What is the Spatial Turn?

The Spatial Turn in Literature

Many of the first investigations of displacement and new urban spaces were wrapped up in the movement to render cities a safe space for the middle classes. Parisian police studied the crowd in different neighborhoods for signs of revolutionary behavior. The sanitary, criminal, and poverty maps of London, Paris, and Chicago are well known.[1] Alongside these official tools of spatial investigation, there were also literary investigations of different neighborhoods, designed by urban journalists to help middle-class travelers digest urban scenes through the rubric of tourism. Such descriptions of urban life readily described the different appearances of the crowds that typified certain neighborhoods. In describing the figures, their dress, and their habits in detail, these authors began by merely lending color and substance to their descriptions of the street. James Grant’s Travels in Town (1839) carefully differentiated the different types of crowds, interactions, and commerce associated with arriving in London via Mile End, Islington, the docks, and King’s Cross. Antiquarian works like London Redivivum drew the wanderer to secret or hidden ruins that might have been overlooked by the common wanderer, using the decaying clumps of London’s wall or remaining medieval buildings to emphasize the stages of London’s construction, including the Great Fire of 1666 and the way legislation had formed the city’s spaces.[2] Other surveys of city amusements, neighborhoods, and personalities followed.[3] These offered studies of actual vagrants in front of the contemporary monumental architecture of the town, commenting on the political and social condition that were causing a visible rise in the numbers of urban poor.[4] In Vagabondiana (1817), the novels, and a range of moral essays, the moral character of neighborhoods and persons was examined with scientific accuracy.[5] In his Travels in Town (1839), James Grant opened with a discourse about London’s streets. To distinguish his work in the overwritten genre of the city tour, he began by explaining that his book looked beyond the mere physical buildings of London’s neighborhoods, buildings, and settings. “When I use the term street, I shall not, I am sure, be understood as meaning the pavement or causeway of our principle thoroughfares,” he wrote. “I refer, if the expression be a proper one, to their animated condition, as illustrative of the character, habits, and pursuits of the inhabitants of our compact metropolitan world.” Grant proceeded to characterize seven different types of crowds, spatially distributed around the entrances to the Metropolis: the more polite coming by the West, the more downtrodden from the East; a mix of commercial types and sailors at the ports. Dickens' Sketches by Boz (1836) held up a series of personal portraits of schoolmasters, beadles. Like the other books, it too was structured as a taxonomy of the strangers one might encounter on the public street, beginning with a description of the different crowds that occupied the streets in morning and evening, characterizing the differences between the financial district, Westminster, Seven Dials, and Monmouth Street.

Such catalogues of landscapes precipitated an investigation into the nature of sociability along the borders of these spaces. Fictional accounts of the nineteenth-century emphasized the haphazard encounters along the borders of different worlds. Literary scholars date a story about city dwellers’ mutual ignorance to the “object story” of Poe and Flaubert. The “object story” traces the haphazard interactions, missed connections, and contusions of city life by following not a single individual, but rather an object, through multiple exchanges. According to A. Siegal, who first recognized the pattern in a 1973 essay, the object story marks the beginning of a new period in the narration of the subject. The object story structured the first narratives of cinema, and continues to structure how we interpret city life and urban subjectivity, showing up in cinema through Raymond Carver and the films of urban Los Angeles. Durkheim and Simmel described how individuals were alienated by the conflicting logics experienced on these borderlands. Benjamin traced the juxtapositions of objects in the storefronts of Paris and speculated on the way everyday urban form enforced a psychology of anomie. The majority of critics who handled the problem of urban investigation reached a pessimistic conclusion: the city and its objects were producing a plurality of inaccessible worlds, destined to create classes of apolitical masses that would be ruled over just as darkly as the proletariat had been in the era of feudal Europe.

Under the influence of Freud and Cassirer, innumerable literary scholars of the twentieth century set themselves upon the task of cataloguing possible psychological worlds. Mikhail Bakhtin published his “Forms of Time and the Chronotope in the Novel” in his Essays on the Dialogic Imagination (c.1930, Eng translation 1984), enumerating how particular kinds of narrative, agency, and hierarchy structurally appeared in nineteenth-century novels alongside particular landscapes such as the gothic castle.[6] In his posthumous Arcades Project (written 1926-1940, published 2002), Walter Benjamin enumerated the structural changes to the nineteenth-century city, particularly changes in transport, consumption, and entertainment, amassing evidence around the collective emotions implied by each setting, for instance, the uncanny free associations implied by bric-a-brac juxtaposed in a shop window. In The Poetics of Space (1958), French philosopher Gaston Bachelard catalogued the psychoanalytic associations that folktales and nineteenth-century literature associated with the spaces of the house, showing how culture repeated memes associating the cellar with chthonic, ancestral forces and the attic with dreams and the imagination. In his Species of Spaces (1974), novelist Georges Perec set out to systematically analyze the associations of the landscapes that composed his everyday experience, panning out from the small to the large: bed, bedroom, street, neighborhood, town (as experienced by both locals and tourists), nation, continent, world, and space.

