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British History in the Long 18th Century Seminar
Institute of Historical Research, University of London
14 December 2011
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“‘Why I am tired of turning’: a theoretical interlude”
Katrina Navickas (University of Hertfordshire)
Permalink for this paragraph 0 In many ways I am taking the ‘spatial turn’. The meaning and role of space in history is often misunderstood, so this section outlines some of the key theories. I then argue that although ‘turning’ is valuable in the short term, methodologically, too much spinning around will make historians dizzy. We must ground ourselves in the material and physical past, and in particular, rediscover a sense of place in history.
Permalink for this paragraph 0 Until the 1970s, space was relegated in importance to time as a major force in history. Whiggish, Hegelian, and Marxist approaches were centred on teleological notions of progression and ‘stages’ of development over time. Space played little or no role in these changes. In the 1970s and 1980s, the sociologist David Harvey re-evaluated the role of space in Marxist theory. He argued that physical landscapes reflected the logic (or illogic) of commodity production at any given historical moment. From the late 1980s postmodernist historians challenged such super-structures and teleologies. Conducting the ‘linguistic turn’, historians focused on the agency of words and text in historical events and movements. Significantly, much of the debate about the ‘linguistic turn’ was conducted by historians of the popular politics of the ‘age of reform’. Attention was therefore again directed away from geography and the spatial context of events and ideologies.
Permalink for this paragraph 0 During these postmodernist debates over the agency of words, historical appreciation of space was diverted into a different ‘sphere’. Jurgen Habermas’s Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere was translated into English in 1989, a work that still casts a very long shadow over studies of the long eighteenth century. His idea of a post-Restoration milieu of political debate outside the Court has been ‘spatialised’ by historians obsessed with the coffee house and with other venues of extra-parliamentary politics. Even historians of the early Victorian period have stretched Habermas’s model further in time and space. According to James Vernon, Oldham elites and their opponents were ‘contesting each other’s definitions of the political public sphere according to their interpretation of the constitution’. Patrick Joyce has come to similar conclusions concerning popular politics in Victorian Manchester. James Epstein concludes that, ‘In large part the history of popular radicalism can indeed be written as a contest to gain access to and to appropriate sites of assembly and expression, to produce, at least potentially, a ‘plebeian counter-public sphere’. Christina Parolin is adamant that, despite criticism of its over use by historians, the public sphere is the best way of describing popular politics in this period. Indeed, she rejects the idea of a counter-plebeian public sphere or other variations of Habermas’s original bourgeois model, and argues strongly that lower class radicals in London were entering bourgeois spaces and then altering them to suit their own needs and goals.
Permalink for this paragraph 0 The debate over the linguistic turn died down in the late 1990s, but the idea of ‘turning’ has persisted, as has the public sphere. Almost any form of revisionist history seems to take a ‘turn’ of some kind: so we’ve had the cultural turn in the 2000s, and now seems to be the time for the ‘spatial turn’. Essentially, each recent ‘turn’ in historical methodology focuses on semiotics: the meanings given to and interpreted from textual, cultural, and spatial forms. Geographers took a cultural turn several years ago. Denis Cosgrove viewed the landscape as a semiotic language that contemporaries could ‘read’. So, the act of naming invests places with meaning in collective memory, and the town becomes a page in a book, with streets as sentences and landmark buildings as punctuation. Paralleling Harvey, Stephen Daniels and James S. Duncan defined landscape as a product of power and its representation by the landed. Hence the fences and stone walls of enclosure that divided up the fields and moors were seen as a visual representation of the power of private ownership over common use. The role of the geographer or historian was therefore to uncover this ‘writing’ and to ‘translate’ it, and to decode the visual symbolism of landscapes.
Permalink for this paragraph 0 It is worth going back to the original meisters of spatial theory. Georges Lefebvre and Edward Soja both put forward a tripartite definition of space. Space is ‘practice’, ‘representational’, and ‘representation.’ This threefold model is useful for understanding the spaces of popular politics in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
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- ‘Spatial practice’ connects everyday routine with the infrastructure that organises that routine. Spatial practices turn places into spaces. Michel de Certeau’s oft-cited chapter on the act of walking from his Practices of Everyday Life shows how everyday actions can turn places into spaces of meaning and history.
