Lost in place? On the virtues and vices of Edward Casey's anti-modernism.

Author:Brockelman, Thomas
  1. Introductory

    1.0 To raise the question of place today is to return to the issue of modernity. (1) While one can certainly imagine all sorts of reasons why philosophers have traditionally busied themselves with investigation of place and its cognates (locality, site, etc.), in the past two centuries to embrace place has meant to resist the "abstract" character of modern life. Investigation of the place world almost invariably derives from a certain kind of advocacy: that is, the philosopher, sociologist, anthropologist or geographer reflects in order to ally herself with place--as opposed to space or time. Under the banner of topos, a battle is fought, the battle against the leveling and universalizing tendencies of modern life. And this makes sense given that historical development in the early modern arts and sciences which led to the positing of infinite and homogeneous space/time as axes for natural events and human experience. To be modern is to give up the "sense of place" associated with the late medieval hierarchical world in favor of a space and time conceived to be populated by infinite numbers of entirely exchangeable loci. Defending the concrete and particular as opposed to the abstract and general of this Newtonian universe, the place-thinker becomes a foot soldier in the army of the anti-modern.

    But why should place in particular provide an emblem for this struggle? After all, the history of thought has suggested a number of alternative philosophical "sites" for resistance to the leveling effects of modernization--particularity, the sensuous, "the thing," the person and the id to name but a few. Place, however, plays a bit differently than do the other candidates; for it uniquely engages the problematics of knowledge and critique. Place has something about it of a universal precondition for human experience. The pre-Socratic philosopher Archytas captured this sense when (as Simplicius reports it) he said that place "is the first of all things, since all existing things are either in place or not without place." (2) While places may indeed be particular, place itself, the concept of place, retains something of the universal, something of that which invites knowing.

    This relationship between place and its concept explains the peculiar attraction of place for anti-modern philosophers: it presents a phenomenon of enticing concreteness, but one that also promises philosophical access through its conceptual organization--an access markedly clearer than that offered by such philosophically recalcitrant entries as the "sensuous particular." But just for this reason, such access demands inquiry into that relationship between individual and concept assumed with "place," and with this imperative there appears on the horizon a set of themes which will be seen to profoundly trouble phenomenological inquiry into place. The very virtue of place for philosophical investigation of the concrete--that it mediates between concepts and instances or universals and particulars--also means that it opens the question as to the nature of this mediation.

  2. Reading Casey on Place

    2.0 The recent work of Edward S. Casey, two magisterial volumes of phenomenologically oriented observation of the "place world" and history of the concept of place, certainly is intended to belong within the tradition of place studies as rejection of modernity. Situating himself within this "science"--a tradition that includes investigations within geography, sociology and architecture as well as academic philosophy--Casey writes of the context for his own work:

    In the past three centuries in the West--the period of 'modernity'-- place has come to be not only neglected but actively suppressed. Owing to the triumph of the natural and social sciences in this same period, any serious talk of place has been regarded as regressive or trivial. (3) In Getting Back into Place and The Fate of Place, (4) Casey attempts to reverse this long trend, hoping that a deepened understanding of the role played in our lives by place might renew attention to place and the care of places. Trusting to the recovery of concreteness promised by phenomenological method, Casey's two books provide a remarkable scholarly tour de force of multiple aspects of our interactions with the "place world." Nonetheless, what is most remarkable here is something that emerges contrary to the author's intentions: he offers us not one but two accounts, necessarily and symmetrically linked, but also, as will be seen, ultimately incompatible. Let me trace these stories and their relationship.

    What is place? That question, central to Casey's phenomenological topo-project, receives competing answers in his two books: while in both texts the urgency of returning to and understanding the place-world is projected against the dominance of "space and time" in modern Western societies, each of the texts depends upon one of these two coordinates for its defining opposition. Thus, whereas Getting Back into Place primarily defines place against time, The Fate of Place defines place against space. The result is twofold: first, the dimension opposed in each of the texts is left strangely unaltered. "Time" in the earlier text and "space" in the later one mark scenes of struggle, since each in turn is taken to be the dominant field within modernity, but, in each case, place turns out to be heterogeneous to this battlefield.

    Having gained priority as the field for place conception, however, the other dimension under discussion--the dimension of space in Getting Back into Place and of time in The Fate of Place--becomes the subject of a transformed understanding, one that yields the text's idea of place. Place emerges as, in the first case (that of Getting Back into Place) strangely spatial while in the other book (The Fate of Place) it becomes peculiarly time-like. In other words, Casey's analyses follow an identical strategy, though with opposing materials, in his two books.

    2.1 In the earlier text, Getting Back into Place, it is time and modern temporo-centrism that provide the polemical foil for our understanding of place and space that undergoes a strange appropriation in the positive characterization of the place world. (5) Here, you might say, the negation of time takes the form of a subsumption of it under a spatialized sense of place. Thus, in the opening chapter of Getting Back into Place Casey demonstrates that what we usually take to be independent characteristics of linear time (its coordinates of "before," "after," etc.) are really primordially place qualities, dependent upon an embodied set of spatial relations like "in front" and "behind" (Back, 9-13). Thus, also, movement, throughout this book, is conceived of not (as it will be in The Fate of Place) as a form of being in place but rather as displacement or, at the very least, movement "between" places. (See Back, Chapter 2, 22-39.) Place, therefore, is somehow fixed in space, so that in Getting Back into Place the process of translating oneself is conceived of as "change of place." In this way, Casey wins an alternative theoretical language to that of modern science, with its emphasis upon causal sequence.

    Consistent with this understanding in Getting Back is the treatment of metaphysical and ontological questions: in Getting Back into Place Aristotle's place definition as "container" for things is accepted enthusiastically. As Casey puts it, "the boundary or limit of a thing determines its place" (Back, 16). Getting Back, indeed, embraces the ontological understanding of place still possible from an Aristotelian viewpoint: place is a kind of being, just not as a being or thing (Back, 31).

    This compatibility of ontology and place alerts us to the peculiar understanding of non-place here. We'll see that the rejection of "non-place" is a consistent theme in both of Casey's books; but this rejection comes for different reasons and has different significance in each volume. In Getting Back, non-place or "no place" is validated as a genuine threat to experience. Within this text the problem with non-place is that it is (at least psychologically) real--as a kind of threat or anxiety which motivates a whole history of what Freud would call "reaction formations" (Back, xi). In particular, this fear of the void explains the object obsession (or obsession with objectivity) so important to the development of Western science and technology. As Casey writes:

    In philosophy the threat of atopia calls forth a veritable ontomania, an irrational desire to have and to know as much determinate presence as possible; in short, put Being before Place. Whether the philosopher is Parmenides or Plato, Aristotle or Plotinus, Descartes or Spinoza, Hegel or Whitehead, the aim remains the same: to fill up, to populate, the empty field with as much determinate Being as possible. (Back, xi.) If we follow out the implications of this narrative, we begin to see the peculiar transformation Casey is working on our "space prejudiced" understandings: space implicitly emerges in this version of Western thought as a subset of place, that subset which accompanies the obsessional production of beings as objects. Space must be that kind of place in which objects, objectified beings, can reside. Notice that, while this move gives appropriate priority to place over space, it also allows us to understand place in more or less "spatial" terms: space in Getting Back is simply a derivative or modified place, thus we can take place to suggest something like space, space with a difference. No doubt place is space conceived prior or alternatively to objectification or reification and thus in a manner that calls for a radical re-understanding of what we take for granted about space; but this fact doesn't affect the basic rhetorical structure here.

    The spatialized understanding of place which, to borrow a topo-metaphor, allows us to orient ourselves in the argument of Getting...

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