This is the most amount of time I have lived in Brooklyn, my hometown, since I moved to Portland, Oregon four years ago. After planning to be in New York for only one month, my length of stay doubled to accommodate necessary recovery time to cope with the sudden triggering of previously unacknowledged childhood trauma. This experience of memory has slid like a thin film over a similarly psychogeographical experience of spaciotime which occurs with each return to my home city, a plural affect multiplying the thickness of an already rich correspondence between place and perception. In the midst of this layered experience, thoughts about the relation between spatial understanding and subjective experience have been widened, recurring now with greater resonance and acute, though often fleeting insights.
I’ve been studying influences bearing on place perception through my investigations of place histories, especially social and political histories, insofar as these things create and project a field of potentiality or a desired future, or, conversely, a density of memory bearing nearly gravitational weight and mass. Take, for example, a brief but potent sweep of socialism across the United States at the end of the 19th century, taking strongholds in places like the mining town of Butte, Montana, where a strong and vibrant future was envisioned for unionism and labor organization (see Calvert, The Gibraltar, 1988). Or, on the other hand, consider the gravity of a site such as Wounded Knee, where in 1890 the United States government massacred hundreds of men, women and children of the Lakota Sioux on their own land –– a site which drew, 83 years later, a powerful occupation and rebellion led by the Oglala Lakota and members of the American Indian Movement in 1973 (see Smith & Warrior, Like a Hurricane, 1997; and Brown, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, 1970). Both of these very disparate examples demonstrate how the collective psyche can actually contour its land and place (and vice versa) wielding memory, experience and imagination.
But these collective events, movements, and flows which carry the enormous power to generate places seem to have little to do with the highly abstracted, semiotic, and individualized poeticisms of those interested in psychogeography (see Coverly, Psychogeography, 2010). The playful and temporary experiment of the common psychogeographical dérive to “re-write” a city seems laughably bourgeois, though such wanderings can, of course, expand one’s sense of embodied placement, opening up an avenue of thought through which to examine the spatial processes of subjectivation.
Despite the strong temptation to jab at the navel-gazing of some strains of psychogeography, it is important to consider seriously its basic proposition: that even the most minute psychological experience of place emerges reciprocally with its very existence and is as constitutive of place as it is constituted by it. The memory of the body, spontaneous navigational movements, conscious and unconscious patterns of thought in the continual act of travel; all somatic experiences of place are a crucial part of the constitution of a collective spatial consciousness. More importantly, a close examination of the subjectivities which produce and are produced by place can shed light on our understanding of how places are made… and what place and space are.
Place-navigation is always a navigation of what has been socially or governmentally constructed; not only because of the spatial determination of a sidewalk and a street, but also because of the constantly shifting influences of biopower. In this sense, place-understanding is always filtered through a constructed subjectivity. Our navigations through a city are also performances of gender, racialization, subjugation and privilege, all of which assemble and reassemble at any given moment. The landscapes of power create worlds that construct our behavior, emotion and experience, for example, when queer youth feel desperately unsafe in Moscow, Russia or Humboldt, Nebraska; black people are perpetually criminalized by stop-and-frisk in their own neighborhoods; or my whiteness remains invisible as I walk through a department store unfollowed.
When we consider the effect that place can have on thought and behavior, even at a micro-level, we can see more clearly how the same myriad forces that construct places also construct bodies and subjectivities. The relationship between a place and a person is reciprocal to a point where they become inexorable. This phenomenon is thoroughly political.
The most extreme places in which law, biopower and geographical power interlock are what Schmitt and Agamben call spaces of exception, within which sovereign power is capable of transcending the rule of (its own) law to strip people of their designation as human (and their access to human rights) under the auspices of a “state of emergency” (see Agamben, Homo Sacer, 1998; and State of Exception, 2005). Within the space of exception, those social and legal designations which come to form a place lead to the corrosion of subjectivities and the degredation of what it is to be a human being, as in Agamben’s example of the concentration camp, or the contemporary processes and sites of the global war prison.
Geographer Derek Gregory takes up the concept of exception to analyze the American prison camp at Guantánamo Bay, an extralegal site for which full legal responsibility is obscured by overlapping limits of international law: a place belonging fully to no nation and within which acts of horrific torture and maltreatment are made possible.
Agamben understands the space of exception as a site of the suspension of law, commenting on Bush’s Guantánamo (like all of the sites of the global war prison) as a site for which the “state of emergency” has to be renewed each year, and through which Bush had to transform “provisional and exceptional measures” into a “rule of government.” (see Gregory, Violent Geographies, 2006). But geographer Derek Gregory closes in on Guantánamo as an example of a site in which “the Bush administration shows manifest disdain for domestic and international laws,” yet “it neither dismisses nor disregards them.” Furthermore, Gregory explains that “this matters because it means that law is a site of political struggle not only in its suspension but also in its formulation, interpretation and application.”
Guantánamo is a site where torture destroys time and space. In Gregory’s own words:
"Torture derives from the Latin torquere meaning to twist, and under the sign of our colonial modernity torture not only twists bodies—piling them on top of one another, shackling them to bed frames, standing them on boxes – but also twists space and time. To explicate this requires in turn the topology of sovereign power, and hence of the state of exception, to be understood as a performance, a doing."
Here we see how the construction, deconstruction, and treatment of a human being is predicated on performances of a topology; it is an embodied expression of a spatial construction. These are paroxysmal spaces in which spatiality itself is corroded. At this most extreme and unthinkable vanishing point, constructions of space and the experiences of human beings overlap and collapse.
As a traumatic memory becomes dissassociatively despatialized, often enfolded in amnesia, so the global war prison consists of spaces in which an extreme overlap of spatial and human designations torques space and time through unutterably inhuman torture and imprisonment: a systematic production of trauma. Opening up the possibility of resistance within these hells requires intense scrutiny of international law as well as the courageous examination and enunciation of the unspeakable processes in which subjectivities are desubjectified, human beings stripped of their humanity in a space of exception.
Consideration of these extreme spaces requires a fundamental grasp of the complex arrangements and flows that occur between places, their social and legal constructions, and the human beings that move through or are imprisoned in them: including their subjectivities, perceptions, and performances. The construction of space is reciprocally emergent with the construction of subjectivity; and at its most extreme sites, this twofold phenomenon can construct its own implosion.