Genius Loci: Session 1
Writer and senior editor of Cabinet magazine
Artist exhibiting in No Country: Contemporary Art for South and Southeast Asia
Assistant Professor of the History of Science at Yale University; radical cartographer
Writer; author of London Calling: How Black and Asian Writers Imagined a City
I recently returned from a trip to Japan. It was the first time I had been there for more than a few days, and I was fortunate enough to spend a week in Kyoto, which was the capital of the country for a millennium prior to the relocation of the Imperial household to Tokyo in the mid-19th century. I had already begun thinking about the Forum, and so was feeling particularly sensitive to the unique qualities of place as constructed in a culture with which I was largely unfamiliar—just as I was to the tendencies toward exoticization that inevitably complicate the touristic gaze.
The latter makes me leery of easy generalizations, but it is fair to say I think that the city is an extraordinary case study in the coextension of very different kinds of placedness, and the historical contingencies that produce them. Spared at the last minute from the atomic bomb by the intervention of Truman’s Secretary of War, Henry Stimson (who had spent his honeymoon in the city), Kyoto’s temples and gardens irrupt into the city’s contemporary fabric of technologized capital from every direction.
Keeping in mind this striking example of a site’s capacity to exhibit a kind of internal discontinuity, I thought it might be interesting to start our conversation by considering the term the Guggenheim has chosen for its title, genius loci. As you’ll all no doubt know, in contemporary usage, the phrase means “spirit of the place.” It’s an evocative concept to be sure, but also an elusive one, and I wonder if its very slipperiness might not provide a productive entry point into our larger discussion.
Although its historical and etymological roots point to the idea of a deity that governed a given place—spirit in the sense of a divine guardian—even from its earliest usage, the term and the concept for which it stood seem to already have contained within them the almost direct inversion of this tutelary formulation. And so the “spirit” of a place—or indeed of a person, an animal, or a thing—was not simply some externalized custodial power, but also somehow that surplus, that innate spark of what might be called the numinous, which was understood to be native to the stuff that makes up the world.
Are our contemporary notions of place not still in some sense characterized by this tension between top-down and bottom-up structural modelings, just as they still contain some secularized residue of these more formally spiritual imaginaries? I think we are all well aware of the complex of power relations (economic, political, cultural, and more) that “preside” over what Henri Lefebvre called “the production of space.” Yet there’s something tantalizing about the way that what can seem to be superficially anachronistic notions mix with, trouble, and productively deform the more familiarly contemporary readings of space/place (and perhaps we will return to this distinction to see if it is one with or without a difference—think of the contrasts Heidegger draws between building and dwelling).
How can we as supposedly globalized citizens remain alert to such local ambiguities—to the multivalent, unstable poetics of place—without losing sight of the on-the-ground realities that act to preserve or efface them?
I’ve been travelling a bit too. Cathedral towns and Tory suburbs, edgelands and metropolises, alleyways and vistas, airports and airports and airports. Perhaps I was jetlagged and weary, too illiterate to see signs and wonders, too old and era-imprisoned to be able to decipher any secret codes. Mostly on my wanderings I kept encountering mildly modified versions of the same landscape: men and women—pre-teens and retirees—staring at screens, jabbing buttons. Cellphones, Blackberries, i-Pads, e-readers. Everyone’s scrolling, fast-forwarding, speed-dialing. Everyone’s busy and intent—except when they’re not: they toss off text messages like people flick cigarette ash or chuck chewed gum onto sidewalks; their eyes move across wads of pixel-script with listless attentiveness.
I’m exaggerating for sure. I’m sort of not.
The distinction between the “top-down” view and “bottom-up” experience is a helpful way of thinking about how we inhabit the world, but I likewise wonder whether we might be able to understand space without imposing this kind of sharp dichotomy. When I think about Lefebvre—especially his separation of the “representations of space” from “spatial practice”—I immediately think about the social structure of 1960s France, with the high-modernist technocrat and the organized worker both struggling to shape the city’s power relations. The technocrats have the tools of design, while the workers have the spatial praxis of their everyday lives. Today we can still see similar social divides (perhaps even more strongly than before), but I don’t think that place-making can be so easily explained as a function of social structure alone. Instead of forcing a split between representation and experience, what seems crucial to me are habits of spatial imagination that are much more hybrid—a combination of doing and thinking.
In particular, I think about Alfred Korzybski’s famous aphorism from 1931: “The map is not the territory.” As a reminder that representations can only ever be partial, it’s hard to disagree. But more recently, critical theorists of cartography have argued that “maps are territories” after all, since they actively construct space and change our lived experience. For example, just imagine that city maps did not show parks. Not only would this change our understanding—our top-down view—it would also change our daily habits. Maps, in other words, don’t change space the way that a planner’s drawings might change the city—say, by imposing the idealized vision of a watercolor streetscape onto the complexity of contemporary urban life. Instead, maps and space are produced at the same time; we might even say that they produce each other. (The map is not the territory but, at the same time, it is.) And as much as we might want to focus on our immanent experience of space alone—the idea, as Lefebvre put it, that “spatial practice is lived directly before it is conceptualized”—the simple truth is that we live in a mapped world.
Isn’t there perhaps a certain kind of essentialism at play in this effort to evoke “a” spirit of place? Is it an exercise in nostalgia? Is there something about this “spirit” that is firmly affixed to certain combinations of time and space? I don’t mean to sound cynical, but these are questions I grapple with in the way I approach my own city, Karachi, the spirit of which (at least as I remember it) has lately gone into hiding, displaced by some new spirit that I can’t yet comprehend.
Some of my early video works deal with the politics of the partitioning of India and Pakistan. In these, I play with ironies inherent to the separating of a people along religious—and, consequently, nationalistic—lines. These people are products of the same locality, and their histories are inextricably enmeshed. To me, to this day there is something quite phenomenal about the fact that people from all across the vast swathes of land that are North India and Pakistan will all react identically to the first monsoon rain on a hot summer’s day, emoting in unison about the special fragrance of freshly dampened earth. Funnily enough, this first summer rain becomes literally the most “bottom-up” experience imaginable, one that defines, for a finite interval, the psychological and physical spirit of a city.
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