Friday 12 June 2009

Exploring the Character of Place

Before I set out to make my first Midwest-West transect (across Iowa, Nebraska, and Colorado - and then back across Wyoming and South Dakota), I'd like to conclude my series of reflections on psychogeography -- just in time to prime some serious exploring of a dramatically new landscape. (As I write, I'm downloading appropriate listening materials: place-based fiction by Willa Cather and Edith Wharton and geographic texts on the West.)

Particularly as I prepare to spend so much time traversing space that is new to me, it seems apropos to return to a theme raised by Keith Oatley's question in reponse to my May 13 post about the affordances of places. Keith asked about Jay Appleton, who proposed that places are aesthetically appealing when they display such features as refuge and prospect. Although difficult to prove (and efforts to make evolutionary arguments about why we like prospects and refuges often head into dangerous and irritating waters), this idea is reflected in a myriad of ways in our culture, particularly in the composition of landscapes we preserve or designate as special. Semi-open landscapes, where we can look out from the refuge of forests or canyons onto the prospect of swales or meadows - or, better yet, water - far outnumber protected plains or grasslands where the prospect may be grand, but where there is no refuge from which to view it or with which to give variety or texture to the experience of the place.

I am skeptical of the evolutionary arguments. Although I may be better able to speak to this idea after my trip across the corn belt, I harbor suspicions that familiarity is a considerably more significant driver of landscape preferences than acknowledged -- and I also suspect that this familiarity is greatly enhanced and expanded by our literary experience. Particular landscapes are celebrated and valorized, and the high amenity landscape retreats represented by artists and writers eventually become the vacation spots and retirement destinations of much larger constituencies -- as seen in the American Southwest or in the ranchlands of the intermountain West, for example, landscapes which are perhaps also notable for their cultivation of more appreciation of open spaces.

As I consult Willa Cather's Death Comes for the Archbishop and Wallace Stegner's Wolf Willow (and search for analogues for the Corn Belt and western midwest landscapes), I realize how underexposed to the poetics of open spaces I have been as an eastern urbanite. Realizing this, I am then faced with a dilemma that faces all literate travellers and explorers of space, torn between the desire to read about others' experiences and the desire to first read the landscape itself and to plumb my own experience of it, and then allow this to resonate with the experience of others. (Given the length of the trip, I'm sure I can accommodate both approaches; thinking of the increasingly ubiquitous recorded guides to museums and landscapes, I wonder how long will I last before I must have someone tell me about my experience?)

This desire to bring social experience to bear on the experience of space is central to the inquiry of psychogeography, as is considering explicitly this desire itself, and the way it shapes our experience of space and place. In my first post of this series, on April 15, I described Kristen Ross's well known interview with the prolific French intellectual Henri Lefebvre about the Situationist International -- the movement with which psychogeography is most associated. In the passage of the interview that I reproduce below, two features stand out for me as relevant to our inquiry in Lefebvre recounting of the social context of the development of the situationists' psychogeographic methods.

First: in the context of a group that was trying to pull the rug of familiar setting and space out from under the construct of bourgeois society to shake things up a little, to get people to notice, to pay attention, and to rethink, the unsettling they experience because of the displacement of their exploratory walking from the urban to the rural is striking. This points to the way that environments support us, and to the way that this support is accessible to us only to the degree that it may be read or interpreted.

Second: the methods they describe in effect highlight the experience of space -- like Virginia Woolf's writing, they wrest the unconscious bundling of association and meaning making into conscious attention. As I've noted before, these methods strike me as very similar to the way that authors describe their construction of character, and I suspect that they open doors for us to better understand the way that we imbue and extract meaning in our spatial surrounds.
H.L.: We worked together day and night at Navarrenx, we went to sleep at nine in the morning (that was how they lived, going to sleep in the morning and sleeping all day). We ate nothing. It was appalling. I suffered throughout the week, not eating, just drinking. We must have drunk a hundred bottles. In a few days. . . . and we were working while drinking. The text was almost a doctrinal resume of everything we were thinking, about situations, about transformations of life; it wasn't very long, just a few pages, handwritten. They took it away and typed it up, and afterwards thought they had a right to the ideas. These were ideas we tossed around on a little country walk I took them on. With a nice touch of perversity, I took them down a path that led nowhere, that got lost in the woods, fields, and so on. Michele Bernstein had a complete nervous breakdown, she didn't enjoy it at all. It's true, it wasn't urban, it was very deep in the country.

