Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Space & Place

Both words are common in our day to day vocabularies and are commonly interchanged based in conceptions of specificity. Space is conceptually abstract, open and expansive while place is particular and local. The two are differently conceived but intimately related. Here. There. Place is everywhere and yet when it comes to academics attempting to pin down definitions of place and space they seems to quickly slip away as Edward Casey delineates in The Fate of Place: A Philosophical History.[1] Added to this difficulty, both are used in a literal sense and a variety of metaphorical meanings. People are “put in their place” or “feel out of place.” With such a diverse set of uses, the landscape of “place” becomes very interesting to study. I have been struck over and over how much of our language is rooted in place, and direction which implies place. Place is everywhere.

Perhaps we can move towards defining place by saying that it is intimately connected with human experience. Philip Sheldrake has said that place is the “dialectical relationship between environment and human narrative.”[2] Likewise John Agnew, a political geographer has said that spaces are places invested with meaning. Beyond location and the materiality of place there is a “sense of place” referring to the subjective and emotional attachment to places.[3] In these conceptions space is place waiting to happen; waiting to be infused with human life and experience to give it particularity and meaning. Space is what exists between places of our awareness and meaning. What begins as unfamiliar space becomes ordered and experienced places by which we begin to orient our lives around and in.

Places are both individual and corporate centers of life. But space and place are not mere backdrops to human narratives. Instead, they are characters themselves as participants in the historical and social drama,, each with its own living and breathing personalities. Sheldrake’s dialectic points toward the reciprocal shaping of environment by humanity and humanity by the environment. Place becomes a way of understanding; though this is often done without much conscious articulation. Place is not just ontology but epistemological in aspects of what we emphasize and don’t.[4] As places rise in our memory, they become mediating interpreters of other places.

[1] Edward S. Casey, The Fate of Place: A Philosophical History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997).
[2] Philip Sheldrake, Spaces for the Sacred: Place, Memory, and Identity (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001), 1.
[3] Quoted in Tim Cresswell, Place: A Short Introduction, (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2004), 7.
[4] Cresswell, 11-12.