Frederik Tygstrup: Forms of Space

Space is not a concept of substance; it is a concept of function. Space is not a “something” that surrounds us; space is the way in which our surroundings appear to our experience. All human actions, perceptions, and thoughts are situated in a context of space, but the character of this context varies. Human experience of space is an experience of the material and immaterial relations included in the world-image of a culture. Every culture and every historical epoch has a space proper to it. Each of those spaces accentuates certain relations and certain ways of making relations, while it ignores others. Space, in other words, is a cultural and historical phenomenon, and the study of space implies the study of human forms of experience and social forms of organisation producing and consolidating specific conceptions of space.

In its most primitive version this notion of space is a notion of human territory: the extended environment in which a human activity unfolds, and the layers or aspects of the environment that are relevant to this activity – space, in other words, as a context for action, as a horizon for perception, and as an object for possible reflection. Modern theories of space, particularly those of a phenomenological extraction, take a similar point of departure and consider space from the vantage point of the material human body, situated in a given set of surroundings and in a specific existential situation determining its activity in these surroundings. This approach is quite straightforward and often very productive in the analysis of specific formations of space. The primitive situation, however, where an individual body is situated in a specific situation and acts on its surroundings to create a specific, lived space, is often quite complicated, dependent on the degree of complexity of the surroundings. The phenomenological investigation will more easily give an adequate spatial description of the farmer ploughing his land than of, say, the businessman parking his car under the international airport while talking on his cell-phone. The context can be complex, and the same accounts for the media at hand to deal with the specific situation: the symbolic systems involved and the technological prostheses inserted between the individual and the environment. And so can, finally, the patterns of imagination on which the encounter between individual and surroundings draws as the prerequisites for an adequate handling with the situation.

Analyzing space as the territoriality that connects individual and environment in a typical concrete situation thus implies a complicated totality where the primitive encounter of a body and a context includes a number of different historical media, technologies, and structures of imagination. The French psychiatrist and philosopher Félix Guattari has proposed to conceptualize the totality of this complex situation as a ‘machine.’ In this perspective, a machine is a not a piece of material technique, but rather a coherent, systemic mode of organization, where the capacity of the human body to act, to perceive, and to think is connected to specific layers of reality through a set of media, technologies and conceptions. The territorial production of space springs from specific ‘machine-like’ ways of organization, whether it is the machine of agriculture, of montage-fabrication or of international financial speculation. Furthermore, these machines are not only machines for the human production of space, but also produce subjectivity to the extent that they produce human forms of life, human conceptions of the body and human ways of perceiving and of thinking.

In the history of modern thinking about space, it is the merit of phenomenology to have supplemented the traditional objective definitions of space with a systematic approach to the particular ways in which human space consolidates itself through historical life-praxis. The problem with phenomenology, however, is that the emphasis put on subjective space in turn entails a reduction to those instances of space that can be analyzed in terms of subjective, existential horizons, which is why it might seem less feasible for a historical assessment of spaces that emerge from more general social tendencies and developments. Here, the somewhat unfamiliar notions of “territory” and “machine” might serve to mediate between the strict phenomenological analysis and the historical-epistemological perspective, mainly through two theoretical manoeuvres. First by studying historically significant ways of organizing the relations between human beings and their surroundings, i.e. the machines that produce space as they incorporate different aspects of a given environment by facilitating certain relations and types of relations (which again entails a concomitant production of subjectivity by allowing specific human qualities and experiences to unfold in the environment). And secondly by studying the dynamics at work in the development of different territorial forms, breaking down, modifying and transforming ancient forms in favour of the production of new ones. Or, to put it differently, how traditional forms are de-territorialized through emerging forms of agency that break down ancient machines and obsolete forms of organization. And how new forms emerge as human activity and human experience is re-territorialized in new functional nexuses.

A tradition already exists for describing the social modernization as a process de-territorialization. Amongst the more famous instances is Karl Marx’s theory of”original accumulation” as an expropriation of agricultural means of production through the enclosure of land and through the migration from land to city and the following re-education of human labour to industrial production. De-territorialization is here to be taken quite literally, as unsettling from the primitive territory of agriculture and its corresponding forms of life, which was historically accompanied – with countless differences, mediations and anachronisms – by liberation from the constraints of tradition, reification of social relations, and an entire array of other capitalist forms of re-territorialization. The most famous agent of re-territorialization instantiated by modern capitalism is no doubt what Michel Foucault called discipline. Re-territorialization here operates through the emergence of new disciplinary institutions regulating and organizing human behaviour within specific social spaces: the production site, the school, the prison, the barracks, the family, etc. Discipline parcels out the space of human action and experience in segmented and discontinuous territories and disciplinary machines, where the routines pertaining to production of commodities and reproduction of human labour go together and confect a new set of subjective forms of experience. At this point of transition from pre-modern, sovereign forms of power, to modern, disciplinary forms of power, the very conception of society changes. One sign of social reterritorialization is the idea of a national community, emerging throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, that situates the individual in a political community with an alleged common history and a common space of experience, thus replacing political sovereignty with institutions (often of democratic nature) of national community.

