Saturday, June 16, 2007

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.

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