What is the Spatial Turn?

The Spatial Turn in Anthropology

F. J. Egli in his Nomina Geographica (1893) demonstrated, in the words of Franz Boaz, that “geographical names, being an expression of the mental character of each people and each period, reflect their cultural life and the line of development belonging to each cultural area.” Not only that, but the “form of each language limits the range of terms that can be coined.”

Boas was investigating the Kwakiutal, a “sea-faring people to whom the forms of land and water and the dangers of the sea are all-important.” They oriented themselves, he found, according to the direction of the coastline and rivers. Their language had “innumerable terms for islands,” including “island at the foot of a mountain,” and “island in the neck of a river.” Locations could be described in terms of their vista: a “place of looking all around” as opposed to a “place of looking inside.”[1] In the hands of anthropologists from Levi-Bruhl to Levi-Strauss, such phenomenological questions constituted a concerted attempt to discern a culture’s metaphysics from its material culture.

It was only in 1980s that these methods were framed as an alternative to the traditional writing of history. Over five years, Basso traveled over the Cibecue region, talking with Apache consultants and hearing the stories associated with each place in their tradition. Basso, like so may historians before him, reached the same conclusion: “If place-making is a way of constructing the past, a venerable means of doing human history, it is also a way of constructing social traditions and, in the process, personal and social identities.” In a world with no written traditions, place names offered “evidence of changes in the landscape” where territory did not present the same appearance today it had in former times.[2] But here Basso pressed a conclusion that the methods of anthropology made it possible to see patterns that historians were blind to.

Without the insight provided by an epistemology of spatial experience, Basso discovered, historical evidence was invisible to the observer. Earlier historians to visit the Apache such as Edward Spicer failed to recognize the native historical tradition when it was recited before them, expecting the flow of chronology rather than a narrative orchestrated by place.[3]

Landscape, in these writings, was even more strictly defined than it had been for amateur archaeologists and popular historians documenting every material object around a location; landscape could be more narrowly defined, as Cassirer had shown, by what had been named as salient and relevant within a particular culture. Aspects of vernacular culture like naming and painting thus became key to unlocking new sources for a history of everyday life.

Other anthropologists took the study of spatiality not towards the interpretation of so-called primitives, but looked through religion into how spatiality worked across forms of pre-modern and modern life.  Mircea Eliade, writing the anthropology of religion under the influence of Jungian and Freudian psychoanalysis, used his Images and Symbols (1952) to catalogue world forms of the axis mundi and other landscapes of the sacred.  Still more powerful were the writers drawn to the analysis of modernity as reflected in landscape.  Such studies as these held the promise of synthesizing the histories of so-called primitives, the working class, and other actors who had never influenced the tendencies of national history. Anthropologists such as Edmund Carpenter, Mary Douglas, Marcel Granet, and Pierre Bourdieu documented, in detail, the organization of house, village, and spatiality among the Eskimo, Lele, Chinese, and Berber, while Mircea Eliade extended Cassirer into a theory of the “axis mundi” uniting the place-building habits of all peoples.[3] Pilgrimage around the world, from Babylon to pre-Christian Europe, exhibited, Victor Turner argued, "the quality of communitas."  "Daily, relatively sedentary, life in village, town, city, and fields,” he explained, “is lived at one pole,” but “the rare bout of nomadism that is the pilgrimage journey over many roads and hills constitutes the other pole."  Pilgrimage grew out of the "little traditions" of the people and was frequently denounced by leaders of the world religions. The movement of popular religious forms thus showed scholars evidence of a discontinuity, a “historical and logical limen,” evidence not of elite but rather of popular agency alone.[4]

The furthest extension implied a radical position indeed: that the human experience of landscape was not, as Aldo Leopold and others implied, evolutionarily driven; but rather, was as thoroughly constructed and culturally variable as any set of myths carried by isolated tribes. Such a reading looked back to eighteenth- and nineteenth-century historians like Vico and Carlyle who stressed the variability in human sensuous experience.[5] Mystic anthropologists like Henri Corbin proposed that reading thick descriptions of landscape offered a glimpse of practical cosmology, that the “imaginal” landscape of the everyday use among both ancients and moderns was structured by myths best read in holy scriptures and poetry, and visible in the structure of modern psychology.[6] The historian, looking backwards for agency, must then take into account the limits of imagination on the historical subject as implied by the landscape of possibilities thus understood. To take this claim seriously was to challenge Levi-Strauss’s dictum that the tools of anthropology could only be applied to primitive tribes and not to the modern world. Indeed, they insisted that the material world, built environment, and sensuous environment of modern life be desconstructed as thoroughly as scholars had treated any exogenous tribe. Geographer Peter Gould made emotional maps of Tanzanians’ spatial preferences, but then applied the same techniques to understanding high-school students in contemporary Britain.[7] Anthropologist Pierre Bourdieu, having begun his study of material culture with the house-arrangement of the Berbers, proved that the class use of space in contemporary France displayed all the same ritualized structures.[8] It seemed that landscape offered a diagnosis, a schema for unpacking the structures of modern culture, revealing them as arbitrary constructions tantamount to the magic fetishism of primitive societies.

[1] Franz Boas, Geographical Names of the Kwakiutl Indians (New York: Columbia University Press, 1934).

[2] Keith H Basso, Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Language Among the Western Apache (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1996), 7, 13.

[3] Basso, op. cit., 30-1.