Textual and Real Life Spaces

N. Katherine Hayles

Distinguished Research Professor of English

University of California, Los Angeles


“Textual and Real-Life Spaces:

Expanding Theoretical Frameworks”

In this Era of the Pandemic, space has become more hotly contested than ever.  Across multiple scales, from border closings to socially mandated distances between individuals, spatial issues have emerged as the foci for governmental actions, vehement protests, international relations, and personal anguish.  Yet for many in the humanities, “space” remains an abstract concept, separated by an unbridgeable gap from the pressing concerns of everyday life.  It was this conundrum that struck the participants in the Ecological Networks project at Uppsala University, organized to help overcome the disciplinary silos that continue to hinder research in academia and impede its application to real-life situations.  One of our members, Don Mitchell, is a cultural geographer, and in our discussions it became apparent that he thought about “space” in very different ways than those of us grounded in the study of literatures, languages, and philological research.   We therefore asked him to conduct a master class for us on how the discipline of geography conceptualizes space, and it was from that seminar, expanded into a daylong colloquium with presentations from several scholars, that this special issue was born.

Our lack of experience with spatial issues is, I think, not unusual for scholars in the humanities. By contrast, temporality has a rich archive of critical commentary, from Bergson’s Time and Free Will (1889,)through Ricoeur’s three volumes Time and Narrative ( 1983-85),andmore recently, Elizabeth Grosz’s The Nick of Time: Politics, Evolution, and the Untimely (2004).  The contrast between the relatively sparse commentary on space is not difficult to understand.  Narrative cannot exist without time; time is crucial to its construction, comprehension, and /;

dissemination in print and memory.  Space, although capable of being represented in print, does not have the same strong intrinsic connection to narrative.  Spatiality in the sense of the page’s dimensions of course has been extensively explored in concrete and visual poetry, and space in the novel has been interrogated in Joseph Frank’s The Idea of Spatial Form (1991), among others.  Nevertheless, page space and space in the world are not usually connected in literary criticism.  I hope that the essays in this issue will help to bridge this gap and provide useful, expansive frameworks for humanities scholars to think about spatiality both in texts and real life situations.

Central to this framing is Mitchell’s essay.  He argues that it was not until mid-twentieth century that geographers realized that absolute or Euclidean-Newtonian space, conceived as an empty rectilinear container into which objects can be placed, was not adequate to account for the complexities of how spatial conceptions organize the economy, social relations, power dynamics, and capitalistic enterprises.  Rather than seeing space as given, geographers began to experiment with the premise that different communities conceptualize space in diverse ways, each with its effects and uses, and that these had as much efficacy in certain domains as absolute space did in others.  This gave rise to what Mitchell calls the “relative” view of space. A further development saw theorists such as Henri Lefebvre arguing that spatial relations are both the product and producer of a wide range of everyday practices, affecting everything from the way that land is described to how international trading relationships proceed.This resulted in what Mitchell calls the “relational” view of space, emphasizing that space emerges through the interactions of different kinds of dynamics, much as the curvature of spacetime in Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity is created by interactions of mass, energy, and momentum.

This analogy, alluded to by Mitchell, is somewhat misleading.  In spacetime, the interactions are simultaneous and instantaneous.  In relational space as described by Mitchell, however, the idea of spaces and practices co-producing each other often take place along vastly different time scales and with very attenuated and diffuse feedback loops.  For example, consider the Plaza de Armas in Cosco, Peru.  One could plausibly argue that the plaza architecture affects the behaviors of those within it, for example tourists taking pictures.  But the plaza as a built environment has not significantly changed since the Spanish invaded Peru in the 16th century.  The feedback loops between built environments, practices and inhabitants may thus more accurately be described as potentially interactive rather than interactive as such in the relational view of space.

Nevertheless, the concepts of relative and relational space are considerably more flexible and sophisticated than the naturalized view of space as absolute.  Yet despite this, absolute space continues to hold sway in many respects, both in popular culture and in contemporary imaginations. Mitchell therefore concludes that space should be considered as proceeding along three distinct conceptualizations simultaneously, with absolute, relative and relational space all active in different ways and domains.  At the same time, he sees the return to absolute space, emphatically on display in resurgence of right-wing nationalisms throughout the world and especially in the US, as a regression to a tyrannical and inherently undemocratic regime.

