Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Space, Place and the Child: More Tuan

Some more notes from Space and Place, specifically Chapter 3: Space, Place & the Child.
“The infant has no world. He cannot distinguish between self and an external environment. He feels, but his sensations are not localized in space.” p. 20
This suggestion smacks of Freud and/or Kristeva’s (check which) theory of the Oceanic stage/feeling. The Oceanic feeling is the earmark of a developmental stage in which the infant feels wholly at one with the mother. This feeling makes it impossible for the infant to see herself as a self within the world/environment, but I’m not at all sure that it means the infant is the world/environment, even from the infant's perspective. There is probably a vacuum of information, a complete unawareness of the world. I suppose it’s a question of how much emphasis you want to put on Freudian psychoanalysis (not much, is my general opinion). In any case, this suggestion of Tuan’s does interact with these particular thoughts of psychoanalysis in an intriguing way.
“The picture of a road leading to a distant cottage seems easy to interpret; yet the road makes full sense only to someone who has walked on it. An immobile infant can have no sense of distance as the expenditure of energy to overcome spatial barriers.” p. 22
Upon reading this, I go back to the notion (of which I am rather fond) of visual vs. spatial (or actual) vs. temporal distance. By temporal distance I mean that distance is mentally measured by the time required to move from A to B. ‘Actual’ distance would be measured by standard means, and visual distance would be ‘measured’ purely by the eye. It seems, taking Tuan’s suggestion into account, that all of these different perceptions of distance have the prerequisite of actually traversing a distance. But must one have traveled – i.e. walked – the very one we’re talking about or another, comparable distance? Is all distance perception comparative?
Thinking about my own (inconsistent) description of distance, I usually rely on temporal means. “It’s about a twenty minute walk.” I also almost always underestimate the actual time necessary. Or, I think comparatively in terms of the driving trips I know best. A trip isn’t far if it isn’t longer than the drive from my hometown to St. Louis. If it’s as long as the drive to Indianapolis, it’s less appealing, but if it’s as short as to Louisville or Nashville, it’s very short indeed. Conversely, if it's as far away as a seven hour plane ride, I'm much more inclined to make the trip.
Opposites are most important to children: empty and full, near and far, inside and outside, home and away.
“Of special interest in these observations is the child’s apparent concern with the remote and the proximate. He points to the horizon and plays with stones at his feet, but he shows little interest in the middle ground.” p. 24
“The geographical horizon of a child expands as he grows, but not necessarily step by step toward the larger scale.” p. 31
This is perhaps symptomatic of children (and people in general) trying to overreach their boundaries. It’s much more interesting to think about far off places than to think about the neighboring county or state. It’s much like my inclination to say “Yes! I’m going to write my dissertation on the 18th century!” without really knowing anything about it. It’s appealing to jump headlong into the unknown, until you get a taste for what it actually is.
Tuan describes the parent as the child’s environment. This description is fascinating on a number of levels. First, Tuan has a fluid understanding of what place is. Geographical locations clearly do not cover all facets of place (or space, for that matter) for Tuan. Place is at times an object, at times a person, at times nonexistent. And then, in looking at infants’ and children’s perception of space, he defines place as a “focus of value, of nurture and support,” which he equates with the function and child’s perception of the mother. This is not controversial, once you have accepted that a person can be a place.
However, it makes me wonder whether a perpetually absent parent or one that is unable to fulfill the needs of the child could negatively impact a child’s ability to attach to places. What about orphans? Their needs are not met by any single person and their homes are not (I imagine) the most comforting or positive spaces. Do they not develop attachments to them? And then there’s the question of whether place has to imply a positive connotation. Could not a negative or emotionally difficult experience turn a space into an emotionally potent place just as much as a positive experience can create place? I guess what I’m wondering is whether place can be negative or whether place itself is invested with solely positive associations.
“The child also learns to associate persons with specific places. He is bewildered when he meets his nursery-school teacher downtown, because she seems to him dislocated; she upsets his system of classification.” p. 30
I would suggest that this remains true for adults. Perhaps our “system of classification” is not thoroughly rattled by seeing someone out of context, but we are certainly bewildered by running into people in, say, an airport or a foreign city. Or, perhaps even moreso, when they show up at our homes to pay an unexpected visit.
Finally, Tuan suggests that children have a desire to be in places that “conform to their own size.” As a rather tall person, I can agree with that. I’d much rather be in a room with a tall ceiling than in a tent.
Other ideas I liked:
“Human beings live on the ground and see trees and houses from the side. The bird’s-eye view is not ours, unless we climb a tall mountain or fly in an airplane.”
p. 27
“We more readily assume a God-like position, looking at the earth from above, than from the perspective of another mortal living on the same level as ourselves.” p. 28
“These highly charged moments from the past are sometimes captured by poets. Like candid snapshots out of the family album their words recall for us a lost innocence and a lost dread, an immediacy of experience that had not yet suffered (or benefited) from the distancing of reflective thought.” p. 20

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Allow me to draw your attention to...

