Landscape organizes everything within sight.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Awakening of Psychogeography: Child Psychology, 1923-1977, and the perception of landscape

From 1923, when Melanie Klein published her psychological studies of children playing in sandboxes, to 1977, when the first studies of place cells were published, the primary field of new research in the mental processing of the landscape was child psychology. Piaget and Donald Winnicott claimed claimed to study the “infant’s point of view.” Piaget observed children drawing objects and discerned the lack of a sense of a Cartesian grid in their mental worlds; things that were emotionally near were reached for as if physically near. The psychoanalyst Edith Cobb, embarking on a long-term study of childhood experience, identified a formative period between five and twelve, when most of a child’s energy was directed not towards parents or friendships but rather towards place. At this age, she wrote, “the natural world is experienced in some highly evocative way, producing in the child a sense of some profound continuity with natural processes and presenting overt evidence of a biological basis of intuition.”

Play for the infant, Winnicott argued, happened in a space with neither “inner psychic reality” nor “external reality.” He describes a dialectic between merging with mother and separation that is reduplicated with every nonliving object around the child, in particular blankets, teddy-bears, or other cherished objects that the child can alternately caress and attack, treating one moment as the human extension of her own body and the next as an insensate object, its button eyes to be torn out. The sense of self and otherness is therefore gradually formed in the “potential space between the individual and the environment.” The environment becomes thus infested with creative play that invests all objects in the immediate landscape with valuation, extrapolation, and association.

Cobb showed children Rorschach tests and watched them play in sand boxes. She observed with fascination how the children seemed to express emotional attachment in play with objects more vividly than with people or animals.

“I became acutely aware that what a child wanted to do most of all,” she wrote, “was to make a world in which to find a place to discover a self.”

Winnicott defined two different kinds of childhood learning about the environment: the first, “favourable” outcome happens an abundance of individual symbols and fascinations projected onto the environment: “the potential space becomes filled with the products of the baby's own creative imagination.” The landscape where childhood play is allowed becomes “sacred to the individual” as the place where she “experiences creative living.” This is the world of play, characterized by a sense of wonder, free enjoyment, and easy association that Winnicott lauds as giving children a sense of the fullness of their own potential and the many riches of experience. It takes the form of turning any landscape into a magical wonderland, invested with the potential of encountering fairies or taking adventure.

The second outcome, Winnicott argued, would happen in cases of “failure of environmental reliability,” when a baby absorbs adults’ perspectives on the environment. This form of learning teaches the child about zones of danger and safety, but discourages play, and so, Winnicott concludes, is less consistent with the individual development of an internal life, of the ability to critique authority, or of risk-taking behavior outside. Individual imagination in safe childhood exploration of landscape was thus set up against collective order of the environment and the manufacture of a disciplined, uncritical subject.

Most adults, Winnicott argues, have experience of both playspace and discipline. Mature adults can return to access their mental worlds of play, the space of “unintegration,” which he defines as a “day-dream-like” state where fantasy, dream, and real world meet, inner projections applied and then separated from real-world objects, the limits of self and other readjusted. Only by relating to the landscape, he thought, did children have the opportunity of distinguishing themselves as independent entities, of parsing “the nature and interrelationship of inner and outer objects and worlds.”

(Photo thanks: cc 2006 Ian)

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Monday, October 12, 2009

The Future of Social Science in the Era of the Internet

Social science today has an opportunity to create an online infrastructure for social valuation that becomes participatory to a degree far exceeding the contemporary rule. While nineteenth-century social scientists worked for government elites, an online infrastructure designed to illuminate world view would place the tools of cultural observation within reach of many minds. Opening up representation of landscape has the opportunity to directly channel participation into urban planning, tax policy, housing policy, social services, and other aspects of the representation and administration of the physical landscape. It is hoped that application, articles, and videos will pioneer a new role for social science in the era of social networking technology, and foreground the cause of democratizing social science’s power.

