All posts by Rob Shields

Review: Violence in Place. Cultural and Environmental Wounding

Kearney, A. (2017). Violence in place, cultural and environmental wounding. New York, NY: Routledge

Violence in Place, Cultural and Environmental Wounding takes on a specific type of human-generated trauma: cultural wounding. Cultural wounding is the intentional harm and violence (physical and symbolic) against members of a culture, as well as their way of life. It is enacted from a motivation to destroy or damage beyond repair the past, present, and future of a culture. In this volume, Kearney specifically locates cultural wounding in place, where place is a “relational co-presence envisioned as a vital shaping element in human life” (p. 1). Using this definition, place is imbued with its own agency and even sentience. In moments of trauma and cultural wounding, place is not just the setting; it is witness, participant, and victim. Indigenous epistemologies of place are said to demonstrate this hyper-relativist perspective, and Kearney sets out to argue that, in the wake of colonialism and neo-liberalism, a return to a kincentric ecology of place is necessary rectify the Western dualism of nature and humanity.

Generally, Kearney’s goal is to present a conception of cultural trauma that relies on the actions and interactions of humans and place. More specifically, Kearney provides accounts of 15 years of ethnographic study with an indigenous group in Australia, Yanyuwa, to show how colonization destroyed the kinship between people and place. She uses these observations to develop a phenomenological approach to diagnosing “patterns of place harm” in order to “recognize their presence in contexts all over the world and track back from this awareness to examine the axiologies that support not only cultural wounding, but also its greater effects as violence and trauma in place” (p. 95). To avoid criticisms of romanticism or anthropomorphizing, Kearney sets out to develop a methodology informed by indigenous epistemologies and decolonizing principles, acknowledging our inability to ‘listen’ outside of its relationship to humanity. Place has its own emotional geography that humans within place can relate to and read, and Kearney claims that trauma narratives told in place carry more weight and offer more opportunities for understanding across culture because of this emotional geography.

Continue reading Review: Violence in Place. Cultural and Environmental Wounding

Over the Land

An accompanying video to Phillip Vannini’s 2017 article in Space and Culture:  ‘These boardwalks were made for bushwalking: Disentangling grounds, surfaces, and walking experience’.   Video by April and Phillip Vannini (2015).

EMAC Ethnography.Media.Arts.Culture Network, is a group of students and scholars based at Royal Roads University in Victoria, B.C., Canada. For more information, see:

Phillip Vannini (Royal Roads University)


Topology of Denial

Climate Change, Declining Sea Ice, Extinction of Polar Bears

Topology of a Changing Climate: Evidence and Denial
The “space” of 2 intersecting issues: declining Arctic sea ice and the future of polar bears in climate change denying blogs and scientific papers (from Harvey et al in Bioscience (Nov 29 2017)).


Analysis of statements about the future of polar bears and declining Arctic sea ice reveals a polar contrast between climate change deniers’ blogs and evidence-based scientific reports.  This produces the hints of a manifold or topological space where the debate is both polarized around a left-right axis and features another line of flight (“will adapt”) that nonetheless remains within the 2 limiting dimensions of the graph of affirmation vs. denial.

Charts from Jeffrey A. Harvey Daphne van den Berg Jacintha Ellers Remko Kampen Thomas W. Crowther Peter Roessingh Bart Verheggen Rascha J. M. Nuijten Eric Post Stephan Lewandowsky Ian Stirling Meena Balgopal Steven C. Amstrup Michael E. Mann (2017). Internet Blogs, Polar Bears, and Climate-Change Denial by Proxy. BioScience.

Rob Shields (University of Alberta)

Canadian Utopianisms – Design from the 1967 centennial

Over the summer, Contemporary Gallery Calgary had a wonderful exhibition looking back 50 years to the futurism of late 60s designers who were commissioned to produce buildings for the Centennial of Canadian Confederation in 1967.  Architecture and National Identity: The Centennial Projects 50 Years On, curated by Marco Polo & Colin Ripley for Confederation Centre Art Gallery of Charlottetown is currently at Paul H. Cocker Gallery, 325 Church Street, Toronto until Nov. 10 2017.

