of “social codes” turn those codes “into metaphors and ellipses of their own quests,” according to de Certeau (xxi-xxii). He is particularly interested in the uses of space, cooking, and “the many ways of establishing a kind of reliability within the situations imposed on an individual, that is, of making it possible to live in them by reintroducing into them the plural mobility of goals and desires—an art of manipulating and enjoying” (xxii). Any practice that involves the manipulation of an imposed situation, and the production of pleasure through such a manipulation, is thus a subtle (perhaps very subtle indeed) form of resistance and the production of a practice defined by mobility, goals, and desires.

De Certeau describes “the status of the individual in technical systems”—the kinds of systems of power he associates with power (xxiii), and this description gives a clearer sense of the kind of resistance he sees as possible within those “technical systems”:

the involvement of the subject diminishes in proportion to the technocratic expansion of these systems. Increasingly constrained, yet less and less concerned with these vast frameworks, the individual detaches himself from them without being able to escape them and can henceforth only try to outwit them, to pull tricks on them, to rediscover, within an electronicized and computerized megalopolis, the “art” of the hunters and rural folk of earlier days. The fragmentation of the social fabric today lends a political dimension to the problem of the subject. (xxiii-xxiv)

The only possibilities of resistance that are available to individual subjects within the totalized systems of power de Certeau imagines here are tricks, dodges, and ruses—no other opportunities seem to exist in the “vast frameworks” that contain us. This argument explains how everyday practices like shopping or reading or walking might be considered resistance. Such resistances may change very little, but according to de Certeau, they are all that is available now.

The introduction to The Practice of Everyday Life, then, establishes de Certeau’s distinction between strategies and tactics and explains what he means by resistances to power. The first chapter of the book begins elsewhere—in the “cleavage” between science (which seems to mean knowledge more broadly—I think the translation is faulty here) and everyday life which “organizes modernity” (6). That division separates modernity “into scientific and dominant islands set off against the background of practice ‘resistances’ and symbolizations that cannot be reduced to thought” (6). Two figures have been charged with the task of mediating between society—which I think means “everyday life” here—and “a body of knowledge”: the Expert, who “introduces his speciality into the wider and more complex arena of socio-political decisions,” transmuting competence into “social authority,” and the Philosopher, who “re-establishes the relevance of general questions to a particular technique (mathematics, logic, psychiatry, history, etc.),” causing “ordinary questions” to “become a skeptical principle in a technical field” (6-7). Philosophers seem to be conduits for “ordinary questions” to enter scientific discourse, whereas Experts seem to lend their knowledge to institutions of power. For de Certeau, the Expert is more common in today’s society, replacing the Philosopher, but the Expert’s translation of competence into authority has a cost: the more authority the Expert has, the less competence he (or she) possesses, “up to the point where his fund of competence is exhausted, like the energy necessary to put a mobile into movement” (7). That, de Certeau argues, is the “paradox of authority: a knowledge is ascribed to it and this knowledge is precisely what it lacks where it is exercised” (8). I’m not sure if that statement is insightful or cynical, but de Certeau is certain of it’s validity; he suggests that authority “is indissociable from an ‘abuse of knowledge,’” and that there is a “social law that divests the individual or his competence in order to establish (or re-establish) the capital of a collective competence, that is, of a common verisimilitude” (8). Experts, according to de Certeau, cannot limit themselves to talking about things they know, and so they pronounce “on the basis of the place” that their specialties have won for them (8)—a place that gives them the authority to speak. This “overproduction of authority leads to the devaluation of authority, since one always gets more in exchange for an equal or inferior amount of competence” (8). In other words the Expert “confuses social place with technical discourse”; in other words, the Expert is the victim (or perpetrator?) of a mistaken identity (8).

De Certeau argues that Wittgenstein’s “rigorous examination of ordinary language” constitutes “a radical critique of the Expert,” and of the Philosopher as Expert (9). Wittgenstein—whose work I have never read, and so I cannot judge the validity of de Certeau’s argument here—conducts a double combat: “he combats the professionalization of philosophy, that is, its reduction to the technical (i.e., positivist) discourse of a speciality” on the one hand, rejecting “the purifying process that, by eliminating the ordinary use of language (everyday language), makes it possible for science to produce and master an artificial language” (10), while at the same time, he “combats the rashness of metaphysics and the impatience of ethics, which are always led to subsume the rules of correct use and to pay with the meaninglessness of some statements for the authority of their discourse on the language of common experiences” (10). Wittgenstein, de Certeau continues, “attacks the presumption that leads philosophy to proceed ‘as if’ it gave meaning to ordinary use, and to suppose that it has its own place from which it can reflect on the everyday” (10-11). There is no such place of mastery for philosophers in relation to language, however, because ordinary language “encompasses every discourse, even if human experiences cannot be reduced to what it can say about them” (11). “The analyzing discourse and the analyzed ‘object’ are in the same situation,” de Certeau argues:

both are organized by the practical activity with which they are concerned, both are determined by rules they neither establish nor see clearly, equally scattered in differentiated ways of working (Wittgenstein wanted his work itself to be composed only of fragments), inscribed in a texture in which each can by turns “appeal” to the other, cite it and refer to it. There is a continual exchange of distinct places. Philosophical or scientific privilege disappears into the ordinary. This disappearance has as its corollary the invalidation of truths. From what privileged place could they be signified? There will thus be facts that are no longer truths. The inflation of the latter is controlled, if not shut off, by the criticism of the places of authority in which facts are converted into truths. Detecting them by their mixture of meaninglessness and power, Wittgenstein attempts to reduce these truths to linguistic facts and to that which, in these facts, refers to an ineffable or “mystical” exteriority of language. (11)

Such an exteriority is “mystical” because it does not exist: we cannot leave language to find some other place from which to interpret language. Therefore, de Certeau continues, there are “no separate groups of false interpretations and true interpretations, but only illusory interpretations, since in short there is no way out, the fact remains that that we are foreigners on this inside—but there is no outside. Thus we constantly ‘run up against the limits’ of ordinary language” (13-14). For de Certeau, “Wittgenstein’s fragmented and rigorous body of work seems to provide a philosophical blueprint for a contemporary science of the ordinary,” because it recognizes that there is no position outside of what is being studied to guarantee the truth of that study, and “as a theoretical hypothesis,” this model must be compared with other “human sciences” such as sociology, ethnology, history, and what they contribute “to the knowledge of ordinary culture” (14). 

De Certeau’s second chapter begins with the idea that stories about miracles are instances of a popular use of religion, which modifies the functioning of a religion (17-18). “More generally,” he continues, a way of using imposed systems”—like the miraculous stories he describes—“constitutes the resistance to the historical law of a state of affairs and its dogmatic legitimations”:

A practice of the order constructed by others redistributes its space; it creates at least a certain play in that order, a space for maneuvers of unequal forces and for utopian points of reference. That is where the opacity of a “popular” culture could be said to manifest itself—a dark rock that refuses all assimilation. (18)

Such “ways of using” are tactics of “the subtle, stubborn, resistant activity of groups which, since they lack their own space, have to get along in a network of already established forces and representations,” de Certeau continues, and the skill required in such resistances are those of “ceaselessly recreating opacities and ambiguities—spaces of darkness and trickery—in the universe of technocratic transparency, a skill that disappears into them and reappears again, taking no responsibility for the administration of a totality” (18). That, at least, is de Certeau’s hypothesis (18), and it is inspired, as he suggests in the book’s introduction, by the “problematics of enunciation” in linguistics (19). A speech act, he claims, “cannot be parted from its circumstances,” which distinguishes such enunciations from “discourses, the data that can most easily be grasped, recorded, transported and examined in secure places” (20). Those enunciations or speech acts, then, are aligned with popular culture or everyday life, and those discourses are aligned with institutions of power or totalizing authority. 

According to de Certeau, “the complex geography of social ruses” (22) can be found in games, in the stories people tell about games, and in tales and legends, both in their form and content, and in the tactics they reveal (22-24). The tropes employed in those tales and legends “inscribe in ordinary language the ruses, displacements, ellipses, etc., that scientific reason has eliminated from operational discourses in order to constitute ‘proper’ meanings,” but such figures of speech are “ruses” or “the memory of a culture”; they are “tricks” that “characterize a popular art of speaking” (24). “With these examples of terrains on which one can locate the specific modalities of ‘enunciative’ practices (manipulations of imposed spaces, tactics relative to particular situations),”

the possibility is opened up of analyzing the immense field of an “art of practice” differing from the models that (in theory) reign from top to bottom in a culture certified by education (from the universities to the elementary schools), models that all postulate the constitution of a space of their own (a scientific space or a blank page to be written on), independent of speakers and circumstances, in which they can construct a system based on rules ensuring the system’s production, repetition, and verification. (24)

That art of practice is clearly resistant to the system based on “imposed spaces” and on the “rules” that ensure its continued “production, repetition, and verification.” Perhaps, de Certeau suggests, that art of practice can be analyzed by resorting to its very own procedures, which would enable us to “revise our views on both its definition as ‘popular’ and our position as observers” (24). 