So long as government interests dominated the social sciences, the work of the social scientist aimed at influencing the work of the national government. Historian, sociologist and geographer worked to describe cases of state success and failure, expectant that the state would build according to their plans. The end of that political relationship opens up a radical opportunity. Social scientists in the age of the internet have the opportunity to work directly on behalf of communities without the interface of government.

In the age of the internet, radical participatory information exchanges, market and political exchanges replace much of the work of the state. In such a setting, many of the social science’s traditional roles become irrelevant. Social scientists no longer advise a state in charge of designing public spaces where members of identity groups can safely meet. Informal, market-driven social servers such as,, and become significant forums for social exchange. Social scientists such as danah boyd have documented the divides of race and class in these sites. But who do they advise? There are no urban planners overseeing Facebook.

Few social scientists have explored the radical opportunities available at the level of design. Launched from independent geeks, corporate start-ups, and computer science departments, new applications spring up constantly, tweaking the infrastructure of social exchange. One application allows photos to appear on Facebook’s wall. Another shows the user a rotating cloud of all the pictures semantically related to a given search term. Fundamentally, these applications are about making connections; their success actually depends upon broadening the internet’s infrastructure to become as participatory as possible.

One of the greatest challenges to participatory exchange on the internet is the limit of transcultural boundaries. Users’ gender, class, race, and identity are obscured online, surfacing as an invisible law of self-association. Reduplicating the isolation of society at large, affluent whites on the internet share information with affluent whites, while the children of immigrants or immigrants themselves populate.

Here the history of the academic disciplines provides insight. Social scientists employed by the state once combated ethnic segregation in the city by prescribing programs such as public housing designed to enhance identity assimilation. Their work tended to generalize racial differences into differences of violence, gender organization, and attitudes towards work.

Armed with new forms social expertise – planners, architects, and geographers – charged with managing the boundaries between cultural worlds, based upon the assumption that the only way world views could be reconciled at large was through the management of the state. Nowhere was this trend clearer than among the experts who embarked upon a discipline new to the twentieth century, the study of cities. Urban scholarship flourished around what was becoming known as the “urban crisis,” the post-civil-rights-era phenomenon of black inner-cities ringed by ethnically divided white suburbs. Intellects as diverse as economist Edward Glaeser, geographer David Harvey and historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. examined the historical health of urban administration with an eye to the future of racial integration in America. Geographers asked whether overcrowding in public housing contributed to interracial violence. Child psychologists asked whether access to green spaces influenced the development of creative powers. Social scientists intended to describe the ideal city, and they expected the state to build it.

Their efforts, frequently belittling or primitivizing minority ethnicities, urged their students to concentrate upon designing a single, ideal, national landscape: a design for cities, frequently modernist, that would help immigrants of many backgrounds to assimilate to the same culture. By ignoring difference, they hoped to efface it. Their trajectory was marked by failure, and by the year 2000, Chicago and St. Louis were tearing down the housing projects erected under that regime.

Faith in expert management of cultural infrastructure by sociologists and psychologists gave rise to an unprecedented level of authority being given modern urban planning. The public housing projects erected under their charge took American and British neighborhoods out of the hands of the local ethnic minorities who had built them. Far from the master travelers envisioned by early students of world view, twentieth-century planning aimed to assimilate ethnic minorities by effacing cultural difference.

By contrast, in advising and enabling the oversight of design for online infrastructure, academics in the social sciences can facilitate collaborative knowledge making by communities about themselves.

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Thursday, October 08, 2009

Social Engineering, Race, and Geography in the 1970s

When the geographer Peter Gould sat down to write his autobiography in 1990, he looked over a career of mapping the perceptual spaces of Swedes, Tanzanians and college students. Over that life, he had repeatedly claimed that his major contribution to knowledge had been primarily in the service of the state. Gould was the man who figured out how to draw a picture of the version of the nation in a given individual’s head: ask the person to name all the cities they can in the United States; map those.

