Monday, 1 January 2007

Phenomenological Geography (1)

What is the future of phenomenological geography, and why is this question even important? Until now, my commitment to this topic has focused on the role place plays in either cohering or dispersing identity, as held in time and memory. More specifically, I have been concerned with the temporal significance of what place discloses in its failure to contain memory. This has retained a fundamentally phenomenological structure, whereby place recedes and surges in time. Yet the emphasis on temporal discontinuity as ontologically prior to experience, together with a commitment to radical contingency, distances my position somewhat from the prevailing view in phenomenology, which holds place as a unity, and often a transcendental unity.

I point this out, not for anecdotal reasons, but because the tension between unity and discontinuity, and sameness and difference, marks a broader debate involving the post-structuralist critique of the phenomenology of place, and it is a debate which holds the legitimacy of phenomenological geography in question. There seem to be at least three critical issues at stake: (1). That the phenomenology of place fails to negotiate with otherness, and that, therefore, it retains a static and absolutist engagement with place. (2). That the phenomenology of place is solipsistic and introverted. (3). That the phenomenology of place is engaged in a fundamentally nostalgic reclamation of place. Before I consider the future of phenomenological geography in the following post, a brief word on its history.

I can only hint at the rich history of the phenomenology of place. For a detailed account, I highly recommend Edward Casey’s astounding work of scholarship, The Fate of Place (1998). I emphasise astounding because the history of place is largely a hidden history, and to have established a genealogical study of place from the pre-Socratics to post-structuralism is a great achievement. In a more condensed form, David Seamon, a professor of architecture who, along with a few others, was the first to really apply phenomenology to place in an explicit and rigorous fashion, has written a very informative essay on the history of phenomenological geography, found here. Much of this work, to characterise it in three broad stages, begins with Husserl’s lifeworld, passes through Heidegger’s existential emphasis space, before then applying Merleau-Ponty’s body-centric account of world.

Seamon’s early work (esp. Geography of the Lifeworld, 1979) testifies to the emergence of humanistic geography as a response to geographical positivism in the mid-1970s. Books such as Relph’s Place and Placelessness (1976) and Yi-Fu Tuan’s enduring Space and Place (1978) are pivotal here. Architects such as Christian Norberg-Schulz and Christopher Alexander explicitly associated themselves within this movement. Of the two Norberg-Schulz is the more interesting figure. His phenomenological writings on architecture rely heavily on an applied reading of Heidegger’s writings on dwelling. Retaining their origins in Bachelard, this early stage of phenomenological geography tended to view place as capable of having a distinct genius loci.

Casey’s work on place followed shortly after the initial formation. Essays, now collected in his very fine collection Spirit and Soul (2004), provide a history of Casey’s thinking on place. One particular essay in this collection, “The Memorability of Inhabited Space,” is remarkable for its insight and emphasis on the liminal undercurrent of place, but also the resistance to what Casey will term “site,” a notion later to flourish in AugĂ© and, to some extent, Deleuze. More of that later, though. Casey’s later Getting Back into Place (1993) is a wonderful applied treatment of phenomenology to both the natural and built environment. One other book worth mentioning, though not explicitly phenomenological, is J. Nicholas Entrikin’s Betweenness of Place (1991). I admire this book because it negotiates with the epistemic problems of place—normativity, positivism, casualty—with a kind of detachment which is sometimes absent in explicitly phenomenological works, where meaning takes precedence: a priority post-structuralism will reproach.

For further resources on phenomenology and place, Bruce Janz’s Research on Place and Space website is a feast, as is David Seamon’s Environmental and Architectural Phenomenology site.