By this point, I was eager for a concrete example that would bring de Certeau’s theorizing down to earth, and he provides one: la perruque, the wig, a form of resistance in which workers use company time and/or resources to do things for themselves:

In the very place where the machine he must serve reigns supreme, he cunningly takes pleasure in finding a way to create gratuitous products whose sole purpose is to signify his own capabilities through his work and to confirm his solidarity with other workers or his family through spending his time in this way. (25-26)

Practices like la perruque are penalized or ignored, including by those who study popular culture (26). Nevertheless, they suggest an alternative economy, one based on gifts and tricks, that exists within the larger economy, in its margins or interstices (27). This leads de Certeau to make a call for action:

Let us try to make a perruque in the economic system whose rules and hierarchies are repeated, as always, in scientific institutions. In the area of scientific research (which defines the current order of knowledge), working with its machines and making use of its scraps, we can divert the time owed to the institutions; we can make textual objects that signify an art and solidarities; we can play the game of free exchange, even if it is penalized by bosses and colleagues when they are not willing to “turn a blind eye” on it; we can create networks of connivances and sleights of hand; we can exchange gifts; and in these ways we can subvert the law that, in the scientific factory, puts work at the service of the machine and, by a similar logic, progressively destroys the requirement of creation and the “obligation to give.” (27-28)

To be honest, I’m not entirely sure of what this means, or how to take the workers’ tactic of la perruque and apply it to the academy, “the scientific factory” of which de Certeau speaks. The “scientific factory” where I work and study may be about to go on strike, but that isn’t what de Certeau is talking about. And although our research tends to be given away—at least to the journals where it is published—I doubt that’s his point, either. What might it mean to “make textual objects that signify an art and solidarities”? I just don’t know. But de Certeau believes that such “everyday tactics” would be essential to transforming research into popular culture: they would enable such researchers “to practice an ‘ordinary’ art, to find oneself in the common situation, and to make a kind of perruque of writing itself” (28). The notion of the perruque is interesting and suggestive, but I’m left wondering what one might make of it in the context of research.

De Certeau begins the following chapter with la perruque, claiming that it is “infiltrating itself everywhere and becoming more and more common” (29). Moreover, la perruque “is only one case among all the practices which introduce artistic tricks and competitions of accomplices into a system that reproduces and partitions through work or leisure” (29). “Although they remain dependant upon the possibilities offered by circumstances,” de Certeau continues,

these transverse tactics do not obey the law of the place, for they are not defined or identified by it. In this respect, they are not any more localizable than the technocratic (and scriptural) strategies that seek to create places in conformity with abstract models. But what distinguishes them at the same time concerns the types of operations and the role of spaces: strategies are able to produce, tabulate, and impose these spaces, when those operations take place, whereas tactics can only use, manipulate, and divert those spaces. (29-30)

Strategies of power, de Certeau argues, possess spaces they can impose on ordinary people, and tactics of resistance are limited to using (in different ways) such imposed spaces against those strategies. What matters, for that reason, are “the operational schemas” (30) of resistant actions:

Just as in literature one differentiates “styles” or ways of writing, one can distinguish “ways of operating”—ways of walking, reading, producing, speaking, etc. These styles of action intervene in a field which regulates them at a first level (for example, at the level of the factory system), but they introduce into it a way of turning it to their advantage that obeys other rules and constitutes something like a second level interwoven into the first (for instance, la perruque). These “ways of operating” are similar to “instructions for use,” and they create a certain play in the machine through a stratification of different and interfering kinds of functioning. (30)

For de Certeau, “it is precisely a matter of recognizing in these ‘uses’ ‘actions’ (in the military sense of the word) that have their own formality and inventiveness and that discreetly organize the multiform labor of consumption” (30). At this point, I found myself hungering for an example again, and again, de Certeau provides one: we need to ask what consumers make of the television programs they watch, or the magazines and newspapers they read, or the urban spaces they inhabit: what do they do with them? (31). Those products—what “the consumer-sphinx” makes out of the cultural objects he or she consumes—are 

scattered in the graphs of televised, urbanistic, and commercial production. They are all the less visible because the networks framing them are becoming more and more tightly woven, flexible, and totalitarian. They are thus protean in form, blending in with their surroundings, and liable to disappear into the colonizing organizations whose products leave no room where the consumers can mark their activity. (31)

And yet, by describing these consumers as sphinxes, de Certeau is suggesting that whatever riddles they produce will be impossible to interpret—which might be the reason he offers so few examples: not just because he is setting out to construct a theory of such production, but because examples of that production would be impossible to understand. Nevertheless, he reasserts the claim that the consumption of cultural products is a form of production, and that this form of production is “characterized by its ruses, its fragmentation (the effect of the circumstances), its poaching, its clandestine nature, its tireless but quiet activity, in short by its quasi-invisibility, since it shows itself not in its own products (where would it place them?) but in an art of using those imposed on it” (31).

At this point, de Certeau returns to the claim that linguistic enunciation is a model of the characteristics of acts of cultural consumption, even in practices (like walking) that involve “non-linguistic systems” (33). I’m not sure why he feels compelled to do so: as a metaphor or analogy, this claim seems reasonable, and it’s clear from his use of the word “hypothesis” (33) that de Certeau doesn’t intend to take it further. Consumers are “[u]nrecognized producers, poets of their own affairs, trailblazers in jungles of functionalist rationality,” he argues, and they “trace ‘indeterminate trajectories’ that are apparently meaningless, since they do not cohere with the constructed, written, and prefabricated space through which they move. They are sentences that remain unpredictable within the space ordered by the organizing techniques of systems” (34). Indeed, he continues, consumers “use as their material the vocabularies of established languages,” but “although they remain within the framework of prescribed syntaxes (the temporal modes of schedules, paradigmatic organizations of places, etc.), these ‘traverses’ remain heterogenous to the systems they infiltrate and in which they sketch out the guileful ruses of different interests and desires” (34). The activities of these consumers are like “waves that flow in everywhere,” and they “circulate without being seen, discernible only through the objects they move about and erode. The practices of consumption are the ghosts of the society that carries their name. Like the ‘spirits’ of former times, they constitute the multiform and occult postulate of productive activity” (35). No wonder he doesn’t provide many examples of these practices, given their ghostly and evanescent nature.

De Certeau acknowledges that his use of the word “trajectory” to “suggest a temporal movement through space” is insufficient, “precisely because a trajectory is drawn, and time and movement are thus reduced to a line that can be seized as a whole by the eye and read in a single moment, as one projects onto a map the path taken by someone walking through a city” (35). That flattening out might be useful, but it is reductive, because “it transforms the temporal articulation of places into a spatial sequence of points” (35). That reduction is a serious problem, and therefore he returns to the distinction between strategies and tactics, which “appears to provide a more adequate initial schema”:

I call a strategy the calculation (or manipulation) of power relationships that becomes possible as soon as a subject with will and power (a business, an army, a city, a scientific institution) can be isolated. It postulates a place that can be delimited as its own and serve as a base from which relations with an exteriority composed of targets or threats (customers or competitors, enemies, the country surrounding the city, objectives and objects of research, etc.) can be managed. (35-36)

I realize that de Certeau is repeating himself, but because I am wondering whether such repetitions are identical or whether they contain important differences, I am going to trace them in this immanent reading. You never know—he might add something significant in one iteration or another, or take something significant away. If he does, I want to know that.

