Space in Writing

Michael du Plessis

I want to think and talk a little about place and space and the question of mapping: how we occupy space and how we can write about that.

Many of you might be familiar with this short piece by Jorge Luis Borges: “On Exactitude in Science.” Borges, who very often used other sources as his primary material, takes this from Viajes de varones prudentes, by Suárez Miranda.

My question is: What is the story? Is the story the territory? Or is it another kind of map? Or is it something altogether different?

In the story, we have the empire. And it seems to be a story about exactitude, not just in science, but exactitude in representations. So much so, that in order to be adept at both science and representation—to model something, which is what mapping and cartography would do—you would have to duplicate what you are modeling or mapping exactly as it is. In this version, the map becomes the perfect representation—the map doubles the empire. By the way, it’s also interesting to think about this in terms of the wider sense of “empire,” in terms of imperialism.

Our seeing of the world itself as a kind of map we take to be real, right? Our map coincides with the “terrain.” That might be why, at the end of Borges’ text, there’s a separation between the map and the empire.

Writing Exercise Part One:

What I’d like you to do is just describe a place, very briefly. Take about 5 minutes: a very short description, key words. Think of a place and write as much as you can. Whether it’s a vast geographical space, or whether it’s a room, or whether it’s a part of a room, just describe that space very quickly.

This is going to be a three-part exercise. Parts two and three will follow shortly.

OK, I just wanted you to have a few key words and a sense of what this place is.

Writing Exercise Part Two:

Now think of another space. It can be a space similar to the first one; it can be a space that’s the diametrical opposite of the first one; it can be an altogether different kind of space. And describe that very briefly. Take about another 5 minutes for that.

Writing Exercise Part Three:

Now the third part of the exercise veers into what might be undoable. I would like you to think of what it would mean to layer the first space on top of the other. Describe this—you can overlay the two spaces, or you can create a composite of the two spaces. The way the map and the territory work. I’m interested in laying one sort of mapping of a space over another—and seeing what happens then.

To go back to the Borges parable, I’m interested in what happens when the map starts to decay. I’m wondering if there aren’t three possible spaces in the story. One is the territory. One is the map as it was, a perfect model of the duplicate of the terrain. The third one is the map falling into ruins, in some ways it is the end of the empire: when all these grids have become tatters that can only be inhabited by beggars and animals. I’m interested in that—in inventing a kind of space outside. Trying to create a kind of space outside.

I was initially going to talk about psychogeography, a rather vast field. One of the claims made by psychogeography is that it attempts to trace the psychological impact that place has on people. That different kinds of places, in fact, engender different kinds of feelings. From the point of view of a great deal of psychogeography, this is an objective exercise. This is an attempt, almost, to claim that spaces can generate these responses in us. It’s not simply our projection onto the world, but I think there is always that give and take. It’s also of course our projection onto the world.

So, thinking about that a little bit further, I want to consider the history of walking as a way of occupying space. From the 19th century onwards, in France, a relatively new figure appears: the flâneur or “the stroller.” This figure shows up in Baudelaire’s writing and as early as Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, “The Man of the Crowd”—which I really recommend that you read. “The Man of the Crowd” is told by a first-person narrator who states that he’s convalescing from a serious illness. He’s in London, and he keeps seeing this strange man around. And then, eventually, the first-person narrator starts following the strange man around—stalking him, in other words. There’s something kind of creepy going on. But as the narrator follows this man around, through a whole night and day in London, back into night again, he realizes that what drives the man he’s following is simply that man’s desire to be with a crowd. In other words, if you think about urbanization and industrialization happening together, this is a new way of occupying spaces, a kind of irrational way of occupying space, because you’re not getting from point A to point B in a purposeful way. You’re wandering, in some way, in a random way. In some ways, it’s in contrast to the rationalized, routinized occupation of space after the Industrial Revolution and the changes in work.

