Reading and Walking

Walking, Reading, and Reading about Walking

Tag: Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience

87. Henry David Thoreau, Walking

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There are many passages from Henry David Thoreau’s lecture Walking, published after his death in 1862, that show up in any survey of writing about walking. But there is a lot more going in in Thoreau’s text than those frequently quoted statements. Rather than being focused on walking, most of the text addresses another topic entirely: wildness. For Thoreau, the two go together: walking is a vehicle for experiencing wildness, by which he means, the natural world, or life beyond human society. In fact, the lecture begins with a short paragraph in which Thoreau states, “I wish to speak a word for Nature, for absolute freedom and wildness, as contrasted with a freedom and culture merely civil,—to regard man as an inhabitant, or a part and parcel of Nature, rather than a member of society” (35). The “extreme statement” (35) he intends to make begins with the idea that humans are natural rather than social or cultural. It doesn’t matter that such an idea is impossible; what’s important is Thoreau’s intention and, I think, the way it reflects his own love of the natural world and of solitude.

From that point Thoreau moves to one of those often-quoted passages, an attempt at an etymology of the word “sauntering.” He makes two suggestions. One is that “saunter” comes from medieval pilgrimages (pretended, according to Thoreau) to the Holy Land, from the idea that children would exclaim “There goes a Sainte-Terrer” when such people walked past. Strangely, Thoreau shifts to the present tense when he evaluates these pilgrimages: “They who never go to the Holy Land in their walks, as they pretend, are indeed mere idlers and vagabonds; but they who do go there are saunterers in the good sense, such as I mean” (35-36). I find the syntax of that sentence very strange, and I have a suspicion that Thoreau might prefer the “idlers and vagabonds” to those who would actually be walking to the Holy Land—or that he’s less interested in the notion of a religious pilgrimage than in one that leads into the woods, which is the site Thoreau really finds to be sacred. That’s the derivation he prefers, because “every walk is a sort of crusade, preached by some Peter the Hermit in us, to go forth and reconquer this Holy Land from the hands of the Infidels” (36). By “this Holy Land” Thoreau means Massachusetts, or Concord: the place he called home. And by “Infidels,” I am assuming he means those who do not or cannot appreciate the natural world of that place; that, in any case, is an opposition he develops through the lecture.

However, Thoreau also acknowledges that some people derive “saunter” from “sans terre, without land or a home, which, therefore, in the good sense, will mean, having no particular home, but equally at home everywhere” (36). This, he claims, “is the secret of successful sauntering”: “He who sits still in a house all the time may be the greatest vagrant of all; but the saunterer, in the good sense, is no more vagrant than the meandering river, which is all the while sedulously seeking the shortest course to the sea” (36). This derivation, although Thoreau prefers the first, has the benefits of lending itself to a metaphor taken from nature, and of distinguishing those who walk, or saunter, from those who stay at home, and who, despite their stationary quality, “may be the biggest vagrant of all.”

The first derivation, though, allows Thoreau to make this apparent self-criticism, although I think it’s actually an ironic critique of his audience, and his culture:

It is true, we are but faint-hearted crusaders, even the walkers, nowadays, who undertake no persevering, never-ending enterprises. Our expeditions are but tours, and come round again at evening to the old hearth-side from which we set out. Half the walk is but retracing our steps. We should go forth on the shortest walk, perchance, in the spirit of undying adventure, never to return,—prepared to send back our embalmed hearts only as relics to our desolate kingdoms. (36)

Thoreau wants to raise the stakes, as dramaturges say; he wants walkers to take risks and walks to mean something. But at the same time, the exaggeration here (“embalmed hearts”?) might suggest he’s not entirely serious. Such hyperbole continues through the first pages of the lecture, including this passage, which Deirdre Heddon and Cathy Turner describe as an example of “nineteenth-century chauvinism” (226): “If you are ready to leave father and mother, and brother and sister, and wife and child and friends, and never see them again,—if you have paid your debts, and made your will, and settled all your affairs, and are a free man, then you are ready for a walk” (36). The joke is on the reader, of course; Thoreau never married, lived alone, and had few if any domestic entanglements. He is asking his audience to do something he wouldn’t have to do and likely wouldn’t be able to imagine. As Ralph Waldo Emerson says in his biographical sketch of Thoreau, he was “the bachelor of thought and Nature” (9).

The self-conscious drama of the notion that one must treat any walk as a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, an experience likely to lead to one’s death, is (to me) sheer hyperbole, and the language in the following paragraphs supports that claim. Thoreau describes the pleasure he and his walking companion take 

in fancying ourselves knights of a new, or rather an old, order,—not Equestrians or Chevaliers, not Ritters or riders, but Walkers, a still more ancient and honorable class, I trust. The chivalric and heroic spirit which once belonged to the Rider seems now to reside in, or perchance to have subsided into, the Walker,—not the Knight, but the Walker Errant. He is a sort of fourth estate, outside of Church and State and People. (37)

Is Thoreau serious here? I don’t think so, although I could be wrong. Elsewhere in the essay he criticizes any interest in what are, for him, outmoded or inappropriate European ideas and idioms, and so his use of them here might suggest exaggeration. I keep thinking that he’s giving a lecture, that he has to engage his audience and interest them not only in what he wants to say, but in himself as a speaker. What better way to accomplish those goals than to begin by making oneself something of a figure of fun who is in on the joke?

At the same time, there is a serious side to the distinction he has been making, subtly, between those who walk and those who stay home:

We have felt that we almost alone hereabouts practised this noble art; though, to tell the truth, at least, if their own assertions are to be received, mo[s]t of my townsmen would fain walk sometimes, as I do, but they cannot. No wealth can buy the requisite leisure, freedom, and independence, which are the capital in this profession. It comes only by the grace of God. It requires a direct dispensation from Heaven to become a walker. You must be born into the family of Walkers. (37)

Again there is deliberate exaggeration here, but I think Thoreau is making a point. After all, his lack of domestic obligations; his self-imposed poverty; his friends and family, who supported his life and work (by paying his tax bills, for example); all of the factors of his life allowed him to spend hours every day going for long walks. Others, who had to work long hours as farmers or clerks, did not have that freedom.

Still, in this paragraph the butt of the Thoreau’s humour shifts from Thoreau himself to those who lack the leisure or disposition to walk:

Some of my townsmen, it is true, can remember and have described to me some walks which they took ten years ago, in which they were so blessed as to lose themselves for half an hour in the woods; but I know very well that they have confined themselves to the highway ever since, whatever pretensions they may make to belong to this select class. No doubt they were elevated for a moment as by the reminiscence of a previous state of existence, when even they were foresters and outlaws. (37)

The short period of the remembered walk (just half an hour), and the decision to “confine themselves to the highway” afterwards, and the allusion to Robin Hood, all suggest (to me) that Thoreau is having a bit of a laugh at his audience’s expense. After all, they are likely to be the kind of people who have to work and lack the leisure to wander around. They bought tickets to the lecture, after all.

Thoreau, in fact, acknowledges that he is both unusual and lucky in his need to walk and in his ability to do it:

I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day at least,—and it is commonly more than that,—sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements. You may safely say, A penny for your thoughts, or a thousand pounds. When sometimes I am reminded that the mechanics and shopkeepers stay in their shops not only all the forenoon, but all the afternoon too, sitting with crossed legs, so many of them,—as if the legs were made to sit upon, and not to stand or walk upon,—I think that they deserve some credit for not having all committed suicide long ago. (38)

Thoreau’s freedom to walk is also a necessity, and although it has led to poverty (for him there’s no difference between a penny and a thousand pounds, because he has neither), it has also helped him to preserve his “health and spirits.” In fact, he cannot understand how others, with jobs and obligations, manage to survive. He wonders why “there is not a general explosion heard up and down the street” every afternoon between four and five o’clock, a blast that would scatter “a legion of antiquated and house-bred notions and whims to the four winds for an airing,” and thus cure the evil of being confined “to shops and offices the whole day for weeks and months, ay, and years almost together” (39). Thoreau’s wonder is not confined to men working outside of the home: “How womankind, who are confined to the house still more than men, stand it I do not know,” he writes, but he suspects “that most of them do not stand it at all” (39). He remembers walking past houses on summer afternoons, houses whose occupants appear to be sleeping (39). He seems to be suggesting that they aren’t sleeping at all; perhaps they have gone out for a walk. It’s hard to say, though, what Thoreau means here, because he ends that paragraph with a paean to the architecture that doesn’t go to sleep itself, but which stands guard over the slumberers (40). The notion seems strange. What is more likely: sleeping or walking? Shouldn’t those women be walking? If they are sleeping, what does that say about Thoreau’s views on women?

Thoreau suggests that the walking he is describing has nothing to do with “taking exercise,” but “is itself the enterprise and adventure of the day. If you would get exercise, go in search of the springs of life” (40). Moreover, when one walks, one must think—ruminate—as Wordsworth, who famously wrote while walking, did (40). Being outside so much “will no doubt produce a certain roughness of character,” he admits, but the “natural remedy” for that roughness “is to be found in the proportion which the night bears to the day, the winter to the summer, thought to experience”:

There will be so much the more air and sunshine in our thoughts. The callous palms of the laborer are conversant with finer tissues of self-respect and heroism, whose touch thrills the heart, than the languid fingers of idleness. That is mere sentimentality that lies abed by day and thinks itself white, far from the tan and callus of experience. (41)

In other words, that “certain roughness of character,” far from being a vice, is a virtue. Given the choice between that roughness and “mere sentimentality,” Thoreau will choose roughness. I wonder if the figure who lies in bed during the day is a return to the female inhabitants of those silent houses whose occupants seem to be asleep; perhaps those women are actually sleeping, rather than walking, a suggestion which would support accusations of chauvinism.

As Heddon and Turner point out, Thoreau critiques domestic walking: “When we walk, we naturally go to the fields and woods: what would become of us, if we walked only in a garden or a mall?” (41). I don’t think it’s the domestic that Thoreau is rejecting as much as it is the notion of wild nature that he is advocating (although they necessarily go together). It’s not enough to walk in the woods, either; one must want to walk there, and one must be focused on the experience rather than thinking of other things:

I am alarmed when it happens that I have walked a mile into the woods bodily, without getting there in spirit. In my afternoon walk I would fain forget all my morning occupations and my obligations to society. But it sometimes happens that I cannot easily shake off the village. The thought of some work will run in my head, and I am not where my body is,—I am out of my senses. In my walks I would fain return to my senses. What business have I in the woods, if I am thinking of something out of the woods? I suspect myself, and cannot help a shudder, when I find myself so implicated even in what are called good works,—for this may sometimes happen. (42)

For Thoreau, walking is an experience of attention and flow—of being, in two ways, returned to his senses: to the sensory experience of the world, and to his right mind. The reason he rejects society and its obligations, here and elsewhere in the lecture, is that he seems to require that specific kind of walking experience, and even when he is thinking about “good works,” he is not present in his surroundings.

“My vicinity affords many good walks,” Thoreau continues, “and though for so many years I have walked almost every day, and sometimes for several days together, I have not exhausted them” (42). One might expect that Thoreau is interested in walking as an experience of place, in Yi-Fu Tuan’s sense of place as a location that one knows through experience, and he does, but he’s also interested in walking as an experience of space, of novelty and freshness:

An absolutely new prospect is a great happiness, and I can still get this on any afternoon. Two or three hours’ walking will carry me to as strange a country as I expect ever to see. A single farmhouse which I had not seen before is sometimes as good as the dominions of the King of Dahomey. There is in fact a sort of harmony discoverable between the capabilities of the landscape within a circle of ten miles’ radius, or the limits of an afternoon walk, and the threescore years and ten of a human life. It will never become quite familiar to you. (42)

That experience of space, as Thoreau’s Dahomey simile suggests, is related to processes of colonialism and empire, and yet, there is also something strangely local and perhaps almost domestic in the suggestion that seeing a previously unnoticed farmhouse is “as good as” African exploration. There is a sense here that Thoreau’s neighbourhood is so rich that he will never finish discovering new things in it—although, as Emerson suggests in his biographical sketch, those new things are more likely to be plants or birds than farmhouses (22-25). 

Indeed, Thoreau suggests his movements during a walk are like those of “the fox and the mink”: he moves “first along by the river, and then the brook, and then the meadow and the wood-side,” through a territory without human inhabitants. The animal imagery in this paragraph is applied to other aspects of “civilization and the abodes of man” as a way of minimizing their impact on the land: 

The farmers and their works are scarcely more obvious than woodchucks and their burrows. Man and his affairs, church and state and school, trade and commerce, and manufactures and agriculture, even politics, the most alarming of them all,—I am pleased to see how little space they occupy in the landscape. (43)

That what must have been a densely populated part of the United States could afford so much space without signs of human activity is a wonder, and perhaps Thoreau is exaggerating his experience. 

Or perhaps Thoreau sees few signs of human activity because he avoids travelling on roads:

Some do not walk at all; others walk in the highways; a few walk across lots. Roads are made for horses and men of business. I do not travel in them much, comparatively, because I am not in a hurry to get to any tavern or grocery or livery-stable or depot to which they lead. I am a good horse to travel, but not from choice a roadster. (44)

He is clearly one of those who “walk across lots,” and of no use to the “landscape-painter” who “uses the figures of men to mark a road”; that artist would not be able to use Thoreau’s figure because he is elsewhere (44). Walking “across lots” is a way to “walk out into a Nature such as the old prophets and poets, Menu, Moses, Homer, Chaucer, walked in” (44). That territory is not America, nor was it discovered by Columbus: “There is a truer account of it in mythology than in any history of America, so called, that I have seen” (45). The only roads Thoreau likes are those that “are nearly discontinued,” and he includes a poem about one of those, “The Old Marlborough Road,” in his text. 

Thoreau notes that most of the land in his vicinity is not private property, and so “the walker enjoys comparative freedom” (47). However, he imagines a very different future:

possibly the day will come when it will be partitioned off into so-called pleasure-grounds, in which a few will take a narrow and exclusive pleasure only,—when fences shall be multiplied, and man-traps and other engines invented to confine men to the public road, and walking over the surface of God’s earth shall be construed to mean trespassing on some gentleman’s grounds. To enjoy a thing exclusively is commonly to exclude yourself from the true enjoyment of it. Let us improve our opportunities, then, before the evil days come. (47-48)

Those days, as Ken Ilgunas and Matthew Anderson have pointed out, have arrived all over North America.

At this point, Thoreau begins shifting away from thinking about walking to thinking about nature, which for him primarily exists in the west—an expression of an American frontier thesis, I think, although he also makes arguments rooted in mythology (the importance of the setting sun) to defend his preference for that direction. The west is the direction of “the wilderness,” and he suggests that when he leaves the city, he is “withdrawing into the wilderness” (50). That is the American tendency, he suggests: “I must walk toward Oregon, and not toward Europe. And that way the nation is moving, and I may say that mankind progress[es] from east to west” (50). Here he rejects history and “the old World and its institutions” (51) in preference to the west, the territory of the sun, “the Great Western Pioneer whom the nations follow” (52). Others who “felt the westward tendency” include Columbus and the “man of the Old World” who travelled from Asia into Europe, with “[e]ach of his steps . . . marked by a new civilization superior to the preceding, by a greater power of development,” until he crosses the Atlantic Ocean and resumes his westward movement (52-53). He suggests that the climate in the United States may enable “man [to] grow to greater perfection intellectually as well as physically” under its influences—that, in fact, the North American landscape will create a new kind of human:

I trust that we shall be more imaginative, that our thoughts will be clearer, fresher, and more ethereal, as our sky,—our understanding more comprehensive and broader, like our plains,—our intellect generally on a grander scale, like our thunder and lightning, our rivers and mountains and forests,—and our hearts shall even correspond in breadth and depth and grandeur to our inland seas. (55-56)

I was surprised to read such an evocation to American exceptionalism in Thoreau, given that he refused to pay taxes in part because they supported a state that allowed human slavery, but he was of his time, as we all are, and he had a lecture audience to please.

There’s another reason for this apotheosis of the west in Thoreau’s discourse: “The West of which I speak is but another name for the Wild; and what I have been preparing to say is, that in Wildness is the preservation of the World” (57). “Give me a wildness whose glance no civilization can endure,” he writes (58). He notes that according to “[t]he African hunter Cummings” the skin of the eland “emits the most delicious perfume of trees and grass,” and he would like “every man” to be “so much a part and parcel of Nature, that his very person should thus sweetly advertise our senses of his presence, and remind us of those parts of Nature which he most haunts” (58-59). That odour would be preferable to “that which commonly exhales from the merchant’s or the scholar’s garments,” which is a smell “of dusty merchant’s exchanges and libraries” (59). “Life consists with wildness,” he contends. “The most alive is the wildest. Not yet subdued to man, its presence refreshes him. . . . Hope and the future for me are not in lawns and cultivated fields, not in towns and cities, but in the impervious and quaking swamps”—the wildest place, it seems, that Thoreau can imagine (60). “Give me the ocean, the desert or the wilderness!” he exclaims (61)—places, like the swamp, that are dreary (because they are frightening to civilized humans, or because they don’t conform to codes of visual beauty). And yet, the American economy depends on agriculture, which requires draining swamps (63-64). “The weapons with which he have gained our most important victories, which should be handed down as heirlooms from father to son, are not the sword and the lance,” he argues, “but the bushwhack, the turf-cutter, the spade, and the bog-hoe, rusted with the blood of many a meadow, and begrimed with the dust of many a hard-fought field” (64). 

“In Literature it is only the wild that attracts us,” Thoreau continues, suggesting that “it is the uncivilized free and wild thinking in ‘Hamlet’ and the “Iliad,’ in all the Scriptures and Mythologies, not learned in the schools, that delights us,” in the way that a wild duck “is more swift and beautiful than the tame” (64). He wonders where “the literature which gives expression to Nature” is (65):

He would be a poet who could impress the winds and streams into his service, to speak for him; who nailed words to their primitive senses, as farmers drive down stakes in the spring, which the frost has heaved; who derived his words as often as he used them,—transplanted them to his page with earth adhering to their roots; whose words were so true and fresh and natural that they would appear to expand like the buds at the approach of spring, though they lay half-smothered between two musty leaves in a library,—ay, to bloom and bear fruit there, after their kind, annually, for the faithful reader, in sympathy with surrounding Nature. (65-66)

Strangely, though, this evocation of “the literature which gives expression to Nature” is premised on figures of human domination of nature, particularly through agriculture. Would that literature necessarily be a hybrid between the human and the natural? In any case, it doesn’t exist: 

I do not know of any poetry to quote which adequately expresses this yearning for the Wild. Approached from this side, the best poetry is tame. I do not know where to find in any literature, ancient or modern, any account which contents me of that Nature with which even I am acquainted. (66)

The literature that comes closest seems to be Greek mythology, “the crop which the Old World bore before its soil was exhausted, before the fancy and imagination were affected with blight; and which it still bears, wherever its pristine vigor is unabated” (66).

