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

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