Literary historians embraced the “imaginal” as a tool for mining close reading. Studies of the “green world” in Shakespeare, of Blake’s imaginary cities, of the changing vistas of nineteenth-century travelers, and of the experience of railway and department store became opportunities to philosophize upon the changing categories of self and other suggested by highly imaginative forms of historical landscape description.[7]

[1] D. Kalifa, “Crime Scenes: Criminal Topography and Social Imaginary in Nineteenth-Century Paris,” French Historical Studies 27, no. 1 (2004): 175-194. J. Addams, Hull-House Maps and Papers (Arno Press). J. Pickles, A History of Spaces: Cartographic Reason, Mapping, and the Geo-coded World (Routledge, 2004). A. O'Connor, Poverty Knowledge: Social Science, Social Policy, and the Poor in Twentieth-century US History (Princeton University Press, 2001). Steven Johnson, The Ghost Map : The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic — and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World (New York: Riverhead Books, 2007). S Vanderpoel, Cholera and Its Relations to State Medicine: With Discussion by Members of the Society, Report of Committee, and Dr. Peters' Map of the Routes of Cholera (Albany  N.Y.: The Society of Medical Jurisprudence and State Medicine, 1885).

[2] “Those who can remember with us,” wrote James Elmes, “padding over the parched soil, about ten years since, when the roads were forming, the canal digging, the plantations trenching, and the infant trees, looking like bundles of useless sprigs, being dropped into their places where now they have taken root and are flourishing; may remember, at least we do, the aerial castles that we formed in our minds, which we were fearful would fail as such fragile architecture generally does. If they do so, they may perhaps agree with us, that the prophetic vision is more than realized.” Metropolitan Improvements 20. In an allegory for the illuminating recovery of urban knowledge, the frontispiece of Londina Illustrata’s first volume portrayed the angel of history asking time with his destroying scythe to spare the relics of the past one moment more while she copies them down.

[3] The Ambulator; or, A pocket companion for the tour of London and its environs, within the circuit of twenty-five miles: descriptive of the objects most remarkable for grandeur, elegance, taste, local beauty, and antiquity, illustrated by anecdotes, historical and biographical and embellished with fourteen elegant engravings and a correct map. London: printed for Scatcherd and Letterman [etc.], 1811.  Feltham, John. The Picture of London, for 1821 : Being a correct guide to all the curiosities, amusements, exhibitions, public establishments, and remarkable objects, in and near London. With a collection of appropriate tables, illustrated by two large maps, and embellished with one hundred and twenty views. London: Printed for Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown, Peternoster-Row, 1821.

[4] The ancient “Cries of London” series was updated to a richly illustrated, reproducible, contemporary commentary William Craig’s Itinerant Traders (1804); it was followed by John T. Smith’s Vagabondiana (1817) and The Cries of London (1839). Shesgreen 156-172.

[5] See also Morris, Thomas. London and Country Scenes, with Various Passing Events Evangelically Illustrated : Interspersed with Some Useful Remarks on the Providence and Grace of God. London: Printed by T. Goode, 1833.

[6] While Bakhtin’s text was untranslated until 1984, members of Bakhtin’s circle fled Russia for Germany and became influential on German critical theory

[7] Harry Berger, The Renaissance Imagination: Second World and Green World, 1965.  Kathleen Raine, Golgonooza, City of Imagination: Last studies in William Blake (Lindisfarne Books, 1991); Peter Bishop, The Myth of Shangri-La: Tibet, Travel Writing and the Western Creation of Sacred Landscape (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989). Rosalind Williams, op. cit. Susan Buck-Morss, “The City as Dreamworld and Catastrophe,” October 73 (Summer 1995): 3-26.  W. Schivelbusch, The Railway Journey (University of California Press, 1987).  W. Schivelbusch, Disenchanted Night: The Industrialization of Light in the Nineteenth Century (University of California Press, 1995). Charles Rice, The Emergence of the Interior: Architecture, Modernity, Domesticity (London: Routledge, 2007), 161. Amanda Bingley, "In Here and Out There: Sensations Between Self and Landscape.," Social & Cultural Geography (2003), 4: 3, 329.