The eternal silence of these infinite spaces terrifies me.
In June 2006 a conference devoted to the topic ‘On Space’ was held at the University of Otago. Selected contributions to this conference appear in this issue of Double Dialogues. Double Dialogues was a co-sponsor and, indeed, natural supporter of the conference initiative, since the conference sought to promote the sort of discussions across disciplinary boundaries and between artists, scholars and researchers thatDouble Dialogues has become known for. Accordingly, not only formal academic papers, but also a range of art events including exhibitions, a play and film screenings took place during the conference and drew animated discussion throughout. The topic of space itself invited, and elicited, a great variety of responses that engaged with ways in which spatiality has been conceived in art and literature, philosophy and the social sciences. Alongside theoretical approaches assaying questions of perspective and visual representation, contributors investigated the space of the theatre in different cultural contexts and traditions, the issue of spatiality in film and the novel, as well as submerged and overt aspects relating to cognition and cultural space from old and new critical perspectives. What emerged from these discussions and what is reproduced in the articles appearing here is the centrality of spatiality and the political, social and cultural tensions that arise as a consequence of its varying figurations, shadings and representations.
Daniel Kehlmann’s recent novel Die Vermessung der Welt [Measuring the World], discusses one of these influential figurations. In the novel, the young mathematician Gauss is engaged on the task of surveying Hannover. As he does so, he thinks about space. Triangles may well have internal angles that add up to 180° , he reasons, but only on a flat Euclidean plane. Yet the surface of the earth is curved. When Gauss visits the ancient and wizened Immanuel Kant in Königsberg at the end of the eighteenth century, perhaps the most important philosopher of the Enlightenment, he takes these thoughts on space a step further. Gauss certainly agrees that Kant has taught us more than anyone else about space and time, but now he has a new idea. As he explains to Kant, perhaps the three-dimensional Euclidean space we seem to inhabit is only a beautiful dream. Perhaps space itself is curved. The old philosopher replies, none too encouragingly, ‘Wurst’ – an everyday expression in German that might be translated as ‘baloney’ (Kehlmann 2005: 96).
As Hatfield nevertheless reports (see e.g. Hatfield 2006), Kant changed his mind about space over the course of a long career of scholarship. By the time of his inaugural lecture of 1770, he had arrived at the view for which he is now known – the view that space is ideal, one of the forms with which we organize the givens of perception:
Spatium non est aliquid obiectivi et realis, nec substantia, nec accidens, nec relatio; sed subiectivum et ideale et e natura mentis stabili lege proficiscens veluti schema omnia omnino externe sensa sibi coordinandi.Space is not something objective and real, nor is it substance, nor relation; but it is subjective and ideal; it issues from the nature of the mind in accordance with a stable law as a scheme, so to speak, for coordinating everything sensed externally. (Kant AA II: 403, my translation)
Kant’s position with regard to space can perhaps be put in the following way: on the one hand there is agreement with Newton – space is absolute, three-dimensional and Euclidean. Newtonian space, however, has the odd quality of being conceived as a physical reality which neither affects nor is affected by anything physical whatsoever. And Kant denies its independence from our mode of apprehension. He explicitly rejects the independent reality of space and calls the ‘English’ theory an empty invention of reason, assigning it to the realm of fable (ibid.). Despite his understanding of space as ideal, Kant seems to restrict the possibility of cognition to a particular shape of space, a fixed framework for making sense of what we see: a shape of space that is universal, a form upon which human cognition has always depended and always will. Lefebvre’s later objection to Kant’s notion of space in his own distinguished contribution to the subject – that Kantian space passes ‘for an empty zone, a container indifferent to its content, but defined by certain unexpressed criteria: absolute, optico-geometrical, Euclidean-Cartesian-Newtonian’ (Lefebvre 2003: 207) – must therefore be accorded significance.
Despite these objections or perhaps because of them, the Euclidean space that Kant appears to have argued for is a very convenient way of mapping the world. It is homogeneous (Lefebvre calls it ‘isotopic’) and easy to reduce to two dimensions. Fredric Jameson argues that this view of space involves a ‘logic of the grid’ (Jameson 1991: 410), and he associates this logic with classical capitalism. Hegel saw as the central weakness of Kant’s claim the absolute dichotomy between form and content. Under this system, consciousness is condemned to given forms of cognition. It is what Adorno has called the ‘block’ (e.g. Adorno 1966: 378-9). The guarantee of the validity of the cognitive map takes away the possibility of re-thinking the shape of space, and leaves no room for the reciprocal influence of content and form. As Lefebvre observes: ‘In the West […] absolute space has assumed a strict form: that of volume carefully measured, empty, hermetic, and constitutive of the rational unity of Logos and Cosmos’ (Lefebvre 1991: 238).
