Manuel DeLanda: Assemblage Theory. Book Review by Kalan Kucera

Manuel DeLandaEdinburgh: Edinburgh University Press 2016, ISBN: 978-1-4744-1363-3

When describing the genesis of the 1971 animated film The Point, Harry Nilsson said the idea came to him when he was “on acid and I looked at the trees and I realized that they all came to points, and the little branches came to points, and the houses came to points. I thought, ‘Oh! Everything has a point, and if it doesn’t, then there’s a point to it’” (Jacobson, 2004). While Nilsson may not have actually inspired anything about Manuel DeLanda’s Assemblage Theory–a refinement and expansion of ideas from Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari–this quote could serve as a tongue-in-cheek thesis statement for the work. Manuel DeLanda is a philosopher and filmmaker who lives in the U.S. and, in recent decades, has cultivated an interest and expertise in the philosophical works of both Deleuze and Jean Baudrillard (Cvjeticanin, n.d.).

The idea of assemblages explored here originates from Deleuze & Guattari’s book, A Thousand Plateaus, where assemblage is defined as “a multiplicity which is made up of many heterogeneous terms and which establishes liaisons, relations between them, across ages, sexes and reigns – different natures” (DeLanda, 2016, p. 1). For the most part, DeLanda hews fairly closely to the theory of assemblages presented therein, framing this work as an “attempt to bring these different definitions together, introducing and illustrating the terms required to make sense in them” (p. 1). In the endeavor to define and explore assemblages across a variety of disciplines he mostly succeeds, with the exception of a discussion of topics related to the virtual that obfuscates and nearly sinks the whole construction that is presented.

After introducing important structural and definitional concepts, DeLanda uses the first few chapters of the book to refine these ideas and uses them to contextualize different historical assemblages. Concepts important to defining the construction of assemblages–exteriority vs. interiority, coding, emergence, singularities, historical entities, and territorialization–are all defined and set in several historical contexts including Human History (Ch. 1), the Evolution of Languages (Ch. 2), the Weapons of War (Ch. 3), and Scientific Practice (Ch. 4). Myriad examples in these chapters help show how assemblages form from heterogeneous components which ebb and flow as they are encoded / decoded and territorialized / deterritorialized. Assemblages themselves form larger assemblages, painting a complex systems theory that DeLanda uses to great effect with the assistance of these examples. In later chapters, the topic turns to the virtual and to a concept that DeLanda calls the “diagram” of an assemblage, a sort of “potential space” describing possible attributes of an assemblage that aren’t currently displayed.

In these latter chapters, the coherent tapestry of assemblage theory begins slowly to unravel. Discussion of assemblages and components thereof is tacitly abandoned for an exploration of their virtual counterparts, or diagrams. A description of something akin to a potential space, or representation, is described and explored, only to be seemingly tossed aside as a step towards “reified generality” (p. 138). Another section leads to conceptions of topological time and counter-actualization, concepts that DeLanda concedes are so abstract that special tools are needed: “Tools to manipulate these intensities… in the form of a growing variety of psychoactive chemicals that can be deployed to go beyond the actual world, and produce at least a descriptive phenomenology of the virtual” (ibid., p. 133). Until some rogue libertarians rescue the world from the tyranny of psychoactive sobriety, though, I fear these concepts shall remain shrouded in an impenetrable haze of conjecture.

Fortunately, the rest of the book is more accessible and, as an attempt to define and explain a theory of assemblages, this work is largely successful. DeLanda’s description of the components of assemblages and the ways in which they emerge based upon the coding and territorialization of their components is lucid and the historical examples help define a clear image of the concepts. As a materialist philosophy, the idea of assemblages is an attractive way to construct the dynamic interrelationships between history, components, and the whole that emerges from them. Several fascinating ideas are presented in an effective manner, including that the properties of an assemblage (or system) are emergent and not simply the summation of the properties of components, and that the history and ‘individuality’ of the assemblage is key to its properties, something DeLanda calls the “processes of individuation” (p. 140). These ideas are important to the theory and provide useful and welcome scaffolding for other conclusions.

Assemblage Theory works to refine and clarify some of Deleuze and Guattari’s ideas. There are interesting views worth considering for sociologists and those who wish to explore ideas of complex systems and their components. If, perhaps, someday another author attempts to summarize and expand upon a vision of assemblage theory, this edition will undoubtedly prove an invaluable reference. Unfortunately, an opaque treatment of the virtual and the complete lack of a unifying conclusion–or concluding statement of any kind–prevent this work from effectively making its Point.