Strategy, de Certeau continues, is about distinguishing the place of one’s own power and will from “a world bewitched by the invisible powers of the Other” (36), and there are important effects that accompany this break “between a place appropriated as one’s own and its other” (36). This break is a triumph of place over time; it is a mastery of places through a panoptic practice that transforms “foreign forces into objects that can be observed and measured” and therefore controlled; and it sustains and determines a specific type of knowledge through the power to provide oneself with one’s own place (36). I want to point out here de Certeau’s regular and incorrect elision of the differences between “panoptic” and “panoramic” or even “optic.” A panoptic practice internalizes surveillance in the subject of that surveillance, so that even if the surveillance isn’t happening (or if the subject can’t be certain that he or she is under surveillance), the subject will still behave according to the rules set by the group carrying out the surveillance. It isn’t just a practice of looking or seeing. De Certeau makes this mistake consistently, which leaves me wondering how well he has read the work of Michel Foucault, where the notion of panopticism is elaborated (particularly in his magisterial book, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison). It might seem like a small point, and maybe it is, but in his chapters on Foucault and Bourdieu, that mistake makes me wonder whether he isn’t making similar mistakes in his analysis of the latter’s writing.

In contrast to strategy, “a tactic is a calculated action determined by the absence of a proper locus”:

No delimitation of an exteriority, then, provides it with the condition necessary for autonomy. The space of a tactic is the space of the other. Thus it must play on and with a terrain imposed on it and organized by the law of a foreign power. It does not have the means to keep to itself, at a distance, in a position of withdrawal, foresight, and self-collection. . . . It does not, therefore, have the options of planning general strategy and viewing the adversary as a whole within a [distinct], visible, and objectifiable space. It operates in isolated actions, blow by blow. It takes advantage of “opportunities” and depends on them, being without any base where it could stockpile its winnings, build up its own position, and plan raids. What it wins it cannot keep. This nowhere gives a tactic mobility, to be sure, but a mobility that must accept the chance offerings of the moment, and seize on the wing the possibilities that offer themselves at any given moment. It must vigilantly make sure of the cracks that particular conjunctions open in the surveillance of the proprietary powers. It poaches in them. It creates surprises in them. It can be where it is least expected. It is a guileful ruse. (36-37)

“In short, a tactic is an art of the weak,” de Certeau concludes (37), and what consumers do with the things they consume constitute tactics, because those consumers lack power in comparison to the systems in which the things they consume originate (38). 

This distinction is so important to de Certeau that he returns to it again in order to offer a clarification:

strategies are actions which, thanks to the establishment of a place of power (the property of a proper), elaborate theoretical places (systems and totalizing discourses) capable of articulating an ensemble of physical places in which those forces are distributed. They combine these three types of places and seek to master each by means of the others. They thus privilege spatial relationships. At the very lease they attempt to reduce temporal relations to spatial ones through the analytical attribution of a proper place to each particular element and through the combinatory organization of the movements specific to units or groups of units. The model was military before it became ‘scientific.’ (38)

Tactics, on the other hand,

are procedures that gain validity in relation to the pertinence they lend to time—to the circumstances which the precise instant of an intervention transforms into a favorable situation, to the rapidity of the movements that change the organization of a space, to the relations among successive moments in an action, to the possible intersections of durations and heterogenous rhythms, etc. (38)

Strategy, then, is about the establishment of a place; tactics are about using time and the opportunities time presents as well as the “play” that time “introduces into the foundations of power” (38-39). These “two ways of acting can be distinguished according to whether they bet on place or on time” (39). For de Certeau, tactics can be fruitfully compared to some Freudian ideas, particularly the return of the repressed, metaphors, condensations, and metonymies, all of which “are the indexes of consumption and of the interplay of forces” which “depend on a problematics of enunciation” (39).

“Dwelling, moving about, speaking, reading, shopping, and cooking are activities that seem to correspond to the characteristics of tactical ruses and surprises,” de Certeau suggests, because these practices constitute “clever tricks of the ‘weak’ within the order established by the ‘strong’” and are “an art of putting one over on the adversary on his own turf” (40). These practices are nondiscursive, they are part of “a memory without language” that exists, among other places, on “the streets of our great cities,” streets which are the subject of the chapter of this book that is, for me, the most important. More importantly, though, these “clever tricks” are becoming a dominant force. According to de Certeau,

it seems that the generalization and expansion of technocratic rationality have created, between the links of the system, a fragmentation and explosive growth of these practices which were formerly regulated by stable local units. Tactics are more and more frequently going off their tracks. Cut loose from the traditional communities that circumscribed their functioning, they have begun to wander everywhere in a space which is becoming at once more homogenous and more extensive. Consumers are transformed into immigrants. The system in which they move about is too vast to be able to fix them in place, but too constraining for them ever to be able to escape from it and go into exile elsewhere. There is no longer an elsewhere. Because of this, the “strategic” model is also transformed, as it is defeated by its own success: it was by definition based on the definition of a “proper” distinct from everything else; but now that “proper” has become the whole. (40)

This paradox—the notion that strategy has been defeated by its own success—is perhaps a typical movement in 1970s French philosophy or theory, but for de Certeau, it’s clear that strategy needed something outside of itself in order to define itself, and now that it has become totalized and occupies all space, because that necessary “elsewhere” has disappeared, tactics in turn have become omnipresent. I find myself wondering how accurate this account might be; as with much of the rest of this book, de Certeau is making an assertion here without providing evidence. 

The second part of The Practice of Everyday Life is about theories of tactical practices, particularly the work of Foucault and Bourdieu. It begins, however, with a reflection on the procedures on which everyday practices depend—the “schemas of operations and of technical manipulations” (43) that constitute those everyday practices. According to de Certeau, it is possible, if not to define those procedures, then at least to clarify the way they operate relative to discourse or ideology or what Bourdieu calls the habitus. The chapters in this part of the book are a critique of the attempts made by Foucault and Bourdieu to describe the way procedures operate. “Tactics in discourse can . . . be the formal indicator of tactics that have no discourse,” de Certeau writes, and those tactics without discourse are the everyday practices that interest him. “Moreover, the ways of thinking embedded in ways of operating constitute a strange—and massive—case of the relations between practices and theories” (45). This statement seems to represent one of the reasons de Certeau wants to investigate theories about practices.

He begins with Foucault, particularly Discipline and Punish, which he suggests enacts the rhetorical figure of chiasmus, or reversal and substitution: “the place occupied by the reformist projects of the late eighteenth century has been ‘colonized,’ ‘vampirized,’ by the disciplinary procedures that subsequently organize the social space” (45), and “a political technology of the body” wins out, in Foucault’s account, “over the elaboration of a body of doctrine” (46). Foucault comes to this conclusion through what de Certeau describes as a “surgical operation”: “starting out from a proliferating contemporary system—a judicial and scientific technology—and tracing it back through history, isolating from the whole body the cancerous growth that has invaded it, and explaining its current functioning by its genesis over the two preceding centuries” (47). However, de Certeau argues that it is impossible “to reduce the functioning of a society to a dominant type of procedures” (48). There are always practices of resistance, a “multifarious and silent ‘reserve’ of procedures that we should look for in ‘consumer’ practices” (48). In other words, he writes, “[b]eneath what one might call the ‘monotheistic’ privilege that panoptic apparatuses have won for themselves, a ‘polytheismof scattered practices survives, dominated by not erased by the triumphal success of one of their number” (48). 

From here, de Certeau turns to Bourdieu, particularly his book Outline of a Theory of Practice, which he calls “an interdisciplinary operation” that shifts from one genre to another: “from ethnology to sociology” (51). That interdisciplinarity—the confrontations Bourdieu stages between two disciplines—troubles de Certeau: 

These confrontations are supposed to provide a mutual epistemological elucidation: they labor to bring their implicit foundations to light—the ambition and the myth of knowledge. But perhaps what is at stake is different and has to do rather with the otherness introduced by the move through which a discipline turns toward the darkness that surrounds and precedes it—not in order to eliminate it, but because it is inexpungeable and determining? In that case theory would involve an effort on the part of a science to think through its relation to this exteriority and not be satisfied with correcting its rules of production or determining the limits of its validity. (51)

However, de Certeau isn’t sure that’s “the path that Bourdieu’s discourse takes” (51). I honestly don’t understand de Certeau’s objection to what he calls the insertion of “the ‘ethnological’ exception into an empty space in the sociological system” (52). I do understand that Bourdieu’s book brings together an anthropological study of a community in North Africa with theory of how societies function: for de Certeau, that bringing together results in “a twofold deception”: “[w]ith its synthetic tables, scientific method conceals the operation of withdrawal and power that makes them possible,” whereas “practitioners necessarily do not reveal the practical difference created among these ‘data’ by the operations that make use of them” and “thus they collaborate in the production of general tabulations which conceal their tactics from the observer” (53). What is the objection being stated here? I don’t get it, but it’s a fundamental part of de Certeau’s objection to Bourdieu’s work.

