Symbolic and Structural Approaches to Place

Michel de Certeau

Main Source: de Certeau, Michel. The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1984, 2002.

I am distinguishing here place from space. The first . . . can be understood as a kind of locus, specifically as a plane which is "the order [of whatever kind] in accord with which elements are distributed in relationship of coexistence" (de Certeau 1984: 117). On the other hand, space is rather a geography constituted by dynamic elements which meet, intersect, unite, cross each other, or diverge. As Michel de Certeau put it, "Space occurs as the effect produced by the operations that orient it, situate it, temporalize it, and make it function in a polyvalent unity of conflictual programs or contractual proximities. (1984: 117).


To expand de Certeau's illustrations, I would say: As a street is a place that a walker transforms into an active space, or as a text is a locus of organized signs obeying the logic of a proper place that every reader can change into an intellectual or aesthetic space of learning and enjoyment, so the "object" of an anthropological curiosity (a culture, its institutions, rituals, or mythical narratives) constitutes a place with its proper rules that the anthropologist's activity and interpretation transform into a new space. This new product is a "
practiced place," something which is different and, in any case, could hardly claim to compare its dynamics with what de Certeau called "the law of the ‘proper' which rules in the place" (1984: 117).

Valentin Mudimbe, "Anthropology and Marxist Discourse" in Parables and Fables, 169


At the outset, I shall make a distinction between space (espace) and place (lieu) that delimits a field. A place (lieu) is the order (of whatever kind) in accord with which elements are distributed in relationships of coexistence...The law of the "proper" rules in the place: the elements taken into consideration are beside one another, each situated in its own "proper" and distinct location, a location it defines. A place is thus an instantaneous configuration of positions. It implies an indication of stability.

A space exists when one takes into consideration vectors of direction, velocities, and time variables. Thus space is composed of intersections of mobile elements...Space occurs as the effect produced by the operations that orient it, situate it, temporalize it, and make it function in a polyvalent unity of conflictual programs or contractual proximities.

Space is a practiced place.

Michel de Certeau,
The Practice of Everyday Life

See de Certeau's "Spatial Stories" in The Practice of Everyday Life


Michel de Certeau argues that "space is a practiced place". What does this mean?


It refers to the kinds of stories we tell about "where" "Stories thus carry out a labor that constantly transforms places into spaces or spaces into places." (118)

The Function of Stories in Establishing Place and Space

Tours and Maps

If we are trying to describe where we are, we might give a story which is like a map. It deals with "objective" markers - "the girls' room is next to the kitchen." Or, we might give a story which is like a tour: "You turn right and come into the living room."

A tour is different from a map in that it involves action. It suggests a life lived meaningfully in a place. A tour tells us of space, in de Certeau's sense, while a map tells us of place.

Marking Out Boundaries

Stories also mark out boundaries. They "shed light on the formation of myths, since they also have the function of founding and articulating spaces." (122-123) What does this mean? It means that stories establish space by narrating where and how boundaries exist, and what it means to be in and out, or here and there. How?


1.
By creating a theatre of actions: This means that space is established, or founded, in the sense that we figure out what is legitimate to do and what isn't. Take any example of a recognized space, for example, the classroom. Certain actions are authorized there, and others aren't. Why? Because we have, in effect, told a story about this kind of space.


And there are spaces of transgression. One sexual fantasy of many people is to have sex in a place where it is not "supposed" to happen - either a room of the house other than the bedroom, or a public place. These places mean something because of the stories we have told about them, and transgressing them is dangerous.


2.
Frontiers and Bridges: These establish a (legitimate) space and its (alien) exteriority. Home and not-home. There are plenty of stories about what happens in the "other" space, stretching back to ancient times. Frontiers and bridges are both at the borders of the here and the not-here, and they address what happens there.


Certeau quotes a poem:

One time there was a picket fence
With space to gaze from hence to thence.
An architect who saw this sight
Approached it suddenly one night
Removed the spaces from the fence
And built of them a residence
The senate had to intervene
The architect, however, flew
To Afri- or Americoo.

What's the point? De Certeau is interested in the "in between" space. The fence is in-between - it separates one property from another, one form of life (and one space) from another. The fence allowed one to see through (that is, allowed interactions and exchanges) The architect appropriates this "in-between" space, and makes it into a place. Essentially, he tries to solidify the place (perhaps even to market that free-flowing exchange as a commodity). What the architect hasn't realized is that the fence creates the place, both in being a barrier and in being porous.


What counts as a frontier? Why does a river often serve as a border? There is nothing "natural" about that border - yet, we tell stories that make that border make sense. Why aren't all borders like Saskatchewan's, perfectly straight lines? But there is nothing natural about that either. What story makes sense out of borders that are straight?


For that matter, why do borders usually run along coastlines? What stories are we telling so that that makes sense?

Recall that Heidegger was also interested in rivers and bridges. For him, they were about dwelling, the forms of life that were made possible by the building of a bridge over a river, and not turning it into "standing reserve" by making a dam. De Certeau wants to look at the details of the interaction that takes place. Whereas Heidegger thinks that human existence will be shown forth in dwelling, de Certeau thinks that human possibilities are made available there.