- The second spatial form, ‘representational’, for Lefebvre, is ‘tied to the relations of production’. In essence, representations of space are Harvey’s spaces of capital, whose physical form and the meanings ascribed to them are determined by wealth and elites. Patrick Joyce interprets space as a form of representing power, although he draws his influence from Foucault rather than Marx. Representational spaces can be found in the newly built town centres and civic buildings in the eighteenth century. The wave of urban improvement (characterised by Peter Borsay as an ‘urban renaissance’) represented wealthy and vocal local elites’ identities and desires for those identities to be represented in architecture. Civic spaces in this respect were designed to project the commercial wealth and sobriety of the merchant and manufacturing middle classes who formed the ‘principal inhabitants’ of towns. As Jon Stobart et al have indicated in their analysis of Georgian spaces of consumption, the new civic buildings and ‘public’ areas of towns were spaces of representation of power.
- ‘Spaces of representation’ (or Soja’s ‘Thirdspace’), or lived spaces, form the counterbalance to representational spaces. These are counter spaces, which challenge or subvert dominant spatial practices or spatialities. This model echoes de Certeau’s interpretation of everyday life, in which individuals could re-appropriate spaces for uses other than those for which they were intended. These spaces are significant because they are where popular agency is situated. Protesters subverted the meanings of civic spaces by occupying them, posting oppositional posters on the walls, singing songs parodying their opponents in these spaces. Protesters therefore used spatial practices to change representational spaces into spaces of representation. Lived spaces also parallel historians’ notions of ‘plebeian counter-public spheres’, spaces of subversion of hierarchical norms.
Permalink for this paragraph 0 Thirdspace also parallels Foucault’s concept of ‘heterotopias’. Heterotopias were ‘counter-sites, a kind of effectively enacted utopia in which the real sites, all the other real sites that can be found within the culture, are simultaneously represented, contested, and inverted’. Some heterotopias are associated with sacred or forbidden spaces; others are spaces for those who deviate from societal norms (which for our purposes, include political radicals). These spaces are linked to ‘slices of time’. Foucault’s first type of heterotopia is infinite, building to timelessness. He gave the examples of museums, theatres, and libraries, which offer a temporary but all-encompassing world of escapism for their visitors. I consider the new utopian spaces envisaged by nineteenth-century radicals: for example, the Chartist Halls of Science built in the 1840s to provide venues for the ‘march of intellect’, Owenite socialist communities, the Chartist Land Plan, and radical dreams of emigration to America. These sites, real and imaginary, were all visions of a radical world outwith the contemporary restrictions of early nineteenth-century British politics and society, but never completely achieved. The second type of heterotopia is even more prominent in the history of collective action in this period: transitory or fleeting. Foucault ascribes this to fairs and carnivals, here today gone tomorrow spaces of play, subversion, the world turned upside down. Camp meetings, processions, and monster meetings organised by Chartists and others conveyed this carnivalesque atmosphere, and harked back to a longer tradition of charivari and popular custom in food riots and other forms of regulatory protest.
Permalink for this paragraph 0 * However, I’m tired of turning, and I’m tired of the public sphere. *
Permalink for this paragraph 0 For me, there’s still something of the simulacra about the spatial turn. To use a bad spatial analogy, spatial practices and representational spaces feel a little too 2-D. The ‘spatial turn’ has come to imply the literal and metaphorical use of ‘space’, ‘place’, and ‘mapping’ to denote a geographic dimension to the production of culture. Most books and articles using the spatial turn refer to de Certeau, Lefebvre, and the other French philosophers; they play with the idea of spectacle, the wandering gaze of the flâneur enchanted by the new modern of city streets. Romantic literary studies in particular are infused with interpretations of Foucault and Baudelaire, and they are fond of making historical actors engage in a dérive around the West End of Regency London. They offer a picture of, as Barry Doyle has shrewdly identified, a ‘new and unproblematically unified middle class remaking the city in their own form’. But even if certain parts of Regency London did resemble revolutionary Paris, most of the city, and the rest of Britain did not. Early nineteenth-century Manchester was not Paris, as the French observer Leon de Faucher realised very quickly. Mancunians and other city dwellers were not flighty flaneurs. They did ramble, not in search of the spectacle of the streets like Regency dandies, but rather as a form of manly exercise on the moors to get away from the smoke of the factories. I argue that historians and geographers ought to be thinking in 3-D. I seek to put place back into space.
Permalink for this paragraph 0 Similarly, although the Habermasian public sphere is useful for the earlier part of the eighteenth century, we need to find an alternative model for the age of reform and mass political participation. This is not to reject the fact that ‘public’ and ‘private’ were still crucially relevant terms: radicals, trade unionists, and Chartists fought over access to public space, challenging the meaning of ‘public’ and ‘the people’. However, using the terms public and private is not the same as imposing a Habermasian framework on popular politics in this period. I also avoid the term ‘counter-plebeian public sphere’. For a start, the term seems to invite a battle of semantics rather than a considered examination of what spaces the working classes had access to and controlled. Secondly, it is still predicated on the Habermasian model that describes popular political participation as:
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- literate and based on text;
- based in coffee house culture and its extensions such as assembly rooms and theatres;
- essentially polite and sociable in a bourgeois way.