Bourdieu’s interest is in strategies, apparently, and not tactics. He argues (according to de Certeau) that strategies involve “‘implicit principles’ or postulates” which are undefined and therefore create “margins of tolerance and the possibility of setting one against the other” (53), as well as “‘explicit rules’ that “are accompanied by a limit that inverts them,” so that every use of these rules must “take into account the possibility of this threatening—because linked to the contingencies of life—rebound against it” (53-54). According to de Certeau, Bourdieu discerns a number of “essential procedures” in strategies. They are polytheistic: “the same thing has uses and properties that vary according to the arrangements into which it enters” (54). They involve substitutability: “a thing is always replaceable by another, because of the affinity of each with the others within the totality that the thing represents” (54). They use euphemism: “one must hide the fact that actions conflict with the dichotomies and antinomies represented by the symbolic system. Ritual actions furnish the model for ‘euphemism’ by combining contraries” (54). And while they are based on analogy, because “[t]hey are camouflaged transgressions, inserted metaphors and, precisely in that measure, they become acceptable, taken as legitimate since they respect the distinctions established by language even as they undermine them” (54-55). 

For de Certeau, two characteristics limit this account of strategies to the characteristics of the community Bourdieu studied, rather than being generally applicable. First, Bourdieu “always presupposes a twofold link between these practices and a proper place (a patrimony), on the one hand, and a collective principle of administration (the family, the group) on the other”—a “double postulate” that may not hold (55). Second, “[t]he use of the term ‘strategy’ is no less limited,” because in Bourdieu’s account, the people making use of those strategies are ignorant of what they are doing and cannot therefore form strategic intentions (55-56). In other words, Bourdieu is claiming that the culture of the people he studied is both coherent and unconscious, which is an impossibility: “The unconsciousness of the group studied was the price that had to be paid (the price it had to pay) for its coherence. A society could be a system only without knowing it” (56). Okay, but de Certeau has described his own society in the same way, as a totalizing system. What’s the difference? How is it that his critique of Bourdieu doesn’t also apply to his own work? 

De Certeau also argues that Bourdieu’s account of society requires it to be stable and unchanging: “As in the traditional image of primitive or peasant societies, nothing moves, there is no history other than that written on them by an alien order” (57-58). Moreover, while the habitus ends up providing “the basis for explaining a society in relationship to structures,” that same habitus, in order to be stable, “must be unverifiable, invisible” (58). Again, coming from someone who generally eschews concrete examples, this is a surprising criticism. Bourdieu, de Certeau continues, is interested in how practices are generated, not how they are produced, but his theory is a circle, moving from structures (a constructed model) to the habitus (an assumed reality) to strategies and conjunctures (interpretations of observed facts) (58). For de Certeau, the habitus thus becomes a totalizing dogma. “Bourdieu’s texts are fascinating in their analyses and aggressive in their theory,” de Certeau writes. “They are full of contrasts. Scrupulously examining practices and their logic . . . the texts finally reduce them to a mystical reality, the habitus, which is to bring them under the law of reproduction,” so that “subtle descriptions” of tactics “suddenly give way to violently imposed truths, as if the complexity so lucidly examined required the brutal counterpart of a dogmatic reason” (59). The habitus, de Certeau concludes, is a fetish (60). I’m rather surprised by this critique, since I’ve mostly heard that Bourdieu’s concept of habitus is useful, and I will perhaps return to it after I read Outline of a Theory of Practice to see if de Certeau’s criticisms make sense. I can’t tell right now, of course, whether he’s on the money or not, since Outline of a Theory of Practice is, for me, an undiscovered country at this point.

De Certeau isn’t finished with either Foucault or Bourdieu yet, however. His next chapter, “The Arts of Theory,” focuses on the problem of theories that deal, perhaps not unlike his own, with practices rather than discourses:

A particular problem arises when, instead of being a discourse on other discourses, as is usually the case, theory has to advance over an area where there are no longer any discourses. There is a sudden unevenness of terrain: the ground on which verbal language rests begins to fail. The theorizing operation finds itself at the limits of the terrain where it normally functions, like an automobile at the edge of a cliff. Beyond and below lies the ocean. (61)

I think this is lovely writing, but as de Certeau goes on to point out, theories of non-discursive practices are common: “since Kant every theoretical effort has had to give a more or less direct explanation of its relationship to this non-discursive activity, to this immense ‘remainder’ constituted by the part of human experience that has not been tamed and symbolized in language” (61). In this chapter, de Certeau wants to think about how theory manages to do that, “[b]y what brilliant strokes or through what ruses” (62).

The work of Foucault and Bourdieu, de Certeau argues, share a “theorizing operation” that “consists of two moments”: “first, cut out; then turn over. First an ‘ethnological’ isolation; then a logical inversion” (62). The first move isolates certain practices from “an undefined fabric” (Foucault’s disciplinary procedures, Bourdieu’s strategies) in such a way that the isolated part metonymically represents the whole (62). “The second move turns over the unit thus cut out,” de Certeau continues. “At first obscure, silent, and remote, the unit is inverted to become the element that illuminates theory and sustains discourse” (63). So the notion of disciplinary techniques, on the one hand, and the habitus, on the other, become keys to explaining everything (63). But this operation presents us with a problem: “by assuming that this isolated element has a metonymic value, and by thus passing over other practices, it forgets those that guarantee its own construction” (63). 

The problem of theorizing “‘know-how’ without a discourse” (65) is another difficulty. Such know-how “is composed of multiple but untamed operativities”:

 This proliferation does not obey the law of discourse, but rather that of production, the ultimate value of physiocratic and later capitalist economics. It thus challenges scientific writing’s privilege of organizing production. It alternately exacerbates and stimulates the technicians of language. It claims to conquer and annex not contemptible practices, but ‘ingenious,’ ‘complex,’ and ‘effective’ forms of knowledge. (65)

As I parse those sentences, I find myself confused as to the referents of the pronouns, particularly the multiple uses of “it.” The proliferation (of practices) is what challenges scientific writing, but is that proliferation the same thing that “stimulates the technicians of language”? But isn’t it scientific writing that “claims to conquer and annex” those forms of knowledge? What is happening here? Is this a clumsy translation or is de Certeau himself responsible? I’m not sure. In any case, there are two moves in scientific writing’s attempt at conquering and annexing practical forms of knowledge: description, which “depends on narrativity,” and “perfection,” which “aims at a technical optimization” (65-66). Through these moves, “the position of the ‘arts’ is fixed, neighboring on but out of the field of science” (66). Well, does description really depend on narrativity? And who actually hopes to achieve perfection? Again, I’m at a loss.

And yet, if I am to finish thinking about this chapter, I must forge on. Art, for de Certeau, is “a kind of knowledge that operates outside the enlightened discourse which it lacks. More importantly, this know-how surpasses, in its complexity, enlightened science” (66). That’s a huge claim to make, and (not surprisingly) de Certeau does not substantiate it. Instead, he moves on:

The “everyday” arts no more “form” a new product than they have their own language. They “make do” (bricolent). But through the reorganization and hierarchization of knowledge according to the criterion of productivity, these arts come to represent a standard, because of their operativity, and an avant-garde, because of their ‘experimental and manouvrier” subtlety. (66)

The arts—and it’s important to note that this term seems to include fine art practices along with more practical manual activities—are outside of scientific languages and represent “an absolute of the power of operating (an efficiency which, unmoored from discourse, nevertheless reflects is productivist ideal) and a reserve of knowledge one can inventory in shops or in the countryside” (66). One place these arts end up being represented is in nineteenth-century realistic fiction and other stories, which results in practical knowledge becoming aestheticized, although it is supposedly not self-conscious because it is non-discursive in its own right (70). It is only in Kant, de Certeau argues, particularly the Critique of Judgement, that theory and practice become related again (72-74). 

De Certeau has one more chapter on theory—this time, the theory of narrativity and the need to recognize its scientific legitimacy—but I’m going to skip ahead to the chapters that actually interest me and are the reason I took on this book: the chapters on spatial practices, including the widely anthologized (and important, for my work) chapter “Walking in the City.” De Certeau begins that chapter with a panoramic view of the streets of New York from the 110th floor of the World Trade Center. He compares that view to the walkers in the city below, “whose bodies follow the thicks and thins of an urban ‘text’ they write without being able to read it”:

These practitioners make use of spaces that cannot be seen; their knowledge of them is as blind as that of lovers in each other’s arms. The paths that correspond in this intertwining, unrecognized poems in which each body is an element signed by many others, elude legibility. It is as though the practices organizing a bustling city were characterized by their blindness. The networks of these moving, intersecting writing compose a manifold story that has neither author nor spectator, shaped out of fragments of trajectories and alterations of spaces: in relation to representations, it remains daily and infinitely other. (93)

The conceit here is that the footprints of these walkers are visible, as if they constituted writing that the walkers themselves cannot see. Of course, footprints are not really visible to anyone, and the walkers are no more blind to what they are doing than is the person on the 110th floor of the World Trade Center, who is too high up to see individual walkers in any case. The notion that pedestrians make writing with their feet is lovely, but it must be acknowledged that it is a fantasy, that those footprints are imaginary and that the walkers actually do know what they are doing and where they are going. The only blind walkers are the ones who have visual impairments, and they know where they are going, too. 