Kalan Kucera, University of Alberta, Canada

References

Cvjeticanin, S. (n.d.). Manuel DeLanda – Biography. Retrieved from http://egs.edu/faculty/manuel-de-landa/

DeLanda, M. (2016). Assemblage Theory (First). Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Deleuze, G., & Guattari, F. (1987). A thousand plateaus: capitalism and schizophrenia. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Jacobson, A. (2004). What’s The Point? The Legendary 1971 Animated Feature on DVD. Bright Lights Film Journal. Retrieved from http://brightlightsfilm.com/whats-the-point-the-legendary-1971-animated-feature-on-dvd/

Eduardo Kohn: How Forests Think. Book Review by Anthony Fisher

Kohn, E. (2013). How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human. Berkeley: University of California Press.

When people think of trees they most certainly would not associate them with having the ability to create thought processes. This is, of course, because trees have no brains. However, in his book How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human (2013) Kohn indicates that trees (and other beings) have the ability to think and discusses how they accomplish this. He pushes the reader to step out of an anthropocentric view and re-evaluate how humans can interpret the world. Indeed, the author stresses that the field of anthropology has been too short sighted and has not yet fully explored how other beings constitute what it is to be human. Therefore, by studying the world outside of the human this gives insight towards what it truly means to be human. Kohn explores this idea by conducting an ethnographic study of the Runa people in Avila, Ecuador.

Kohn builds his case that trees and other nonhuman entities think by delving deep into semiotics. He explains that all beings can represent, produce, and interpret signs. Thus, the entire world is made up of semiotics. All beings, in their own way, respond to these signs and subsequently grow and adapt to these sensory inputs. Kohn repeatedly emphasizes that signs go further than just simply the realms of human symbolic interpretation. The author recognizes that even evolutionary success is dependent on responding or not responding to particular environmental signs. An “ecology of selves” is then used to explain how relationships between individuals, through the process of sign interpretation, is how individuals are defined. Individuals then can be said to “represent and are represented by other beings” (p.78). Therefore, “if selves are thoughts and the logic through which they interact is semiotic, then relation is representation” (p. 83). This is made clear by examining tree characteristics and spatial orientation. Trees that have specialized characteristics “form relatively more nuanced and exhaustive overall representation[s] of the surrounding environment” (p.81). Pest resistance is an example of these specialized characteristics and this shapes where a tree species can be naturally found. This is how trees think. Relationships amongst trees (and other beings) form repeated arrangements that can be predictably exploited. Modern and historical forestry markets are one example of humans’ understanding environmental relationships or misunderstanding in the case of over-logging. These misinterpretations or simply ignoring environmental associations is called soul blindness where “treat[ing] other selves as objects” (p. 119) and being “[unable] to see beyond oneself or one’s kind” (p.117) is the cause of not understanding the interconnectedness of nature.

The author explores complicated topics, such as the ecology of selves, by using examples in everyday Runa life. Metaphors as well as pictures are used to emphasize key points. Consistently referencing and referring back to environmental examples firmly grounds this theoretical work. Kohn does a fantastic job in explaining how understanding relationships amongst various beings can sometimes be quite complex and that the virtual can be sometimes used to understand the perspective of other beings. The Runa often use dreams or the hallucinogenic properties of substances to make sense of the living, material world. Continue reading Eduardo Kohn: How Forests Think. Book Review by Anthony Fisher

What is Strategy? The Topological Exercise of Power

Topology of Power

What does it mean to say that power operates ‘topologically’ in politics, economics and everyday life?  Topology concerns non-Euclidean geometries – the kinds one might observe if one stretched a drawing of a triangle. Another example of a topological transformation is if one added dimensions to the drawing, extending the triangle into a 3 dimensional pyramid or developing and imagining it even further in more dimensions.

The topological character of power is that it exceeds ‘action on bodies’ or ‘action on others’ actions’ (cf. Foucault). Using techniques and administrative apparatuses, power can be projected as ‘action at a distance’. ‘Reach’ is a keyword that describes this extension of power to actualize it and put it into action despite intervening distances and mediations . For example, we talk of ‘the long arm of the law’.

The powers of a topological sensibility

Powers are multiple, subtle and include influence. ‘Reach’ describes the influence an actor may have on other actors.

Powers exists in and as ‘power relations’, whether the parties are aware that power is a factor. That is, power doesn’t have to be exercised as much as it simply has to have an effect. As such it is not a concrete thing but a virtual or intangible thing. It is real but not actual, ideal but not abstract. It has a multiple quality. There is no single ‘power.’

Sovereignty’ designates the aggregate powers exercised by the state. History is the time of this power-exercise. Territory is the space of the exercise of sovereignty.

However, States can no longer pretend to guarantee their citizens’ safety from other threats that are themselves powerful. These might include the threats of drone strikes and collateral damage and death (Pakistan, Somalia), of chemical poisoning by nerve agents (UK Skripal nerve agent poisoning), from drifting radiation particles (Scandinavia after the Chernobyl disaster), or from pandemics (SARS in Toronto Canada).

The polis, now often associated with cities, is the space of the demos, the people and democratic opinion.  It is a distinct space-time of assembly and belonging and as such a distinct topological entity.  It is not just a different scale.

