Genius Loci: Session 2
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 guess I’m not surprised to detect a bit of resistance in the panelists’ responses to the idea of genius loci, at least as it was figured (etymologically, historically) to begin our discussion. I share some of their skepticism, and hope that came through in my first post. The line between provocative ambiguity and dodgy imprecision is obviously a fine one, and the fact that the words spirit and place are at once pretty vague and pretty lofty seems to me only part of the problem.
In terms of going forward, I think we can all agree that what we might call our experience of emplacedness emerges from the intersection of our sensorium with that nexus of spatial, cultural, political, and historical conditions native to a particular location. One question to consider perhaps is why certain places seem more receptive (or resistant) to such readings. After all, even the blankly liminal spaces that Sukhdev so evocatively summons do not fully elude articulation: they are conjurable as such.
In some sense, the provocation of the title given to our discussion—even beyond the way it flirts perhaps uncomfortably closely with what might be thought of as the sacred—is precisely what Bani identifies as its tendency toward a certain kind of essentialism, its proposal of a kind of static, potentially ahistorical identity that might be too conveniently decoupled from specific conditions. But mustn’t even our ability to agree on the objective veracity of such specific conditions be called into question (pace her example of the communal experience of the damp earth after the first monsoon rains)? Don’t such assessments necessarily proceed from information only available to us already filtered through our own presumptions and prejudices?
The Korzybski adage Bill helpfully introduces seems particularly useful here: it has become so identified with mapping that it’s easy to overlook the fact that it’s not just a remark about cartography per se, but also was intended as a metaphor for perception and representation. The philosopher’s approach to understanding human neuro-evaluative processes emphasizes the ways in which language tends to paper over the profoundly subjective nature of experience. Perhaps place is like Korzybski’s rose:
If we say, “The rose is red,” we falsify everything we “know” . . . about our nervous systems and the structure of the empirical world. There is no “redness” in nature, only different wavelengths of radiation. Our reaction to those light waves is only our individual reaction. If one is a Daltonist, for example, he will see “green.” If one is color-blind, he will see “gray.”
Leaving aside the many questions around neurochemical models of sentience, what would it mean for a theory of place to grant a starting point of such thoroughgoing and intrinsic individual bias? Does a reckoning with our own perceptual solitude—billions and billions of subjectivities, each of us operating solely within our own personal umwelt—argue for qualities of place that are definitionally atomized and perhaps fundamentally inexpressible in a way that can entice consensus? And what of the nostalgia Bani’s comments refer to and Sukhdev’s in some sense enact? In an increasingly dematerialized world of communication and capital circulation, is a longing for places that are “knowable”—for back-in-the-day “heres” that are stable and definable—an expression of a loss of individual contact with a given place’s signs and wonders, or of doubt over the possibility of articulating such encounters in a meaningful way for a group larger than one’s own self?
Both Bani and Jeff talk about nostalgia in relation to place. Of course, demagogues and sectarians can use nostalgia to all sorts of dire ends. But for most people—perhaps the “bottom-up” multitudes Bill mentions—nostalgia is not very different from political or historiographical critique. It may be regressive or reactionary, but it doesn’t have to be. It may well be a reaction to many of the bad things that deform or wreck individuals’ relationships to the places in which they live: the shrinkage of public space and the erasure of allotments, parks, and children’s playgrounds; the colonization of the visual realm by billboards and one-per-center developments; the branding of urinals and park benches by viral marketers; deforestation, loss of land rights, and catastrophic rezonings. A miserable list.
I suppose, going back to my initial comments, I especially abhor the privatization of air itself into micro-packets of Wi-Fi. Who can enumerate the psychic pollution caused by techtopians? These days when I look at the sky, I no longer think of dreams and hopes and Wordsworthian tomorrows; I mostly stare at the clouds and have woozy, incoherent thoughts about data storage . . .
Rather than responding directly to the question of whether place is inherently personal—or perhaps solipsistic, or even hopelessly relativist—I want to zoom out slightly and sketch what I see as the implicit idea of place that has been informing our comments so far. Without trying to propose any precise definition, here are four characteristics that might comprise the “nostalgic” ideal of place in our contemporary moment:
1. Place is secular and unenchanted—or at least, it’s a result of human activity rather than supernatural essence.
I’m glad to move on from attempts at conjuring up a genius loci. The post-rain jubilation experienced in a certain part of South Asia that I described was an instance of how certain combinations of geographic location and climactic occurrence can evoke similar reactions across a city or rural area, a wealthy neighborhood or an urban slum. The personal umwelt that Jeffrey mentions as a kind of deep subjectivity that could potentially act as the primary filter through which one sees is, surely, deeply embedded within many other collective selves, and would take a lot of sifting to extricate. The selves of class, age, gender, ethnicity, and nationality largely color one’s perceptions. And insofar as we share these selves with others—in some permutation and combination—our experiences are not inexpressible. That level of isolation of the self is actually a very haunting possibility.
Reading William’s intriguing comments about “bottom up” mapping, the main thought I had was about the absence of maps in my spatial conceptualization of Karachi, and the lateral imagination of space that exists in its stead. I was at least 19 before I saw a map of the city I grew up in. Neighborhoods that were actually quite small had felt bigger in my memory, because they were heavily congested and took a long time to traverse by car. I thought more in terms of left, right, and straight ahead, and never used north, south, east or west—that was always a bit of a grey area.
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