Mitchell’s essay is located first in the issue because it provides a useful framework with which to understand those that follow.  However, it would be a mistake to regard the space of this issue as constructed solely as an inertial framework in which essay-objects are placed.  Rather, my hope is that the essays can be made to talk to one another, and in the process, modify each other’s conclusions.  The absolute-relative-relational matrix should thus be regarded as a starting point that will transform as the essays proceed.  In particular, later essays will suggest that other terms need to be added to Mitchell’s triad, beginningwith (in keeping with the r-r chain)responsive space.

Responsive space arrives when architectural components acquire sensing and cognizing capabilities.  In Contagious Architecture, Luciana Parisi describes some of these artifacts:  walls that move in response to a visitor’s breath; furniture that rearranges itself as a person sits on it; buildings that change lighting, translucency, and even floor plans according to the actions of those within them.  Anna Greenspan, in her discussion of QR codes in Shanghai, documents the effects of expanding responsivity to an entire urban space.  When the built environment acquires the ability to sense, cognize, interpret and respond to human actions, it is no longer adequate to think of humans in an environment, with humans as the agents and environment the spatial container that holds them.  Rather, humans and environment are mutually co-constituting each other through their interactions.  Relationality, with its potential for interactions, becomes responsivity when that potential is realized through sensing and cognizing technologies.

These interactions, however, remain in the reader’s future (assuming a linear progression through the essays).  Let us return now to Mitchell’s essay to trace another turn in his argument.  One of the heroes in his account is David Harvey, whose work on time-space compression in twentieth-century capitalism is foundational for contemporary understandings of how spatial relations work and how they mutually reinforce and interact with faster and faster temporal regimes. Yet he also pays tribute to Doreen Massey, whose workOn Space seeks to qualify Harvey’s generalizations by pointing out that although time goes faster in some regimes, in others it goes slower, for example in the time it takes an indigenous woman in an African country to walk to market.  Massey also introduces something that remains undeveloped in Mitchell’s account but will be the focus for several essays in this issue:  the interrelations between space and story.

If space continues to be somewhat abstract in Mitchell’s argument so far, it becomes more concrete (literally) through the concept of landscape.  “Landscape” he considers not as the picturesque object it is often considered within the humanities but rather as the built environment, which has the effect of reifying spatial concepts. Landscape, Mitchell writes, can be considered the “concreticization [sic] of absolute, relative, and relational space”; as such, it “has the effect of freezing time.”  From a capitalist point of view, motivated above all by the need to keep expanding and driving forward, this is a problem.  One of the responses of capitalistic enterprises to this ossification, then, is to destroy built environments as old buildings are torn down, neighborhoods razed, entire areas gentrified or erased, in a dynamic sometimes described euphemistically as “creative destruction.”  Nevertheless, some aspects of previous concretizations cannot be eradicated so easily, for example when toxins from industrial pollutants seep into the soil and underground aquifers.  This leads to a concept Mitchell attributes to David Nye, the “anti-landscape,” territory so toxic that it cannot be inhabited.

With this summary of Mitchell’s essay, we are now positioned to consider another major thread running through these essays, the linkages between particular bodies uniquely located in time and the spatial environments with which they interact.  Michael Boyden’s essay considers “health travel” narratives in mid-nineteenth and early twenty-first centuries, as travelers from developed countries journeyed to the Caribbean to recover from maladies, including environmental sensitivities of various kinds.  In addition to tracing connections between health travel and such institutions as the southern plantation system—an inquiry very much in the spirit of David Harvey’s work–Boyden’s project seeks to broaden the basis for such inquires beyond the rights discourse that often dominates arguments in the environmental humanities. He questions the assumption that a robust ethics can emerge from Stacy Alaimo’s idea of trans-corporeality, discourses that seek to undo the binary between body and environment.  Instead he calls for a finer-grained analysis alert to the nuances, complexities, and contradictions that emerge from these travel narratives, with their divergent representations of the body’s relation to the environment.  Here spatial issues are inextricably woven into the construction of bodies; for example, in one of the narratives the body is seen as a sensitive instrument that can record variations in toxicity, temperature changes, and a variety of other factors.  In this respect Boyden’s essay interrogates what we might call the pre-history of Melissa Littlefield’s “instrumental intimacy,” in which technical devices mediate between bodily reactions and the landscape by sensing and recording a variety of physical responses.