K.R.: A rural dérive. Let's talk a about the dérive in general. Do you think it brought anything new to spatial theory or to urban theory? In the way that it emphasized experimental games and practices, do you think it was more productive than a purely theoretical approach to the city?

H.L.: Yes. As I perceived it, the dérive was more of a practice than a theory. It revealed the growing fragmentation of the city. In the course of its history, the city was once a powerful organic unity; for some time, however, that unity was becoming undone, was fragmenting, and [the situationists] were recording examples of what we had all been talking about, like the place where the new Bastille Opera is going to be built. The Place de la Bastille is the end of historic Paris -- beyond that it's the Paris of the first industrialization of the nineteenth century. The Place des Vosges is still aristocratic Paris of the seventeenth century. When you get to the Bastille, another Paris begins, which is of the nineteenth century, but it's Paris of the bourgeoisie, of commercial, industrial expansion, at the same time that the commercial and industrial bourgeoisie takes hold of the Marais, the center of Paris -- it spreads out beyond the Bastille, the rue de la Roquette, the rue du Faubourg Saint-Antoine, etc. So already the city is becoming fragmented. We had a vision of a city that was more and more fragmented without its organic unity being completely shattered. Afterward, of course, the peripheries and the suburbs highlighted the problem. But back then it wasn't yet obvious, and we thought that the practice of the derive revealed the idea of the fragmented city. But it was mostly done in Amsterdam. The experiment consisted of rendering different aspects or fragments of the city simultaneous, fragments that can only be seen successively, in the same way that there exist people who have never seen certain parts of the city.

K.R.: While the dérive took the form of a narrative.

H.L.: That's it; one goes along in any direction and recounts what one sees.

K.R.: But the recounting can't be done simultaneously.

H.L.: Yes, it can, if you have a walkie-talkie. The goal was to attain a certain simultaneity. That was the goal; it didn't always work.

K.R.: So, a kind of synchronic history.

H.L.: Yes, that's it, a synchronic history. That was the meaning of Unitary Urbanism: unify what has a certain unity, but a lost unity, a disappearing unity.
As I explore the corn and ranching landscape of the west Midwest, I will be fascinated to see what this exploration of the appearance of disappearing unity of North American experience of landscape reveals in the way of the character of place.

Willa Cather. 1927. Death Comes for the Archbishop. New York: Knopf.

Kristin Ross and Henri LeFebvre. 1997. Henri Lefebvre on the Situationist International; Interview conducted and translated 1983 by Kristin Ross. October 79, Winter.

Wallace Stegner. 1955. Wolf Willow. New York: Viking.

1 comment:

Keith Oatley said...

Thank you, Valentine, for this very interesting post. I think that geographical excursions such as the one you are embarking on, and those that take place as what you describe as instances of dérive, do indeed have a close relationship (which would not have occurred to me) with the phenomenon of independent agency of characters that we have discussed in OnFiction.

I remember a striking passage in your post of 25 September 2008. "What seems particularly interesting about this phenomenon [of apparently independent agency of characters in the course of writing fiction] is not just that the characters have agency, per se, but that their actions open up whole lines of narrative and perspectives on the world to which the author might very well not have access without the particular agency afforded by the character's traits, experiences, and activities." I think you are right that landscapes have the same potentiality.

Have a good trip, and I am looking forward to hearing your thoughts about Willa Cather.

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