Category Archives: spatialisation

Review: Urban Spaces and Cultural Imaginations in Contemporary Chinese Literature and Films of Beijing

Zheng, Yiran. (2016). Writing Beijing: Urban Spaces and Cultural Imaginations in Contemporary Chinese Literature and Films. Lanham MD: Lexington Books.

In recent years, the dialectic relationship between tradition and globalization has become even more visible in the urban spaces of Beijing. In the majority of news reports highlighting economic and cultural attractiveness of Beijing, we may find seemingly disconnected expressions, such as ‘greatness of imperial history’ and ‘rising center of global economy.’ This implies that there is a significant temporal gap taking place, and thereby, and points to the drastic urban transformation of the nation. Yiran Zheng’s recent book, Writing Beijing: Urban Spaces and Cultural Imaginations in Contemporary Chinese Literature and Films (2016), also acknowledges this presentation of Beijing. The conceptualization of Beijing as “the fusion of “traditional” Chinese city and a modern international metropolis” is one of the central themes that is constantly brought up in the book.

Writing Beijing (Zheng, 2016)

By this point, it is also important to note where all those urban spaces are located in the spatial structure of Beijing. According to the author, the area showing a concentration of typical Beijing buildings or courtyard houses is geographically located near the center of the city. Then, the next layer of architecture that loops outside the center is dominated by three to four story military compounds constructed under the guidance of Soviet experts. Thereafter, in the outer layer loop, there is new architecture and urban spaces that were built in the global era. Based on the three types of urban spaces identified above, the book largely consists of three parts: the first part focusing on military compounds (chapter 1,2,3), the second part concentrating on the typical building or courtyard house (chapter 4,5,6), and the third part exploring some examples of Beijing’s new architecture and urban spaces (chapter 7,8,9).

However, when considering the geographical map of Beijing and the structure of the chapters in the book together, Zheng does not fully explain why she organizes the three parts in such an order; namely, starting from military compounds to typical traditional Beijing housing, and ending with contemporary buildings. In the introduction, Zheng notes, “Beijing has been transformed from a traditional imperial capital city to a political center of communist China, then into a cosmopolitan metropolis (p. x).” The structure of the book does not seem to illuminate this transitional and changing character or flow of the city, but captures the configurations of the city in specific moments framed within the specific literary works. In that sense, to meet the author’s aim of this book, it is more persuasive to organize the parts and chapters in a geo-temporal order, moving from the central area of traditional housing to the outer area of contemporary buildings developed in present day China.

Each part of this book has three sections (chapters). In every first section, Zheng explores the architectural and spatial qualities of specific urban spaces. Then, Zheng discusses some representative writers and filmmakers in every second section, and finally in the third section, the author analyzes the configuration of the city in the literary works. Throughout the parts and chapters, Zheng uses different sources from different disciplines, such as urban studies, architecture, literature, cultural studies, history studies, and sociology. And Zheng also makes a balanced use of sources between foreign and Chinese authors. Zheng’s cross-disciplinary and cross-national use of sources is what makes this book interdisciplinary and allows it to retain a more balanced point of view.

In this study, the methodological framework is inspired by Lefebvre’s theorization of space. Lefebvre (1991), in his book The Production of Space (1991), proposed the spatial triad to understand the production of space and its embedded power relations. The triad divides space as: spatial practice (producing physical space), representations of space (conceived space), and representational space (lived space). According to Lefebvre, our spatial experience in space consists of these three interrelated elements (Lefebvre, 1991). Zheng specifically points to two of the spaces in this triad, representations of space and representational space, to formulate her methodology.

Within this framework, she emphasizes the intermediary role of artists (writers and filmmakers) between these two spaces. To be more specific, writers are influenced by urban spaces and architectures that are the “representations of space”, reflecting the ideology and expectations of designers. At the same time, writers and filmmakers respond to and reflect on those “representations of spaces” through their use of symbols, signs, and images in their literary productions. Thus, they create literary and filmic texts that refer to the space lived in by artists, “representational spaces”. However, except for brief explanations about the framework in the introduction and conclusion, the author actually does not conduct an extensive engagement with spatial theory, which she bases her work upon. It would have been more helpful if Zheng had continued to connect her discussion to her framework while discussing different type of urban spaces. By doing so, it would have been more apparent how the dialectic relationship between the three moments shown in Lefebvre’s spatial triad can be manifested and applied in this study as well.