In a move from spaces in bodies and environments to what he calls a “lexical ‘geography,” Ewan Jones gives a precise account of one meaning of space in a text: the size of the window by which one word is separated from another.  Ranging from a window only one space wide (so the words appear next to one another) to a much wider window of one hundred words, Jones uses word collocations to track subtle shifts of meanings across pairs and groups of related terms.  The bet here is that such shifts correlate with similar conceptual shifts within the culture, a premise made more likely by searching through large corpora, for which he employs Google Books and Gale Cengage’s Eighteenth Century Collections Online.  One of his examples concerns the terms “passion” and “emotion”; searching for the adjectives that precede both, he finds a growing prevalence during the early 1800s of “mental emotion.”  Switching from a birds-eye corpora view to individual texts, he determines that the phrase had a distinctly gendered sense, usually applying to women and often in a pejorative sense, as in the assertion from an 1836 tract opining that “strong mental emotion of the mother predisposes the offspring to insanity.”

The data lead Jones to speculate that in addition to the well-known phenomenon of “lexical priming,” where authors reading one another tend to choose the same word once they see it elsewhere, there may also be “conceptual priming,” a subtler correlation that requires more sophisticated analytical methods to track.  In proposing this idea, Jones remarks that one desideratum for digital humanities is the ability of results to surprise the researcher with unexpected revelations.  In tracking word collocations and in displaying the results in graphical form, Jones suggests that “computational emotion” may mean more than just the results of such procedures, but also processes that bring them to light.  He proposes a startling analogy: that “the nervous system here represents a structural counterpart to the graphs and networks to which my analysis has tended.”  With this daring move, Jones leaps from textual to embodied space, thus anticipating the correlation that later essays explore through other means.

In the next set of essays, digital technologies extend far beyond print to urban landscapes and structures.  This vastly expanded digital realm is featured in Anna Greenspan’s essay on QR codes in Shanghai.  There QR codes have deeply penetrated intoalmost every economic activity, from micropayments to large transactions.  (QR codes, not as ubiquitous in Europe or the US as in China, are those square icons filled with black and white designs, which can be read by a QR reader on a cell phone or other computational device.). Although alert to the surveillance potential of this development, Greenspan follows Benjamin Bratton’s suggestion that a postulated right to privacy may not be the best way to think about this situation.  Rather, she suggests that the dynamic between visibility and invisibility may be more productive.  An advantage of this framework, somewhat understated in her essay, is the distinction it emphasizes between what humans can parse and what computational media can interpret.  While people can see the codes, without technical help they are unable to read the dense information encoded within them.  [add Amaranth here.] Thus the cell phone becomes an essential prosthetic, not only to move around the urban space but, in a larger sense, to establish and perform one’s identity.

As more and more of the Shanghai cityscape is populated with QR codes, Greenspan suggests that the city itself is becoming sentient, or in other words, responsive.  The idea fundamentally changes what counts as the built environment as described by Mitchell.  Not only is it concrete and steel, the structures that dominate the skyline, but also all the networks, fiber optic cables, wireless transmissions and other technologies that weave seamlessly together the visible structures, hidden infrastructures, and invisible transmissions. In other contexts I have analyzed these kinds of interactions as characteristic of  cognitive assemblages, collectivities of human and computational entities through which information, interpretations, and meanings circulate.  The upshot is that spatial practices in contemporary urban landscapes  such as Shanghai have increasingly converged with cognitive activities that exceed the boundaries of human thought.  The phrase “more than human,” currently displacing the problematic “nonhuman,” is usually taken to indicate the lifeworld of the planet that far exceeds the human population.  I suggest that it is increasingly important to understand it as including as well technical entities and practices.  Responsive environments extend the boundaries of relationality through the mediation ofcomputers, cell phones, and other computational devices, with the result that more-than-human technical cognitions become essential components of urban spaces.