Strategy

Strategy’ is a political technology that aims to persuade by establishing the spatiotemporal and other background conditions of a debate. A common strategy is public ‘consultation’ which aims to establish a ‘pubic will’ extracted from a population that legitimates a political course of action and/or the exercise of power. Power is not always exercised strategically, but even whimsical applications of power, if consistent, can be described as part of a strategy.

Tactic’ is the deflection of strategies, in the absence of control over the spatiotemporal and other dimensions of the context of a situation or of the exercise of power (cf. DeCerteau).

Influence,’ the multiplicity of powers, means that strategy is not closed off from the public or subaltern groups, or even individuals that act through social media as ‘influencers’.

Social media technologies and platforms have created new manifolds or spaces of power that exceed the reach of sovereign territories. These technologies are political and their strategic use for disinformation, persuasion has reconfigured the terrain of politics and the reach of these social media actors in general. For example, influencing the US election, extended Russia’s reach into the processes of the US sovereign state as well as into American territory.

Why? The reach of a topological sensibility

All this is more quickly grasped if one has a topological sensibility, looking to dimensions and influences rather than fixed actors such as “the State”.  This approach allows us to move from understanding positions of strength in a debate, project or struggle toward how to actualize that position as effects, to understand its reach; or to put it simply, to understand the power of the position explicitly.

Bearing the topological qualities of power in mind allows us to compare in one plane, so to speak, between power-geometries that are fixed, and to see the operation of power-topologies that stretch or bring new dimensions to the exercise of power. It allows a point-to-point comparison that pinpoints the effectiveness of the transformation that has occured despite the differences in appearances or the complexity of any resulting folded, stretched, involuted or flattened topologies.

Rob Shields (University of Alberta)

Addendum

Comparison with Michel DeCerteau’s notion of tactics and strategy from The Practice of Everyday Life (translated from French 1984)

Strategy: “the calculus of force-relationships which becomes possible when a subject of will and power (a proprietor, an enterprise, a city, a scientific institution) can be isolated from an ‘environment.’  A strategy assumes a place that can be circumscribed as proper (propre) and thus serve as the basis for generating relations with an exterior distinct from it (competitors, adversaries, ‘clienteles,’ ‘targets,’ or ‘objects’ of research). Political, economic, and scientific rationality has been constructed on this strategic model”(Certeau xix);
Tactic: “a calculus which cannot count on a ‘proper’ (spatial or institutional localization ),nor thus on a borderline distinguishing the other as a visible totality. The place of a tacticbelongs to the other.  A tactic insinuates itself into the other’s place, fragmentarily, without  taking  it over in its entirety, without being able to keep it at a distance…”(Certeau xix).
Operations: goes along with tactics as actions that form a “network of an antidiscipline”(Certeau xiv-xv).
Trajectory: “suggests a movement, but it also involves a plane  projection; a flattening out… a graph… a line that can be reversed” (Certeau xviii).

Works cited:

de Certeau, M. (1984). The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley: University of California Press.

de Certeau, M. (1985). Practices of Space. In M.Blonsky (Ed.), On Signs (p. 134ff.). Oxford U.K.: Basil Blackwell.

Media, Religion and Gender: Key Issues and New Challenges – Book Review by Nadine Suliman Abdelrahman

 Egyptian army soldiers arrest a female protester during clashes at Tahrir Square in Cairo on Dec. 17. Stringer/Reuters/Landov
Image of “the girl in the blue bra”; a prominent picture from the Egyptian revolution in 2011, referenced in page 1 of the book. Tahrir Square, Cairo. Dec. 17 2011 (Stringer/Reuters/Landov) Click to link to video.

Mia Lövheim Media, Religion and Gender: Key Issues and New Challenges (London Routledge 2013)

Dominant religious institutions have, historically, had strict normative boundaries, especially when it relates to gender. Technology and globalization, through the media, may have instilled what would be referred to as “unorthodox” religious views and perspectives on gender and its preexisting constructs. Focusing my argument on Islam, present day media outlets have certainly impacted the voices of different genders and potentially their roles, creating a “modern Islam” that is better adapted with the world and views from around the world. It is worth noting, however, that the media has consecutively created wider space and reach for religious authority and political religious authority, as will be elaborated further in this book review. Capturing such opposing roles the media plays relative to gender and religion remains a challenge.

One of few books that relate media, gender and religion while taking into account social constructs on sex/ gender similar to Butler’s1 concepts of regulatory materialization of gender and gender performativity, Mia Lovheim’s “Media, Religion and Gender” can be considered a breakthrough across several distinct but overlapping fields. Drawing on historical concepts and theories, the book is an attempt to bring third wave feminism and gender into front centre of its research that is rooted in academia yet based on participatory and reflexive research. This book had an overarching goal of challenging research gaps on the interrelations between gender and its cultural/ societal constructs, religion and the media. Contributors to the book covered a wide range of topics including theoretical perspectives as well as more detailed case studies of different religious views in the media; drawing on examples from various parts of the world.