C Gallery Calgary

Rob Shields (University of Alberta)

Spatial Machinations

A shoutout to Sam Kinsley’s site Spatial Machinations.  Its reach across contemporary theory and global issues more than fulfills it ambitious mandate to chronicle and catalogue how media produce temporalities and spatialities.  Recent discussions of affect theory and geography, American military visions of cities as dystopic are typically engrossing and on point.   However, taking the time to archive a missed event – I just picked up “Paramatta”, so inferred its not only past  but was far away (suburban Sydney Australia), gives us not only an echo of an event but flags important insights such as the declining rate of innovation.

A typical gem of a post is the 2009 A Vision – Simon Armitage’: which draws on Simon Armitage‘s Tyrannosaurus Rex Versus the Corduroy Kid a lyrical contrast between a found architect’s rendering and a bleak-looking photo of Thamesmead, a huge Brutalist housing project in SE London.

Thamesmead was the setting for Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange.  There is little online in photographs that capture the social life of the development.  Thamesmead seems stuck in black and white 60s and 70s, including the outstanding photography of George Plemper.

  Rob Shields (University of Alberta)

Robert Smithson Spiral Jetty by Tim Do

Tim Do, 2008: Spiral Jetty
Tim Do, 2008: Spiral Jetty

The Spiral Jetty, Utah – at low water.  Considered to be the central work of American sculptor Robert Smithson, is an earthwork sculpture constructed in 1970. Built of mud, salt crystals, basalt rocks, earth, and water on the northeastern shore of the Great Salt Lake near Rozel Point in Utah, it forms a 1500-foot long and 15-foot wide counterclockwise coil jutting from the shore of the lake.

At the time of its construction, the water level of the lake was unusually low because of a drought. Within a few years, the water level returned to normal and submerged the jetty for the next three decades. Due to a recent drought, the jetty re-emerged in 1999 and is now completely exposed. The lake level rose again during the spring of 2005 due to a near record-setting snowpack in the mountains and partially submerged the Jetty again (  We found this wonderful, rare photo in Tim Do’s blog and have taken the liberty of linking to it.

As an aesthetic response to land and place, late 20th century Environmental Art is due for a reappraisal in light of Indigenous ecophilosophies that provide a sacred and social framework for visceral relations between humans, land and the non-human.  Spiral Jetty has been invisible for much of its life in more ways that one.  These works are always a bit orphaned in Art Historical, Landscape Architecture and Environmental theory.  Environmental Art absolutely cries out to be put into a dialogue with Indigenous cultural frameworks that offer critical and contextual responses to land and place.

Rob Shields (University of Alberta)

Idea of Place: Midi Sprout demonstration

Midi Sprout & Plants Interactive Performance with Ipek Oskay, May 7, 11.45 am – 12.30 pm (Sunday Lunch Break) Venue:  Tory Building 1-105, Tory Building, University of Alberta Saskatchewan Drive NW Edmonton AB

Joe Patitucci (Data Garden), Panel Presentation in the session Recording, May 6, 9 am – 10:15  Venue: Tory Building Ground Floor Room #TBD, University of Alberta.


Data Garden creates immersive experiences through music and technology. They connect people to wonder through interactive works that encourage exploration and discovery. Begun as a record label releasing downloadable album codes printed on plantable seed paper, Data Garden has become a worldwide public art project building community and connection to living plants through art.

Midi Sprout is a product of Data Garden which allows sound media artists to use plants and other living things to control audio and video synthesizers in real time.

Listen to plants’ music and interact with the plants and listen to the music of interaction.

You can listen to one of Joe Patitucci’s works with MIDI Sprout here

MIDI Sprout Interactive Performance: Biofeedback to Music

Ipek Oskay (University of  Alberta)

Reading Laruelle 1 – a review in 3 parts

Alexander Galloway, Laruelle: Against the Digital.  Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press 2014.  ISBN 9780816692132

1. Against the digital as differentiation

I first read this book in one sitting of 7 hours but have divided this review as I wanted to extend my discussion of Galloway’s treatment of Deleuze.  This will appear as Part 2 of this review.  Alexander Galloway’s book Laruelle: Against the Digital presents 14 theses across 10 chapters that move from the inaccessible monolithic material oneness of the Real to a critical assessment of ‘analysis’ that is the hallmark of philosophy.  Philosophical elements, such as analysis, are presented under the label of the ‘Standard Approach’. Galloway argues that François Laruelle (From Decision to Heresy, Experiments in Non-Standard Thought. New York: Sequence. 2012) offers a realist or ‘Non-Standard Approach’ that foregrounds imminence and the a priori commonality of all being and thought as a general category of the undifferentiated, indifferent, or generic.  Being and thought go together and imply each other inseparably (cf. Heidegger).  Galloway insists he is not offering a book about Laruelle, but he closely follows the lines of his philosophical position.  The generic is the ‘analog’ that Galloway pits against the tradition of differentiation and division that underpins the digital 0-1 binary system.  Standard Approach philosophy is thus digital.  Lucretius, Spinoza, Deleuze, Althusser are important references for Galloway in Part Two of his book where he considers the politics and aesthetics of cybernetic control society, the aesthetics of darkness and light, and an ethics of the generic.

