Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

Familiar places and foreign spaces

After a particularly strenuous semester, particularly regarding postgraduate students’ work, and on the eve of a much-needed overseas trip to a conference in Europe, I am reminded, again, of Michel de Certeau’s wonderful exploration of spatial practices in The Practice of Everyday Life (University of California Press, 1988), on which I have written here before (see Walking in the City of Seoul). What prompts me to think about this is precisely the thought of exploring foreign spaces again, and the process involved in doing this.

Under the heading, “Childhood and Metaphors of Places”, De Certeau (p108) writes: “The memorable is that which can be dreamed about a place. In this place that is a palimpsest, subjectivity is already linked to the absence that structures it as existence and makes it ‘be there,’ Dasein. But … this being-there acts only in spatial practices, that is, in ways of moving into something different … it must ultimately be seen as the repetition, in diverse metaphors, of a decisive and originary experience, that of the child’s differentiation from the mother’s body. It is through that experience that the possibility of space and of a localisation (a ‘not everything’) of the subject is inaugurated.”

What De Certeau is talking about is the transition from what Freud called the “oceanic self” (and Lacan dubbed “L’Hommelette” – the human omelette) – that sense of self when the infant is still so intimately conjoined with the mother’s body that she or he does not experience themselves as separate beings – to the state when one finally does experience oneself as different, or “other” from the mother’s body. (For Kristeva the separation process is one of “abjection”; for Lacan that of entering the imaginary via the “mirror phase”. )

What De Certeau enables one to grasp, is that, even much later in life, leaving one’s familiar spatial surroundings to go to exotic places is still modelled on that originary (meaning: giving rise to, like a matrix) experience first described by Freud, and later by his successors in psychoanalysis, which include De Certeau, of course.

In fact, he takes one back to that famous passage in Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle, where Freud the grandfather describes the so-called “Fort/Da” game played by his grandson in the absence of his mother, Freud’s daughter. In Freud’s interpretation, the game is played as a psychic mechanism to cope with the mother’s unexpected absence, and makes it bearable to the boy through the metaphoric substitution of a cotton reel for the mother.

For De Certeau, the manipulation of the cotton reel by the little boy is an “original spatial structure” (p109), given the reciprocity of self and other in the process of throwing the spool out of sight into the cot (while uttering “Fort!”/”Away!”), and then pulling it into visibility again (accompanied by the delighted “Da!”/”There!”). It is a founding, originary act that first establishes the spatial difference between “self” and “other”, “here” and “there”, and which repeats itself throughout life in the spatial practices of traversing a world of spatial variation and diversification.

Were it not for such founding experiences in childhood, it would not be possible to look upon the continual expansion of an individual’s spatial universe in terms of a kind of metaphorical “grafting” of “new” experiences on to older ones, or of experiencing the exploration of novel spaces as somehow presupposing the familiarity of the space of the everyday world.

This would explain the excitement, the sense of adventure, that accompanies a trip into the as-yet unknown spaces of other lands. Like Freud’s grandson, who exulted in the reappearance of his plaything after its initial disappearance, travellers to foreign places can delight in transmuting their foreignness (the “Fort”) into the newly discovered (the “Da”), which is destined to become familiar — but, to be phenomenologically accurate, a kind of familiarity that differs in quality from the “knownness” of the place where you live.

This is why, after first visiting cities like Prague, Florence, Rome, Istanbul, Shanghai, Seoul or Osaka, and savouring the exotic sights, tastes, and above all, the singularly configured urban spaces and architectural places that comprise these cities, one longs to return there, to imbibe once again, this time with a sense of recognition, what first imprinted itself on one’s memory like a spatial signature.

It therefore comes as no surprise that, on the eve of one’s departure for an as yet unexplored “foreign” city or country, an involuntary, anticipatory projection occurs, its specific quality imparted to it by the image one has of the place in question. This image is relatively more, or less, vague (or clear), depending on whether it is informed by stories you have heard or read, or – in the age of the internet – websites you have visited.

Case in point: our anticipation of exchanging the “space of the self” temporarily for “spaces of otherness” is informed by the following. Although my partner and I have been to France and Germany before, we have not been to Switzerland, and this trip will not only take us to parts of Germany (around Freiburg) and France (near Strasbourg) where we have not been, but to what is described as one of the most (architecturally) beautiful European cities, straddling all three of these countries, namely Basel (where the young Nietzsche was professor of philology at the age of 23).

The conference is presented in all of these cities, with the organisers taking delegates from one to the other by bus on different days, to give variegated experiential content, as it were, to the fact that it is a conference that accommodates the whole spectrum of the arts and the sciences. This, together with what we know of the cities and countries through a mixture of related experience and prior information, induces the heady anticipation of a kind of “virtual” mixture of self/familiarity and otherness/exoticism.

Returning to De Certeau’s text enables one to put such spatial peregrinations in clearer perspective (p109): “To practice space is thus to repeat the joyful … experience of childhood; it is, in a place, to be other and to move toward the other … the childhood experience that determines spatial practices later develops its effects, proliferates, floods private and public spaces, undoes their readable surfaces, and creates within the planned city a ‘metaphorical’ or mobile city, like the one Kandinsky dreamed of: ‘a great city built according to all the rules of architecture and then suddenly shaken by a force that defies all calculation’.”

To imagine one’s visits to faraway places in these terms is to realise that there is far more to it than the mere “rubbernecking” of tourists – quite apart from the fact that this is as much a working visit as anything else. It helps one understand that there is a subtle dialectic between past experiences, going all the way back to childhood, and new experiences; one which, moreover, never coincides with the formal pattern laid out in advance by either city planners or conference organisers. The way different individuals appropriate unexplored spaces is indeed “a force that defies all calculation”.

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    • Maria

      I’m surprised you did not go into the exciting avenue(s) of meeting old friends, or lovers, perhaps, in exotic spaces. If I follow your logic, which is very Heideggerian, such intimate meetings would transmogrify these spaces into memorable places. Remember Istanbul…?