Most interestingly, as noted in the beginning of the book, the concept of the coexistence of local and global in Beijing is an important issue for Zheng. This is clearly addressed when the author says that “the “ideal building” should be both modern and Chinese.” (p. 99). Zheng’s personal voice and position towards the relationship between the local and global in cityscape becomes especially prominent in Chapter 7, where Zheng discusses modern and postmodern architecture in the global era. These include the “three new symbolic architecture” in Beijing—National Centre for the Performing Arts (the Giant Egg), National Stadium (the Bird’s Nest), and CCTV New Main Building (the Gate).

In Chapter 7, Zheng is concerned about Beijing becoming “a common metropolis with no distinct cultures” (p. 91). According to Lefebvre, the urban spaces of Beijing produced within the context of global capital are Abstract Spaces, which are homogeneous and transparent, showing the orders and power hierarchies of capitalism (Lefebvre, 1991, pp. 50-51). The Abstract Spaces of these new contemporary buildings of Beijing are shown in their symbolic architecture marked with the dominant activities of the cities (Castells, 2005). The three new buildings mentioned above are examples of the symbolic architecture that Zheng criticizes for its disconnection from the surrounding local context and environment. In that sense, Zheng also demonstrates that these designs are not “Chinese” because they were built by “non-Chinese” designers, which I thought was a bit difficult to understand (p. 102). Although this may be partially true, the concern should not lie in the nationality of designers, but with the strategies used in incorporating this symbolic architecture within the local city at large.

The book is, in general, interdisciplinary in its approach and provides a broad socio-cultural and political context on urban issues of Beijing. In addition, the book is approachable because it does not use discipline-specific academic jargons and is written in an illustrative and descriptive manner. It is clear that Zheng wishes this book to be read by broad range of students and scholars who are interested in the city of Beijing. Zheng also achieves this by consistently and systematically reiterating the important points throughout the introduction, the beginning and at the end of each chapter, and the conclusion; the structure of the writing is easy to comprehend. Finally, the book is very narrative and poetic in that it smoothly introduces us to the artists’ world of imagination. Thus this book creates another “representational space” that is lived by its readers, who have or have not been to Beijing, and encourages them to engage with the mode of imagination of the urban spaces of Beijing.

Jeongwon Gim (University of Alberta)


Additional References

Lefebvre, H. (1991). The Production of Space. Oxford, Basil Blackwell.

Castells, M. (2005). Space of Flows, Space of Places: Materials for a Theory of Urbanism in the Information Age. In B. Sanyal (Ed.), Comparative Planning Cultures (pp. 45–63). New York: Routledge.

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: Between Urban Topographies and Political Spaces

Alexis Nuselovici, Mauro Ponzi and Fabio Vighi (Eds), Between Urban Topographies and Political Spaces, Lanham, MD/ UK: Lexington Books, 2014. ISBN: 978-0739188354. Price: $80.00/ £50.30/ €73.59

This book’s aim is to contribute new spatial concepts in order to better conceptualize place (p.ix), the contemporary understanding of which has witnessed an “epistemological break” (p. vii). The editors maintain that it is crucial to search for new spatial categories in order “to describe phenomena specific to our contemporary world” (p.vii). Therefore, the research questions that inform this publication could be understood as follows: What roles do boundaries play in the context of globalization, and how do these roles transform our idea of space?

