Tag Archives: space

The Real-and-Imagined City

7 May

For the psychogeographers mentioned in the previous post, the city becomes both a mental space and a physical problem. This interlinking is something that is taken up in the work of cultural geographers such as Edward Soja and Derek Gregory. Both thinkers are influenced by the work of Lefebvre, who attends to both the real problem of capitalism’s devastating restructuring of the landscape and to the everyday negotiations of citizens in their responses to the situation in which they find themselves. Lefebvre defines three ways of thinking about space: spatial practice, representations of space and representational spaces (or spaces of representation). The first relates to perceived space, the way that socio-spatial relationships are experienced and deciphered materially. Spatial practice is the basic functioning of social space, both the ground on which social space is produced and the means of producing and reproducing itself: ‘The spatial practice of a society secretes that society’s space; it propounds and presupposes it, in a dialectical interaction’.

Representations of space are those conceptions of space that tend toward the abstract (geometry, for example) or a certain kind of artistic vision or imagination. It is ‘conceptualized space, the space of scientists, planners, urbanists, technocratic subdividers and social engineers’. Lefebvre sees this space as the dominant form of spatial thinking in any given society, one that relies on verbal signs to assert its power. Representational spaces refer to ‘space as directly lived through its associated images and symbols, and hence the space of “inhabitants” and “users”’. This lived space is also the space appropriated by imagination and of art that seeks to ‘describe and do no more than describe’. Lefebvre posits a theory of the ‘production of space’ in which all of these features come into play. Social space is the outcome of all three practices, though, as Edward Soja notes, Lefebvre’s presentation is largely a critique of the representation of space and a consideration of the possibilities of representational spaces: ‘It is political choice, the impetus of an explicit political project, that gives special attention and particular contemporary relevance to the spaces of representation, to lived space as a strategic location from which to encompass, understand, and potentially transform all spaces simultaneously.’ I will return to the implications for this favouring of what Soja calls Thirdspace in another post. For now, I want to briefly mention Lefebvre’s thoughts on cities as ‘works’, ‘products’ and ‘works of art’.

Lefebvre begins to discuss this issue by pointing out that nature does not produce, because the way we think of production in a Hegelian or Marxian manner is as something that deliberately creates products. Nature creates but its creations are not products; they are all differentiated and, while they have use value, they are not designed for a reproducibility based on exchange. A city begins as a work, an operation of spatial practice in which initially it becomes, for various reasons, what it is destined to become. But at a certain point its work (the work of becoming a city) has been done and it starts to more closely resemble a product. This is notable in the fact that cities are made up of reproducible parts, which is one reason why they tend to look alike. The tools with which they are built are designed to reproduce certain templates and to themselves be reproducible. But with this realization comes another, that the city was always a product, having been built for particular reasons and developed according to particular motivations. A city, especially a beautiful or unique one, may look like a work (of art) but it was not built to look like one; its workliness came about as a side effect of its productliness. This is related to economics because the tools have been paid for, designed and built and the labour force trained to serve the purpose of a reproducible product. It is no wonder, Lefebvre says, that all cities begin to look alike, for the economic patterns that guide them are all alike. Venice may appear as a unique and unrepeatable work, but it is no more a work of art than those cities which flaunt their reproducibility – it too was the product of capitalist desires and needs and endlessly repeated actions. But it still revels in diversity. There must therefore be a connection between city as work and city as product.

Is it perhaps the case that art provides the space that the city as product needs? In doing so, does it remove the politics of the situation by paying more attention to the aesthetic beauty of the city than to the toil and capitalist ruthlessness that produced it? If fado hymns an aestheticized, imagined city, does it highlight a blindness in the music as to ‘real life’? Lefebvre seems to suggest that we need not go this far. By introducing Tuscany into his discussion, he shows how the creators of cities and the artists who represent those cities have existed in a dialectical relationship to each other. Perspectivism develops in Italian painting as a response to the new social spaces but social spaces come to rely on perspectivism in turn. I think we can allow fado a similar role. It comes about doubtless as a ‘production of space’ but is able to offer a dialectical response in the shape of a music that both hymns the aestheticized city and provides fuel for changes in the social space of the city. Fado is a superlative art form for bringing together the representational spaces of the city with the representation of space, arguably doing so more effectively and more persistently (stubbornly even) than the other arts in Portugal.