I think that idea of random wandering has since been very crucial to some traditions of “avant-garde” writing, and I’m not particularly invested in this term. If we think about the Surrealists, for example, a number of their procedures and practices, I think, were designed to escape from the self. Hence, I think their fondness in the early years, especially, for automatic writing, where you put yourself in a trance-like state and become a kind of medium. This automatic writing was borrowed, in a sense, from 19th century séances and so on. There has been a tradition among various avant-gardes of associations with the mystical, supernatural, the occult, as the case may be. But if automatic writing does this with words, you can do this with space as well, so, for the Surrealists, aimless walking around Paris, in groups, looking for those chance encounters that they saw as signs of objective chance, is likewise a kind of automatism, an escape from the rational self. Maybe you come across a deserted store that has a strange mannequin in it. Maybe you come across a sign that speaks to you in some way. These chance encounters start to appear as though they may be fate in some way, but we realize these are simply happy accidents.

And then, where the term psychogeography is used elsewhere very explicitly is in relation to the writings of Guy Debord, who’s best known for his book The Society of the Spectacle. Even if you haven’t read it, you’ve seen that phrase. And the group he was associated with, the Situationists. The Situationists were a group working through the late 1950s into the 60s. Various stories talk about them, about how crucial or not they may have been to the May 1968 student and workers strikes that brought down de Gaulle’s government. But the Situationists felt that the duty of the avant-garde, or the duty of one way to revolutionize space, is not to follow the prescribed set patterns. If you think about the patterns we very often map, they go between the space we live in, and the space we work in, and back again. Or the space we live in and some place of entertainment. In a sense, all these movements are orchestrated by the way the space is mapped: Do you have a long commute? Do you walk? Do you drive? Do you use mass transport? In response to this kind of coding of space, where space is meant to be hyper-functional to work, institutions can often determine our trajectories.

Anne McClintock has used the term anachronistic spaces, for the way in which certain terrains are viewed from a colonial perspective. The most obvious would be the division, in the 50s and the 60s, into the First, Second, and Third World—the distinctions between overdeveloped territories and “underdeveloped” territories, and so on and so forth. That these are very often colonies are imagined in some way as backwaters, which term seems to suggest a kind of anachronistic space. Spaces that are out of time.

But to return to Debord and the question of psychogeography, the Situationists felt that the engagement with space was the way to revolutionize what they saw in post-War France as the consumer society, the society that starts to consume not just commodities, but in particular the images of commodities, hence his notion of the society of the spectacle. In a spectacular society, everything is organized to make you a spectator.

One of the slogans generated by the Situationists during the May 1968 uprising was Beneath the paving stones there’s the beach. So you could—by pulling up the cobblestones of the Parisian street—be able to connect with a radically different space.

To go back to the question of “empire” and imperialism, I was born and grew up in South Africa. In South Africa, the Khoisan people—sometimes referred to as “San people”— have been granted, post-apartheid, recognition as a First People by international organizations. They were nomadic, they were wanderers, so when the Dutch colonists, in the 17th century, started colonizing South Africa, they found all these people not only looked very different from them, they also lived in a very different way. Because they couldn’t understand what nomadism meant, they couldn’t understand that these people were nomadic, that this is how they lived for centuries. The Dutch colonists saw that as doing nothing. They saw this as laziness. The Protestant work ethic—the Dutch colonists were really soaked in this. “Wait, these people just stroll, walk around. They do nothing.” The South African writer J.M. Coetzee wrote an interesting essay about colonial encounters in South Africa: he writes that it’s as though the Dutch sort of looked at this landscape and saw that it was empty for them. Because it wasn’t full in the way that they imagined a full landscape would be. Which would have stable habitations. Therefore, it was even easier for them to see the Khoisan people as radically other. As not human beings, as closer to animals, and this indeed determined a very genocidal project.

I’m thinking about that sort of nomadism, wandering, etc. A lot of this may be nostalgia. I don’t really want to wave the flag that any of the Surrealists really had the answer. Or that, Situationism is what we should go back to. I just want us to think a little bit about the way the different groups have thought about, in the 20th century, from the period of the Modern at least, about wandering, walking, occupying space—and the effect that space might have on the people within it.