Continue reading Media, Religion and Gender: Key Issues and New Challenges – Book Review by Nadine Suliman Abdelrahman

The Social Life of Infrastructure

Rob Shields, October 27 2017.  Space and Culture Research Group

On October 27 Rob Shields presented asking, ‘What are the social effects of built infrastructure?’ Changing public interaction with civic infrastructure accumulates to changes in Canadian social forms. Infrastructure affects social integration, accessibility, and inclusiveness. Infrastructure choices affect the relations of core and periphery, and the exercise of sovereignty and Canadian values.

 Reflection notes

1. Infrastructure as representation of the system and program of the city?

Infrastructure has often been believed to reflect how the city creates its system and manages natural resources. However, that is not necessarily the case. Sometimes infrastructure functions in a way that is not planned or expected. For example, we may find many built infrastructures such as bridges that were designed to provide a new passage over an obstacle or adjust the traffic flow/density. Instead, they are now being used mainly as venues for festivals, markets, or more stationary activities. In this sense, infrastructure may not necessarily be “broken” or “dysfunctional”, but it sometimes evolves or is re-purposed by the local residents to serve different or even multiple functions.

Continue reading The Social Life of Infrastructure

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: publicethnography.net

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. https://doi.org/10.1093/biosci/bix133

Rob Shields (University of Alberta)

Review: Creative Urbanity

Guano, Emanuela. (2017). Creative Urbanity: An Italian Middle Class in the Shade of Revitalization. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. ISBN 9780812248784. 242 pages + notes, bibliography, index, acknowledgements.

To a casual visitor, any city usually appears to be a monolithic collection of buildings, people and open spaces, all somehow connected by a hidden code of conduct that eludes outsiders. Emanuela Guano’s nuanced Creative Urbanity: An Italian Middle Class in the Shade of Revitalization allows the reader to steal a few furtive glances at Genoa’s subtle inner workings hidden beneath the superficial exterior of an Italian port city. This is what polyvocality looks like at its finest, supported by distinct voices of its actors in six main chapters, bookended by a thorough introduction and poignant conclusions, followed by notes, bibliography, index and acknowledgements; maps and photography by the author and other contributors constitute another valuable dimension of this project.

From the effective opening vignette of Beatrice, a tour guide in Genoa’s centro storico, who informs her walking audience about mysteries of the city long-gone while “conjuring the hidden out of the familiar” (2), Guano commands her readers’ attention with ethnographic case studies viewed through a fresh gaze as she offers “a few glimpses into the city’s nature as a fluid assemblage” (18). While the supporting ethnographic field research is impressive, the motivations behind Guano’s project constitute a solid case study in and of itself. A diasporic Genoese flaneuse, Guano walked the streets of the city in a Baudelairean style, watching, taking notes, drawing conclusions and exploring the urban everyday shaped by the corporate capital. While her methodology and concept are well explained, Guano saw her project as a labor of love grown on the genesis of her own nostalgia for the city where she would have been precluded from pursuing an academic career.

The well-edited monograph contains a healthy balance of opposing views on the role of the middle classes in the production of urban space. At its very core, the book is an exploration of “the lives and experiences of those middle-class Genoese who, seeking to escape consistently high unemployment rates, invented self-employment venues for themselves” (15).  The book does not “represent the city as a bounded and stable entity” (23), and it leaves room for investigating other creative practices informed by revitalization. Commandeered by blue- and white-collar workers in the 1960s, the parading life on display, passegiata, or an urban stroll, with the underlying air of aristocracy, is symbolized by the quirky cover photo with a quintessentially Italian Fiat 500 painted with a colorful cityscape of nearly uniform buildings—a combination of sloping roofs and high-rises.

(Guano, 2016)