“In short,” Thoreau continues, “all good things are wild and free”:

There is something in a strain of music, whether produced by an instrument or by the human voice,—take the sound of a bugle in a summer night, for instance,—which by its wildness, to speak without satire, reminds me of the cries emitted by wild beasts in their native forests. It is so much of their wildness as I can understand. Give me for my friends and neighbors wild men, not tame ones. The wildness of the savage is but a faint symbol of the awful ferity with which good men and lovers meet. (67-68)

The influence of Rousseau on Thoreau is obvious here. “Undoubtedly, all men are not equally fit subjects for civilization,” he writes, and just because some can be tamed, “this is no reason why the others should have their natures broken that they may be reduced to the same level” (69). Nature, he writes, is “this vast, savage, howling mother of ours,” and she possesses “such affection for her children, as the leopard; and yet we are so early weaned from her breast to society, to that culture which is exclusively an interaction of man on man” (71). It would be better, he continues, that “every man nor every part of a man” should be “cultivated, any more than I would have every acre of earth cultivated”: the greater part of the earth should remain “meadow and forest, not only serving an immediate use, but preparing a mould against a distant future, by the annual decay of the vegetation which it supports” (72). 

Thoreau then critiques the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, suggesting that a Society for the Diffusion of Useful Ignorance or “what we will call Beautiful Ignorance” would be more useful “in a higher sense,” because what is called knowledge is “often our positive ignorance, ignorance in our negative knowledge” (73). “A man’s ignorance sometimes is not only useful, but beautiful,—while his knowledge, so called, is oftentimes worse than useless, besides being ugly,” he argues. “Which is the best man to deal with,—he who knows nothing about a subject, and, what is extremely rare, knows that he knows nothing, or he who really knows something about it, but thinks that he knows all?” (74). That question suggests that Thoreau was a pioneer in the study of the Dunning-Kruger effect.

“My desire for knowledge is intermittent; but my desire to bathe my head in atmospheres unknown to my feet is perennial and constant,” Thoreau continues—a strange thing for someone interested in walking to say, it seems to me. “The highest that we can attain to is not Knowledge, but Sympathy with Intelligence,” he writes:

I do not know that this higher knowledge amounts to anything more definite than a novel and grand surprise on a sudden revelation of the insufficiency of all that we called Knowledge before,—a discovery that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in our philosophy. It is the lighting up of the mist by the sun. (74)

The insistence on “sudden revelation” and on something beyond knowledge suggests something about Thoreau’s Romantic predisposition, I think.

Thoreau suggests that “almost all men feel an attraction drawing them to society,” but “few are attracted strongly to Nature” (76). For that reason, he considers most men “lower than the animals,” because they are incapable of appreciating “the beauty of the landscape” (76). “For my part,” he continues,

I feel that with regard to Nature I live a sort of border life, on the confines of a world into which I make occasional and transional and transient forays only, and my patriotism and allegiance to the State into whose territories I seem to retreat are those of a moss-trooper. Unto a life which I call natural I would gladly follow even a will-o’-the-wisp through bogs and sloughs unimaginable, but no moon nor fire-fly has shown me the causeway to it. Nature is a personality so vast and universal that we have never seen one of her features. (76)

At this point, he suddenly returns, in the middle of the paragraph, to walking:

The walker in the familiar fields which stretch around my native town sometimes finds himself in another land than is described in their owners’ deeds, as if it were in some far-away field on the confines of the actual Concord, where her jurisdiction ceases, and the idea which the word Concord suggests ceases to be suggested. (77)

What is that other land? Where did the reality described in the property deeds he refers to go? He gives an example:

I took a walk on Spaulding’s Farm the other afternoon. I saw the setting sun lighting up the opposite side of a stately pine wood. Its golden rays straggled into the aisles of the wood as into some noble hall. I was impressed as if some ancient and altogether admirable and shining family had settled there in that part of the land called Concord, unknown to me,—to whom the sun was servant,—who had not gone into society in the village,—who had not been called on. I saw their park, their pleasure-ground, beyond through the wood, in Spaulding’s cranberry-meadow. The pines furnished them with gables as they grew. Their house was not obvious, to vision; the trees grew through it. I do not know whether I heard the sounds of a suppressed hilarity or not. They seemed to recline on the sunbeams. They have sons and daughters. They are quite well. The farmer’s cart-path, which leads directly through their hall, does not in the least put them out,—as the muddy bottom of a pool is sometimes seen through the reflected skies. They never heard of Spaulding, and do not know that he is their neighbor,—notwithstanding that I heard him whistle as he drove his team through the house. Nothing can equal the serenity of their lives. Their coat of arms is simply a lichen. I saw it painted on the pines and oaks. Their attics were in the tops of the trees. They are of no politics. There was no noise of labor. I did not perceive that they were weaving or spinning. Yet I did detect, when the wind lulled and hearing was done away, the finest imaginable sweet musical hum,—as of a distant hive in May, which perchance was the sound of their thinking. They had no idle thoughts, and no one without could see their work, for their industry was not as in knots and excrescences embayed. (78)

Why does Thoreau imagine that the forest is the home of this family? Is that family a metaphor for the ecosystem of Spaulding’s farm? Or is he recording some mystical vision experienced while walking there? I don’t know. He states that he finds it hard to remember that family: “They fade irrevocably out of my mind even now while I speak and endeavor to recall them, and recollect myself” (78). Regardless, he concludes that “[i]f it were not for such families as this, I think I should move out of Concord” (78). Perhaps that family is a way of giving shape to the thoughts he has while walking. He suggests that “few and fewer thoughts visit each growing man from year to year, for the grove in our minds is laid waste,—sold to feed unnecessary fires of ambition, or sent to mill, and there is scarcely a twig left for them to breed on” (79).

“We hug the earth,—how rarely we mount! Methinks we might elevate ourselves a little more” (79). Those words lead into a literal description of climbing a tall white pine, which leads Thoreau to “discover new mountains on the horizon” which he had never seen before (79). At the top of the tree, he saw “the fertile flower of the white pine looking heavenward,” which he picked and took to show the villagers (80). “[N]ot one had ever seen the like before,” he writes, “but they wondered as at a star dropped down” (80). The moral of this fable seems to be the importance of attending to the natural world, but even more, the importance of allowing ourselves, or our imaginations, to soar.

“Above all, we cannot afford not to live in the present,” Thoreau writes. The past is without interest. “Unless our philosophy hears the cock crow in every barn-yard within our horizon, it is belated,” he continues, suggesting again the importance of attending to what is around us. That rooster’s philosophy, Thoreau states, “comes down to a more recent time than ours,” because he rises early and is “in the foremost rank of time” (80-81). The rooster’s crow “is an expression of the health and soundness of Nature, a brag for all the world,—healthiness as of a spring burst forth, a new fountain of the Muses, to celebrate this last instant of time. Where he lives no fugitive slave laws are past. Who has not betrayed his master many times since last he heard that note?” (81). So many things are combined in this description—Peter’s betrayal of Christ, the controversy over fugitive slave laws (with which Thoreau was concerned), “a new fountain of the Muses,” and I find it hard to understand how paying attention to the present moment brings all of them together. But “[t]he merit of this bird’s strain”—and, remember, he is still talking about attending to the present—“is in its freedom from plaintiveness,” its “pure morning joy” (81). When Thoreau hears a rooster crow, he states, “I think to myself, ‘There is one of us well, at any rate,’—and with a sudden gush return to my senses” (81). 

The next paragraph provides an example of attending to the senses while walking, and that example becomes what can only be described as an epiphany:

We had a remarkable sunset one day last November. I was walking in a meadow, the source of a small brook, when the sun at last, just before setting, after a cold gray day, reached a clear stratum in the horizon, and the softest, brightest morning sunlight fell on the dry grass and on the stems of the trees in the opposite horizon, and on the leaves of the shrub-oaks on the hill-side, while our shadows stretched long over the meadow eastward, as if we were the only motes in its beams. It was such a light as we could not have imagined a moment before, and the air also was so warm and serene that nothing was wanting to make a paradise of that meadow. (81-82)

This is an experience of paradoxes: warm air on a cold day, a sunrise at sunset, a slumbering meadow (it’s November, after all, and winter is quickly approaching) becoming “a paradise.” More importantly, Thoreau continues, “[w]hen we reflected that this was not a solitary phenomenon, never to happen again, but that it would happen forever and ever on an infinite number of evenings, and cheer and reassure the latest child that walked there, it was more glorious still” (82). How can that be? How can such a singular event be infinite? It seems impossible, but Thoreau is certain that it’s the case, even though it is, for him, clearly a special and unique experience: 

We walked in so pure and bright a light, gilding the withered grass and leaves, so softly and serenely bright, I thought I had never bathed in such a golden flood, without a ripple or a murmur to it. The west side of every wood and rising ground gleamed like the boundary of Elysium, and the sun on our backs seemed like a gentle herdsman driving us home at evening. (82)

This is the approach to the Holy Land, he suggests, returning to the place where he began:

So we saunter toward the Holy Land, till one day the sun shall shine more brightly than ever he has done, shall perchance shine into our minds and and light up our whole lives with a great awakening light, as warm and serene and golden as on a bank-side in autumn. (82)

Enlightenment is possible, it seems, if we walk long enough, and far enough, and it will take the form of the “great awakening light” of the sun.

Thoreau’s optimism at the end of the lecture is something of a surprise, given the discouragement he sometimes expresses, but it’s clear that for him walking is more than a way to experience nature—it is a path towards some kind of enlightenment. I was also surprised by the lecture’s circularity, but the way it circles back to the etymologies with which it began. In a way, I think the key to Walking is Thoreau’s brief introduction, where he suggests that he’s not interested in humans as social creatures, but as “part and parcel of Nature” (35). If that’s his starting point, then it’s not surprising that our enlightenment will be natural, experienced by walking in the sunshine. And if that’s his starting point, criticizing him for (jokingly, I suspect) suggesting that walkers need to abandon their friends and families misses the point. For Thoreau, those social and familial ties are unimportant; what is important is one’s experience of nature. He might well be wrong about that—and I think he is—but that suggestion is consistent with the rest of his argument. In the end, Thoreau was what he was–a nineteenth-century Romantic–and we can only take what we can from this odd text.

Works Cited

Anderson, Matthew Robert. “Why Canadians Need the ‘Right to Roam.’” The Conversation, 29 July 2018, https://theconversation.com/why-canadians-need-the-right-to-roam-100497.

Heddon, Deirdre, and Cathy Turner. “Walking Women: Shifting the Tales and Scales of Mobility.” Contemporary Theatre Review, vol. 22, no. 2, 2012, pp. 224-36.

Ilgunas, Ken. This Land Is Our Land: How We Lost the Right to Roam and How to Get It Back, Plume, 2018.

Thoreau, Henry David. Walking, 1863, Watchmaker 2010.

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

48. Tim Ingold, “The Temporality of the Landscape”

ingold temporality of the landscape

I decided to read Tim Ingold’s essay “The Temporality of the Landscape” for two reasons. First, Doreen Massey mentioned it as an example of thinking about space and temporality, and second, in my experience, I’ve always found that Ingold has interesting things to say. It’s an odd essay, though, and while I don’t agree with everything in it, I think it’s a valuable example of phenomenological thinking about space and place.

Ingold begins by stressing what he sees as two central themes in both archaeology and anthropology:

First, human life is a process that involves the passage of time. Second, this life-process is also the process of formation of the landscapes in which people have lived. Time and landscape, then, are to my mind the essential points of topical contact between archaeology and anthropology. (152)

That contact between archaeology and anthropology is really the thing Ingold is interested in exploring. He states that his purpose in writing this essay is

to bring the perspectives of archaeology and anthropology into unison through a focus on the temporality of the landscape. . . . such a focus might enable us to move beyond the sterile opposition between the naturalistic view of the landscape as a neutral, external backdrop to human activities, and the culturalistic view that every landscape is a particular cognitive or symbolic ordering of space. (152)

Rather than those oppositions, Ingold argues that we need to adopt what he calls “a ‘dwelling perspective,’ according to which the landscape is constituted as an enduring record of—and testimony to—the lives and works of past generations who have dwelt within it, and in so doing, have left something of themselves” (152). That perspective is what connects archaeology and anthropology together; anthropology, he suggests, is about “knowledge born of immediate experience,” but archaeology isn’t knowledge about people who are now dead; “the practice of archaeology is itself a form of dwelling” (152). The use of the word “dwelling” suggests that Ingold’s argument is based in Martin Heidegger’s essay “Building Dwelling Thinking,” which he cites halfway through this essay (162). I really would have to re-read “Building Dwelling Thinking” if I wanted to get the most out of Ingold’s essay. 

According to Ingold, for both anthropology (knowledge provided by “the native dweller”) and archaeology,

the landscape tells—or rather is—a story. It enfolds the lives and times of predecessors who, over the generations, have moved around on it and played their part in its formation. To perceive the landscape is therefore to carry out an act of remembrance, and remembering is not so much a matter of calling up an internal image, stored in the mind, as of engaging perceptually with an environment that is itself pregnant with the past. (152-53)

The methods used by archaeologists and anthropologists are different, as are the stories they tell, but “they are engaged in projects of fundamentally the same kind” (153). He gives, as an example, an imagined experienced hunter, who knows about the land and has learned about it through experience and being taught. If asked to communicate this knowledge (by an anthropologist), that hunter may do so in the form of stories. Such stories would be different from the anthropologist’s site report, Ingold notes, but

we should resist the temptation to assume that since stories are stories they are, in some sense, unreal or untrue, for this is to suppose that the only real reality, or true truth, is on in which we, as living, experiencing beings, can have no part at all. Telling a story is not like weaving a tapestry to cover up the world, it is rather a way of guiding the attention of listeners or readers into it. A person who can “tell” is one who is perceptually attuned to picking up information in the environment that others, less skilled in the tasks of perception, might miss, and the teller, in rendering his knowledge explicit, conducts the attention of his audience along the same paths as his own. (153)

I might not be interested in the relationship between archaeology and anthropology, but I am interested in stories as the result of being perceptually attuned to an environment, and so, despite the disciplinary framework of Ingold’s essay, I decided to keep reading.

Ingold notes that his essay is divided into four parts. The first is a defence of his use of the term “landscape.” Landscape, he suggests, is not “land,” or “nature,” or “space” (153). The term “land,” he argues, “is a kind of lowest common denominator of the phenomenal world, inherent in every portion of the earth’s surface yet directly visible in none” (153). We can ask how much land there is, he contends, but not what that land is like (153-54). “But where land is thus quantitative and homogenous,” he continues, “the landscape is qualitative and heterogenous” (154). Landscape is what we see all around us; it is “a contoured and textured surface replete with diverse objects—living and non-living, natural and artificial” (154). “Thus,” he writes, “at any particular moment, you can ask of a landscape what it is like, but not how much of it there is” (154). 

Nor is landscape “nature.” For Ingold, “nature” is a concept “whose ontological foundation is an imagined separation between the human perceiver and the world, such that the perceiver has to reconstruct the world, in consciousness, prior to any meaningful engagement with it” (154). That separation between humans and the natural world suggests that it is “out there,” while we are “in here,” “in the intersubjective space marked out by our mental representations” (154). That dualism, he contends, leads to a conception of nature as a cultural image, a pictorial way of representing one’s surroundings—a division between inner and outer worlds that Ingold rejects: “The landscape, I hold, is not a picture in the imagination, surveyed by the mind’s eye; nor, however, is it an alien and formless substrate awaiting the imposition of human order” (154). Landscape, he continues, is not identical to nature; nor is it “on the side of humanity against nature” (154). “As the familiar domain of our dwelling,” Ingold writes, landscape “is with us, not against us, but it is no less real for that. And through living in it, the landscape becomes a part of us, just as we are a part of it. Moreover, what goes for its human component goes for other components as well”—in a landscape, that is, “each component enfolds within its essence the totality of its relations with each and every other” (154). 

Landscape isn’t space, either:  “To appreciate the contrast, we could compare the everyday project of dwelling in the world with the rather peculiar and specialized project of the surveyor or cartographer whose objective is to represent it” (154). Space, then, for Ingold, is the result of the surveyor’s measurements, which “produce a single picture which is independent of any point of observation” (154-55). In other words, space is a particular form of representation. However, Ingold shifts from a discussion of space to one of place over the course of a complicated analogy between what geographers and anthropologists mean by space, and Ferdinand de Saussure’s claim that there is a homologous relation between thought and sound (155). “Just as the word, for Saussure, is the union of a concept with a delimited ‘chunk’ of sound,” Ingold writes, “so the place is the union of a symbolic meaning with a delimited block of the earth’s surface” (155). Place is associated with landscape in this argument, rather than with space. In its relation to place, landscape is different from space:

For a place in the landscape is not “cut out” from the whole, either on the plane of ideas or on that of material substance. Rather, each place embodies the whole at a particular nexus within it, and in this respect is different from every other. A place owes its character to the experiences it affords to those who spend time there—to the sights, sounds and indeed smells that constitute its particular ambience. And these, in turn, depend on the kinds of activities in which its inhabitants engage. It is from this relational context of people’s engagement with the world, in the business of dwelling, that each place draws its unique significance. Thus whereas with space, meanings are attached to the world, with the landscape they are gathered from it. (155)

In addition, “while places have centres—indeed it would be more appropriate to say that they are centres—they have no boundaries” (155-56), a suggestion that seems to contradict Ingold’s earlier assertion that places are delimited. No feature of the landscape is, of itself, a boundary: “It can only become a boundary, or the indicator of a boundary, in relation to the activities of the people (or animals) for whom it is recognized or experienced as such” (156). “In short,” he continues, “the landscape is the world as it is known to those who dwell therein, who inhabit is places and journey along the paths connecting them” (156).

Ingold’s suggestion that a place is a nexus reminds me of Massey’s suggestion that places are “the foci of the meeting and the nonmeeting of the previously unrelated” (71), but I think his sense of place is much closer to Yi-Fu Tuan’s than Massey’s, since he is suggesting that place is the product of a phenomenological or sensory engagement with the world, and that it is also the result of the activities of its inhabitants. Place, for Ingold, is what is known and experienced, I think, rather than, as for Massey, a location of coherence in identity formation (71). It is difficult to bring together writers working from such variant intellectual starting points, and should I try to bring Tuan and Massey together, I think I’ll discover that such a rapprochement is nearly impossible. I’m still convinced that Tuan and Massey, or for that matter Ingold and Massey, do have points of connection regarding place, but making that argument is going to be hard.

