January 7, 2011

Things, people, and places

Over the break I have been reading some extra things here and there--a book about reassembling the social by Bruno Latour, another about value by David Graeber. And also some books, articles, and other bits and pieces about place and space (Setha Low, David Harvey, etc). So these issues and themes are somewhat stuck in my mind right now. That's how it all works, right?

The table above is in Old Town San Diego, a place that I have walked through numerous times in years past. Latour argues that we need to think about the ways in which object--things--are part of social relationships, and I think the bench above is a good example. Think of the number of people who pass through this place, and who use this particular arrangement of material (wood, nails, and so on) and space (grass, benches, table) for certain purposes. Maybe people use this bench for a family lunch--or maybe homeless people use it as a safe place to sleep for a while (that all depends on the presence of law enforcement though). We make certain things, and order certain spaces, to conform to our ideas about what it means to be social. But our actions are not simply the result of ideas--they are also shaped by material forms like benches, gates, walkways, grassy areas in parks. And it's an ongoing process--ideas shape places, places then shape ideas and actions, and so on.

The table pictured above is a reflection of a massive flood of ideas, histories, and social patterns. It's a purposefully designed artifact, made for a "public place" to provide a space for a range of activities. Of course, some are more acceptable than others, and the regulation of those activities comes about either through the intervention of the legal order (police tell people not to sleep in parks) or through more informal means. Overall, though, there is really no way to completely determine or control how people use spaces--no matter how much enforcement or surveillance is out there. There will always be a certain amount of slippage. Sure, some will use this table "the right way" by eating a nice lunch or reading a book, but others won't. To me, the edges of these sorts of social behaviors are pretty fascinating. And along these edges there are a whole range of material objects that play a key role in "social" relationships.

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