Category Archives: spatialisation/spatialization

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)

The Spatialisation of Memory

In 2011 van Dijk and Fias suggested an innovative working memory paradigm.  They showed for the first time that words to be remembered, when presented sequentially at the center of a screen, acquired a new spatial dimension: the first words of the sequence acquired a left spatial value while the last words acquired a right spatial value.  Alessandro Guida and Magali Lavielle-Guida assess this apparently cultural ‘left-right spatialisation’ of the first to last as well as the small to the large.  They make these findings easy to understand by relating them to ancient mnemonic methods such as the ‘memory house’ or ‘method of loci‘ practiced by Cicero and dating as far back as Simonides of Ceos (556 BC–448 BC).

-Rob Shields University of Alberta


van Dijck, J. P., and Fias, W. (2011). A working memory account for spatial-numerical associations. Cognition 119, 114–119. doi: 10.1016/j.cognition.2010.12.013

Notes on the Spatialisation of Emirati Identity

The Spatialization of Emirati Identity in Dubai, UAE
by Addison Miller – Ohio Wesleyan University

This conference paper explores how identity is rooted in the use of places and spaces despite the newness of Dubai.


Spatialization and Revolution

A recent study of urban conflict and politics in Sincan, Turkey shows the importance of the secularisation and sacralisation of places in the city and the importance of rivals spatialisations in instituting political alternatives as practical realities:

-Rob Shields  University of Alberta