Landscape isn’t environment, either, according to Ingold. An environment is an organized system of dynamic functioning (156)—like an ecosystem—while landscape, in contrast,

puts the emphasis on form, in just the same way that the concept of the body emphasizes the form rather than the function of a living creature. Like organism and environment, body and landscape are complementary terms: each implies the other, alternately as figure and ground. The forms of the landscape are not, however, prepared in advance for creatures to occupy, nor are the bodily forms of those creatures independently sustained in and through the processual unfolding of a total field of relations that cuts across the emergent interface between organism and environment. (156)

The notion of a “processual unfolding of a total field of relations” suggests the ways that the inhabitants of a landscape, both human and nonhuman, play a role in constructing the forms of a given landscape. Landscape is about processes and relations which shape that landscape.

It doesn’t really matter to me that Ingold prefers the term “landscape” over nature or environment or land or space, but I would rather avoid it, for several reasons. I recall that, years ago, reading about landscape in course I was taking on the sublime at York University, I read an essay that argued that landscape is a visual and aesthetic term, typically modified by adjectives like “sublime” or “picturesque.” Ingold’s ekphrastic recourse to Pieter Brughel the Elder’s 1565 painting The Harvesters in the fourth section of his essay suggests, ironically, the connection between the term “landscape” and aesthetic representation. I prefer to use the term “land,” partly because that’s the term I’ve heard Indigenous people use to describe their relation to the territory where they live and work. I don’t accept Ingold’s argument that the word “land” is necessarily “quantitative and homogenous” (154); there’s no reason to assume that it cannot be “qualitative and heterogenous,” terms he applies to “landscape” (154). I understand why he avoids “nature,” a term that is a cultural category, an imagined space free of human activity—a definition that has led to Indigenous people being forced off their land to make way for national parks in this country. 

The term “environment” leads Ingold to think about life-cycles, and he wonders whether it might not be possible “to identify a corresponding cycle, or rather a series of interlocking cycles, which build themselves into the forms of the landscape, and of which the landscape may accordingly be regarded as an environment” (157). Before he can answer that question, he suggests, it’s necessary to define temporality (157). I suppose that’s because the existence of such “interlocking cycles” suggests things happening in the landscape over time. Temporality is not chronology or history; it is not “a regular system of dated time intervals, in which events are said to have taken place” (chronology), nor “any series of events which may be dated in time according to their occurrence in one or another chronological interval” (history) (157). Rather, according to Ingold, “temporality entails a perspective that contrasts radically with the one . . . that sets up history and chronology in a relation of complementary opposition” (157). Temporality is about “time immanent in the passage of events,” events which encompass patterns of “retensions from the past and protentions for the future” (157). I remember a course I took at the University of Ottawa about the connection between temporality and literary texts, and the idea that the present involves both memories of the past and anticipations of the future, an idea derived from Heidegger, has stayed with me. History and chronology, unlike temporality, treat events “as isolated happenings, succeeding one another frame by frame,” events which are “strung out in time like beads on a thread” (157). However, “temporality and historicity are not opposed but rather merge in the experience of those who, in their activities, carry forward the process of social life,” Ingold contends. “Taken together, these activities make up what I shall call the ‘taskscape’” (157). 

The taskscape is inherently temporal, and Ingold sets out to distinguish task from labour as a way of clarifying what he means by taskscape. The distinction is not unlike the one he drew between land and landscape; “labour is quantitative and homogenous, human work shorn of its particularities,” whereas tasks are “the practices of work in their concrete particulars” (158). Tasks are, he continues, “any practical operation, carried out by a skilled agent in an environment, as part of his or her normal business of life. In other words, tasks are the constitutive acts of dwelling” (158). Tasks are not, however, individualized, or suspended in a vacuum, any more than features in a landscape are: “Every task takes its meaning from its position within an ensemble of tasks, performed in series or in parallel, and usually by many people working together” (158). The taskscape, then, is inherently “qualitative and heterogenous,” as well as social (158-59). Participants in the taskscape perceive its temporality as they perform their tasks, Ingold argues. “The notion that we can stand aside and observe the passage of time is founded upon an illusion of disembodiment” (159). The taskscape, then, must be embodied, but that embodiment involves both past and present—in other words, it is temporal:

Reaching out into the taskscape, I perceive, at this moment, a particular vista of past and future; but it is a vista that is available from this moment and no other. As such, it constitutes my present, conferring upon it a unique character. Thus the present is not marked off from a past that it has replaced or a future that will, in turn, replace it; it rather gathers the past and future into itself, like refractions in a crystal ball. (159)  

“The temporality of the taskscape is social, then,” Ingold continues, “not because society provides an external frame against which particular tasks find independent measure, but because people, in the performance of their tasks, also attend to one another” (159-60).

For Ingold, “music mirrors the temporal form of the taskscape”: orchestral musicians play their instruments, attend to the conductor, and listen to the other players, all at the same time. These activities are inseparable parts of the same action (160). And music, he continues, is simpler than social life, in which “there is not just one rhythmic cycle, but a complex interweaving of very many concurrent cycles” (160). Therefore, “the forms of the taskscape, like those of music, come into being through movement” (160). Just like music, which only exists as it is being performed, the taskscape only exists “so long as people are actually engaged in the activities of dwelling” (160). But if landscape and taskscape are not to be opposed, the way nature is to culture, how are they related? How can we distinguish between them?

To answer these questions, Ingold turns to another art form: painting. Painting, he claims, is the “most natural medium for representing the forms of the landscape” (161). The work of creating a painting is subordinated to the final product, the painting itself, because (at least in Western cultures) painting is not performed; therefore, the painting itself becomes the only object of contemplation, with the labour of creating the painting hidden (161). For Ingold, a painting, like a landscape, is not given to us, “ready-made”: the landscape, he argues, is a living process, making and being made by human activity:

the landscape takes on its forms through a process of incorporation, not of inscription. That is to say, the process is not one whereby cultural design is imposed upon a naturally given substrate, as though the movement issued from the form and was completed in its concrete realization in the material. For the forms of the landscape arise alongside those of the taskscape, within the same current of activity. If we recognize a man’s gait in the pattern of his footprints, it is not because the gait preceded the footprints and was “inscribed” in them, but because both the gait and the prints arose within the movement of the man’s walking. (162)

Because “the activities that comprise the taskscape are unending, the landscape is never complete: neither ‘built’ nor ‘unbuilt,’ it is perpetually under construction” (162). This notion of the landscape as a work-in-progress is the reason why the “conventional dichotomy between natural and artificial (or ‘man-made’) components of the landscape is so problematic”:

Virtually by definition, an artefact is an object shaped to a pre-conceived image that motivated its construction, and it is “finished” at the point when it is brought into conformity with this image. . . . But the forms of the landscape are not pre-prepared for people to live in—not by nature nor by human hands—for it is in the very process of dwelling that these forms are constituted. (162)

This claim is interesting, but surely we can distinguish between, say, biological components of a landscape (in this province, the presence of a grassland or a forest) or geological components of a landscape (hills, valleys, glacial erratics, different soil types) and components that are clearly the result of human activity (from tipi rings and medicine wheels to fences and buildings and pumpjacks and cell towers). That doesn’t mean I’m not aware of the way that biological components of a landscape are shaped by human activity—by the use of fire by Indigenous people, for example, to clear undergrowth in a forest or to renew a grassland—but it seems to me, particularly as human activity (suggested by the word Anthropocene) is destroying the biological components of the landscape, such as birds or grasslands, that we live alongside, we need to see the difference between our activity and the activity (or even work) of the nonhuman world.

The taskscape, Ingold continues, “exists not just as activity but as interactivity,” because it “must be populated with beings who are themselves agents, and who reciprocally ‘act back’ in the process of their own dwelling” (163). This interactivity involves both humans and animals (163). It also involves what we might consider inanimate forces, because we resonate to cycles of tides, of light and dark, of vegetative growth and decay, and of seasons, resonances which are embodied, “in the sense that they are not only historically incorporated into the enduring features of the landscape but also developmentally incorporated into our very constitution as biological organisms” (163). “It would seem, then,” Ingold writes, “that the pattern of resonances that comprises the temporality of the taskscape must be expanded to embrace the totality of rhythmic phenomena, whether animate or inanimate” (163-64). If we think of the world “as a total movement of becoming which builds itself into the forms we see, and in which each form takes shape in continuous relation to those around it,” he continues, “then the distinction between the animate and the inanimate seems to dissolve,” and the world takes on the characteristics of an organism itself (164). “This means that in dwelling in the world, we do not act upon it, or do things to it,” Ingold contends; “rather we move along with it. Our actions do not transform the world, they are part and parcel of the world’s transforming itself. And that is just another way of saying that they belong in time” (164). Again, I’m not sure how, in a context where human activity is reshaping the planet—by, among other things, driving at least a million other species to extinction—that anyone could argue we aren’t doing things to the world. We are changing its climate, for instance. Okay, I can see how Ingold is arguing that our activity is not separate from the activity of other species, but really, our effect on the planet is so outsized, compared to other species, that it is different—if not in kind, then in impact. I mean, isn’t there a big difference between a tipi ring and a tar sands tailings pond?

“[I]n the final analysis,” Ingold writes, “everything is suspended in movement”: “What appear to use as the fixed forms of the landscape, passive and unchanging unless acted upon from outside, are themselves in motion, albeit on a scale immeasurably slower and more majestic than that on which our own activities are constructed” (164). This is a point of contact between Ingold and Massey; both emphasize the importance of geological time, glacial activity, continental drift, and erosion. “[T]he rhythmic pattern of human activities nests within the wider pattern of activity for all animal life,” Ingold continues, “which in turn nests within the pattern of activity for all so-called living things, which nests within the life-processes of the world” (164). If we place “the tasks of human dwelling in their proper context within the process of becoming of the world as a whole,” he suggests, “we can do away with the dichotomy between taskscape and landscape—only, however, by recognizing the fundamental temporality of the landscape itself” (164). This statement may be the reason Massey cited this article, given her insistence on the temporality of space. It would be interesting, though, to see how she would respond to Ingold’s choice of “landscape” over “space.” 

Having defined landscape and taskspace, and having used the notion of temporality to construct a relation between them, Ingold now moves on to his conclusion, an ekphrastic discussion of Brueghel’s The Harvesters. He invites his readers to imagine themselves in the landscape depicted in the painting, watching and listening to the scene unfolding (164-66). This section of the essay is odd, but there are parts that I find useful. For instance, Ingold argues that the division between hill and valley is “not spatial or altitudinal but kinaesthetic”:

It is the movements of falling away from, and rising up towards, that specify the form of the hill; and the movements of falling away towards, and rising up from, that specify the form of the valley. Through the exercises of descending and climbing, and their different muscular entailments, the contours of the landscape are not so much measured as felt—they are directly incorporated into our bodily experience. (166)

This is one of the arguments I would make about walking as a way of perceiving the land: it is a kinaesthetic perception, through the activity of our muscles and joints as we climb and descend, as we experience “the contours of the landscape” with our bodies. But even standing still, the same principle applies: our eyes move, or we tilt our heads in accord with our attention, as we follow its course through the landscape (166). He notes that we move through the landscape (typically) on paths and tracks, which are “the accumulated imprint of countless journeys that people have made . . . as they have gone about their everyday business,” imprints that reflect their “muscular consciousness,” as Gaston Bachelard would have it (there’s another book to read: The Poetics of Space). “In this network is sedimented the activity of an entire community, over many generations,” Ingold writes. “It is the taskscape made visible” (167). I wonder if my friend Matthew Anderson, who is so interested in historical paths in Saskatchewan, has read this article; he might find the notion that paths and trails are “the taskscape made visible” very suggestive. Ingold discusses the tree in the painting, and the field of wheat the harvesters are reaping, and the church in the background. Both the church and the tree are what Mikhail Bakhtin would call “chronotopes,” he suggests: places charged with temporality, where temporality “takes on palpable form” (169). Both the tree and the church are also subject to temporality through change: the tree grows, while the church is subject to processes of weathering and decomposition, of maintenance and repair (169-70). That is an example, I suppose, of the similarities (if not the lack of a distinction between) the natural and artificial in the landscape.

For Ingold, the landscape “is not a totality that you or anyone else can look at, it is rather the world in which we stand in taking up a point of view on our surroundings. And it is within the context of this attentive involvement in the landscape that the human imagination gets to work in fashioning ideas about it” (171). “Meaning,” he concludes,

is there to be discovered in the landscape, if only we know how to attend to it. Every feature, then, is a potential clue, a key to meaning rather than a vehicle for carrying it. This discovery procedure, wherein objects in the landscape become clues to meaning, is what distinguishes the perspective of dwelling. (172)

Since dwelling “is fundamentally temporal, the apprehension of the landscape in the dwelling perspective must begin from a recognition of its temporality,” he continues: 

Only through such recognition, by temporalizing the landscape, can we move beyond the division that has afflicted most inquiries up to now, between the ‘scientific’ study of an atemporalized nature, and the ‘humanistic’ study of a dematerialized history.  (172)

“And no discipline is better placed to take this step than archaeology,” which is, he concludes, the study of “the temporality of the landscape” (172).

As I said at the outset, I’m not interested in creating connections between archaeology and anthropology, and I wonder if archaeologists would accept Ingold’s definition of their field of inquiry as “the temporality of the landscape.” Nevertheless, “The Temporality of the Landscape” was worth reading, even though I disagree with aspects of its argument. I particularly like the phenomenological emphasis on attending to the land, and to one’s embodied experience of land by walking in it. I also like the way that Ingold arrives at the notion that the land is spatial and temporal, although he gets there through a very different intellectual trajectory than Massey. Who knows? I might end up returning to this essay in future writing about walking and about attending to the land. 

Works Cited

Heidegger, Martin. “Building Dwelling Thinking.” Poetry, Language, Thought.  Translated by Albert Hofstader, Harper, 2013, pp. 141-60.

Ingold, Tim. “The Temporality of the Landscape.” World Archaeology, vol. 25, no. 2, 1993, pp. 152-74.

Massey, Doreen. For Space. Sage, 2005.

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

47. Doreen Massey, For Space

for space

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For Massey, these propositions regarding space are important: 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This essentialist version of space

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is the event of place. (140)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is at issue in politics, she continues,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Works Cited

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

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

Massey, Doreen. For Space. Sage, 2005.

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

45. Nancy Louise Frey, Pilgrim Stories: On and Off the Road to Santiago

pilgrim stories

I’ve been surprised to learn, over the course of my reading in the last couple of weeks, that the Camino de Santiago is not considered a typical pilgrimage. Peter Jan Margry, for instance, argues that the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela “is not representative of mainstream pilgrimage culture,” and  “[i]t is therefore questionable whether, on the basis of this specific case, motion can be assumed to be the primary constitutive element of the pilgrimage as a universal phenomenon,” he suggests (26). For Margry, the point of pilgrimage is to be present at a sacred site, rather than in the movement (walking, usually, in the case of the pilgrimage to Santiago) towards that site, which would seem to exclude the Camino from his definition of pilgrimage (35-36). Not everyone would agree with Margry; Simon Coleman, for example, suggests that

The bodily and temporal modes involved in slow, effortful travel appear to subvert the rushing, mechanized world of the present, allowing space a kind of victory over time and helping to produce a sense of contact with the past. If the contemporary world appears to be about the compression of time and space, pilgrims to Compostela are entering a kind of sacred decompression chamber. (“From England’s Nazareth to Sweden’s Jerusalem” 66)

Ian Reader, for his part, acknowledges that in some pilgrimages, the focus is on the journey to the sacred site, rather than the sacred site itself (23-24), although he also notes that the way that many pilgrims no longer have religious motivations has led to accusations that it is turning into “a hiking route as much as a path of pilgrimage” (48). The question of the relationship between the Camino de Santiago and pilgrimage is an important one for me, because the pilgrimage to Santiago is the only one in which I have participated in a serious manner, and it it is outside the mainstream of pilgrimage, then clearly I have based my understanding of what pilgrimage is on a misunderstanding.

In hopes of resolving the question of how the Camino de Santiago is connected to the notion of pilgrimage, I turned to Nancy Louise Frey’s ethnographic account of pilgrims walking to Santiago, Pilgrim Stories: On and Off the Road to Santiago. Frey is clear at the beginning of her book that the pilgrimage to Santiago is complex, in terms of the motivations of its participants, and unusual in its emphasis on movement rather than being present at a sacred site. Frey writes,

When faced with the complexity of the contemporary Camino, the categories ‘pilgrimage’ and ‘pilgrim’ seem to lose meaning. Usually the words, especially in English, are associated with a religious journey, faith, or devout seekers. . . . Although the Santiago pilgrimage has a religious foundation based in Catholic doctrine regarding sin, its remission and salvation, in its contemporary permutation these religious elements endure, but they also share the same stage with transcendent spirituality, tourism, physical adventure, nostalgia, a place to grieve, and esoteric initiation. The Camino can be (among many other things) a union with nature, a vacation, an escape from the drudgery of the everyday, a spiritual path to the self and humankind, a social reunion, or a personal testing ground. It is “done” and “made” as a pilgrimage, but what does that mean now? The glue that holds these disparate elements together seems to be the shared journey, the Camino de Santiago. (4-5)

The emphasis on that “shared journey” is what separates the Camino from Marian pilgrimage centres in Europe, where the emphasis is on being at the sacred shrine:

The emphasis placed on the journey and how one reaches the shrine at Santiago struck me as marking an important difference between other popular western European pilgrimage centers such as Fátima in Portugal or Lourdes in France. With those other centers, whose devotion is centered on the Virgin Mary by a Catholic majority, the pilgrims’ essential ritual acts occur within the bounded sacred space of the shrine. The pilgrims’ mode of transport, or way of arriving, at the shrine is usually secondary or irrelevant. It surprised me that unlike the pilgrims at Fátima or Lourdes, these white, urban, European, middle-class men and women made the pilgrimage—from a week to a month—on foot, bicycle, and horse. Rather than a healing shrine of short-term visits, the contemporary Santiago pilgrimage is not confined to the city itself but consists of a long, physical and often internal (spiritual, personal, religious) journey. In many cases making the pilgrimage becomes for participants one of the most important experiences of their lives. Pilgrims want to feel and live the road step by step (or pedal after pedal). Non-Catholics, agnostics, atheists, and even seekers of esoteric knowledge go side by side with Catholics and Protestants.” (7)

Walking and cycling pilgrims, Frey notes, make up a minority of those who visit the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela, and many of those who travel by bus or plane or automobile are motivated by their religious faith and a desire to be near the relics of St. James (18). For example, during the 1993 Holy Year, only 100,000 out of the six to eight million visitors to Santiago de Compostela walked or cycled the required distances (100 kilometres for walkers, 200 kilometres for cyclists) to receive a Compostela on arrival (22). (Those distances were established arbitrarily by the Church in the 1980s, and they “represent an idea of pilgrimage based on suffering and sacrifice” [22].) The fact that most of those who visit the shrine to St. James in Santiago de Compostela do not walk or cycle would seem to suggest a similarity between the cathedral in Santiago and other Christian pilgrimage centres in Europe, but Frey points out further differences:

The majority of the Marian-centered shrines (Lourdes in France, Fátima in Portugal, and Medjugorje in Bosnia) are based on miracles or apparitions (Church-confirmed earthly visitations of the Virgin Mary to a seer or seers) that occurred after 1850. The pilgrimage to Santiago is based on a tradition said to reach back to the foundation of Christianity. (7-8)

The historical roots of the Santiago pilgrimage, Frey argues, are very important; those who walk or cycle to Santiago become “part of an informal society whose membership goes back a thousand years and includes such notables as Charlemagne, Saint Francis of Assisi, and King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain” (7). In any case, the Camino de Santiago has become known as a walking or cycling journey since the 1980s, rather than a straightforward visit to a shrine, despite the fact that most of those who visit the shrine use motorized travel of some kind.