De Certeau’s goal in this chapter is “to locate the practices that are foreign to the ‘geometrical’ or ‘geographical’ space of visual, panoptic, or theoretical constructions” (93). “These practices of space refer to a specific form of operations (‘ways of operating’), to ‘another spatiality’ (an ‘anthropological,’ poetic and mythic experience of space), and to an opaque and blind mobility characteristic of the bustling city. A migrational, or metaphorical, city thus slips into the clear text of the planned and readable city” (93). Ah, now the point of the walkers who are blind to the text they write becomes clear: the readable city is the city of the grid (he’s writing about New York, after all), the city of urban planners, the city of systems and power, and that city is being juxtaposed against another, one constructed through practices, including walking, that are both quotidian and “infinitely other” (93) to that planned and systematized city. 

For de Certeau, “[t]he ‘city’ founded by utopian and urbanistic discourse is defined by the possibility of a threefold operation” (94). First, the city must produce its own space through a “rational organization” that must “repress all the physical, mental and political pollutions that would compromise it” (94). Second, 

the substitution of a nowhen, or of a synchronic system, for the indeterminable and stubborn resistances offered by traditions: univocal scientific strategies, made possible by the flattening out of all the data in a plane projection, must replace the the tactics of users who take advantage of ‘opportunities’ and who, through these trap-events, these lapses in visibility, reproduce the opacities of history everywhere. (94)

Finally, “the creation of a universal and anonymous subject which is the city itself” (94). In this city/subject, “all the functions and predicates that were previously scattered and assigned to many different real subjects—groups, associations, or individuals” become attributed to it, and the city “thus provides a way of conceiving and constructing space on the basis of a finite number of stable, isolatable, and interconnected properties” (94). The city founded by that discourse is, as the word “utopian” suggests, impossible, and yet it would be the triumph of planning and systematizing, a perfect urban machine. De Certeau continues to describe this impossible city:

On the one hand, there is a differentiation and redistribution of the parts and functions of the city, as a result of inversions, displacements, accumulations, etc.; on the other there is a rejection of everything that is not capable of being dealt with in this way and so constitutes the ‘waste products’ of a functionalist administration (abnormality, deviance, illness, death, etc.). To be sure, progress allows an increasing number of these waste products to be reintroduced into administrative circuits and transforms even deficiencies (in health, security, etc.) into ways of making the networks of order denser. But in reality, it repeatedly produces effects contrary to those at which it aims: the profit system generates a loss which, in the multiple forms of wretchedness and poverty outside the system and of waste inside it, constantly turns production into ‘expenditure.’ Moreover, the rationalization of the city leads to its mythification in strategic discourses, which are calculations based on the hypothesis or the necessity of its destruction in order to arrive at a final decision. Finally, the functionalist organization, by privileging progress (i.e., time), causes the condition of its own possibility—space itself—to be forgotten; space thus becomes the blind spot in a scientific and political technology. This is the way in which the Concept-city functions: a place of transformations and appropriations, the object of various kinds of interference but also a subject that is constantly enriched by new attributes, it is simultaneously the machinery and the hero of modernity. (94-95)

That is the (impossible) vision of the modern, functionalist city, “a totalizing and almost mythical landmark for socioeconomic and political strategies” (95). Such a city exists only in discourse. In reality, “urban life increasingly permits the re-emergence of the element that the urbanistic project excluded” (95):

The language of power is in itself ‘urbanizing,’ but the city is left prey to contradictory movements that counterbalance and combine themselves outside the reach of panoptic power. The city becomes the dominant theme in political legends, but it is no longer a field of programmed and regulated operations. Beneath the discourses that ideologize the city, the ruses and combinations that have no readable identity proliferate; without points where one can take hold of them, without rational transparency, they are impossible to administer. (95)

The “Concept-city is decaying,” because there is an “illness affecting both the rationality that founded it and its professionals” (95). In other words, the utopian, functionalist cities are deteriorating “along with the procedures that organized them” (95).

What is that illness? De Certeau suggests that instead of “remaining within the field of a discourse that upholds its privilege by inverting its content”—a swipe at Foucault and Bourdieu—“one can try another path”:

one can analyze the microbe-like, singular and plural practices which an urbanistic system was supposed to administer or suppress, but which have outlived its decay; one can follow the swarming activity of these procedures that, far from being regulated or eliminated by panoptic administration, have reinforced themselves in a proliferating illegitimacy, developed and insinuated themselves into the networks of surveillance, and combined in accord with unreadable but stable tactics to the point of constituting everyday regulations and surreptitious creativities that are merely concealed by the frantic mechanisms and discourses of the observational organization. (96)

In other words, one can study the tactics of resistance, instead of the strategies of power. And so de Certeau asks, “what spatial practices correspond, in the area where discipline is manipulated, to these apparatuses that produce a disciplinary space?” (96). This, he continues, is an important question, because “spatial practices in fact secretly structure the determining conditions of social life” (96). De Certeau’s intention, he writes, is to answer that question:  “to follow out a few of these multiform, [resistant], tricky and stubborn procedures that elude discipline without being outside the field in which it is exercised, and which should lead us into a theory of everyday practices, of lived space, of the disquieting familiarity of the city” (96).

That analysis begins with walking, with footsteps, as a fundamental form of resistance to the apparatuses that produce disciplinary space: 

They are myriad, but do not compose a series. They cannot be counted because each unit has a qualitative character: a style of tactile apprehension and kinesthetic appropriation. Their swarming mass is an innumerable collection of singularities. Their intertwined paths give their shape to spaces. They weave places together. . . . [Pedestrian movements] are not localized; is is rather that they spatialize. (97)

Any attempt to map out or trace the paths or trajectories of pedestrians would miss the point by grasping “only a relic set in the nowhen of a surface projection” (97). Such “fixations,” de Certeau continues, “constitute procedures for forgetting. The trace left behind is substituted for the practice” (97). The way to proceed, then, is to somehow find a way of examining “the operations of walking” themselves, the specific “way of being in the world” they are part of, rather than the relics of their existence (97).

Not surprising, given his earlier use of this analogy, de Certeau suggests that “[t]he act of walking is to the urban system what the speech act is to language or to the statements uttered” (97):

At the most elementary level, it has a triple ‘enunciative’ function: it is a process of appropriation of the topographical system on the part of the pedestrian (just as the speaker appropriates and takes on the language); it is a spatial acting-out of the place (just as the speech act is an acoustic acting-out of language); and it implies relations among differentiated positions, that is, among pragmatic “contracts” in the form of movements (just as verbal enunciation is an “allocution,” “posits another opposite” the speaker and puts contracts between interlocutors into action). (97-98)

Walking is therefore “a space of enunciation” (98), and considered from that definition, “the pedestrian speech act has three characteristics which distinguish it at the outset from the spatial system: the present, the discrete, the ‘phatic’” (98). By spatial system, de Certeau seems to be referring to the system or order represented by the Concept-city, although I could be wrong about that. He begins with the first point, “the present”: 

if it is true that a spatial order organizes an ensemble of possibilities (e.g., by a place in which one can move) and interdictions (e.g., by a wall that prevents one from going further), then the walker actualizes some of these possibilities. In that way, he makes them exist as well as emerge. But he also moves them about and he invents others, since the crossing, drifting away, or improvisation of walking privilege, transform or abandon spatial elements. (98)

I find myself wondering if the words “drifting away” are a reference to the Situationist dérive, something of which de Certeau had to be aware. In any case, de Certeau suggests that “the walker transforms each spatial signifier into something else,” the way that Charlie Chaplin “multiplies the possibilities of his cane” (98). “And,” he continues,

if on the one hand he actualizes only a few of the possibilities fixed by the constructed order (he goes only here and not there), on the other he increases the number of possibilities (for example, by creating shortcuts and detours) and prohibitions (for example, he forbids himself to take paths generally considered accessible or even obligatory. He thus makes a selection. (98)