Returning now to Daniel Kehlmann’s novel, if things frighten you, the young Alexander von Humboldt is told, it might be a good idea to measure them (Kehlmann 2005: 22). And Humboldt does just that, through as much of the world as he can physically traverse during his lifetime. He is elated when the meter is established in Paris to become the standard unit of all future measurements (Kehlmann 2005: 39). He shows symptoms of what Lefebvre called ‘a strange kind of excess: a rage for measurement and calculation’ (quoted in Elden 2004: 96). The insistence on measurement seems indeed to follow from the fear of lived space: and however accurate Humboldt’s measurements are, the world he measures becomes abstract; he turns it into geometry. Kantian space, or Newtonian space, has no smell, no qualities of its own.
Hegel argued that the truths of mathematical measurement inevitably turn into untruths: ‘In mathematical cognition understanding is an action external to the thing; it follows from this that the true thing (die wahre Sache) is thereby changed’ (Phenomenology of Mind: 41). Hegel recognised the consequences: ‘Space is the being (Dasein) into which the concept inscribes its distinctions as in an empty, dead element in which they are just as motionless and lifeless. The real is not spatial in the way mathematics describes it’ (ibid. 42-3, my translation). Lefebvre comments:
We know that space is not a pre-existing void, endowed with formal properties alone. To criticize and reject absolute space is simply to refuse a particular representation, that of a container waiting to be filled with content – i.e. matter, or bodies. According to this picture of things, (formal) content and (material) container are indifferent to each other and so offer no graspable difference. Any thing may go in any ‘set’ of places in the container. Any part of the container can receive anything. This indifference becomes separation, in that contents and container do not impinge upon one another in any way. (Lefebvre 1991: 170)
Lived space has qualities. Father Zea in Kehlmann’s novel is the leader of a Jesuit mission in the jungles of South America. When Humboldt arrives they discuss mapping: ‘There are no lines here’, says Father Zea. Space in itself is somewhere else, everywhere is an invention, and space in itself is something the surveyors bring with them. We can see, in some of the papers presented here, how maps can themselves be an imposition, a layering that in superimposing itself on the spaces investigated modifies and distorts them.
Surely, however, we need maps, with their points of orientation: geographical or cognitive points that presuppose identification of some kind. Can we think at all without identification? ‘Thinking requires identification’, Adorno argues (‘Denken heißt identifizieren’: Adorno 1966: 17). And identification requires a point-to-point location of something in a space of some shape. A solution to the problem of identity – of overstating the correspondences between objects and the points in a mental space that reproduces them – may well be to rethink the shape of space and the activity of that spatial shaping. This, as Eagleton suggests, is a supremely difficult task, ‘since it is well-nigh impossible for us not to see space and time as containers within which things happen, stable frameworks of social action rather than constitutive structures of it’ (Eagleton 2003: 193).
These complex modes of mapping the shape of space, by which new, non-Euclidean frameworks are created in which ‘things happen’, figure prominently in the contributions and critical engagements reproduced here.
Dougal McNeill, for example, reads Ian Wedde’s novel Symmes Hole as the record of the failure to map. With regard to the mapping process itself, he insists that we focus on the narrative layer, rather than on the narrated past. He recalls Hegel’s admonition that we need to bring fixed thoughts into fluidity, especially when it is a matter of occupation (appropriation, misappropriation) of spaces in ‘post-colonial’ situations. The attempt to deal with ‘natural occupancy’ in the visual arts and the problem of somehow negotiating the distance between the indigenous and the non-indigenous, which McNeill’s contribution explicates, is also examined by Anthea Gunn in her discussion of the work of Theo Schoon and Ross Crothall. Her article shows how power relations implicit in different spatialities may persist. A theory by which a mode of mapping with shifting perspectives is integrated with concurrent theories in a non-hierarchical and non-linear manner is introduced by Alexandra Dumitrescu, who offers what she calls the ‘metamodern’ as a way beyond the impasse of the postmodern.
Several contributors deal with the layering and consequent impositions that can be observed as space and its constructions variously interact. Neil Fettling discusses both the artistic festival in Mildura known as ‘Palimpsest’ and the special spatial attributes of palimpsest as a conceptual figure. He considers the layerings of landscape, looking at the cross-connections of people who inhabit places and the spaces that they inhabit. Scott Rawlings discusses the work of the Icelandic writer Halldór Laxness and the intersection of landscape and psychological space: the ecology of literature. Angela Gracia introduces the linguistic work of a scholar of the Spanish Enlightenment, Jovellanos, and considers, following Jovellanos, how a region is shaped into being by the people who live there and the language they speak, rather than representing no more than a statement about physical geography. Kate McCulloch shows how the display offered in a museum that is designed to commemorate may simultaneously disguise and, by the very manner of its representation, serve to foster lack of memory. Bronwyn Tweddle, a theatre director, exploits the possibilities of layering with ‘tracks’ followed simultaneously by actors and interpreted by the audience. These ‘tracks’, she suggests, could provide a way of opening a space between actor and text, between performance and audience that enables new interpretative impulses. In her view layering provides insight, not just blanketing and obliterating.