Unlike Margry, Frey accepts the idea of secular and even metaphorical pilgrimages (15), and what interests her in the Camino de Santiago is the variety of motivations, opinions, and experiences of those who walk or cycle to Santiago to Compostela. “Walkers and cyclists see a world of difference between pilgrims who travel under their own power and those who use some other form of transport to get to Santiago,” she writes (18), noting that walkers and cyclists typically consider those who go by bus, for example, to be tourists rather than pilgrims because they “do not understand what it means to be connected to the road and . . . to go the ‘human speed’” (18). “Pilgrims use their bodies and the ways they move to make a statement about themselves and their society,” Frey contends. “One’s movements and ways of traveling the Camino contribute to its consecration or desecration as a sacred space. Cars and buses (in the walkers’ view) tarnish the essence of the road” (18). The “sacred space” of the Camino, for walkers and cyclists, is the path they take, rather than or along with the shrine to St. James represented by the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela.

There are subdivisions among pilgrims. Aside from the division between those who walk and those who cycle (which Frey discusses at length), there are also full-time, part-time, and weekend pilgrims (20). Full-time pilgrims, the majority, begin at one point on the route and travel to Santiago de Compostela without stopping (20). Part-time pilgrims make short-term trips, typically lasting one or two weeks, and it may therefore take them a number of years to get to Santiago. Usually part-time pilgrims are prevented by time constraints from making the continuous journey, although “some, believing that pilgrimage is a process that requires the passage of time to bear the fruit of insight, choose to make the journey in stages” (20). Weekend pilgrims—and this is a group I had never heard of before—“are usually members of associations dedicated to the pilgrimage and its routes which organize walking excursions on various Jacobean paths. A portion of the Camino is selected, and the participants drive or are bused to the starting point and then walk the section” (20). Arriving in Santiago de Compostela would not be an important motivation for weekend pilgrims.

Those who walk or cycle, and those who drive or are bused, rarely understand each others’ motivations, Frey writes:

Pilgrimage, like all human movement, is patterned according to societal norms, lifestyles, class values, fashion, and cultural ideals. The questions become how and why certain modes of transport are used, what they mean to those who use them, and who the people are who use them. 

Foot and cycle pilgrims tend to call those who go by bus and car tourists, and themselves, pilgrims. To be labeled a tourist is pejorative and to be avoided. . . . The term “pilgrimage” signifies a religious journey made out of faith or devotion. Bus and foot or bicycle pilgrims also make the journey for a wide assortment of religious, cultural, sport, and personal reasons. Among both groups there are individuals who go to Santiago for strictly religious reasons, but the vast majority have multiple reasons for getting to Santiago. Therefore, when bus pilgrims are labeled ‘tourists’ by foot or bicycle pilgrims it is not a pejorative statement about their motives but about their movement choices. Tourists, understood to be frivolous, superficial people, travel en masse by bus, car, or plane. Pilgrims, understood to be genuine, authentic, serious people, walk and cycle. (26-27)

The distinction between pilgrim and tourist, as Simon Coleman has pointed out, is complex (“Accidental Pilgrims” 72), but Frey is interested in the distinctions that foot and cycle pilgrims make, and they (as I did on the Camino) overwhelmingly reject out-of-hand any notion that pilgrims can take a bus all the way to Santiago de Compostela and still be considered peregrinos.  (The Spanish word for pilgrim is universally adopted, in my experence, by those who walk or cycle to Santiago de Compostela, and since it’s a lot less awkward than the circumlocutions I have been using, I’ll refer to walkers and cyclists as peregrinos from now on.) 

As Frey notes, the motivations of peregrinos are bound up in their choice of mode of transportation:

It is not just devotion (an instrumental purpose) that drives pilgrims to walk and cycle to Santiago, but in choosing to go in a nonmodern way pilgrims make statements (expressive and communicative purposes) about their society and their values. Broadly speaking, these values include an appreciation of nature and physical effort, a rejection of materialism, an interest in or a nostalgia for the past (especially the medieval), a search for inner meaning, an attraction to meaningful human relationships, and solitude. (27)

Unlike Margry, Frey acknowledges that the pilgrimage peregrinos make is not necessarily religious or sacred in nature:

Becoming a pilgrim to Santiago does not necessarily mean making a religious journey, but it does often signify for cyclists and walkers an inner and an outer journey, a means of finding transformation. Some pilgrims with to give their leisure time meaning, to take a much-needed break from the rat race, and they are attracted to the possibility of adventure, of finding a link to the past and a way to connect meaningfully with themselves, others, and the land, to feel their bodies, and to use all of their senses, to see every blade of grass rather than pass rapidly through a meaningless countryside, to live with less, to relax for a while. They want a space to pray, think, or meditate. From the perspective of the road these things seem impossible to attain from behind the window in the air-conditioned bus. (27-28)

Here, Frey touches on the aspect of walking long distances—whether those walks are considered pilgrimages or not doesn’t matter: such walks offer an opportunity, at least in theory, to have an intimate experience with the land that is not possible with motorized transportation. Whether that theoretical intimacy is borne out in practice is the purpose of the conference paper I will be writing next week.

Frey notes—correctly, I think—that for peregrinos the goal is the road, rather than the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela, and that many peregrinos lack religious motivations:

The underlying assumption among most people who know nothing about the modern pilgrimage is that the goal is Santiago and that religious devotion motivates the journey. The goal, however, is often the road itself, not the city. Unlike many pilgrims to Marian shrines, those who walk and cycle to Santiago often are not motivated by the pains of the suffering body but the pains of the suffering soul. (45)

I’m not sure the distinction Frey is making here, between pilgrims to Marian shrines and pilgrims walking the Camino, can be supported with evidence; after all, her ethnographic work was with peregrinos rather than those who visit Marian shrines, some of whom might be hoping to find some relief from “the pains of the suffering soul.” Nevertheless, Frey contends that the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela typically has internal, emotional or spiritual motivations, rather than physical ones:

The pilgrimage does not begin with the first step or ride down the trail. Pilgrims begin to shape their journeys well before they leave the front door. The physical movement of arriving at the Camino is anticipated by some kind of internal movement—a decision, an impulse, an unexpected prompting, a long-held desire finally realized, a promise seeking fulfillment, a hope for change. The internal space is in some way already in flux before the journey begins—anticipatory, eager, confused, exhausted, open. (47)

That was certainly my experience before I walked from Saint Jean Pied de Port to Santiago de Compostela: I felt strangely called to make that journey (I know that language is religious and I am not, but that’s the only way I can describe the feeling I had). I was hoping for some kind of change, and thought that a month of walking might give me the time to figure out what form that change might take. In that way, I was very much like the peregrinos Frey interviews for this book.

The meanings of the pilgrimage, Frey suggests, “emerge through interaction with others, the road, and reflection” (64), and “the majority of the participants make the pilgrimage because it is the process, not the arrival at the goal, that is most significant in the experience” (64). Each peregrino experiences the journey in an individual way. One woman told Frey about her encounters with the land: the skies, plants, flowers, trees, colours, and birds filled her with joy (71). Other peregrinos report have a different sense of time compared to their normal lives: “Some describe beginning of the journey at a rapid pace and then slowing down, realizing that there is no rush to get to any particular place” (73). Peregrinos “become aware of their bodies, and in becoming attuned to different rhythms, some begin to guide their movements by them” (73). Some “report experiencing a strong sense of the ‘here and now,’” an “‘out of time’ quality” which “exists in sharp contrast to normal life, which is programmed by work, societal norms, and the daily planner” (73). That is true, to an extent, but in my experience the tendency of peregrinos to rely on guidebooks to the Camino—particularly, for English speakers, John Brierley’s A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Camino de Santiago—often means peregrinos feel obliged to reach specific destinations each day, and the fear of not having a bed often compels peregrinos to hurry, particularly in the afternoon. In addition, as Frey points out, many pilgrims have a fixed amount of time in which to complete the journey, and they may also feel pressure to get to Santiago de Compostela by a certain date (73).

Moving slowly and getting into the rhythm of a different form of travel “can also affect one’s sense of place and experience of the natural landscapes,” Frey suggests (74). One pilgrim, for example, told Frey that being in place, rather than passing through what seemed to be meaningless space (note the echoes of Yi-Fu Tuan’s argument here; he is cited in Frey’s footnotes) was 

directly linked to a growing awareness of his senses. It is his “being” in the world that is different too: he feels each step, is aware of himself in the new places and how he affects and is affected by those steps. The discovery of this sensation of place is in part based on how he moves, what he perceives, and what he touches. The roads are not just flat or bumpy, the hills green, or the birds singing. While walking it is possible to see individual blades of grass, feel every stone in the road (maybe painfully), and note how the senses are heightened. (75)

“Landscape, then, is not just a neutral backdrop but a multidimensional concept related to the understanding of space and movement and the creation of stories meaningful to the pilgrim,” Frey continues (75). One form taken by such stories—or perhaps one mnemonic device that assists with their recall—is the credencial, or credential, in which peregrinos collect stamps that will prove to the authorities in Santiago de Compostela that they made the journey under their own power:

As the pilgrim journeys over the vaguely conceptualized Camino the steps and encounters are like the stamps in the credential: at first there is a blank, structural frame, which is then filled slowly, day by day. A pause, a thought, a stamp, a cup of coffee becomes part of a memory, and the vaguely conceived-of whole—the Camino—takes on a new set of meanings. At journey’s end the spaces have been filled and marked with personal experiences. (75)

“The Camino, which begins as an abstract space, comes to be an accumulation of internalized places made up of stories, sensations, and changes in perception,” Frey writes (87). What had been undifferentiated space, then, becomes a series of places defined by the peregrinos’ experience rather than, as Tuan suggests, places where they stopped, however briefly. Place, then, is linked to mobility through walking, in a way that works against Tuan’s distinction between space (seen as mobility) and place (seen as stasis).

Those who repeat the pilgrimage experience often “express concern about losing the novelty of the unknown spaces, creating routine,” through that repetition; however, many of those repeat peregrinos discover “that the landscape is not the only knowable space or variable; each time the encounters with people, the self, seasons, refuges, and companions are different” (75). This point is significant; I’ve been thinking that the only way to understand space as place is through repeated engagements with the same location, but I hadn’t thought about the way that, for some pilgrims, “the novelty of unknown spaces” is part of the Camino’s draw—and that’s surprising, because that novelty is one of the things I have enjoyed, on the Camino de Santiago and during other walks I have made since then. 

Frey quotes Thomas Merton’s suggestion that people make two journeys, an inner one and an outer one, and she notes that many peregrinos experience some form of inner journey on the Camino (79). Some report feelings of a loss of self or the creation of a greater self in the environment, or of losing a sense of where one’s own body ends and the other begins (79). “Time appears to stop,” she writes, “the world becomes whole, and you know that you are connected to something much greater and inchoate” (79). Often such experiences or feelings are interpreted by peregrinos in religious terms (79). Some pilgrims sense the presence of those who walked the Camino before them: “The common human experience of walking gives one the sense of a shared journey” (82). Others report “that long-forgotten memories surface”:

memories of family members and friends, childhood places, secrets or painful circumstances. These new perceptions often take people to internal places not before visited. The days consist of many hours of walking and cycling. In these long moments, which may be experienced alone or in the companionship of other pilgrims, people are confronted with empty time, a concept distant from the lives of most of these urban dwellers. Into these quiet moments may spill unexplained tears. (83)

Such “outpourings,” Frey continues, are often described as “cathartic,” and “the catalyst that sets them in motion often mysterious to the pilgrim” (83). That catalyst “may be spatial (having distance, perspective, and free time), personal (another pilgrim), or experiential (walking in the meseta)” (83). (The meseta is the high, arid, flat plain that constitutes the middle third of the territory through which the Camino Francés runs.) Pilgrims report having strange dreams and becoming more aware of their own mortality (83). They may discover “hitherto unknown personal potential, experience a reorientation of values, have new visions of the self and others, and develop road maps for present and future actions,” Frey writes (87). Even though there are experiences of levity and play, those times do not detract “from what can be a profound spiritual experience or a reflective time” (92). They become “just another aspect of the journey” (92).

Frey notes that peregrinos experience both communitas and contestation on their journeys. “Through knowing one another in adverse circumstances and relying on others to help get through the fatigue of the day or the confusion of limited language,” she writes, “feelings of communitas (community) and a heightened sense of generosity emerge” (92). Many pilgrims also value the connections they make with people from different cultures, nations, classes, or age groups (93). Frustrations do occur, however, and friendships can be strained:

Sometimes the friction is caused by the different rhythms or a physical problem, which causes one of the companions to make a choice: continue his or her own way or wait with the friend. Existing friendships may suffer from the expanding sense of self, different rhythms, renovation, and experimentation that are common on the way. Paths begin to diverge, leading to a temporary rupture or misunderstanding. (94)

Walking pilgrims often resent the cyclists who speed past them, and for all I know cyclists may resent the pedestrians who block the path; no one likes those who get up early and make noise or shine lights around thoughtlessly in the dormitorio; and those who snore are sometimes reviled. “Nonetheless, through sharing a communal dinner and the day’s stories, curing blisters, or giving massages,” Frey writes, “there is generally a high level of congeniality among pilgrims, even under difficult circumstances” (96). Because “the Camino exists outside of normal time in neutral and inspiring places, where stress is reduced to a minimum,” she continues, “pilgrims open up internally and externally to those around them” (101).

How different is the Camino from other long-distance walking journeys, however? According to Frey, such journeys provide opportunities for “similar types of personal discoveries and triumphs and the use of the road as a metaphor for life” (102). But, she continues, there are important differences:

The Camino is unique, however, for its religious and historical traditions, the presence of nonpilgrims who encourage the journey, the pilgrim’s passport and the collection of stamps, its one-way nature, and its network of refuges and hospitaleros. One is not just a walker but a pilgrim to Santiago. (102)

“Pilgrims experience a powerful feeling of being guided toward a goal, of having a sense of direction, and of knowing where one is going that is not so clear in daily life,” Frey writes. “Each day is an act of accomplishment toward a stated goal in which everything seems to be going the pilgrim’s way” (103). I’m not sure that walkers on other long-distance paths, such as the Appalachian Trail in the eastern United States, don’t have the same sense of a goal, or that everything goes the pilgrim’s way; I’m sure that some days, some peregrinos think that nothing is going their way at all. I would argue, in fact, that the relative ease of the Camino is one of the main differences between it and the Appalachian Trail (or similar hiking routes). After all, there’s no need to carry a tent or much food (beyond snacks or a lunch). Packs are therefore lighter—perhaps 10 kilograms rather than 20, which is a big difference—and days usually end with a shower and a change of clothes and a meal that typically includes a cheap bottle of vino tinto. I’m not saying that the Camino is easy, but it might not be as difficult as other long-distance walks. That comparative lack of difficulty might enable more people to participate.

There are challenges on the Camino, of course—blisters, injuries, getting lost—and overcoming them often gives pilgrims the sense that they are capable of dealing with the unexpected. As a result, they “acquire greater self-confidence, and have the sense of being more compassionate, generous, open-minded, and accepting of hardship,” Frey points out. “These experiences are part of how pilgrims explain how the Camino works on them to produce meaning and transformation” (105). Pilgrims interpret the pain and fatigue of their journeys differently: for some these are vestiges of the medieval Camino; for others, especially practicing Catholics, they are opportunities for penitence or sacrifice; for still others, pain and fatigue are gifts that bring greater insight (109). “For nonreligious pilgrims, the pain and fatigue are part of the challenge that must be overcome,” Frey suggests. “Testing one’s limits to feel one’s body is sufficient for many pilgrims. . . . Overcoming pain when it seems impossible to continue leads to a great feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction, a better knowledge of and respect for one’s body, and a way of feeling alive” (110-11). Peregrinos often report greater body confidence and feelings of empowerment through physical struggle, along with losing weight and feeling stronger, which can boost their morale (112). They don’t just notice their increasing fitness, however; as norms of cleanliness or appearance become less important compared to normal life, they often joke about smelling bad (112). “The body and the sensations it opens the pilgrim up to become new unexplored territory,” Frey writes (112). Some peregrinos are not able to overcome pain or injury; Frey estimates that 20 per cent of those who begin the Camino in Roncesvalles do not complete the journey for a variety of reasons (114). 

For many peregrinos, the Camino becomes an opportunity for solitude and independence (117). “Overcoming a fear of being alone can lead one to personal understanding and change the Camino from an uncertain adventure to a more broadly conceived journey of self-exploration,” Frey suggests (117). “During the long stretches of continuous movement, which may be painful, boring, or exhilarating, the pilgrim also fills the time in novel or infrequently practices ways—thinking, praying, meditating, singing” (118). For some, the walk is a ludic or playful experience; others find themselves lost in the rhythm of walking; some experience existential questions (118). At the same time, Frey writes,

In this environment, in which new doors to the self are opened on personal, spiritual, and social levels and the pilgrims experiment with emerging parts of their identities, a sense of danger or guilt may also surface. These reactions frequently occur when one’s image of what a pilgrim’s behavior “ought to be” while making the Camino conflicts with the reality of the experience. (124)

Questions of authenticity, which on the Camino often mean the genuine nature of the experience, are one aspect of the pilgrimage, as John Eade and Michael Sallnow argue, a space of competing discourses (126). Conflicts “over what is an is not ‘pilgrimlike’” are frequently rooted in struggles for power, personal debates about the pilgrimage’s meaning, and claims to authority—particularly over questions of authenticity (126). In other words, “[a]lthough there is communitas, rifts exist” (129). “Without realizing it,” Frey continues,

pilgrims make sweeping judgments about others and at the same time put themselves into a category that claims to hold a “truth” about the Camino. The authentic says “We are all pilgrims,” but at the same time it is clear that “some are better pilgrims than others.” For some, being an authentic pilgrim raises one’s status instead of serving as an equalizer. (129)

“Distance from modern technology plays a crucial role in determining authenticity,” she continues. “Walkers reign supreme for their independence, physical effort, and slow pace” (131). In addition, I would, that sometimes those who have left cameras or smartphones behind sometimes consider themselves more authentic than those who take photographs or ask for the wifi password when they stop at a bar for coffee.

