Friday, March 10, 2006

SPACE IS THE PLACE - From Cultural Geography to Psychogeography

Wednesday I have attended a very good lecture on cultural geography. It was part of the lectures offered by the Joint School of Social Sciences at Cambridge University, which present a variety of quantitative and qualitative methods to students coming from all the different social science departments. The lecture was delivered by James Duncan from the Geography Department.

It was a good overview of the development of the discipline, from the pioneering work of Carl Sauer up to contemporary developments.

The topic is fascinating: the study of the interactions between humans and landscapes; the ways in which landscapes are socially, historically and culturally constructed, the multiple readings of the same landscape which are carried out by different actors; reading the landscape as a text, as a synechdoche where discourses are inscribed into buildings and architecture which become representative parts of a bigger whole; and so on.

The emphasis of the last decades has been on textual analysis and interpretivism. At least this is what I gathered from Duncan. More specifically, his latest work is really an ethnography of landscape. As far as my limited knowledge of anthropology goes, something of this kind could easily have been the work of an anthropologist. He wrote together with his wife "Landscapes of Privileges: The Politics of the Aesthetic in an American Suburb", published in 2004 by Routledge. The suburb in question is Bedford, where Duncan's wife is from and the book is the product of about 30 years of close interaction with the place and its people. Duncan presented it in a rather stimulating fashion, and I think I will get it from the library in the next days and have a go at it. The way I have understood it, it's really the deconstruction of the collective dream of a 'classic' New England village in a very affluent suburb, just 45 mins drive from New York, a collective dream pursued through a careful manipulation of landscapes and the environment. Just to give an idea of the level of wealth in the suburb in question, the average number of acres per lot is 7-8 ca. The smallest lot does not go below 4 acres. George Soros has got a lot there too.

Themes like that of the 'American pastoral' (check out the beautiful homonymous book by Philip Roth on the subject) are explored. The study is a deep dive into the whole hyperreality of this 'traditional' New England village, which turns out at a deeper look to be not so 'traditional' but the result of a manipulation of the physical environment informed by a mix of conservatism, middle bourgeois values and a high valuation of wilderness (albeit a very 'artificial' one).

Certainly, the illusions which a bunch of very rich families want to pursue shouldn't constitute a matter of scandal for itself. After all, anybody has got the right to pursue his/her own illusions. The problem kicks in when the realm of personal dreams and social values start to clash and mix with rather more political agendas. Is it just an 'accident' that all the Central American migrants working day labourers in these lots and performing all kind of maintenance tasks do not live in the town but commute from outside? According to Duncan's account it is not. There seems to be a 'politics of landscape' at work which does not see these labourers as 'fitting' the ideal type of the New England village town settlers are trying so hard to stick to. A particular aesthetic view then turns into a discriminatory policy, no matter how consciously it is pursued by its perpetrators. If you wanna know more about the whole project that the Duncans are carrying out and which includes the publication of the book mentioned above, click here.

The lecture did stimulate me into some deep thinking about the connections between human beings and the spaces in which they conduct their lives. What was really missing from the lecture was a more radical approach to tackle more directly the question of how human consciousness interacts with the environment. In other words, what are the feelings that certain buildings and architectural/urban structures create? How is consciousness, in its most obscure non-discursive dimension (yet a rather compelling one for all our actions, thoughts, moods, emotions, etc.), affected by particular landscapes?

To be fair, I don't think that this is a criticism of the lecture itself, but rather something that has been missing from landscape studies in particular and social scientific approaches more in general. Social scientists are scared to look at consciousness beyond what people say and claim, or beyond what is most visible and 'empirical'. Duncan gave good explanations for that: he is scared, he said, of approaches that might just reflect the author's consciousness and experience rather than that of other people. How is he supposed to know what other people feel beyond what they tell him?

I think he has got a point. But there are ways to get around it. There is a need to abandon altogether all the residuals of empiricism left even in approaches which are apparently the antithesis of it (i.e. interpretivism, Geert'z interpretation of cultures and Duncan's own 'textual' analysis of landscape). Until such faith in 'science' as a collection of empirical evidence through some established and formalised method is not forgone, we will still be left with a social science devoid of content. That's very much the situation for Anglo-Saxon social science. In U.S. or Britain the validity of social scientific research is established according to the degree of perfection that the researcher achieves in terms of applications of formalised methods. Whether these methods, even if correctly applied, lead to the discovery of any 'real' or 'new' knowledge does not seem to be a question for Anglo-saxon epistemology.

Does social science have to be 'objective', in the sense that research results are universally acknowledged and based on large samples? This approach has not led us far. We won't probably be able to say much beyond the fact that humans eat, sleep and engage into sexual activities.

Objectivity and truth should not be foregone as concepts in themselves. There is need for radical reformulations. Reformulations that have already been done by a number of philosophers and scientists (see in particular French and German schools), but still fail to break through the 'rubber wall' of Anglo-Saxon social science. Even the most radical approaches are still impregnated of positivism, in a much more subliminal and perverse way than it was in the past, because at the formal/rhetorical level this very same community has declared positivism long dead.

We should reconsider the objectivity of personal observation. We should reconsider the possibility that the only objectivity possible is indeed a sincere account of what one personally sees, feels, thinks. That truth becomes a a matter of dialectics between personal experiences and abstract thoughts. We should accept that we will always lack absolute criteria to absolutely determine what can and cannot be accepted as valid theory or fact.

