Section 10: Shifting Perspectives: Optics for Revealing Change and Reworking Space

Panopticon design drawing by Jeremy Bentham in the late 18th century. Source: Bentham Collection, University College London Library.

Michel Foucault “Panopticism” [1975]

Juhani Pallasmaa “Toward an Architecture of Humility: On the Value of Experience” [1999]

Laura Pulido “Rethinking Environmental Racism: White Privilege and Urban Development in Southern California” [2000]

Kevin Hannam, Mimi Sheller, & John Urry “Mobilities, Immobilities and Moorings” [2006]

Geraldine Pratt and Victoria Rosner “The Global and the Intimate” [2012]

Cindi Katz “On the Grounds of Globalization: A Topography for Feminist Political Engagement” [2001]

It is easy to overlook the patterns and spaces that shape our everyday activities and decisions. Likewise, it is often easier to grasp abuses of justice in faraway places, but fail to consider similar injustices closer to home. Probing such issues of (in)visibility can reveal the story of a place, expose what’s there to be seen if only we pay attention. The pieces in this section do precisely that to revitalize old narratives; rethink traditional mores and norms; and think through the implications of shifting cultural, political, and economic values. Studies of space and place can alter our point of view or “optics” to unveil hidden ideologies that structure our everyday lives as the title for this section suggests. Such scholarship can enable what art critic John Berger (1990) calls new ways of seeing, and uncover what anthropologist James C. Scott (1992) refers to as hidden transcripts. The ability to reveal and rework the way in which we perceive and experience space raises consciousness, offers more hopeful narratives of inhabitance, and provides alternative ways to read, see, and live space and place. Spatial relationships can mask or reveal unjust situations, and looking closely at these conditions can allow people to see the world again and anew.

The work of the philosopher Michel Foucault offers often breathtaking reconceptualizations of the workings of power, knowledge, sexuality, and the spaces and social institutions of comportment. In this selection, Foucault describes the panopticon, a guard tower in the center of a circular prison with all cells facing inward, based on an 18th-century design by architect Jeremy Bentham (see figure at the beginning of Section 10). While never officially built as such, the panopticon presents the possibility of total surveillance, which Foucault uses as a jumping-off point for examining ”modern disciplinary society.” The panopticon is structured so that guards can observe any and all cells without being seen, and so all prisoners can see one another. While the prisoners are all effectively watching each other, at any time the guard may be watching them. The form—spatial and social—elicits self-discipline. Foucault argues that this pattern of self-regulation and surveillance is instrumental not only in architecture and planning, but also in social, economic, and political practices. He is less concerned with the panopticon as an actual space, focusing on it as a structure of surveillance and power that permeates society. He contends that disciplinary power frames social relations and shapes what people are able to know or do. Foucault refers to these disciplining material social practices as technologies, and shows how they are employed to reinforce hegemonic ideas and social norms.

In a related register, architect and critic Juhani Pallasmaa is concerned about the “hegemony of the marketable image.” He argues that designers have privileged the sense of sight and emphasize two-dimensional renderings of buildings, at the expense of creating multi-sensory experiences of space. By attending more to the sale value of the image rather than the tactility and social value of an environment, architecture, he argues, gives up its role in crafting places of meaning. Taking architects and designers to task, Pallasmaa supplies a critique of contemporary image production and the commodification of built space. He argues instead for drawing upon the sense of touch, or haptic experience, and slowing down to engage all the senses (see also O’Neill 2001). Pallasmaa suggests that only by taking account of both our ocular-centricity and a fully embodied experience can architects and designers fulfill their social responsibilities and “strengthen the reliability and comprehensibility of the world.”

The question of social responsibility is at the heart of many of the scholars’ work in this section as their research to reveal injustice also invokes a call to action. Environmental degradation and environmental health hazards are often more pronounced among poor people and people of color. In 1987 a landmark study by the United Church of Christ looking at patterns of environmental hazards and dumping found that people of color bore these ills in significant disproportion to other groups. Decades later this trend continues even as writing and activism concerned with environmental justice has become more prominent. Geographer and American Studies scholar Laura Pulido here examines the persistence of environmental injustice in Los Angeles, California. Her findings expose the unequal harms of environmental racism. She argues compellingly that rather than using the concepts of race and racism to examine these patterns, the lens of white privilege offers a clearer spatial and structural approach to these vexing questions. Seeing the uneven landscape of environmental degradation through white privilege unmasks inequalities in the production of space more generally, and the ways in which these patterns benefit white people while people of color suffer higher rates of disease and illness in consequence.