The results remind us that human beings live in worlds of constructed of personal experience, not in atlases. New Yorkers can name all the boroughs and a smattering of places on the East Coast; Chicagoans can name factories in the Midwest with no resonance at all in San Francisco. The studies he produced were magically suggestive of the distance between worlds: children of fishermen can name and draw every cove round an island; not so those who live on the mainland. Even the citizens of relatively homogenous civilizations, he suggested, could be separated by experience into separate universes of perception, interest, and prejudice.

For most of his career, Gould, like the geographers of his generation, claimed that these findings should interest state bureaucrats. Writing about his first “mental maps” in 1968, he claimed that his audience was bureaucrats “in government service” concerned with “income differentials” and the potential for relocating “migratory movements” in line with industry. Brian Berry of the University of Chicago was even more explicit, announcing to the Annual Conference of the Institute of British Geographers in 1970 that in the new world of “meritocratic élites,” geographers found themselves servants to the “needs of public policy.” He imagined a world where geographers would project the cities of the future that were “most likely to emerge in the future with and without public intervention” and so help functionaries decide and find the tools to shape the most preferable community possible.

This was hardcore social engineering: the idea was that geographers, like psychologists and other social scientists, would aid the twentieth-century state in helping poor people and people of minority races to assimilate, or failing that, in Berry’s words, to “monitor” contemporary developments and so apprise authorities of outbreaks of danger before they happened. Geographers varied in which elites they thought they were advising. David Harvey’s early work specifically targeted the reform of federal mortgage administration. Yi-Fu Tuan emphasized not policy but rather urban planning, and hoped that his literary analyses of landscape would help designers to achieve “a habitat in concert with the full potential of our being.”

Geographers varied as to which areas they thought most merited intervention. Gould claimed that his personal contribution was establishing that isolated islanders had trouble learning about jobs on the mainland; Ley and Cybriwsky used graffiti to discern the most troubled areas of black-Puerto Rican conflict in Philadelphia. Harold Rose defined the city center from St. Louis to Atlanta as a “high risk homicide environment.” Brian Barry was most worried about the poor blacks and white elderly isolated in the impoverished hinterland. Geography was to be the psychological surveillance arm of the state, tracing the zones of isolation and despair emerging around America, in order to more intelligently apply some combination of architecture, welfare, and policing.

A significant group of geographers directed their findings towards the state's management of race. The Chicago School of sociology had mapped racial segregation of Chicago’s neighborhoods since the 1930s, but by blending of psychology and their mapping skills, a new generation of geographers began to rival them. Edward T. Hall’s study of public and private space, The Hidden Dimension (1966), blended studies of rats and slums to argue that overcrowded cities produced escalating acts of violence and decreasing fertility among females.

The studies exploded in the 1960s, offering explanations to confused white Democrats who demanded to know why the passage of the 1965 Equal Rights Act had only resulted in further riots in Watts and Detroit. Applying terms like “overcrowding,” “territoriality,” and “isolation,” geographers charged into the causes and consequences of racial segregation in cities.

The geographers located answers in American zones of isolation and hopelessness. Bill Bunge organized his fellow professors into the Detroit Geographical Expedition, leading frequent trips to document the slums of Detroit and later Toronto. Their findings were equally provocative. In 1968, the Society published a map entitled “Where Commuters Run Over Black Children on the Pointes-Downtown Track.” Life and death, they argued, were not merely the commodities available to any hard-working American, but hung upon the thread of a special kind of privilege, the privilege of safe territory.

That privilege became all the more identifiable in the wake of a series of geographical investigations of racial covenants, which forbid people of color from owning property, and redlining, the practice setting racial qualifications for home loans within certain neighborhoods. Geographers documented the problem in 1960 and 1972, and in David Harvey explained that the high price of mortgages for blacks in Baltimore justified all Marx had said about the direct relationship between high rents and social exclusion.

