Thursday, 20 January 2011

Denis Wood on "shadowed spaces"

I’ve found something interesting, a samizdat paper that’s been circulating clandestinely since 1978 and finally been made available on the website of the art project “shadowed spaces”. It's called "Shadowed Spaces: In Defense of Indefensible Space" and it's written by Denis Wood. Wood is a well-known geographer, or psycho-geographer, who has forced us to rethink maps. 

Here he’s closing in on something that other writers have been dealing with using terms like heterotopias, no-man’s-land, dead zone or terrain vague. He stands out, though. How? Partly by his poetic talent. Partly, also, by the fact that he focuses so much on the clandestine, almost “private” nature of these spaces. Someone has written that Wood's primary interest is in defending our need for privacy, but I think that’s an oversimplification. Firstly, privacy in the usual sense is something that can be defended as a right. Wood seems to be aiming at something so transgressive and explosive that not even customary private space would be able to contain it - something that needs to be hidden even from the eyes of those who you normally let into your private space, such as your family or most of your friends. Shadowed spaces, as I understand him, allow for what would be intolerable in public as well as private space. It’s no wonder that he originally wrote the paper for a criminology conference. He’s dealing with things, such as illicit sex, that are either criminalized or regarded as so shameful that they often feel like crimes. 

Secondly, his defense of shadowed spaces could also be seen as a defense for more publicness rather than less – depending on how you define the public. Publicness doesn’t have to mean public scrutiny or public visibility. It can, for instance, also mean open access, so that if you try to eliminate shadowed spaces by turning those spaces into spaces that are fully transparent and illuminated - spaces where certain categories of "shady" people or certain transgressive usages of space are banned - then you are actually decreasing publicness. Although it may sound slightly paradoxical, places often become less public the more publicly scrutinized or "problematized" they are. By banning sex on the beach, for instance, we make beaches less public than they would otherwise have been. Likewise, the more mutual surveillance there is in a community, the less hospitable it will usually be to outsiders.

To sum up, I don’t think you can say that Wood is defending either public space or private space tout court, because the very categorization of space as public or private is the result of a certain ordering effort, a certain regulation which in itself needs to be “public”, that is, to some extent commonly agreed upon and upheld by common norms. What he is defending is instead the existence of spaces that have escaped this normative regulation or publicly agreed ordering.

Some quotes:
What were the earliest shadowed spaces? That of the colored half-light underneath the blanket, or that beneath the bed? That of the stuffy darkness in the closet behind the clothes, or that behind the stairs on the way to the basement? What does it matter? All of them were shaded. Which came first? The mutual sharing of pubic anatomies with Carol Lewis in the blinkered light beneath the baldachino of the bushes; or the pants-down hanky-panky with Sonny Schwartz in the leaden demi-jour of the old gray Army blanket? With Denny Ring the making of plans and marshaling of stones to throw at Harry Puerto Rico in the shuttered murk below the porches; or the rending with my brother of all our books in the street-light shattered darkness of our bedroom after the light was out? Who cares about primacy? Each adds detail to a pattern of secret deeds committed in forgiving darkness, shaded from the eyes of parents, janitors, and other keepers of the norms ...
They’re the deeper recesses of abandoned lots cut off from view by screens of kudzu or the ramparts of long forgotten dumps; they’re the jungles of ailanthus that spring up along the embankments of the switching yards beyond the station master’s view; they’re the forest and the grass that flourish in the piece of land devoid of access except through someone’s yard, that are encouraged on the margins of open water that run with sewage during heavy rains, that thrive in the bottoms of unworked quarries; they’re the spaces underneath the bridges, spotted with guano and bereft of greenery or curtained with trees and cool in the summer; they’re the odd corner of the park or the state institution, the part of the federal lands just beyond the hole in the fence, the whole of the dying estate too large to be patrolled by the caretaker’s wife. They’re the places you think about going to let your dog run, the places you stay away from if you know what’s good for you, the places you have to go to to roll a drunk or meet what passes in these days for hobos. And they’re the places you go if you want to find ... discarded underpants.

They are important places, the shadowed spaces, a geographical subconscious without which it’s impossible to even think about non-normative behavior, a spatial underworld twined throughout the environments of other actions. In these places proscription is proscribed, and the relationships between the one and the many and the done and the not done are worked through and out with consequences as unforeseeable as the locations of the places themselves, inevitably tripped over in the doing and the looking and the feeling and the learning that specify the character required. Important places, the shadowed spaces, and complex and tricky. They can’t be made. They can’t be planned. They can’t be staked out and signed and known. They have to be ... left over, they have to ... over-looked, discovered by happenstance, found in need, cajoling even as cajoled. But though they can’t be made, the shadowed spaces can be unmade, wiped out, destroyed, made useless, impotent and truly empty ... and with ease…. Totalitarianism creeps on cat’s feet till it pounces for the kill. Then the shadowed spaces are the only place of refuge.

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