Injustice is rarely confined to any one space. Scholarship on mobilities has revolutionized the way in which we understand movement through space and the flow of information, bodies, and commodities across space and time. In this selection, Kevin Hannam, Mimi Sheller, and John Urry address the space-time of movement through a sociological and geographical framework. Drawing upon the events of September 11, 2001, the authors outline an interdependent framework of mobilities, immobilities, and moorings that shape our everyday lives, including the ways in which privilege and position infuse the space-time of motion, pause, and fixity. Hannam, Sheller, and Urry describe how our expectations of fixed spaces such as a country’s borders are erroneous, demonstrating how every thing and every being is at least partially on the move, from diseases to airplanes, bodies to territorial borders, database information to economic capital.

These selections advance arguments that span the local to the global and back again, but does a focus on injustice at one scale obscure what happens at another? Might attention to scalar questions reveal the connections among injustices and the responses to them? The geographical concept of scale, and particularly the production of scale, can illuminate such robust understandings of social, political, and economic power relations. While geographers originally conceptualized scale as essentially given—a nested hierarchy descending from the global, national, and urban scales—critical geographers challenged this simple categorization to argue that scale, like all aspects of space, is socially produced and constantly shifting (Smith 1992; Marston 2000). Critical feminist geographer Geraldine Pratt and literary theorist Victoria Rosner have reimagined scale in a more fused way to show how scales are permeated with one another. In this selection, the authors work from the feminist maxim that the “personal is political” to trouble the binary of global/local, most especially in the ways in which it parallels notions of masculine/feminine. Pratt and Rosner’s compelling notion of the global and the intimate reveals the ways in which geographic scales infuse one another in the people’s experience and action. In their framework, intimate relations are simultaneously global and local, just as the global is experienced in and through the intimate and all the scales in between.

If scale distinguishes a sort of verticality of spatial experience, geographers have also conceptualized lateral relationships among distinct places to recognize similarities of experience. Employing a theoretical method which she terms countertopography, critical geographer Cindi Katz traces the ways in which space and time unfold in disparate but interrelated political economies to expose processes that link everyday lives in seemingly distinct geographies. By examining how disinvestment and deskilling play out in a Sudanese village and the Harlem neighborhood of New York City, Katz stitches together the everyday difficulties of children traveling further and further afield to obtain the resources they need to sustain themselves and reproduce their communities. The contour lines of these counter- topographies connect places that seem quite different on the surface to reveal common analytical effects of capitalist globalization in distinct locales. These ideas suggest a corrective to Marxist geographer David Harvey’s (1989) notion of time-space compression, which marks how the technological shifts of capitalist globalization have allowed for greater connection to more people and materials in faster ways than ever before. Katz’s work makes clear that time- space compression is the experience of wealthy and powerful people and places as it reveals patterns of time-space expansion, whereby those with limited means under these conditions are often forced to travel further and work longer hours to simply maintain their way of life.

We, like the scholars in this section, find it useful to underscore the similarities of the obstacles and contradictions faced by people across space and place, and learn from the range of responses to these conditions. In her work along these lines Cindi Katz offers a framework that complicates resistance so that it encompasses resilience, reworking, as well as resistance. This framework suggests that change can take place in different ways, through small gestures and large. Environmental psychologist and geographer Caitlin Cahill’s (2006) work takes up and questions the ways in which anyone can claim agency, self-determination, and power over their body and space. Working with young people of color in US cities, Cahill asks who possesses the agency to define which bodies and livelihoods are “at risk” and act upon those bodies and lives through policies and representations. Similarly, political scientist Richard Pithouse (2006) argues for a “politics of the poor” that identifies with the struggles of urban slum dwellers in Durban, South Africa, and refuses to script this population and their spaces as an “epidemic.”

Other scholars draw upon critical theoretical frameworks to offer insights and challenges to specific material conditions. Environmental psychologist and IT designer Joan Greenbaum’s (2004) scholarship builds on Foucault’s critique of disciplinary power and dominant technologies by examining the use and reach of various workplace technologies. She looks at how corporations expand their oversight of workers by using such readily available things as smart phones, home computers, and so on to increase profits and control the workforce more intensely. In making a pointed critique of architectural practices in the context of contemporary capitalism, William Mangold (2013) draws upon both Harvey and Pallasmaa to elaborate on the spatial consequences when designers and inhabitants are subject to the bottom line of profit.

The scholars discussed here focus on ways in which spaces and places can be seen differently and presented anew, using these insights to create change and more just environments. As these readings make clear, particular configurations of space can foster or hide injustice, but space can also be made to reveal and reduce injustice and inequality. Exposing inequalities in and through space and spatial arrangements as well as commonalities of spatial experience, such as these pieces do, offers opportunities for contesting the status quo and organizing for change through new spatial and social practices.


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