Melissa Littlefield adds another dimension to responsive architecture in her essay on the use of wearable electroencephalogram (EEG) equipment to evaluable how people are reacting to the buildings and landscapes in New York City.  Through what she calls “instrumental intimacy,” the city transforms into a “neuropolis,” sensed through EEG recordings of the brain waves of its inhabitants, a “human sensor network for unseen data flowing through urban spaces” (the invisible again!).  She argues that the relation between brain and city can be understood as reciprocal:  “we have not only been mapping the city onto the brain, but we have also been mapping the brain onto the city. . . anthropomorphizing urban spaces into nervous systems that can be optimized.”  Much as Lebebvre did with spatial practices considered as both product and producer of space, she argues that “the human sensor network is product and producer of the city as nervous system whose metaphoric description involves being ‘smart’ and ‘intelligent.’” Seeing the city as a nervous system opens it, she argues, to the optimization techniques developed for human brains, for example in the Quantified Self movement where users employ neuro- and bodily feedback to enable them to become more efficient, less depressed, more productive.

As environments become sensing entities, multiple feedback systems emerge that further complicate the absolute space of Euclidean geometry.  Rather than proceeding according to linear dynamics that can be modeled through differential equations, highly nonlinear and recursive complex systems develop that have no explicit mathematical solutions.  Such systems require modeling using computer simulations.  The very technologies that create the recursive dynamics are thus used to analyze the recursivity, resulting in a second-order complexity of the kind analyzed on second-order systems theory, where the observer is implicated in the system being observed.  As Donna Haraway noted in another context, there is no “objective” viewpoint from which to observe, as the observer is always already in the picture she sees.  This is a further implication of the move from absolute to relative to relational to responsive space, one not developed in Mitchell’s essay but implicit in a (reader-activated) feedback loop between these later essays and his framing analysis.

Suzanna Ericson furthers this line of inquiry in her essay on Jordan Abel’s poem Un/inhabited.  Abel, a member of the indigenousNisga’a tribe in Canada, used 91 Western novels in the public domain as his source material.  He then “operated” on them in various ways, using keywords associated with land appropriation and exploitation such as “Indian,” “uninhabited,” and “extraction.”  As Ericson notes, a basic premise for these operations is the common trope of text as landscape.  These operations, however, are not merely verbal analogies but rather what I have elsewhere called “material metaphors.”

A material metaphor does not merely map a verbal tenor onto a linguistic vehicle but rather uses a material object as part of the mapping process.  In Abel’s poem, that material object is the page surface and the distribution of ink and white space on it.  In the section entitled “Cartography,” for example, white spaces representing landforms are laid onto the page, seeming to eradicate the (presumed) underlying print.  Similar material metaphors operate in “Extraction,” where the print is ordered into columns reminiscent of mine shafts, and in “Uninhabited,” in which that word is erased every time it appears in the source novels.  Ericson notes that these operations can be considered as reciprocal violence, mirroring in reverse the colonialist violence the source novels uncritically enact against indigenous peoples in North America.

Ericson’s essay provides an exegesis of this difficult poem that resists reading in an ordinary sense; in addition, it specifically encourages its use in literature classrooms.  She underscores the advantages of using a text that presents an alternative viewpoint and endorses its invitation to students to critically examine colonialist assumptions.  Then, however, she asks a challenging question:  how can students resist ideological texts in general, including this one?  She argues that the interpretative strategies students develop to read this text \ empower students to examine critically any text, including Abel’s poem.  Central to these strategiesis grasping the connections created as the text oscillatesbetween spatial representations of the world and representing its own material spaces as surfaces upon which operations can be carried out.   Understanding this point provides a crucial link so often lacking in contemporary literary criticism, the connections between textual spaces and spaces as they occur “in the wild,” that is, in our everyday built environments.   No text is ever simply a verbal representation; it must have a material body to exist in the world (including electronic texts).  Similarly, no material object is ever simply material; it must exist in networks of perception, interpretation and potential meaning-making to become part of the human umwelt (or world-horizon).  These cross-connections, amply illustrated in Ericson’s essay, modify and extend Mitchell’s framework, enriching the notion of responsivity so that it includes complex feedback loops both between observers and environments and between them and literary and aesthetic textual spaces.