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The Imagined City (i)

7 May

Another way of dealing with the relationship between citizen and city can be found in Kevin Lynch’s book The Image of the City (1960). Although dated in many ways, the book describes a way of thinking about this relationship which is still of interest. Lynch and his fellow researchers were interested in the ‘cognitive maps’ which people carry of the cities in which they live. Wanting to find out what the relationship was between these cognitive maps and official maps of the city, they asked people to draw their own maps of the city and of particular routes through it, supplementing this information with questions regarding how their respondents dealt with particular negotiations when using the city, what they thought of different neighbourhoods and features, and so on. The results of this research showed that there were quite different imaginations of the city and that these, perhaps not surprisingly, were dependent on particular subject positions. While this data, as Edward Soja suggests, ultimately had the effect of reproducing certain dominant discourses of the city and of social relationships, it nevertheless provided a valuable ‘tilting’ of the normally-designated representation of space from an ‘official’ to an ‘unofficial’, or at least ‘semi-official’ discourse.

Lynch identified five main elements of the city from his respondents’ representations:

  • Paths – ‘channels along which the observer customarily, occasionally, or potentially moves … streets, walkways, transit lines, canals, railroads’. Lynch found that these were the predominant way of imagining the city.
  • Edges – ‘linear elements not used or considered as paths’, such as ‘shores, railroad cuts, edges of developments, walls’. These features help people organize and make sense of space.
  • Districts – ‘medium-to-large sections of the city’ which can be mentally entered and have some distinguishing feature.
  • Nodes – ‘strategic points in a city into which an observer can enter’, such as junctions, crossings, squares or other concentrations or condensations of space.
  • Landmarks – external point references whose ‘use involves the singling out of one element from a host of possibilities’.

(Lynch, Kevin, The Image of the City (Cambridge, MA, and London: The MIT Press, 1996 [1960]), pp. 47-8.) 

To take some examples from the city of Lisbon, we might consider the following:

Rua Augusta, Avenida da Liberdade, the Avenida 24 de Julho, or the tram and Metro lines, paths along which one might customarily move;

River Tejo at Belemthe Tejo, Monsanto park, or the train lines at Alcântara, edges which help to organize space;

AlfamaAlfama, Bica, or Chiado, districts with distinguishing features;

RossioRossio, Praça da Figueira or Martim Moniz, nodes which act as points of concentration;

Ponte 25 de Abrilthe Castelo de São Jorge, the Ponte 25 Abril or the Elevador da Santa Justa, landmarks that can be singled out.

Fado hymns such elements while also overlaying them with a wealth of less obvious cognitive mappings such as alleyways, windows and rooftops.

Alfama Rooftops

Flows (i)

7 May

Mark C. Taylor describes flows in terms of the changes wrought upon the metropolis:

In the city, place is transformed into the space of anonymous flows. As technologies change first from steam and electricity and then to information, currents shift, but patterns tend to remain the same. Mobility, fluidity and speed intersect to effect repeated displacements in which everything becomes ephemeral, and nothing remains solid or stable.

(Mark C. Taylor & Dietrich Christian Lammerts, Grave Matters (London: Reaktion Books, 2002), p. 19.)

 Charles Baudelaire’s work holds a central place here, with its emphasis on the ephemeral and the permanent. Taylor notes how this fluidity in modernity is associated with the emphasis in philosophy on becoming over being:

The infatuation with becoming issues in the cult of the new, which defines both modernity and modernism. The cultivation of the new simultaneously reflects and reinforces the economic imperative of planned obsolescence. In the modern world, what is not of the moment, up to date, au courant is as useless as yesterday’s newspaper.

(Taylor & Lammerts, p. 19)

The price of this, for Edward Casey, is ‘the loss of places that can serve as lasting scenes of experience and reflection and memory’. This in turn has led to the search for theories of belonging, dwelling and being-in-place, as can be found in the rather different projects of Martin Heidegger, Gaston Bachelard and Yi-Fu Tuan.