This leads to de Certeau’s second point: a pedestrian “creates a discreteness, whether by making choices among the signifiers of the spatial ‘language’ or by displacing them through the use he makes of them. He condemns certain places to inertia or disappearance and composes with others ‘spatial turns of phrase’ that are ‘rare,’ ‘accidental,’ or illegitimate. But that already leads into a rhetoric of walking” (98-99). Finally, the “phatic” aspect of walking refers to “the function . . . of terms that initiate, maintain, or interrupt contact, such as ‘hello,’ ‘well, well,’ etc.” (99):

Walking, which alternately follows a path and has followers, creates a mobile organicity in the environment, a sequence of phatic topoi. And if it is true that the phatic function, which is an effort to ensure communication, is already characteristic of the language of talking birds . . . it is not surprising that it also gambols, goes on all fours, dances, and walks about, with a light or heavy step, like a series of “hellos” in an echoing labyrinth, anterior or parallel to informative speech. (99)

Once again, I am left dumbfounded by de Certeau. What does he mean by referring to “talking birds”? How did we get there from walking? How is any of this related to the alleged phatic function of walking? I am confused, although the reference to singing in these sentences might help to clarify his point:

Walking affirms, suspects, tries out, transgresses, respects, etc. the trajectories it “speaks.” All the modalities sing a part in this chorus, ranging from step to step, stepping in through proportions, sequences, and intensities which vary according to the time, the path taken and the walker. These enunciatory operations are of an unlimited diversity. (99)

When I first read these words, I thought that de Certeau’s affirmation of walking’s complexity was an argument against attempting to reduce the pedestrian’s steps “to their graphic trail” by tracing them on a map (99). Now, though, I wonder if the reference to singing picks up on the earlier reference to birds. Maybe it doesn’t. I don’t know.

The next section of the essay is called “Walking rhetorics,” and its discussion was anticipated by de Certeau’s earlier reference to “a rhetoric of walking” (99). “The walking of passers-by offers a series of turns (tours) and detours that can be compared to ‘turns of phrase’ or ‘stylistic figures,’” de Certeau begins. “There is a rhetoric of walking. The art of ‘turning’ phrases finds an equivalent in the art of composing a path (tourner un parcours)” (100). The art of walking, he continues, “implies and combines styles and uses” (100). Here, “style” refers to a linguistic structure that is individualized, where as “use” “defines the social phenomenon through which a system of communication manifests itself in actual fact; it refers to a norm” (100). In other words, walking combines linguistic terms that would typically be considered to be opposites. “Style and use both have to do with a ‘way of operating’ (of speaking, walking, etc.), but style involves a peculiar processing of the symbolic, while use refers to elements of a code,” de Certeau writes. “They intersect to form a style of use, a way of being and a way of operating” (100). 

The notion that “the ‘tropes’ catalogued by rhetoric furnish models and hypotheses for the analysis of ways of appropriating places”—through walking, apparently—is supported by “[t]wo postulates” (100). First, de Certeau is assuming that “the practices of space also correspond to the manipulations of the basic elements of a constructed order,” and second, he is assuming “that they are, like the tropes in rhetoric, deviations relative to a sort of ‘literal meaning’ defined by the urbanistic system” (100). Given those postulates, he continues, there would be “a homology between verbal figures and the figures of walking” (100). The metaphor of rhetoric leads de Certeau back to the distinction between the system of language and the individual utterance:

the geometrical space of urbanists and architects seems to have the status of the “proper meaning” constructed by grammarians and linguists in order to have a normal and normative level to which they can compare the drifting of “figurative” language. In reality, this faceless “proper” meaning (ce ‘propre’ sans figure) cannot be found in current use, whether verbal or pedestrian; it is merely the fiction produced by a use that is also particular, the metalinguistic use of science that distinguishes itself by that very distinction. (100)

“The long poem of walking,” de Certeau continues,

manipulates spatial organizations, no matter how panoptic they may be: it is neither foreign to them (it can take place only within them) nor in conformity with them (it does not receive its identity from them). It creates shadows and ambiguities within them. It inserts its multitudinous references and citations into them (social models, cultural mores, personal factors). Within them it is itself the effect of successive encounters and occasions that constantly alter it and make it the other’s blazon: in other words, it is like a peddler, carrying something surprising, transverse or attractive compared with the usual choice. These diverse aspects provide the basis of a rhetoric. The can even be said to define it. (101)

Would specific ways of walking then correspond to specific rhetorical figures? De Certeau suggests that the “two pedestrian figures” of synecdoche (naming a part rather than the whole) and asyndeton (suppressing linking words, like conjunctions and adverbs) are common in walking—or at least in talking about walking: de Certeau elides the difference between walking as a practice and discourses about walking here by talking about how these figures might be used in “the narration of a trajectory” (101). So one might refer to a hill instead of a the park in which that hill is situated (synecdoche), or one might skip over or omit parts of a walk (asyndeton), (101) but one would do this in narration—in discourse—rather than in practice.

According to de Certeau, synecdoche and asyndeton are related:

Synecdoche expands a spatial element in order to make it play the role of a “more” (a totality) and take its place. . . . Asyndeton, by elision, creates a ‘less,’ opens gaps in the spatial continuum, and retains only selected parts of it that amount almost to relics. Synecdoche replaces totalities by fragments (a less in the place of a more); asyndeton disconnects them by eliminating the conjunctive or the consecutive (nothing in place of something). Synecdoche makes more dense: it amplifies the detail and miniaturizes the whole. Asyndeton cuts out: it undoes continuity and undercuts its plausibility. A space treated in this way and shaped by practices is transformed into enlarged singularities and separate islands. Through these swellings, shrinkings, and fragmentations, that is, through these rhetorical operations a spatial phrasing of an analogical (composed of juxtaposed citations) and elliptical (made of gaps, lapses, and allusions) type is created. For the technological system of a coherent and totalizing space that is “linked” and simultaneous, the figures of pedestrian rhetoric substitute trajectories that have a mythical structure, at least if one understands by “myth” a discourse relative to the place/nowhere (or origin) of concrete existence, a story jerry-built out of elements taken from common sayings, an allusive and fragmentary story whose gaps mesh with the social practices it symbolizes. (101-02)

Once again, I am confused: is de Certeau talking about walking, or about stories about walking? Is a walk a story if that story is not articulated in discourse? Is narration a metaphor for walking, or is it a literal narration?

Perhaps rather than discussing walking or narrating, de Certeau is merely asserting a parallel between them: the beginning of the next section of the chapter, “Myths: what ‘make things go,” begins by asserting a parallelism between walking, discourse, and dreams: “If there is a parallelism, it is not only because enunciation is dominant in these three areas, but also because its discursive (verbalized, dreamed, or walked) development is organized as a relation between the place from which it proceeds (an origin) and the nowhere it produces (a way of ‘going by’)” (103). The problem, of course, is that walking is not discourse; it is a non-discursive practice, and so to claim that walking has a discursive development is therefore a problem. I’m not convinced, then, that what de Certeau is offering here can be anything more than a comparison, parallel, or analogy. There may be similarities between walking, dreaming, and narrating, but there is one central difference: walking isn’t a discourse. That difference is being elided in de Certeau’s argument.

Nevertheless, de Certeau’s next assertion is quite provocative and potentially productive. “To walk is to lack a place,” he begins:

The moving about that the city multiplies and concentrates makes the city itself an immense social experience lacking a place—an experience that is, to be sure, broken up into countless tiny deportations (displacements and walks), compensated for by the relationships and intersections of these exoduses that intertwine and create an urban fabric, and placed under the sign of what ought to be, ultimately, the place but is only a name, the City. The identity furnished by this place is all the more symbolic (named) because, in spite of the inequality of its citizens’ positions and profits, there is only a pullulation of passer-by, a network of residences temporarily appropriated by pedestrian traffic, a shuffling among pretenses of the proper, a universe of rented spaces haunted by a nowhere or by dreamed-of places. (103)

De Certeau doesn’t define the terms “space” and “place” until a subsequent chapter, but it’s important to note here that, as Tim Cresswell points out, he reverses the typical usage—in English, or in geographical discourse, or both—of those two terms: “Confusingly, for geographers, Certeau uses space and place in a way that stands the normal distinction on its head. To Certeau, place is the empty grid over which practice occurs while space is what is created by practice” (Cresswell 70). So, when de Certeau refers to “place” in this quotation, he ought to be interpreted as meaning “space.” Confusing, right? What he seems to be saying, then, is that the City—the utopian, totalizing, systematized entity he defined earlier in this chapter—ought to be a space, but “is only a name.” To walk is to lack a space, but the spaceless city consists only of the movements of its residents. There is a strange circularity to this argument, but it seems clear (I think) that de Certeau is arguing that the City doesn’t exist in reality, that it is actually made up of the movements of its citizens. What particularly interests me is the suggestion that the countless walks made by people in an urban space “intertwine and create an urban fabric” (103). I find myself wondering if the “fabric” of any place, urban or rural, might not be made up by the movements of its inhabitants.