... this: Paul Shepheard.

When you click to enter, definitely click on the ? in the lower left.

Space and Place

I started reading Yi-Fu Tuan's book Space and Place (1977) today, which is something I've been meaning to do for four or five years now. It is proving to be just as satisfying as I had hoped and I really really want to retain what I've read, so I'm going to keep notes on it here.

"The approach is descriptive, aiming more often to suggest than to conclude."
(p. 7.)

I think I've written before about "muscular" scholars. It seems to me that Tuan is familiar with the phenomenon of scholars bashing you so hard over the head with their ideas that you can't properly argue with them (when they have merit), and that he's chosen to not go there. I think his ideas are strong enough that you could bludgeon someone with them, but he's chosen the higher road of writing more simply and subtly and just letting the reader conclude for herself that he's right.

"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." (p.6)

I like this kind of codependence of ideas. It's as if space and place are two sides of the same coin, so to speak. He says at a different point that we long for the freedom of space because we are used to the narrowness of home (place), as if it's the proverbial forbidden fruit we're seeking all the time. On the topic of codependence, all my reading on space/place/landscape is tinted (tainted?) by Jay Appleton's theories. I've made a hobby of using his prospect-refuge theory in as many of my papers as possible and it seems likely that it will play some role in my dissertation. Anyway, I am not at all sure that I would have understood what Tuan meant by the "threat of space" without having read about prospect and refuge and habitat theory, i.e. the importance of being able to see your predators coming and being able to hide from them. It seems (to me, at least) that Appleton hit on something of major importance with that theory.

Tuan describes different kinds of spatial/platial (Larry Buell's word) experience:

  • a longtime resident of a city knows the city
  • a cab driver learns to find his way in the city
  • a geographer studies the city and knows it conceptually
I like the idea that different people have different relationships with cities. I like to imagine the intimate knowledge of a city vertically, like layers of phyllo dough accumulating, but that seems possibly too narrow. The geographer's knowledge of a city may be less intimate than the resident's knowledge of it, but it is perhaps deeper conceptually than even the most seasoned resident's. Perhaps a kind of Venn diagram would be more useful for conceptualizing the types of city-knowledges. (I think I may be [trying to become more] visual in my thought processes. See shoddily drawn Venn diagram to the right.)
You'll note that I added the tourist to my diagram. This is only because I'm slightly troubled by something that Tuan says later on: "Another place may lack the weight of reality because we know it only from the outside--through the eyes as tourists, and from reading about it in a guidebook." (p. 18) As an avid tourist myself, I squirm at this. Some of my travel memories seem more real to me than memories of my hometown, the place that I have lived longest in my life, and memories of college (a place where I was a bit more than a tourist) seem as if I dreamed them - they have no "weight of reality." I think that the tourist has access to a unique experience of a place - perhaps they don't have the depth or intimacy of knowledge that comes with living in a place, but they have access to it from a purely aesthetic perspective, which a longtime resident cannot have, as all the same places are likely tainted with experience. Furthermore, tourists often have a deeper understanding of history and cultural context, as they are slightly more likely than your average citizen to do research on the city in question. I also wonder whether the intensity of a person's experience (however short) could compensate to some degree for the duration of experience, with regard to the depth of knowledge? Doesn't one who is in a city for only a short time (say a month or two), try harder to get to know the city than some residents who know their corner of town extremely well, without bothering about other districts?

Some odds and ends from the text so far:

Tuan suggests that emotional range corresponds directly to potential intellectual capacity:

"The emotional repertoire of a clam is very restricted compared with that of a puppy; and the affective life of the chimpanzee seems almost as varied and intense as that of a human being. A human infant is distinguished from other mammalian young both by his helplessness and by his fearsome tantrums. The infant's emotional range, from smile to tantrum, hints at his potential intellectual reach." (pp.9-10)

He mentions a theory of Susanne Langer's (to-do: Susanne Langer's Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling.), that odors of decay act as memento mori for adult human beings.

He describes place as a physical object, albeit one that can't be picked up and carried around (p. 12) and neighborhoods as geometric shapes, claiming that it takes time to learn a neighborhood, just as it takes time to learn a geometric shape (pp. 17-18), as in the case of Cheselden's newly-sighted man.

More to come later.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Open Archives

It looks as if Sebald's papers are open now (they probably have been for a while, but I'm unsure of how to inform myself about these things). I found a book the other day while poking around at Dussmann that was meant to be published for Sebald's (would have been) 60th birthday. It's a collection of primary sources, commentary on the primary stuff, and readings of his texts, some critical, some personal.

The editors claim that the book is committed to both the author (and his texts) and to critical treatment of the texts. This is, I suppose, the sort of work that I would ideally do. I'm always worried about critical readings sucking the enjoyment out of reading the texts I would deal with. This is especially worrisome in the case of Sebald, whose books I love so so much.