Place in contemporary thinking occupies many ‘sites’ that are the consequences of the rush to modernity, among them the postindustrial wasteland, the high-rises and ‘concrete islands’ described in the fictions of J.G. Ballard, the abandoned high street, the migratory routes of tourists and vagabonds, and the ‘non-places’ analysed by Marc Augé. These non-places are echoed in Beatriz Sarlo’s discussion of the ‘decentered city, in which she posits the out-of-town shopping mall as the quintessential example of a site for the contemporary consumer-subject to get lost. As Sarlo points out, displacement is happening here on more than just the physical level: ‘the mall is part and parcel of an evacuation of urban memory.’ Zygmunt Bauman, meanwhile, points to the slipperiness of any sense of space within ‘liquid modernity’. In another kind of evacuation, we are also asked to consider the escape from ‘real’ place into the hyperreal space of simulation and the ‘placeless places’ of cyberculture described by Taylor:

The placeless place and timeless time of cyberculture form the shifty margin of neither/nor […] In this ‘netherzone’, ‘reality’ is neither living nor dead, material nor immaterial, here nor there, present nor absent, but somewhere in between. Understood in this way, cyberspace is undeniably spectral. The virtual realities with which we increasingly deal are ghostly shades that double but do not repeat the selves we are becoming.

(Taylor & Lammerts, p. 20. The notion of the ‘netherzone’ comes from the artist Eve André Laramée.)

Before we lose sight of the actual citizen, however, we should think of how one responds to such developments in everyday life. Common to a number of the arguments presented above is an assumption that the city operates as an ideological pressure upon the subjected citizen, who is born into a time and place and must adapt to their situation. This immediately raises questions of negotiation between citizen and city, between dweller and dwelling place.

The geographer Yi-Fu Tuan begins his exploration of space and place with the body, describing a world which is made sense of spatially as a user moves through it. Tuan also presents space as a dialectic of freedom and constraint, shelter and venture, attachment and freedom. Place, meanwhile, is distinguished as ‘enclosed and humanized space’.

Tuan makes the point that space can be both desirable in offering freedom and frightening in threatening loneliness. He is talking here about open space (against which the city might be built and defined) but the point also holds for certain city spaces. The inhabitation of space that produces place relies on a certain amount of imaginary relationships with objects. There is a temporal as well as a spatial dimension to this process. Place is not just the taming of space but a pause in time. Objects, as well as familiarizing us with space, ‘anchor time’ and provide a relationship between person, space and time that is intimate:

To strengthen our sense of self the past needs to be rescued and made accessible. Various devices exist to shore up the crumbling landscapes of the past. For example, we can visit the tavern: it provides an opportunity to talk and turn our small adventures into epics, and in some such fashion ordinary lives achieve recognition and even brief glory in the credulous minds of fellow inebriates. Friends depart, but their letters are tangible evidence of their continuing esteem. Relatives die and yet remain present and smiling in the family album. Our own past, then, consists of bits and pieces. It finds a home in the high school diploma, the wedding picture, and the stamped visas of a dogeared passport; in the stringless tennis racket and the much-traveled trunk; in the personal library and the old family home.

(Yi-Fu Tuan, Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2008 [1977]), p. 54.)

There is an obvious correlation here with the process of remembering pioneered by Joe Brainard and discussed in a previous post. Tuan also reiterates a point made by Georges Perec about the memorian’s project, that it is meaningful even when (perhaps especially when) others do not share the specifics of the intimate moment; there is something about the process that is recognizable beyond the personal. It is worth positing, then, that what Brainard attempts for time, Tuan does for space. This relationship is even more notable in Bachelard’s ‘poetics of space’, where the intimacy of the poetic line finds its mirror in the intimacy of the domestic sphere, itself a microcosm of the broader relationship between body and world.

Nostalgia, for Tuan, is not simply a passive process to be opposed to agency; rather, the question of whether one feels nostalgic is intimately related to questions of power and control over one’s destiny:

In general, we may say that whenever a person (young or old) feels that the world is changing too rapidly, his characteristic response is to evoke an idealized and stable past. On the other hand, when a person feels that he himself is directing the change and in control of affairs of importance to him, then nostalgia has no place in his life: action rather than mementos of the past will support his sense of identity.

(Tuan, p. 187.)

Mindful of theories of nostalgia and how they reflect or are challenged by supposedly nostalgic practices, I am not sure whether we can import this suggestion of Tuan’s wholesale into an analysis of cultural practices (such as fado) that, having taken nostalgia as their bedrock, have developed more nuanced and even agency-oriented versions of longing. In Fado and the Place of Longing, I offer a discussion of the work of Carlos do Carmo that suggests it is possible to imagine a progressive, agency-oriented programme that deliberately and explicitly uses nostalgia as its base.

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.)