If Ericson’s essay modifies and extends Mitchell’s analysis, Ashlee Bird’s essay on representations of North American indigenous peoples and lands in video games provides many examples supporting his arguments.  Rather than emphasizing time as does Christianity, she notes that many indigenous cultures locate events relative to the places in which they occurred, thus making good on Mitchell’s argument that the relative nature of space depends on how different cultures interpret it.   Similarly, she argues that connections to the land are primary in the cultures of indigenous peoples, functioning as sources of identity and empowerment rather than as raw material for commodification and exploitation.  She thenshows that these cultural priorities are distorted and misrepresented  in a variety of contemporary video games.

“In many popular video games, the earth exists as a tool, a canvas for real creation, as well as a form of capital,” she writes.  A particularly neat example is Minecraft, with a “blocky” pixelated landscape visualized as discrete blocks reminiscent of a Lego structure.  It is operationalized as space that “can be broken down, compartmentalized, into capital” as players use it to produce goods and services that they consume or exchange with others.  The idea of ownership and commodification, then, is already implicit in the landscape’s aesthetic design.  Another example is Assassin’s Creed III, which features a Native American character named Connor with whom the player identifies.  The game warns players that they, like Connor, must skin every animal they kill and take all the parts; ironically, however, this ethic of restraint, of killing only what one needs to live, is perverted in the game, because players are allowed to hunt endless numbers of animals and sell their skins for money.   Contrasting with these mainstream games are games from indigenous creators, which enact a radically different view of space, locating it in relation to stories and cultural legacies rather than commodification.

One of Bird’s claims is that the spaces represented in digital games are not merely  aesthetic representations or game mechanics but rather performances of sovereignty.  This bold assertion requires considerable evidence to be convincing, which she, however, does not supply, as her interests lie elsewhere.  Nevertheless, it is worthwhile to think about what such a claim entails.  It implies that the distinctions we typically draw between representations and reality may have boundaries that, in our posthuman times, have become extremely porous.  Specifically, it implies that games are more than entertainment; rather, they should be considered platforms on which identities are performed and established, cultures authorized and legitimated.  For evidence, one could look at statistics on the marketing and consumption of video games, which now gross considerably more than the movie industry.   One could also reference studies, such as those by Sherry Turkle, that explore how game worlds take over the cognitive acreage of those who play them, often eclipsing the so-called real world.   Finally, one could consider the digital technologies that design, produce, implement and disseminate video games.  If similar technologies are ubiquitous in urban environments and inextricably woven into landscape, then metaphorically, the people who inhabit those landscapes are always already in video games indistinguishable from real life, with the proviso that they may be completely unaware of their status as players.  Our science fiction writers have already imagined this scenario many times, from William Gibson’s Neuromancer trilogy to Ian Banks’ novel Surface Detail, andto films such as Inception, EXistanZ and The Matrix.   We may call such spaces, continuing the r-r-r chain, recursive.

Just as relationality at the extreme shades into responsivity, so responsivity at the extreme shades into recursivity. Recursive space is characterized by the emergence of complex systems between human and technical entities with multiple entangled feedback loops that undermine claims to originary status (for example, the assumption that humans originated the chain of events and therefore control it), and that tend to defeat attempts to identify a singular “real” causal chain (for example, giving priority to the causal chain in which humans create the technical devices).  Just as humans produce the devices, so the devices modify humans in a variety of ways and so can be said to co-constitute them.