In the Introduction, it is stated that the main idea holding all its fourteen chapters together is that of ‘threshold’, a notion which can be further celebrated when approached in its multiplicity when referred to in different European languages (‘threshold’ (ENG), ‘seuil’ (FR), ‘soglia’ (IT), ‘Schwelle’ (DE)). The celebration of multiplicity in order to approach the notion of threshold, abolishing the frontiers between languages — perceiving variety as enriching, allows a better understanding of the notion — follows the scientific goal of the book: to distinguish threshold from border and frontier (p.viii) and, going even further, to replace boundaries with thresholds (p.ix). This approach to the notion of threshold, is actually extended to the approach to the topic itself (contemporary issues of spatiality). The book is multidisciplinary, cutting across disciplines, something that the editors feel that it is urgent to do, in order to overcome “the current institutional rigidity” that “does not reflect the transformations that are taking place within the human sciences”. (p.ix)

In order to both conceptualize and contextualize the book, the editors reference Michel Foucault (1926-1984), hoping the book contributes to the “spatial turn” that the philosopher predicted (ie. that at some point the spatial paradigm had to be put in relation with history (“Des Espace Autres”, 1967)), and Walter Benjamin (1892-1940), the theorist who inspired both the books’ focus on urban spaces and its structure: Thresholds (city), Spaces in-between (metropolis) and Heterotopias (post-metropolis). (p.ix)

The chapters’ sequencing is challenging due to the multidisciplinary character of the book. The first part is more traditional, approaching threshold in a more conservative way, where it is still possible to recognize the boundaries of topics. In the second part, the focus is predominantly urban, assuming a Benjaminian approach which blurs the topic’s boundaries. The third part intertwines different topics and references, making it almost impossible to distinguish any boundaries whatsoever, approaching the expression of threshold found in religion and myth.

German philosopher Bernhard Waldenfelds begins the book with “Threshold Experiences”. His work is a crucial reference for anyone interested in the subject of space in general, and in the question of borders, limits and thresholds in particular. Having developed his work consistently since the 1980s, and referencing Husserl, Schütz and other phenomenologists, he has published several key books on the subject. Waldenfeld’s extensive contribution to the subject of borders is in itself reason to read this book.

As the reader progresses, the book feels uneven. We are cautioned, in the Introduction about the approach being multidisciplinary (and in fact, there are chapters that focus on film, literature, urban studies, psychoanalysis, politics, economics and music) but the unevenness arises from a lack of clarity. There are chapters that present ideas very clearly while others are blurry and never seem to deliver their intent. Rather these “blurred” chapters occur as excessive attempts to address specific ideas.

Perhaps the book’s unevenness, and the blurriness of some contributor’s chapters, is intentional, influenced by a somewhat Deleuzian logic, where the book, or a chapter, is conceived as a web, similar to an open-system, instead of being a sequential, narrative, closed body of work. The lack of boundaries among chapters, and in some cases, within chapters, was taken too far. Boundaries were sacrificed in the name of delivering a sense of fluidity between all authors, and all disciplines, where each chapter communicates with all other chapters. This fluidity may then have resulted in a kind of frailty. Perhaps such frailty is inevitable. The notion of space is a recent research field following centuries in which “time” took centre stage. New fields of research do not emerge without their perils.. Perhaps space, though a classic concept, truly is a contemporary challenge that tests the boundaries of institutionally established disciplines in human sciences.

Though the subject of space is currently wide-ranging it is expected that in the next few years that “space” will continue to grow as a research subject. Contributors of this book repeatedly, reference: Walter Benjamin, Franz Kafka (1883-1924) and Hans Blumenberg (1920-1996). These references might give an idea of the specific approach the book takes on the subject as well as the area it covers.

In sum, the book does present a varied and original approach on the subject of space and that is much needed. The editors deserve recognition for advancing the study of “space” as an inderdisciplinary topic within human sciences. The extent to which the book is uniformly coherent is difficult to articulate, but that may not be the editors’ goal. Certainly, the book does deliver some excellent contributions, such as the Félix Duque and Ellettra Stimilli chapters on “The European Membrane” and “The Threshold between Debt and Guilt”, respectively.