Permalink for this paragraph 0 It does not fit the world of popular politics described by so many historians, especially Robert Poole, Paul Pickering, James Epstein, and right back to E.P. Thompson. Popular politics in this period was not solely based on texts, coffee houses, and politeness but rather was one of carnivalesque ritual, visual and aural symbolism, clothing and banners and other semiotic material items, oral communication and song, notwithstanding all the other ways in which people performed and expressed their political beliefs including processions, parades, demonstrations, strikes. What Paul Pickering terms ‘class without words’ – other forms of communicating using culture, oral communication, and the body – does not fit the public sphere model, and nor should it.
Permalink for this paragraph 0 Furthermore, both the ‘spatial turn’ and the ‘public sphere’ fail to provide the answer to all my questions about what was shaping popular politics in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Where did structures other than culture fit into the causes of unrest and political change? What about the law and custom, which were two key structures shaping everyday lives and politics? I could not fit the poor law, enclosure, legislation about working conditions, and customary notions of the law into the framework provided by the semiotics of space. Nor could I find in the spatial turn much about feelings and emotion, and particularly about one feeling that I know had a deep hold on many of the historical actors and groups that I study: a sense of place.
Permalink for this paragraph 0 So I seek to put the place back into space. This is not a call for a return to pure empiricism, whatever that might be. We still need to understand the semiotics of space, and consider space as a social construction with the potential for agency. Yet beneath the symbolism, we must also remember place. Like space, place can also have three meanings: location (in the strict Cartesian sense); locale (a material setting for social relations), and a sense of place (individuals’ emotional response to that setting). Geographers have placed different emphasis on each over time. The Cartesian dimension held sway for physical geographers whereas locale is a key feature in traditional historical geography. Humanistic geographers such as Yi-Fu Tuan and Edward Relph examined a sense of place in more depth. For them, place was an idea and a way of ‘being in the world’. Although perhaps older ideas of ‘mental maps’ are now outdated in current geographical literature, I still think that Tuan’s notion of topophilia and Relph’s consideration of notions of boundedness and restlessness offer a valuable experiential notion of place, a phenomenology that cannot be found by studying the semiotics of space.
Permalink for this paragraph 0 Understanding the experience of physical place – its phenomenology – is highly important for understanding both unique events and everyday life in the past. Whereas space situates people in society, place situates them in history. Whereas space is useful for understanding the relationship between physical and symbolic environments and historical actors, place gives those actions meaning, historical context, and geographical identity. Denis Cosgrove’s interpretation of landscapes of enclosure suggested that the hedges and stone walls in the landscape visually represented enclosers’ ownership of the land. The symbolism of enclosure in the patterning of the landscape and the cartography of maps demonstrated enclosers’ attachment to principles of agricultural improvement and mass production farming, and his exclusion of commoners from that land. Yet practised spaces require physicality. As Nicholas Blomley has shown in his examination of the meaning of hedges in enclosure disputes, the physical was as important as the symbolic. Those commoners did not just fight semantically and symbolically against those hedges. They tore them up physically, because they were a physical boundary to their everyday practices and freedom of movement. We must integrate the semiotics of space with the physicality and materiality of place. Material culture was as important in shaping the lives and identities of individuals and groups.
Permalink for this paragraph 0 Place connects individuals and groups with the historical meanings of space and its practices. It grounds experience in physical, legal, and customary structures. Andy Wood’s useful examination of the role of custom in early modern England can be extended into the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Place was defined by customary laws and customary rituals. Those customary laws and rituals were expressions of individuals’ and groups’ identities in relation to place.
Permalink for this paragraph 0 a). Custom helped to define the distinctiveness of places. It established what rights were attached to inhabitants of a locality (for example, the use of a commons for gleaning or fuel gathering), and thereby defined the particular culture of that locality.
Permalink for this paragraph 0 b). Custom defined the identity of individuals and communities in relation to place, as ‘the inheritors of tradition, rights, and duties’. This included plebeians as well as elites.
Permalink for this paragraph 0 c). Custom determined the uses of space and who could use space. The rights that custom denoted could be exclusionary; they could therefore restrict and define space by gender, class, age, or other social distinctions. Custom often defined the rights of working men through the exclusion of women, migrants, paupers, and other groups regarded as marginal or threatening to livelihoods.
