From Vertical Spatiality to Horizontal Spatiality

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Historical overview by David Ronfeldt:

"Space remains a grand concept that rarely appears explicitly in political analysis. The study of social space and people’s perceptions of it has mainly arisen in writings of political philosophy (Emmanuel Kant, Henri Bergson), child development psychology (Jean Piaget), sociology of knowledge (Georges Gurvitch), and geography (which may be defined as the study of space and spatial relationships).

But while space is not an easy term for political theorists to use, Sheldon Wolin’s Politics and Vision (1960, pp. 16-17) points out correctly that,

“By a variety of means, a society seeks to structure its space: by systems of rights and duties, class and social distinctions, legal and extralegal restraints and inhibitions, favors and punishments, permissions and taboos. These arrangements serve to mark out paths along which human motions can proceed harmlessly or beneficially. . . . [P]olitical space becomes a problem when human energies cannot be controlled by existing arrangements.”

Long before the details became so elaborate, man’s main spatial orientations were primarily vertical, especially in religious, philosophical, and political matters where the direction up meant sacred and powerful. Indeed, across the ages the vertical up/down orientation has exhibited a much pull stronger than left/right or front/back. Thus J. A. Laponce’s Left and Right: The Topography of Political Perceptions (1981, p. 70) points out that,

“[T]he vertical is, par excellence, the dimension that structures and orders, that which tolerates least disturbance, that which contains most of our invariant real knowledge about spatial location.” In keeping with this tendency, Mircea Eliade’s The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion (1959) relates how primitive and archaic people who were religious yearned to create sacred spaces, walled off from chaos and profanity, that represented “the center of the Cosmos” and stood on vertical axes linking heaven, earth, and the underworld. Medieval thinkers too looked mainly upward and downward, to heaven and hell, while drawing sharp distinctions between physical space and spiritual space.

Then, between the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries, notes Lewis Mumford’s Technics and Civilization (1963, p. 20), “a revolutionary change in the conception of space took place in Western Europe. Space as a hierarchy of values was replaced by space as a system of magnitudes.” Thus began a new interest in horizontal orientations, which showed up in matters ranging from painting and mapmaking, to military technology (e.g., cross-bows as stand-off weapons), and the lateral spread of the enterprising workshop.

Horizontal political discriminations took hold later. According to Laponce (1981, p. 10), the major shift occurred with the French Revolution:

“Left/right entered the vocabulary of politics at the end of the eighteenth century during the French Revolution. As befits an egalitarian revolution the new horizontal dimension sought to replace the traditional vertical ordering used until then to relate the subject to his priest, his king, and his divinity.”

But vertical and horizontal orientations could not be fully separated. The persistent “dominance of up/down over the other spatial orderings and the greater valuing of what is high over what is low” (p. 69) meant that left became associated with down, and right with up. A century later, according to Stephen Kern’s The Culture of Time and Space: 1880-1918 (1983), technological innovations — the telegraph, telephone, wireless radio, and the airplane — caused further shifts in peoples’ perceptions of social space, bringing a new round in “the leveling of traditional hierarchies” and “a general cultural challenge to all outmoded hierarchies” (p. 315).

Vertical and horizontal distinctions have thus played strong roles in the history of peoples’ conceptions of space. But other configurations and dynamics are important as well. For people whose primary orientation is to family, clan, and tribe, a key spatial metaphor is the circle. David Pryce-Jone’s The Closed Circle: An Interpretation of the Arabs (1989) pushes this point to its limits. Initially, the rise of the nation-state, capitalism, and “modernity” involved the idea of expanding outward from a controlling center, although today the spread of modernity is viewed less in terms of a core penetrating a periphery, and more as a matter of connecting the global and the local while avoiding fragmentation (Friedland and Boden, 1994, pp. 9ff.). Lately, for many information-age social activists and business actors, the key spatial design is the loose, sprawling, non-hierarchical network (see Arquilla and Ronfeldt, 2001). Meanwhile, the emergence of cyberspace has created a “virtual world” separate from the “real world.” Margaret Wertheim’s The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace: A History of Space from Dante to the Internet (1999) finds this spells a revival of the Medieval distinction between spiritual and physical spaces.

Nowadays, many of the thinkers most taken with writing explicitly about space and place are social theorists who are categorized as postmodernists and critical social theorists. Their reference points include Gaston Bachelard, Henri Lefebvre, Michel Foucault, and Edward Soja. One key theme, identified mainly with Lefebvre’s The Production of Space (1991), is that producing something — be it a religion, an ideology, a new technology, or just a good story — creates space. A recent theme is that seeing things in terms of space has become more important, or at least as important, as seeing things in terms of time.

The most famous (infamous) statement comes from Michel Foucault (1986, p. 24):

“The present epoch will perhaps be above all the epoch of space. We are in the epoch of simultaneity; we are in the epoch of juxtaposition, the epoch of the near and far, of the side-by-side, of the dispersed. We are at a moment, I believe, when our experience of the world is less that of a long life developing through time than that of a network that connects points and intersections with its own skein.”

This tendentious view overplays “the prominence of space” and “the distinction between Time and Space,” says Jon May and Nigel Thrift’s TimeSpace (2001, p. 1). Yet, some of today’s most serious social theorists — like Anthony Giddens (e.g., 1984) and Manuel Castells (e.g., 1996) — are devoting more attention than ever to spatial (as well as temporal) factors. And this is leading to insights. For example, past theorists saw space primarily in terms of the actors, objects, and structures comprising it, and secondarily in terms of the connections and flows among them. But now, as Manuel Castells’ The Rise of the Network Society (1996) observes, this ordering should be reversed. The information revolution, globalization, dense financial flows, and the rise of internetted global cities mean we should view the world in terms of “a new spatial logic that I label space of flows. I shall oppose to such logic the historically rooted spatial organization of our common experience: the space of places. . . . [T]he space of flows . . . is becoming the dominant spatial manifestation of power and function in our societies.” (p. 378, ital. in orig.)

But how exactly should an analyst proceed to study people’s orientations to social space? What attributes and dimensions are important? Rather than focus on space per se, social-science studies of perception and behavior refer instead to the identity of the actors, the definition of the situation, the nature of the environment, the context of the scenario, and/or the structure of the system — terms that implicitly concern social space and an actor’s place and possibilities in it. A few explicit methodological notions have been fielded, notably in the 1960s and 1970s: notably, Hall’s “proxemics” (1966), Bachelard’s “topoanalysis” (1964), and Lefebvre’s “spatiology” (1991). In The Hidden Dimension (1966), Hall urges that proxemics be used for cross-cultural analyses of all “interrelated observations and theories of man’s use of space” (p. 101). Lefebvre (1991) proposes that spatiology (or “spatio-analysis”) focus on the production and uses of not only social but also physical and mental spaces. But these notions have yielded only passing references and footnotes. At times, “cognitive mapping” (see Downs and Stea, 1973, 1977) gained greater favor as a preferred way for anthropologists, psychologists, geographers, and urban planners to study spatial orientations — but this methodology too has had it ups and downs and not spread far.

In sum, the history of man’s spatial orientations is rich and varied — much more so than I discuss here. But the literature offers no preferred methods of analysis. In fact, most writers about social space do not attend to identifying well exactly what are the key dimensions." (