Describing the deep structuration of the urban crisis became the geographer’s favorite tool. Addressing the Association of American Geographers in 1978, its president, Harold Rose, coined the term “geography of despair” to interpret rising figures for homicide in black neighborhoods. Geographical investigation and race questions and climaxed in Zev Chafet‘s much-acclaimed Devil’s Night (1990), a book that defined the recent spate of black-on-black arson as reaction to white flight in a scene of hopelessness. Black hopelessness, among the social geographers, as the greatest social crisis of the moment, justified their concern. With so much evidence, it was all the more easy for implacable black hopelessness to become a convention of American belief.

The surveying of racial crisis began with advising the state necessarily distanced the geographer from the place he described. Whatever the revolutions within geographers’ hearts, most of them reported, like Gould, to the state, more frequently advising urban planners, architects, and task forces than grassroots networks. They wrote about sexuality and violence in the slum.

Rather than creating sympathy with the victims of race and class, their reports read like porn to the white audiences who consumed them. In The Hidden Dimension, Edward Hall drew parallels between overcrowded rats and contemporary black neighborhoods, indicting both as “behavioral sinks.” Documenting the spread of graffiti from ghetto backstreets to public highways in 1972, David Ley and Roman Cybriwsky explained a “behavioral primitive” akin to animals marking out territory.

Even when taking a conciliatory attitude, privileged observers defined their subjects as the passive victims of environmental forces. Rose wrote of his study of homicide, “Youth who find difficulty establishing themselves in American society are less prone to abide by the norms of the larger society,” the direct result of which was untamed aggression among black and hispanic males, lashing out against strangers. Friedmann and Miller concluded, with equal finality, that the poor whites in deindustrialized rustbelt towns were “short both on civic leadership and hope. They can neither grasp the scope of the events that have overtaken them nor are they capable of responding creatively to the new situations.” Racialized or not, the environmental forces described in the reports were both final and damning.

By 1990, however, Peter Gould had glimpsed another use for his mental maps. He had been watching over thirty years how his classes of eighty to a hundred people responded to seeing him explain the vast differences of experience between growing up in a black ghetto and a white suburb. They stopped in their tracks, he wrote, to realize that “their location in geographic space seemed to determine to a high degree the information they had.” As the undergraduates learned to understand their aesthetic tastes and political attitudes as a reflection of where they grew up, he wrote, they began to ask where they were located “in ‘ethnic space,’ ‘religious space,’ and ‘gender space.’”

The question, at base, as he formulated it, was actually a question most provocative when aimed at his privileged, white undergraduates: “How free really were they when they were trapped by their locations in these other spaces?”

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Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Bulldozing your Neighbors: Development Plans in the Rust Belt

Across the Midwest, the stimulus package is encouraging very strange things: cities are using it to demolish capital instead of to build it.

The signs are everywhere if you know where to look. In the Polish Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh, I’m pitching my tent in a vacant lot. Until a few months ago, an abandoned house stood in the space where I’ll be sleeping tonight. A journalist was squatting in this house, free of rent, much like artists who took over empty factories and abandoned houses in the 1990s. The landlord didn’t bother to evict her: times were hard and few tenants were available. The house was falling down, and the journalist was doing basic repairs and making sure that no one damaged the property. The agreement suited everyone. Valuable housing stock was maintained; meanwhile, a woman was able to keep a roof over her head.

Last year, however, the city seized the squat, which was $6,000 overdue in back taxes. Rather than leaving it standing, the city spent about $5,000 in federal funds to bulldoze the house. The vacant lot is not likely to be rebuilt anytime soon.

Bulldozing is an odd strategy for an economic downturn, but it’s the major urban strategy being pursued in the rust belt. The “shrinking cities” scheme started in Flint, Michigan in the 1980s. Instead of allowing vacant houses to stand, city officials would use federal, state, and local funds to bulldoze houses. The vacant lots would be turned over to favored development corporations or – more likely – left fallow. In the wake of the current foreclosure crisis, the strategy of “shrinking cities” is being adopted as a way of dealing with vacant lots in Cleveland and Pittsburgh; bulldozing is now the unofficial urban policy of the Obama administration.

Read the rest at the Commonweal Institute, where I'm a fellow.

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