The introduction, grounded in anthropology and urban theory, addresses students of neoliberalism while promising to present a cross-section of urbanity and its transformations, with a particular focus on the residual creative class. Following the outstanding literature review, Chapter 1, Chronotopes of Hope, is moderately autoethnographic as it traces the recent developments in Genoa’s rise to and fall from the level of Florence, Venice or Rome as an object of a tourist gaze, something in which the port city’s residents took great pride; this chapter provides chronotopic perspectives on the urban everyday starting with the 1970s and tracing the city’s ups and downs through the 2010s. The first major case study, Chapter 2, Genoa’s Magic Circle, narrates the dramatic events of the 2001 G8 Summit that cut short much hope for the city’s entrance to the global stage; the corollary of violence and state repression informs the discussion of local middle-class urbanity to present a different kind of aestheticization of the city stemming from its reimagining as a stage for the performance of a global political drama. Written as an ethnographic analysis of the gentrification that has unfolded in Genoa’s centro storico since the early 1990s, Chapter 3, Gentrification without Teleologies, presents a fascinating example in the study on spatial relations of solids vs. voids in an urban environment—the vertical stratification based on access to daylight; the chapter tackles gentrification as an assemblage of people, logics and materialities: one whereby a nexus of neoliberal rationality, the built environment and old and new neighborhood residents and users contribute to making a world whose emergent dynamics may, at times, unfold along the lines of the well-researched template of the capitalist “spatial fix”—and yet, at other times, they are considerably more complex. The discussion of how women eke out their living while being accused of stealing a man’s job serves as the framework for Chapter 4, Cultural Bricoleuses, with antique fairs and dealers as the subject against the backdrop of the transformation that has unfolded not just through the regeneration of the built environment, but also through spatial practices that are part of the urban everyday within an economy of consumable heritage based on the marketing of cultural and symbolic goods, services and experiences. Genoa’s walking tour guides who tread the tenuous line that separates academic knowledge from cultural consumption feature in Chapter 5, Touring the Hidden City, which contrasts the high vs. popular culture in the tourist vocation enmeshed in the aristocratic rejection of urban ostentation. The ethnography of the annual Suq, a multicultural festival—informed by its intentional hybrid spatiality—held annually in Genoa under the supervision of two women on a mission to further the cause of diversity in the city comprises Chapter 6, Utopia with No Guarantees, followed by a cautiously optimistic final research section of the monograph, Conclusion, that offers hope through a combination of empathy and sympathy Guano has for the city of her formative years where the never ending revolving door of businesses dying out, born, improved and declining points to a luminous future (195). The additional notes to various sections dispel any possible lack of clarity while framing the discussion in a much broader cultural event or a series of events, e.g., the Chinese migration to Italy.

The brevity of the monograph makes the work a victim of its author’s skill and expertise combined with the engaging and heartfelt narratives. As with any ethnography, a few elements of this one might have seemed outdated already at the time of press, and Guano realized that some of the realities she was analyzing were no longer quite as current. Any superficial deficiencies aside, Creative Urbanity: An Italian Middle Class in the Shade of Revitalization constitutes a solid contribution to the areas of anthropology, urban studies, aesthetics, political economy, labor studies, ethnography and gender studies—one could only wish to read more of such intricately and exquisitely crafted ethnographic portraits of cities in the 21st century.

Caesar Perkowski (Gordon State College)

Review: Spatializing Culture

Setha Low. (2017).  Spatializing Culture: The Ethnography of Space and Place. London and New York: Routledge. ISBN: 978-1-138-94561-6.

(Setha Low, 2017)

Setha Low is an anthropologist long recognized for her contributions to the study of space and place.  In her most recent book, Spatializing Culture, Low draws on over twenty years of research to outline, clarify, and expand upon the concept of “spatializing culture,” which she has been developing since her 1996 article in American Ethnologist: “Spatializing culture: The social production and social construction of public space in Costa Rica.”  While Low claims that her most recent book is not a review of space and place in anthropology (p. 11), in many ways, it functions as a survey of key formulations and theories that have influenced and generated current ethnographic research on space and place, providing illustrative examples of such ethnographic research from around the world.  Consequently, Spatializing Culture would be especially useful as an introduction to space and place for undergraduate and graduate students across various disciplines, particularly those that already utilize or would benefit from ethnographic methods such as anthropology, sociology, cultural geography, urban studies, and environmental psychology.

Low’s systematic organization of the material lends itself well for a textbook.  Apart from the requisite introduction and conclusion that highlight the importance and relevance of ethnography, space, and place, the second chapter, “Genealogies: The concepts of space and place” draws on the tradition of Foucault’s genealogies to structure the discussion of major influences.  Low loosely ties together ideas and theories that have influenced one another, whether through French social theory or disciplinary traditions such as architecture, geography, or anthropology as opposed to presenting a historiography of space and place. Her use of Venn diagrams of space and place to represent the relationship of these concepts as they are used and understood within different genealogies exemplifies her attempt to make the differing theoretical orientations accessible to novices.

As Low, herself, explains:

This book is organized around spatializing culture as a framework made up of various conceptual frames.  Each is examined with three objectives in mind.  The first is to trace its scholarly development and discuss its strengths and limitations….The second objective is to demonstrate how ethnography can elucidate each and provide insights into a range of places and problems….The third objective…is to show how the different conceptual frames overlap and intersect. (pp. 8-9)

Chapters three through eight explicate the six conceptual frames that constitute her framework for spatializing culture, titled 3) the social production of space, 4) the social construction of space, 5) embodied space, 6) language, discourse and space, 7) emotion, affect and space, and 8) translocal space.  The first half of each chapter provides the theoretical grounding that scholars have developed and used to understand space and place through the particular lens or frame of embodiment or language, for example, while the second half provides ethnographic examples of how these frames are operationalized.  The use of ethnographic examples, apart from being a major methodological contribution of Low’s anthropological background, serves to address two interacting methodological questions.  “How does the conceptual frame shape a particular research project,” and how, in turn, “ethnographic research help[s] to clarify and enhance the utility of the approach?” (p. 9)

