Spatial Anthropology: Excursions in Liminal Space

Spatial Anthropology: Excursions in Liminal Space

by Les Roberts


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781786606372
Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
Publication date: 06/20/2018
Series: Place, Memory, Affect Series
Pages: 318
Product dimensions: 6.23(w) x 9.34(h) x 0.97(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Les Roberts is Senior Lecturer in Cultural and Media Studies at the University of Liverpool, UK.

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Spatial Anthropology

An Introduction

Space, vast space, is the friend of being.

– Gaston Bachelard, 1969

'Spatial anthropology', according to the architectural historian Jinnai Hidenobu, is an 'odd-sounding phrase' (1995: xi). Writing in the early 1990s, and pitching his ideas to a readership comprised, in the main, of architects and urbanists, Hidenobu's caution with regard to his coinage of the phrase is perhaps understandable. After all, were it part of the standard lexicon of his urban-architectural cohort, a method that consisted of 'placing oneself within the urban space of contemporary Tokyo, replete with the meanings and memories that are the accumulation of human activities' would be taken as read. Indeed, Hidenobu's desire to 'grasp Tokyo from a new perspective'(xi, emphasis added) alludes both to a recognition of the apparent novelty of the approach he was bringing to the study of the city and to the very tactile and 'hands-on' nature of what was, crucially, an embodied mode of urban spatial enquiry. For Hidenobu, the placing of the researcher, bodily and materially, within the urban landscape was a sufficient enough factor to lend an important anthropological dimension to the proceedings. And in this, of course, he was right. But at the same time, the fact that he felt this needed saying at all does raise the question as to why an 'anthropological' perspective to the study of the historic urban environment did – or does – seem novel in the first place.

If we were to pursue such a question, it is not the dearth of anthropologically oriented insights or methods that we would find ourselves running up against but the lack of a sufficiently capacious field of practice whereby such insights or methods are permitted to roam unencumbered by disciplinary boundaries. Taking this at face value, does that, one might ask, make spatial anthropology, by comparison, a 'free-range' rather than 'battery' mode of interdisciplinary scholarship? A corrective response to a perceived sense of enclosure? However suggestive a 'cage-like' production of urban spatial knowledge might seem in the context of the progressively marketised and bureaucratic higher education system, it is perhaps more accurate to speak of a relative porosity of thinking and practice that is not always in sync with the structures and disciplinary frameworks through which these thoughts and practices are having to be channelled. It is this mismatch between dispositional practice and disciplinary branding that makes a phrase such as 'spatial anthropology' potentially sound odd in some quarters. It is not that scholars are not already engaged in something to which the label 'spatial anthropology' might productively (if not of necessity) be attached. But rather that they are.


For introductory purposes, we could, then, after the fashion of Hidenobu, offer a rudimentary definition of spatial anthropology as the placing of oneself, critically and reflexively, within the space of contemporary landscapes (urban or otherwise), replete with the meanings and memories that are the accumulation of human activities. Importantly, such a definition, however broad-brushed by way of initial exposition, does not presuppose a discursive affiliation to (or dialogic relationship with) anthropology or the anthropologist in a strict disciplinary sense. Spatial anthropology, in other words, is not merely analogous to something we might alternatively choose to label 'the anthropology of space'. Insofar as the brief of the latter ranges across broadly epistemological terrain, the former speaks to orientations that are more explicitly performative in their intent and scope. As with Hidenobu's desire to grasp the city in which he was at the same time placing himself, it is the doingness that is key here; the spatial intentionality of a practice that propels self and body into what Merleau-Ponty (1968: 248) evocatively describes as 'the flesh of the world'.

The doingness of space. This, I concede, requires considerably more unpacking before we can begin to get a firmer sense of what it is that binds together the ideas and interventions that are explored throughout these chapters. Likewise: the intentionality of space. If pressing the self and body into the everyday flesh of the world is what we are concerning ourselves with, then what is it that distinguishes this – as a method, practice, or critical orientation – from what is routinely rehearsed as part of social lives that are lived and practised spatially? This is a question that in part cuts across some of the formative methodological modalities at play in Spatial Anthropology, not least those that fall under the banner of 'autoethnography'. In many ways the 'spaces' explored herein are distinctly unremarkable: humdrum, prosaic, impressionistically fleeting, vapourous, perhaps even spectral. There is nothing that marks them out for special attention other than that to which they owe their form. And what it is that confers on them form is not something that is easily represented, delineated or 'mapped'. But then that is the point. A tacit recognition that what we understand as 'spatial', by definition, cannot (or should not) be easily disentangled from what we understand as 'anthropological'. The mundanity of everyday spaces – their 'ordinary' affectivity (Stewart 2007) – is what makes them so compelling, but no less elusive for that. How else to get to grips with our spatial worlds than to plunge headlong into them? After all, the flesh of the world is only as 'fleshy' as the bodies immersed in it.