Questions of authenticity are important as vehicles of interpreting experience, Frey suggests:

Although authenticity is believed to reside in the past, pilgrims find their own meanings through identification, questioning, and reflecting on the image of the authentic pilgrim. The Camino has become a space in which meanings emerge for the individual who can play with identity, search the soul, find the past, create friendships, engage in serious religious or personal reflection, or simply have a good time. Pilgrims often find something essential (authentic) within themselves or others. The point is not that there is no authentic pilgrim but that there are many authenticities. Each person creates his or her personally meaningful experience. (136)

I wonder if this focus on authenticity isn’t another way in which the Camino differs from other long-distance hiking trails. Do hikers ask whether they are authentic hikers? I don’t really know the answer to that question—it’s another issue that requires research—but I would bet they don’t. I could be wrong, though.

As a form of transportation in modern, middle-class European or American life, Frey notes, walking is “essentially obsolete”:

It is the rare individual who commutes to work on foot. Walking is usually linked with leisure. What pilgrims often do not realize is that their venturing out to discover something true about themselves and the world has a long history in Christian and Western philosophy centered on the debate over whether the locus of change is found in stasis or mobility. (131-32)

I ought to familiarize myself with that debate, but Frey’s footnote here is uncharacteristically vague—perhaps because she is an anthropologist and not a philosopher. Still, she suggests, peregrinos who are uninterested in questions of authenticity tend to be those who are experienced travellers or long-distance walkers. “In other journeys they have experienced the pains and disorientation of solitude, the joys of stunning natural beauty, and the experience of living with little,” she writes. “The Camino is just one more such path” (135-36). Some of those experienced walkers are unmoved by the Camino; for them, it’s just another long walk (136). 

Although the peregrino’s focus might be on the journey, at some point he or she is likely to arrive in Santiago de Compostela:

While Santiago is an obvious geographic goal, it is not necessarily the end of the interior journey. Journey’s end and the pilgrim’s goal should not be conflated. The multitextured quality of endings is visible in the closure of the physical journey and the turn toward home. The pilgrimage does not simply end with the pilgrim’s arrival in Santiago but is a process that often begins well before the pilgrim reaches the city’s gates and is prolonged indefinitely as the pilgrim continues to interpret in daily life the experiences he or she lived while making the way. (138)

Often peregrinos feel a sense of arrival long before they reach Santiago de Compostela; their sense of time changes, becoming a countdown of the days left in the journey, and as they enter Galicia, the geography and weather changes (139). “A common sensation that pilgrims experience in the last portion of their journey is ambivalence,” Frey contends:

The end of the long physical, personal, and often spiritual journey is tangible. Each pilgrim’s journey has a different rhythm. One may arrive strong and powerful on a physical level—feeling new muscles, trust in knowing one’s limits, wearing the pack like a second skin—yet feel totally unprepared on a spiritual or personal level to reach Santiago. Awareness of this process often presents itself only in the return home. (144)

“Reaching Santiago often comes as an unpleasant surprise as the joy of discovery comes to a sudden halt,” she continues (146). Others who have been “seeking yet not discovering” may experience a sense of crisis “because the Camino has not opened them to what they hoped to receive” (146). “As a goal,” Frey writes,

Santiago is both a physical place and an abstract idea; an imagined vessel into which pilgrims may have poured hopes and dreams. As a place and an abstraction it can be attained by movement away form the starting point and mediated by pauses or rests. Reaching the physical goal does not necessarily entail a parallel arrival of other goals—spiritual enlightenment, a decision made—as is clear from pilgrims’ stories of arrival in the city. For some, the end in Santiago marks the beginning of a new journey. For others, it is a great letdown or simply a stopover point. Several of the salient issues at play in the end of the pilgrimage are reassessment of the journey’s meaning, search for closure, dialogue with the past, contemplation of the future, symbolic death of the self, and preparation for the return home. Just as pilgrims must draw the physical portion to a close at some point, the arrival in Santiago marks a geographic end, even if it is not the ultimate goal in an abstract way. (254-55)

The pilgrim, she concludes, still needs to find his or her way home, the journey that completes the experience (255).

Most pilgrims arrive at the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela, where the rites they perform “rarely occur in solitude” because “[t]he cathedral is an important attraction for nonpilgrims, who also attend the Pilgrim’s Mass and engage in the same ritual actions as the pilgrims themselves” (158). For many peregrinos, both religious and nonreligious, 

the Pilgrim’s Mass serves as an essential rite of closure, a moment to contemplate what has come before and what lies ahead, to celebrate the Eucharist at the feet of the apostle, to rest at the long-awaited goal, and to languish in the joy of arrival. The Mass also serves a crucial social function: it is a common point of reunion and departure for groups of pilgrims that may have formed along the way. The Mass is personal yet communal. It is one more time to share together, an often cathartic experience and moment of closure. (159)

Receiving the Compostela is another rite of closure, although pilgrims report that it is often ambivalent or anticlimactic as well (159-62). Frey emphasizes the idea that the arrival in Santiago de Compostela can be disappointing, although not everyone is going to have that experience. My arrival was emotionally powerful, although after resting for a couple of days I was eager to begin walking again, partly because I wasn’t comfortable with the transition from peregrino to tourist, an experience that is not uncommon, as Frey points out (162-63). “By taking off the backpack and putting down the staff, walking into the streets of Santiago one is no longer a pilgrim as on the road,” Frey writes, and pilgrims often find themselves “engaging in activities involving consumption,” purchasing souvenirs, visiting monuments, and eating and drinking (perhaps to excess) (165-66).

In Santiago de Compostela, peregrinos go through a range of emotions, from joy to sadness (163). They often report experiencing a flood of memories about the journey (164). Part of the challenge lies in the shock the body experiences on arriving in Santiago de Compostela: “After growing accustomed to walking or cycling for five to eight hours a day,” Frey notes, “the sudden change produces a shock to the body now inhibited from maintaining its daily rhythm” (164). “The city is a point of supersaturation,” Frey writes. “Pilgrims begin to shed their months of experience, leaving a wake of uncertainty, joy, pain, and discovery. Eventually the break is made and the pilgrim puts away the scallop shell, packs the bag and staff, and makes the turn that ends the physical journey and returns home” (169).

Frey suggests that some peregrinos may have trouble letting go of the experience (164), as I suppose I did, although I had planned all along to continue walking to Finisterre, a fishing village on the Atlantic coast that is another ending to the pilgrimage, and after that, to Muxia, another village some 30 kilometres north of Finisterre. These journeys are discouraged by the church, Frey points out, although the Galician government encourages them (171). “The internal journey that did not find its end in Santiago may be resolved at Finisterre,” she writes:

It may give pilgrims additional time to reflect on the pilgrimage’s conclusion and the return home. It may also be a way to keep walking, a way to keep searching and possibly avoid resolution, a way to smooth a potentially difficult transition, a way to end a pilgrimage of initiation through confrontation with the natural elements. (176)

I got sick in Finisterre—a 24-hour virus of some kind—and as a result I found the walk to Muxia very difficult. I remember feeling that I had walked far enough, and that it was now time to stop. Being exhausted from both the walk and the illness contributed to that sense of conclusion. They helped me realize that the experience had come to an end.

Going home is another difficult transition. It raises important questions about “how the pilgrimage endures, if it does, and how the experiences are interwoven into daily life, influencing future actions and ways of being” (179). On what level does the peregrino change, if at all? Is the change personal, spiritual, creative, or physical? “What has been acquired through the pilgrimage needs to be renegotiated into daily life,” Frey writes:

Sometimes the experience of the pilgrimage results in changes in occupational or marital status, the pursuit of creative personal projects, the discovery of prayer, an emphasis on maintaining friendships or an identity developed in the way, or an enduring memory such as a lovely walk taken in Spain. (179)

Pilgrims are sometimes encouraged to talk about their experiences when they return home, but what they share, Frey suggests, “is selective and interpretive”:

In the retellings meanings of the journey continue to emerge and the adventure grows as the pilgrim edits and elaborates on the journey’s stories. The returnee may realize only in the retelling that she is or was a pilgrim and the secular journey a pilgrimage. Retelling plays an important part in the return, whereby one is able to reinterpret, process the experiences, and create oneself as pilgrim at the same time. In this way the reactions of family and friends often help the pilgrim put the Camino into context through the acts of narration and fielding questions. (186)

Some former peregrinos report losing their sense of direction or purpose when they get home (188-89). Sometimes feelings of stagnation or disorientation are “influenced by the inability to translate the Camino’s experiences into everyday life,” or the fact that “[v]alues garnered or clarified while in the Camino may not be compatible with a work or personal environment” (190). “The sharp contrast between the easy flow, purposefulness, healthy lifestyle, and directionality found and often lived on the Camino can in the long-term postexperience give way to feelings of failure when it seems that it is difficult to maintain these ‘lessons’ or ways of living in one’s own life,” Frey points out (192). On the other hand, “another outcome of the pilgrims’ interactions with the Camino that continues to work in their daily lives is a sense of personal empowerment acquired through the way” (192). “Perhaps even more profound is the sense of the ‘potential me’ the Camino reveals on the return home” (193). The experience of overcoming pain and fear and testing one’s limits often leads to feelings of groundedness and strength in daily life (193). “For most,” Frey writes, “the reality is that the Camino helps to open doors but that the individual must choose to walk through them to be transformed in some way. Pilgrimage does not ‘make one’ a better person. Personal change is often a long-term process of trial and error” (198).

“As a memory the Camino exists on at least two levels,” Frey contends: “that which is shared and re-created for an audience and that which exists privately for the pilgrim, the place that is revisited and remembered, bringing back the journey’s discoveries” (199). The Camino may not only consist of memories, however, According to Frey,

 Finding silence and peace in solitude, living and appreciating the moment, and making life less complicated are all ways that participants try to bring the Camino as pilgrimage home. Feeling oneself a pilgrim through personal and social encounters during the journey also marks the experience in the memory of the postpilgrim as more than a holiday adventure. It is described as an internal experience rather than an external one. (203)

“Postpilgrims,” Frey writes, “want to continue journeying, believing that a vital part of their identities is as pilgrims on the Camino” (203). I wonder if that belief leads some to repeat the experience. I haven’t been able to return to Spain to walk—I haven’t had the time or the money to do so—but I’d like to. I suppose I’m a repeat pilgrim who has yet to make the journey again.

Frey also touches on something Tuan writes about: the notion that the longest journeys lead to the most powerful experiences:

within the culture of the Camino there exists the commonly held idea that the longer the journey, the greater its impact on the individual’s life. It is generally those who make the longest journeys who support the idea of time/distance relationships, an idea that is further strengthened by the current ideal of authenticity. (214)

Frey’s research, however, suggests that “what appears to be more important is what the pilgrim brings to the Camino (state of mind, motivation) and how the Camino is remembered and acted on in the postexperience” (214). She refers to Tuan’s suggestion that while sometimes an intimate encounter with place is the result of a lengthy experience with that location, sometimes (Tuan’s metaphor is love at first sight) that intimacy can develop immediately (214). “A week on the Camino may immediately and radically shake some pilgrims’ sense of reality on the road and at home,” Frey writes. “For others, a journey of four months may produce infinite opportunity for meditation and reflection yet confusion and aimlessness back home” (214).

Frey’s conclusion summarizes her arguments. She notes that throughout the book, she has argued “that through movement pilgrims make statements about themselves and society” (218). One such statement is a belief in the power of contact, and that belief is one point of difference between the Camino de Santiago and European Marian pilgrimages:

In the implicit, and often explicit, critique of modern society there is a concomitant valorization of “contact,” felt to be either lost or hard to achieve in a fast-paced world characterized by mass communication and an apparently increased callousness toward human life on political and social levels. These types of contact are varied: with people, with the road, with the past, with nature, with the self, with silence and solitude, with less, with the spiritual and the religious. At the heart of this desire for contact is often an unspoken lack that pushes the person out of home and on to the road. On some level a wish for transformation—perhaps of both the self and society—or at least clarity and insight exists. For these reasons I call the modern pilgrimage a journey of the suffering soul rather than a journey of the suffering body, as journeys to popular Catholic shrines associated with miraculous cures, such as Lourdes, might be characterized. (219)

Another point of difference is the way that these contacts and transformations are “made fundamentally through the body and its movement through time and space”:

the truth of the way is felt on the road. The pilgrim’s body is not only a conduit of knowledge but also a medium of communication, a means to connect and make contact with others, the self, the past and the future, nature. The body can also be used as an agent of social change (“cause pilgrims”), as a way to protest the fast-paced, disheartening aspects of modern society, and as a way to peacefully ask for change. Pilgrims are noticed, and on some level may want to be noticed: perhaps they are making a cry for help, a show of grief, a testament of faith, a plea against resignation and personal and social stagnation, a statement about an alternative way of living, or a public protest. In this way pilgrims not only pray with their feet but also speak with or through their feet or their bicycles. (219-20)

The body’s movement also constructs the meaning of the peregrinos’ journeys:

Throughout the journey pilgrims are confronted with personal, physical, and mental challenges as well as unexpected acts of kindness and patience. Pilgrims encounter new sights, sounds, and ways of feeling and perceiving the world and often develop surprising friendships. Each day’s journey becomes filled with anecdotes and stories that become models for future action. Pain and the limitless horizon may lead one to a greater sense of humility. Being invited into someone’s home may serve as a lesson in generosity and lead to a greater faith in humanity. Receiving unexpected gifts can lead to one’s own desire to give. Being unable to sleep because of thirty snoring people reminds another of the ludic. Feeling God’s presence in the sunset over the sea brings another closer to his religion. Surviving a difficult day lost can bring greater self-reliance or the knowledge that there are not accidents. Singing at the top of one’s lungs in the middle of the meseta may give another a sense of freedom and wild abandon. Sleeping on the floor reminds another of how easy it is to live with less. Making new friends gives another a feeling of sociability and belonging. Each story becomes part of the pilgrim’s journey which can later simply be recalled or applied to another life situation. (220)

“Feelings of one’s potential and a sense of renewal can also emerge during the pilgrimage and at the same time reveal more clearly the everyday lacks that pilgrims suffer,” Frey writes. The interpretation of such experiences as meaningful “sometimes leads to feelings of physical, spiritual, personal, and social renewal—which is why some pilgrims call it the therapy route” (221).

As a result of these feelings and experiences on the pilgrimage, “these new visions of the self and others,” 

pilgrims often express the desire to make a decision, to take action, or to be less materialist, to be more generous with others, to bring decisions—to quit a job, to change careers, to move, or to alter a relationship. The confidence and strength that come while walking and cycling lead many to bring these feelings back to daily life. (221)

“Others experience disappointment,” Frey acknowledges, “but few feel unmoved:

Instead of transformation and clarity, more questions than answers arise. For some, the Camino simply provides good memories and a sense of accomplishment, which can be sufficient. Others are haunted by the inability to make it to Santiago or to find solutions, for examples, to personal crises, social failure, or unexplained pain. Some come to the Camino believing that the ‘therapy route’ will give them the quick fix or the spiritual insight they crave yet feel frustrated when it seems that only others end up with the solutions. Some accept the lack of discovery as ‘not being their time’ and repeat to find what is missing, or they may reject the Camino itself. (221)

For many, she continues,

the pilgrimage appears to be a continuous process, at least on the level of memory, if not of action. The arrival in Santiago marks the beginning of the next phase: the pilgrim’s translation of the stories to home life, which may seem as difficult or as unlikely as the legend of the apostle’s own translation. How does one bring together two distinct realities, life on and life off the road? The challenge is complicated by how the inner journey appears actually to be a series of inner journeys. Pilgrims may feel exhilarated on a physical level yet not feel that their spiritual questions have been resolved. Or perhaps the journey was meant to be a time of personal reflection on a love relationship, and instead of greater clarification the pilgrim felt distracted by body pains, a resurgence of unpleasant childhood memories, or an unanticipated spiritual awakening. (224)

“The simple pairing of an inner and an outer journey,” Frey continues, “is too narrow a metaphor to understand contemporary pilgrims’ experiences” (224).

“The modern pilgrimage to Santiago is ecumenical, even though its symbols and infrastructure have a distinct religious history and meaning,” Frey writes (228). “In what appears to be a desacralization of pilgrimage by alternative and competing interpretations,” she writes, 

many, especially the religiously devout, fear the loss of its essence: faith, belief, community, communion, and religious and spiritual sentiment. In general the proliferation of individualized spiritualities is interpreted as the rejection of religion and, by analogy, the loss of community and a sign of further social fracture. Yet is appears to be more accurate to say that for participants faith and belief actively life and grow in the contemporary pilgrimage. (228-29)

Like Coleman, Frey accepts the idea that pilgrimage—at least, this particular example of pilgrimage—is complex and multivalent, best approached as “a case-study rather than focussing on the institution itself as a firmly bounded category of action” (“Do You Believe in Pilgrimage” 363), unlike Margry, who sets out to establish clearly defined boundaries for this phenomenon. But, more importantly, Frey is interested in the Camino’s potential to effect personal transformations in its participants:

Many, at least temporarily, taste something different but are unable or unwilling to integrate the Camino reality as a deep, personal, structural change. The simple act of making the decision to go and follow through with a dream may be sufficient and the greatest achievement. Most pilgrims, however, find that deep personal transformation occurs over time through action and reflection, that the Camino may have provided the catalyst, but they work to integrate the Camino and daily reality. In a sense one chooses to be changed. (230-31)

As a case-study, and one involving a phenomenon I have experienced, I found Frey’s book useful, even illuminating. I was particularly interested in her suggestion that walking can be a way to experience the land. She contends, several times, that it is a way to “see individual blades of grass” (75), and while I think the relationship between mobility and place is more complex, I think there is some truth to this claim. At the same time, her emphasis on the importance of constructing stories about the experience of the Camino is important, particularly as a way to engage with the territory through which one walks as place. I am also convinced by the argument that long-distance walks can lead to personal change. I was changed by my experience on the Camino, and the walking projects I’ve engaged with since then, particularly Muscle and Bone, my walk through the Haldimand Tract in southwestern Ontario, have led to further changes. I’ve been warned about the subjective nature of such feelings of transformation, but I think they are true, and I think they are powerful. In any case, I’m glad I read Frey’s book—particularly since it’s the first time in quite a while that I tackled something that was actually on my reading list! In other news, it’s time I revised that list. Perhaps I’ll spend some time on that after I write my conference paper.

Works Cited

Brierley, John. A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Camino de Santiago. 16th edition, Camino Guides, 2019.

