98: Adams, Hoelscher & Till’s Textures of Place

Adams, Hoelscher, and Till’s Textures of Place: Exploring Humanist Geographies originated in a 1998 special session celebrating Tuan’s retirement and critiquing and updating his work; the essays include students of Tuan’s, later geographers, and people who aren’t geographers at all but who appreciate his work.  In their intro, the editors revise and add to humanist geography’s subjective conception of place by

  • setting up a dialectic between physical places and human experience of/ apprehension of/ construction of places
  • rejecting the search for universal understandings of place (a la Tuan) in favor of multiple meanings shaped by both individual subjectivities and social differences, including race, class, gender, and sexuality
  • putting places in social, geographical, and historical context

Their conception of place is thus both subjective and objective, both symbolic and material, and both ground and process.  The phrase “textures of place” refers to the interweaving of all of these both/ ands.  Place has a “surface,” where subject and object merge, so that “the shape, fell, and texture of a place each provides a glimpse into the processes, structures, spaces, and histories that went into its making.”  Further, since texture is linked to textile, or context, which the authors define as “a ‘weave’ of an organized arrangement of words or other intangible things,” a kind of “ordered complexity,” textures of place refers “not only to surfaces, processes, and structures but also to communication acts and the multiple contexts that create and are constituted by place.”  And place is at once the ground on which human interactions, communication, and meaning-making proceed and the “range of peoples and social relations that continuously define and create social and spatial contexts.”  Yes, they want to have their cake and eat it too.

The authors call theirs the “contextualist” approach to place, and they situate it within the larger history of human geography.  Contextualism emphasizes connections between place and language, and it rejects both classical human geography’s search for universals and critical human geography’s emphasis on radical antifoundationalism.  Instead, it draws on critical humanist geography’s interest in differences in race, class, gender, sexuality, and nationality and on classical human geography’s emphasis on empirical research.  Theirs is a Postmodern approach to place, and accordingly they emphasize human subjectivity, transparency (or not) of language, diversity, both difference and depth, understanding instead of explaining, and a healthy distrust of master narratives.

Even within global capitalism, understanding place is vital to understanding how the world works: as globalization threatens the extinction of place, places are now highlighting and promoting their uniqueness within a global economy to attract more people and more capital.  Within global networks, place is where human subjectivity meets abstraction, objectification, and flow and tries to make sense of it.  The betweenness of place thus makes it a great vantage point from which to study modernity itself, from statecraft and capitalism to individual consciousness and morality.

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