History of Place and Space: Michael Curry's article

Curry, Michael R. "Discursive Displacement and the Seminal Ambiguity of Space and Place." Lievrouw, Leah & Sonia Livingstone, eds. The Handbook of New Media: Social Shaping and Consequences of ICT. London: Sage Publications, 2002: 502-517. http://baja.sscnet.ucla.edu/~curry/Curry_Disc_Disp.pdf

For an extended history of place and space that covers similar ground, see Edward Casey, The Fate of Place: A Philosophical History. University of California Press, 1997.


Central concepts in Curry's article

Types of place: Topography, Chorography, Geography (2-7)

a.Topography: topos - Greek. (2-4) See Aristotle, Physics

Early on, topos referred to specific kinds of places, e.g., holy places. Curry talks mostly about place in this sense - places as full of representations and symbols. Places have significance, to the extent that the periploi, or accounts of travels, are really accounts of what is important in the culture.


Familiar places, then, are understood, while the stories about unfamiliar places can be bizarre. See, for example, Pliny's "
monstrous races"


Later (with Aristotle), place becomes a container. There are "natural" places, to which everything strives and where things are at rest (Curry mentions this when he talks about geography). Place is also like a "skin", which wraps itself around an object, and is not part of the object. When the object moves, the "skin" stays and wraps itself around something else.

b. Chorography: choros/khoros (5-6) See Plato, Timaeus

Choros is sometimes translated as "space", and other times as "region". Curry argues that it designates an administrative region, the way we might think of a province.


Think as well of the "prairies" in Canada or the "South" in the US. Not politically defined places, nor even completely geographically defined places (there are flat places that might not be considered prairies, and places which are not flat which might be).


Others, though, have discussed Plato's idea of
khora as the space of possibilities.

c. Geography: geo (6-7) See Strabo, Geography; Ptolemy, The Elements of Geography; Aristotle, Physics

What then after all is place? ... We assume then:

1. Place is what contains that of which it is the place.

2. Place is no part of the thing.

3. The immediate place of a thing is neither less not greater than the thing.

4. Places can be left behind by the thing and is separable.

5. All place admits of the distinction of up and down, and each of the bodies is naturally carried to its appropriate place and rests there, and this makes the place either up or down.

Aristotle, Physics

Imagining the world in ancient times was an exercise in representing the periploi on a speculative scale. Here are some examples:


Space and Place After Ptolemy (8-12)

Curry argues that a shift happened, from imagining the world as a set of experienced places, to imagining it as abstract space. Curry charts the rise of the concept of abstract space, recognizing that it was not universally accepted.


Newton was the main promoter of the idea of abstract space. He tried to describe the "vacuum", empty space. It became a container which could be empty, or have contents. And, just as you can imagine an empty jar, you can imagine empty space.


Place, for Newton, comes after space:

But because the parts of [absolute] space cannot be seen, or distinguished from one another by our senses, therefore in their stead we use sensible measures of them. For from the positions and distances of things from any body considered as immovable, we define all places: and then with respect to such places, we estimate all motions, considering bodies as transferred from some of those places into others. And so, instead of absolute places and motions, we use relative ones; and that without any inconvenience in common affairs.

Newton, Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy I:8

Curry argues that in the early scientific era, the "universe of places" was replaced by a "universe of space", which had places only because we needed empirical things to work with. They were not the places of human significance that the Greeks were concerned with.


Regions, again (10-12)

Even though science moved away from place and toward space, that doesn't mean that people did the same. People still cared about where they were. But Curry argues that with the rise of technology, and the rise of the nation state, we get the rebirth of the region. These come into being not because people assert their sense of place, but because the nation state bureaucratized people. People are not so much em-placed, as neutral carriers of attributes.


This idea of the region is worth reflecting on. Consider the fact, in recent years, of nationalisms. Quebec, for instance, asserts itself as a region - a nation - with distinct identity. Canada, as a nation, periodically asserts itself as unique in the face of American cultural and economic dominance. In a more extreme fashion, the same could be said of the former Eastern block countries, particularly Serbia, Bosnia, etc.
What kind of place is a nation, especially one that people fight for in this manner?



Discursive Displacement (12-15)

Curry wants to maintain that there is a tension, when we talk about place, between the particular and the universal (he gets this from Nicholas Entrikin). Specifically, though, he thinks this is a feature of region (chorography) more than place (topography), and it has to do with technology.


First, what is this tension, exactly? Well, how do we think of regions? We think of them:

So what? Well, think about the nature of maps. You can have maps that just show you how to get from one place to another. Curry calls these "topographic" maps, but not in the sense that term is usually used (to represent the contours and land formations and elevations). This is topography in the ancient sense - maps that show the significant places, so you can get from point A to point B.


But in the US, Jefferson instituted a land survey, which purported to show the land "as it was", to fill up the spaces out there with who owned what. We start thinking of land as if "from above", or as if we can look down and see the nation in relation to other nations, out there, not really part of us.

The topographical moves toward the chorographic; the geographic moves toward the chorographic; and the chorographic moves toward both the geographic and the topographic. Or, places come to be treated like regions; space gets turned into region, and regions come to be treated like places, and like spaces. Or, relationally defined places become absolute spaces, while spaces come to be seen in relational terms, while in the case of regions, both may happen, and at once.

Michael Curry, 14

The result: We don't really know what a place is anymore, because we keep confusing it with region and space.


Space and Place Today (15-18)

So, now we are in a world of regions, layed out on a world map. We're in the US - that's a region, a country in the world. Is it a place? Many people suspect not, or rather, that it is many places. But we treat it like a place, like something that has meaning and unity.


But there are ways of getting out of the problem of not knowing just what a place is anymore. Curry talks about two different movements in the 20th century, which question our confusion about place. One he calls the
deconstructive, and the other is the constructive.


Deconstructive: Heidegger and Wittgenstein

These two basically question the idea that we can treat the world as an object. They point out that our maps are just representations. The US is not a place on a map, it is something that has or fails to have meaning to a group of people.


Constructive: Jane Jacobs, etc.

The constructive move here is to do what we are doing in this course - to try to figure out what it means to be in a place. Jacobs is one of the great theorists of the city. She did work on urban neighbourhoods, and pointed out that one needs to pay attention to the actual lives of people in designing a city.

A couple of useful links on this:


Topography, Chorography, Geography Revisited (18-20)

Curry surveys recent work on these three topics. He argues that there are three approaches to space and spatiality:


1. Works that draw on historical distinctions about space and place. This is where Curry places his own work.

2. High-modern works, which assume there is absolute space, and places are just locations within space.

3. A middle way, in which people try to understand new technologies in terms of topography, chorography, and geography. This work, he thinks, hasn't quite figured out the problems in treating place, region, and space as interchangeable.


So, we get discussions of "cyberspace" as if it is a real place. Or, we get the "global village" as a metaphor - the compression of space as if place is no longer significant.


What Curry really seems to want is the ability to recapture the meaningful places, and to be able to talk about them as something other than just locations on a map.