Coleman, Simon. “Accidental Pilgrims: Passions and Ambiguities of Travel to Christian Shrines in Europe.” Brown Journal of World Affairs, vol. 22, no. 1, 2015, pp. 71-81.

——.Coleman, Simon. “Do You Believe in Pilgrimage?: Communitas, Contestation and Beyond.” Anthropological Theory, vol. 2, no. 3, 2002, pp. 355-68. DOI: 10.1177/1463499602003805.

——. “From England’s Nazareth to Sweden’s Jerusalem: Movement, (Virtual) Landscapes and Pilgrimage.” Reframing Pilgrimage: Cultures in Motion. Edited by Simon Coleman and John Eade, Routledge, 2004, pp. 45-68.

Frey, Nancy Louise. Pilgrim Stories: On and Off the Road to Santiago, U of California P, 1998.

Margry, Peter Jan. “Secular Pilgrimage: A Contradiction in Terms?” Shrines and Pilgrimage in the Modern World: New Itineraries into the Sacred. Edited by Peter Jan Margry, Amsterdam UP, 2008, pp. 13-46. JSTOR. Accessed 14 September 2018.

Reader, Ian. Pilgrimage: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford UP, 2015.

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

41. Michael Agnew, “‘Spiritually, I’m Always in Lourdes’: Perceptions of Home and Away among Serial Pilgrims”

agnew lourdes cover

Michael Agnew’s article is one of the essays on pilgrimage my friend Matthew Anderson sent me last week. As I read these essays, I am gaining a sense of the contours of the field of the anthropology of pilgrimage, and that’s the purpose of this research: to come to some definition of pilgrimage that satisfies me, for the time being, and to determine how my own walks are similar to and different from pilgrimages. Since I walked the Camino Francés in Spain in 2013, I’ve thought about other walks I’ve made as pilgrimages, but that may or may not be the best way to think about them. Gaining a clearer sense of what counts as a pilgrimage in the academic literature is important if I’m going to be able to sort this question out.

Agnew begins by referencing work by James Clifford on mobility as “constitutive of cultural meanings in and of themselves, and not merely a supplement, a transfer or an extension of these cultural meanings” (517). Travel or mobility, he continues, is not secondary to dwelling, for Clifford, and dwelling itself is not merely the ground from which travel occurs (517). The opposition between mobility and dwelling that concerns Clifford is clearly related to Yi-Fu Tuan’s opposition between space and place, and so it would probably be a good idea to track down the texts Agnew cites here: Clifford’s essay “Travelling Cultures,” which is in an anthology on cultural studies I think I have at home, and his 1997 book, Routes: Travel and Translation in the Late Twentieth Century. I found this starting point interesting, because Agnew is actually interested in two places: the pilgrims’ homes in the UK, and Lourdes. The actual process of moving from one place to another is ignored, perhaps because it is less interesting than the pilgrims’ experiences in either place.

After that theoretical introduction, Agnew explains that his interest is in “the process of conceptual ‘home-making’ that is initiated by repeat visitors to religious shrines” (517)–particularly by repeat visitors to Lourdes in France. “I suggest that in the experience of serial pilgrims to Lourdes, that is, pilgrims who return to Lourdes each summer and in some cases several times a year as a habitual element of their lived faith,”

an existential state or physical site of dwelling is not only no longer the fixed, bounded space from which one departs and returns. It is also carried with the traveller to their destination, the destination is carried physically and cognitively back to their typical place of residence, and the destination itself may also be a secondary if not primary idealized site of dwelling in the truest sense. (517)

According to Agnew, “individual pilgrims can and do perceive and interact with them”–that is, the shrines that are their destinations–“as a ‘home away from home,’ a ‘second home,’ or in some instances their one true home, the one place in the world where they are at peace with themselves, where they belong” (517-18). “[T]he boundaries once erected between the home of the pilgrim and the away of the religious shrine are disrupted by the often habitual and indeed addictive nature of pilgrimage, ritual cross-currents continuously flowing and binding together ‘home’ and ‘away'” (518). I know people who have made multiple pilgrimages (in Spain, France, Portugal, and Japan), and although I wouldn’t describe their experiences as reflecting an addiction or a habit, I would acknowledge that there is something about a walking pilgrimage, its relative balance between exertion and comfort, and between new experiences and repeated ones, and even its potential for spiritual experiences, however those experiences are defined or understood, that makes it the kind of activity many people would like to repeat. I’d like to return to Spain to walk someday, not necessarily on the Camino Francés, but perhaps on one of the other routes to Santiago de Compostela. First, though, I need to finish this degree.

Next, Agnew refers to Nigel Rapport and Andrew Dawson, who write about “perceptions of home in a world of movement, a concept that is increasingly subject to a great deal of flux and yet nevertheless still holds a significant store of nostalgic resonance in an otherwise dispersed and fragmented world” (518). Therefore, Rapport and Dawson argue, we need to shift our thinking from places to spaces (518). A sense of home as a community in microcosm is, they argue, “anachronistic” and “not reflecting a world of contemporary movement”; for that reason, they contend that we need a mobile conception of home (518). Home, they continue, is a resilient concept, and people don’t necessarily fix their identities to places (518). I’m more interested in place, myself, but I probably should take a look at their 1998 book, Migrants of Identity: Perceptions of Home in a World of Movement, if only as an example of the kind of argument that values a postmodern consideration of fragmentation and movement.

Agnew notes that home and movement are important concepts in the study of tourism as well. John Urry, for instance, writes that the appeal of leisure travel rests in a desire to leave home and “revel in an unfamiliar locale’ (518). The differences between the familiar and the faraway produce liminal zones, according to Urry, and the places visited by tourists need to be distinguished in some way from their regular homes (518). “Holidays for Urry are less about reinforcing collective memories and experiences and instead find their basis in the pleasure that comes from out-of-the-ordinary experiences,” Agnew writes (518-19). However, Agnew also notes that Edward Bruner problematizes “this binary between the ordinary and extraordinary/home and away that Urry sees as the hallmark of the appeal of tourism” (519). Bruner’s examples include package tours, in which hotels or resorts become temporary homes for groups of tourists, and he suggests that tourists typically experience a sense of home created by the tourism industry. Tourists expect to experience some things that are familiar to them; they want the comforts of home and to interact with people like themselves (519). Despite Bruner’s deconstruction of Urry’s distinction between familiar home and unfamiliar destination, Urry’s argument still has some merit; I remember reading an early edition of the book Agnew refers to when I was studying the travel writing of James De Mille at York University.

From there, Agnew turns (as most writers on pilgrimage seem to do) to Victor and Edith Turner and their writing on pilgrimage. The point of pilgrimage, as Agnew summarizes their argument, is to go to a far away holy place which is approved by others (the church hierarchy, for example). It’s a collective goal, then, rather than an individualistic or idiosyncratic one (520). However, Agnew argues, the Turners’ perspective “does not capture the full range of pilgrim experience, particularly that of serial pilgrims” (520). For Agnew, the more important writings on pilgrimage are to be found in John Eade and Michael Sallnow’s anthology Contesting the Sacred, which scrutinizes the Turners’ conceptualizations of pilgrimage, particularly the notion that pilgrimage fosters communitas (520).

Another critic of the Turners is Erik Cohen, who contends that they were too focused on Christian pilgrimages, and ignored examples from other religions where religious and political centres were fused, and where the pilgrimage centre is not a centre “out there” somewhere, but the centre of the world itself (520). I don’t understand Cohen’s argument, but then again, I haven’t read it. Another text to add to my “maybe” list!

Agnew cites Simon Coleman’s understanding of Walsingham in the UK as “a sort of second home for habitual pilgrims” which derives its meaning from its exceptional quality as well as its familiarity (521). He suggests that other studies of pilgrimage, such as Thomas Tweed’s Our Lady in Exile, an ethnography of Cuban-American Catholics and their relation to the shrine of Our Lady of Charity in Miami, and Zlatko Skrbis’s research on Croatian immigrants in Australia and their connections to the Marian apparition shrine at Medjugorje in Bosnia-Herzegovina, bear out Coleman’s argument in different ways (521-22).

After this literature review, Agnew turns to his own ethnographic study of UK pilgrims who make repeated visits to Lourdes. People go to Lourdes for different reasons. The sick, elderly, and disabled hope for a dramatic cure; others volunteer as caregivers for pilgrims who need assistance (523). Returning pilgrims conceive of Lourdes “as a place set apart from quotidian life as the ideal, while still remaining intimately familiar and safe” (523). They value the sense of community they find there, which they see as an experience of “the Christian love command, fully realized in a unique and highly charged environment” (524). Lourdes also provides them with an opportunity to enact their faith in an embodied manner (524).

The emphasis here on community recalls the Turners’ term, communitas, which Agnew defines as “the dissolution of social structures and boundaries and the formation of spontaneous and immediate personal relations,” an experience evoked by many pilgrims to Lourdes (525). Perhaps it’s because of communitas that so many Lourdes pilgrims describe their pilgrimages as addictive experiences, and Lourdes itself as a place they feel compelled to return to (525). Nancy Frey, in her writing on pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago, and Ian Reader, in his writing on walking pilgrims on the Japanese island of Shikoku, both recognize that for some pilgrims, the state of being transient becomes, ironically, a permanent state, a new way of being at home in the world (526-27). I met people like that on the Camino Francés: they simply didn’t want to lose the intensity of their Camino experience, and so they scratched out a living working in hostels or albergues and walking here and there along the pilgrimage route.

Lourdes pilgrims feel at home there, particularly in the grotto where the Virgin Mary is believed to have appeared (527). Touching the rock in the grotto is a tactile, grounded experience, premised on the shrine’s fixity, Agnew suggests. “[T]he appeal of a fixed, grounded place clearly still holds,” he admits, despite his argument that “travel and movement inform processes of home-making for Lourdes pilgrims” (528-29). “Indeed,” he writes, “it is the conception of these spaces as established and rigid that likely inspires movement to them in the first place” (529).

Lourdes home-making, Agnew continues, is a “reciprocal, back-and-forth loop” (529). It’s not enough to remain in Lourdes; rather, “some element of the experience, some reminder, some touchstone had to be brought back home with them”–the pilgrims–“to England” (529). They build replicas of the Lourdes grotto, or put statues of Our Lady of Lourdes in their homes (529-30). Some take water from Lourdes home and use it “both as a sort of morning cleanser and as a spiritual aid” (532). Many pilgrims value the sense of community at Lourdes, and describe the UK as cold and unfamiliar by comparison, and as a way of maintaining a connection to Lourdes, they participate in reunion masses for pilgrims in the UK (532).

“The centre may still indeed be out there on the geographical and cognitive margins, as Turner posits, but particularly for serial pilgrims returning to Lourdes, it is also intimately familiar, a storehouse for memories of pilgrimages past, and a site for continued spiritual refreshment,” Agnew concludes (533). I can’t speak to the experience of Lourdes, but I would suggest that repeated experiences of any space–at least, any space of any complexity or richness–are likely to turn it into place, as it becomes a known and familiar quantity, something of which the individual develops a deep and intimate knowledge. So it’s not surprising that serial pilgrims to Lourdes develop a sense of the shrine as “intimately familiar.” How could it be otherwise?

I’m not sure that Agnew’s essay has much bearing on my own research, but it adds to my understanding of pilgrimage, and as I suggested at the beginning of this post, I need to know about pilgrimage if I’m to understand how (or even whether) my walking practice is related to that phenomenon. So, for that reason, Agnew’s essay was a worthwhile read.

Work Cited

Agnew, Michael. “‘Spiritually, I’m Always in Lourdes’: Perceptions of Home and Away among Serial Pilgrims.” Studies in Religion vol. 44, no. 4, 2015, pp. 516-35. DOI: 10.1177/0008429815596001.

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

36. Iain Sinclair, London Orbital: A Walk around the M25

london orbital

After I read Thelma Poirier’s Rock Creek, I found myself thinking about a book that is, in many ways, its opposite: Iain Sinclair’s London Orbital: A Walk around the M25. But how am I going to find time to read Sinclair’s epic 550-page account of a 120-mile walk around London, tracking the route of the M25 superhighway? I asked myself. The answer was simple: I would find the time by finding the time, I would read Sinclair’s book by reading it. And so I did.

It’s a good thing that I read Sinclair’s book, too, because I’ve learned a great deal from it. The territory Sinclair circumambulates is, one would think, an obvious example of space, as Yi-Fu Tuan describes it: abstract, undifferentiated, open and potentially threatening, defined by movement, and (unlike place) unknown and not endowed with value (Tuan 6). The perimeter suburbs of London, and the orbital highway that encircles the city, are closer to what Marc Augé describes as “non-places,” spaces of circulation, consumption, and communication. And yet, I would argue that Sinclair, by walking and thinking and researching and writing about that territory, turns the kind of location that Tuan would describe as obdurate space into place, something experienced “through all the senses as well as with the active and reflective mind” (18). In fact, I think that London Orbital has answered my question about turning space into place by walking. It’s true that walking, by itself, isn’t enough to make space become place. But walking and research and writing (or some other kind of response to the experience, the memory, the narrative of the walk) appears to be sufficient. Sinclair, in fact, discloses his method of working at the beginning of the leg of the walk that starts at the former Leavesden Hospital in Abbots Langley, the point where the previous walk ended: “Since our last visit I’d read up on the history of the estate; I’d looked at maps and plans, drawings by the original architects John Giles and Biven of Craven Street, London—who produced the successful application in March 1868” (175). Later in the text, he’s even more specific: “Memory is a lace doily, more hole than substance. The nature of any walk is perpetual revision, voice over voice. Get it done, certainly, then go home and read the published authorities; come back later to find whatever has vanished, whatever is in remission, whatever has erupted” (272). That process is the source of all of the esoteric historical and literary and biographical and architectural information with which Sinclair layers his account of walking; those elements in the text come from research. No wonder every section of the walk takes place at least a month after the previous journey. The lag isn’t to allow blistered feet to heal; no, it’s an opportunity for uncovering the significance of locations visited on the previous walk, to revisit them if necessary, and to begin writing together memory and fact. However the conference paper I am delivering in Ireland this July at the Sacred Journeys 6th Global Conference begins, I’ve found the conclusion.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. London Orbital begins and ends with Sinclair’s antipathy to the Millennium Dome (now the O2)—both to the architecture itself and to the financial folly of the project. In between, though, the book tracks two separate sets of walks. The first set, made with musician Bill Drummond and photographer Marc Atkins, takes Sinclair and his companions up the Lea River valley, which separates London from its eastern dependencies, past the Lea Navigation canal and the former armaments factory at Enfield (now, like almost every other complex of Victorian buildings in London’s green belt, being redeveloped for housing, despite the contaminated soil on the site). These walks serve as a preamble; they whet Sinclair’s appetite for more:

I think we can assume that we have penetrated the Lea Valley’s recreational zone. Boats. Wet suits. Easy access to the North Circular Road, the broken link of an earlier orbital fantasy. This border is marked by a permanent pall of thick black smoke. Urban walkers perk up; we’re back in the shit. The noise. The action. (60)

The descriptive sentence fragments, the tone of cynicism verging on paranoia: that is Sinclair’s operative mode. Passing the “retail park” where the North Circular Road crosses the Lea Valley, taking in the colours of warehouses and road, of river and sky, Sinclair declares:

I love it. I like frontiers. Zones that float, unobserved, over other zones. Road users have no sense of the Lea Navigation, they’re goal-orientated. Going somewhere. Noticing Atkins, foot on barrier, perched in the central reservation, snapping away, drivers in their high cabs see a nuisance, an obstacle. A potential snoop. They’d be happy to run him down. Atkins sees a speedy blur, abstractions, the chimney of London Waste Ltd blasting steam. (60-61)

I must make a confession: I made an attempt at London Orbital, several years ago, but for some reason was defeated by Sinclair’s idiosyncratic prose. This time I enjoyed its inventiveness. By completing the book, I feel I’ve had a significant change in my perception of Sinclair’s writing.

The second set of walks is announced near the beginning of the text. During a walk on New Year’s Day, 1998, Sinclair stops for a break and makes a momentous decision:

I sit, comfortably, with my back to one of the piers, munching my sandwiches and deciding that, yes, I want to walk around the orbital motorway: in the belief that this nowhere, this edge, is the place that will offer fresh narratives. I don’t want to be on the road any more than I want to walk on water; the soft estates, the acoustic footprints, will do nicely. Dull fields that travellers never notice. Noise and the rush of traffic, twenty-four hours a day, has pushed “content” back. An elaborate scheme of planting (two million trees and shrubs, mostly in Surrey and Kent) would hide the nasty ditch with its Eddie Stobart lorries, its smoke belchers. The M25 walk was the next project. The form it would take and the other people who might be persuaded to come along, to liven up the tale, was still to be decided. (16)

Sinclair’s 12-part walk (an essential number, associated with literary epics from Homer to Milton) will be, he tells us, a “pilgrimage” (31)—a key word for my work (and for the conference paper I have to write this month). And that walk, and the writing and thinking and research that it occasions, turns that “nowhere” into somewhere, space into place. London Orbital becomes the “fresh narrative” Sinclair was hankering for, the new story the city has to tell.

I read London Orbital without a London street map beside me, and because I don’t know that city very well, many of the place names Sinclair enumerates, rapid-fire, have little significance for me. Nevertheless, you would have to be sleep-reading not to get the gist. Take this example, a description of a highway heading east, out of London:

East India Dock Road, with its evocative name, has a secondary identity as the A13, my favourite early-morning drive. The A13 has got it all, New Jersey-going-on-Canvey-Island: multiplex cinemas, retail parks, the Beckton Alp ski slope; flyovers like fairground rides, three salmon-pink tower blocks on Castle Green, at the edge of Dagenham; the Ford water tower and the empty paddocks where ranks of motors used to sit waiting for their transporters. The A13 drains East London’s wound, carrying you up into the sky; before throwing you back among boarded-up shops and squatted terraces. All urban life aspires to this condition; flux, pastiche. A conveyor belt of discontinued industries. A peripatetic museum, horizon to horizon, available to anyone; self-curated. The wild nature graveyard in Newham. Inflatable, corn-yellow potato chips wobbling in their monster bucket outside McDonald’s in Dagenham. River fret over Rainham Marshes. (45-46)

Is that a description of an edge city or an inner suburb? I’m not sure it matters: what is important is the claim that urban life—and the life of the edge cities through which he and his companion, artist Renchi Bicknell (and occasional walkers writer Kevin Jackson and Atkins) will perambulate—is “flux, pastiche,” a “peripatetic museum, horizon to horizon, available to anyone; self-curated” (45-46). Sinclair and his companions curate their own museums of the territory near the M25; their writing and photographs (for Sinclair is not the only one to respond creatively to this experience) will constitute their individual records of the walk: 

Drummond’s account, should he give it, would sheer away from mine. Marc’s considered prints would contradict my snapshots. The memory of the memory slips. We invent. New memories, unaccountable to mundane documentation, are shaped. The dream anticipates the neurotic narrative. (116)

London Orbital does not pretend to objectivity, to facticity, but its subjective account of the walks Sinclair and his companions make is, I think, a true one.

