Tuan in the 21st Century

1 Feb

Last Thursday I had the pleasure of attending a lecture in the UCSB’s Interdisciplinary Humanities Center’s series on Geographies of Place. Jon Jablonski, who leads UCSB’s Davidson Library’s Map & Imagery Laboratory, presented an intriguing talk on the “21st Century Tuan: Revisiting Space and Place in the i-Age.” In the broadest sense, Jablonski said that he wished to argue for the continuing relevance of Yi Fu Tuan’s 1977 text Space and Place, and he wanted to recommend this work for both geographers and humanists. After contextualizing the text within the discussions among geographers in the 1970s over descriptive cultural landscapes and quantitative methods, the talk swiftly moved on to highlight one of examples that remains so powerful from Tuan’s work: scale jumping. Here’s a classic video by Charles and Ray Eames called “Powers of 10” that captures the essence of scale jumping:

Scale jumping is our ability to perform rapid multi-scalar spatial tasks. Just walking around outside we perform hundreds of mental calculations about our world that involve radically different scales. Let’s say we’re out for a walk. We must assess the danger of the car approaching at 30mph, avoid the pedestrians passing us, and step around the puddle that would muddy our shoes. These are all operationally different scales that our spatial minds handle with ease. It’s why we can read maps, cross streets, drive cars, and so on. But Tuan understood that spatial ability did not necessarily mean that we were intimately negotiating with space. In fact, his division of space and place hinges on the way in which people relate to places in ways that go beyond crude mental abstractions (such as those related to scale). While the scale of space starts with the physical limitations of the body, the scale of place starts when we become intimate with spaces by having intense experiences in them over a significant duration of time. Religious spaces, the school bus, and the home can all become places by virtue of our sustained emotional engagement with them. It’s why we have such attachment to our childhood homes, to the places we went to school, or where we spent time with our loved ones.

Jablonksi switched gears at this point in the talk to speak about the ways in which our creation of places has changed in the i-Age. We are rooted to places, not spaces, but our world is becoming more and more transient. There is more than a hint of nostalgia here, and in every discussion on this topic, but it is a fair critique of the effects of the digital age. We are losing our rootedness as we increasingly engage in virtual landscapes that frustrate our ability to transform discrete spaces (defined by the body) into places (defined relationally by our emotional engagement with them). Virtual spaces are often fleeting or fail to connect our emotions with our bodily engagement. Virtual community, it should be said, is not something that necessarily carries over when we’re talking about transforming spaces into places. An example:

Let’s say you’re a modern teenager who enjoys video games (Call of Duty, Halo, World of Warcraft, Minecraft, and so on). You log on from your home computer or game console to connect with other gamers around the world (and probably quite a few you have met in real life). Your body remains in the space where you are, but the place that you are creating an emotional attachement to exists where? Is it an extension of your gaming area? Is it arbitrarily defined in the ether between gamers? Is it insider the computer or gaming console? Where and to what are you becoming attached? The shared imagination of the virtual gaming environment may create a gaming community, but we have lost the transformation of spaces into places. Or rather we have disconnected the meaning of particular spaces from the meaning of the places associated with them. Your desktop has become a pawn in some other fictional world and you’re connected to that world, not to your desktop. Your body is no longer the first scale that can transition you from space to place. So what is happening?

I felt at the time that Jablonksi was being fairly slippery with his movement between virtual environments and physical ones. The so-called “meatspace” has many more features than we give it credit for, and it isn’t clear whether the fault for this lack of clarity is the format of the lecture (short) or the analysis we can offer from Tuan (it pre-dates the Internet) or something else altogether. In the Q&A I asked whether, after a Christmas break filled with long sessions of Call of Duty: Black Ops, a teenage video-gamer would “miss” their virtual place? What are the features of a virtual gaming environment that are required for a persistent sense of emotional uprootedness when one is deprived of that environment?

A personal story: I’m a big fan of a much earlier version of Call of Duty. When I first moved to California I began playing with a particular group of gamers (called a clan) as a break from my studies. It was a pleasurable way to relax and the competition of the game was stimulating. When my wife and I decided to move to a new apartment I discovered that my new ISP was wholly inadequate to continue playing the game online. I vainly attempted to continue playing, growing steadily more angry with the effects of reduced latency and bandwidth (i.e., slow internet). Ultimately, I had to leave the community that I had spent more than a year with and stop playing the game. Recently I heard that the server that allowed us to play this vintage game had closed down. My response was very much one of the loss of a place where I had felt at home. I miss it just as much as I miss the people I played with there–regardless of how silly that feels to me to say now.

Jablonksi argued that our collective digital ennui was not endless or hopeless. Social networks, he argued, are filling in the rootlessness of digital life. We are re-forming our relationship with spaces by layering them with digital place interfaces. Facebook location, FourSquare, and other “I’m here” web applications are just the beginning of our attempts to restore our place-making abilities. In the i-Age we are finding that what was lost isn’t gone forever, and that we can continue to exert the basic emotional attachments that Tuan outlined over 30 years ago. We are finding ways for technology to replace the body as the first step in transforming spaces into places, and I’m not sure whether that is a scary proposition or one that turns us into proto-cyborgs. That’s a question for another day. Where we stand at the moment, however, is right on the cusp of a revolution in the way we relate space and space. It may be that we find a way back home or into the homely-feeling transformations of the past, but we could just as easily forge ahead into a new sense of what it means to be somewhere. Sure, some of us are deeply uneasy with that prospect, but just think for a second: how do you imagine the first urban folks felt when they began to live in the shadow of skyscrapers? How have we responded to the glut of cookie-cutter and suburban sprawl? We are boats at sea waiting for the storm to clear so that we can return to our ports. This too shall pass.

[1. This was partially transcribed by Dragon Dictate, but it was registering too many errors, so I turned off the microphone to finish it. 2. Tuan is visiting UCSB to give a lecture in the Geographies of Place series on March 9th. I’ll see if I can’t ask a question that gets at the home-making of modern digital life to supplement this piece. 3. Check out a short post I did about an earlier lecture in this series about spiritual solders.]

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One Response to “Tuan in the 21st Century”

  1. matt m February 2, 2011 at 8:04 am #

    Can you ask him the question in advance so that he can have a thoughtful answer ready?

    I don’t think that a very long exposure to a physical place is necessary, if the emotional content is big. Say. the experience of soldiers in a battle where a field or barn or hill may become indelible after a few moments.

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