From here, de Certeau begins to discuss the role of proper names in the absent City, and the relationship that exists “between the direction of a walk (le sens de la marche) and the meaning of words (le sens des mots),” a relationship that situates “two sorts of apparently contrary movements, one extrovert (to walk is to go outside), the other introvert (a mobility under the stability of the signifier)” (103). I’m not convinced that de Certeau is talking about actual walking any more; perhaps in this chapter “walk” has come to stand in for any movement in an urban space? In any case, de Certeau is asserting a direct connection between place names and walking:

Linking acts and footsteps, opening meanings and directions, these words operate in the name of an emptying-out and a wearing-away of their primary role. They become liberated spaces that can be occupied. A rich indetermination gives them, by means of a semantic rarefaction, the function of articulating a second, poetic geography on top of the geography of the literal, forbidden or permitted meaning. They insinuate other routes into the functionalist and historical order of movement. . . . People are put in motion by the remaining relics of meaning, and sometimes by their waste products, the inverted remainders of great ambitions. Things that amount to nothing, or almost nothing, symbolize and orient walkers’ steps: names that have ceased precisely to be “proper.” (105)

Why is de Certeau making such a big thing out of place names? He suggests that 

they make habitable or believable the place that they clothe with a word (by emptying themselves of their classifying power, they acquire that of ‘permitting’ something else); they recall or suggest phantoms (the dead who are supposed to have disappeared) that still move about, concealed in gestures and in bodies in motion; and by altering functionalist identity by detaching themselves from it, they create in the place itself that erosion or nowhere that the law of the other carves out within it. (105)

So somehow place names, like the practice of walking, function as a form of resistance to power; they are examples of “‘local authorities’” or “superstitions,” “rich silences and wordless stories,” and so tend to be replaced by numbers (106). Walking about, and travelling generally, come to “substitute for the legends that used to open up space to something different” (107). There is some connection, therefore, between place names, stories, and walking as forms of resistance.

In fact, de Certeau describes walking as a form of exile, and suggests that it produces “precisely the body of legends that is currently lacking in one’s own vicinity; it is a fiction, which moreover has the double characteristic, like dreams or pedestrian rhetoric, of being the effect of displacements and condensations” (107). Again we see a slippage between walking as a non-discursive practice, on the one hand, and discourse, on the other. Such legends—stories, more generally—are “practices that invent spaces” (107):

From this point of view, their contents remain revelatory, and still more so is the principle that organizes them. Stories about places are makeshift things. They are composed with the world’s debris. Even the literary form and the actantial schema of “superstitions” correspond to stable models whose structures and combinations have often been analyzed over the past thirty years, the materials (all the rhetorical details of their “manifestation”) are furnished with leftovers from nominations, taxonomies, heroic or comic predicates, etc., that is, by fragments of scattered semantic places. These heterogenous and even contrary elements fill the homogenous form of the story. (107)

Stories about places (or spaces—note that de Certeau’s use of these terms is not consistent, at least not at this point, despite Cresswell’s analysis), as well as walking, are thus “spatial practices” that offer resistance to “the constructed order”: “The surface of this order is everywhere punched and torn apart by ellipses, drifts, and leaks of meaning; it is a sieve-order” (107). “The dispersion of stories points to the dispersion of the memorable as well,” he continues, describing memory as “a sort of anti-museum” that is not “localizable” (108). Rather, fragments of memory “come out in legends. Objects and words also have hollow places in which a past sleeps, as in the everyday acts of walking, eating, going to bed, in which ancient revolutions slumber” (108). The memories de Certeau is talking about here seem to be memories of what used to be in a particular place but is no longer there. Those memories—de Certeau’s word for them is “demonstratives”—“indicate the invisible identities of the visible,” and “it is the very definition of a place . . . that it is composed by these series of displacements and effects among the fragmented strata that form it and that it plays on these moving layers” (108). Such memories lead to places being haunted: “There is no place that is not haunted by many different spirits hidden there in silence, spirits one can ‘invoke’ or not” (108). I wonder if de Certeau would apply this logic to rural as well as urban places. After all, isn’t rural Saskatchewan haunted by the ghosts of the bison, of the grassland, of the ecosystem that was mostly destroyed in the first 50 years of settlement?

The important thing about such memories is that they remain silent (108): “Places are fragmentary and inward-turning histories, pasts that others are not allowed to read, accumulated times that can be unfolded but like stories held in reserve, remaining in an enigmatic state, symbolizations encysted in the pain or pleasure of the body” (108). I know de Certeau is primarily interested in pleasure as a form of resistance, but “encysted” suggests pain, rather than pleasure.

In the final section of this chapter, de Certeau turns to childhood memories of places. “The memorable is that which can be dreamed about a place,” he writes, arguing that such places are palimpsests, “already linked to the absence that structures it as existence” (109). He has used imagery throughout this chapter that suggests places are palimpsests, and he is clearly interested in layers of memories as part of what defines places as forms of resistance, compared to the unstratified definitions of place that are characteristic of the City-concept and its monological discourses. He goes so far as to claim that our experience of space is ultimately a “decisive and originary experience, that of the child’s differentiation from the mother’s body” (109). “This relationship of oneself to oneself”—he seems to be referring to that “joyful and silent experience of childhood” which defines that process of differentiation from the mother—“governs the internal alternations of the place (the relations among its strata) or the pedestrian unfolding of the stories accumulated in a place (moving about the city and travelling),” he contends (110). “The childhood experience that determines spatial practices later develops its effects, proliferates, floods private and public spaces, undoes their readable surfaces, and creates within the planned city a ‘metaphorical’ or mobile city” (110). De Certeau’s theoretical touchstone here has shifted from Foucault to Lacan, and I’m not well-versed in poststructuralist psychoanalysis, so I find this conclusion difficult to understand. Is de Certeau suggesting that the resistant experience of the city is somehow similar to a child before its entry into the Symbolic Order? I wish I could tell. Do I have to put Lacan’s Écrits on my reading list in order to understand this chapter? Perhaps.

De Certeau’s next chapter compares train travel to walking. Traveling by train is a “travelling incarceration,” an experience of immobility in which the passenger is trapped within a “bubble of panoptic and classifying power, a module of imprisonment that makes possible the production of an order, a closed and autonomous insularity—that is what can traverse space and make itself independent of local roots” (111). The same could be said, I suppose, of travelling by plane. I’m not interested in either mode of transportation, so I skipped ahead to the next chapter, “Spatial Stories.” “Every story is a travel story—a spatial practice,” de Certeau begins (115). Such stories “are not satisfied with displacing” what de Certeau calls “pedestrian enunciations and rhetorics” and “transposing them into the field of language” (116). “In reality,” he continues, “they organize walks. They make the journey, before or during the time the feet perform it” (116). Again there is a curious slippage between walking as a non-discursive practice (or traveling as a non-discursive practice?) and discourse. What does it mean to claim that stories make the journey before it is performed by the pedestrian’s feet? I don’t understand.

