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Rethinking Social Relations: Towards a Different Phenomenology of Places

Part of the Lecture Notes in Geoinformation and Cartography book series (LNGC)

Abstract

So-called phenomenological approaches to the understanding of social and spatial relations usually deal with these in terms of ‘mental space’, ‘existential space’, ‘social space’ and so on. These modes of space are regarded as ‘subjective’, ‘soft’ and short on the ‘hard’ mathematical, geometric or objective properties that give spatial analysis a rigorous analytical capability. I argue here that this misrepresents and misunderstands a central principle of phenomenology and overlooks phenomenology’s potential to objectively map us in our world. In its essence phenomenology is founded on the relation of intentionality. It is not necessarily about an interior mentality at all but about a subject-object relation in the world. The model that says there is an interior subjective or imaginative realm on the one hand and an exterior objective, physical or real one on the other, between which relations must be established for human knowledge or action to be produced, is replaced by one in which a perfectly real subject at one end of an intentional relation is connected to a perfectly real object at the other. A different phenomenology of places would be about how these relations between subjects and objects are structured and intentional knowledge and action mediated in the world. It would be about the environmental relation where the notion of ‘environment’ is captured in the relations between intentional subjects and the objects of those subjects’ attention and intention. I argue that this is eventually about how we order and construct human ‘worlds’ technologically and spatially so that we may effectively inhabit and use them. These ‘worlds’ exist as whole networks of subjects and objects, in part-whole, mutually constitutive, relations with ‘worlds’. The translation of the intentional relation into geography and urbanism involves us in an historical process of the construction of metageographical structures through which subjects establish and order their knowledge of and practices in the world. Enclosures, divisions and connections made by us in the world have shaped these structures and established the geographical and urban frames of our lives. This requires us to understand the human world as an historical construction, an anthroposphere, of regions and places, as equipment for framing our knowledge of the world and our local and translocal actions in it. I start by looking critically at social relations as these are imagined today, finding their origins in an Enlightenment metaphysics which bifurcates nature into mental and corporeal realms, and suggest an alternative founded in this reassessment of phenomenology. This alternative centres our attention on the anthroposphere as a construction, and a topological ‘structure of places’, organised as a layering of places and infrastructural ‘grids’ into a set of normative ‘levels’ which have a metageographical, intelligibility-giving and practice-defining character. ‘Structures of places’, ‘grids’ and ‘levels’ are perfectly objective and mappable and are proposed as the foundation of a new phenomenological urban and geographical model.

Keywords

  • Social Relation
  • Post Office
  • Intentional Relation
  • Network Society
  • Human World

These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Patrick Heelan, to whom I will refer later, used the word ‘non-objective’. The point is that the subjective–objective dichotomy is rendered superfluous in a position which understands us as actors and constructors of a sociotechnical world rather than subjects reflecting from an interior subjectivity onto an exterior objective world.

  2. 2.

    The influence of globality, or the world, on our everyday sense of order or coherence is not captured in the aggregative social networks model—which needs the larger material frameworks I will be suggesting here to convincingly stabilise social relations.

  3. 3.

    Carl Mitcham is only one of the more recent theorists who has argued that we live in a world of our own making and that the things we encounter in that world are artefacts. However, Mitcham also sees this as a something new whereas I am suggesting, along with others like Arendt and Leroi-Gourhan, that this technical character and capacity has defined the human condition throughout history.

  4. 4.

    Heidegger used the terms zuhanden and vorhanden for these different conditions of objects as being respectively engaged with the subject as part of the action, and present to attention as an obstruction or in the course of preparation or maintenance of settings for action (Heidegger 1962: 135–148).

  5. 5.

    What the ‘flat ontologies’ of Latour and others like Marston et al. (2005) miss with their networks freely connecting heterogeneous subjects and objects across scale levels, is the dependency of the objects (and subjects) themselves on scaled networks of objects (and subjects) for their definition as existent things.

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Read, S. (2014). Rethinking Social Relations: Towards a Different Phenomenology of Places. In: Rau, S., Schönherr, E. (eds) Mapping Spatial Relations, Their Perceptions and Dynamics. Lecture Notes in Geoinformation and Cartography. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-00993-3_8

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