The modern processes of reterritorialization forge a historically new version of human space. It includes the modular disciplinary spaces where human processes of learning and experience unfold according to specific “machines,” specific ways of becoming a person in disciplinary organized social connections. And it includes, secondly, the new communities of citizens of nation states; a decisive feature here is the idea of a historical national subject, a community based on a shared history and thus on the development and formation of a common identity over time. This idea of temporal formation is important not only for the feeling of a shared political destiny attached to a specific spot of land; it also produces social models for the moulding of individual character. Hence the influential notion of ‘formation’ (Bildung), designating the socialization that takes place through learning processes prescribed by disciplinary social institutions, accompanied by an idea of individual growth through self-reflexive experience in guise of a temporalizing appropriation of social and natural environments. And thirdly the modern version of human space displays a strong sensibility towards open space, the space outside, still waiting to be territorialized, colonized, disciplined… Beyond the individual territory we have potential territories that can be measured and mapped; the unfamiliar is not other spaces but parcels in a generalized space waiting to be organized. The expansive, imperial logic of capitalism is accompanied by an idea of a ‘smooth,’ continuous space, a space that can be administered through disciplinary order.

Throughout the twentieth century different tendencies have questioned these modern forms of re-territorialization and the conception of space they to imply. The disciplinary order was immanent in the social structures of industrial imperialism (and of bureaucratic totalitarianism); in post-industrial and information-age societies, however, they are substituted by new mechanisms of control no longer mediated by disciplinary institutions. The machines of production, education, reproduction, punishment, and entertainment now all modify the life of each individual on a continuous basis. Whereas individual lives were earlier formed according to the rules spelled out by modular disciplinary institutions, we are now witnessing an on-going modulation of the resources of production, creation, learning, affection and social interaction of every individual. Information based production no longer buys human labour but “human resources”, all citizens are being engaged in “lifelong learning”, individually targeted digitalized entertainment trains the skills demanded by production, the interpersonal, response-seeking communication becomes a source of production in networked production processes, and so forth. The interstitial gaps between institutions that might earlier have served as some sort of open spaces disappear for the sake of ubiquitous functionality. Concomitantly the spatializing function of the ancient disciplinary machines disappears; a new movement of de-territorialization comes about where the ‘fixed’ disciplinary space is dissolved into a new mobile landscape. The patterns of movement - from the global routes of migration to the regional networks of transportations and the local flows of people in traditional urban centres transformed into amusement parks – create a peculiar modulating spatiality, while cable- and satellite based networks of information connect distant places and thus instantiate new, efficient machines of production and reproduction. In this context space becomes, once again, a problematic notion. The transition from the order of localisation pertaining to the disciplinary societies to an order of modulation characteristic of the emerging societies of control creates new forms of territorialization with new spatial relations (and types of relations) that no longer comform to previous ideas of continuity, perspective, and rational divisions. This development also affects the idea of national space; in globalized capitalism the national sovereignty suffers from increased marginalization, and simultaneously the national tradition becomes less and less meaningful as a point of identification for the social groups that are involved in information based capitalism. As Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri have pointed out, a new global social order is emerging, where individuals with a share in the present development become postmodernists, flexible and eclectic engineers of information and of symbols, whereas those only registering the negative effects following the erosion of tradition become fundamentalists. Moreover, the post-national and control based mechanisms of individuation lead to a transformation of the conception of time hitherto significant of the national models of formation. The absence of the habitual territorial coordinates, those of the nation state as well as those of local disciplinary spaces, dissolves the national and local contexts of experience and thus also the idea of a temporalized inhabitation of this context, which was what allowed the individual to appropriate it, master it and make it familiar. The individual time is unbound to follow its own autonomous articulations, but also bereft of the fixed points that framed its articulation. Which is of course why, as social psychologists point out, we see still more non-traditional patterns of socialisation that favour forms of behaviour and self-images directly linked to the demands and possibilities derived from the market places of post-industrial capitalism. The imaginary reference for life-handling is no longer the idea of subjective transcendence in time but rather the strategic position of the individual in a social situation with the possibilities and connections that it involves. Self-realisation becomes a matter of positioning of interests in space rather than of orientation in time. Finally we see transformation of the open space. The idea of a ‘smooth’ spatiality where disciplinary machines could be installed to capture and colonize the global space is substituted by more complex conceptions of space as human surroundings become increasingly ‘overcoded’, interwoven by several actualized or merely possible relations, connected in network structures in multiple dimensions at the same time. With the new and refined transportation and communication networks, and with the instant availability of all human qualities in any given situation, the configurations of specific spaces are multiplied and at the same time de-differentiated; in this respect space becomes even more ‘smooth’, multifunctional and flexible, and at the same time more complex, with a larger spectrum of possibilities of actualisation than what can be conveyed by the idea of a specific ‘place’. Spatial orientation, then, gains more significance than the temporal; the individual “now” is substituted by a “here”, where a whole range of possibilities can be realized in each their way at the expense of the existentially temporal synthesis, which no longer suffices as the imaginary point of orientation for handling the situation and finding its possibilities. We increasingly orient ourselves in a layered space with different possible axis of actualisation, where single moments can be related to a variety of contexts to realize specific forms of space and related forms of subjectivity. Space, then, ceases to exist as a simple frame for human action and self-reflection as it becomes an immeasurable field of actual and virtual relations where forms of subjectivity are crystallized according to the needs and modulations of the regimes of control in power.