Permalink for this paragraph 0 During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, political groups fought over the symbolic meanings of place-as-power, but they did so in an attempt to change the social and physical conditions of the lower classes. Barry Reay and Keith Snell’s work on ‘microhistories’ is important in this respect. To study local communities and their attachment to place is crucial to understanding wider changes in society and reactions to those changes. Place shaped the identities and a sense of belonging of both individuals and groups. During the late eighteenth century, the process of enclosure, as Eileen Yeo has described it, encompassed not just common land, but also of urban public space, and political space. This exclusion from space in turn disenfranchised inhabitants from place. Popular politics and protest, therefore, involved a reaction against this process, and a defence of place, its customs and its identity. In short, while space is about signs and representations, place is about custom, law, and identity.
Permalink for this paragraph 0 Cultural geographers have most recently considered place within a discourse of identity politics. Here I mirror their argument that place identity involved ‘differential access to power in given locales’. A sense of place and belonging versus dispossession and exclusion is a key theme throughout Doreen Massey’s work. Massey has, as part of a recent cultural and film project, written eloquently about parallels between historical and modern communities who opposed the capitalization or privatization of land. Local communities and commoners in the past fought against enclosure and the plantation of mono-sylvicultural forests; modern campaigns against the selling off of national forests and foreign ownership of land and business. Similarly, there is a tradition of defending customary working practices and political economy against large scale agriculture, free market capitalism of large employers and now multi-national corporations. New industrial workers in the early nineteenth century fostered self-help and co-operation: friendly societies rather than the ‘truck’ system imposed by employers; Owenite socialism rather than reliance on the free market; and during this current financial crisis, there seems to be a move away from large banks towards the Post Office and Co-operative bank. Historical movements such as the Swing Riots and anti-enclosure protests, and modern anti-globalization campaigns in her view are far from reactionary. Rather, they represent ‘not local protectionism but a critique of dispossession’.
Permalink for this paragraph 0 The landscape was not an inert background to everyday life, but a source of work, income, and subsistence, what the anthropologist Tim Ingold has termed as ‘task–scapes’. My research has shown how Luddites and opponents of enclosure were defending such ‘task-scapes’. Such working landscapes blur the boundary between urban and rural, industrial and agricultural. Popular attachment to place and its histories is also a major theme running through Malcolm Chase and Alun Howkins’s work on nineteenth-century radicals’ continued attachment to the land. Radicals shared an ‘ingrained, realistic’ notion of land valorised according to its use rather than its exchange value: again, their ‘task-scape’. Luddism in 1811-12, Swing in the 1830s, and the Chartist Land Plan in the 1840s represented a deep concern with ‘skill, security, independence, and status’. Their position in society was defined by their lack of property and wealth, and their tenuous or non-existent hold over space. But commoners and tenants excluded from enclosed land, handloom weavers, and other workers losing their customary rights maintained an attachment to place, a sense of place and geographical identity, and sought to defend it through custom. Radicalism was a voice of the excluded and entailed a protest against exclusion; even though a large proportion of the adherents of radical groups and trade unions were industrialised and urbanised, they were not proletarianised. Others were even more excluded: the marginal: landless labourers, migrants and the ‘unsettled poor’, Irish immigrants. Geographer Timothy Cresswell has similarly argued that spatial practices within places had a normative and moral component. People who acted ‘out of place’ or who did not ‘know their place’ were considered by other inhabitants to have committed a transgression.
Permalink for this paragraph 0 The language of inclusion and exclusion runs through space, place, and popular politics in England from 1789 to 1848. Political and social movements critiqued their dispossession from the mythical ancient constitution, from the civic body politic, from common land and landscapes, from public space in towns, and from the right to combine to maintain working and living standards. They fought for inclusion and re-inclusion by claiming spaces, their uses and their meanings. They fought for place as well as space.
Permalink for this paragraph 0 Re-placing the public sphere with the body politic:
Permalink for this paragraph 1 Radicals and trade unions were also fighting for a place in the body politic (alongside or perhaps more than a space in the ‘public sphere’). The body politic is usually applied to the relationship between society and power in medieval and early modern England, and it is not as common a term in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Perhaps its associations with commonality and counsel (potent concepts during the Commonwealth) no longer accorded with the two central constitutional developments that changed the character of the British state from 1688. However, I argue that its principles were still maintained on a local level. Local and national elites defended their own ideal of the body politic: based as it was on privilege, property, custom, The civic body politic represented in microcosm what the national body politic should be. From the middle ages, it meant the body in corporate, private bodies with public functions. This meaning came under intense debate during the eighteenth century as towns expanded and different interests sought to rationalize or control their patchwork of powers.