-Diana Soeiro, Universidade Nova de Lisboa

(NOVA Institute of Philosophy (IFILNOVA), Faculdade de Ciências Sociais e Humanas — Universidade Nova de Lisboa (FCSH-UNL), Avenida de Berna, 26, 4º piso, 1069-061 Lisboa, Portugal. Email: or ) Edited by D. Gillespie.

Does anyone care when a Russian rocket crashes in the Arctic?

Like the proverbial tree falling in the forest, does anyone care when a rocket crashes in the Arctic?

Russia plans to ditch a launch stage of a satellite rocket into the North Water Polynya on Saturday June 4 violate both state sovereignty and the integrity of Inuit residents who depend on the resources of this environmentally-sensitive area for their livelihoods. North Water, a 19th century whaling name for the sea area between Greenland and Ellesmere Island in the northern reaches of Baffin Bay, is kept open by wind and currents year round. A rich fishing area, currents take any pollutants south along Devon Island into Lancaster Sound.

North Water map - Pew Trusts
North Water (Courtesy Pew Trusts)

The assumption appears to be that this is not only an “empty” wilderness but a no-man’s-land, terra nullis. Worse is the assumption that no one and nothing will be damaged, and that no one cares. This is what I have called a reduction of the ecosystem to “Bare Nature”, ethically without value and consequences to which we have a reigning “non-relation”/ Although the hydrazine fuel degrades, it is toxic.

“If Canada was launching a rocket and some of it was going to be landing in the Russian Federation,. you can imagine what kind of reaction we’d have there. The Government of Canada should be defending out territorial integrity” (Paul Crowley, World Wildlife Fund Arctic Program quoted in The Globe and Mail Sat. 4 June 2016 p. A14).

Rape by rocket, however, is indicative of the attitudes of non-residents, ‘southerners’, to the Arctic. The region has been treated as an inconsequential ‘sink’ for global pollution and a margin of global disrespect for the environment. This is in part a counterpart to the romantic attitudes toward the Arctic that developed in the 19th century period of European imperialism and a search for a Northwest Passage from Atlantic to Pacific — Baffin Strait to the Bering Sea.

A further irony is that the Arctic is so poorly served by communications, satellite programs notwithstanding. This summer will see further increased in shipping through the Northwest Passage. Many countries regard this as international waters despite its proximity to the northern coastline of mainland Canada. The result may become a free-for-all, as commercial interests including fishing begin to access these waters during ice-free summer months despite the lack of navigational aids. There is almost no search and rescue capacity, which is a risk to the rising numbers of tourist cruises, now carrying tens of thousands annually.

This contradictory spatialisation in which the Arctic is exoticised as an adventure margin for tourists while being relegated to the null status of a nowher aof blankness, absence and emptiness is a serious flaw in the spatialisation of the globe as a context for human action and activity. Both positions do not truly engage with the concrete reality of the North but indulge in an abstract metropolitan imaginary in which the region virtually becomes a kind of non-place. Rockets are dumped in regions not out of necessity but because they are thought to be empty in the ideological understandings of ill-informed people whose parochial geographies and politics leads the world to crisis.

Rob Shields (University of Alberta)

Tax Haven Financescapes: an elite spatialisation?

A layered global spatialization divides the world not just into haves and have-nots, but between a tax-avoiding elite that operate in the flows of a worldwide financescape of tax havens and economic free trade zones and “the rest” bound by taxes in outflanked territorial states.

The geography of the space of flows is distinguished by island tax havens: in the Caribbean, Bermuda, Panama, The Seychelles, the Channel Islands and Isle of Man for which Switzerland and its banks may be a global command and control centre.

The geography of offshore tax havens reflects the spirits of hoarding, self-enrichment, expropriation and mean-spiritedness. The leak of Mossack Fonseca’s archive via the ICIJ International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, a project of the US Centre for Public Integrity, reveals the identity of individuals and families that have cached away wealth to avoid taxation by national governments. As The Guardian put it today,

what has broken out of the vaults of the offshore legal specialists is “the sense that normal rules do not apply to the global elite. In a new gilded age, taxes would – once again – appear to be for the little people…. Slowly but surely… the world has learned that the banks that busted the global economy were also consumed with … rigging rates, ripping off customers and laundering Mexican drug money.” It reveals the “tax-dodging lengths that private wealth will go to in order to keep public coffers empty.”

