Space is gonna do me good

Bullring, Birmingham, c.2000

It’s my contention that everybody loves a now and then photo. It’s fun when it’s a picture of something you can remember, or that has been reconstructed for you – I’m not a native midlander, but my better half is, and she can paint a picture with words of the orange mosaic bull under the old Bullring. Time can be almost felt through something like this – you can’t smell it or see it passing, but you can feel it – perhaps in your bones, or the emotions associated with times gone.

Go further back though, and time becomes intangible and perhaps less relevant. If I saw a picture of Winchester high street in 1990, or the Tottenham branch of Carpetright before the 2011 riots, it would spark some feeling, but show me Winchester High Street in the 1960s, or Tottenham in the 1910s, and I’m interested, but I don’t feel anything about the passage of time. Perhaps there is the occasional swell of pride when you see a building that’s remained, or wistfulness with a nostalgia for a time you never knew (I’m terrible for this, I’m always transporting myself to 1940s New York, or Edwardian London. I think it’s the hats).

We experience the world through the passing of time, but it’s a very abstract notion. To my mind, we make more sense of the space that we are in, and that we pass through, and that’s how we analyse and understand the world, and our place in it. Space itself has been completely abstracted in some circles (I dare you to read Nigel Thrift, for instance), and has been conceptualised and theorised up the wazoo. But it remains that we each occupy a space on earth which is filled not just with our physical matter, but other stuff too. The physical environment plays a massive role in our lives: I’m not quite a Braudel-ian environmental determinist, but certainly an environmental possibilist: where we are limits and directs the options that we have. For instance, even in this globalised world, I, with my fair skin and bald head, am not suited to a tropical climate, so my choices are limited.

Of course there are more factors than this – cultural, family, economic determinants that play out their various roles in our lives. So many of these are guided by space of course, and that’s even more true if you throw in a temporal variable as well. My subject of study is the industrial Black Country, a geological congruence of almost unique status which directed the lives and outcomes of thousands of its inhabitants, economically, then through their ensuing family ties, to today’s Black Country culture which owes so much to its industrial heritage.

But even more than this, space is a produced thing. In the same way as the old question asks whether a tree falling in a forest with no-one to hear makes any sound, a space only has meaning, purpose and relevance because of what people make of it. Henri Lefebvre formulated it in a triad, so any given space is lived in or used in an everyday way (he called this spatial practice), conceived (thought about from outside) and perceived (how the space is felt, what meaning it carries, and so on). At least, that’s what I understand – in the tradition of French philosophers of the twentieth century, good grief who knows.

Lefebvre (and Michel de Certeau, who also formulated his philosophy in spatial terms) focused on the concept of everyday life: Lefebvre as a Marxist critique, Certeau more subtly, but both thinking about how we use the space we’re in. I’m reminded also of Kevin Lynch‘s concept of mental maps, the way we think about and navigate the space known to us, via landmarks, boundaries and paths that we think about. There’s a well-established discipline of historical geography, but the spatial turn in history has been relatively low-key. I can’t help but think that seeing time and space together is an essential part of being a historian – at the very least, it’s what makes me a historian.

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One Response to Space is gonna do me good

  1. Pedro says:

    A then photo taken by my late uncle, the building of the Rotunda…

    http://www.panoramio.com/photo/46885165

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