But the Situationists wanted to see the city as a really open matrix of possibilities. Possibilities for experiences we haven’t already had—that may be outside of the way we’re rigorously programmed, by the needs of a consumption economy, to move. Think about GPS tracking. You’re in a Starbucks; there’s a Barnes & Noble next door: your trajectory is determined by certain kinds of anticipations of your consumption, as you move through the space.

I’m going off on a tangent here, but if you look at the work of the German Jewish philosopher, literary critic, aesthetic philosopher, Walter Benjamin: Benjamin was fascinated by the period of consumption that immediately preceded him. Which is why he was so fascinated with the arcades that were precursors to our shopping malls of today. Because by the end of the 19th century, they had kind of fallen into disrepair. They’d been abandoned, they were dusty, the heat—this was a closed space without air conditioning, before the invention of air conditioning. And these arcades had fallen into disrepair. And Benjamin was fascinated by a sense of the ruins of a previous kind of capitalism, and felt that, by revivifying these ruins—coming across an abandoned carousel, that sort of moment—that the energy, the desires that the carousel both embodies in some way but also provokes. A touch or movement. You’re moving in a circle, so merry-go-round unfortunately is preprogrammed that way. You can’t gallop off into the sunset on one of the sea-horse monsters. Would that one could. But Benjamin was interested precisely in the sense of the decay of capitalism, which I think we’re witnessing in a very dramatic form because of the current global organization.

If the arcades were the ruins in a way of 19th-century capitalism, much has been made of the aesthetics of ruins. From 80s postmodernism in architecture with the fake column that’s kind of broken that plays on the idea of the column as a support that falls—the society of the spectacle can accommodate the seeming disruptions within itself. The lost layer of capitalism is always layered under what we see now. I think that’s important. The question for the Situationists was not so much to remain within a space of looking. They wanted to see the city as an open matrix of possibilities. In other words, the ability to generate unforeseen situations, rather than the way that space and time are programmed for us, very rigorously by all kinds of technologies, by the seemingly universal spread of capitalism.

If there’s one thing I want us to think about as a key thought, it’s about the ambivalence or the ambiguity of space. Any space that we’ve had.

Because I live in L.A. now, and I live very close to Hollywood, it’s been fascinating for me to see how the really seedy Hollywood has been gentrified in a way that mimics the gentrification of Times Square in New York—that’s really the model. Out of the really fun, sleazy decay that was Hollywood in the 80s, we now have a cleaned-up Hollywood with real estate, and people complaining about the homeless. Because once you’ve invested in real estate, then the homeless become a problem, even though homeless people may have been there before you. They’re say, “I already lived in this area, right. What are you doing here?” Or downtown L.A., where there’s been a lot of tension with repurposing buildings, industrial buildings, and using them as lofts. But this sets up a lot of conflict between new loft owners and, again, fairly established communities of the homeless in downtown L.A.

I want us to open this up to different ways of thinking—in aesthetic terms. We can also     think about it in political terms. I wonder about the way in which the aesthetic and the political together can in some way resist, which is a tricky word to use: the spectacle, the consumer spectacle. And at what point does that simply become part of the consumer spectacle. Surrealism, as you may know, was notorious in its commercial success. That’s why Breton hated Salvador Dali so much—because Dali kept on making money from Surrealist practices. He monetized the whole business of Surrealism, which is why Breton made an anagram of his name and called him “Avida Dollars.” I’m also very interested in anagrams because anagrams do in language what scrambling spaces might do in spatial dimensions.

