Real space, wobbly space
One of the interests and difficulties of working with a concept like “space” is the extent to which its counter-intuitive dimension when compared to the common or everyday perception of it. Engaging in a conversation about geography or what its object is and can be leads me often to wondering about this issue, with as well as without researchers. Commonly, “geography” is misunderstood as the science of making maps and, since most of the globe has now been mapped, the necessity of such a science is for some people highly doubtful. This is even more the case when one pretends being a geographer or engaging with geography while not engaging with this scientific device in question. For the most open-minded, nonetheless, the possibility of working on “space” is completely open, but the definition given to the concept of “space” appears as very unclear. It can be defined by examples: people know locations, and for instance the presentation of such and such place will be easy to be provided with. But once locations have been set aside, the opposition between what is and is not spatial seems to be the object of very subjective definitions and overall “space” is defined as that remainding part of the world which is hard to the touch and can be hit with one’s fist and remain in place. This would be “the real space”. Everything which does not fit this category would be only “Wobbly space”, or even not space at all.
An example can be found in my case in the question of electricity cables, which have been an omnipresent component of my research since its beginning, and which are entirely part of the Palestinian camps’ space: they are material, on them are put symbolic representations, humans interact with them, they are located, and more importantly their presence and specific insertion in the camps is the result of social forces which can be analysed, and in return they have effect on the way the social is organised in the camps, not only because they permit the arrival of a service which is classically associated with territory (electricity), but because they impact what people think of where they are, what they do about it, and in fact can be more important on a very concrete dimension as they also cause injury and death to those who are unlucky enough to touch one of the many hanging cables of the camps. They are concrete and material manifestations of what is wrong with the camps, and they are seen like that by those who live in the camps, who quote them as examples when interrogated about their living conditions, and get regularly collectively pissed off about them to the point that it leads some of them to question the leadership they are under, for example.
Nonetheless on more than one account this dimension of the world is hardly provided with the “honour” of being considered as spatial. “Spatial” would be, as was explained to me recently, the outline of the camps’ streets, for example, or the location of buildings on a map. A wall is “real space” when one talks about the way it leaves room for an alleyway to pass or not, but it is not “spatial” anymore when one talks about, for example, the fact that someone decided to repaint it. An electrical cable is “spatial” when identified as a part of a network which can be drawn on a map (once again) of a street, but it is less “spatial” than the street it is located in, which changes less easily as the cable. And it is not “spatial” at all when it is simply described as a part of the daily landscape one lives in for one’s whole life, and which one uses to say one’s life is bad and that this state of affairs is not fair. How and why this is so eludes me completely, except for the fact that it has been criticised in the past by henri Lefebvre as “the realistic illusion”:
The illusion of substantiality, naturalness and spatial opacity nurtures its own mythology. One thinks of the space-oriented artist, at work with a hard or dense reality delivered direct from the domain of Mother Nature. More likely a sculptor than a painter, an architect sooner than a musician or poet, such artist tends to work with materials that resist or evade his efforts. When space is not overseen by the geometer, it is liable to take on the physical qualities and properties of the earth. (The Production of Space, p. 30)
The main issue is the difficulty to refute this mythology of a necessary “solidity” of space for it to be “spatial”. There is something of the old regional school of human geography and Hartshorne’s “chorology” to this imagery, when topics like mobilisations, displacement, trade, in short any thing moving or short-lived, was not deemed “geographical” enough to be studied by geographers. What mattered was the matter, precisely. The long-term, the durable, the stable, mountains and traditions, and the state, to the extent that it could be considered, as did Ratzel, as a big, expanding, resource-consuming organism, qualified by size, weight, and momentum. “Spatial” would be the pyramid of Gizah, tall, heavy, and indestructible, not the edifice of wood and fabric made by the homeless and repeatedly destroyed by the elements, the governments, and the (short) time, and certainly not Deligny’s “wander ligns”, which do not even leave a trace but that of their transcription by them who draw them. Even though they do mark, each in their way, space in a much more concrete way than a national border or a map of Antartica.