The amount avoided in taxes would solve many countries budget deficits. Budget deficits are debts piled on to our children by tax avoiders.  The temporal aspects, in which money made in the past is inherited tax free in the present, taxes not paid in the present then lead to debt by others in the future, make this a distinct topology.  Its like the elite and the rest live on different financial planes.  These two worlds, two planetary financescapes, have points of intersection but otherwise conceived as independent.   The reality however is that the elite are living in a virtual reality, of course, and usually find out to their cost that they are dependent on the acquiescence of the many to this situation.  Social consent can easily by withdrawn.

Protests in Iceland at the revelations in the Panama Papers (Daily Mail Online 4 Apr. 2016)
Protests in Iceland at the revelations in the Panama Papers (Daily Mail Online 4 Apr. 2016)

daily mail iceland protest 32D82CAF00000578-0-image-a-10_1459798826336

Countries less able to monitor financial industries and collect taxes are particularly vulnerable, as the map create by Offshore Net  suggests.  USD21 trillion was their 2010 estimate.

Offshore wealth flows (Map:
Offshore wealth flows (Map:

A study of the American top 100 publicly traded companies by U.S.PIRG, as measured by revenue, shows 82 maintain subsidiaries in offshore tax havens. Collectively, the companies report holding nearly $1.2 trillion offshore, with 15 accounting for two-thirds of this (see diagram).

“When corporations use tax havens to dodge the taxes they owe, the rest of us pay the price, either through higher taxes, cuts to important programs, or a bigger deficit,” said Dan Smith, U.S. PIRG Tax and Budget Advocate and report author. “It also puts small businesses without expensive tax attorneys at a big competitive disadvantage” (Offshore Shell Games).

To these sites, one can add free trade economic zones that are tax free so that companies are not taxed on the value added to products in these zones that are way-points between producers and consumers.  Olivier provides one of the always excellent maps from the Le Monde Diplomatique archived on World Resources SIM Centre:

Tax Havens and Free Trade Zones (Le Monde Diplomatique 2000)
Tax Havens and Free Trade Zones (Le Monde Diplomatique 2000)

-Rob Shields (University of  Alberta)


Greece and the spatialisation of economic guilt

Satyajit Das commented on the geographical framing of financial crises:

European politicians and central bankers have provided useful geographical clarifications. Prior to succumbing to the inevitable, the Ireland told everyone that they were not Greece. Portugal is now telling everyone that it is not Greece or Ireland. Spain insists that it is not Greece, Ireland or Portugal. Italy says it is not in the “PIGS”. Belgium insists it was no “B” in “PIGS” or “PIIGS”.

Although never defined, in these discourses “Greece” becomes the spatial figure for an economic guilt complex, labelled as the geographical site of our own fears of disentitlement and moral discourses condemning profligacy.

At the same time as pointing out this process of spatialisation of crisis, the article turns on metaphors of economic “contagion”.  The understandings of flow, transmission and mobilities embedded in the idea of contagion have been critiqued by authors such as Van Loon, Anderson, Street and Nicols over many years in Space and Culture.

-Rob Shields (University of Alberta)

Where Are the Hardest Places to Live in Canada?

The Mowat Centre has created a map of the areas where Canadians are not thriving, based on health district data.  Unfortunately, these often cover huge areas and mix both cities and regions.  In many regions data is not available.  Other projects, such as the recent Faculty of Extension project of early childhood well-being in Alberta have previously shown just how difficult it is to correlate information collected by school district, with socioeconomic information and household data collected on the basis of census areas.  The various areas overlap but do not correspond with each other.

This restates the spatialisation of Canada in terms of well-serviced metropolitan centres and unserviced frontiers, notably in the north.  Where regions do score better it is because of the presence of large cities, such as Edmonton and Fort McMurray for the case of northern Alberta (Wood-Buffalo) in comparison to northern British Columbia.