It is clear that chapters three and four on the social production and social construction of space occupy what Low sees as the most significant or established ways in which space and place have been traditionally framed.  Moreover, her choice to begin with social production over social construction reveals her own political leanings that highlight materialist approaches to power, hegemonic processes, and relationships of inequality.  Where many scholars of space and place might begin with social construction as a departure point for understanding space and place in which social interaction and symbolic processes take the lead, Low’s attachment to an “engaged” anthropology demands a political alignment with those who have been systematically excluded, rendering their limited ways of constructing space practically invisible.  Low’s ethnographic examples for social production in Costa Rica and Taiwan demonstrate the strength of a social production frame that offers insights into unequal development, surveillance, and incursions of capitalism while her examples for social construction in Philadelphia and Beirut reveal how local communities contest redevelopment that ignores local meanings and attachments to places and spaces.

Chapter five on embodied spaces is Low’s response to the limited binary of social production and social construction.  In it she defines terms such as body, embodiment, and sensorium and places them within the complex literature that moves from proxemics, to phenomenology, to mobility.  Her ethnographic examples highlight how space can be located in the body, whether individual or collective, and provides avenues for coalescing social production and social construction within the body.

With subsequent chapters six through eight, the overlap with previous theoretical underpinnings becomes more pronounced and it appears that while ethnographic approaches within these frames certainly focus on discursive, affective, or translocal approaches, they play a more supportive or extending role tied to social production, social construction, or embodiment. This, of course, speaks to Low’s objective of demonstrating how these frames overlap and intersect, but also reveal the limitations of using these conceptual frames as an organizing structure for an ethnographic textbook. Nevertheless, the review of literature within each chapter is extensive, with ample examples of how different scholars theorize space and place through these frames.  Consider Low’s referencing Ben Anderson’s and Kathleen Stewart’s work to discuss how affective atmospheres circulate spatially through bodies and also extend beyond the body as a kind of sensory attunement to others’ worlds.  Their work demonstrates how Low’s conceptual frames of embodiment and affect can intersect.  The ethnographic examples in these chapters again offer an array of global research that takes us from New York  to Cairo to Tel Aviv.

Low acknowledges that her conceptual frames are not exhaustive, drawing particular attention to the largely absent notions of mediated and virtual frames.  While it may be true that such a treatment could easily fill another book, it is not difficult to imagine another chapter in which she traces the scholarly work in this area and provides one or two key ethnographic examples of how this plays out in understandings of space and place.  Could it be that an examination of virtual space challenges notions of traditional ethnography’s hold as a particularly useful method or that textual and mediated approaches push the boundaries of what constitutes ethnography? More likely, such an approach may be outside of Low’s own experiences as ways of understanding space and place, unlike the other six frames that are all born out of her own struggles to make sense of her ethnographic research.

This is a minor critique when we consider that as a textbook on space and place, Spatializing Culture offers much as a reference guide to key theories and demonstrates the contributions of an ethnographic approach. The organization of the text has its benefits and limitations with some redundancy in overlapping and intersecting approaches, but ultimately serves its student audience well.  Setha Low continues to make an important contribution to current understandings of space and place and makes complex ideas accessible through numerous examples that underscore the significance of studying space and place.  For those interested in a survey of ethnographic approaches to the study of space, place, and culture, Spatializing Culture is a worthwhile departure point.

Jessica Montalvo (University of South Florida)

 

References:

Low, S. M. (1996). Spatializing culture: the social production and social construction of public space in Costa Rica. American ethnologist, 23(4), 861-879.

The Social Life of Infrastructure

On Friday, October 27, 2017 Dr. Rob Shields gave a talk on “The Social Life of Infrastructure” for the Space and Culture Research Group at the University of Alberta. Below is a brief description of Dr. Shield’s talk along with an audio recording.

What are the social effects of built infrastructure? Changing public interaction with civic infrastructure accumulates to changes in Canadian social forms. Infrastructure affects social integration, accessibility, and inclusiveness. Infrastructure choices affect the relations of core and periphery, and the exercise of sovereignty and Canadian values.

Listen to Dr. Shields’ talk here:

Podcast: Conserving the Future, Precipitate Ecologies and Architectures

On Sept 29, 2017 Dr. Paulina Mickiewicz gave a talk entitled “Conserving the Future, Precipitate Ecologies and Architectures” for the Space and Culture Research Group at the University of Alberta. Below is a brief description of Dr. Mickiewicz’s talk, some related links, and an audio recording.

What does it mean to archive nature? The growing unease about cetaceans and other species in captivity echoes our increasing unrest and mounting need to reintroduce “nature” back into our urbanized, industrialized, and technologized lives. This presentation will explore the increasingly complex relationships between conservation and preservation, media technologies, architectural design and the reconceptualization of the environment, and how these issues are bound up with states of saturation that inevitably (and materially) precipitate novel organizational and architectural responses.