As mentioned, the most interesting aspects of the book for me are found in Galloway’s discussion of Deleuze’s Society of Control (see Part 2 of this review). However before he arrives at his discussion of Digital Capitalism, Galloway’s text moves through several labyrinthine chapters on analytical division, Laruelle’s critique of hermeneutics, dialectics and multiplicity, and the hierarchical temporal logic of the event.

“Laruelle is charting an exodus out of representation more generally. Thus, the true withdrawal from digital quality will lead to imminence, not analogy. The ultimate withdrawal from digital will lead to the generic” (89).

The Standard Model of philosophy is premised on the division of the One into two as an event and a decision.  It is both ontological and metaphysical.  The NonStandard Model does not permit either a hermeneutics that separates surface and depth, a structuralism that separates appearance and structure, not even a division of the digital and analog, nor critique based on some sort of external subject position that assesses an ignoble problem object.

Galloway takes the zero – one logic of today’s digital world as a logic of distinction, decision, difference, and division. He does not discuss other possible readings or understandings of this zero as a non-negative that cannot simply be contrasted against a one, meaning a particular or an entity. For example, contemporary mathematics often understands zero as exactly Laruelle’s undifferentiated whole that is an inclusive infinity or plenum that includes All.  My thought is that oneness is an eerie anticipation of quantum computing’s ‘all-at-once’ computation of a field of possibilities (an analogue space without time produced in only a single computational cycle).  It also points toward the possibility of a future social theory encounter with social diversity as an analogue phenomenon, variation rather than difference.  This entails an examination of the Janus – faced quality of the zero in the 01 binary logic,  This is one of the exciting opportunities that Galloway gestures toward (Chapter 4 and 5 of the book) but does not provide. However, it seems that Laruelle, and Galloway following him, argues for a focus on a meta-stasis of pure immanence that prevents any rational representation and analysis of being, except as the grand illusion of a divided world of subjects and objects.

…Part 2 follows.

Rob Shields (University of Alberta)

The American Wall: Spatialization of Inequality

Laura Poitras, Academy Award winning Director of Citizenfour and others at Field of Vision stitched together 200000 Google satellite images to create Best of Luck with the Wall, a video of the US-Mexico border, where the American government proposes to build a wall to keep out Mexicans.

Over the last 15 years, Space and Culture has published multiple articles on the Mexico-US border as a division, a trade corridor and space of mobilities, a lived cultural experience, and as a liminal space betwixt and between the two countries.  These included Remembering Laredo (Mehnaaz Momen 2007), Road Signs on the Border (Lee Rodney 2011) and Speed and Space within a NAFTA Corridor (Jane Henrici 2002).

-Rob Shields (University of Alberta)

Review: Cities and Symbols

Nas, Peter J. M. (Ed.). (2011). Cities Full of Symbols: A Theory of Urban Space and Culture. Leiden, Netherlands: Leiden University Press. 303 pp. $52.50, ISBN 9789089641250.

Cities Full of Symbols is an edited collection that approaches the urban environment from the perspective of urban symbolic ecology. Set within the general field of urban studies, this perspec- tive is defined as “a major tendency” and new area of urban cultural anthropology, pursuing the study of “the cultural dimension of the city” by way of “establishing the distribution and the meanings of symbols and rituals in relation to cultivated surrounds.” The introduction traces the theoretical framework in correlation with a systematization of the symbolic aspects of the city into four categories of symbol bearers: material, discursive, iconic, and behavioral. The main body consists of 12 chapters, each following up selected aspects within a specific case study. The conclusion steers discussion toward a “codification of urban symbolism research,” putting forth the symbolic as a possible way toward “social cohesion.”

