Space and Place in the City

7 May

Fado provides topographies of loss in its hymning of the city, allowing a renegotiation undertaken by the citizens of the fadista world of what the names of the city’s streets and neighbourhoods mean. What Michel de Certeau writes with other cities in mind might just as easily be said for Lisbon:

Saints-Pères, Corentin Celton, Red Square … these names … detach themselves from the places they were supposed to define and serve as imaginary meeting-points on itineraries which, as metaphors, they determine for reasons that are foreign to their original value but may be recognized or not by passers-by … 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.

(Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, pp. 104-5.)

 Certeau is talking about words – names – but we should also note the relevance of this quotation to music itself, which also detaches itself from place to serve as metaphor, and which also becomes a liberated space to be occupied.

The occupation of which Certeau writes relies on memory as a spatial practice. Frances Yates tells the story of the ancient ‘art of memory’ known as ‘mnemotechnics’ that relied on the fixing of memories in particular places and how this art was later developed in the medieval ‘memory theatre’. The sense of memories occupying space depends on some notion of inscription. For Plato, memories were inscribed or imprinted in the mind, ready to be recalled and ‘read’ at a later date. This also suggests that memory is a palimpsest, a notion that fits the idea of place as location of memory in the city. As Yates notes with relation to the passing on of the art of memory from the Greeks and Romans to the European tradition, ‘an art which uses contemporary architecture for its memory places and contemporary imagery for its images will have its classical, Gothic, and Renaissance periods, like the other arts.’ (Frances A. Yates, The Art of Memory (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1966), p. xi.)

In The City of Collective Memory, Christine Boyer notes the desire accompanying modernity for a disciplinarity in city planning that would double as a disciplinarity over the citizen:

If the masses, housed and fed by meager allowances and expanding in number within the working-class districts of nineteenth-century industrial cities, presented a dangerous threat to social stability, then how better to discipline their behavior and instill democratic sentiments and a morality of self-control than through exemplary architectural expression and city planning improvements?

(M. Christine Boyer, The City of Collective Memory: Its Historical Legacy and Architectural Entertainments (Cambridge, MA, and London: The MIT Press, 1996 [1994]), p. 12.)

Boyer also discusses Foucault’s work on architecture as discipline. Foucault was fascinated with the ways in which space was used to exert power, whether through the surveillance allowed by the panopticon or by the disciplinary possibilities of modernist urban planning. Such disciplinarity is accompanied by, and largely a product of, capitalist accumulation, which, as many Marxist geographers have noted, has been the agent of continual change in the landscape. As David Harvey points out, the lip service paid to collective memory in the city is only one part of the equation:

Capitalist development must negotiate a knife-edge between preserving the values of past commitments made at a particular place and time, or devaluing them to open up fresh room for accumulation. Capitalism perpetually strives, therefore, to create a social and physical landscape in its own image and requisite to its own needs at a particular point in time, only just as certainly to undermine, disrupt and even destroy that landscape at a later point in time.

(David Harvey, cited in Edward J. Soja, Postmodern Geographies: The Reassertion of Space in Critical Social Theory (London and New York: Verso, 1989), p. 157.)

 While for some writers the association between the Enlightenment project of ‘totalizing’ experience and the twentieth century experiences of authoritarianism has been maintained, others have suggested that we have moved into a new ‘post-disciplinary’ era. Zygmunt Bauman, for example, in his account of globalization, has claimed that we have moved on from the panopticism described by Foucault to a ‘synopticism’ in which the many watch the few rather than vice versa. Globalization shows world affairs as indeterminate, unruly and self-propelled, in marked contrast to the Enlightenment project of universalization which contained the hope for order-making and was utopian. Capital has become ‘emancipated from space’ and with it industry, jobs and people.  Migratory flows create two classes of people that Bauman describes as ‘tourists and vagabonds’: tourists ‘become wanderers and put the bitter-sweet dreams of homesickness above the comforts of home – because they want to’, while vagabonds ‘have been pushed from behind – having first been spiritually uprooted from the place that holds no promise, by a force of seduction or propulsion too powerful, and often too mysterious, to resist.’ (Zygmunt Bauman, Globalization: The Human Consequences (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1998), pp. 92-3.)


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