All entries for Wednesday 21 November 2007

November 21, 2007

Wisdom sits in places

My research so far has mainly consisted of a great deal of reading to expand my knowledge of an area that is still very new to me, and more particularly with a view to developing a clearer sense of some of the key terms and concepts on which my thesis is based, such as space and place. This has inevitably lead me back to some of the work I did for the Literatures of the American Southwest module on the MA course last year- although the primary texts of my thesis are Victorian novels, some of the foundational ideas of my proposal emerged from spatial and cultural theories developed about the American Southwest, and part of my longer-term plan is considering whether concepts developed in studies of the Southwest can transfer to studies of space in other literatures. The critical attention to the "New West" that has emerged in recent years demonstrates great attentiveness to issues of space, place, landscape; these theories are influenced by postmodern notions of hybridity, thirdspaces, and socio-spatial relations, which offer a new approach to older visions of the western landscape. However, whilst offering a positive reconception of a landscape traditionally conceived of in binary terms, the new ideas of hybridity etc are not so new to the land; in the Native American cultures of the Southwest, we find eloquent and complex anticipations of many of the ideas posited by postmodern geographers. Which brings me to the book I've been reacquainting myself with, Keith Basso's Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Language Among the Western Apache. This is a work of cultural anthropology that sets out to understand the place-names of the Western Apache people, and in doing so explores the relationship between people, place, history, language and identity.

The place names of the Western Apache are detailed, descriptive, and notably long: "Water Lies With Mud In An Open Container," "Green Rocks Side By Side Jut Down Into Water," ""Circular Clearing With Slender Cottonwood Trees." But in addition to these visually evocative names are those that relate to historical events, such as "They Are Grateful For Water," "Trail to Life Goes Up," "She Carries Her Brother On Her Back." These place-names are effectively the titles of stories from the past in which socially disruptive acts occur, and when a place is named in the present moment the name functions not only as a signifier of place but as a reminder of the story behind it. The landscape provides a spatial mapping of stories, and naming places involves a constant tapping into a collective cultural memory; in an oral culture, the features of the land function as ever-visible mnemonics.

It therefore begins to become clear how integral the land is to social life: visual features of the land offer wisdom, guidance, warning. As Basso writes, "Here, there, and over there, I see, are places which proclaim by their presence and their names both the imminence of chaos and the preventive wisdom of moral norms" (p.28). Yet the strength of place-names reaches further than this act of remembering as this process is not simply one of "recalling" the past; just as the land is visible and experienced in the present moment, so the retelling of a story takes place as if it is happening in the present moment. Past and the present intersect so that the past retelling happens now, there. This is particularly clear in accounts which are narrated in the present tense, but is a feature of all the stories: to speak a place-name and to recount its story is to preserve the words of ancestors not as a historical past but as constantly bearing on the present. Basso likens this intersection of past and present to Bakhtin's concept of chronotopes "points in the geography of a community where time and space intersect and fuse. Time takes on flesh and becomes visible for human contemplation; likewise, space becomes charged and responsive to the movements of time and history and the enduring character of a people" (Bakhtin qtd., p.62). It is a powerful evocation in which the landscape becomes a repository of wisdom and tradition, and is integral to cultural meanings and stories: if stories constitute and continue cultural behaviours and beliefs, and if the stories cannot be separated from geographical locations, then it is clear how central the land is to social and cultural understandings.

This interpretation of the land can be more succinctly termed "place-making". This term encompasses the above ideas to describe the moment in which the past is spatially constructed in the present so that "by one insightful account, the country of the past transforms and supplants the country of the present" (p. 5). But the notion of constructing a "place-world" introduces a further significant element to the act of place-naming with regards to how the land is interacted with. In the moment of place-making, the land is not simply a material, physical space, or an imagined mental concept: it is something between the two, a "real-and-imagined place". Place-making is not a process of representation but an active imagination that relies on social interaction with the physical space; the land is invested with a meaning beyond its raw physical qualities, whilst cultural stories held in the mental landscape take on a physical shape. Material space and mental space intersect, their meaning becoming inseparable from each other. This is an idea that resonates strongly- arguably even anticipates- with an idea from postmodern geography, Edward Soja's concept of "thirdspaces." Put simply, Soja proposes that "thirdspace" offers a new way of thinking about space and social spatiality; whilst a "firstspace" perspective is concerned with real, material, measurable space and "secondspace" is a mental space of imagined representations of spatiality, "thirdspace" deconstructs and reconstitutes these into a notion of simultaneously "real and imagined places". Soja's theory of course becomes much more complicated and certain ideas do not transfer; but nevertheless, the similarities in the core concept provoke fascinating questions for further exploration- even the crucial terminological difference of place-making as opposed to a thirdspace raises a number of questions about theory, practice, distinguishing space and place, lived vs. theorised space...

Basso's exploration is much more complex and wonderfully written than I've managed to convey here, and the concept of place-naming explored in much greater detail through the stories and accounts of Western Apache people. The notions of space and time can initially seem daunting, being so unfamiliar from a linear understanding of history, and Basso demonstrates great skill in slowly uncovering and exploring these concepts. Yet whilst emerging from an entirely different background, it is clear that these ideas accord with some contemporary theories of spatiality and similarly offer a provocative challenge to conventional modes of spatial thinking.


November 2007

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