If one accepts these basic principles, the horizons of social science could be enlarged to embrace what has been often categorised as a separate and unrelated field, that of the arts. As a matter of facts artists and vanguardist movements in the arts all have their own theories of truth. They are no less concerned with truth, society, intersubjectivity and reflexivity than are social scientists of all extractions. It is for these reasons that some of the best ethnographies of industrialisation and factory work are to be found among literary works (see Philip Roth's "American Pastoral" once again for the glove trade; or Zola's "Nana'"; and many others of course); or that some of the best theories of post-modernism came much before the now 'established' academic production and from a vanguard of artists-revolutionaries, the Situationists (see Guy Debord, "The Society of Spectacle).

The Situationist International, a very small collective of artists and thinkers that was formally born at the end of 1950s and continued to produce works of relevance throughout the 1960s and 1970s (even though the group never grew beyond 30-40 members, the influences they have exerted in a variety of fields and 'situations' are huge; see May 1968 for example, or the evolution of British punk), also contributed precious insights, precepts and methods for the study of the impact of landscape on human consciousness. The Situationists are the pioneers of "psychogeography". What's psychogeography? "The study of specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organised or not, on the emotions and behaviour of individuals" (from 'Preliminary Problems in Constructing a Situation', in Situationniste Internationale no.1, 1958).

The traditional tools at disposal of Anglo-Saxon social science are not apt to conduct such an analysis. The main object of study becomes oneself, the psychogeographer learns the effects of landscapes on human consciousness by experiencing it on herself, wandering around cities and places, stimulated by what she sees and feels, playing around with maps, people, ideas and symbols. If she wants to go beyond introspection, then she should simply involve some other individuals in the psychogeographic enterprise: no separation between observer and participants, all psychogeography is conducted by participant observers on participant observers.

'Drifting' is the key word here, in the tradition of the 'flaneur', "a stroller or dandy spectator of the Parisian scene who had emerged in the early nineteenth century and later celebrated by the likes of Charles Baudelaire" (from the article 'Situationism and Rock', by Paul Fitzpatrick, 2000). Again, the arts here have much to teach us. Psychogeography was practiced by many writers, long before the name even emerged. Dickens, Baudelaire, Apollinaire, Musil, Hesse, just to name a few. How many novels are built around the notion of characters wandering around the streets of big cities or taking a pleasant walk through the wonders of the countryside? Landscapes then become dreamscapes, surreal personal reconstructions half way between physicality and transcendence, between emotions and brute materiality.

And certainly in writing 'psychogeographic' texts, one cannot ignore such a tradition. Literary writing styles, narrative experiments, will all have to be rigorously studied and adapted to suit the need. Academia should 'extend' beyond its narrow courtyard and absorb, like a sponge, the lessons of the great writers, who are no less scientists than many eminent and respected academics.

The very notion of 'writing' psychogeography should be complemented by visual techniques. How can we forget about the great cinematic masters? Isn't cinema the best example of merging images and emotions, landscapes with social and political messages, atmospheres with cerebral activities? How can one separate the landscape from the spoken word in the director's intent?

A camcorder here could become the best friend of the psychogeographer. What the psychogeographer might not be able to communicate with words, she will leave it to the camera eye to show. Other items which will have escaped the psychogeographer's discursive consciousness will appear and will allow other spectators-participants to continue in the enterprise, in the endless journey of self-and-other discovery through space and place.

We might be able then to say something more interesting and more 'objective' about what it is that characterises let's say London as opposed to Paris, the Southern Italian countryside as opposed to the Swazi countryside, and so on. We might be able to communicate something more meaningful about the people who live in these places, what they feel and what makes them humans, emotional and material at the same time, conscious and unconscious, animals and thinkers, perceivers and theoreticians.

I have just hinted at some of the 'theoretical spaces' where we can look in order to produce more innovative and challenging analyses of the interactions between humans and physical environment. I hope I will be able in the future to develop some of these ideas further. Lots is already out there to start an adventurous dive.

I came across this interesting article which shows how you can do 'psychogeography' within the existing academic structures. It's called 'Inscribing the city: a flâneur in Tokyo', by Raymond Lucas, a PhD student in the Department of Social Anthropology, University of Aberdeen. He is supervised by Tim Ingold, well known for his 'subversive' and 'eclectic' approach to the anthropology.

Obviously, never miss the first necessary step of any knowledge gathering enterprise in the 21st century (or should we say in the Third Millennium): check out the Wikipedia, their rather short entry on psychogeography contains interesting references to continue the journey.

For writings on psychogeography and other situationist themese, also check out the Situationist International archive.

2 Comments:

Blogger Mads Pihl said...

Hey Vito

Jusy read your post on psychogeography, and thoroughly enjoyed it. I am a Social Anthropologist (University of Copenhagen), and have used Tim Ingold, Heidegger, Keith Basso, and Deleuze & Guattari extensively in my thesis to discuss matters such as those in your blog post, but funnily enough the very term "psychogeography" never showed up in the books I read (as far as I can recall). Today I have been tracing definitions of the notion, and that way I came to your site. And that's basically all I wanted to say: Thanks for posting on this subject. I will get into some reading.

- madspihl

12:59 AM  
Blogger mirckur said...

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1:57 PM  

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