Spatial theory, cultural geography, and the 'spatial turn'

I'm currently working on various seminar papers, and the mood among many historians is that we need theory back in history. James Vernon made an impassioned plea for a return to theory in his plenary lecture for the 2011 Social History Society conference. Basically his message was 'what are we afraid of?' A focus on empiricism has meant we have lost sight of the big ideas, and the big frameworks that shape history. The SHS used to have a theory strand for its conference, but we dropped it a few years ago because the number of papers offered was in decline. In response to Joyce, however, the SHS has reintroduced the 'theory and methods' strand for the next conference. Perhaps this is a sign that theory is back on the agenda.

I too have neglected theory for the past few years. I went on a cultural geography bender in the last year of my DPhil research, and also immersed myself in social movement studies. My first article, 'The Search for General Ludd' was imbued with literary theory (thanks to Kevin Binfield) and postmodernism. The 'linguistic turn' still casts a long shadow on anyone who works with textual documents. I was less concerned with the cultural turn, and moved into more empirical methods with my work on popular protest.

Now historians seem to be taking the 'spatial turn'. I read all the French postmodern theorists during that last DPhil year, so all this seems a little old hat to me, as it is for cultural geographers, who made the initial 'turn' back in the 1990s. Writing my book I have strived to remain empirical and traditional, and avoid quoting de Certeau, Bourdieu, Foucault, et al, just for the sake of it. However, now my structure is crystallising, I've realised that some of my main formulations do fit the tripartite model of space offered by Lefebvre and Soja. It's time to put the theory back in.

So here's a quick cribsheet for the three modes of space, and a hint at where I fit. The spatial turn is useful, as it highlights the semiotics of space in a way that the linguistic turn made historians read between the lines and the cultural turn made historians treat culture as an agent in change.

1.  Radical Spaces: Venues of popular politics in London, 1790–c. 1845 Spatial practice transforms place into space. De Certeau’s much quoted chapter on the act of walking shows how everyday actions can turn places into spaces of meaning and history. Bourdieu similarly underlines the role of spatial practices in moulding understandings of the physical environment. 
2. Radical Spaces: Venues of popular politics in London, 1790–c. 1845 ‘representations of space’. For Lefebvre, representations are ‘tied to the relations of production’.[1] In essence, representations of space are spaces of capital, whose physical form and the meanings ascribed to them are determined by wealth and elites. This model parallels the influential interpretation of sociologist David Harvey, who argued that landscapes reflected the logic (or illogic) of commodity production at any given historical moment.[2] 
3. 'spaces of representation', or lived spaces. This concerns how everyday practice is lived through the spaces constructed by elites and their symbols. This is associated with counter spaces which challenge or subvert dominant spatial practices or spatialities (Jon Stobart et al, Spaces of Consumption, p. 22). It echoes de Certeau, who showed how individuals could reappropriate spaces for uses other than those for which they were intended. Here is where popular agency is situated. 

I'm also quite fond of Foucault's concept of heterotopia.  Radical Spaces: Venues of popular politics in London, 1790–c. 1845 Heterotopias are ‘counter-sites, a kind of effectively enacted utopia in which the real sites, all the other real sites that can be found within the culture, are simultaneously represented, contested, and inverted’ (Michel Foucault, ‘Of Other Spaces’, Diacritics, 16 (Spring 1986), 24) Some heterotopias are associated with sacred or forbidden spaces; others are spaces for those who deviate from societal norms. Significantly, these spaces are linked to ‘slices of time’. Foucault’s first type of heterotopia is infinite, building to timelessness; he gives the examples of museums and libraries.  Radical Spaces: Venues of popular politics in London, 1790–c. 1845 The second type of heterotopia is even more prominent in the history of collective action in this period: transitory or fleeting. Foucault ascribes this to fairs and carnivals, here today gone tomorrow spaces of play, subversion, the world turned upside down. This theme of the carnivalesque, the charivari, is important in the history of popular protest.

So what lessons can we learn from spatial theory? Above all, space is not the inert background to action, but its foreground and in some senses, its agency. However, I am going to include in my seminar papers some warning about 'why I am bored of turning'. The 'spatial turn', based as it is on semiotics and cultural constructions, does not describe everything. It cannot describe the phenomenology of place; it tells us how inhabitants symbolised and understood space, but less about how they felt and experienced spaces. It also lacks distinctive historical contexts, which I will argue are situated in *place* rather than space, and in England, take the form and are shaped by custom and the law in particular. All will be revealed in the book.


[1] Lefebvre, Production of Space, p. 33.
[2] Barney Warf and Santa Arias, The Spatial Turn: Interdisciplinary Perspectives (Abingdon, 2009), p. 3; David Harvey, Spaces of Capital: towards a Critical geography (Routledge, 2001).
 
Further reading:
Radical Spaces: Venues of popular politics in London, 1790–c. 1845 Don Mitchell, Cultural Geography: a Critical Introduction  (Oxford: 2000); 
Radical Spaces: Venues of popular politics in London, 1790–c. 1845 Beat K├╝min, Political Space in Pre-industrial Europe (Adlershot, 2009)

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