-Rob Shields, University of Alberta

Iulian Barba-Lata’s Review of Spatial Questions in Society and Space

Society and Space has posted a review of Rob Shields 2013 Spatial Questions: Cultural Topologies and Social Spatialisation, as reviewed by Iulian Barba-Lata at

Rob Shields, Spatial Questions: Cultural Topologies and Social Spatialisation. Sage, Thousand Oaks, CA, 2013, 216 pages, $52.00 hardback. ISBN 9781848606654 (

A while ago, in one of his seminal lectures delivered to the Graduate School of Design at Harvard, Bruno Latour argued that “[t]here is probably no more decisive difference among thinkers than the position they are inclined to take on space” (2009, page 5). Rob Shields’ Spatial Questions dwells on this matter extensively. Engaging with spatial theory in most of its incarnations, the book contributes to conceptualisations of topology in the socio-cultural arena. This thought-provoking book adopts a critical stance that aims to transcend the metaphorical treatment of topology and clarify the potential of a topologically informed toolset fitted for spatial analysis. According to Shields, “a ‘cultural topology’ as a critical theory and method” (page 1) could provide the answer to our spatial concerns. The argument builds upon a laborious survey of the various genealogies of space that have informed Western spatial thought—from antiquity to the present day.

The book is structured in six chapters and it includes a collection of illustrations providing chronological accounts of key thinkers on space. It also includes a glossary of key terms, which I found a very useful companion, especially in relation to some of the philosophical and mathematical ideas invoked in the discussion. In the preface, Rob Shields describes Spatial Questions as “a work of thresholds, edges and folds—a topology in many senses” (page xi); point taken, since after going back and forth for several times between its chapters I realised that more than being a book that explores topological thinking, this is also a book that could be read in a topological way. Approached in a linear fashion, Spatial Questions provides a dense overview of the contributions to Western spatial thought, from early East Asian and East Mediterranean works in philosophy and mathematics to the development of non-Euclidean geometry and present day conceptualisations of space and time. Sometimes the overview becomes too dense at the expense of clarity concerning the main argument. And yet, the genealogies presented in the book are open to a non-linear reading, in which connections between different strands of thought (and different sections of the book) can be assembled in a topological fashion.

From the many questions that Shields addresses in the book, the one I have found the most resourceful is how the interplay between centre and periphery is at stake in pressing the argument for a cultural topology agenda. This is a theme that Shields explored at length in Places on the Margin (1992) and in his treatment of social spatialisation, which provides a critical response to the elusive character of space as a master category and form of knowledge that is never fully accessible. However, rather than focusing on how the relation between centre and periphery feeds into the enactment of different spatialisations, I would like to discuss how it translates into Shields’ own mapping of a genealogy of space. A topological account of the alternative histories and cultural representations of space would require a different take on the notion of time (an idea anticipated by Shields in the book’s introductive notes, page xii), or what Michel Serres refers to as a philosophy of “co-presence of the archaic and the contemporary” (2012, page 369). As in Raphael’s fresco The School of Athens, this would allow distant figures to enter into dialogue even for an instant, with the Pythagoreans and the Peripatetic School to sit next to the astronomers of the Islamic Golden Age and Copernicus (page 50) or for Euclid, Apollonius and Archimedes’ diagrammatic reasoning to permeate the pioneering works of Hilbert, Klein or Poincaré in the framework of modern mathematics (Netz, 2003).

According to Brian Rotman, once mathematical diagrams are understood in terms of their performative dimension, i.e. as “embodied acts that bridge the gulf between thought and the sign” (2012, page 256), the focus shifts toward their topological properties in order to account on how the abstract and the material become knotted in different configurations (see also Netz, 2010). This treatment of the diagrammatic would bring us closer to Shields’ own approach in mapping the discursive realms that fold in alternative histories and cultural representations of space. Topology, or rather topological thinking, provides the means for Shields to coil up contrasting spatialisations and negotiate the tensions, and affinities, between classical and post-classical readings of space.