As a phrase, therefore, 'spatial anthropology', whether odd-sounding or not, performs better if not seen as rigidly shackled to a formalised disciplinary framework or as an activity that comes with an attendant suite of methodological practices (which are then prescriptively observed by a spatial anthropologist). What it less rigidly points to is a dispositional orientation towards an idea and practice of space that recognises, by default, its pliable, shape-shifting and pluridimensional form. Spatiality as a condition and affect. Spatiality as a humanism, to misquote Sartre. Spatiality as a posthumanism, even, when considered in response to a digital phenomenology and 'new materialist' ontology (Coole and Frost 2010) where the self is increasingly seen as 'plugged in' to mediascapes and technoscapes that are themselves inhabited (and inhabitable) 'worlds'. Spatiality as a material and immaterial facet of our everyday being-in-the-world.

Outside of my own appropriation of the phrase in recent years (as an approximation of a descriptor that seems to have gradually stuck), to date the only concerted attempt to work it into something that more or less coheres is that sketched out in Hidenobu's book on Tokyo. This was the first time I chanced upon the phrase (as an anthropology undergraduate in the mid-to-late 1990s) and while Hidenobu does not do much in the way of wider theoretical or methodological exposition, what his book does do is set up some useful jumping-off points that allow us to initiate a process by which we can think through more carefully the relationship between questions of space and spatiality and those that stem from a more anthropological disposition.

A core part of Hidenobu's project is a search for what could best be described as the city-within-the-city. Strip away the architectural and geographical detail that gives the book its substance (Tokyo) and what we are left with is a performative response to a city perceived to be holding back in some way, an urban landscape that has lost some of its affective and symbolic layers of meaning beneath the carapace of modernity. The intentionality of urban spatial practice that we glean from the book is a desire to see beyond the surface form of the modern city and to gain some insight into the anthropological structures that have marked key points (spaces) and moments (temporalities) in the city's becoming. The city-in-the-city which so engages Hidenobu is Edo-Tokyo, Edo being the former name of modern-day Tokyo before the Meiji Restoration and the collapse of the Tokugawa government in 1868. A key objective was therefore to try to re-glimpse contemporary Tokyo through the cartographic gauze of nineteenth-century Edo:

Suppose we pick up a city map from the Edo period and set out on a walk in today's Tokyo. Late Tokugawa drawings depicting each of the city's districts provide a perfect view of the structure of Edo. On a modern map, crammed with all manner of information, this structure completely escapes our attention. But on the older one, the framework of the city of Tokyo emerges vividly from underneath the jumbled surface created by the buildings and elevated highways of the modern city. It is an uncanny experience to walk along streets with the fresh perspective that such maps provide. (Hidenobu 1995: 8)

From an urban cultural studies or urban anthropological perspective, what is particularly striking about Tokyo: A Spatial Anthropology is its almost hermetic insulation from a wider academic discourse on spatiality and urbanism. While this is unquestionably a serious weakness in terms of the book's capacity to meaningfully engage a further-flung audience grappling with themes and concerns it touches on, at the same time, stripped down and unburdened by cumbersome theoretical baggage, it is able to offer an instructive lens through which to observe a praxis at play. It is not so much what Hidenobu is 'mapping' that is of note (although for those with a specific interest in Tokyo's urban landscape it has much to offer). What is revealing about the book is what it tells us about Hidenobu's intuitional approach to his object of study and a habitus of place and space (Hillier and Rooksby 2005) that is brought critically into play. In short, what the book gives us a sense of – however pared down this might be conceptually – is spatial anthropology as a practical orientation towards the lived and representational spaces of cities.

For a start, Hidenobu makes much of the idea of 'reading' the city. Nothing too remarkable about this of course when considered alongside an already well-established literature on urban semiotics and the city-as-text (cf Barthes 1997; Lynch 1960, Certeau 1984, for example). But interesting nonetheless in what it reveals of the way the author goes about the task of making the landscapes of Tokyo legible – a functional prerequisite of the urban semiotician. 'Reading the city', Hidenobu remarks, entails 'walking the streets and experiencing firsthand the topography and the historical development of land-use patterns' (1995: 10). Teasing out and identifying 'an established grammar' (10) is a process of seeking consonance between the cartographic spaces of Edo and the topography experienced 'firsthand' in the simple act of walking. This spatially intertextual mode of urban grammatology consists of not so much a translation (ie movement from one 'text' to the legibility of another) as a performance. The Edo maps are both woven into the streetscapes of modern Tokyo in the ambulant passage of the pedestrian and, at the same time, culled from the opaque and otherwise illegible fabric of the chaotic and densely compacted urban environment through which he moves. Edo is rehearsed, performed, willed into view. In the process, Tokyo is envisioned anew.