Much of the territory these walkers cover is part of London’s green belt, land that is, Sinclair believes, under an assault by developers and government rationalization:

In December 1999 the Cabinet Office issued a consultation paper, the green belt had created an undesirable “moat effect.” A moat or ditch or ha-ha to keep out, as architect Nicholas Hawksmoor wrote of the denizens of Whitechapel, “filth Nastyness & Brutes.” The document was, in effect, an early warning on behalf of the developers, the mall conceptualists, the rewrite industry. Government was pure Hollywood: hype, the airbrushing of bad history; dodgy investors, a decent wedge in disgrace or retirement. A pay-off culture of bagmen and straightfaced explainers. (83-84)

The government’s explanation of its proposal echoes neo-liberal rationalizations everywhere: 

A sweeping away of fussy restrictions. “A planning system more supportive of an enterprising countryside.” The only way the countryside could become enterprising was to cease to be countryside: to become “off-highway,” a retail resort (like Bluewater), a weekend excursion that depended on a road that we were being advised to avoid. (84)

In order to save the countryside, it must be destroyed. This is, for Sinclair, a disaster: “Metropolitans need this green fantasy, the forest on the horizon, the fields and farms that represent a picture book vision of a pre-Industrial Revolution past” (84). I found myself thinking about Doug Ford’s promise to allow development in Ontario’s Green Belts, and whether populism and New Labour come together at the point where developers make political contributions.

That sense of the green belt’s future, or its lack of one, is a recurring theme in London Orbital; it seems that every estate, every disused hospital and asylum and estate near the M25 is being redeveloped as a housing estate for commuters who will use that expressway to drive into the city for work. Shenley Hospital, for instance, a former asylum whose extensive grounds are being turned into tract housing, occasions these ruminations: 

History is being revised on a daily basis, through the northern quadrant of the motorway, by copywriters employed by the developers. “The historic village of Shenley combines excellent local interest with outstanding travel convenience.” Much is made of the “pleasant undulating countryside” and the “fine views northward over the historic city of St Albans.” To qualify as “historic” you need green belt development permissions, new estates across a bowling-green from an old church. History is an extra zero on your property prices. (151)

The destruction of the green belt occasions a certain paranoia, I think, which is reflected in Sinclair’s accounts of walking where no one is supposed to walk:

Whatever it is they don’t like, we’ve got it. NO PUBLIC RIGHT OF WAY. Footpaths, breaking towards the forest, have been closed off. You are obliged to stick to the Lee Navigation, that contaminated ash conglomerate of the Grey Way. Enfield has been laid out in grids; long straight roads, railways, fortified blocks. Do they know something we don’t? Are they expecting an invasion from the forest? (69-70)

One of Sinclair’s early walks took him and his companions from Waltham Abbey to Mill Hill, where German conceptual artist Jochen Gerz (an associate of Joseph Beuys and Reiner Ruthenbeck) was giving a lecture on art in public spaces, and the juxtaposition of hospital and artist brought out Sinclair’s suspicions:

But the hospital block on the summit of Mill Hill is a real marker, generator of paranoid imaginings. I’m always uneasy when covert research, generously funded, starts to cosy up to subversive art. There’s something awkward about the relationship. To access the art manifestation (conceptual corridor, lunchtime lecture) you have to blag your way into the Pentagon, into Langley. Surveillance swipe, signature in book, electronic barrier, phone call to a higher authority. (103)

It doesn’t take institutional security precautions to generate those “paranoid imaginings,” however. Trying to get to the village of Otford, for example, involves dodging speeding cars on a road without room for pedestrians:

Ugly motors eager to do damage. Rage pods caught between hedges. Better to head off, dodging oncoming traffic in the fast lane of the motorway, than stick with the Pilgrims Way. It’s a rat run, the revenge of the commuters. Deserted villages are coming to life: it’s madness, so we’re told, twice a day. And death-in-life the rest of the time. Lights on, blue TV windows, dogs to walk. 

We manage to get off the road—which has no verge—and into the fields, the heavy earth, but we’re soon returned. There is no other route. Every third car is a red Jag: either they’ve been watching too many episodes of Morse, or they want to hide the roadkill on the paintwork. Otford, with its quaint High Street, its proudly timbered survivors, its pond and Tudor ruins, is notable, so far as we’re concerned, for one feature: the railway station. (408-09)

I’ve been in similar situations before, walking from Marlborough House into Oxford, where a gap between footpaths meant walking along a road, a situation where speeding cars forced me into a thorny hedgerow; or last summer, trudging on the broken shoulder of Highway 2 towards Assiniboia: the place where every car seems to be aiming right for you, as if every driver is playing a macabre video game in which points are given for each pedestrian maimed or killed. What must make this situation even more infuriating for Sinclair is the fact that the Pilgrims Way is supposed to be a walking route. Clearly not a very good one.

After the preliminary walks in the Lea Valley, the main event commences:

Here it begins, the walk proper. No detours. No digressions. We decided to take Waltham Abbey as our starting point, the grave of King Harold, and to shadow the motorway (within audible range whenever possible) in an anticlockwise direction. We wanted, quite simply, to get around: always carrying on from where we left off at the finish of the previous excursion. From now on the road would be our focus, our guide. We’d snatch days whenever we could (when Renchi’s shifts permitted) and get it done before the millennial eve. (125)

“The structure of our walk is elegaic: discontinued rituals, closed shrines,” Sinclair writes. “The funeral service, the emptied pond. The horse-trough near Theobalds Grove station filled with flower petals. Fenced off monuments and gates that are not gates” (133). But if the walk is elegaic, it is also mystical. Sinclair is a psychogeographer, and as such he has a taste (as does Renchi) for occult interpretations of the landscape: ley lines, fields of force, invisible axes, “invisible threads of influence” (144-45). “The markings on the motorway are shamanic,” he states. “Noise takes us out of ourselves into a dispersing landscape. Giddy, we enter movement. We could do the whole thing here, on the ramp. We could dream it” (133). Or take his comparison between the M25 and Avebury Circle: “Think of the motorway in terms of Maiden Castle or Avebury, earth engines, machines designed to provoke enlightenment. The hoop of continually moving light is a gigantic crop circle, visible from space. A doughnut of powdered glass. A winking eye” (530). Such occult or “shamanic” mysteries provide Sinclair with another layer to go along with the history and art and literature and lives of those who have lived in the places through which he walks; an unnecessary layer, I would suggest, but that’s perhaps a matter of taste and my own lack of faith in such things.

Sinclair compares this walk to walks undertaken by French labourers in the nineteenth century, walks he read about in Ian Hacking’s book Mad Travelers (Reflections on the Reality of Transient Mental Illnesses). That book, he writes, “offered one perfectly reasonable explanation of our orbital pilgrimage: an hysterical fugue—attended by the sort of minor epileptic seizures (electrical storms in the consciousness) Renchi suffered in Dublin” (146). There are no seizures, as it turns out, but Sinclair continues to argue that the notion of fugue is the best way to describe the walk:

I found the term fugueur more attractive than the now overworked flâneur. Fugueur had the smack of a swear word, a bloody-minded Tommy muttering over his tobacco tin in the Flanders trenches. Fugueur was the right job description for our walk, our once-a-month episodes of transient mental illness. Madness as a voyage. The increasing lunacy of city life (in my case) and country life (in Renchi’s) forced us to take to the road. The joy of these days out lay in the heightened experience of present time actuality, the way that we bypassed, for a brief space of time, the illusionism of the spin doctors, media operators and salaried liars. The fugue is both drift and fracture. The story of the trip can only be recovered by some form of hypnosis, the memory prompt of the journal or the photo-album. Documentary evidence of things that may never have happened. The fugue is a psychic commando course . . . that makes the parallel life, as a gas fitter, hospital carer, or literary hack, endurable. (146-47)

In contemporary representations of the fugue, Sinclair continues, “the walker disappears from the walk:

Landscape artists Richard Long and Hamish Fulton erase the trauma, along with the figure of the troubled pedestrian. Minor interventions are tactfully recorded; a few stones rearranged, twigs bent. The walker becomes a control freak, compulsively logging distances, directions, treading abstractions into the Ordnance Survey map. Scripting minimalist asides, copywriting haikus. (148)

By contrast, Renchi’s paintings “merge walker and landscape”:

Chorographic overviews, diaries. In earlier times, the brush-strokes were looser, the paint thicker. Walks were shorter, paintings fiercer. As the fugues extended—London to Swansea, Hopton-on-Sea to St Michael’s Mount—the records were calmer; there was more of a narrative element, transit across landscape remembered in chalk, flint, granite, slate. (149)

Sinclair continues to think of these walks as fugues throughout the book, imagining himself as a “mad traveller”: “We were discovering a useful genealogy: gas fitters, painters, novelists. Through the suburbs and night, the motorway verges by day, we were there, heel-and-toeing it, sucking water from a plastic bottle, trying to find some way to unravel the syntax of London” (158). I really like that last phrase; I wish I had thought of it as a way of describing my own walks, here and elsewhere.

Reaching Heathrow called to mind, for Sinclair, novelist J.G. Ballard, one of the inspirations for the walk:

You couldn’t help being drawn into the tremble, the jet roar, the throb of traffic streaming in every direction. M4, M25, A4, A30; slip roads, link roads, trunk roads, deleted coach roads. Two hundred thousand vehicles a day used the section of the M25 between Junctions 13 and 14. Ballard was absolutely right: if you set aside human interference (aka life), London was a mausoleum. Kensal Green Cemetery with the walls knocked down. Pompous monuments, redundant public buildings, trash commerce, heritage tags. Oxford Street was a souk. Charing Cross Road a gutter. [new paragraph] The city, in its Victorian overcoat, the muck of centuries on its waistcoat, bored Ballard. He promoted this new place, the rim. The “local” was finished as a concept. Go with the drift, with detachment. The watcher on the balcony. Areas around airports were ecumenical. They were the same everywhere: storage units, hangars, satellite hotels, car hire companies, apologetic farmland as a mop-up apron for Concorde disasters. If you see the soul of the city as existing in its architecture, its transport systems, its commerce and media hot spots, then Ballard’s championship of the suburbs is justified. But they’re not really suburbs if they don’t feed on the centre. The Heathrow corridor has declared its unilateral independence, that’s what makes it exciting. The abdication of responsibility and duty; glossy goods, ennui, scratched light. (214)

Later, Sinclair interviews Ballard. “I don’t need what Ballard says, I know what he says, I’ve read the books,” he writes. “What I need is the chance to pay homage, in the course of this mad orbital walk, to the man who has defined the psychic climate through which we are travelling. It’s a romantic foible on my part, the impulse that once had De Quincey tramping off to the Lake District to make a nuisance of himself in Wordsworth’s cottage” (268).

Ballard is not the only literary figure who ends up in these pages; Sinclair writes about H.G. Wells, George Tomkyns Chesney (author of The Battle of Dorking), William Blake, Bram Stoker, and poet John Clare, who walked 120 miles from London to Northborough without a cent to his name, eating grass, drinking nothing except a pint of beer purchased with coins thrown to him by migrant farm labourers (533). “Fugue as exorcism,” Sinclair writes: “Clare’s walk successfully performed the ritual we were toying with. He’d been in the forest long enough to understand the peculiarity of its status as a memorial to a featureless and unreachable past, a living stormbreak at the limit of urban projection” (534). But there is an essential difference between Clare’s walk and the one Sinclair and Renchi are making: “The Great North Road was still a route down which everything and everyone travelled; coaches, gypsies, farmers, the military, masterless workmen. The M25 goes nowhere; it’s self-referential, postmodern, ironic. Modestly corrupt. It won’t make sense until it’s been abandoned, grown over” (534-35). 

That isn’t going to happen any time soon. The walk continues. According to Sinclair,

A good day on the hoof should include: (1) a section of river or canal, (2) a Formica-table breakfast, (3) a motorway bridge, (4) a discontinued madhouse, (5) a pub, (6) a mound, (7) a wrap of London weather (monochrome to sunburst), (8) one major surprise. So far, so good. (230)

The surprise on that day—at West Drayton, near Heathrow—is discovering an unlocked church, which occasions mystical ruminations:

Being inside a church, after the locked doors of the northern quadrant, is a minor shock: the 800-year franchise works its spatial and temporal magic, the narrow building detaches itself form its surroundings, the bluster of West Drayton. 

Hats off, from custom or superstition, we creep and whisper. Cruise the usual circuit, interrogating the fabric: in expectation of some clue or sign. Or confirmation. Thicker air. Stone-dust and candle grease. Stained light. (230-31)

On a later trip back to West Drayton, Sinclair was able to climb the church tower, providing him with a panorama of the land to the north:

To see for myself how the land opened out: the path to St Mary’s Church at Harmondsworth. The crop of torpedo graves. The M25 with its constant flickering movement. We had stumbled on an active, but little used, pilgrims’ path. The Avenue. Heading, through a tunnel of pink blossom, towards the motorway and the site of a Benedictine priory at Harmondsworth. The sequestered principality of Heathrow. (232)

I was collecting references to pilgrimages as I read London Orbital, and this is one of the important ones, from my perspective, because here we see Sinclair once again inventing a pilgrimage, rather than confining himself to pilgrimages blessed by authorities—and a pilgrimage in an unlikely place, under Heathrow’s flight path. 

England is known for its walking paths, its National Trust-approved green spaces, but Sinclair, cantankerously, wants nothing to do with them:

Why let someone else nominate sites that are worth visiting? If you want a shop, you should find a shop. Sainsbury’s (Cobham) has a better servery than Box Hill. The space underneath Runnymede Bridge is more exciting than the National Trust recommended Runnymede Meadows (with “popular tea-room”). Don’t take my word for it, don’t bother with my list of alternative attractions—Junction 21 of the M25, the Siebel building in Egham, Hawksmoor’s gravestone in Shenley; discover your own. In the finding is the experience.” (318-19)

One unrecognized attraction is a footbridge over the M25 in West Drayton:

The footbridge trembles and vibrates. If it ran across the Thames between St Paul’s and the Tate Modern, they’d close it down. The West Drayton bridge isn’t a tourist attraction, not yet. It ought to be. All the powers and thrones and dominions of transport are here, angelic orders of diesel, jet fuel, crop spray, animal and human shit. Burial grounds of lost villages. The Perry Oaks Sludge Disposal works. (233)

For Sinclair, such places say more about the contemporary moment than Runnymede Meadows. They are the reason for the walk, its purpose and its payoff.

Nevertheless, Sinclair and Renchi occasionally find themselves engaged in “the kind of walking that guidebooks promote” (368).  It’s a contradiction, perhaps, but a productive one, I would argue. Those guidebooks include The London Loop, The Green London Way, Country Walks Around London, The Shell Book of British Walks. Sinclair finds the latter “a bit odd,” wondering about how those hikes came to be sponsored by a Dutch oil company. “I’m fond of these books with their selective maps, line drawings that try to look like woodcuts, topographic views,” he writes, describing most of the walking books I own (368):

The walking they promote is benign: it begins at a car park, saunters, by way of a quaint church and some “typical high downland scenery,” to “the highest point in south-east England.” Hikers are discreet, eyes averted from contemporary horrors, tutting from time to time at the excesses of developers or upwardly mobile vulgarians. These are strolls for the visually impaired, guided tours with checklists of flora, fauna, archaeological remains. The walk is an interlude of “somewhere between and hour-and-a-half and three hours.” It’s good for you. And it brings you back to the point from which you set out. To the car. (368-69)

Of course, it’s (at least in part) the “contemporary horrors” and “excesses of developers” and “upwardly mobile vulgarians” that interest Sinclair. Why else walk across St. George’s Hill—once the site of the radical Diggers, now the home of mobbed-up Russian emigrés—despite the high security? Why else, in fact, decide to walk through London’s edges? Why else explore the link between golf courses and the illegal dumping of toxic waste (370-71)? Why else walk where they aren’t wanted?

We are on our own in country that doesn’t want us. It’s a strange feeling, climbing and descending, in and out of woods, views across ripe fields of corn, and being unable to get any purchase on the experience. Our walk is compromised. We’re pulled between the territorial imperatives of Surrey, Kent and Greater London. The old Green Way is barely tolerated, a dog path, a route that might, if you stick with it, offer accidental epiphanies. It’s more likely to lose heart, be swallowed by a disused chalk quarry, an agribiz farm, a radio mast. Some unexplained concrete structure, fenced in, and surrounded by tall trees. (375-76)

They are walking in places where walking is unknown (as many walkers find themselves doing). Renchi asks a girl in a corner shop how far it was to Chartwell, Winston Churchill’s country place. “She couldn’t do distance, miles, metres; didn’t understand the concept,” Sinclair writes (391) She could only report that it was a five minute drive away; the notion of walking there was incomprehensible to her. “These days, as the girl in the newspaper shop so shrewdly recognised, distance has no meaning,” Sinclair continues. “Miles only matter to horses and pedestrians. We have to deal in drives measured by the hour. Units of nuisance between pit stops. Road works, accidents, congestion: a geography defined by junction numbers on the M25” (392). 

On the way to Otford, near the end of the walk, Sinclair loses his glasses (forgotten on a bench after a brief stop), and his camera breaks. The resulting imagery—photographic and purely visual—strikes him as wonderful, and is worth reproducing at length here:

Focus, which had been playing up since we left Merstham, gave way entirely: into the Valley of Vision. My spectacles were lost, abandoned, and my camera had a bad case of the Gerhard Richters: Richter pastoral. Snapshots with the shivers. The results, from here on, were truer to the way I felt, the way I really saw the road, than all my previous impersonal loggings. Incompetence meant: insight. Inscapes. The photograph of ‘Renchi on the Pilgrims Way’ is a painterly stew, not an identity card. The abandoned blue shirt, hanging across the white ground of the T-shirt, is a squeeze of Vlaminck.