With its anthropological outlook, this book presents a stimulating contribution to the ongoing discourse on the urban—one of the most exciting aspects in the study of culture, where notions such as space and place, image, and identity, are subject to theorization by thinkers from diverse fields and lineages (social theory, urban studies, social and symbolic geography, philosophy, architecture). This current perspective posits “the city as a symbolic site” and confirms its symbolic structure as important part of its identity by way of examining its components within urban contexts that are highly heterogeneous in problematic and sociocultural formulation. Hence the reader will find studies on the efforts for national representation in postcolonial developing cities in Southeast Asia, such as Colombo or Jakarta, on the symbolism of urban components in estab- lished world cities such as New York, Buenos Aires, The Hague, as well as on the image con- struction and/or marketing of various towns also involving digital media techniques.

As stated in its self-definition, the theoretical scope of urban symbolic ecology is derived from several approaches. It is rooted in human ecology, furthering the description and analysis of the arrangement of social phenomena over urban space toward the aim of identifying types of symbolic patterns. It also employs Kevin Lynch’s (1960) method of combining “mental mapping” with interviews so as to understand how urban dwellers perceive and organize the urban landscape, and extends on the concepts of “identity” and “structure” by emphasizing the meaning aspects of urban elements. Furthermore, as part of a series of studies on urban symbolism, it focuses on semiotics and the processes of signification in the urban setting, including those of media as a means to constitute a virtual “hyper reality” layer of meaning.

The proposed categorization of symbol carriers bears potential in addressing the possible symbolic aspects of a city comprehensively. In this, the category “material carriers”—the “traditional terrain of urban symbolic ecology”—comprises monuments and other urban objects, as well as architecture, and is intended to “describe the meaning of the urban configuration in all its facets” by focusing on formal properties such as style and geometry. The “discursive” category entails “reflections on urban images and narratives,” and, along with literary sources, gives emphasis to websites as symbolic carriers. It allows drawing attention to computerized media as a self-standing source of signification, pointing to the suitability of this technology of image making for manipulation, and hence—for “the terrain of city branding and marketing.” “Behavioral” symbol carriers relate to urban activities and rituals such as mass celebrations or festivals involved in the city image formation. The category “iconic” is intended toward individuals or personalities with capacity to “represent a city,” highlighting elements that help posit a city as a “goal for pilgrimage,” “sacred or profane.”

The book as a whole genuinely fulfills its function of university publication, both in that it depicts a framework that is actually open and evolving and in that it allots substantial place to emerging researchers alongside renowned authors. Hence studies of the former group adhere more closely to the principal methodology, producing insightful and detailed field research and obtaining valuable data as to the “emic” accounts of meanings assigned to urban surrounds. Established social and cultural anthropologists on the other hand, engage on extending the approach, such as for instance, E. Durr’s inquiry into the workings of urban symbols within the complex mechanisms of collective memory and in correlation with conceptions from the broader field of thought on perception, mind, and memory. On the whole, the discussion of symbolic structures appears to be based on a “top-down” versus “bottom-up” dichotomy, in a way echoing De Certeau’s distinction between rational urbanist planning and the “tactics” that people who live these designs use to make sense. However, in a close up, the detailed research of various cases also yields evidence that would actually resist such clear-cut polarity, as well as the straight- forward classification presupposed by the concepts of “production” and “consumption” of urban symbolism. Hence, for instance, the status of some behavioral symbol carriers might come out to be rather ambiguous. In this, one might consider how festivals and religious rituals, though participatory in nature, are also organized/institutionalized urban events, while practices such as street painting that would begin as grassroots initiative come to be regularized through official poli- cies—ambiguities that would point toward more intricate theoretical/interpretative schemes.

Concerned with image formation and formulation of meanings, and presenting massive concrete research material, this book, in its own terms, brings into focus the symbolic as an aspect of the problematic links between the notions of identity and location. By observing buildings, objects, and practices, which present potent links with broader analytical frameworks, this book demonstrates how such elements act also as symbolic carriers. It provides grounds to involve the symbolic into the constitution of the theoretical tools that help us understand the processes whereby urban components are constructed, utilized, imagined and remembered. This symbolic perspective sheds light on the complex techniques and dynamics through which ideas, narratives, and spaces are produced, regulated, and acquire symbolic value, pointing to possibilities of generating, collectively, spaces of cultural belonging, association and solidarity.

Maya N. Öztürk, Bilkent University, Ankara, Turkey