In answer to a question about urban space and queerness, L.A. has responded, I think, to its fear that men may cruise each other in public restrooms and that drug users may use drugs in the restrooms by doing away with restrooms. L.A. is a city without restrooms almost. If you’ve left your home, unless you go and buy a coffee at the Starbucks and use their bathroom, you can’t—there’s a very strict control of the space. One very interesting example is Pershing Square in L.A., which is one of the most awful places I’ve ever been in, as it is now. It’s all concrete. It’s a kind of concrete labyrinth, which the city has painted these bright colors in an attempt to conceal from the visitor that this is simply a concrete maze. Which is odd because supposedly John Rechy’s novel, City of Night, talked about the way that men cruised each other in the old Pershing Square Park, which was a beautiful park where men cruised, and families were happy, and had a beautiful array of trees. The city responded to that (the publicity Pershing Square received after Rechy’s book was published, supposedly) by making this the most unwelcoming space you can imagine. It’s awful, and claustrophobic, and frightening, and there’s concrete everywhere. So, the re-siting of space can go in many different directions.

Writing Exercise Part Four:

Now, what I’d like you to do is one of the practices that the Situationists were very fond of. This is material that I’ve downloaded from a site called Mythogeography. The site and the details are on the page there. The Situationists, in some way, thought in an organized way about wandering aimlessly and mythogeography—that people have a similar sense about wandering aimlessly: drifting. Or as the term comes from French, dérive. To drift. To wander aimlessly. This is a starter kit for drifters. First steps to drift or dériver. The first one is, “Knowing why. It’s not a stroll in the park, but it doesn’t have to be complicated. Drifts are for opening up the world, clearing eyes, and peeling away the layers of spectacle, deception, and that strange ‘hiddenness in plain sight’ that coats the everyday.”

Think about how you might write instructions that somebody else could follow for a drift. For example: go to a bus stop, wait for seven buses to pass, get on the seventh bus. After the seventh stop, get off again. Walk seven blocks. That kind of direction. Or think of a map that you could overlay where you live now. Think of a map of another space. I think if you overlaid, for example, a Florida space on top of Boulder, and you try to map Boulder as if it were Florida—what kind of directions might you give? I’m interested in that, as a writer. Take 10 minutes to write this. The one limitation here is that these should be instructions that someone else can follow. They can’t be private notes for your own drift.

A guide to getting lost, in other words.

Why don’t we stop there for today… I hope people are seeing how these could be productive ways of generating texts. That we can use them as short prose pieces. They’re sort of useful in both senses. You could also use them to go on a drift, and then give an account of that drift.

A great deal of work is being done, there’s a text called—maybe there is a cumbersome pun in the title—but Loiterature by Ross Chambers looks at the long tradition of wandering, and meandering, and going off track, and getting lost, and so on, in different kinds of writing.

I was also reminded of the so-called memory palaces that, during the Renaissance, members of the educated classes would construct—these imaginary spaces as elaborate mnemonic devices. Let’s say you had to remember the periodic table, you would associate each element with a sort of space: you build a space in your mind and attach each one to an image, so you would be able to recall them. Which was developed very, very highly as a skill during the Renaissance: the construction of an imaginary spaces. There’s also a long tradition in architecture of the buildings that never get built. The spaces that are never realized and so on. The Expressionists in the early 20th century were particularly interested in designing new possibilities of urban space. They never physically realized these. They were interested in glass architecture because of transparency.

There are also real questions about who can move through urban space? Therefore, I think it’s important, if you do go on a drift, that you go with some other people, as suggested on the Mythogeography site. Because, for example, I talked about the flâneur—there really is no female equivalent to the flâneur. Men could move freely through urban space, women could not. Or how space becomes racialized. Franz Fanon writes a lot about that—how the space of the colonial center is so at odds with the space of the colonized, that the two are incompatible. For Fanon, the only way the two spaces can ever come into contact is through a violent overthrow of one over the other.


Aragon, Louis. Paris Peasant. Translated by Simon Watson Taylor. Boston: Exact Change, 1994. A key account of walking and space in Surrealism which influenced Benjamin very strongly.

Baudrillard, Jean. Simulacra and Simulation. Translated by Sheila Faria Glaser. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994. Baudrillard opens with a very free retelling of Borges’ story, which becomes in Baudrillard’s reading a demonstration of how, in a simulacral world, the map only maps its own ability to map.

