“Space itself, in the western experience, has a history, and one cannot fail to take note of this inevitable interlocking of time with space.” As time, change, proceeds without a clock so does space exist without our awareness—the landmasses of Australia and America existed without awareness for centuries. The first waves of human species, Homo Denisova, Homo Erectus and the Homo Sapiens (us) who in combination bred-with-and-killed the prior two species into the natives of the Americas and Australia discovered a habitable landmass. What Yuval Harari, author of Sapiens, calls a feat as incredible as us discovering a habitable planet. Indeed, so separated, incommunicable was the humanised planet back then that these lands were rediscovered by global adventurers Columbus and Cook, after the planet had been rediscovered (B.C. Aristarchus predated Galileo & Copernicus) centuries before, to be round and rotate loyally around the sun.
Such events culminated in a shift in how western culture—how people then thought about—spaces. A fixed view of the earth and its spaces prevailed with little inkling of the scale of planet earth, the changes of entropy, and the infinity of the universe; this static worldview is called localisation by Michel Foucault in his wonderful Different Spaces, from Aesthetics: Vol 2. Where human societies viewed themselves (and to an extent they must) as the centre of the world. China, Zhong Guo, means ‘the middle kingdom’ surrounded by savages. Europe made its maps with Europe at the centre with blank spaces left to civilise and fill with meaning. Yet with the rise of technologies like ships and maps and nations humans began to mix in a novel way; rather than God chosen and the centre of the world each person and each culture became more and more recognised as instances of generalities – ‘human’ and ‘culture’. Contingent upon history and chance rather than a god given nature; what each society had taken for a given was upturned by its funhouse mirror comparison to yet another culture, another method of organising humans. Everything became far more relative seeming than before since each space became weighed by comparison and juxtaposition—the earth and space, here and there, the ‘old’ world Europe and the ‘new’ world landmasses Europe assimilated. All this however showed a victory of the western, European, world over the rest – for the idea of difference and relativity holds less currency since the science and technology of Europe (stock exchanges, guns, nations) are the operating system of the whole world, with its liberal humanist multinational system. The product of historical contingencies are deemed the best, if not the natural way.
Yet the natural way of the liberal humanist multinational system is a paradigm shift analogous to the maps we create. The human addition to nature, is mistaken for nature itself much as maps are mistaken for the territory. As in Jorge Luis Borges’ story, On Rigour In Science: where a map is made to the ratio 1:1 so covers The Empire. Similarly the materialist, as opposed to social, bias mistakes sexes for genders. Take, for instance, the space of the United States split into its state sections and tagged with its names – these are human add-ons rather than given nature. And bodies are tagged and conditioned to behave a certain way, to occupy different spaces like cubicles and toilets, nunneries and monasteries. Money is inscribed plastic and digital digits magically imbued with exchange value; because enough humans say so. Not because it is naturally the case.
Space is synonymous with money and power. You can own some space (a house), or rent-out some space (be a lord of land), be banned from space (exported, evicted, barred) because you haven’t gone through the artificial forms to prove you are worthy of inhabiting a space or have broken the codes inscribed over the area—its jurisdiction. (You are essentially evicted for the earth cycle when a bar closes). You can pass exams and pay fees to enter educational spaces, like the University of London and undergo much the same to live in England. Be confined to spaces because of the rules you have cheated, or banned from them for the same, or indeed for not being a criminal or insane.
Spaces are normative with the capital setting an exemplar for the rest of the country. And some spaces chosen as more valuable than others in the index of uses; say for the holiday-function or adventure-function. For most of us those names on the map will remain just names, or the less than 1% skewed to lovely or horrible photographs – moving or static – that reaches us through screens, our appetite for the digital feed. Most spaces are ideas; for what else are they if you have never been.
There are salient spaces in the world imagination – the capitals that ‘stand for’ the drawn land they are couched within, and the ‘nothing’ spaces of the moon, Antarctica, and other monumental spaces like planets with no human footprint; only an interest of dread or indifference. Transitory, chronic, spaces like strange train stations and stranger airports, planes and ships that are more temporary, that run to their own agreed-to-differ times.
There are spaces where music is put into your ear without your choice, it is a fee or pleasure of entering that space, and other spaces where your duty is silence. There are the private spaces and public spaces, and architecture and gardens that exist in a feedback loop of material reality and the ideas about them. The symmetry and expanse of showy Versailles, matches the tyrannic sensibility of Louis XIV, then Napoleon—perhaps even French nationalism, and rationalism. We think of ourselves as owners, homers, and individuals because of our paper-deeds, houses and private rooms. Our profession makes us who we are, but it is as much what we do as where we do it.
Different behaviours happen in different spaces; who and what you are depends on where you’re located at the time. Without a name, you are just a human. And the combination of perspectives of the people you are around. To paraphrase Susan Sontag, a cityscape makes you think in the third and second person or in the collective noun of humanity, whereas a countryside, landscape, makes you think in the first person, as an exception among the green, sand or tundra. You are a student at school, a daughter at home; a citizen on the train and a regular at the local; a foreigner abroad and a native in England. Space and time converge even in your generation, which box you go into in the calendar and those boxes are within other boxes of milliseconds, seconds, minutes, hours, days, week and weekend, months, years and the centuries. And the boxes of your birth: Welsh-English, British, Western European, European, North Hemisphere; and the more winding (sea history, Indo-European language) links of the Anglosphere.
The most notable shift is that the most natural space has become exception (greenbelt), while the urban city becomes norm—with over half of humans passing their existence within urban districts. Money and power flow down the spaces that extend the rectangular shadows of finance over The City, and focal points like Silicon Valley and Hollywood extend their tendrils through the human world via virtual, (replayable, repayable) spaces. While some societies play out their hunter gatherer lives, perhaps using some neckbeads in styled imitation of the the Czech Republic, but otherwise indifferent and gladly ignorant to most of this ‘natural’ organising of the world.
As Michel Foucault says, our concept of time is blemished by the distributions of space. We imagine we are ascending or going forwards, but that is a metaphor, a human fancy. Albeit one necessary to keep us going on, chiseling the world to our image.
While we build layers of accumulated knowledge, each epoch loses as it gains. To have more breadth is to sacrifice depth and vice versa, like neurons pruned and neurones created. Though the modern, progressive, epoch doesn’t want to believe that and the libraries, museums, and internet indexes that create virtual spaces upon the original, refract (not, reflect) that. Much as these fonted words on the space of a screen do.
What have spaces made you, and what have you made of spaces?