THEORY | Edward Casey

Posted on 07/04/2011


Jesse has sent some thoughts on the Place Blogging Panel happening on Saturday as part of The Right to the City Symposium. In her notes, she mentioned Edward Casey. Not having read any of Casey’s work, I found these extracts from “How to Get from Space to Place in a Fairly Short Stretch of Time: Phenomenological Prolegomena” in Senses of Place (edited by Steven Feld and Keith Basso, 13-52) very resonant. In particular, the notions of ‘gathering’ and ‘holding’ are compelling.

p. 18 There is no knowing or sensing a place except by being in that place and to be in a place is not, then, subsequent to perception– as Kant dogmatically assumed– but is an ingredient in perception itself. Such knowledge, genuinely local knowledge, is itself experiential… Local knowledge is at one with lived experience if indeed it is true that this knowledge is of the localities in which the knowing subject lives. To live is to live locally, and to know is first of all to know the places one is in … Perception at the primary level is synesthetic, an affair of the whole body sensing and moving.

p. 24 Places gather: this I take to be a second essential trait (ie beyond the role of the lived body) revealed by a phenomenological topo-analysis. Minimally, places gather things in their midst– where ‘things’ connote various animate and animate entities. Places also gather experiences and histories, even languages and thoughts. Think only of what it means to go back to a place you know, finding it full of memories and expectations, old things and new things, the familiar and the strange, and much more besides. What else is capable of this massively diversified holding action? Certainly not individual human subjects construed as sources of ‘projection’ or ‘reproduction’– not even these subjects as they draw upon their bodily and perceptual powers. The power belongs to place itself, and it is a power of gathering.

By ‘gathering’ I do not mean merely amassing. To gather placewise is to have a peculiar hold on what is presented (as well as represented) in a given place. Not just the contents, but the very mode of containment is held by a place. “The hold is held”. The hold of place, its gathering action, is held in quite special ways. First it is a holding together in a particular configuration: hence our sense of ordered arrangement of things in a place even when those things are radically disparate and quite conflictual. The arrangement allows for certain things– people, ideas, and so forth– to overlap with, and sometimes to occlude, others as they recede or come forward together. Second is the holding in and a holding out. It retains the occupants of a place within its boundaries: if they were to utterly vanish and the place be permanently empty it would be no place at all but a void. But, equally, a place holds out, beckoning to its inhabitants and, assembling them, making them manifest…

Third the holding at issue in the gathering of place reflects the layout of the local landscape, its continuous contour, even as the outlines and inlines of the thing held in that place are respected. The result is not a confusion of container with contained but a literal configration in which the form of the place– for example ‘mountain’, ‘mesa’, ‘gulley’ joins up with the shape of the things in it. Being in a place is being in a complex configuration of things. Fourth, intrinsic to the holding operation of place is keeping. What is kept in place are primarily experiencing bodies regarded as privileged residents… Places also keep such unbodylike entities as thoughts and memories. When I revisit my home town of Topeka Kansas, I find this place more or les securely holding memories for me. In my presence it releases these memories, which belong as much to the place as to my brain or body…”

p. 26 Gathering gives to place its peculiar enduringness, allowing us to return to it again and again as the same place and not just as the same position or site…A place is generative and regenerative on its own schedule. From it experiences are born and to it human beings return for empowerment… A place is more an event than a thing to be assimilated to known categories…

p. 27 Places not only are, they happen. (And it is because they happen that they lend themselves so well to narration, whether as history or story)

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