Permalink for this paragraph 0 The body politic was also the politics of the street. Picketing, parading, loitering, and other uses of the body were essential tactics in the fight for space. Protest included violence and virtual threats to the body in attacks on property. Authorities restricted the liberty to meet in a space, and to move between places. Challenging these restrictions involved using the body to move and to meet. In protest, individuals and groups therefore used their bodies physically to claim part of the civic body politic as represented in the symbolic landscape. They formed an alternative collective body in civic spaces denied to them, or created their own in new spaces.
Permalink for this paragraph 0 The idea of the body is also useful in understanding the gendering of space in this period. Recent studies of the experience of women, and on masculinities, in the eighteenth century have again used the public sphere as a model for describing the exclusion of women and gay men from particular sites of power and politics. Others have described how women were able to ‘feminize’ space for their advantage, especially in relation to consumerism. The notion of the body politic, by contrast, offers something more than relegating the experience of gender to the symbolic environment: sexuality and gender were about bodies, how those bodies were viewed, and the extent to which those bodies could participate within the larger body of society according to their gender or behaviour.
 Barney Warf and Santa Arias, The Spatial Turn: Interdisciplinary Perspectives (Abingdon, 2009), p. 3.
Permalink for this paragraph 0  James Vernon, Politics and the People: A Study in English Political Culture, c. 1815-1867 (Cambridge, 1993); James Vernon, ‘Who’s Afraid of the Linguistic Turn? The Politics of Social History and its Discontents’, Social History (1994).
Permalink for this paragraph 0  Geoff Eley, ‘Nations, Publics, and Political Cultures: Placing Habermas in the Nineteenth Century’, in Craig Calhoun, ed., Habermas and the Public Sphere (MIT, 1992), p. 289.
Permalink for this paragraph 0  For example, Ralph Kingston, ‘Mind Over Matter? History and the Spatial Turn’, Cultural and Social History, 7: 1 (March 2010), 111-122; a forthcoming issue of Women’s History Review on gendered spaces; Beat Kümin (ed.), Political Space in Pre-industrial Europe (Aldershot, 2009); a whole year-long seminar series at the LSE featuring papers informed by the spatial turn.
Permalink for this paragraph 0  Christopher Tilley, A Phenomenology of Landscape: Places, Paths and Movements (Oxford, 1994); Stephen Daniels, Fields of Vision: Landscape Imagery and National Identity in England and the United States (Princeton, 1993); James S. Duncan, The City as Text: the Politics of Landscape Interpretation in the Kandyan Kingdom (Cambridge, 1990); Trevor J. Barnes and James S. Duncan, Writing Worlds: Discourse, Text and Metaphor in the Representation of Landscape (Abingdon, 1992); Simon Pugh, Reading Landscape: Country-City-Capital (Manchester, 1990).
Permalink for this paragraph 0  Barry Doyle, ‘review of Chris Otter, The Victorian Eye: A Political History of Light and Vision in Britain, 1800–1910 (Chicago, 2008)’, Urban History, 37 (2010), 109.
Permalink for this paragraph 0  Charles Withers, ‘Place and the Spatial Turn in Geography and History’, Journal of the History of Ideas, 70: 4 (2009), 639-40; Yi-Fu Tuan, Topophilia: A Study of Environmental Perception, Attitudes and Values (New Jersey, 1974); Edward Relph, Place and Placelessness (London, 1976); Martin Heidegeer, Being and Time (Oxford, 1962).
Permalink for this paragraph 0  Barry Reay, Rural Englands: Labouring Lives in the Nineteenth Century (Basingstoke, 2004); Keith Snell, Parish and Belonging: Community, Identity and Welfare in England and Wales, 1700–1950 (Cambridge, 2009).
Permalink for this paragraph 0  Doreen Massey, ‘Landscape/Space/Politics: An Essay’, http://thefutureoflandscape.wordpress.com/landscapespacepolitics-an-essay/; Doreen Massey, Space, Place and Gender (Cambridge, 1994).
Permalink for this paragraph 0  Malcolm Chase, The People’s Farm: English Radical Agrarianism, 1775–1840 (Oxford, 1988), p. 8; Wendy Darby, Landscape and Identity: Geographies of Nation and Class in England (Oxford, 2003).
Permalink for this paragraph 0  Brian Cowan, ‘What was masculine about the public sphere?: Gender and the coffeehouse milieu in post-Restoration England’, History Workshop Journal, 51 (2001); Parolin, Radical Spaces; Rendell, Pursuit of Pleasure; Beat Kumin, Political Space in Pre-Industrial Europe (Farnham, 2009); Helen Hills, ed., Architecture and the Politics of Gender in Early Modern Europe (Aldershot, 2003).
Permalink for this paragraph 0 © Katrina Navickas