Before listening to the talk, check out this New York Times article on the race to preserve nature and Shannon Mattern’s website on infrastructure, architecture, libraries, etc…

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)

Review: Human-built environment relations as a necessary component to architectural designs

Lindsay, G. and Morhayim, L. (Eds.). (2015). Revisiting “Social Factors”: Advancing Research into People and Place. Newcastle upon Tyne, UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing. ISBN: 978-1-4438-7734-3. 

In Revisiting Social Factors, Georgia Lindsay and Lusi Morhayim take on an ambitious set of questions both reflective and forward-looking: What is the status of social and behavioral research in environmental design? How can the rich, fifty-year history of Social Factors continue to shape, for the better, the places we design and inhabit and inform scholarship at the intersection of culture, space, and place?

(Lindsay and Morhayim, 2015)

We begin in Berkeley, California, where the first Social Factors program in an Architecture department began in the 1960s and where, in 2011, a conference entitled “The Death and Life of ‘Social Factors’: A Conference Reexamining Behavioral and Cultural Research in Environmental Design” convened to investigate the state of “research regarding the relationship between culture, individuals, and the built environment.” As a young Social Factors scholar at Berkeley, the “d” word—death—haunted me: how could Social Factors be dead? Undoubtedly, the field has undergone substantial change since its 1960s heyday, and, in some ways, is marked by the patina of time: neither the behaviorist origins nor the language we use to talk about Social Factors is adequate for today’s research and practice agenda. Yet this book, born from the papers presented at the “Death and Life of ‘Social Factors’” conference, testifies to the long and still robust life of the field. Echoing Jane Jacobs, who both acknowledged the lifelessness of ‘renewed’ urban space to contrast (and attempt to preserve) the promise and joy inherent in historic, diverse city life, the chapters that follow do not chronicle or foretell the death of Social Factors, but rather celebrate its life, then and now.

In fact, as Galen Cranz argues in the Foreword to this book, a social perspective reaches farther into architectural education, scholarship, and practice today than ever before: the National Architectural Accrediting Board requires that all students engage in courses that expose them to social and cultural concerns, the rise of interest in architecture for the public good demonstrates a profound appreciation for contextually sensitive design, and, according to Cranz, “approximately half of the research in building science entails social variables” like comfort and use. Further, the eight essays that comprise this book show how the previous accomplishments of the field and the innovative, interdisciplinary work being done by researchers and practitioners regarding people and their spaces continue to reverberate—and make significant contributions to architectural theory and practice—today.

Though rooted in its Berkeley origins, Revisiting Social Factors boasts broad appeal in the breadth of subject matter it takes on. The book, divided into two sections, begins with a series of essays that orient the reader to the linguistic, historic, and methodological underpinnings of Social Factors and chart a course for future scholarship. In “The Words We Choose,” Karen Franck explores how the language we use to talk about Social Factors research can obscure the value, scope, and disciplinary edges of this field. For example, though “tremendously inclusive,” the terms environment and behavior tend to atomize and stagnate concepts and, in so doing, belie the complex co-influence of people and their places. Instead, we might say space and use—as in the social use of space—or choose other words that convey something multiple, relational, dynamic, and, yes, alive.

Next, Suzanne Cowan and Ayda Melika offer a critical reflection on the history of the Social Factors field—which they articulate as two separate yet parallel strands, one attempting to apply social science methods to social problems and the other aiming to integrate partnerships and participatory methods into design—from the pioneering work of Edward T. Hall and Berkeley’s Clare Cooper Marcus, to the more contemporary contributions of Rem Koolhaas and Teddy Cruz. In considering the origin, successes, and critiques of Social Factors, Cowan and Melika highlight the uneven legacy of this field: its institutionalization in design schools is both its enduring success and its great limitation. Still, the authors suggest a way forward: “This type of research can serve to ground and substantiate the fervor of good intentions and desire for social reform that seem to remain a fundamental part of contemporary architectural discourse.”

Similarly bridging past and present, Dominic Fisher investigates whether the findings of William H. Whyte’s seminal 1971 study of New York City’s small urban spaces remain true today. In a comparative study of two parks—Paley Park, the darling of Whyte’s study, and its predecessor, Harlem’s Collyer Brothers Park—Fisher demonstrates how contextual factors shape the success of a park (Paley) or its neglect (Collyer). Ultimately, he concludes that, in today’s changing urban fabric, Whyte’s praise of small urban spaces as “multipliers” of activity “is still invaluable, but cannot be applied verbatim to seemingly similar spaces in communities underserved by healthy streets and opportunities.” Fisher’s work demonstrates how a contemporary approach to Social Factors research can—and should—continue to inform urban design practices.