All I've read so far is Sebald's (short) correspondence with Adorno (1967-68) and the beginning of the commentary on it (I'm woefully slow at reading academic German). It's pretty remarkable, actually. He wrote to Adorno with a question about Carl Sternheim when he (Sebald) was working on his Masters thesis (at some ridiculously young age, for a German student). Adorno responded and Sebald eventually wrote him again asking for a recommendation. It should be noted that they never met.

Anyway, I'm in awe of the ballsy young Sebald asking Adorno for help getting into a Ph.D. program.

The commentary on the letters, though, is a little troubling. I know pitifully little about Sebald, actually (to-do: read a good biography and much much more secondary work on him), but I find the rather biographical approach of the editors a little disconcerting. They cross reference the (very little) biographical information included in Sebald's letters to Adorno with the (very little) biographical information included about the title character in "Max Aurach" (Die Ausgewanderten, 1992), as if trying to prove from those few details that Max Aurach is an autobiographical character. While I don't wholly believe that the author is dead, I don't think that it is always the most significant facet to focus on in interpreting a text. Furthermore, I definitely don't think that you can use the biographical details included in a fictional work to expand our knowledge of the author's biography, which may be a slightly radical description of what the editors were trying to do, but it is the unsettling impression I got.

Anyway, it is interesting to have a bit more insight into Sebald and these primary sources are quite thought-provoking.

Also to-do: I want to learn a bit about Carl Sternheim, as a means of understanding a bit more what they're talking about in these letters and commentary.

I'm feeling yet again the difficulty of having a fairly shallow/narrow grasp on German literature. Yes, I know all about the Holocaust in contemporary German lit, but I don't know about Carl Sternheim, so that part of Sebald is still off limits to me, even if I do have a little insight into Austerlitz.

Monday, June 11, 2007


  • Spengler: Untergang des Abendlandes
  • A good history of Romania
  • Dos Passos: Manhattan Transfer
  • Slavoj Žižek: Looking Awry
  • Goodfellas
  • Works by Kate Rigby
  • Familiarize myself with Gernot Böhme (landscape theorist)
  • Familiarize myself with Tadeusz Bobrowski
  • Peck: Being Jewish in the New Germany
  • Laszlo Krasznahorkai: Krieg und Krieg
  • Laszlo Krasznahorkai: Im Norden ein Berg, im Süden ein See, im Westen Wege, im Osten ein Fluss
  • works by Michel de Montaigne
  • Will Waters: Poetry's Touch
  • Elkins: The Object Stares Back

The Wider World

"More than fifty years have passed since I first consulted a Baedeker, and I still look upon almost any guidebook as a book of revelations; I feel a bond with every tourist I see reading the pages of fine print and condensed prose in an effort to interpret the surrounding world. There are obnoxious tourists just as there are obnoxious children, but there is a strong element of snobbery, it seems to me, in our criticism of tourist groups, the condescension of those who belong -- who are at home -- to those who are strangers without recognizable status. Yet we are all of us strangers, tourists at one time or another, and from our own experience we should recognize the individual impulse for self-improvement that is back of so much tourist travel. At the risk of exaggerating, I would say that the inspiration of tourism is a desire to know more abut the world in order to know more about ourselves. If we offend public taste, that is only incidental to our search; the Swiss cuckoo clock, the bumper-sticker from Carlsbad Caverns is a type of diploma -- proof that we have at least tried to improve." J.B. Jackson - The Necessity for Ruins, p. 3.

It seems to be a good exercise for me to shed my usual snobbery, as Jackson calls it, and become a tourist from time to time. I often scoff at the tourists wandering through my Yard, taking pictures and walking slowly down the paths that I generally rush down. So, it may be healthy to feel as if I have all the time in the world and perhaps get in a few locals' way for a while. And this summer, in Berlin, I'm feeling more deeply foreign than I have for a while. Recently I've traveled mostly to other places whose language is, at least, my own. While German is familiar to me, it is still removed a bit from my daily life. And the last time I returned to Germany after a protracted absence, it was to a familiar city, one I feel is as much my home as the city I live in usually. But this time, both language and city are relatively foreign. And so I am more foreign than I have felt in a long time.

The neighborhood I am living in is filled with immigrants and expats and there is at least one other English speaker living in my building (unless this particular Thompson is German). Only a few days back in this country and I'm feeling the familiar contradictory urges to both meet the "natives" and to find other wanderers with whom to speak English and to talk about familiar things. It's almost as if, when I come to this country, I can more easily appreciate my home - as if it's easier to enjoy it in an almost nostalgic light.

I'm trying to work my way into a new city this summer and trying to rejuvenate some small part of myself, intellectual and personal, that seems to have shrivelled a bit in the last two years. I've tacked a map up on the wall, to trace my wanderings, and have begun a new journal and various creative efforts and intend to dig deep for the next few weeks, at least.