There is liberation in these soft images. The road sign I recorded, PILGRIMS WAY, is now a long thin shape that defies interpretation; you can’t tell if it’s stone or tin. But the green that surrounds it, busy with black smears, white floaters, has a wondrous ambiguity. I’ve never (on our orbital walk) had the courage to let go in this way, the economics of photography require a visible return. I’m only doing it to keep a record of where we’ve been, the provocative details I’m sure to forget. (403-04)

The blurred images his broken camera creates push Sinclair “into territory explored and espoused by visionary filmmakers such as Stan Brakhage” (404). But they do more than that:

The blurred images, first, simplify the narrative—then worry me towards a deeper, more considered sense of place. What doesn’t matter—script, commentary, hierarchy of significance—vanishes. It seems that the “faulty” camera is now dictating the terms: I didn’t pass it over to anyone met on the road, no such person existed. And yet, here we are, developed print in hand: Renchi and I in the same image. Two figures standing in a gap in the hedge. Distance is realised by bands of colour. The white lines on the road float free—like angelic footsteps. The camera, unprompted, has produced a double portrait. (403-04)

“The rest of our walk is recorded on the same terms: soft shapes, ripe colour, more dream than document,” Sinclair concludes (404). Perhaps this episode is a lesson in photography for walkers (like me) who try to record their walks with a camera. 

Past Dartford, “a town that can’t be negotiated on foot” (450), Sinclair and Renchi approach the River Thames:

We moved on towards the bridge. Heavy clouds hugged the shoreline, black at base, blooded as the sun climbed above the Littlebrook Power Station. Backlit dredgers. Two skeletal towers, one on each short, carrying power lines. They never fail: river, marshland, the pier that looks like a concrete boat. All the sensory buttons are pushed. Space. Flow. Dereliction. New estates springing up. The thick tongue of oil on the shoreline, its ridges and patterns. (490)

“All the sensory buttons are pushed”: like other walkers, Sinclair is trying to capture the sights, smells, and sounds of the walk. Such sensory data, such witnessing, is a feature of the walk, from its inception to its conclusion at Waltham Abbey on a cold night in December, 1999:

Church and grounds are painted with searchlight beams. Renchi, at long last, pilgrimage completed, finds an unlocked door. We have to witness the astrological ceiling, the wall-painting in the side chapel (a fifteenth-century Doom mural). Unseen, it predicted our journey. In darkness, we set out. And in darkness we returned. (536)

From there, like good Englishmen, they repair to a pub, where they celebrate the conclusion of the walk with double brandies and bandages for their blistered feet.

It’s impossible to summarize a book of such scope as London Orbital, and I have merely scratched the surface of this text, I know. Nevertheless, this book will be important for my research. I intend to follow Sinclair’s methodological example, for one thing. And the freedom of his prose makes mine seem pinched and stultified by comparison. In fact, London Orbital might be an exemplar of the kind of work I intend to do here. I’m going to read Sinclair’s other books about walking as well. But that will come later. My next task is to read about pilgrimage, something I know about as a practitioner, but not as a theorist—which could be a problem for the paper I have to write this month about walking and pilgrimage.

Works Cited

Augé, Marc. Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity. Translated by John Howe. Second edition, Verso, 2009.

Sinclair, Iain. London Orbital: A Walk around the M25. Penguin, 2003.

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

35. Thelma Poirier, Rock Creek

rock creek

My plan had been to spend the past week and a half reading Iain Sinclair’s London Orbital, a 500-page account of walking around London, roughly following the route of the M25 expressway. That plan didn’t take into account the vicious chest cold I developed the day after I wrote my Cree examination. It was impossible to concentrate on Sinclair’s ornate prose for the better part of a week. Meanwhile, I saw a reference to Saskatchewan writer and rancher Thelma Poirier on my friend Matthew Anderson’s Facebook page. How had I never heard of her work? Luckily, Spafford Books had a copy of Poirier’s Rock Creek in stock, and Leah was willing to deliver it to the house, as I was too ill to go to the store (and I don’t want to pass this cold along to my friends: let it die with me!). I’ll try to find time to read London Orbital, but I’m happy that I discovered Poirier’s work, even if I had to get sick in order to do so.

Rock Creek is primarily an account of a walk along Rock Creek, which runs through the ranch Poirier works with her husband near Fir Mountain, Saskatchewan. (That’s close to Wood Mountain, the destination of my pilgrimage of last summer.) Rock Creek, or Morgan Creek as it apparently is known on official maps (39), begins in the hills near Wood Mountain, and it empties into the Milk River across the border in Montana. Not only does Poirier live on Rock Creek, but her father homesteaded there, and it’s where she grew up. Nevertheless, Poirier doesn’t feel that she knows the creek very well:

I have seen two oceans, but I have not seen all of the creek in my own backyard. It is as though I have been wearing blinders, only removing them at certain places, long enough for glimpses of the creek, the edges of the water.

The heron knows Rock Creek better than I do. (5)

The heron Poirier mentions is a great blue heron she has seen fishing in the creek; from the direction of its flight, it seems to roost in a heronry at the creek’s headwaters. “If I follow the heron,” Poirier writes, “I too will experience every bend of the creek, every shift of the landscape. If I walk up Rock Creek,  will see what the heron sees” (5-6). 

So that’s what Poirier does: she walks along the creek, beginning in her yard, looking for or waiting for the heron. She makes an overnight journey along the creek to an abandoned homestead, accompanied part of the way by a coyote that is curious about her. And as she walks, she develops another plan: a walk from the point where the creek crosses the Canada-U.S. border to the headwaters. “I plan the walk in my mind, plan how I will borrow three or four days from the ranch after the cattle are moved to summer pastures, after the crop is seeded, before branding, before haying,” she writes (8). She approaches landowners and leaseholders—including Grasslands National Park, since part of the creek runs through it—for permission to walk on their property. She knows she has a limited window to make this walk, because she has a terrible allergy to wolf willow, and she will need to complete the walk before it comes into bloom. She plans to stay overnight at places that were part of her father’s ranch: at the old line camp, which was named because of its proximity to the international border, and at the home place, the homestead where she was born. Not surprisingly, these places, as well as the creek and the valley it flows through, evoke memories for Poirier. What is surprising, though, is her insistence that this knowledge is insufficient:

I have been told that living here, living in this same place nearly all my life, I am like a minnow. I take this place for granted, the way the minnow takes water for granted. Because I live here, because I presumably have not looked at this place through the other end of the binoculars, because I have not sat on a beach in Spain or walked along the Great Wall in China, there are things about this place I will never know. There are things I can not see because I see them every day, and I cannot name them. That may be so, but there may be other things I know because I have lived here. I know the minnows in Rock Creek have been privileged. Water has a way of magnifying the buffalo beans on the creek bank. (25)

One of the things Poirier knows is the sights and sounds and smells of this place. On a drive to the home place, to see whether she could stay overnight in the old farmhouse, she notices “the smell of the creek: the aroma of old clay, old willow bark mixed with new willow leaf, arrowhead, and tender rushes” (14). During a similar trip to the line camp, she writes, “I rest my arm on the open window and breath in the many scents of spring, buffalo bean and psorallea, silver sage” (28). Clearly Poirier knows the names of the plants and animals and birds as well. One of the pleasures of this book is her evocation of those creatures through their names. Another is the intimacy with which she reports what she sees and hears and smells.

The middle section of the book, “Upstream,” recounts Poirier’s walk. Everywhere she goes on this walk has a name or function or something that indicates that it is a place, as opposed to undifferentiated space (to return to Yi-Fu Tuan’s distinction yet again). For instance, on the drive south to the border, where she will begin walking, Poirier catalogues the places she and her husband pass:

We follow a winding trail through grazing leases, through park land, sometimes over the Trader’s Trail used more than a hundred years ago by Metis buffalo hunters, pass the site where Ed McPherson’s cow camp once stood, the camp that probably marked the east end of the Turkey Track range, drive past a single coyote, past the lakes until we reach the boundary, turn east and pass boundary markers, until we are opposite Bowerys’ or Davenports’ place. The names changed with the residents. They are left over from adult conversations heard at the dinner table during my childhood. (44)

Despite Poirier’s suggestion that she doesn’t know the land well enough, it’s clear (to me, anyway) that she has an intimate knowledge of these places. All of those places, or the names or stories Poirier knows them by, are echoes of a long-lost past. Nearly all of the homesteads or ranches she sees or walks past have been abandoned, evidence of the way rural Saskatchewan has been emptied of people, of settlers, since the drought of the 1930s. The names linger, but the evidence of human habitation is fragmentary now: cellars, steel objects slowly turning to rust, occasionally a building that has not yet collapsed. This is one of the reasons Grasslands National Park has been able to expand: as they retire, ranchers often sell their land to the park. Poirier is ambivalent about the park, partly because she’s not sure grazing will be allowed there, and without grazing, the prairie grasses will not thrive (47). That’s not surprising; she reports that ranchers tend to be opposed to the park because of their deeply rooted desire for privacy (46).

Poirier is not unaware that others called this valley home before settlers arrived. For twenty years, she notes, she has travelled with her friend Wasu Mato (William Lethbridge), a Lakota man who has shown her places where his ancestors camped while Sitting Bull was seeking refuge from the U.S. cavalry north of the border (26). She reports that Rock Creek was once known as Medicine Lodge Creek, because the Lakota held a sun dance there in 1879 (54-55). On the second day of the walk, she discovers quartzite artifacts—not arrowheads or scrapers, but something else, something knapped by human hands—as well as a “chert point . . . wedged into the clay bank of the creek,” evidence of “a stonesmith camped along Rock Creek,” who “squatted among the pygmy cacti, the stunted grasses and the sedges, and fashioned this simple point form a chunk of chert” (107). Poirier imagines that the stonesmith might have been a woman (107). 

One of the pleasures of this book, as I’ve said, is the catalogue Poirier creates from the creatures she encounters on her walk: ferruginous hawks, ticks, and Canada geese (57-59); mule deer—a herd of 37 at one point (91)—and antelope, including a doe who walks alongside of her (94); a short-eared owl (66); sage grouse (69); rose, buffaloberry, and silverberry (70); ducks, a pair of western kingbirds, cushion vetch or pussy toes, buffalo beans and June grass (87); northern wheatgrass, little bluestem, blue grama, rough fescue, spear grass (93); big bluestem and green needle grass (104-05); a barn owl (98); pelicans (100); long-billed curlews (106); a golden eagle and killdeer and sharptailed grouse (113); nighthawks. Often naming the things she sees evokes a memory: seeing buffaloberries growing along the creek brings to mind childhood experiences of making jelly from their soapy fruit with her mother (71-72). The hill with the Dominion Land Survey marker on the top reminds her of her annual flower count there (120). She remembers the ritual of repairing fences (107), stories about branding cattle (115-16), about the small coal mine that settlers dug near a spring (116-17). Poirier moves back and forth, from memory to the present and back again—this is, not surprisingly, the primary narrative mode of her account, this shifting from present into memories of the past. Other times she tells stories about the creature she encounters, as with the antelope doe that walks beside her for a while, or the barn owl that surprises her at an old farmhouse. Walking, as Poirier has discovered, generates narrative—perhaps because of its rhythms, perhaps because of its slowness. “I am walking with memory,” she writes (128).

Another pleasure of this book is Poirier’s evocation of the things she sees, hears, and smells. She writes of the colours of a cutbank: “Today the cutbanks are not yellow, but mauve and rose and turquoise, colors trembling beneath the thunderclouds” (73). She finds a speckled blue egg in the ruts of the trail (75). The sunrise on her second morning begins with everything being “a mute brown,” but “then a silvery light wavers on the tips of the buffalo berry and the sage. It slips between the silhouettes of the dobies. The brown bottle turns blue. A wash of yellow light. Indigo. Chartreuse. Magenta” (81). “How easily colour comes to the canyon, to the line camp,” she reflects (81). At the end of the second day, she looks back at where she has walked: the horizon is “a blur of mauve and purple shadow,” the creek “an intermittent blue thread” (102). “The day was linked by special moments: quiet mule deer, one blue heron, a solitary antelope, rock wrens, an owl, pelicans, and shooting stars. And best of all was the overwhelming sense of timelessness. How old am I?” (102).

Poirier’s feet blister on the first day of her walk, and she is so exhausted that she falls asleep before sunset. On the second day, when she reaches her own yard, she stops for four days to enable her blisters to heal. That morning, as the sun rises, she turns to survey the land:

A pale light brushes the western horizon, the western slope is brown. I drop into the valley, into the land of shadow along Rock Creek, measure the morning by the first rays of the sun, a strange sensation of light creeping down the western slopes toward me. The sky is smoky rose, the horizon obscure. Then a sudden wash of light spreads across the valley and the only shadow is my own, stretching off to one side as I move northward up the creek in the south pasture. (103)

This close to home, Poirier knows the land intimately. “Where I walk today the landscape is the one that I know best,” she writes. “Over the years I have come to know these hills, the contours as well as my own body” (107). There is a level of intimacy in those sentences that contradict Poirier’s earlier hesitation regarding her knowledge of the land through which she is walking. 

At one point, Poirier experiences what can only be described as an ecstasy of belonging, an epiphany of being part of the land through which she is walking:

I pause on the road and know that as surely as the earth draws me, as surely as I can feel the weight of my hands increasing as I walk, pulling me down, I can also feel the earth surging upward inside of me. I can taste the scent of leaf mold and sweetgrass and a multiple of water weeds. Maybe it is true that our sense of smell is co-dependent on the sensitivity of our taste buds.

Best of all I feel buoyant, almost like the deer in mid-air. It seems I walk on the tips of the grass, float over flowers. Perhaps I do not have to look through the other end of the binoculars after all. I just have to be here. (121-22)

The merging of senses here (smell and taste), and the simultaneous senses of being pulled down by the earth and floating above it, both suggest the power of this moment. And yet this experience is juxtaposed against the mundane: a stop to eat a granola bar and check her legs for ticks. Even the ordinariness of that moment is special, though. “Beside me is a beaver dam, a very small dam, the first of many between this point and the headwaters, each dam larger than the previous one,” she writes. “A red-tailed hawk nests in a hawthorn beside the beaver dam, is nervous because I am there. She lifts her wings, shifts her feet and meets my gaze. Her mate soars and dives. It is time for me to leave” (122). 

As she walks past her childhood home, her memories become even more powerful. She remembers riding with her sister, Marjorie; the land is shadowed by her memories of those rides. She sees the grave of her infant sister, Florence May, who was born 18 years before her: “As I walk I carry her in my arms, bundled against me. And in the house I think my mother still sits at the window, grieving for a daughter that did not live” (130). The corrals her father built and the pasture where her father kept the rams evoke memories: “That was nearly fifty years ago; time keeps getting in the way” (131). Although Poirier could walk up to the house, she decides not to: “I focus on the creek and the headwaters, on finishing this walk” (131). And shortly afterwards, she arrives there and drinks from the spring that feeds Rock Creek: “This water, too, is cold and sweet. Here, I can say with solemnity, Rock Creek begins here. I can sip from the beginning and know something of beginnings at the end of my journey” (135). She climbs a nearby hill and writes in her notebook, “reluctant to leave, reluctant to end this journey” (136). It’s a feeling many distance walkers will experience, although Poirier’s reluctance might be more powerful because of the intimacy with which she knows the land and the memories it contains for her.

The last section of the book recalls a road trip to the confluence of Rock Creek and the Milk River in Montana five years later. It took that long to find time when she and her sister Marjorie could make the drive. She wanted to walk again, but the only time Marjorie can travel with her is in October, a bad time for walking. It is less than a day’s drive to the confluence, which reminds Poirier of the creek’s source, despite the differences between the two places:

Deer paths cross the clearing, wind through a tangle of ash and silver willow, meadow grass and dogwood, all beneath a grove of cottonwood at the confluence. On one side of a “V” is Rock Creek, on the other side, the Milk River. Waters of the larger river drift into the creek, swirl and carry the creek away, a convoluted progression. Morning light shatters on the surface of the water and it seems pieces of mica reflect the sun. . . . And then it comes to me, how this confluence is like the headwaters of Rock Creek. It is the tangle of underbrush, the silver willows, the tall trees overhead and the aroma of mint and moss. It is the blend of light and shadow. I am compelled to look to the tops of the trees, look for a heronry. There is not a single nest or a heron in the sky. (141-42). 

The confluence also reminds her that the Milk River flows into the Missouri, and then the Mississippi: “Last winter I visited New Orleans, and sat on the quay and watched the roiling water of the Mississippi, knowing some small portion of it came from Rock Creek, flowed past this confluence I had not yet seen” (142). Poirier and her sister drive through the canyon the creek has formed, and Poirier is overwhelmed by the differences between that canyon and the valley she knows so well: “It is unlike any part of Rock Creek I have ever seen” (143). The sisters meet an old woman at a farm who tells them that the farm was once a town (144-47). She is auctioning off her brother’s farm three days later, and Poirier and her husband and a neighbour come back. They visit the neighbour’s sister’s farm and Poirier goes for a walk near an abandoned ranch. She wades into Rock Creek and finds that the water is tepid despite the late season: “Rock Creek, I think, dear Rock Creek” (155).

Poirier meets several women at the auction, and at the end of the book she wonders about them, about their relationship with the land and with each other:

They shared their memories, their present realities with me. If they were poets, what poems would they write? Rock Creek bonds us to each other and to other women who live along its banks and tributaries. No boundary can separate us. 

By nightfall most of the Montana women return to their homes in Hinsdale, Opheim or Glasgow. Only a few of them remain on the creek, listen to the night wind yipping like a bunch of Canadian coyotes. Likewise I return to my Canadian home on a branch of Rock Creek. (158)

Why, I wonder, are the coyotes Canadian? What is Poirier suggesting with that adjective? She is thinking about the similarities between women on both sides of the international border, but I wonder why the coyotes are identified as Canadian. In any case, crossing the border on the return home gives the book a circularity. “The journey ends where it began, at the crossing,” Poirier writes. “The water gurgles through the rushes. An elongated cloud stretches across the horizon, blue as a heron’s wing” (158)—like the heron Poirier followed in the first section of the book, the heron whose flight towards the creek’s headwaters gave her the idea for the walk.

Rock Creek reinforces the idea that writing about place—or experiences of place—require a deep level of intimacy. After all, Poirier is writing about the place where she was born and raised, the place she has spent her adult life, and she still wonders if she knows it well enough. I felt the same way when I walked in the Haldimand Tract in southwestern Ontario three years ago, although that’s where I grew up. And yet I know that not every book about place comes from that kind of intimacy. That’s the reason I wanted to read Iain Sinclair’s London Orbital: yes, he knows part of that journey intimately, since it begins in the London neighbourhood where he has lived for 30 or 40 years, but surely the rest of his walk takes place in territory with which he is unfamiliar. Perhaps I will find time to read London Orbital sooner rather than later. And perhaps, at some point in this project, I’ll be able to repeat Poirier’s walk. My experience would be completely different from hers, of course, but I wonder what someone who isn’t intimately familiar with the land might take from the experience. The trick, of course, would be getting permissions from landowners, but my friend Hugh does that before the walks he organizes, and so it’s clearly not impossible. It’s something to think about, anyway, as I consider what book to read next.

Works Cited

Poirier, Thelma. Rock Creek. Coteau, 1998.

Sinclair, Iain. London Orbital: A Walk Around the M25. Penguin, 2003.

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

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.