If Part 1’s orientation to Social Factors suggests a modern approach to long-standing questions in the field, Part 2 makes good on this promise by showcasing people doing social factors research in both academic and professional settings. Comprised of five studies “that assume the user perspective, with human responses and needs as the unit of measurement,” Part 2 conveys how Social Factors is uniquely poised to address some of the most pressing concerns of our time.

Designing for people with disabilities has long been an interest of socially-minded architects. Yet Ann Heylighten challenges normative approaches to designing for disabled bodies by focusing not on positivist universal design standards, but rather on how people with a range of disabilities—lack of sightedness, hearing deficiencies, and autism—experience built settings in unique ways; such insights can inform new understandings about both definitions of disability (which she defines relationally in the context of person-environment fit, rather than as an inherent individual condition) and spatial experience more broadly.

Programmer Emily Golembewski similarly urges the reader away from a normative practice, this time of programming, a distinct discipline from design, though equally integral in ensuring person-environment fit. Informed by her work at Francis Duffy’s innovative office programming firm, DEGW (now AECOM), Golembiewski offers a toolkit for programming methods: she introduces readers to the strengths and limitations of “formulaic” and “messy” approaches to user research, with the ultimate goal to “identify needs and project drivers, which may be organizational, financial, functional, or cultural in nature.” Though Golembewski’s audience ostensibly is professional programmers and designers whom she hopes will integrate user research into architectural practice, she also makes a compelling plea for architectural educators to “explore the (sometimes tense) relationship between programming and design,” in order to achieve the best possible design outcome.

Marie-Alice L’Hereux also considers the role of education in Social Factors work, particularly regarding sustainability. L’Hereux sees sustainability through a decidedly social lens: “aesthetics, behavior, and technology,” she argues, “all need to be engaged for projects to be successful from both a community and a climate change perspective.” Translation: to be sustainable, buildings must be designed for human use and must perform socially as much as environmentally. Yet L’Hereux demonstrates how easy it can be to neglect social needs when residents are not consulted as part of the design process and social factors are not an explicit part of the curriculum or design criteria. For example, students in a Design-Build Studio focusing on sustainable affordable housing ignored “the fine-grained features of daily life and…maintenance and utility costs,” such that, in the end, according to one student builder, “we did not really design a house that people would live in…it had a neat effect, made good pictures” but did not meet the needs of clients. This chapter reinforces the importance and role of social factors as a primary tenet not just of sustainable design, but of design itself.

A chapter by Yael Perez and colleagues complements that of L’Hereux by offering digital and methodological tools to design sustainably with people; in other words, to engage in co-design to create sustainable housing. Reflecting on their work with the Pinoleville Pomo Nation (PPN), a Native American Nation near Berkeley, CA, Perez and colleagues demonstrate the power of co-design to support a sustainable design approach. Additionally, they show how social media technologies—including Facebook, email, blogs, Google Maps, YouTube videos, and Twitter— can facilitate dialogue among participants and designers in order to articulate how architecture is experienced and—ultimately—design buildings that celebrate community needs.

Such an understanding of people-place interactions—and their translation to meaningful policies and practices—is one of the important legacies of the Social Factors field. A contemporary example of this comes from Cecilia Bodelmann and a team of colleagues from the United States and Sweden. Recognizing two parallel shifts—the rise of sedentary behavior among children and the expansion of preschooling—Bodelmann and colleagues studied the health promotion potential of preschool outdoor environments. After scoring a range of environments based on factors such as size and integration of vegetation and play areas, the authors found that resource-rich environments correlated with increased levels of physical activity among preschool-aged children. This study has clear implications for policy and design practice, especially regarding the need to create healthy learning environments for young people as a means to combat deleterious impacts of sedentary behavior. It also is an inspiring model for how interdisciplinary collaboration can fruitfully address person-environment concerns.

This book began with a lofty promise: to show how questions and research regarding people and place are very much alive today. Though the case studies included are limited in breadth, as is the nature of case studies, they prove nevertheless that the basic priorities of Social Factors serve a vibrant and important role in education, research, and practice today. Indeed, though difficult to convey in just a few chapters the full depth—or potential—of the social factors field, the “cross-section” approach employed by Lindsay and Morhayim successfully uncovers the range of questions alive in person-environment studies as well as the many voices—emerging and seasoned scholars, different disciplines, local and international perspectives—they engage therein.

Importantly, this text is not simply for those of us already familiar with, drawn to, or invested in revisiting Social Factors: in fact, it can inform research and practice in other fields as well. First, it offers an agile framework for thinking about and designing for the intersections of people and place, a topic of interest to geographers, historians, and public health researchers, to name just a few. Second, its authors collectively call for reform in design education—a timely topic as we consider the challenges of designing in a world defined by increasing diversity and complexity—and offer case studies that would be at home in many (interdisciplinary) course syllabi. Finally, this book is edifying reading for designers of all types: a reminder of the value of the social perspective and a toolkit for how to think about and design for the social use of space.

Caitlin DeClercq (University of California, Berkeley)