By the time I reached this point in de Certeau’s book, I was wondering if he was going to begin distinguishing, in a clear way, between place and space, in the way that Cresswell suggests. The answer, happily, is yes: a place

is the order (of whatever kind) in accord with which elements are distributed in relationships of coexistence. It thus excludes the possibility of two things being in the same location. . . . The law of the “proper’ rules in the place: the elements taken into consideration are beside one another, each situated in its own “proper” and distinct location, a location it defines. A place is thus an instantaneous configuration of positions. It implies an indication of stability. (117)

Cresswell suggests, as I’ve said, that de Certeau uses “place” the way that geographers use “space”—as “a more abstract concept than place” that lacks human investments and attachments (Cresswell 15-16). What I notice, though, about de Certeau’s definition of place is that it is (or seems to be) aligned with strategies and power and the Concept-city: it is ruled by “[t]he law of the ‘proper.’” Moreover, de Certeau’s notion of place is of something that is stable and clearly defined, which might make it closer to the geographer’s use of “place.” Space, on the other hand, is quite different:

A space exists when one takes into consideration vectors of direction, velocities, and time variables. Thus space is composed of intersections of mobile elements. It is in a sense actuated by the ensemble of movements deployed within it. Space occurs as the effect produced by the operations that orient it, situate it, temporalize it, and make it function in a polyvalent unity of conflictual programs and contractual proximities. On this view, in relation to place, space is like the word when it is spoken, that is, when it is caught in the ambiguity of actualization, transformed into a term dependant upon many different conventions, situated as the act of a present (or of a time), and modified by the transformations caused by successive contexts. In contradistinction to the place, it has thus none of the univocity or stability of a “proper.” (117)

What strikes me about this description is not its relationship to the geographer’s notion of “place,” but rather the way that space, for de Certeau, aligns with tactics, utterances, and practices of resistance to power. In fact, the emphasis on mobility might align de Certeau’s version of space with, say, Yi-Fu Tuan’s definition of this term, which involves mobility, at least potentially. In fact, so far de Certeau’s definitions of space and place are connected to the primary binaries that organize this book, rather than related to the way geographers use these terms.

And then—isn’t it important to pay attention to de Certeau’s repetitions?—there is this summary, which makes things much clearer:

In short, space is a practiced place. Thus the street geometrically defined by urban planning is transformed into a space by walkers. In the same way, an act of reading is the space produced by the practice of a particular place: a written text, i.e., a place constituted by a system of signs. (117)

Finally, Cresswell’s explication of de Certeau’s version of space and place makes sense: for Cresswell, and for Tuan, place would be a practiced space, a space that contains stories and memories and, although de Certeau would never say this, meaning and human attachment (see Cresswell 16). And, following this moment of clarity, de Certeau refers to Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s distinctions between “‘geometrical’ space,” which geographers would call space, and “‘anthropological’ space,” which geographers would call place—not that de Certeau is necessarily citing Merleau-Ponty with approval. “In our examination of the daily practices that articulate that experience,” de Certeau writes,

the opposition between “place” and “space” will rather refer to two sorts of determinations in stories: the first, a determination through objects that are ultimately reducible to the being-there of something dead, the law of a “place” . . . the second, a determination through operations which, when they attributed to a stone, tree, or human being, specify “spaces” by the actions of historical subjects. (118)

Place, for de Certeau (space, for geographers) is, unlike space (place, for geographers), dead, because it has no history and no movement—nothing human or anthropological, in other words: only the law of its own configuration. “Between these two determinations,” he continues,

there are passages back and forth, such as the putting to death (or putting into a landscape) of heroes who transgress frontiers and who, guilty of an offense against the law of the place, best provide its restoration with their tombs; or again, on the contrary, the awakening of inert objects (a table, a forest, a person that plays a certain role in the environment) which, emerging from their stability, transform the place where they lay motionless into the foreignness of their own space. (118)

Such “passages” are the reason I am reading this book and the subject of my current research. How does space become place? For de Certeau, the answer seems to be through stories: that would be the reason for his reference to “heroes” and for his description of “inert objects” coming to life. Narration is the key to that transformation, then: space becomes place—and I’m using those terms the way geographers do, not the way de Certeau does—when stories can be told about it. 

Indeed, stories are key to such transformations. They “carry out a labor that constantly transforms places into spaces or spaces into places,” de Certeau writes. “They also organize the play of changing relationships between places and spaces” (118). The forms such play might take are “numberless, fanning out in a spectrum reaching from the putting in place of an immobile and stone-like order . . . to the accelerated succession of actions that multiply spaces” (118). Again one sees the relationship between these terms and the larger binaries that organize de Certeau’s thinking in this book, and I’m really not convinced that his use of these terms (even in reverse) can simply be mapped onto the way geographers use them, but there is some overlap, I think, and perhaps that’s good enough.

The next section of the chapter, “Tours and maps,” distinguishes between stories (a tour, for de Certeau, is a narrative) and descriptions (a map is a visual description). These terms represent “[t]wo poles of experience,” one belonging to “‘ordinary’ culture”—that would be narrative or “tours”—and the other, “maps,” to “scientific discourse” (119). But there appears to be a spectrum between those two poles: “From this angle, we can compare the combination of “tours” and “maps” in everyday stories with the manner in which, over the past five centuries, they have been interlaced and then slowly dissociated in literary and scientific representations of space” (120). Stories about places are clearly aligned with tactics, as de Certeau has defined that term: they are “composed of fragments drawn from earlier stories and fitted together in makeshift fashion (bricolés). In this sense, they shed light on the formation of myths, since they also have the function of founding and articulating spaces” (122-23). The fundamental question, for de Certeau,

is the partition of space that structures it. Everything refers in fact to this differentiation which makes possible the isolation and interplay of distinct spaces. From the distinction that separates a subject from its exteriority to the distinctions that localize objects, from the home (constituted on the basis of the wall) to the journey (constituted on the basis of a geographical “elsewhere” or a cosmological “beyond”), from the functioning of the urban network to that of the rural landscape, there is no spatiality that is not organized by the determination of frontiers. (123)

Stories, de Certeau argues, play a decisive role in the creation of frontiers; they have a “distributive power” and “performative force,” and as a result they establish spaces (123). Where stories are disappearing, he continues,

there is a loss of space: deprived of narrations (as one sees it happen in both the city and the countryside), the group or individual regresses toward the disquieting, fatalistic experience of a formless, indistinct, and nocturnal totality. By considering the role of stories in delimitation, one can see that the primary function is to authorize the establishment, displacement or transcendence of limits, and as a consequence, to set in opposition, within the closed field of discourse, two movements that intersect (setting and transgressing limits) in such a way as to make the story a sort of “crossword” decoding stencil (a dynamic partitioning of space) whose essential narrative figures seem to be the frontier and the bridge. (123)

Frontiers and bridges—objects that set and transgress limits—are the “essential narrative figures” of the way stories construct spaces; the frontier defines a legitimate space, and the bridge defines that space’s “(alien) exteriority” (126). 

But for de Certeau stories also “found” spaces, and “[t]his founding is precisely the primary role of the story. It opens a legitimate theater for practical actions”—social actions, that is, which are both “dangerous and contingent” because they are aligned with tactics, it seems, against strategies (125). A founding story is fragmented and heterogenous; it is miniaturized, because it includes family stories and autobiographies; and it is polyvalent, “because the mixing together of so many micro-stories gives them functions that change according to the groups in which they circulate” (125). For de Certeau, the way founding stories relate to frontiers seems to be their most important function: “A narrative activity, even if it is multiform and no longer unitary, thus continues to develop where frontiers and relations with space abroad are concerned. Fragmented and disseminated, it is continually concerned with marking out boundaries” (125). But frontiers are not simply boundaries. For de Certeau, frontiers are paradoxical: “created by contacts, the points of differentiation between two bodies are also their common points. Conjunction and disjunction are inseparable in them” (127). In other words, frontiers or boundaries mark differences, but they are also points where those different spaces touch, perhaps even where exchanges between them are possible. “What the map cuts up, the story cuts across,” de Certeau states, suggesting the way that narration can create connections as well as borders. And, finally, in case it wasn’t already clear, “in this focalizing enunciation”—and remember the importance of the word “enunciation” in this book as a term that is aligned with tactics of resistance—“space appears once more as a practiced place” (130).

And with the end of that chapter, I stopped reading. The rest of The Practice of Everyday Life is focused on language, particularly reading as a form of tactics, and on belief—not topics that are related to my current work. As my supervisors have told me, the point of reading for comprehensive examinations is to focus on what is related to one’s project. Did reading The Practice of Everyday Life make a contribution to my research? Yes, it did. As confusing and sometimes frustrating as de Certeau’s poetic prose and associative style of argument can be, the notion of walking as a form of resistance is useful to my work, as are the notion of haunted places and the distinction between space and place that de Certeau works out in the chapter on “Spatial Stories.” In fact, that chapter might have been the most important part of this book for me—surprisingly more important than the chapter on walking in the city—and that suggests how important it is to read beyond what I might think will be important. Yes, I realize that by skipping the chapters on reading and belief I might be missing out on other valuable insights, but I can always come back to The Practice of Everyday Life later on. Besides, as I’m sure you will agree, this summary is quite long enough as it is. The Practice of Everyday Life is going to play an important part in the conference paper I am about to write on space and place in walking pilgrimages, and that’s reason enough to have read it.

Works Cited

Cresswell, Tim. Place: An Introduction. 2nd edition. Wiley Blackwell, 2015.

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

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

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.