We should not assume, however, that recursive space is limited to interactions between humans and technical devices.  Jesper Olsson’s essay extends recursive space into interactions between humans and the more-then-human lifeworld, exploring how posthuman ecologies are enacted in works of contemporary experimental poetry.  Created of course by humans, these poetic works nevertheless seek to decenter anthropocentrism by interpenetrating  human perspectives with other kinds of data and documents, expanding the scale of perception from the microscopic to the cosmic macroscopic, and including different kinds of media and semiotic systems beyond human languages.

In this respect these works are similar to the recent interest by humanities scholars in the human biome. Building on the realization that the majority of cells in the human body are not human but bacterial and viral, these studies suggest that what we are pleased to call “the human” is in fact always already a collectivity of entangled feedback loops with the more-than-human.  I wrote recently about one form of this recursive space within the human body:

Another kind of interdependence has been the discovery of ancient virus DNA within human stem cells.  Stem cells are crucial to human reproduction, because they are pluripotent, having the ability to transform into all the different kinds of cells in the body as the fetus grows.  Recent studies have found that one class of endogenous retroviruses, known as H. HERV-H, has DNA that is active in human embryonic stem cells but not in other types of human cells.  Moreover, researchers have discovered that if this activity is suppressed by adding bits of RNA,  the treated cells cease to act like stem cells and instead begin to act like fibroblasts, cells common in animal connective tissues.  Without the pluripotency provided by stem cells, human reproduction could not work.  Ironically then, the viral contamination that is posing a deadly threat to contemporary humans is also, in another guise,  critical for human reproduction.

We produce viruses in the laboratory, and they help to (re)produce us through their interpenetration of our bodies.  Both kinds of sites exhibit the complex entangled feedback loops characteristic of recursive spaces, demonstrated in another way in Olsson’s essay through his explication of the complex strategies at work in the poetry.  As he makes clear, the movement back and forth betweenrecursive textual spacesand recursive physical spaces is critical in understanding the importance and scope of posthuman ecologies.

Sofia Ahlberg’s essay on toxicity in novels by Tom Wolfe and J. G Ballard returns us to Mitchell’s notion of “anti-landscape.”  Although Mitchell assumes, along with Nye, that such landscapes are too toxic for habitation, Ahlberg complicates this assumption by arguing that, somewhat counter-intuitively, toxicity has its pleasures as well as dangers.  In addition, some anti-landscapes have proven welcoming to other species, at the same time that they have been quarantined as dangerous to humans.  Several years ago I participated in a research group headed by William Cronon and Anne Spirn, which resulted in the essay collection Uncommon Ground: Toward Reinventing Nature.  In his introduction, Cronon recounts that the group’s “favorite found object was a collection of newspaper articles and tourist brochures that

Richard White distributed on the Rocky Mountain Arsenal in Denver, Colorado.” He writes that the 17,000 acre site had been heavily contaminated by “millions of gallons of highly poisonous chemicals [. . .] deposited in landfills and waste basins on the site,” making it “among the worst toxic waste dumps in the United States” (27-28).  Nevertheless, the absence of people has inadvertently led to it becoming “one of the West’s most remarkable wildlife refuges,” with “wildlife populations more diverse and abundant than those anywhere else in the central Rockies” (28).  As Ahlberg insightfully comments, “We are the toxins.”  Although she does not make the idea explicit, her analysis suggests that the notion of “anti-landscape” may need to be qualified by the question, “anti- for whom?”

In conclusion I note that this introduction, like almost all written languages, proceeds linearly across and/or down the page (unless they don’t).  In this sense it enacts the temporality intrinsic to spoken and written discourses.   There is, however, another conceptual dimension to its performance, which is the spatiality inherent in its argument and cross-references.  Metaphorically the shape it performs may rather be considered a spiral, circling around again and againto enrich and enlarge the dimensions of the various frameworks it discusses.  From absolute to relative to relational to responsive to recursive spaces, it seeks to explore the connections between textual and physical spaces, providing heuristics and provocations that I hope will be useful to scholars in the humanities as we grapple with spatial issues in these stressful times.