Benjamin, Walter. The Arcades Project. Translated by Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1999. Benjamin’s massive and incomplete gathering of fragments of observation on the world of the arcades and the kind of capitalism that dreamt in those terms, a world and terms that become visible and open to redemption to the very extent that they are out-of-date and obsolete in the contemporary present.

Borges, Jorge Luis. “On Exactitude in Science” in Collected Fictions. Translated by Andrew Hurley. New York: Penguin, 1998. 352. It’s a citation, ostensibly, of Suárez Miranda, Viajes de varones prudentes, Libro IV, Cap. XLV, Lérida, 1658.

Breton, André. Nadja. Translated by Richard Howard. New York: Grove, 1960. An exposition of some of the notions of walking and objective chance, among many other things.

Certeau, Michel de. Practices of Everyday Life. Translated by Steven F. Rendall. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988. A very influential analysis of how people negotiate the sign systems of everyday space.

Chambers, Ross. Loiterature. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1999. Literature as loitering.

Coetzee, J.M. White Writing: On the Culture of Letters in South Africa. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988. Coetzee analyzes the impact of colonialist ways of looking at landscape and at people and at people as landscape.

Cohen, Margaret. Profane Illumination: Walter Benjamin and the Paris of Surrealist Revolution.   Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993. A helpful introduction to some of the links between the city, popular culture, Surrealism, and Benjamin.

Debord, Guy. The Society of the Spectacle. Translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith. New York: Zone Books, 1994. As PDF at: Accessed on 27 March 2014.

Delany, Samuel. Times Square Red, Times Square Blue. New York: New York University Press, 1999. A compelling case study and critique of gentrification as the destruction of a cross-class “community of contact” that depended on men having sex with men (in Delany’s argument).

Home, Stewart. The Assault on Culture: Utopian Currents from Lettrisme to Class War. Sterling: AK Press, 1991. A clear-sighted account of utopianism in post-Surrealist avant-gardes with a valuable, critical placing of the Situationism in such utopianism.

—. Neoism, Plagiarism & Praxis. Edinburgh: AK Press, 1995. Incisive pieces about the reception of Situationism and about psychogeography.

Knabb, Ken, edited and translated. Situationist International Anthology. Berkeley: Bureau of Public Secrets, 1989. Still one of the best one-volume introductions in English to the Situationists and their writings, with a strong sense of their global concerns (their political solidarity with Watts in the uprising, for example).

Lichtenstein, Rachel, with Iain Sinclair. Rodinsky’s Room. London: Granta, 2000. Fascinating collaboration between Lichtenstein and Sinclair around the lost world of London’s Jewish East End.

Marcus, Greil. Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century. Boston: Harvard University Press 1989. Marcus solidifies the associations between punk and Situationism in a flawed but very far-reaching argument.

McDonough, Tom, edited. Guy Debord and the Situationist International: Texts and Documents. Translated by McDonough. Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2004. A current and fairly comprehensive selection of texts with editorial contextualization.

Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Man of the Crowd.” In The Selected Writings of Edgar Allan Poe. Edited by G. R. Thompson. New York: W. W. Norton, 2004. A Norton Critical Edition. 232-239. A story that shaped Baudelaire, Benjamin, and the Surrealists’ view of space and modern ways of occupying space.

Rechy, John. City of Night. New York: Grove Press, 1963. When LA had parks downtown with trees in them—what followed the publication of Rechy’s novel about cruising LA as a man having sex with other men was the destruction of another “community of contact.”

Self, Will. Psychogeography: Disentangling the Modern Conundrum of Psyche and Place. New York: Bloomsbury, 2007. Perhaps a somewhat glib attempt to work through issues of psychogeography, but an amusing set of essays, nevertheless, including topics such as walking in Los Angeles.

Sinclair, Iain. Lights out for the Territory. London: Granta, 1997. A haunting, hallucinatory account of lengthy walks in London. Sinclair’s sense of uncanny history pervades his work—as in his collaboration with Lichtenstein.

Naropa University’s Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics presents Writers in Community: lecture given in fall 2013.

Transcribed by Ella Longpre.