What is the Spatial Turn?

The Spatial Turn and Religion

Scholars in theology and anthropology look to material history of everyday landscape as a reservoir for locating agency from below. In the theology of Paul Tillich, the space of the self formed a major category for understanding the phenomenology of revelation. He distinguished the world as all things grasped, shaped, and formed by language, from the environment immediately surrounding the self, from the abstract space around the individual, whose component parts might go unnoticed. Like Heidegger, Tillich emphasized the distance between individual observer and territory. He proposed space as a vehicle for providing a spiritually-motivated, participatory critique of traditional history. Historians had argued about biography versus the history of the masses. He wanted to push further. "History is the history of groups," he explained. "Concretely speaking, one would have to say that no one can achieve historical greatness who is not received by history-bearing groups."  He wanted historians to go further. "The question of whether individuals or 'masses' determine history must be replaced by an exact description of their interplay."[1]

Tillich defined space as the category most likely to show the interplay of agency between individual actors, the masses, and historical contingency. Space was the domain of "physical objects" that change little with time.  It was also necessarily the domain of everyday life, a most basic form of agency which no one lacked. "Existing," he explains, meant "above all to have a place among the places of all other being and to resist the threat of losing one's place and with it existence altogether." For all these reasons, spatially-oriented histories were more likely to document the agency of the masses alongside the agency of elites. The painting of cave walls; the settling of house, village or city; or the organization of factory, school, and studio equally revealed popular history.

Based on these categories, Tillich theorized two concerns for history: the identification of "spaces of spirit" where new kinds of agency were gestating, and the "historical time" of causality. "Historical time,” he wrote, “driving toward fulfillment, is actual in the relations of historical spaces.”[2] In other words, telling the chronology of developing landscapes, from the frontier to the city to the ghetto, was a surer way than national history of decoding the history of geist.

[1] Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967): 1:170, 3:312, 3:313.

[2] Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967): 1:170, 3:315, 3:318, 3:321.

[3] Edmund Carpenter and Marshall McLuhan, “The New Languages,” Chicago Review 10, no. 1 (Spring 1956): 46-52. Mary Douglas, "The Body/House Cosmogram," in Jacob's Tears: The Priestly Work of Reconciliation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 211; P. Bourdieu, "The Berber House," The Anthropology of Space and Place: Locating Culture (1971), 131-41. Mircea Eliade, “Sacred Places: Temple, Palace, 'Centre of the World',” in Patterns in Comparative Religion (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1958), 367–387; Mircea Eliade, “Mother Earth and the Cosmic Hierogamies,” in Myths, Dreams, and Mysteries: The Encounter Between Contemporary Faiths and Archaic Realities (London: Harvill Press, 1960), 150-177; M. Eliade, “Paradise and Utopia: Mythical Geography and Eschatology,” Utopias and Utopian Thought (1965): 260–80; Mircea Eliade (tr. Philip Mairet). "Symbolism of the Centre" in Images and Symbols (Princeton, 1991), 48-51.

[4] V. Turner, “The Center out There: Pilgrim's Goal,” History of Religions 12, no. 3 (1973): 195, 199. Cf. Victor Witter Turner, Image and Pilgrimage in Christian Culture: Anthropological Perspectives (Oxford [Oxfordshire]: Blackwell, 1978).

[5] David Howes, ed., Empire of the Senses: The Sensual Culture Reader, Sensory Formations Series (Oxford: Berg, 2005).  Cassirer drew on the eighteenth-century conclusions of Vico, who argued that the imagination of different cultures were knowable only through their myths as delimited by their language, especially language structured by the landscape into “commonplaces.” From the late nineteenth century forward, historians followed Carlyle in emphasizing how the senses have trained upon particular landscapes. Erich Auerbach, “Vico and Aesthetic Historism,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 8, no. 2 (December 1949): 110-118. Donald Kunze, Thought and Place: The Architecture of Eternal Place in the Philosophy of Giambattista Vico (New York: P. Lang, 1987).

[6] Ali Shariat, “Henry Corbin and the Imaginal: A Look at the Concept and Function of the Creative Imagination in Iranian Philosophy,” Diogenes 39, no. 156 (December 1, 1991): 83-114. Corbin’s major apostle in psychoanalysis is James Hillman. James Hillman, “Psychoanalysis, Self, and Community,” in City & Soul, vol. 2, 1st ed. (Putnam, Conn: Spring Publications, Inc, 2006), 108-115; cf. H. F Stein, “The Influence of Psychogeography” Psychoanalytic Inquiry 6 (1986): 193-222.

[7] Peter Gould, “The Structure of Space Preferences in Tanzania,” Area 1, no. 4 (1969): 29-35. P. R. Gould and R. R. White, “The Mental Maps of British School Leavers,” Regional Studies 2, no. 2 (1968): 161-182. Gould’s work was popularized by his colleague, Yi-fu Tuan, Topophilia: A Study of Environmental Perception, Attitudes, and Values (Englewood Cliffs, N.J: Prentice-Hall, 197 4).

[8] P. Bourdieu, “The Berber House,” The Anthropology of Space and Place: Locating Culture (1971): 131-41; Pierre Bourdieu, La Distinction: Critique Sociale Du Jugement, Le Sens commun (Paris: Éditions de Minuit, 1979); Paul Rabinow, Reflections on Fieldwork in Morocco (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977).