Unreal Nature

June 22, 2011

A Distinct Potency

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 8:21 am

… To be in place is to be sheltered and sustained by its containing boundary; it is to be held within this boundary rather than to be dispersed by an expanding horizon of time or to be exposed indifferently in space.

… By its very immobility — through stolid concreteness of things set within pathways and horizons — place acts to contain time itself.

Continuing through Remembering: A Phenomenological Study; Second Edition by Edward S. Casey (1987 and 2000), today’s chapter is “Place Memory”:

… Place serves to situate one’s memorial life, to give it “a name and a local habitation.” The link between place and situation is close indeed. As Heidegger has observed:

To situate means . . . first of all to point out the proper place or site of something. Secondly it means to heed that place or site. These two methods, placing and heeding, are both preliminaries to a topology.

Where Heidegger is ultimately interested in a “topology” of Being, my concern here is exclusively with a topology of the remembered. We must come to heed the proper place of the remembered — its manner not just of occupying place but of incorporating it into its own content.

… “Place is thought to be a kind of surface,” says Aristotle, “and as it were a vessel, i.e., a container of the thing. Place is coincident with the thing for boundaries are coincident with the bounded.”

… [The seventeenth-century] metamorphosis [from place to geometricized space], and with it the demotion of place (which depends on inhomogeneous and anisotropic qualities for its very vitality), was effected by the audacious speculations of Newton, Descartes, Bernoulli, and others, for all of whom space was conceived as continuous extension in length, breadth, and width and, thus, as mappable by the three-dimensional coordinate system of rational geometry. Descartes was doubtless the most outspoken on this point, and he drew the direct consequences: “We conceive a place to contain nothing but extension in length, breadth, and depth.” Here place is conceived as sheer spatial site. It follows that place qua site is merely a matter of relative position: “When we say an object is ‘in’ a place we are merely thinking of its occupying a position relatively to other objects.” This contention marks a turning-point in Western thinking about place. While for the Greeks the relativity of place is far less important than its inherent character (“Places do not differ merely in relative position,” said Aristotle, “but also as possessing distinct potencies”), for Descartes and his immediate successors place is strictly a relative matter, that is, a question of fixed positions in relation to each other within a systematic whole.

What we witness in Descartes is therefore the supersession of place by site. A site is not a container but an open area that is specified primarily by means of cartographic representations such as maps or architects’ plans. It embodies a spatiality that is at once homogeneous (i.e., having no internal differentiations with respect to material constitution) and isotropic (possessing no inherent directionality such as up/down, East/West, etc.). A site is thus leveled down to the point of being definable solely in terms of distances between “positions” which are established on its surface and which exist strictly in relation to one another. As a result, a site is indifferent to what might occupy it — and to what we might remember about it.

The triumph of site over place has continued from the Cartesian epoch until the present day. This triumph has crucial consequences for the memory of place. As essentially empty (its vacuity is expressed in a phrase like “building site”), a site lacks the variegations or “obtrusions” that aid in remembering unsited places. A site possesses no points of attachment onto which to hang our memories, much less to retrieve them. By denuding itself of particularities, site deprives itself of what James called “contiguous associations,” i.e., the most efficacious cues for remembering. Place, in contrast, characteristically presents us with a plethora of such cues. Thanks to its “distinct potencies,” a place is at once internally diversified — full of protuberant features and forceful vectors — and distinct externally from other places. Both kinds of differentiation, internal and external, augment memorability. We observe this when an indifferent building lot, easily confused with other empty lots, is transformed into a memorable place by the erection of a distinctive house upon it.

… It is precisely Aristotle’s contention that the primary action of place is that of containing. “Container” in Greek is periechon, literally a having or holding around. To be in place is to be sheltered and sustained by its containing boundary; it is to be held within this boundary rather than to be dispersed by an expanding horizon of time or to be exposed indifferently in space. In fact, the most characteristic effect of place is that of maintaining or retaining rather than dividing or dispersing.

… The very persistence of place helps to make it accessible in a way that is rarely true of a comparable unit of time or a given site. For place tends to hold its contents steadily within its own embrace, while site and time characteristically replace their respective contents.

…. Beyond [the body’s role of] orienting and situating us in place — in the very place in which it is located — the lived body itself serves as a place. It is a place not just for its internal organs but for all of its activities of presentment in place. In this respect it can be considered as a place of places — or more exactly, a placer of places. We could even call it, following Bergson, a “place of passage”:

[The body] is the place of passage of the movements received and thrown back, a hyphen, a connecting link between the things which act upon me and the things upon which I act …

… the body is more than an abstract point in indifferent space, more than a group of vital functions, more even than a set of habits. It is itself a place with a “distinct potency” that helps to structure the overall spatiality of the place in which it finds itself, making it into a place within which the body resides and toward which it acts in manifold ways. The body as intra-place is thus a place through which whatever is occurring in a given setting can take place: it is a place of passage for such occurrences, which array themselves around it (and do so even if it is only their silent witness). For this reason we almost always remember places from the point of view of our body’s own intra-place within a remembered place: there we were, there and nowhere else. The body’s own intra-place within place is a place of anchoring, of staying put in relation to the scene remembered; it is a mainstay of memory of place.

… Memory of place entails having been slowed down, stopped, or in some other way caught-in-place. Within a suitably variegated spatial scene, “the hold is held.”

… Precisely in contrast with psychoanalysis — which emphasizes diachrony and development in their interpersonal ramifications — topo-analysis investigates the solitary experience of space: what it is to be, and to have been, in particular places rather than in particular times. In a great deal of remembering, this is a pervasive concern. We often remember ourselves in a given place; but how often do we remember ourselves as having been at a given date?

By its very immobility — through stolid concreteness of things set within pathways and horizons — place acts to contain time itself. This is not to trivialize time but to make it into a dimension of space through the active influence of place. On the other hand, time is trivialized when it is reduced to calendrical-historical dates; and it is precisely memory of place that teaches us that

to localize a memory in time is merely a matter for the biographer and only corresponds to a sort of external history, for external use, to be communicated to others . . . localization in the spaces of our intimacy is more urgent than determination of dates. [Gaston Bachelard]

… In remembering “I can only say, there we have been: but I cannot say [just] where. And I cannot say, how long, for that is to place it in time.” To be there — to be truly da-sein — is to be in place, which cannot be reduced to site (the just where) any more than time can be shrunken to date (the just when). Being-in-place is a main modalization of being-in-the-world. Having been in places is therefore a natural resource for remembering our own being in the world. It is indispensable for knowing what we are (now) in terms of what were (then).

Footfalls echo in the memory . . .
There rises the hidden laughter
Of children in the foliage
Quick, now, here, now, always —

The “I can only say …” quote in the last paragraph above as well as the bit of poetry [“Burnt Norman“] is from T.S. Eliot.

My last previous post from Casey’s book is here.





  1. The Phœnix Grunt proof reading service reports a typo: “Burnt Norman” should be “Burnt Norton”… (feel free to delete this)…

    …though (even as a long time lover of Four quartets), I have to say that “Burnt Norman” gave me great enjoyment! :-)

    Comment by Felix — June 22, 2011 @ 4:54 pm

  2. LOL! I wouldn’t thinik of either deleting your comment or correcting flaming Norman.

    Comment by unrealnature — June 22, 2011 @ 7:15 pm

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