In the area of film studies and media, the space between reader and text, between audience and stage, between film screen and viewer has been subject to play and re-shaping. Stephen Goddard looks at the treatment of space in cinema and is concerned to demonstrate the mobility of space, while Michael Schraa examines the implications of the treatment of the frame in cinema. Coherence can be considered as the organization of the frame, but in what he identifies as the neo-baroque there is an openness that is always re-framing. In her contribution on photography, Wendy Garden investigates the perspective of the camera, and its imitation of western conventions in representation of space. The camera emulates the western Euclidean view of space to offer what will be taken by Western eyes as verisimilitude. This has to be subverted in ways that threaten what may be taken to be the ‘verisimilitude’ of photography. The photographs she writes about have other concerns, and the space is manipulated to meet those concerns. Her argument may make us re-think Stanley Cavell’s idea that film shows us what things are like without human eyes. Cavell argued that ‘[t]he mystery of photographs resides in their capacity to allow persons and things to reveal themselves, without human intervention’ (Rothman 2003: 207). Jameson refers to Cavell as well: ‘If indeed the philosophical meaning of film, in Stanley Cavell’s great insight is to show us what the world might look like in our own absence […]’ (Jameson 1991: 248). Garden reminds us that seeing, and seeing something deemed to have verisimilitude, is itself the work of culture and subject to historical influence. Peter Davis speaks of the camera ‘capturing the moment’, and the photograph as memory; but in writing about the use of photographs in novels he develops the idea of the text and the photograph working together: so that the text informs the way we see the photograph, and the photograph influences the reading. The process may well generate a new kind of space between words and image.
Xiaohuan Zhao examines the treatment of space in traditional Chinese theatre, showing how the space is created and interpreted by the actions of the players rather than by accoutrements. Space is the product of human action, not something pre-existent and filled (‘pre-harmonized’ in Leibniz’s sense). Even in the ‘west’, however, there have been different configurations of theatrical space. Octavian Saiu examines and contrasts two of these: ‘The paradise of the closed space’ for Ionesco and the emptiness of the open space developed by Beckett offering a different paradigm. Adriann Smith exploits the breadth of meanings in the word ‘space’ itself as she examines the physical space of the theatre in a dance performance, and the thematic spaces opened in the work: both dealing with identity – that of middle aged women, and of the nation.
Qualities of space are the subject for David Ritchie, and again the shaping and meaning of spaces in various cultures, this time in the domain of loss and grief. And qualities of typological space in the work of Richard Long are the subject for Ann Poulsen who discusses the text itself as a map translating distance and terrain into two-dimensional representation with words as points of orientation.
It is clear that maps can be signals of appropriation and misappropriation, imposition and domination. Representation is culturally loaded and can conceal as well as reveal. There is a constant need for re-mapping, for considering the qualities of space(s) and the connection between the human and the shaping of space.
Before he was as ancient as he appears in Kehlmann’s novel, Kant himself seems to have known that he lived in a period that was on the verge of something alarming. Just as the old dogmatisms were retreating, a new threat to the autonomy he insisted upon could be seen emerging – subjection to what seems to be the case (cf. Adorno 1995: 182). He insists that thinking can be independent not only of tradition and authority, but also of what appears as the given. On the one hand, then, Kant liberates thinking. As Hannah Arendt argued, Kant asserts the ‘autonomy of the minds of men and their possible independence of things as they are or have come into being’ (Arendt 1978: 216). On the other hand, for Kant, thinking has to move beyond what is given to the senses even in the attempt to understand the world as it appears to us. Kant refers specifically to Copernicus’ bold move to reconsider the motion of the planets, in particular that of an earth held to be immobile, arguing that Copernicus theorised against the testimony of the senses in postulating the movement of the earth around the sun, and thus made possible the work of Newton:
Similarly, the fundamental laws of the motions of the heavenly bodies gave established certainty to what Copernicus had at first assumed only as an hypothesis, and at the same time yielded proof of the invisible force (the Newtonian attraction) which holds the universe together. The latter would have remained forever undiscovered if Copernicus had not dared, in a manner contradictory of the senses, but yet true, to seek the observed movements, not in the heavenly bodies, but in the spectator. (Kant AA III: 14-15; transl. Norman Kemp Smith)
In the Prolegomena, Kant speaks of the ‘fetters of experience’ and the ‘limits of mere observation of nature’ (Kant AA IV: 362). While it was imperative for Kant to allow thought to rise beyond experience and observation, he also wanted to establish a satisfactory framework for cognition. With one hand he seems to give freedom to thought, and with the other to restrict cognition to things apprehended in fixed ways and organized in particular fixed forms of space and time. In liberating the subject in its thinking, he seems to reduce those aspects of the subject that make it singular and individual. When a soothsayer reads Alexander von Humboldt’s palm in the jungles of South America he finds no past, no present, no future: nobody. Ultimately Kant’s ‘block’ (Adorno) leads us to what Buck-Morss has called the ‘inter-changeability of every subject’ (Buck-Morss 1977: 83). We cannot live without frameworks, without shaped space, but perhaps we can also be open to the possibility of re-shaping it, and thus we recognize a core truth in the work of Kant – that we seek the shape of space in the spectator rather than in some reality we find independent of ourselves.
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