No less suggestive in this respect are Hidenobu's references to the 'personality' of the city (10). He wants to get to know it in ways that transcend mere orientation and cognitive legibility. Something of the city's character is what he is at pains to unmask. That said, could it be that the city is being made to don rather than remove a mask? A persona ascribed to cityscapes that are deemed a little alienating and semiotically unyielding? A city perceived as characterless, thus in want of an 'authentically' expressive face? Is this not a projection of Hidenobu's idealised Tokyo? An exercise in salvage vernacularism by an architect seeking to exorcise the disenchantments of a misguided modernism (or, worse, postmodernism)?

We do get a sense of this from time to time. Laments over the 'defeat of the human elements of the city' by the 'incessant pursuit of functionality' (131), or handwringing over a cityscape that 'has been reduced to one of dreary, decontextualized uniformity' (214) provide a clear indication of the restorative function that underwrites Hidenobu's premodern urban nostalgia (Boym 2001). What particularly shines through though is the warm luminosity of spaces that reflect the human vitality and 'structure[s] of meaning' (Hidenobu 1995: 16) that endow them with anthropological value. This is well illustrated in a chapter that re-traces the landscapes of low-city Edo and the concentrations of city life that clustered around the rivers and waterways, rewarding it with the status of a 'city of water' (an historic characterisation that has long-since been buried by a century or more of urban development). Alongside Edo maps, Hidenobu draws on the visual evidence found in paintings and wood engravings (such as landscapes and waterfront vistas by, amongst others, the ukiyo-e painters Hiroshige and Hokusai). The picture that is painted of the low city is of a clamorous hive of human activity: waterway traffic, merchant trade, fish markets, temples and shrines, street theatre, puppet plays, Kabuki, teahouses and restaurants, pleasure quarters, brothels and other 'ludic' spaces (91). The chapter's titular reference to the 'cosmology' of a city of water lends the discussion a deeply symbolic, sacral and mythopoeic inflection; again, a burrowing beyond the surface materiality of the urban landscape to give form to the anthropological layers of meaning that make the city what it is (or was) as a lived space.

Similarly, the idea of a sensory texture to the landscapes of the low city catches Hidenobu's anthropological eye. In his description of a lively waterside theatre district called Kobiki-chö, the subject of an 1834 ukiyo-e painting, the architectural historian imagines what the experience of visiting this location – this 'performative space', as he describes it – may have felt like for the theatre-goers and pleasure-seekers:

We see crowds crossing the bridge on their way to the theatre. This movement across space – of being drawn through the water by boat or across the bridge on foot – to the entertainment district with its forest of banners and booming drum, must have added to the anticipation of the eager playgoers. Here, nearly all the human senses – sight, sound, touch, and taste – came into play. (98)

In his afterword to the book, Hidenobu, reiterating the message as to why a cultural, historical and anthropological approach to urban-architectural practice is of importance, adds that, 'Happily, interest among foreigners in Tokyo's urban space is also on the rise' (220). This final, almost throwaway remark highlights a no less significant focus of study for those embarked on a spatial anthropology of urban landscapes: that of their touristic consumption. Emphasis placed on ludic and performance spaces, the sensory and emotional geographies of cities, sites that mark the sacred and profane – these all feed into perspectives that circle around forms of symbolic consumption and the affective pull of landscapes for tourists, psychogeographers, and other urban wayfarers (Roberts and Andrews 2013). Had he been writing in the 2010s rather than 1990s the chances are that Hidenobu, despite his architectural proclivities, would have found himself having to engage more actively with issues of heritage tourism, city branding, culture-led urban regeneration initiatives and a whole host of other concerns that have since coalesced with vigour around the historic urban environment and attempts to harness the economic utility of Culture (Zukin 1995; Miles 2007; Yudice 2003; Stevenson 2013).


Excerpted from "Spatial Anthropology"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Les Roberts.
Excerpted by permission of Rowman & Littlefield International, Ltd..
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Table of Contents

Preface: in search of the north-west passage / Part I – SPACINGS / 1. Spatial anthropology / 2. Of spaces in-between / Part 2 – SOUNDINGS/3. Castaway / 4. Stalker / Part 3–GHOSTINGS / 5. Heterotopolis / 6. Songlines / 7. Necrogeography / Part 4 – EARTHINGS / 8.Reclamation / 9. Utopos/ Afterword: killing space | giving life to space

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