The reader will find many examples in the book. One is the clash between Lenin’s dialectical-materialist agenda and Ernst Mach’s ideas, which took off with the concourse of Henri Poincaré and Albert Einstein to the development of the Theory of General Relativity (pages 65-67). As Shields argues in the final part of the book, “[t]opological approaches can take apart the static poles of ontology” (page 156) and it is through the painstaking process of carving out these complex genealogies that topology can undermine the taken for granted categories used in the treatment of space and time. To use Serres’ words, these epistemological exercises would better fit a percolation model rather than a chronological reading, in which history would be conceived “as a complex surface, conveying wormholes of sheer acceleration, bottlenecks of stoppage or equilibrium, zones of stationary values, several fragmentations…” (2012, page 377).

In the last two chapters of the book, Shields provides a survey across some of the most important works that informed the establishment of topology as a formal branch of mathematics and their different articulations within social and cultural theory.  The references to Euler’s contribution to graph theory, Gauss and Riemann’s development of non-Euclidean geometry or Rene Thom’s catastrophe theory (among many others) are complemented by more ample accounts on the works of Deleuze, Foucault, Michel Serres or the STS scholars, particularly those of John Law and Annemarie Mol. This serves as a stepping stone in setting up a cultural topology agenda that would transcend the metaphorical treatment of topology and provide a means to reconcile multiple spatialisations, by offering “cultural studies a  new ‘dimensionality’ and level of precision regarding spatial and temporal relations, flows and transformations” (page158).

Although I share Shields’ enthusiasm for the potential of topological thinking to fine-tune spatial theory to the challenges of complexity, the part I have troubles with his argument is the matter of precision. If we are indeed on the ‘cusp’ as Shields argues in the concluding section, then topology could be rather seen as a ‘boundary object’ that social science scholars are joggling with until it cools down; and perhaps it is better this way.  I think this aspect is related to a point that keeps returning in Spatial Questions and that has to do with the issue of observation; of what one observes and how one observes, topologically. The Real might be “plush-like” on the surface (page 123), but on the flip side could also prove as abrasive as sandpaper. Shields quotes Gamow’s account on Einstein “who was probably the first to realize the important fact that the basic notions and laws of nature, however well established, were valid only within the limits of observation and did not necessarily hold beyond them”(page 147).

If we are to take Lucretius’ boundary challenge seriously, there will be many tossing spears at the elastic boundaries of topology, and the question here is: ‘how far do these boundaries stretch?’ I think there is still a long way to go to domesticate topology—if this goal could ever be achieved. Yet, topology’s conceptual dimension has already proved fertile enough to stimulate new imaginaries in which to address various spatial questions. Thus, instead of aiming for precision, I would rather plead for specificity and for making clear how different approaches to topology establish continuous functions across different realms of thought, spatial and not-so-spatial categories.

Shields takes up this challenge seriously and to my knowledge, Spatial Questions provides one of the most complete accounts in the recent literature engaging with topology. The reader might be deceived by the apparently slim format, which nevertheless packs material that could easily inform several volumes on the topic. Spatial Questions is a welcome contribution to spatial theory and, given the prominence of the topic nowadays, as well as the hype built around the topological over the past years, the book might equally appeal to geographers and to a broader audience within the social sciences.

Iulian Barba-Lata,  Cultural Geography, Wageningen University, PO Box 47, 6700 AA Wageningen, The Netherlands.


Latour B, 2009, “Spheres and networks: two ways to reinterpret globalization” A Lecture at Harvard University Graduate School of Design (February 17)

Netz R, 2003, The Shaping of Deduction in Greek Mathematics: A Study in Cognitive History (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge)

Netz R, 2010, “What Did Greek Mathematicians Find Beautiful?” Classical Philology105 426–44

Rotman B, 2012, “Topology, Algebra, Diagrams” Theory, Culture & Society29 247–60

Serres M and T Adkins, 2012, “Differences: Chaos in the History of the Sciences” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space30 369–80

Shields R, 1992, Places on the Margin: Alternative Geographies of Modernity (Routledge, London)